beliefs 12 – suffering and the problem of evil…

One of the first questions that you’re asked when someone first finds out that you’re a Jesus-follower is the inevitable one. It goes something like this:
“you know God”
“yeah”
“well, if there is a God, why does he let bad stuff happen”
“…”

I’ve lost count of the number of times that this old favourite has jumped up at me in the middle of what was a perfectly normal conversation. In some ways I should be chuffed, as it signifies that the questioner is engaging theologically with one of the biggest questions that we can ever engage with – that of ‘theodicy’, or the problem of suffering and evil.

On the other hand, it’s one of the questions that helps keep me thoroughly grounded as a doubter, as someone who is deeply uncertain, and not comfortable with simple answers for complex problems.

I’ll attempt to summarise the problem here, but I imagine I won’t do it justice. Christians believe that God created the world, that he is all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-loving (omnibenevolent) and all-knowing (omniscient). We use this language to give a framework to our beliefs and our experiences of God. He is fundamentally good, loving and powerful. But there are several huge problems with these assertions.

Firstly, creation isn’t particularly ‘good’. We have all sorts of ‘natural disasters’ and nasty ‘wee beasties’ that leave us with a bad taste in our mouths. If the Creator was good, why did he create the earth, indeed the whole of his creation with the possibility of such evil/destruction. Indeed we humans are a great example – we’re even managing to have an impact on our ecosystem because of our inability to look after that creation. We’ve systematically abused it, and we’re now beginning to reap the consequences of that. Moving beyond that, humans are of course capable of great evil – you don’t need me to go much further on this…we all know what is possible when humans plunge the depths. So the question remains – how could God have set it up like this?

One of the responses is that all of creation was created as “good”, but as a direct result of the disobedience and rebellion of Adam and Eve, it’s all falling apart. Because we were created with the ability to choose, we could always choose to go the wrong way. The ‘evil’, both human and natural, is a result of this rebellion. The story of God and the world since that “fall” is God trying to put it all back together again. In some ways, this leaves us with an interesting question. If God created all of this, then he is therefore responsible for the rubbish as well as the good.

Interesting…

Maybe that explains the lengths to which he’s prepared to go to put everything back together again, even as far as offering his own son as the big solution. The missio Dei is all about him recreating creation, restoring it to the way that he designed it to be in the first place. God, man and creation in harmony.

Ok, so moving on, the second big problem is that if creation is as messed up as we experience it to be (on all levels) it then suggests that God isn’t all of the omnis that we mentioned above. It suggests, instead, that he isn’t in control, that he hasn’t got the power to sort everything out. This could undermine so much of our belief system, couldn’t it?

But what if in our attempt to name and describe him, we’ve actually created a bit of an impossible situation for him to fulfil our demands. What if our demands that he rids us of all suffering and evil would lead us to a point where we end up with a situation where humanity has to be wiped out, as does the whole of creation? After all, we’re responsible for most of the evil that goes on, and as mentioned above, are increasingly responsible for many of the ‘natural’ disasters going on.

I don’t want to suggest, as some do, that ‘suffering’ is a necessary part of the human experience, that somehow God makes us suffer to understand how much we need him. I don’t believe that.

So, I guess what I’m suggesting is that God is at work to resolve this, as expressed through the Jesus story, and the calling that all Jesus followers have to bring comfort to those suffering, bring hope to the least, the last and the lost…and so on. God hasn’t abandoned the world to its fate – and I do believe that at times he does intervene miraculously, but that actually, we’ve got a heck of a role to play in making it all right again.

Sometimes, we Christians have embraced a theology that says that we are only interested in what happens after death. I’ve ranted about that before. What I’m saying here is that God’s plan comes to fruition here and now, as well as at some distant point in the future. We have to be involved in that, it’s a core part of saying that we’re Jesus followers. Action must come with faith…

There are many more arguments we could work through…but I want to try and move on now…feel free to comment below and add to the discussion…

So here’s my thinking on suffering and evil…

I don’t know why we have to suffer. I don’t know why God doesn’t heal everyone who prays to him. I can’t explain why we have to experience all of this, and why, for many, this undermines many people’s ability to believe in a loving God. I do know, however, that God stands alongside us in the darkest place, even when we think we stand alone. I can only base that on my experience. I can’t rationalise it. I also know that when confronted with suffering, we who follow Jesus have a duty to do something about it. We can’t sit back and call upon God’s name unless we’re willing to get involved and get dirty. Likewise, when confronted with great evil, we must take action – even if it involves risking our lives. Why expect God to deal with it if we’re not willing to?

I also believe that one of the things the bible tells us is that it’s ok to hold God to account for what we experience. The Psalms are full of shouts of anger. Ecclesiastes and Lamentations give us a rich vocabulary for expressing our disbelief. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that this is a vital part of faith. The earliest stories of God’s people are full of examples of people negotiating with God – Abraham, Moses – so why don’t we get involved with that.

Rather than sweeping suffering under the table and suggesting that it’s an issue of whether we’ve got enough faith or not, we should be confronting it. Why don’t we create space within our worshipping communities where we talk about it, where we express our struggles and our doubts? I think that then becomes and authentic expression of what it is to be human. Jesus experiences doubt, pain – he questions God. It seems to me, therefore, that perhaps so can we.

So what if a natural part of our faith is to express our frustration with the way things are, to be part of God’s plan to put them right, and to hold him accountable to his promise that he is working to do this? What if having enough faith is to be willing to ask these questions, to wrestle with all of this and yet still believe?

What, then, if our calling as a community of Jesus-followers is to embrace this, rather than ignore it? To bring hope where we can, and yet call upon God to bring hope every day. To take seriously the problems of our world and hold God accountable to his promise to bring healing to everything. Our role is to be the people of the resurrection – witnessing that not even death can hold us back. That hope never ends. That love, after all, wins.

That’s a faith that’s worth having, I think.

I don’t know if I’ve done this massive subject any justice…but it’s an honest attempt to explore and explain something of where I am on it.

Join the conversation – I’d appreciate your thoughts on this.

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5 thoughts on “beliefs 12 – suffering and the problem of evil…

    1. Thanks for both links – loved the vid, blogged on it a couple of years ago having heard it on the drive back from one of my late night Devon gigs…beautiful.

      I remember your post from the summer. Beautiful on many levels and I resonate deeply with what you’re saying both as a Dad and a child of God. I don’t want someone telling me theology. I want presence in the valley of the shadow of death.

      Grace and peace, bro.
      M

  1. This is my first time posting on this blog – hi! I’ve really enjoyed a lot of your other posts.

    I remember the turning point in my theology on this issue, it was reading a little pamphlet at Greenbelt a few years back which has now thankfully been uploaded as a short video clip: http://peterrollins.net/?p=2967.

    It got me thinking about heaven as traditionally depicted. Jesus said that when you look at him you see the Father, and however hard I tried I just couldn’t imagine the Jesus I knew in any kind of traditionally described heaven. His whole life was characterised by healing the weak, standing with the oppressed and teaching us how to mend our broken selves. If, as traditionally in heaven, there were nothing broken to be mended what is God’s (or our) purpose? I sometimes hear people ask “wouldn’t it be boring in heaven?” and hear all kinds of responses, but I actually think the question actually leads somewhere pretty deep: Jesus teaches us (in my view) to find meaning in our lives in service to others and a corollary of that as far as I can tell is that a life without others to serve is one devoid of meaning.

    Ultimately, while I agree that we should be avoiding simple answers to an obviously complex question, I think that the old adages that there is no light without darkness, no sound without silence, etc. and no good without evil are true in this case. How is a creation purely consisting of a good God and good angels in any way “good” – they have never done anything ‘good’ by any definition we might comprehend. So, perhaps, good is found only in ‘opposition’ to evil (opposition in its broadest sense). In short: evil is intrinsic to creation not as “a necessary part of the human experience, that somehow God makes us suffer to understand how much we need him.” as you put it; but rather that it is an intrinsic part of creation because without evil there can be no good, without good we have nothing to aspire to or achieve, and that would ultimately be meaningless. Evil is not there to make us understand how much we need God, but to help us understand what we can achieve without his direct intervention.

    I hope that makes sense!

  2. Hi Jack,

    Thanks for the comment – great to have you on board.

    I think that I’m with what you’re saying. For whatever reason evil exists, and it certainly does highlight what good is. I think the fascinating thing is that is direct intervention is so often through us. We tend to discount this (particularly if we’re from a more charismatic tradition).

    Thanks again – feel free to comment where you want to!
    Grace,
    M

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