One of the biggest intellectual stumbling blocks to the Christian faith lies in the question of how a good God can allow suffering. Put another way: if God is wholly good, then why does He allow evil to exist in a world He created?
These are not light questions and should be treated with all due respect. They are legitimate issues that some find insurmountable. While there have been many ‘proofs’ offered by theists throughout the years which attempt to answer this question (and simultaneously one-up the questioner’s lack of faith), they usually end up only affirming one’s preconceived beliefs.[i]
At some point, the proofs and counter proofs become nothing more than two voices bouncing off the walls in an echo chamber. It reminds me of the scene in “The Princess Bride” where the Man in Black/Dread Pirate Roberts (aka. Westley) fought the Spaniard, Inigo Montoya, in a dual where they fenced back and forth, attacking and counter attacking, while simultaneously telling the names of their moves.[ii] It was an evenly matched competition which both men eventually walked away from, the same as in many apologetic debates.
Recently my thinking about the problem of evil has taken a different turn. Rather than simply viewing the issue as an intellectual exercise, what if I were to move past the philosophical speculations as to why evil exists and instead ask myself what God would have me do since evil exists.
In other words, I am starting to view the problem of evil is not a theory to be explained but a reality to be combated. This leads to the next question: how does one combat the evil that exists in this world? The only answer that I can come up with is through words and actions that are consistent with the gospel of the Kingdom.
I believe that a few definitions are in order. First, when I use the word “evil” what do I mean? The standard (Merriam Webster) definition is: a. morally reprehensible: sinful, wicked; b. arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct.[iii] While this is helpful, I wish to formulate the definition into a Biblical narrative understanding: evil is the application of death onto a living population. After all, death is what God said would be the result if Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit – “…but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:17). While Christians focus on sin (the act), God promised that death would be the consequence of disobedience. So I ask, which is worse – the action or the consequence? I believe it is the consequence rather than the action that brings it about. Therefore, I see evil as the application of death onto the living – sin is merely the outworking of death in one’s life.
Second, what do I mean by the term “gospel of the Kingdom”? Briefly, it is the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ but stated in such a way as to also emphasize Jesus’ Lordship, that He has been made King through His death, burial and resurrection – King, not of some ethereal land to which disembodied spirits fly upon death, but of the here and now, this present age as well as the age to come.
Returning to the previous question: evil exists and what am I going to do about it? Clearly I am not able to eradicate all the evil in the world, or even my country, or my state, or my county, or my city, or inside me. Yet as a Christian I am not given the option to sit idly by and give up, to wait for someone else to act, or to say that Jesus will simply make things right when He returns. (This He will most certainly do.) Neither am I to pretend that evil doesn’t exist and focus on purely “spiritual” endeavors. No, since the spiritual and the secular have been eternally united in the body of Jesus and now in His followers (via the presence of the Holy Spirit), there is work to be done in the meantime.
When considering how to fight against evil and witness for the Kingdom, I am reminded of Matthew 5-7, commonly referred to as “The Sermon on the Mount.” This passage is a great starting point for considering how one is to respond to the presence of evil in the world. For instance, in 5:13 Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth…” and in 5:14 and 16 He says, “You are the light of the world…In the same way, let your light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in Heaven.” What Jesus was saying is that our lives are to be completely different than the worlds’ citizens (i.e., be like Christ) and are to be on full display for all to see. We are to follow our King and act as He did. This involves not only proclaiming the good news of salvation but also of reminding the world that there is another King, a true King, and He not only reigns but is also returning.
From time to time my blog will be the outworking of this thinking as I look at different issues, some political/policy, some cultural, some within the (American/Western) Christian subculture, some other, and consider them in the light of the Kingdom. I do this because the problem of evil was settled by the cross and the resurrection and will be finally completed by the return of the King, the new heaven and the new earth.
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
-1 Corinthians 15:54-57
[i] Personally, I tend to hold a modified version of what is known as the “Free Will Defense.” In my opinion, Adam and Eve were created morally pure and with free will, which allowed them to choose good but also allowed them to choose evil. When they chose to partake from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, their actions permanently corrupted both mankind and all creation. That corruption has been passed down from generation to generation, from father to child, and has resulted in the world in which we now live.