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The Problem of Evil: The Shipwreck of Faith?

Winter 2006
PAGES 6, 7
[original publication]

The Shipwreck of Faith

I know someone who trusted God absolutely. Every night he prayed fervently and fell asleep confident of God's loving care. one night someone broke into his home, assaulted him, and left him permanently injured. Recently he explained why he is no longer a Christian. "I was taught that God takes care of those who trust him. I trusted him, but he did not take care of me. Either the God of my childhood does not exist, or he doesn't care about me."

This painful anecdote illustrates why the problem of evil and suffering has been called "the shipwreck of faith." It seems reasonable that if the all-powerful, all-good God of the Bible is in control, then suffering and evil should not exist—at least not the appalling amounts, horrific kinds, and unfair distributions of evil that afflict countless individuals and large parts of the world. And what about Christians? The question of Job still burns: If God really does love us, why does he let it hurt so bad? His wife's response still resonates: "Curse God and die." Probably more people have lost their faith because of evil than for any other reason.

Is Faith Blind?

But it doesn't have to be that way. Faithful Christians neither deny God nor his sovereignty. We affirm with Job that our Redeemer lives (19:25). We trust that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him" (Rom. 8:28). We believe what Heidelberg Catechism Q and A 26 teaches—that God will turn all adversity to our good. Throughout the centuries, countless suffering Christians have testified to God's loving, powerful presence. But is our faith blind? Isn't it absurd to believe in a good God? Isn't the evidence of his absence, impotence, or under-achieve-ment overwhelming? Isn't our trust in God irrational, foolish, and even pathetic?

The Temptation of Theodicy

"No!" Christians respond. "It is not absurd to believe God." Just the opposite. "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.' " (Ps. 14:1). Great Christian thinkers from Augustine to C. S. Lewis have labored to understand God's reasons for allowing evil so that they could answer skeptics and comfort believers. Some, such as the philosopher Leibniz, thought that they could provide rationally convincing justifications and explanations of God's reasons for allowing evil. Such explanations are called theodicies.

Theodicy is tempting for two reasons. One is to have a compelling answer for doubters, both believers and non-believers. The second is to make sense of evil. Why is God allowing this? What good is supposed to come from it? Purposeless suffering is twice as difficult to endure. Theodicy would provide the explanation we crave.

Theodicy is a key issue in the book of Job. His three friends attempt to comfort him by offering theological explanations for his suffering—mainly that he needs or deserves it. Job rejects those explanations and reasserts his faith. But eventually he wants an explanation from God (23:1-7). God reveals himself to Job in nature but does not answer his question. Job repents, admitting his inability to comprehend God's ways (42:1-6). God restores Job's fortunes, but he never tells him what we know from Job 1-2, that God allowed Satan to test the integrity of Job's faith to show that Satan is a liar and false accuser of God's friend. Job lives and dies trusting God without a theodicy.

We too should resist the temptation of theodicy. We humans are less capable of comprehending how God runs the world than mice are of understanding computers. In addition, having a full explanation of suffering can actually undermine our faith, giving a false sense of security and control. But the main reason for avoiding theodicy is that none is available. Human reason cannot construct one, and God has not provided one in Scripture.

The "Rationality" of Evil in Biblical Perspective

Our faith in God is not blind or irrational, however. Although Scripture does not present a theodicy, it does give a coherent perspective. The biblical narrative—from creation, through the fall, focusing on redemption in Christ, to the new creation—gives us a clear overview of the origin, pervasive consequences, and ultimate end of evil and suffering. In wisdom God created the world good but gave angels and humans the ability to do evil. With his permission and foreknowledge, they did. The results seriously affected the spiritual, human, and natural aspects of creation. only God can fix the broken creation, and he has begun to do so through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ rules the fallen world through his Word and Spirit. But evil will continue and perhaps get worse until he returns to judge the world and establish the Kingdom.

In Scripture, God usually does not miraculously preserve Christians from the consequences of the fall that afflict humans in general. God's regular miracle is the regeneration of our hard human hearts, giving us a new nature which he sustains in the struggle against our sinful nature and life in a fallen world. The people of God in history will continue to suffer evil and must keep wrestling with it, taking up our cross for the sake of Christ until he comes again. The signs of the times—earthquakes, floods, diseases, famines, persecutions, and wars—impact us just as much as the followers of the Beast, sometimes more so. But God preserves and cares for his people. He hears and answers our prayers. He will give us the Kingdom. Meanwhile he makes all things work together for our good, so that nothing separates us from his love in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:28-39).

Scripture makes sense of evil and gives us certain reason to hope in God. But it does not provide a theodicy. We cannot verify what the Bible teaches; we must accept it by faith.

"God Meant It for Good"

Scripture does not reveal all God's reasons for allowing the fall and its terrible consequences, but it does suggest some of God's reasons for allowing evil in some cases. Sometimes he uses bad things for just punishment (but not for people whose punishment has been suffered by Jesus). Sometimes he uses suffering for "soul-building"—to bring us to faith, to strengthen our faith, or to motivate growth in the fruits of the Spirit (Rom. 5:3-4; James 1:2-4). In John 9:1 the man was born blind so that Jesus could show God's glory. Sometimes God uses suffering to cause the church to grow—"the blood of the martyrs." Terrible events such as earthquakes and wars are always "signs of the times," warning humans that they cannot save themselves and must give account to God. Thus Scripture provides glimpses of God's wisdom in allowing evil and suffering, even afflicting Christians. But it does not state all his reasons, nor does it explain each and every bad thing that happens.

Christians should not try to be wiser than Scripture. When bad things happen, we want to know God's reasons for them. Sometimes we can see obvious benefits, such as repentance and faith resulting from an illness—or realize that worse outcomes were averted, such as avoiding an accident because of a traffic jam. But sometimes the urge to identify God's reasons locates us with the friends of Job. We make pious pronouncements about God's reasons for a severe illness, a terrible tragedy, or an untimely death to reassure ourselves or comfort friends. "God must have taken your son to save him from a difficult future." "The hurricane was God's punishment for New orleans' sin." Even if such judgments are consistent with general teachings of Scripture, we cannot read God's mind to discern how these events fit into his eternal counsel. We ought to be careful about what we say precisely because, like Job, we must trust God's providence without knowing his reasons.

Do All Things Work for Good?

Resisting the temptation of theodicy is especially important when bad things do not seem to have good outcomes. Many Christians understand "all things work for good" to mean that each and every bad event is put there by God to lead directly to some greater good. According to this theology, there are no "purposeless" evils, no bad events that don't result in greater good. There is a shiny silver lining in everything from spilled milk to world wars. Even the torture, rape, and murder of a little girl is ordained by God to bring about something nice. But is that true? It would take a pretty wonderful outcome to put positive spin on such a horrible crime. Some faithful Christians search decades without ever finding the meaning and purpose of tragic events and horrible suffering in their lives. Are they blind?

No. Greater good may not be there. "All things" does not necessarily mean "each and every thing." More likely it means "the totality of things." The second reading implies that God may allow some instances of evil and suffering that do not lead to greater good. But his whole plan, ordained from before the foundation of the world, does work together for the good of those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). That plan includes bad things that God does directly turn to our good. It includes perplexing things whose purpose takes awhile to figure out. It includes awful things that are much worse than any good that comes from them. But all of these things work together for the ultimate good according to God's plan. The Gospel is that whether or not bad things lead to good things, God is always with us, loving and sustaining us even through the greatest pain and darkest despair. "Nothing ... will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:39).

The Ship of Faith

Scripture gives us all we need to know about evil, but not a complete explanation. It warns that we will not escape suffering and evil in our earthly lives but must deal with them as followers of our suffering Savior. But thanks to God's Word and Spirit, our faith will not shipwreck. We will not sink even if we cannot comprehend evil or endure the pain. God himself strengthens our faith, hope, and love, just as he did for Job.

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