“Thankyou God! Thankyou so bloody much!”
“I felt so angry with God I could hardly pray”. This came as a text from a friend coming to terms with a tragedy which had just struck a mutual friend of ours.
Traditionally the problem of suffering and evil has often been felt to be one of the strongest objections to the Christian faith. By Christians, as well as others. In fact, when Christians experience great suffering, it often creates a faith crisis for them: under pressure this weak area sometimes gives.
(It’s interesting that this situation did not always prevail: in the early centuries of the church, believers were very at home with suffering. It caused no crisis of faith – far from it, martyrdom was bread and butter stuff for Christian experience. I’m not suggesting they had more faith than later generations: to me it seems there was a difference in the structure of their faith which caused them to react very differently to ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’.)
I find the whole dilemma strange, for it seems to me that ‘the problem of evil’ is actually one of the strongest objections to every other view out there, and one of the areas of greatest strength in the gospel of Jesus.
Put simply, no one else is offering a satisfying account of suffering. Other views end up with us either angry at God, suspecting his goodness, or else trying to say that evil is good, cancer is good if we could only see it in perspective – or else feeling all alone in a big, bad, empty universe, in which we ultimately count for nothing. By contrast, the Christian view as found in Augustine does not confuse good with evil, it vindicates God, and offers real hope to the sufferer.
But we need to consider further this question of God’s relationship to evil and suffering. Does God:
1. Allow evil?
2. Decree/inflict evil?
3. Reject evil but without the power to prevent it?
These are the three main options. Options 1 and 2 are similar, while option 3 is quite different. Christians have tended to go for Option 1 or 2, often unclear on the distinction. Some other religions go for a dualist explanation, Option 3.
Language is not precise, there’s probably no one phrase that captures the right answer. But we want to find language that safeguards a few things: God’s goodness and divine power, and his special relationship to the creation as its loving creator and sustainer and guardian.
Consider this scenario:
James and Rachel, Christian believers, have a child, a baby girl – but within one week of being born she dies. They are devastated, they feel overwhelmed with disaster. His parents, who are not believers, ask them, “Why would God do such a thing? What kind of God is that?” James and Rachel don’t know how to answer. A friend at church tells them, “We need to trust God, this thing has come from his hands, it might seem terrible but God only gives good gifts to his children. You’ll find the good in this sooner or later.” As for Rachel, she is so distressed, she finds it hard to pray for a long time afterwards.
Which view/s of God’s involvement is operating here?
No one much is going for Option 3 here. It would undermine God’s power, in effect he wouldn’t be God. Even non-believers don’t mostly think like this about God – at least not in the West. We will rule out Option 3 as a major player.
Option 2 makes evil very close to God indeed, it tends to make him responsible for it, or behind it, the way he is for the creation. You can learn something about God from looking at his creation – can you do this with evil also?
James’s parents assert that you can. God is behind this evil, therefore God must be evil (implied in their minds is probably that the whole God thing is a nasty myth and should be given up). This is a common agnostic/atheist view in the West. Most unbelievers are Calvinist unbelievers.
Friend at church also goes for Option 2 – this tragedy has come direct from God’s hands – but asserts that the evil which has overwhelmed James and Rachel is not evil after all, but actually good. This is a common Christian move to make. Christians of all stripes get more Calvinist in the face of suffering. Trouble is, there’s only so far you can go with speaking positively about evil events, before you run into moral problems to do with lack of truthfulness. In Scripture, calling evil ‘good’ is considered a bad idea (e.g. Isaiah 5:20), whereas being able to distinguish between them is a mark of mature godliness (Hebrews 5:14).
Rachel feels a bit alienated from God by what has happened, it seems to block her prayer life. She’s reacting as though Option 2 were operating. This terrible evil has come, an unseen enemy threatening to tear their lives apart. And it seems God is behind it. In this struggle, God seems to be on the other side, aligned with the evil, not on her family’s side. Not surprising Rachel feels less close to God. What would the point be of praying to the guy on the other side? If she had someone on her side, she might turn to them. My friend whose text I quoted back at the start of this post, was struggling with the emotions generated by Option 2.
However, as we have seen, God has a special relationship to the creation which he does not have with evil. It is a mistake, then, to read back into the character and purposes of God the evil that plagues our lives. Option 2, though so very deeply ingrained into the Western psyche, tends to lead us into this error – it inevitably puts evil under God’s umbrella. The language of decreeing evil does not sit well with what the Scriptures reveal of God.
We might need to explore Option 1 more: that God allows evil, but does not inflict or purpose it. This at least distances God from the sources of evil, creating the possibility that God could be on our side in the sufferings that beset our lives. In which case we could still feel angry at disasters, but it wouldn’t drive us away from God. However, as we will see, Option 1 is not a simple option.