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How Could God let this Happen?

January 13, 2012

Today I thought I would blog on what is considered one of the most difficult of topics in theology – as such my blog might be a bit longer than usual.

Today’s topic is commonly referred to as ‘the problem of evil and suffering’.

For centuries people have discussed this issue and essentially the big question is this:

‘How could a good and all-powerful God allow evil and suffering to take place?’

It’s worth noting at the beginning of this blog that if you are currently experiencing some level of evil and suffering then there is probably very little I can say to take that away? I do hope however that there may be something in this blog that you can hold onto that will give you hope and strength to endure.

The natural, although flawed, conclusion that a lot of people come to when looking at this issue is that God does not and cannot exist. Or at least ‘if He does exist’, says JL Mackie (The Miracle of Theism) ‘then He certainly isn’t the traditional God that Christians tend to talk of’. Augustine of Hippo (“Confessions”) states the following:

“Either God is not able to abolish evil or not willing; if he is not able then he is not all-powerful; if he is not willing then he is not all-good.”

Over the centuries there have been responses to this problem, known as theodicies. They attempt to explain the existence of evil and suffering whilst attempting to maintain belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God.

Whilst there are plenty of opinions in this area I reckon two noteworthy theodicies are those of Irenaes and St. Augustine.

Augustine’s theodicy can be summarised by stating that he believed that due to mankind’s independent decision to sin, evil and suffering entered the world. As such whilst God could step in and stop the suffering he doesn’t have to as He is just and we are guilty. One criticism to this theodicy came from a chap called Schleiermacher who argued that it wasn’t logical to believe that a perfectly created world could go wrong. This suggests that evil created itself. Either the world wasn’t perfect in the first place or God made it go wrong.

Irenaes argued similarly to Augustine stating that evil was our decision, but he believed the world wasn’t perfect to start with. He believed that mankind needed freewill to be able to choose to live as God would intend. In his opinion freedom involves the ability to choose between right and wrong.

John Hick later expanded on this view stating that if we didn’t have the freewill to choose then worship of God would be robot-like and unreal since there would be no choice involved.

Both views have strengths and weaknesses in my opinion.

As a Christian obviously my perspective is going to be biased, since my choice to follow Christ was made before I considered the problem of evil and suffering – as hard as I try I cannot help it. However even in my bias I still think there are some helpful things to bear in mind here.

If we’re honest, as weighty as this issue is, it doesn’t really suffice as an argument for or against the existence of God. All it does is highlight an area of our ignorance. It shows us that there is something we can’t quite fully understand as yet. Just because we can’t see an explanation that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.

Let me give you an example to help explain my point. If I were to discipline my 16 month old son for attempting to walk down the stairs by himself, you could quite reasonably expect him to be confused or angry. After all he doesn’t know that that’s dangerous at the moment! If I were then to place him on the “time-out” step or speak harshly to him he may deduce that he is now suffering. Obviously he couldn’t possibly begin to understand that there is a bigger reason for this discipline, a reason that benefits him. However, how absurd would it now be for him to suddenly start to doubt my existence. The issue here isn’t that I am not real but rather that he just doesn’t understand why I have done what I have done – nor does he need to at this stage of his life.

My analogy here is obviously flawed; for one, in this scenario my son physically experiences me as I discipline him. However, just because we may not experience God in times of suffering with our normal physical senses, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t exist. All too often we do away with the idea of God because it’s just easier to explain that way – this is lazy reasoning. Evil and suffering presents as a problem to our understanding of God but it most certainly cannot be considered as proof that God doesn’t exist.

Saying this, of course, doesn’t make things easier, but it is worth noting that if you are to believe in a God then I imagine you are prepared to believe that He’s bigger than you and your understanding. (It sounds like a cop-out but it’s also totally consistent with reality) Therefore in some regard we shouldn’t be too surprised to find situations in life that we can’t understand.

It’s a little like sitting in the cinema watching a film, and half way through the movie someone stands up and shouts ‘this isn’t fair!’ you then gently ask them to sit down, reminding them that you’re only half way through. You explain to them that no matter how hard it is to see right now there’ll come an ending that will make sense of everything that came before.

There is a story in the bible of a character called Joseph (you may know him from the Andrew Lloyd Webber production). He spends a large chunk of his life in suffering and misery; victim to physical and verbal bullying, rejection from his own family, slavery, false accusation and unfair imprisonment amongst other things, but what seemed like a season of evil God had planned for good. It was only after Joseph had experienced all this was he then able to fulfil his office as second in command to the Pharaoh over all Egypt. Very often it’s only at the end of a season of suffering that we can see that something far more glorious has emerged. I’m not saying it’s easy to be grateful for tragedy and pain but the character, insight and wisdom that is gleaned from these times can be invaluable.

You may well reasonably argue at this point that I have mainly discussed suffering in the context of fatherly discipline, and perhaps from your perspective you would argue that you believe there is plenty of “pointless” suffering that takes place in the world that has no positive result. You may well be right, but if I am honest I would argue that if anything that acts as a proof for God’s existence. When we turn on the news and we witness poverty in the third world, when we hear of things like government corruption, genocide, senseless murders and other such travesties we may well shake our fist at the heavens as we are outraged at the injustice. But I would like to ask you this question ‘where does your sense of injustice come from?’ As Timothy Keller, Alvin Platinga and CS Lewis all point out when discussing a similar theme, our understanding of a God-less process of evolution depends on death, destruction and violence against the weak, these things are perfectly natural. Why then are we outraged by strong people exploiting the weak? Our sense of injustice comes from the fact that we recognise something has gone wrong, we know the world isn’t as it should be and we crave for it to be fixed, we are desperate for a solution. Someone or something needs to come and do away with all the injustice once and for all.

That solution is found in King Jesus

I suppose my conclusion here is that this remains a very difficult and heavy topic to cope with, especially in the midst of suffering. But I do believe it’s possible to not only see God’s handiwork in times of difficulty but also to rejoice at it. Let me explain why. I’m going to remind you of something truly breathtaking, as a Christian you get to walk with God. This means that through the good times and the bad times you are never alone! But it goes deeper still, it’s not just that you’re not alone but that you are communing with the one who the bible describes as ‘the fountain of living waters’. Even in our darkest days God is with us!

Furthermore not only is the King of the Universe close to us during those difficult times but He remains sovereign over them. He is that loving Father that we all crave who can protect us and watch over us. He may not take away our times of suffering but He will walk through them with us, shaping us and growing us – that’s worth rejoicing over!

The truth is if you are going through a rough patch at the moment, Jesus has experienced something similar. That’s why the bible tells us that he is a high priest who is able to sympathise. Jesus came and familiarised Himself with us by experiencing the worst kind of suffering.

In the context of suffering, whilst it might be easier to think that God cannot be real at a time like this, I would argue that not only is He very very real but He’s closer than you think. Why not call out to Him and see what happens? You have nothing to lose.

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From → Justice, Knowing God

One Comment
  1. Hey man, I really enjoyed this post.

    I think you’re right to say that our not being able to answer the question, “why does God allow x?” shows only our ignorance. It doesn’t show that God doesn’t exist or that belief in God is irrational. After all an argument of the following form is obviously invalid:

    1. Jez (or any Christian) doesn’t know why God allowed x.
    2. Therefore, God doesn’t exist/Therefore, Jez (or any Christian) is irrational to believe in God.

    Too often those who are using the problem of evil as an intellectual challenge to the Christian (rather than expressing their own existential difficulty with it) fail to realise that merely asking a question is not the same as actually posing an argument. We are under no rational obligation to provide a theodicy in response to such questions. But that said, there ARE arguments one can pose which do at least claim to demonstrate God’s non-existence.

    For instance, Mackie posed an argument which attempted to show that God’s existence is logically incompatible with evil. And there are also arguments which attempt to show that God’s existence is highly unlikely given certain aspects of evil that we find (these are the focus of discussion in the literature today). Of course, in dealing with these arguments we need not produce theodicies, but we do need to show that they have an invalid form, or show that at least one of the premises is false or unjustified. In other words, saying that we don’t know why God allows x wouldn’t be sufficient to deal with the actual arguments.

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