Reflection twelve – suffering and the problem of evil

Back to the ‘blast…’ series after a short break thinking a little about some of the themes that emerge from the Easter story.

In many ways, a diversion into the Easter theme is further exploration of the questions raised by the the issues of suffering and evil.  The traditional interpretation of the passion narrative is, of course, that through Jesus’ suffering and atoning death on the cross, evil is comprehensively defeated. What we experience today (the effects of evil) are nothing more than the final skirmishes in this great conflict – as if the enemy doesn’t know when it’s beaten.

This atonement theory – Christus Victor – brings with it many helpful thoughts, not least the idea that in some sense suffering is imbued with purpose. This has, of course, given great comfort to those who have suffered over the intervening millennia. Knowing that Jesus suffered, and that somehow that suffering brought redemption provides some kind of hope.

In my original post I too easily dismissed the benefits of this kind of reading of suffering – several years on I perhaps now would be more comfortable with the idea of suffering as a natural, almost inevitable part of the human existence (loss, heartbreak, fear and so on).  I’d want to qualify this idea, however, by thinking more about our response to it, and how we allow it to define us. 

If we can move away from being shaped into bitterness by that which we experience (personalising it with the “why me/what have I done to deserve this?” kind of questions), rather, somehow being able to embrace what it teaches us about the vitality of life and the sacredness of every moment we have with those we love, then perhaps we can see suffering as somehow ‘redemptive’.

I recognise that this still leaves us with the crucial problem – why does a loving God ‘allow’ suffering to take place in a world God-created?

Again, I return to my original response…I do not know.

That frustrates me, and yet I am more at peace with that now. For a long time I have extolled the virtues of theological uncertainty – rejecting attempts to answer all the questions, to provide definitions for all the things we experience and so on. This sense of uncertainty leads us to a place where we believe because of our doubts, because of our questions, because we don’t have all the answers. I could easily use the word ‘despite’ here, but I think that it’s truer to say (for me at least) that these questions and uncertainties are what have kept me interested in faith. If I had answers to everything, then what would be my need for God?

That evil exists, of course, cannot, and should not be ignored. We need to stare ‘it’ in the face, to name it and decry it wherever it is perpetuated.  Even when dressed in sophisticated language or promising us ‘security’ – evil is evil.

The fear of those different to us – evil.

The demonisation of the poor – evil.

Scapegoating others for our own failings and greed – evil.

The use of violence to achieve our goals – evil.

Systems of societal control that perpetuate injustice and the victimisation of minorities – evil.

Any form of oppression, especially if done in the name of religion – evil.

We could go on, of course, but I’m sure you get the point I’m trying to make.

To allow evil to prosper by standing by while those who use it to shape their thinking and actions towards others is to reject everything that Jesus taught us to embrace. To love our neighbour is to turn our backs decisively on this way of being, to chose hope over fear and to embrace the kingdom here and now.

We have as a primal calling – perhaps even as part of our imago Dei (God-within-us) – the urge to bring healing where there is suffering and to banish evil when it is within our power to do so.  This is what we are ‘made’ to do. We cannot ignore or avoid our responsibilities. Returning to the parable of the sheep and goats – remember that it is those who turn a blind eye to the suffering of others who are condemned and rejected by Jesus. We are defined by how we respond – not by what we say we believe.

I would still argue that God isn’t off the hook on this one, that we still have the right to hold God accountable for the mess we see and demand action to remedy it – but we must also be willing to see where God is and has been at work in ‘making all things good’.  That means something bigger is happening, something that we only occasionally catch glimpses of – and something that God invites us to be part of every single day.

Somehow, in our willingness to be part of the bringing of healing wherever we find suffering, and our desire to challenge the sway of evil, we will find redemption and restoration.  We will discover the world changing power of hope – the grass growing in the cracks of the concrete, the sunlight at the edge of the clouds, the friendships formed in adversity – and in these moments we will know that all is not lost.

After all, there is always hope.

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