Post Published on April 12, 2013.
Last Updated on April 28, 2016 by davemackey.
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…
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.
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 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.
- Michael Tooley has a concise yet well-rounded discussion of The Problem of Evil in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It is quite technical at numerous points.
- Thomas Talbott provides an interesting yet unorthodox understanding of the acceptability of suffering in his book, The Inescapable Love of God.
- George MacDonald offers poetry and sermons on the topic throughout Diary of an Old Soul and Unspoken Sermons.
- Alvin Plantinga is a contemporary Christian philosopher who has written extensively on the problem of evil.
- A more classic look at the topic is found in C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain.
- One might also consider Randy Alcorn’s If God is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil.
- Finally, Clark Pinnock’s Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness tangentially tackles the topic from an open theist perspective by making God the God of the possible. This book would be considered at the fringes or evangelical orthodoxy or perhaps even outside along with Thomas Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God.
8 thoughts on “The Problem of Evil”
Dave, you really need to write some e-books. You don’t mind and seem to find time to dive deeply into subjects and cite resources from a variety of perspectives. Earn some money while having fun. My two cents.
Bill – Thanks! I have been working on turning a contemporary a few favored classics who I think have more to say to our times than I do…but also have a book or two waiting in the wings. One I’ll be co-authoring with a longtime mentor, the other the first in a series of commentaries…The commentaries I have been working on in fits and starts for years, but, Lord willing, I’ll have something ready for publication within the year.
Good news is, I do earn a little money while having fun. 🙂 The ads on this site and the links to various books all derive revenue for me. Its pocket change – but still something!
Dave, I always enjoy your blog. I think it’s the care and intentionality of your effort that comes through and inspires me. Here is a brief response to the above:
Last Christmas my wife and I experienced a miscarriage. The experience was wretched and nonsensical. It was the kind of event that leads the mind to Theodicy (the problem of evil) and demands a solution. Academic arguments pale in the face of my wife mourning the death of a child she never met.
I cannot redefine evil to solve the problem. A miscarriage is flagrant suffering. I can provide explanations, like perhaps God is teaching, but the result is always, “This is too harsh. This is not loving instruction.” I cannot redefine God either. I am suspended in the middle of the Theodicy. Its resolution is paramount, and utterly impossible. I am walking contradiction. I want an explanation that doesn’t exist.
And then I received a little note. In it, the note said, “It hurts. God walks with you.” God walks with me? The threat of Theodicy is that we conclude that God is a cosmic asshole. “God walks with you.” Assholes inflict pain on others, but not themselves. We cannot conclude that God is an asshole. Yes, it is important that God became Man, and dwelt among us. So he knew our suffering viscerally, and knows our suffering memorially.
No, that last is wrong. “God walks with you.” God still knows our pain viscerally. As He breaks our bones, He breaks His own bones. God ordains suffering. But when He ordains it, He destines Himself to suffer alongside us. It doesn’t hurt less, but it means that God is not an asshole.
So what remains is why God ordains suffering. This is the heart of Theodicy, and the part that is left up to conjecture. Here is my conjecture:
Suffering always has meaning, but that meaning should never be imposed from without, and it may never be expressed, either. The meaning of our miscarriage may be nothing more than that I would be the person writing this right now. Sometimes, it seems clear that suffering is the product of God choosing to never impose upon our free will. That seems to be the case for all human-instigated suffering, like abusing children. On the other hand, there is suffering that seems due to nothing at all human, like having a miscarriage or losing everything in a tsunami. Sin in a general sense may be the answer, but it is not the immediate causative account. Sure the world has some independence from its Creator, and this brings chaos into the world, but that doesn’t answer why this couple, why this house, why this town?
I don’t have an answer to those questions. “It hurts. God walks with you.” It doesn’t resolve Theodicy. Theodicy can’t be resolved. But, as you put it, we can float in it awhile.
First let me say that my heart goes out to you and your wife for the loss you have suffered. Early in Charity and I’s marriage, Charity became pregnant with twins but miscarried. As you note, there is nothing to resolve the suffering we are “suspended in the middle of the Theodicy” as you so powerfully picture it.
For whatever it is worth, I found some small amount of comfort in visualizing my children with my Savior. To think of them as perfect and whole and happy. I do not believe they are gone forever, but that they continue on, in fact have experienced the fullness of life before I have had the opportunity.
At the same time, I don’t mean to minimize your suffering – I know that such visualization for me is but paltry comfort to the ongoing loss one feels. Perhaps what I have said here will sound crass and insensitive, surely anything else I might attempt to say would only be such, so I will end b/c I cannot answer or cure your suffering.
Oh, I would say for me that event is resolved. What I was sharing was the productive value of not solving the problem of evil. Note what it did to me. It drove me to walk with my God. It doesn’t always, but I think often it does. This kind of thing is settled in experience, even when reason can never settle it.
Dave, nice post. I have moved away from trying to explain evil because Scripture doesn’t appear to answer why it exists just what God will do about it. We often don’t think of this, but the incarnation of the Word is a type of suffering due to kenosis. Thus, Christ experienced a type of suffering his entire time on earth until it reached its climax in his death. Fortunately, due to the resurrection, Paul can say our suffering presently cannot be compared to our future glory.
Thanks Evan. I agree that the kenosis involved Christ’s suffering, though I think I am going a little beyond that in my post – I would suggest that God suffered not only through the kenosis but also suffers throughout time in His empathy with humanity. If God only suffered in the kenosis, that would still provide me with an adequate emotional answer to the issue of evil, but we see God expressing emotion throughout Scripture and as such, I’d posit that He continues to suffer with us – a choice He makes rather than an essential of His existence.