Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Problem

Call it the problem of evil, the problem of pain, or the problem of suffering. It constitutes the most common argument against the existence of God, the number one reason cited why we should not believe in an omnipotent creator. It is not a new argument, not some recent realization finally articulated. It has always existed, and the problem of evil is one thoughtful believers have always wrestled with. The Psalms are full of such wrestling, the book of Job is a tribute to it. And though the argument is not a new one, it is always being rearticulated, and whenever it is it creates a storm of cyclical debate with it.

I understand the problem. I have to wrestle with it myself. I get why it lies at the center of mankind's rejection of God. But there is something in the argument that I think is deceptive, something often overlooked. It is that thing I want to expose, before offering a response to the argument.

The problem of evil goes something like this: Premise 1: An omnipotent creator is capable of creating  a world free of pain, suffering and evil. Premise 2: A good creator would of course want to create such a world. Premise 3: We live in a world that is obviously plagued with suffering, therefore there is either 1) no creator, or 2) he is not omnipotent, or 3) he is not good.

I readily accept premises 1 and 3. 2, however, is a bit more complicated. Might it not be the case that the existence of some form of pain, evil or suffering might be allowed by God to create the opportunity for some higher good that only the existence of those negative things makes possible? Might there be something even loftier, like redemption, or victory, that is only possible with the existence of ideas like ruin and defeat?

You might not agree- you might say permitting the existence of pain or evil is not worth it. My question though- is it not philosophically possible to imagine that certain goods only exist because of the presence of certain evils? My answer is that yes, certainly that is a logically coherent possibility.

But, you might say, our world has too much pain, too much suffering, and much of it does not fit into the nice box of what we might call redemptive suffering. I would answer that though I sympathize with the argument, it is an emotional one, not a truly logical one. If we accept the premise that some measure of suffering and evil might be necessary to create the opportunity for the highest good, how do we think can determine how much suffering is too much? How might we even begin to judge such a thing?

The true answer would be "because it feels like too much suffering to me." And as I said before, I get that. The issue is that it's just not a philosophical argument, it's an emotional reaction to how we see the world, from our limited human perspective. Let us call it what it is, and dispense with the notion that it is some sort of philosophical disproof of God's existence.

However I do readily admit that, even if it is an emotional, rather than philosophical, stumbling block to faith, it is a very real one nonetheless. So how does the Bible deal with it?

To live a life of faith is to embrace a level of mystery. This is a distinctive feature of faith. Those who would make the spiritual walk one of easy answers and iron-clad certainities are typically in the most danger of putting God into a cage, and themselves and those around them along with him. I will not pretend the Bible lays out a strong, clear explanation of why there exists the measure of suffering that we see around us. It does, however, tell us much about God's character, and where he is in the midst of human suffering.

As with many aspects of the human experience, it comes to a head in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Here we have Christ, God's appointed King, the word of God in human flesh, stepping into our bloody and broken story. He is by no means aloof to suffering. He doesn't offer clean philosophies to help sanitize human pain. He instead is moved with compassion. He weeps with the mourners of Lazarus. He touches the lepers, embraces the outcasts. He sweats blood in Gethsemane, surrenders peacefully to accusers, and proceeds to be beaten to a a pulp. He submits to the cross, the height of everything evil in his day.

In Christ we see a God who is fully compassionate towards our suffering, to an extent that he would join us in it. And then, three days later, he steps out of his grave. If the crucified Christ is God's declaration that "pain is real, and I am alongside you in the midst of it," then the risen Christ proclaims, "but evil will not last forever."

From a different perspective, the Bible would tell us that it is a part of our rebellious nature to accuse God of not being good. Satan, after all, means "the accuser." He is the one who would accuse God before humanity, and accuse humanity before themselves. And yet the point of the cross and the resurrection is that in the end, when we all see God for who he is, we would confess that he is in fact "righteous"- innocent and good in all he is and all he does.

I don't expect the above paragraphs will convince the skeptic. Faith, in the end, is much like love. The perspective of the person in love is vastly different than the perspective of the onlooker who sees two people fawning over each other shamelessly. Christ as God's answer to pain is nonsense to one oustide looking in, but for others, well, it is not merely a philosophical answer that seeks to explain everything, but something much deeper, something far more beautiful and mysterious than that.


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