Douglas Jacoby on Answering Skeptics: Evil & Suffering

Thursday, 24 September 2015 11:34

Douglas JacobyToday and next week, when we conclude our exploration of the problem of suffering, covering three things.

  • First, a look at the origin of evil. We hesitate to allege that God created anything not "good" or "very good" (Gen 1), but if he created all that is, why shouldn't we consider him accountable? That's how many skeptics think.
  • Second, we'll examine three passages commonly used by believers to dismiss or soften the discussion of suffering and evil. They are Rom 8:28, Jer 29:11-14, and 1 Chron 4:9-10 (all things for the good; hope and a future; the "prayer of Jabez"). All three are routinely taken out of context and pressed to support doctrines that simply aren't fully biblical.
  • Last, I'll suggest the biblical purpose of suffering. Warning: If you haven't considered this before, you may not like the answer. (I'm quite sure that many religious leaders find it distasteful.)

1. The Origin of Evil

A natural question occurring to all trying to wrap their heads around God's nature is this: Did he create evil? If he created everything that exists, it's hard to see why he's not the author of evil.

While God might be charged with creating evil indirectly, he cannot be charged with creating evil directly. Those (good) creatures who used their free will to reject the good were the true "creators" of evil. Before sin, evil was only potential, not actual; it didn't yet exist. In the beginning there was God (good), then a creation (very good), including creatures with free will (also good). Their sinful choices (bad) actualized or reified evil.

Yet evil isn't real in the way good is. Evil is an absence of good, as unrighteous actions lack virtue, or goodness. To illustrate, are heat and cold both real? They are not. The molecules in hot air are in rapid motion, and the warm air rises. The molecules in cold air -- lacking thermal energy -- are in low motion. (This also explains why no one pumps cold air into a balloon.) Understood this way, cold is nothing. It's the absence of heat. Similarly, evil is nothing but the absence of good.

Not all suffering is morally evil; some of it is "bad" in terms of being undesirable, unpleasant, or destructive. God doesn't manage all events in the cosmos. This is true even of our lives. As Ecc 9:11 notes, "Time and chance happen to them all." The element of the random, which physicists and biologists understand is essential to life's existence and progress, occasionally leads to birth defects, cancer, or even the hazardous weather often (unfairly) called "acts of God." 

So when a skeptic asks why he should believe in a God who created evil, agree with him: "You shouldn't. But then God didn't create evil." Your friend may concede that most evil and suffering is the consequence of human decisions, but he's bound to ask, "What about tsunamis and volcanic eruptions and wildfires?" Suggest that natural disasters are part and parcel of our world, serving multiple essential functions. If our world weren't so "dangerous," there would be no life. Nor does God usually intervene by changing the laws of nature or insulating us from the consequences of our choices. Could God have created a different world, still conducive to human life -- without natural disasters, without the potential of evil? Apparently not.

Knowing that God is our loving Father, not a moral monster or the author of evil, is vital if we are to serve him wholeheartedly (not holding back) in cruciform living.

2. Three passages we'd better reconsider

Everyone quotes the Bible to support his or her position. Yet citing a passage doesn't provide biblical authority is the passage has been wrested from its context, or twisted into a shape the inspired author never intended.

Romans 8:28 only partly understood

In Rom 8, Paul discussed suffering and persecution (vv.17-1835). When we experience pain or trouble, Rom 8:28 is applied, like a bandage over a cut. Our friends may aim to console us, "It's all for the good," or "God has a plan." The appeal to Romans 8 is usually intended to make us feel better about the pain. We may hear that something really good will happen to outweigh our suffering, or that our financial losses will be reversed, or that God's ways are mysterious, his providence ever protecting us.

There's some truth in such comments, but what about the broader context? In Rom 8:29, God's intention is that we be conformed to the image of his Son. Imagine responding to suffering as Christ did! We might be misrepresented, abused, or physically exhausted. We might be in the crucible, under severe pressure. God's will is that we patiently endure, without bitterness -- and we do!  And how is that to happen? Through the process of suffering. In other words, rather than explaining away suffering, we ought to realize that things may well get worse before they get better (also a major theme in the book of Revelation). It's not so much that the passage has been twisted, as that it's been only partially understood.

Jer 29:11-14 woefully misunderstood

When I first discovered Jer 29:11-14, I was keen to use it to help believers to seek God. "Hope and a future" is just what they want, and need, I thought. How wonderful that God plans to prosper us -- that life will be better if we put him first! 

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