The Problem of Evil

Introduction

I’ve experienced my fair share of heartache and suffering in this world…but I do not consider myself to have suffered anywhere near what others have suffered and I feel disoriented, sick, and weak when I even think of some of the ways in which individuals suffer. I think of a small child being taken into a dark room by a parent and there forced to engage in painful, strange, and disturbing acts. This occurs not just once – but repeatedly. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.

Or I think of the children who are sold into sexual slavery. Prostituted from infancy on – pushed into the arms of sick individuals who hurt them and use them over and over and over again. A constant stream of faces that do things that are practically unspeakable.

The fundamental questions that arises in the midst of all this evil is, “Where is God?” If God exists, if God is good, if God is powerful – why does He not intervene?

I’ve heard and read many of the logical and philosophical answers offered by Christians to explain the existence of evil, but I have none to be satisfactory. There have been times when I have nearly abandoned my faith. Not because I stopped believing in God, but because I didn’t know how I could believe that He was good.

I do not think that we can provide a satisfactory philosophical answer to the question of evil. No equation can stand against the realities of evil in our world. Yet, I still believe in a good, even more, a perfect God. How? For what it is worth I want to share how I believe.

Before I do, let me note that it is not that I do not struggle with the problem of evil. Sometimes I am a man in the midst of an ocean of evil and pain and I am drowning. I can’t see my way out and no logical explanation will suffice. But I have found that this answer – at least for me – is enough to keep me from drowning. It does not dry up the ocean and I still slip below the surface with frequency, but it is something to hold onto – with bloody finger nails that scrape into hope with all their might.

So, here it goes…

Life Raft

God the Father 05
God the Father 05 (Photo credit: Waiting For The Word)

When evil, pain, and suffering overwhelm me. When I find myself drowning, hopeless and lost I center my mind upon the cross. I transport in my mind’s eye back to that day as Christ hung upon the cross. I look upon his blood drenched and naked body. I sit at the feet of the cross and let his blood splash onto my head and face and as I sit there on that horrible, horrific day, I experience something – love and joint experience.

I can’t explain why we suffer. I can’t even explain why Jesus had to suffer. Yes, yes, I know all the proper theological answers – but there is an experiential aspect, a fogginess to it all, that leaves me feeling as if my understanding is only partial. That God has yet to unveil to me the depths of His mind on this matter.

What I do know is that as I sit at the foot of the cross with my agony and with the agony of the world bearing down upon my mind and shoulders, His blood drips onto me and I know. Jesus is God. God is suffering. God has chosen to enter into suffering with me.

While I have been tempted at times to think that God was a sadist – enjoying inflicting pain on others, I have never been tempted to think that God is a masochist – receiving pleasure from suffering Himself. So, here is God and He is suffering with me. He does not explain to me why suffering is necessary, why evil must run rampant, but He also is willing to enter into that suffering and allow that evil to ravage His mind and body as it does ours.

This in and of itself could be enough. That God chose to suffer as we suffered, but I do not see God suffering only during the cross, nor only during His earthly life – I see God suffering today, yesterday, and forever – until evil has been stomped into the ground, never to arise again.

Sometimes I feel despair for those I love. I ask God to heal them, to save them, to help them and they remain in the midst of their suffering. Then the reality comes to me, “I love them more than you do.” I don’t understand why He allows them to suffer – but I know that His heart aches more deeply and thoroughly than mine ever can.

What does all this mean? That God, from the beginning of time till the end, has chosen to suffer. He suffers not only my pain and your pain, but each of the billions of humans on this earth’s pain – and I think, the pain of the animals and of everything that has life and breath.

So What?

This belief allows me to be actively pursuing the good for myself and others. I know that God desires the good for us, yet at the same time I do not feel responsible when I cannot make the good happen. I know that God is in control and that whatever suffering we must face as a result will be suffered with Him. That the tears on my face, on your face  – are matched by the tears of the Father.

I’m Afraid

I’m still afraid at times. I know when the evil comes it throws me against the wall, tears my heart out, rips my intestines and ties them in knots, squeezes my heart till it bleeds, crushes my brain till is splatters. I see others suffering and I am thrown into desperation. I want so badly to make a real difference. I want so badly to help. Yet so often I am incapable. And I always know that as I am in the midst of the ocean my bloody fingers are only holding onto that old wooden cross – the symbol of a God that suffers – with the barest of strength.

Sometimes I lose my grip and begin to drown…and when I am not in that moment, I know, I know, that the Savior will come for me. That He will catch me and bring me back. He loves me more than I love myself. He loves you more than you love yourself.

Notes

Book Review: Communicating the Gospel (William Barclay).

Resurrection of Christ
Resurrection of Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a teenager I discovered William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible commentaries series and I have remained a fan of his ever since. I have all of his commentaries on the New Testament and numerous of his other writings. Barclay has had a profound impact on both my thought and my character.

Barclay lived from 1907-1978 and in addition to writing many books he served as a pastor, spoke on BBC radio and television, and was a Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at the University of Glasgow. Barclay considered himself a “liberal evangelical” – moving from fundamentalist moves earlier in life to more liberal views as life progressed. There are many facets of Barclay’s theology with which I cannot agree – and I am hesitant to recommend his books to new Christians because of the various theological heresies he embraces.

This is one reason why one of my long-term dreams is to write a new series of commentaries (on the entire bible) that will act in a similar manner to Barclay’s commentaries but from an orthodox evangelical view. That said, I still read Barclay and learn much from him and thinks he has much to teach us as well. I would not recommend him as a first book for the new believer – at least not without a more seasoned believer providing insight and commentary throughout the reading – but I find him practically indispensable as a preacher and teacher.

In any case, I recently picked up his book entitled Communicating the Gospel which clocks in at a slim 106 pages and consists of several lectures he gave at the Laird Lectures and the last a lecture given to “a joint audience of Protestants and Roman Catholics in a series of lectures arranged by the Extra-Mural Department of the University.” (xi)

Communicating the Gospel consists of four chapters:

  • Communicating the Gospel in the Prophets
  • Communicating the Gospel in the Apostles
  • Communicating the Gospel Today
  • The Gospel in Tradition

Communicating the Gospel in the Prophets

This first chapter I found invaluable. Barclay provides invaluable insights into the Old Testament Prophetic understanding of the gospel. He helps us dive into the worldview of the ancient prophets. For example on pg. 2 he writes,

“To the prophets, nature was the instrument of the action of God. Disobedience to God brought the blight and the mildew and the locust to ruin their crops, the pestilence and disaster (Amos 4. 10-12).”

And continues on pg. 3, “But the principle which is all-important is this–to the Jewish mind there was no such thing as secondary causes. Everything was traceable to the direct action of God.”

Barclay challenges our meek and mild Jesus when he writes on pg. 5, “The main weapon which the prophets used against idolatry was scorn. They drew, always with vividness, and sometimes with Homeric laughter, the contrast between the dead idol and the living God.”

On pg. 8 he highlights the recurrent problem of the Israelite people – “The people wanted a religious syncretism in which they could worship Jahweh and at the same time maintain their contact with the fertility gods and goddesses and their worship.”

He writes to us about the Day of the Lord – which can be equated with the New Testament affirmations regarding the End Times noting, “The belief in the Day of the Lord is not the result of pessimism, based on the belief in a godless world; it is the result of that optimism which believes in the ultimate victory of God.” (pg. 19)

But don’t expect just information transfer from Barclay – as always he takes knowledge and transforms it into a call for action. The challenges facing the Old Testament peoples are the same challenges we face today he says and then goes on to explicitly show us how we as well are tempted in the ways they were – even if we don’t have wooden or stone idols.

Communicating the Gospel in the Apostles

This is another excellent chapter. Let me provide just a little glimpse by outlining what Barclay believed was the Gospel as taught by the Apostles:

  1. “The new age has dawned, and it has dawned through the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (pg. 35)
    1. Life changed forever for children.
    2. Life changed forever for women.
    3. Life changed forever for the laborer.
    4. Life changed forever for the sinner.
  2. “The life, the death, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, all that he was and did, all that happened to him, are the direct fulfilment of prophecy.” (pg. 40)
  3. “…the declaration that Jesus Christ has ascended to the right hand of God and that he would come again to judge the quick and the dead.” (pg. 43)
  4. “…an invitation and a promise. It is an invitation in view of all this to repent, and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (pg. 46)

He summarizes this on pg. 48,

“This, then, was the gospel which the apostolic preaching proclaimed. The new age has dawned; God has acted directly in the life and the dead and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. All this is the fulfilment of prophecy and the very conception of prophecy implies a plan and a purpose which are being steadily worked out in the world. This Jesus who lived and died and rose again will come again; he will come to the individual heart, and in the end he will triumph over all the world. There comes the demand for repentance, for a new attitude to life and to living, and the promise of forgiveness for the past and strength for the future. And finally there comes the threat that, if a man will not accept life, then he has accepted death.”

Note: Barclay’s understanding of prophecy is fascinating and liberal. Yet many who struggle with faith may also find some comfort in Barclay’s honest struggles to understand the use of prophecy in the NT.

Communicating the Gospel Today

This chapter is good, but not quite indispensable. Here, the writing is in part limited by its age – the issues Barclay is addressing (e.g. contemporary translations of Scripture) are not nearly the issues today as they were then.

Still, he starts off strong by stating, “I take it that all here will be agreed that the task of the Christian Church in this, as in any other, age is to communicate to men the truth of God as we find it in the word of God.” (pg. 49)

He then outlines what he believes are the necessary steps to effectively communicating the gospel contemporaneously:

  1. “…we must approach it as literature. It is the fact that anyone who has not read the Bible is simply from the literary point of view not properly educated.” (pg. 50)
    1. Thus we should read it in long sections.
    2. We need contemporary translations.
    3. We should use the best textual sources available.
  2. “…approach…must be the linguistic approach…one of the essential approaches to the New Testament is the study of the meaning of its words.” (pg. 56) He provides us with several word studies to demonstrate this importance: “meek” (praotes), “earnest” (arrabon), Abba, and “comforter” (parakletos).
  3. “…approach which is necessary is the historical approach. Everything happens against a background in history, and to know that background often adds very greatly to the meaning of the incident.” (pg. 60) Here he provides us with fascinating insights into John 2:13-17, 7:37, 8:12; Matthew 21:12,13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46; and Revelation 3:15-18.
  4. “…approach necessary to communication the New Testament is the psychological approach. The psychological approach involves the investigation of, not only what people did, but why they did it.” (pg. 67) He uses here the example of Judas and his motivations for betraying Jesus.

In conclusion Barclay states, “Here is the reason for the study of the New Testament, not that we should know the history or the linguistics or anything else, but that we should know him of whom it tells; for we can never communicate Jesus Christ to others, until we know him ourselves.” (pg. 71)

The Gospel in Tradition

This is probably the least interesting of the chapters from a quick reading perspective, but filled with useful information from an academic and apologetic perspective. In this chapter Barclay attempts to explain the varying understandings of the relationship between tradition and Scripture as seen by Catholics and Protestants and does so in large part by comparing and contrasting the thoughts of Christians in the early church. One will find a veritable treasure of quotations from such minds as Tyndale and Erasmus, Gregory Nazianzen, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Athenagoras.

There are some fascinating sections on how one should read the Scriptures form an ancient perspective – e.g. which books to read first, which books one should not read until adulthood, and whether one should read with a teacher present or no.

Concluding Thoughts

This book is a worthwhile read. It is written in a readable manner that those who have read Barclay elsewhere will find familiar and comfortable. How do I reconcile my respect for William Barclay with his errant teachings? I’m not sure. Some good articles have been written on the topic including Alton H. McEachern’s William Barclay, Remarkable Communicator and Wayne Jackson’s The Enigmatic William Barclay. I suppose, perhaps, I feel about William Barclay as John Piper feels about C.S. Lewis…not that I am comparing my abilities to those of Piper!

Reimagining Church (Chapter 1) (Frank Viola) – An Interaction (Part 2).

A Painting by Bernt Notke
Image via Wikipedia

You can find introductory material and the introductory/preface interaction here. Without further delay…

Chapter 1. Reimagining the Church as an Organism.

  • “The church we read about in the New Testament was ‘organic.’ By that I mean it was born from and sustained by spiritual life instead of constructed by human institutions, controlled by human hierarchy, shaped by lifeless rituals, and held together by religious programs.”
    • The Christian church is most certainly organic, but the early church also shared many institutional aspects with the Jewish religion – particularly in its utilization of the temple and synagogue.
    • Rituals are meaningful or meaningless according to the assignment they receive from the individual. Communion and Baptism can be meaningless – unless they are imputed with meaning by remaining true to their inspiration in Scripture. While these rituals have a Scriptural mandate, other rituals are not necessarily evil – though they may become lifeless.
  • “To put it in a sentence, organic church life is not a theater with a script; it’s a gathered community that lives by divine life.”
    • Amen! Though I think the existence of a community that lives by divine life does not remove the possibility or even necessity of script within practice. A community is intentional and can be fostered or inhibited by a good script (especially if the script is flexible to the realities of life – which are not scripted).
  • “The biblical teaching of the Trinity is not an exposition about an abstract design of God. Instead, it teaches us about God’s nature and how it operates in Christian community.”
    • I do think that the Trinity is an archetype for human community, though this actually lends itself against Viola’s suggestion that church is non-hierarchical. While there is not a relationship of superiority/inferiority within the Trinity, there is a relationship of submission and roles.
  • “Properly conceived, the church is the gathered community that shares God’s life and expresses it in the earth. Put another way, the church is the earthly image of the triune God (Eph. 1:22-23).”
    • No disagreement from me here…nor do I think from most others I know?
  • “There’s an absence of passive spectatorship. There’s an absence of one-upmanship. And there’s an absence of religious rituals and programs.”
    • The spectator nature of traditional church and the politics of church are both disturbing realities of gathered community – they happen. We strive to live by grace in the Spirit, but we fail often, and this is the result. I agree with the removal (as far as is possible) of these elements from the church – but I do not see how the organic church has any stronger position in this battle.
    • I am hoping later on Viola will describe more of how one has an organic church without rituals and programs…and perhaps a more precise definition of what classifies something as a “ritual” or a “program.”
  • Viola highlights several different church philosophies:
    • “Biblical Blueprintism” – The Scriptures contained detailed instructions as to how the church should operate, we just have to correctly find these instructions and extract them. This is not the underlying concepts, but rather particular modes of expression, program, and ritual.
    • “Cultural Adaptability” – Suggests we must make the church relevant in the cultural in which the church exists in a specific time, place, and situation.
      • Viola wisely cautions, “Overcontextualization eats up the biblical text to where it disappears entirely. And we are left to create the church after our own image.”
      • I appreciate that while Viola thinks the church is not as it should be he also cautions that, “The early church was not perfect. If you doubt that, just read 1 Corinthians. So romanticizing the early Christians as if they were flawless is a mistake.”[1]
      • “The great difference between present-day Christianity and that of which we read in these [the New Testament letters] is that to us it is primarily a performance; to them it was a real experience. We are apt to reduce the Christian religion to a code, or at best a rule of heart and life. To these men it is quite plainly the invasion of their lives by a new life altogether.” – J.B. Phillips.
        • I want this invasion of new life altogether in my life!
    • “Postchurch Christianity” – The church as a formal entity ceases to exist, it is only spiritual and organic, it occurs over coffee in the grind of life.
      • Viola argues against this position on the basis that, “The first-century churches where locatable, identifiable, visitable communities that met regularly in a particular locale.”
    • “Organic Expression” – This is the philosophy Viola advocates.
  • Viola outlines four “DNA” elements to the true church:
    • “It will always express the headship of Jesus Christ in His church as opposed to the headship of a human being.”
    • “It will always allow for and encourage the every-member functioning of the body.”
    • “It will always map to the theology that’s contained in the New Testament, giving it visible expression on the earth.”
    • “It will always be grounded in the fellowship of the triune God.”
    • I don’t particularly see any of these being an issue for me, in fact they all seem to be in line with my heart – and with most other minister’s I know…again, the implementation appears to be where the difference lies.
  • “Yet despite the incredible power of God’s Word, there is one thing that can stop it dead in its tracks. That one thing is religious tradition.”
    • I could object to this, on the grounds that God is able to accomplish His will – there is nothing that can bar its advance, but this would be arguing for only one side of the coin. Better to live with the paradox of reality – God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.
  • “Whenever we see the word pastor in the Bible, we typically think of a man who preaches on Sunday mornings. Whenever we see the word church, we typically think of a building or a Sunday-morning service. Whenever we see the world elder, we typically think of someone on a church board or committee.”
    • Yes, some of us think this way, but many of us do not…and our ability to think outside of “the box” is not dependent on our dedication to the particular implementation Viola proposes. Rather, I have seen “out of the box” definitions of all these terms operative within the “traditional church.”
    • The pastor is much more than a preacher, though preaching is an important responsibility of the pastor.
    • The church is certainly not the building, and while I’d love to move away from calling buildings “churches” and to something else (“meeting house” or “chapel” perhaps?) I think this is more a matter of semantics, and helping individuals with a limited view of church (as the building) understand the dual aspects of the word – as a cultural word we use to denote the building in which the organic body congregates.
  • Viola highlights the use of ‘proof-texting’ as a significant issue and suggests that it allows us to read back in our current cultural traditions and rituals into the New Testament. I don’t disagree. Proof-texting is a dangerous method of Scriptural interpretation when misused…though I do think it can be utilized properly.

Summary Thus Far:

In general, I find myself agreeing with Viola’s criticisms of the institutional/traditional church, but disagreeing as to the necessity of completing revamping the church in order to achieve a truer vision of the church. I think that most leaders and ministers are on the same page with Viola – cognizant of the issues Viola is raising. Viola has proposed good ideas in theory, but I always find my theories smash to pieces when they hit the pavement of real life…but I’m looking forward to hearing and exploring Viola’s practical application of these ideal visions.

  1. [1]Steve Brown has an interesting article fleshing out this concept called The Ugly Bride.