Theodicy: The problem of evil – for beginners

Below are four excellent introductory pictoral videos that introduce the problem of theodicy, and how we can begin to think about it theologically.

No doubt we’ve all heard people say, (rather dismissively as though this is their lifetime study project):  “I don’t believe in God because of all the evil and suffering in the world!”

Heard it all before mate!  If I had a £1 for every time I’d heard this!  As though it’s the Ace in the pack!  “Oh, yep, you got me!  I’m just another delusional Christian living in denial of the evidence!”

As if the absense of evil and suffering would create humble worshippers in their millions!  Hardly.

‘The odd I see’ all around me is the evidence of evil everywhere, not least that which originates in me.  The-od-i-cy or ‘theodicy’ is the way in which theologians have engaged with all this ‘odd’ as they sought to integrate a comprehensive Christian worldview.  To not engage is to not theologise.  Disengagement creates a feeble Christianity that ‘won’t go there’, when Christian theology insists:  Go there you must; there are no off-limits, no out-of-bounds, no secrets, no dirty laundry, no skeletons in the closet of Christian Theology.

P. T. Forsyth’s theodicy is masterful and you can read a brilliant introductory series to it here  or read a comprehensive treatment of it here.

As an aside, though not at all unconnected, in Forsyth’s 1896 book ‘The Charter of the Church’, he writes,

“Culture, aesthetic or even religious, is now the most deadly and subtle enemy of spiritual freedom.  It is the growth of culture in the decay of Gospel that the soul’s freedom has increasingly to dread.  It is there that our Noncomformity is in most danger of being untrue to itself and its mission.  We are suffering.  But it is less from grievance now than from success.  We share a prosperity which is passing through variety of interest, refinement of taste, aesthetic emotion, tender pity, kindly careless catholicity, and over-sweet reasonableness, to leanness of soul.  It is more at home in literature than in Scripture, and in journals more than either.  And it tends to substitute charity and its sympathies for grace and its faith.”

(pg. v-vi)

Here, Forsyth likens suffering as it relates to Christian faith with not suffering, as we would typically understand it.  It is a strange irony that human prosperity inevitably leads to a “leanness of soul”that proves quite deadly to actual biblical faith.  Elsewhere, in Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, he states with his usual eloquent genius, “[Another] vice of the Christian hour is spiritual self-satisfaction, well-to-do-ness, comfort.  The voice of the turtle is heard in the land.”

The Bible is ultra-realistic, even brutal in not allowing humanity to escape to our man-made utopian fantasies of a pain-free future.  This seems to me to prove the point:  Sin is unreality.  The Bible will not let us get away with sloppy thinking or cheap living.  In this way, God uses suffering to force us to face evil and suffering’s reality in Him.

Anyway, I suspect this one subject alone is the greatest need of our time, and possibly the most misunderstood and not-understood.

  1. Evangelism without a working paradigm of theodicy will be just ‘ism’ without the evangel;
  2. Mission that does not articulate theodicy will be superficial;
  3. Preaching that doesn’t begin to adumbrate theodicy is going to be a pleasant time of jokes and story telling that will be forgotten by the time the lukewarm coffee is served;
  4. And ministry that does not address theodicy in the lives of all people will likely lead to a sentimental avoidance of all things nasty (i.e. the stuff we don’t talk about in polite society), in thought, word and deed, a theological dissonance of sophomoric proportions!

People will suffer, and unjustly at that, so it is the task of a robust theodicy to speak into this great big gaping abyss.  For it was of course, into the great big gaping abyss of human sin and rebellion that the Son of God did hang on a tree until all of humanity had been reconciled to him.  Our salvation is the way of suffering.  “Picking up your cross” is not the same as picking up your socks!

These four excellent videos will introduce you to this complex discussion.  They are the creations of a superb educator, and you can visit his YouTube channel here.

The Windy Confidence of Christianity’s Critics

In a book way back in 1992 called ‘Suffering’, Alistair McGrath wrote:

“Some say that nothing could ever be adequate recompense for suffering in this world.  But how do they know?  Have they spoken to anyone who has suffered and subsequently been raised to glory?  Have they been through this experience themselves?

One of the greatest tragedies of much writing about human suffering this century has been its crude use of rhetoric: ‘Nothing can ever compensate for suffering!’ rolls off the tongue with the greatest of ease.  It has a certain oratorical force.  It discourages argument.  It suggests that what has been said represents the distillation of human wisdom on the subject, and is so evidently correct that it does not require justification.  It implies that anyone who disagrees is a fool.  But how do they know nothing can compensate for suffering?

Paul believed passionately that the sufferings of the present life would be outweighed by the glory that is to come (Rom. 8:18).  How do they know that he is wrong, and that they are right?  Have they tasted the glory of the life to come, so that they can make the comparrison?  Have they talked to others who have been through the bitter experience of suffering and death, and have been caught up in the risen and glorious life of Christ, and asked them how they now feel about their past suffering?

No.

Of course they haven’t.

The simple truth is that this confident assertion of the critics of Christianity is just so much whistling in the wind.  Their comments are made from our side of the veil which separates history from eternity.”

p.96-97

Choosing Life in Suffering

cryingfaceOne of life’s great questions centres not on what happens to us, but how we will live in and through whatever happens.  We cannot change most circumstances in our lives.  I am white, middle class, and I have a good education.  I have not always made conscious decisions about these things.

Very little of what I have lived, in fact, has to do with what I have decided – whom I have known, where I came into the world, what personality tendencies have taken hold.

Our choice, then, often revolves around not what has happened or will happen to us, but how we will relate to life’s turns and circumstances.  Put another way:  Will I relate to my life resentfully or gratefully?

Think of this example:  You and I have crashed into one another on the road.  For me it might create not only serious injury, but also bitter resentfulness.  I may drag through life, saying, “The accident changed everything.  Now I am broken and life is hard.”  You may suffer the same hardship, but say, “Might this moment serve as a call to another way of life?  Might it be an opportunity to master something new, a chance to make my brokenness serve as a witness to others?”

The losses may be non-negotiable.  But we have a choice:  How do we live these losses?  We are called time and again to discover God’s Spirit at work within our lives, within us, amid even the dark moments.  We are invited to choose life.  A key in understanding suffering has to do with our not rebelling at the inconveniences and pains life presents to us.

 

Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, p.12-13

Poverty and Wealth: A Psychiatrists assessment

Poor Little Rich Kid 2006

Many of the 1960’s civil rights workers Robert Coles consulted in his psychiatric research came from middle-class families.  Their parents nagged the kids about getting a real job and making something of themselves.  One of them responded to his mother’s concerned prayers over him: ‘I wonder what Jesus said, listening to her prayers!  I felt like writing her back and asking her if Jesus ever held “a regular job” – or ever “found himself”.  Jesus, the migrant preacher, who became so unpopular and disturbing to everyone big and important that He got crucified.

Working with the poor and oppressed, Coles marvelled over how much their lives resembled the lives of the prophets and Jesus himself.  Perhaps that was why they found solace in religion, and why the sophisticated reviews of society so studiously ignored what they had to say about it.  Middle-class churches tend to be sweet, soothing and inoffensive, their worship services predictable and controlled.  Coles himself, a product of the privileged minority began to wonder about his own resistance to the power of a radical gospel.  He could not avoid the discrepancy between the Bible’s teaching on justice and fairness and the lives privileged people tend to live, marked by greed, competition and status.  What was the gospel’s message to the well off?    What was its message to him?  As Coles explored the mind of the privileged ones, he realised he was exploring his own mind.  To his shame, he found within himself many of the same troubling tendencies.

Comfortable people, he noticed, were apt to have a stunted sense of compassion, more likely to love humanity in general but less likely to love one person in particular.  Did he show compassion?  As a Harvard undergraduate, he recalled with a pang, he had treated the dormitory maid as a lowly servant even while earning As in his ethics course.  What about arrogance?  A physician, he fought the temptation every day; he was, after all, the expert, the healer who had come to help the disadvantaged.  Pride?  He was generous, to be sure, but he had the luxury to be generous.  He had never been in a situation of absolute dependence, the daily state of many poor people. Continue reading “Poverty and Wealth: A Psychiatrists assessment”

God is for us

BARTH

“If we fix our eyes upon the place where the course of the world reaches its lowest point, where its vanity is unmistakable, where its groanings are most bitter and the divine incognito most impenetrable, we shall encounter there – Jesus Christ. . . The transformation of all things occurs where the riddle of human life reaches its culminating point.  The hope of his glory emerges for when nothing but the existentiality of God remains, and he becomes to us the veritable and living God.  He, whom we can apprehend only as against , stands there, for us.”

Karl Barth

Justice in the Middle East

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For too long Christians from the West that have taken the time to visit what is romantically called “The Holy Land” have contributed to a terrible injustice.

They dream of walking where Jesus walked, but all the while, the clock ticks and the coach waits, whilst they, rather ironically, run where Jesus walked.  The Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem.  They go, they rush, they take plenty of pictures, they scurry back onto the bus, and head off to the next place of biblical significance!

When will the madness end?

Continue reading “Justice in the Middle East”

Spiritual Progress through Suffering and Catastrophe

PoppiesinRubble

“Nothing could be farther from the truth than the facile belief that God only manifests Himself in progress, in the improvements of standards of living, in the spread of medicine and reforms of abuses, in the diffusion of organized Christianity.  The reaction from this type of theistic meliorism, which a few years ago had almost completely supplanted the faith of Moses, and Elijah, and Jesus among modern Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, is now sweeping multitudes from their religious moorings.

Real spiritual progress can only be achieved through catastrophe and suffering, reaching new levels of profound catharsis which accompanies major upheavals.  Every such period of mental and physical agony, while the old is being swept away and the new is still unborn, yields different social patterns and deeper spiritual insights.”

William Foxwell Albright in From the Stone Age to Christianity, p.402

Much of contemporary Christianity is absurdly Disney-like when suffering occurs, which it will.  That we confuse peace and joy with the absence of suffering is the complete opposite of biblical faith.   I don’t mean to rant like a buffoon, but too many people are not reading their Bibles, and they’re the ones who ask where God is when suffering hits.  God is in progress I’m sure to some degree, but He is not in it in the way utopian political views are expressed, under the banner of the relentless march and unquestioned triumph of technology in our world – not to mention the pathway paved with gold for science!

Both these Molech-like gods of our age demand more and expect us to ask less.  And yet, these bastard-children of humanist utopian dreams are creating a dystopia of misery in addictions and false beliefs, and they don’t, can’t even answer the question of suffering and evil in an age that has mastered the art of evil, both in rhetoric and practice.

Anyway, I’m off to have the small collection of cancerous cells in my neck cut out.  Praise the Lord for medical science!  Praise the Lord whether or not it works.  Praise the Lord because the Lord is the Lord.  I remember reading this most excellent line, “We do not praise God because He has caused us to triumph, but rather, to praise God is to triumph.”

Joy and peace to you all.

How to Pass a Test 100% Without Knowing All the Answers!

Evil&Suffering

A short post on a BIG problem:

The follower of Jesus does not (nor should not) claim to have all the answers to the perplexities of life, although too many pretend that they do (over-realised eschatology is by definition ‘faking it’ – we would do well to remember Paul said that Christians see through a glass darkly and that we only know “in part”)!

The deepest of all our human questions where our answers are limited is in the areas of evil and pain and suffering.  Personal and national, we remember Egypt, Syria, North Korea, Congo, Nigeria, Libya, the West Bank, Iraq, Afghanistan.  We think about 9/11, Tsunami’s, nuclear accidents, world wars, local wars, curable disease, incurable disease, infant mortality, mindless violence (and mindful violence for that matter)!!

We think about our own contribution to sin and evil and we are perplexed by ourselves – how come we expect to understand what God is doing?  And just because we don’t does not give us license to pretend that we do!  Likewise, neither does not knowing give us a free pass to lazy thinking and sloppy answers.

One way of responding to the plain and honest fact that people, let alone Christians do not know all the answers can be best understood as far as I can see, in a modern day parable: The Parable of the Resistance Fighter.

A parable, incidentally, thought up by Christian Philosopher Basil Mitchell at Oxford when on occasion he felt he was the only one with a real Christian faith among his academic elite colleagues – so this is probably  his personal story in parable form:

Let us say this is WWII in France, and I say to a willing person, “I understand you want to fight in the resistance?  I’m the resistance Leader, we have 2 hours to talk tonight, check out anything you like, ask me any questions, but if you sign on after tonight, you’ll obey me blind, and you’ll often be in the dark.  Sometimes it’s obvious what my instructions are and what I’m doing, sometimes it won’t be.  You may see me in Gestapo uniform arresting your mate, and you won’t know that I’m releasing him later.  You will see me act in ways that seem betray my loyalty and you’ll be convinced at what you saw, but you won’t truly know or understand.  You’ll just have to trust.  That’s what you signed up for!”

And this is precisely the challenge of Christians in a fallen world.  We don’t always know what’s happening, and we often certainly do not know why!

For us to think about in this as Christians, our struggles with sickness, evil and all the rest, there are two fundamental questions:

  1. Is God there?  i.e. does God exist?
  2. What is God like?  i.e. is God good (his character)?

Those who know the answers to that, have the fundamentals as it were.  They can ‘walk in the dark’ like our resistance fighter.  A walk that is by faith and not by sight.  A walk by faith often despite sight!

And for the followers of Jesus, both these questions are answered in him.

Where do we see most strongly that God is there?  In Jesus.

Where do we see most undeniably that God is good?  In Jesus.

That means we know why we trust God, but we still don’t know why God is doing what He’s doing.  And that is of supreme importance.

Think of Abraham when asked by God to do the monstrous act of sacrificing Isaac.  Abraham didn’t know why God asked or why He even desired such a thing, but what Abraham did know was that God is there and God is good.  And his obedience led to Isaac being spared at the last second, and Abraham learned what it meant to trust God in the dark.  And it was credited to him as righteousness!

Paul even says in Gal 3:8 this Abrahamic act of blind-trust was an example of the Gospel being preached.  The Commander tests the resistance fighters.  God tests those who follow him.  You can only pass the test by faith, and it’s the only test you can get 100% in without all the answers!  How cool is that?

But after the war is over the resistance leader happily shares why he did what he did, divulges all the secrets, in the plain light of day.  But here and now, we walk by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.

Brothers and sisters, if you want to know the Supreme Commander of the greatest resistance the world has known, the Commander has won, he has defeated the enemy, the end is in sight, repent of your sins and join the revolution.  That is all you must do.  Repent and believe, and then and only then, like Abraham, obey.

For those who are already enlisted, friends, we know God is there and we know God is good.  We will never know all He does.  Goodness me, I don’t even know why I do all I do!  But I do trust Jesus, the author and perfecter of my faith.

Will you?

Muggeridge on Suffering

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“Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the same time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction.  Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained.

In other words, if it ever were to be possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other medical mumbo jumbo . . . the result would not be to make life delectable, but to make it too banal and trivial to be endurable.  This, of course, is what the Cross signifies.  And it is the Cross, more than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ.”

Malcolm Muggeridge

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