Sunday, April 15, 2007

The problem of evil


Three recent dates bring back painful memories: September 11, 2001, when terrorists struck America; December 26, 2004, when a tsunami destroyed many coastal peoples in the Indian Ocean; and August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.
This evil and suffering raises a question: where is God? If God is all-powerful and good, why didn’t He stop these things from happening? How can I believe in God when there is evil and suffering in the world?
The most helpful answer is to understand that God created human beings with freedom of will, and those humans chose to disobey God and sin. Because of sin, there is evil and suffering in the world. Peter Kreeft uses the analogy of a magnet holding up three iron rings. The magnet symbolizes God; the first ring represents the soul, the second ring represents the body, and the third ring represents nature. As long as the soul stays in touch with God, the magnetic life flows through soul, body and all of God’s creation. But when the soul freely declares its independence from God, the result is that the whole chain of rings are demagnetized and it all falls apart. (Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, p. 135.)
God could have made humans to be like robots with no freedom of will, and then there would have been no evil, but here’s the flipside: with no freedom of will, there could also be no love.
C. S. Lewis wrote a book about this called The Problem of Pain. Lewis pointed out that the existence of evil should make us believe all the more in God, rather than believe in God less. Lewis asked, how is it that we know some things to be evil? Where did we get the idea that evil is wrong? Where did we get the idea that things ought to be good? Doesn’t our desire for good tell us that there must be a good God?
Didn’t Jesus teach us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “deliver us from evil?” (Matthew 6:13)
Some answers like this are helpful, but when we look for answers to the problem of evil in the Bible, we do not find many answers. Books like Job deal with evil and suffering, but they don’t give easy answers to the problem. No, what we find in the Bible is not so much answers to the problem of evil as actions for the problem of evil. What I mean is that the Bible doesn’t spend much time telling us what God says about evil, but it does spend a lot of time telling us what God does about evil. From this, we can learn three responses to the problem of evil and suffering.
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6 comments:

Brother Bob said...

“The Problem of Evil: How can I believe in God when there is evil and suffering in the world?” (Matthew 6:13)

INTRODUCTION: Three recent dates bring back painful memories: September 11, 2001, when terrorists struck America; December 26, 2004, when a tsunami destroyed many coastal peoples in the Indian Ocean; and August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.
This evil and suffering raises a question: where is God? If God is all-powerful and good, why didn’t He stop these things from happening? How can I believe in God when there is evil and suffering in the world?
The most helpful answer is to understand that God created human beings with freedom of will, and those humans chose to disobey God and sin. Because of sin, there is evil and suffering in the world. Peter Kreeft uses the analogy of a magnet holding up three iron rings. The magnet symbolizes God; the first ring represents the soul, the second ring represents the body, and the third ring represents nature. As long as the soul stays in touch with God, the magnetic life flows through soul, body and all of God’s creation. But when the soul freely declares its independence from God, the result is that the whole chain of rings are demagnetized and it all falls apart. (Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, p. 135.)
God could have made humans to be like robots with no freedom of will, and then there would have been no evil, but here’s the flipside: with no freedom of will, there could also be no love.
C. S. Lewis wrote a book about this called The Problem of Pain. Lewis pointed out that the existence of evil should make us believe all the more in God, rather than believe in God less. Lewis asked, how is it that we know some things to be evil? Where did we get the idea that evil is wrong? Where did we get the idea that things ought to be good? Doesn’t our desire for good tell us that there must be a good God?
Didn’t Jesus teach us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “deliver us from evil?” (Matthew 6:13)
Some answers like this are helpful, but when we look for answers to the problem of evil in the Bible, we do not find many answers. Books like Job deal with evil and suffering, but they don’t give easy answers to the problem. No, what we find in the Bible is not so much answers to the problem of evil as actions for the problem of evil. What I mean is that the Bible doesn’t spend much time telling us what God says about evil, but it does spend a lot of time telling us what God does about evil. From this, we can learn three responses to the problem of evil and suffering.

I. Stop being surprised by evil

First, we should stop acting is if we are surprised by evil. We should stop thinking life is supposed to be fair.
Modern man has bought the lie that things are getting better. Charles Darwin taught the theory of evolution, saying that the species are evolving into better and better creatures. (We will discuss Darwinism next week.) Advances in technology and medicine have seemed to confirm this, as our lives have been made easier and life-spans have lengthened. The advance of democracy, freedom and civil rights for minorities that were once persecuted has added to this idea that life is getting better. So we have been lulled into thinking “in this day and age” things aren’t as bad as they once were.
It’s not that we don’t know there is evil in the world. We just don’t think it affects us personally. We have studied in our history books about slavery and the Nazi holocaust. We’ve heard about starvation in Africa. But we tend to think those things are isolated and don’t concern us. Thus, when a terrorist group called al-Qaeda set off a bomb in the World Trade Center in 1993, we thought it was an isolated incident. We were totally shocked when they tried it again on September 11, 2001, and succeeded in destroying both towers and murdering 3,000 people.
Our false idea that things are getting better sets us up for a great disappointment when we find out that life is not fair and evil is very, very real.
The Bible clearly states the problem of evil from the beginning of human history. It says that evil is real and personal. When God made Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden, he warned them not to disobey his command to stay away from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He said, “for when you eat of it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:17).
But the tempter came in the form of the serpent and told them they would not surely die, and they believed his lie and took of the forbidden fruit. Eve took the fruit, and so did Adam, and in that moment of sin they lost their innocence and lost their immortality. They realized their nakedness, and saw their sin. They lived on for many years, and had children, but then they died, just as God said they would. The story of evil continues to unfold throughout the Bible, for after Adam and Eve let evil out of its Pandora’s Box, and it has been wreaking havoc on human life ever since. During Noah’s time, mankind became so wicked that the Bible says, “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” (Genesis 6:5) Ever since then, every person who has ever lived has sinned and has eventually died, and all of us now living will one day die, unless Jesus Christ comes back first.
As a result of this unleashing of sin, evil affects creation itself. That is why there is death and suffering. Romans 8:18-21 says,
18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Creation itself is “subjected to frustration” the Bible says, “not by its own choice.” But because of sin, there is suffering, even in nature. So why are we so surprised when a tornado destroys a home? Why are we so surprised when a neighbor is arrested for child abuse? Why are we so surprised when our own child gets into trouble at school? Why are we so surprised when we take an honest look at our own lives and we don’t like what we find there? John 2:24-25 says, “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.”
I’m not saying that we should be paranoid or constantly think bad of others, but I am saying that we are all sinners, and we need to get beyond the na├»ve thinking that we or our family or our neighbors cannot possibly be evil. We can, and we are.
In the Bible, God has a pattern of dealing with evil. God doesn’t give explanations, God takes action. He judges evil, and then redeems the situation. (See N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, p. 73.) When Adam and Eve sinned, he judged them but them he covered their nakedness with animal skins. When God judged the world with a flood, he spared Noah and started the human race over again. When the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt, God judged the Egyptians and set the Hebrews free. When a Job lost his family, lost his property, and lost his health, and his three friends told him he must have done something bad to deserve such suffering, God didn’t answer Job’s questions, but God judged the friends and restored Job. On and on the story goes. God never said life would be fair. But God does take action to redeem life.

II. Stand up and accept God’s forgiveness for our own evil

This brings me to my second point. Not only should we stop, but we should stand up. We should stop being surprised by evil and we should stand up and admit that evil is within us, and accept God’s solution for our own evil by Jesus’ death on the cross.
For the greatest action God took against evil was when He sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. This pattern of judging evil and then redeeming the situation came to its climax in the cross of Jesus Christ. Here is the ultimate act that God took to combat evil.
When Jesus came to earth, Satan himself reared his ugly head like never before, like a cornered cottonmouth with fangs bared in his last battle. He tried to destroy baby Jesus, inspiring King Herod to kill every young child in Bethlehem. He tried to tempt Jesus to sin in the wilderness. He inspired the people of Nazareth to try to stone Jesus to death, but Christ walked away. Jesus faced ferocious storms on the Sea of Galilee and calmed them, and shrieking demons that yelled at him and rushed at him from tombs, and Jesus cast them out. Finally, Satan entered the disciples themselves, possessing Peter to deny Him and Judas to betray Him, and the evil one thought he had triumphed when Jesus was nailed to the Roman cross.
But Jesus looked down from that cross and said, “Father, forgive them,” and then as He died, He said, “It is finished.” And on the cross, God did it again. He judged sin and redeemed the situation. For Jesus bore our sins on the cross, and taking our sins upon Himself, He finished the work of paying for sin and working our forgiveness.
So if evil makes you doubt the existence of God, look at the cross. There you see the ultimate act of God to defeat evil. For there God didn’t offer an explanation for evil, God took action against evil. He judged it, bearing the sin and evil upon Himself, and he redeemed the situation, rising from the dead and offering eternal life to all who place their faith in Christ.
So not only do we need to stop being surprised by evil, but we need to stand up and accept God’s forgiveness for our own evil by trusting in Jesus’ death on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins.

III. Start applying God’s solution to evil in our world

But the solution to evil does not end with the cross. It is true, there is nothing we can add to the finished work of Christ on the cross for our sins, but just because Jesus has finished His work does not mean that our own work is finished. No, in fact, it has just begun.
This is my third point. We should start applying God’s solution to evil in our world.
There are many things we can do about evil to carry on the work of Christ. Let’s open our Bibles to Matthew 6:9-13, and we discover that right here in the Lord’s Prayer we find many of those tasks, beginning with prayer itself. We can pray that God’s kingdom would come on earth, and we can be actively involved in doing His will on earth. We can pray for our daily bread, and actively feed the hungry. We can pray not be tempted, and actively seek to live holy lives, pleasing to God. We can pray to be delivered from evil, and actively oppose the work of Satan. But I skipped over the most important part of all. As we pray for forgiveness, we must also be willing to forgive others. And it is in this action, forgiveness, that we can apply the greatest power against evil in our world today.
The same Jesus who said from the cross, “Father, forgive them,” the same Jesus who died on the cross to forgive us of our sins, calls upon His followers to forgive, as well.
Forgiveness is one of the hardest things we can do, yet it is the most powerful. Jesus taught us to pray for God’s forgiveness based on our own willingness to forgive: “Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Just in case we didn’t get it, after the prayer Jesus returns to the matter of forgiveness and emphasizes it again: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).
N. T. Wright explains this verse this way: “He is telling us, in effect, that the faculty we have for receiving forgiveness and the faculty we have for granting forgiveness are one and the same thing. If we open the one we shall open the other. If we slam the door on the one, we slam the door on the other.” (N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, p. 158)
Here’s the bottom line; this is the solution to the problem of evil. It is forgiveness! Christ forgave us on the cross, and if we want to see evil overcome, we too must be willing forgive one another and even forgive ourselves.
But our human nature rebels against this idea of forgiveness. We object, and say, “But you don’t know what I’ve been through. You don’t understand the pain I’ve experienced.” You’re right. I don’t know. But Jesus does. And when Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive, Jesus shocked him by replying, “Seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). Jesus knows what you’ve been through, and Jesus says, “forgive.”
But some object, “why, if I forgive them, I’m acting as if what they did was no big deal. It cheapens the crime to just let them off like that.”
In the movie, Dead Man Walking, a nun named Sister Helen Prejean tries to reach out to a man named Poncelet, on death row in Angola Prison in Louisiana. [Caution: This movie is rated R for violence and profanity.] Poncelet was convicted of a brutal murder of a young couple, and rape of the girl. The nun urges him to read the Bible. The nun tells him about Jesus, and how Jesus said, “The truth shall set you free.” He likes the idea of being set free, but he struggles with the truth. He declares his innocence, and even takes a lie-detector test, but he fails the test. The families of the victims cannot understand why the nun reaches out to him. They only see him as an animal who murdered their child. They are filled with bitterness and anger and what he did, and they just want to see him be executed. The bitterness is so destructive to the parents of the boy who was murdered, Mr. and Mrs. Delacroix, that they divorce. Mr. and Mrs. Percy, the parents of the girl who was murdered, don’t divorce, but they are filled with constant rage, and when the nun reaches out to them, they order her to leave their house.
But in the end, Poncelet breaks down and weeps as he admits his crime to Sister Helen. Then she urges him to go to his execution and ask forgiveness.
Finally, Poncelet’s execution day comes. He is strapped for execution, asked if he wants to say any final words, and he asks the families for forgiveness and tells the nun, “I love you.”
The film ends as Mr. Delacroix, the father of boy who was murdered, attends the funeral of the Poncelet, and goes with Sister Helen to church to pray. He has found it in his heart to forgive, and in that forgiveness, he has found peace, and found God.
That is the power of forgiveness. N. T. Wright says, “Evil may still be a four-letter word. But so, thank God, is love.” (N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, p. 41) And love expressed in forgiveness is able to overcome evil. That, my friend, is how you can believe in God when there is evil and suffering in the world.
So I want to ask you to do a difficult thing. If you are a follower of Christ, and you believe in bringing an end to evil, then I want to ask you to forgive. When I said “forgive,” somebody or something probably came to your mind. That first person who came to your mind is probably the person you most need to forgive. Will you decide to do it today? Do it. Release the bitterness. And be a part of Christ’s prayer to “deliver us from evil.”

{Sermon preached at First Baptist Church, Rincon, Georgia, April 15, 2007}

Bloodiest of Ladies said...

"The most helpful answer is to understand that God created human beings with freedom of will, and those humans chose to disobey God and sin."

I have to ask you to explain free will. I don't understand exactly how the situation between God and people boils down to free will. It would seem that people were given a choice, granted, but the choice being 'do as I say' or 'go to hell', I have to say that it seems highly coerced (sp?). Without being disrespectful (or meaning to) it seems much the same as saying that people extend generous charity to armed muggers out of free will. One more thing (among vast amounts of the world) that I genuinely don't understand.

Brother Bob said...

Your analogy of a armed mugger having free will to do his crime is a good one.
Yes, he has freedom of will to commit the crime, but if he does, he risks the consequences of imprisonment for his crime.
Likewise, God gives all of us a choice to sin or not, and all of us choose to sin and thus must suffer the consequences. But where God is more generous than the human legal system is that God in His love has also provided a way of forgiveness by faith in His Son, Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to take the punishment for that sin.

Bloodiest of Ladies said...

I should have explained my question better. First, I reread what I wrote and it sounded much more harsh than I intended. I sometimes sound as though I'm being rude when I have no intention to be.

What I was asking doesn't really have anything to do with the sermon above, just a general question about free will that I've never been able to figure out.

God gives people free will to obey or not obey, right? But not obeying means that you go to hell, so I sort of wonder if that's really free will.

If I mugged you at gun point and you gave me your money would that be you giving me your money out of free will? You'd still have been given a choice, albiet 'give me your money' or 'I'm going to shoot you'. But really, how different is that from 'obey and worship' or 'you're going to hell'?

I'm not raising this as an arguement against the existence of God at all, I just don't understand.

I know I badger you a lot, and I'm sorry, but it just seems like I'm forever not understanding. I don't mean to sound pressumptious, but perhaps my constant questions gives a chance for someone else to read the answers as well.

Brother Bob said...

No faith is required to make a free will response to the demands of a mugger. He is standing in front of you with a gun in your face, and failure to follow the mugger's will is met with an immediate consequence.
On the other hand, God shows Himself to us, but we must pay attention. He is clearly evident in creation and the Bible, but we can ignore if, if we choose. And the consequences of ignoring Him are not immediate. They may come 90 years later.
There is a huge difference in the two comparisons, and it results in a great difference in how a person does not feel manipulated by God's giving us free will, yet telling us that disobedience results in punishment.

Bloodiest of Ladies said...

I understand what you're saying, but I still don't see a great difference. I am not, personally, bothered by the idea of obey or be punished because I think that's how things work. If someone (something?) has earned the right to control, then you obey or face consequences for not obeying. I don't feel that it's a manipulation, but I also don't feel that it's honestly free will.