The Problem of Evil: The Suffering Child, the Suffering World, & the Suffering Church

The Problem of Evil

The Suffering Child, the Suffering World, & the Suffering Church 

gfbfgAs I’ve walked with the Lord now for almost a decade, I have had ample time to think and reflect on evil, suffering, and God’s role in the midst of such perceived maladies. I’ve found myself moving away from trite clichés towards more nuanced views concerning the problems. At the beginning, I possessed the typical viewpoint of many people—God blesses those who do good and punishes those who do bad. This belief however has fallen to the wayside because of a close reading of Scripture. My experiences also have led me away from the pristine, Edenic promise of the prosperity preachers to a more Reformed view concerning the nature of God’s work and role in the world. Yet, the problem of evil has always vexed my own heart for its effect in my life and the lives of my loved ones. Though I think there are questions that are left to be answered on the other side of eternity, I have personally found fulfillment in the answers offered by the Christian worldview.

The Suffering Child

When I was a very young child at the age of four, the problem of evil visited my life in a very tangible way. My father’s death from a battle with pancreatic cancer affected the direction of my family’s lives from then onward. Though once a young housewife, my mother courageously worked three jobs to keep her family of three above the line of poverty. We did not have everything but we had what was necessary because of her sacrifice. I remember knowing very early on that it was not supposed to be the way it was. Fathers are supposed to live and subsequently teach their children how to live. Mothers are supposed to be at home more with their children. Children are supposed to grow up without the knowledge that the world was a very dangerous place. The world was not supposed to be the way it was—especially not from the vantage point of a young child.

Little did I know, my father’s passing was only the beginning. It was the first of a line of deaths that made a young son mature and become a young man. One of my best friends growing up abruptly lost her father in a driving accident. A great aunt that I was very close to also wasted away because of breast cancer. The only grandfather I have ever known succumbed to a form of cancer and my grandmother unexpectedly passed away in a hospital bed without her grandkids even knowing she was sick. A friend walked into his college dorm room to never walk out again and my college mentor suffered a heart attack in his office one evening after class. Evil in the form of losing loved ones has always been a part of my experience as a pilgrim in this world. From those painful experiences, I gathered that the world was not safe, life was short, and one day I too could and would die.

fgbfhFrom Christian preaching, I learned that the world in fact was not the way it was supposed to be. The ministers taught me the story of the gospel through teaching me the story of the Bible, a five act play.[1] The Bible opens with a revelation of a transcendent, sovereign and majestic king who speaks things into existence and also a revelation of a God willing to get in the dust and meticulously form and mold his precious people. Act one is about a God who creates for his glory and shares his excellent reputation and plans with his people. The Biblical storyline also contains revelation of a good world gone bad. The stage turns dark as our first parents make decisions that affect all their heirs. They had blessings and opportunities no others could imagine and they went their own way, the way of folly and self-reliance. God’s good world became threatened now with brokenness: Adam and Eve were not at peace within their own skins, they were not at peace with each other, they were not at peace with their creation, and they were not at peace with their covenant God. God however didn’t come down swinging but lovingly provided for them while justly doling out punishment. Act two is about a humanity who says “not your will but my own” to a loving God who remains faithful.

The revelation continues with God working through his people Abraham, Moses, and ultimately Israel to repair and redeem a world clouded with darkness and pain. God called a man to leave his home and become the father of a people who would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. God remained faithful to his promises and created, with the help of Moses, a nation for himself. The goal of Israel was to reflect the kingly goodness of their sovereign God until “… the earth [was] filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” Yet, the tragedy continued- blessings and opportunities were lost when a people decided to go their own way. Act three is about a rag-tag group of priests and kings who fail at their appointed task of bringing humanity back to the garden, and a God who painstakingly forgave, reproved, and worked within his valued world.

erwferfScripture also is a revelation of a good God doing all he could to bring his world back to task and its appointed goal. I learned that God planned from all eternity he would fix the problems created by humanity through the crushing of his own Son. In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. God came himself in the face of Jesus Christ to do what we could not do, to keep a law we could not keep, to die a death we deserved to die, to be raised to life for justification and world in dire need of help, and much more. The climax of the story is the director walking upon stage and entering his beloved play with a plan of redemption, recreation, and glory. Act four is about a God whose humble, servant-like nature leads him to his world to do something that becomes the focal point of all of history and the cosmos itself-die on a dirty, Roman cross outside of Jerusalem for sinners.

Finally, it is a revelation of mission and consummation. Christians find themselves between the ages implementing and spreading the message of God’s triumph, the victory of God over the forces of sin, death, and evil. God’s new creation has been launched upon a surprised world, pointing ahead to the renewal, the redemption, and the rebirth of the entire creation. We go as a community of redeemed people with the gospel message that God has won a decisive battle, has inaugurated a new time and has created a new humanity. Act five is the resolution where, after his agents reach every nation with the gospel, God and man exist in peace for eternity in his renewed world full of wonder, worship, and worthy actions of love and mutual benevolence.

The five-act play storyline (FPS) of the Bible afforded me as a young man with a paradigm to understand the Bible and also my role in the continuing unfolding plan of God, a plan that aims at the end of all evil, death, and pain in this world. I believe that it is the best story ever told and contains an existentially satisfying way to understand why the world is the way it is and what God is doing and has done to mend the problems we caused. This foundational narrative I think contains many of the most meaningful responses to suffering and the problem of evil.

The Suffering World

The problem of evil addressed from God’s redemptive work in the world creates a unique opportunity for evangelism. It is wise to utilize philosophical arguments such as the soul-making theodicy or the free will defense that seek to answer certain objections from evil within the evangelistic endeavor. But, ultimately from my experience, people tend to not have weighty philosophical and intellectual objections to belief in God. They tend to have problems with the following: moral failure, the reality and fear of death, and suffering of many-varied dimensions. The biblical story line addresses these concerns head on.

????????????Humanity recognizes that there’s a standard for which we do not live up to. The guilt existing from this failure is typically intensified because of its negative social effects. The father who does not revere the heavenly Father bears the weight of that guilt but also possibly the weight of his failure to be a good dad to his children. A woman who fails to obey God’s desires for sexual purity may continue down the path of destruction and end up with an unwanted child. This pressing concern contributes to the overall extension of the problem of evil. The FPS addresses this by fulfilling the heart’s deepest desire, rest. The message is not work so God will accept you. The message is the God of the universe came and was crushed so you could have wholeness. God’s “shalom” could be restored to a wavering person who struggles under the pressure of stress caused by moral and spiritual failure.

Since the Fall, death has reigned with triumph over humanity. People fear the great privation of life. One writer noted, “…the fear of death haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.”[2] The ultimate answer to the evil of death is found in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Scripture is clear that the death and resurrection of Christ ruptured wide open the great chasm of death and defeated the enemy with a mortal wound.[3] Even the fear of death has been vanquished through the death of the Son of God (Heb. 2:14-15).

From a common perusal of the nightly news, it is apparent that most evil in the world is caused by human sin and wickedness. Human agents cause a host of the pain and suffering within God’s good world. The FPS offers a convincing reason why this is the case—people carry out atrocious acts because they have a heart that is not right.[4] Because of this, the vast majority of wickedness and pain is not God’s fault. It is to be laid at the feet of a disobedient and obstinate people.[5] The FPS is not just a story; it is a promise. For anyone that would have it, God offers a new heart and a new way of living that is better not only for you but for those you constantly seem to offend and hurt (John 1:11-12; Acts 2:37-38, 3:19, 5:31, 20:21; Rom. 2:4;  2 Cor. 7:10; Matt. 11:28-30; Rev. 22:17). Hurt people hurt people. The message of Christianity contains within it the power to stay the tides of the mass evil within our world through the power of the Spirit. The Gospel answers in some sense some of the existential and emotional quandaries the problem of evil creates. Though suffering ultimately brings with it manifold inexplicable questions and concerns, Christianity provides resources for understanding some aspects of why people suffer and also tools to face suffering with hope and courage.[6]

The Suffering Church

I’ve had many questions and comments concerning evil, suffering, and death within my short time of ministry. Though suffering creates strain within the Christian worldview, it ultimately is not a holistic defeater for the system. In fact, within the Christian tradition, suffering takes on a very pivotal role for faith. Suffering will not only eventually be completely eradicated with the promised resurrection of all things, it also served as the means for which its annihilation was procured. Through the death of Christ, suffering and evil gained their death sentence (Col. 2:15; 1 Cor. 15:50-58). Furthermore, far from standing aloof, the Christian God intimately takes on evil and ultimately lets it “defeat” him. Jesus can understand and appreciate our suffering from great evil because he faced the greatest evil himself.God promises to save us not from suffering but through and in suffering. Biblical scholar N.T. Wright said:

fgvdsWe can and must only tell the story in terms of the God who is with his people in the midst of the mighty waters: the God who was swept off his feet and out to sea, the God who lost his parents and family, the God who was crushed under falling concrete and buried in mud. And then we have to learn to tell the story, as well, in terms of the God who rescued others while not saving himself; the God who worked night and day to recover bodies and some still alive; the God who rushed to the scene with all the help he can muster; the God who gave not only generously but lavishly to help the relief effort. Truly, if we believe in Matthew’s God, the Emmanuel, we must learn to see God in that way. Remember that when Jesus died the earth shook and the rocks were torn in pieces, while the sky darkened at noon. God the creator will not always save us from these dark forces, but he will save us in them, being with us in the darkness and promising us, always promising us, that the new creation which began at Easter will one day be complete, and that with that completion there will be full healing, full understanding, full reconciliation, full consolation.[7]

Such knowledge emboldens the sufferer to cling closer to their Maker. Suffering many times does not hinder the spreading and propagation of Christianity; it furthers it. We may suffer, but in the midst of our pain, we can be encouraged that God is extending his kingdom through us and has a purpose for everything within his world. It is necessary for believers to pass through ordained sufferings and then enter glory, just as it was “necessary that the Christ should suffer…and enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26). Suffering deepens faith (Heb. 12:10; 2 Cor. 1:8-9), increases our spiritual and eternal benefits (2 Cor. 4:17-18; Matt. 5:11-12), makes other believers more bold in their proclamation (Phil. 1:14), aligns us with the passion of Christ (Col. 1:24), extends our missionary reach (Acts 1:8, 8:1, 11:19), and magnifies the power and presence of Christ ( 2 Cor. 1:9, 12:9-10).[8] God promises that all things work together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). Recognizing that he turns and works evil towards his own ends frees believer’s up from a crisis of faith where they potentially doubt his power, love, or even his goodness. The God who is over and controls all things also says to the believer that he ever rejoices over them promising to always do them good (Zeph. 3:17; Jer. 32:40-41).

Because of the Gospel message, I found myself as a recipient of God’s transformative love that presented me with my heart’s deepest desire, a father. I also was presented with a holistic message concerning the way things are that is existential fulfilling, logically consistent, and empirically adequate. While not downgrading the great value and use of apologetics and philosophy, I believe the problem of evil is best addressed from various angles within my own life, within evangelism, and within ministry to the Church with the overall narrative of Scripture, the message of the Gospel.

[1] Much of the following information is from Austin DeArmond, “Biblically Grounded?.” Austin’s Blog | Washed and Waiting for the Resurrection. Blogging until that Day.. (accessed April 18, 2013).

[2]Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death. (New York, NY.: Free Press, 1973), xvii.

[3] Gen. 3:17-19; Dan. 12:3; 1 Cor. 15; 2 Cor 4:14, .5:8, 6:14; Phil. 1:21-23, 2:27, 3:20 ; Rev. 14:13; Rom. 5, 8:38-40; Acts 8:2, 20:37-38, 24:15; 2 Sam. 1:11-27; John 5:29, 11:35; Psa. 116:15; 1 Thess. 4:13-18

[4] Gen. 6:5-6, 8:21; 1 Kings 8:46; Psa. 14:1-3, 51:5, 58:3, 130:3, 143:2; Ecc. 7:20, 9:3; Isa. 53:6, 64:6; Jer. 17:9; Luke 11:3; John 5:42; Rom. 1:29-32, 3:9-23; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 2:1-3, 4:17-19; 1 John 1:8, 10, 5:19

[5] Christopher J.H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2008), 31.

[6]Timothy J. Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. (New York, NY.: Dutton, 2008), 25-28.

[7] N.T. Wright, “God, Tsunami, and the New Problem of Evil.” Response: The Seattle Pacific University Magazine | Seattle Pacific University. (accessed April 18, 2013).

[8] John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad!: The Supremacy of God in Missions. 1st ed. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 1993), 87-103.


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