From a Pastor's Heart
The Problem of Evil
By Pastor John Braland, President of IMF's Board of Directors
If you live long enough you will experience evil and suffering. Loved ones will die, people will intentionally hurt you. You may be afflicted with a disease, disability, or tragedy. Even if you are not directly afflicted, chances are you know someone who is or has been. With a slew of tragedies around us ranging from hurricanes, war, human suffering, and the recent tragedy in Las Vegas, we are compelled to examine the problem of evil in the world around us from a theistic perspective. Experiencing evil is the greatest barrier to believing in a perfect holy and loving God that is directly involved in His creation. Many people never really explore their own understanding of evil.
Atheist’s don’t believe in any form of supernatural evil. If there is no God and no criterion of goodness outside the universe itself; if everything that happens is simply the wastage of evolution and the perfect bumping of atomic and subatomic particles, what rational person should feel any evil at all? Yet even atheists and agnostics seem to be able to recognize evil when it happens. The renowned atheist, Richard Dawkins, seems to agree that evil exists at least in the actions of people. When a gunman fires at a crowd for no apparent reason the media doesn’t call it an unfortunate event, they call it evil.
Theodicy is the study of evil and it presents multifaceted problems. I am going to focus on two perspectives. One is philosophical and one is existential, better known as experiential. Both perspectives seem to be completely different galaxies but they do touch and where they touch is where we live.
The first perspective dealing with the problem of evil is philosophical in nature. It’s an intellectual conundrum. If God is omnipotent (all powerful) and if God is all love, then why does evil exist? How can a perfect and loving God permit evil and suffering? If He is willing but not able to stop the suffering, then is he truly all powerful? If He can’t stop it then is evil is more powerful than God? If God is able to stop evil but unwilling, is he loving? And what about natural disasters? Are they evil? Natural disasters need to be interpreted in context. Mountains were formed from natural disasters as were our lakes and nobody looks at them as the result of evil. The tsunami that killed over 100,000 Japanese several years ago also provided incredible surfing waves in Hawaii. The earthquake that devastated Haiti and killed over 200,000 woke the world to the plight of the poor resulting in some positive infrastructure changes and health improvements. Natural disasters that destroy life can easily be interpreted as evil, especially if your sibling was killed, if your baby was washed out to sea, or your house was destroyed.
The second perspective dealing with evil is existential. The existential problem of evil deals with the impact of evil on a personal and emotional level. The existential problem of evil asks “If God is all loving and all powerful then why is there so much suffering?”
While in Haiti a girl named Katina took a liking to me. She will never graduate from high school because she has some mental challenges. These challenges are not the result of some birth defect, they are the result of a cruel mother. As part of a voodoo ritual her mother held her in freezing cold water until she went into shock. She left her in the freezing water in a state of shock until she had no signs of life. Her brain was deprived of oxygen for too long resulting in permanent damage. When I held her, I saw a child of God whose future was stolen by evil. Where was God when Katina’s future was being destroyed?
My grandfather was a good man. He worked for the power company and I remember the big orange truck that would occasionally sit in his driveway. If we were lucky he would set us in the bucket and take us to the top of the world. Then grandpa started losing his memory. At first it was just a little, then a little more. After several trips to the doctor they determined that he had brain cancer. Surgery removed an orange sized tumor from his brain but the doctors didn’t get it all. Months of chemo made him sick as hell and it didn’t do much good. The cancer came back and he died a year later. Where was God?
Intellectual answers do little to soothe matters of the heart. Intellectual answers don’t comfort the dying. They don’t soothe the hurting. What we really want to know is: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why did God let Katina’s mother hurt her so much? Why did God let my grandfather and subsequently all of my family suffer? This is the existential problem of evil present in human suffering. If God is willing to fight off evil but doesn’t, maybe he is not all powerful. If he is able to stop evil but unwilling to do it then he is not loving. How can we resolve these questions?
The problem of evil is very complex. For centuries Christians and philosophers have debated the problem of evil and in my opinion, there is no single theology to it that seems to completely resolve the problem of evil on a philosophical or existential level. These are my conclusions concerning the problem of evil.
1. Evil is a mystery and very real. Although I cannot package evil in a neat theological box, I know that evil is very real. I have seen evil and the results of it in people like Katina. I have experienced it in the anger of others. I have suffered loss and pain and even though I believe evil is a mystery, it is still very real.
2. Evil exists in people from sin and Satan. I understand the “Genesis” or origins of evil to be after creation based on an understanding of Genesis 2:9. “And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Genesis 2:9
God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground so he knew that evil was present. Did he create evil? It seems evil had to be a possibility in order for free will to exist. Therefore, God perceived the existence of evil without actually creating it because he perceived what would happen if Adam and Eve did not live perfect lives.
“But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." Genesis 2:17
"For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:5
At some point after creation God opened up the free will concept to angels and Satan chose to honor himself above God, thereby sinning and being cast out of heaven onto earth where free will existed. Isaiah 14:11-14 tells us this. Many Christians are satisfied with the basic belief that suffering is the result of sin, that the necessity of free will opens the door to the existence of evil. They take comfort in knowing that God himself will judge people for their actions.
3. Evil may be present, but is not always present, in natural disasters. Every natural disaster must be interpreted. A forest fire triggered by a lightning strike always brings new growth and new life. It provides new cover and food for the animals. But if your house is in the path of the fire, you will probably interpret the fire as evil. But it’s hard to categorize everything as all good or all bad. All I know is that when lightning struck close to my house, it fried most of my electronics and cost me a fortune. This same event triggered joy in my neighbor who farms. He was thrilled with all the nitrogen the lightening put in the ground. The bible says: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” Romans 8:28. God can use that which was intended for evil for his glory. Often times how he does this is also a mystery.
4. God is all powerful and all loving and evil exists. Sometimes God stops evil before it starts and other times he lets evil run rampant. I have no idea why, what I do know is that I am not in charge. I must trust God at His Word and pray that He uses evil for His glory even when I don’t understand it.
I let my girls drive the golf cart all over our yard. It’s an old piece of junk but really fun to drive around. A couple of years ago I told them that I was hopeful they would drive it responsibly. I knew there was a possibility they might drive recklessly but because I wanted to give them the freedom to cruise around I set them loose. On the third day of their new found freedom they drove around the garage, down our hill, and right through my brand new garage door. I knew it might happen because I gave them the freedom to drive it. I could have never let them drive it, I could have set the governor on it, I could have added a forth wheel, but I didn’t. They didn’t plan on driving through my garage door, it just happened because they went too fast down the hill. My garage door gave its life for their freedom.
I paid a debt I did not owe for my children’s actions. In essence, that’s what Jesus did. He experienced evil from Satan himself and demonic activity manifested in people who wanted to hurt him. He suffered immensely, died a terrible, painful death in front of a massive crowd, and yet he is risen again. God could have stopped it, he could have changed circumstances and situations, but he didn’t. From Jesus' example, it is clear to me that suffering is not absent in the cross, Jesus can and does feel our pain. He suffers with us in the tragedy and cries with us when we mourn. God has chosen to give us freedom and with freedom comes the reality of evil and suffering. When people do evil things it breaks the heart of God and in those times of suffering God graciously comforts us.
If you are suffering or experiencing evil, it’s OK to cry out to God with your needs asking Him to bring resolve. It’s OK to confess your hurt and pain. It’s OK to admit you don’t understand why bad things are happening. In the middle of your pain, I encourage you to trust God with both the situation and your feelings. We don’t know why evil exists, but we know that it does and we need God to comfort us. Jesus experienced evil and suffering and because we are human, we will too. The very reality of evil points me to the glorious hope of eternity where there is no pain and suffering because we will be in the presence of the Almighty God.