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.

Recovering the Race

“Centuries before the man of Uz had wrestled with the problem of the Almighty’s dealings with men as personalised in his own tragedy.

Now in Christ, Forsyth says, God has givien his answer to Job’s demand that he should vindicate his ways with men.

His answer is in a person who is in history yet above it.

The answer is not a mere revelation; it is a redeptive act and a moral victory which has in principle recovered the race.

The Vindicator has stood on the earth.  He is Christ crucified, risen and regnant, the eternal Son of God.

In his work the dread knot created by God’s holiness and man’s sin and drawn into a tight ‘snarl’ by mankind’s misuse of its God-given freedom, has been undone.

And God’s undoing of it in his Son’s cross provides the key to all his dealings with men, as it gives us his master-clue to his final destiny for the world and the race – a moral sovereignty without end, a recreated humanity, and a consummation of all things in the eternal kingdom of God.”

P. T. Forsyth, Per Crucem ad Lucem, by A. M. Hunter, pg.112

yellow flower 2From my garden in 2014 (I think it’s a sunflower)!

How to Listen to Sermons

ear handBooks abound on preaching.  Its art and craft, science and form.  But there is a dearth on how to listen.  Even if sermons have fallen for the old cliche, ‘a monologue by a moron to mutes’, it still begs the question: What of hearing?

Yet Jesus said, “Consider carefully how you listen….” (Luke 8:18).

The preacher has a responsibility to preach faithfully; and the congregation has a collective and personal responsibility to listen faithfully.  Sometimes what we think are ‘bad sermons’ are actually the result of bad listening.  For sure, there are bad sermons out there, no one’s perfect, but how often have we considered our own listening?

 

Continue reading “How to Listen to Sermons”

Resurrection Changes Everything

“Resurrection Changes Everything”

A Sermon: First Sunday after Easter

Luke 23:50-56 & 24:1-12

Resurrection changes everything!
Resurrection grabs the attention like nothing else.
Resuscitation is possibly good news for a brief time;
Resurrection is Good News for eternity.
Resuscitation may bring us back to humanity temporarily;
Resurrection brings us to God for ever.
Resurrection is not resuscitation.
Resurrection is not renovation, regeneration or regurgitation.

Christians are recipients of resurrection:
We know the actual word, probably too well;
We read the Scriptures, probably too quicky;
And we benefit from resurrection, probably (mostly), too carelessly.

Resurrection changes everything!

Continue reading “Resurrection Changes Everything”

Will The Real Christianity Please Stand Up

Two people in two separate situations this week asked me what a Christian believes (I know two is hardly revival but still)!

Both were coming from different places in this regard, both had an axe to grind regarding institutional Christianity, something which, to their great shock and confusion, I agreed with (by-and-large).

three-people-sharing-a-meal-1885A wonderful sketch of three people eating (c) wikiart.org

But where they both responded in a positive way, was in their own ignorance of actual confessing Christianity, and all its glorious forms and versions (and some inglorious) in 2000 years of Church History.  I did refrain from giving a snap-shot of this history, but hopefully this just added some thirst-inducing salt to the wells of curiosity that was now open to them.

As a Baptist (by theological conviction), it will come as no surprise that the Anabaptist tradition has had a significant influence on me.  What I talked through with my two new friends was the 7 Core Convictions of the Anabaptist Network, a statement of faith that is as Biblically Christian as I’ve found anywhere, and as defiant against almost all that we inherently associate with much of contemporary Christianity.

Continue reading “Will The Real Christianity Please Stand Up”

Pathetic Illustrations

“The great appeal of Christianity, from which all else flows, is to the conscience, and, in the actual situation, to the sinful conscience.  It is easy to make any assembly we may address cry with a few pathetic illustrations. . . . But, to follow evil to its inmost cell, to track the holy to the heart of things, to touch the devious and elusive conscience of a world, to rouse, to renew it – that is hard.”

So wrote P. T. Forsyth in ‘Congregationalism and Reunion’ (p. 16).

blueforsyth-5He is addressing the preacher and preaching’s importance.  “With its preaching Christianity stands or falls’ he stated boldly in his Yale lectures (from whence ‘Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind’ was birthed).

What I love about the “great appeal of Christianity”, is the way Forsyth knowingly and quite deliberately mocks the sentimentalism that must have characterised much preaching in his day (as in our day!) – the “pathetic illustrations” designed to provoke tears in the hearer, and heart warming puppy-love towards the speaker/preacher!  When I first read that line, I laughed out loud.  How we see this in our day, and no doubt I may even stand accused myself of such Gospel-mockery – the Lord forgive me!

relating-faithAs Forsyth was, we need these prophetically-empowered, theologically astute voices in our day too – because the problem persists.  One such voice is Anthony Thiselton, Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology at Nottingham University.  In the outstanding book ‘Relating Faith’ (mentioned on this blog before), Dr Rob Knowles, a theologian shaped by the life’s work of Thiselton, we see how “pathetic illustrations” and their ilk, are the mockery of the pulpit and the church:  When Christianity becomes a “mere vehicle of self-affirmation, peer group self-promotion, or triumphalism that espouses a notion of “God” that amounts to a projection of human desires and interests”….we discover “neo-pragmatic pastors who ape chat-show hosts and design their sermons in such a way as to create a pragmatic rhetorical effect and win ‘local’ audience applause.  With every effusion. . . . . greeted with a storm of ready-made applause”, however, “[t]he result is vanity and self-sufficiency” (p. 103).

Pathetic illustrations are designed to accomplish exactly that.

But the challenge from Forsyth is laid plain:  Preaching is to track evil to its heartless and beastly core.  It is to similarly trace to the heart God’s holy things, to expose, to touch, to point out in loving but salvific tones, the devious and elusive conscience of the world.  It is nothing but the hard graft of Gospel proclamation.  And it is hard!

If ever it were easy, I doubt it is being done at all.

preach-the-word

Die sin must or God

Christmas isn’t usually the time to talk about evil, or of Satan’s ultimate destruction, but that is precisely what Christmas, the coming of God in Christ, means.  Evil encompases all the chaos and dysfunction in the world, all the rebellion against God; and God’s salvation means an end to all that, and the return to a new heavenly order of holiness.

The coming of Jesus is God meeting His own requirements for not only sin’s penalty, but the whole moral order of the universe.  It is, in the end, God working to satisfy His own holy Name; and Jesus is the only One who can do that.

P. T. Forsyth wrote in Work of Christ that “An unsatisfied God, a dissatisfied God, would be no God.  He would but reflect the distraction of the world, and so succumb to it.”  Yet holiness must be satisfied, and nothing created can possibly do that.  Similarly, neither can God’s holiness be satisfied whilst any vestiges of unholiness, namely evil (i.e. hell), remain.  The destruction of evil is the fulfilment of God’s unsurpassing reign and joy of His holiness in all the New Creation for all people, everywhere. Isn’t that what 1 Corinthians 15:28 means?  That God will be all in all?  Thus if evil exists, what else does “all in all” mean?

Evil has no future because God is holy.

That means, as we remember the incarnation of the Son of God into the world, we remember and partake of God’s renewing of the whole cosmos to put an end to evil, but not to put an end to rebels, such as we, the human race, are.

Forsyth wrote in a brilliant sermon entitled The Bible Doctrine of Hell and the Unseen,

“If evil is to be permanent in any part of the universe, then God is there foiled and the Cross of Christ of none effect . . . . .So long as evil lasts there will be Hell.  If evil should cease Hell would be burned out.  Now if Christ’s Cross means anything it means the destruction of evil everywhere and forever.  The work of the Cross is not done while there is a single soul unwon to the mastery of Christ and uninfected by His Spirit. . . . If we believe in the Cross then we believe there will come a time when evil shall everywhere cease and sin no longer be.”

Evil has no future because Jesus has come, and remains by His Spirit.

Evil has no future because Jesus has satisfied God’s own holiness.

Evil has no future because God will be all in all.

“Die sin must or God.”  When Jesus was born, sin’s fate was sealed.  When Jesus died, sin was defeated forever.  When Jesus rose from the dead, sin was left behind in the tomb.  When He returns, sin will be erradicated forever.  The New Heaven and New Earth will know no sin.

That’s why we celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas time.

DSC_0082A sunset in South Devon.

Note:  This post was spurred by my reading of the excellent chapter on P. T. Forsyth by Jason Goroncy in ‘All Shall Be Well’ entitled ‘The Final Sanity is Complete Sanctity.’ And also the brilliant collection of Forsyth sermons in Goroncy’s ‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’, which has been mentioned on this blog before.

All shall be wellForsyth.DescendingonHumanity.90702

Have we this Christ?

Forsyth.DescendingonHumanity.90702Another clasic from P. T. Forsyth in his 1908 sermon ‘Christ at the Gate’ (p.252) in Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History edited by Jason Goroncy.

“I know what you are ready to do – to confront me with the irony of existing Christendom.
You may heap up the crimes of the past, and even of the Church.
You may accumulate before my eyes the wrongs, anomalies, and miseries of the present.
You may charge the civilisation of Europe after these two millenniums of Christianity with being little but a veneered paganism.
It may all be too true.
But it is not Christendom that is the religion of Christians. It is the Gospel.
It is not Christians that make the evidence of Christianity, it is Christ.
Christ is the one apologetic.
Have we this Christ?
We certainly have the Church – have we this Christ?
Yea, we have this Christ, else we were no Church.”

Ditch the cliche

forsyth on wallP. T. Forsyth on Facebook here.

As someone said to me recently, “Reading just one Forsyth quote is more than six months in ‘Every Day With Jesus.'”

Disclaimer:  If you were offended by the above, you seriously need to ditch EDWJ and get some more PTF.  My personal view is that one PTF quote is worth at least, I said, at least, six years.

Here’s a taster:

“Prayerlessness is an injustice and a damage to our own soul, and therefore to its history, both in what we do and what we think. The root of all deadly heresy is prayerlessness.”

“What is the value of praying for the poor if all the rest of our time and interest is given only to becoming rich?”

“What really searches us is neither our own introspection, nor God’s law, but it is God’s Gospel, as it pierces us from the merciless mercy of the Cross and the Son unspared for us.”

“The winning of souls, or the leading of souls, often costs the soul.”

And one more……….

forsyth-preaching-redeemed

 

I Love the Bible

cadbury dairy milk marvellous mix-ups with maynards jelliesI love the Bible and I love preaching from the Bible.  Today alone I tried to prepare a sermon for Sunday.  I tried scattered prayer and random reading of various books.  I even ate a bag of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk ‘Marvellous Mix-Ups’ with Maynards (which were freakin delicious by the way), in the hope of some sugar-fuelled divine inspiration.

Until.

Until I opened my Bible and actually began reading the Word of God for itself.

P. T. Forsyth writes that the greatest reason why the preacher must return continually to the Bible is that the Bible is the greatest sermon in the world.

And I agree.  So much value does he place on preaching that he writes that with preaching, “Christianity stands or falls.”  But he adds what I think is a treasure beyond words for the one who preaches, since preaching “is the Gospel prolonging and declaring itself.”  Yes!  With preaching the revealed Word of God, Christianity stands or falls.

The Bible is not nationalist.  Although God’s purposes are worked out through that Old Testament rabble known as “Israel”, God is not a Semite, nor is He a Zionist, nor is he a nationalist – contrary to popular belief – which would be a fair point among some observers of the plight of some parts of Western Evangelicalism.  And for that, a fair critique could be levelled.

But as I said, the Bible is not nationalist, nor is it a history of Israel, but it is a history of redemption.  It is not the history of an idea, but of a long divine act.  Its unity is a dramatic unity of action, rather than an aesthetic unity of structure.  It is a living evolving unity, in a great historic crescendo.

It does not exist like a library in detached departments.  It has an organic and waxing continuity.  It is after all a book.  It is a library, but it is still more a canon.  You may regard it from some points as the crown of literature, for it contains both the question and the answer on which all great literature turns.

It is the book, as Christ is the Person, where the seeking God meets and saves the seeking man.

Bible,open

(with help from P. T. Forsyth and his ‘Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind’)

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