evil

GCengage: If God is so good, why are his people so bad?

There is a growing question in our culture: why do God’s people do so many bad things in his name?  Christopher Hitchens wrote the book that captured the overall sentiment ( God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything), but plenty of other voices have chimed in. How do we respond in a way that is both truthful and kind?

First, we need to own up to the fact that Christians are capable of hurtful, mean, hypocritical and even evil actions. Scott Smith calls this The Problem of People. We see them on the news constantly: Westboro Baptist picketers, TV preachers who make thoughtless comments, pastors who preach purity while carrying on affairs, churches that cover up scandals. It may even be the Christian neighbor who talks about controversial social issues without compassion. It may be us. No matter the situation, it's a problem that must be acknowledged humbly.

Second, it’s important to remember that this behavior contradicts the life and teaching of Christ. Read the Gospels and see if Jesus modeled any of this. Our goal is to be like Jesus, not his frail followers. Our claim is that Christianity is true, even though some people treat it casually or distort it for their own goals. Christianity, if followed sincerely, should not lead to wrongdoing. 

Third, as frustrating as the problem is, Christians are not the only ones who have to answer for behavioral problems. Bad people are everywhere. Every group has representatives that embarrass the rest. Every movement has people or situations that don’t reflect the stated ideals of the organization. PETA euthanizes animals; environmentalist spokespeople hypocritically pollute. Christians don’t claim that Christ removes our humanity when we commit to him; our claim is that he is helping to make us better people than we could be on our own. The question is not if every Christian lives consistently. They clearly don’t. The question is if Christianity is true. Christianity should be judged based on what it claims to be true and how it challenges us to live, not on how some followers undermine the goals.

Fourth, the teaching of the Bible and the example of Jesus provide a standard of moral conduct. It’s one reason we agree with skeptics that unjustified violence, hypocrisy, and meanness are wrong. Jesus said that all God’s laws were accomplished by loving God and our neighbor. He told parables about Good Samaritans and the Prodigal Sons. He lived a life that was above reproach. If we are truly following Christ, our lives should reflect our allegiance.

The Bible claims that if we take Jesus seriously, we can be changed because of his death and resurrection. F.F. Bruce said, “Those who have been justified (saved from the penalty of sin) are now being sanctified (freed from the power of sin). However, if we don’t take Jesus seriously, there is no reason to believe we will feel this transformative impact. Jesus used a farming analogy when he said that his followers would be recognized by their fruit. Bruce went on to say, “Those who have no experience of present sanctification have no reason to suppose they have been justified.” 

No belief system ought to be judged by people who abuse it or refuse to take it seriously. We need to acknowledge the behavior of unChrist-like Christians, but remember that the duplicity of some does not mean the truth claims of Christianity or the person of Christ are in some way falsified. 

Read the previous post in this series

 GCengage: Do Pain and Evil Disprove God?

GCengage: Do Pain and Evil Disprove God? (A New Testament Perspective)

Scripture never assumes that God must explain to us why He brings about or permits the things  He does (read Job, for example). However, the New Testament writers spend quite a bit of time talking with the early church about how to understand how God uses the presence of pain and suffering in the world to bring about good in His Kingdom.

 Paul writes a lot about the intersection of life with God in the midst of suffering. He was certainly qualified:

“To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless.  And we labor, working with our own hands.  Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat.  We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now” (1 Corinthians 4:11-13).

As we read Paul's letters in the New Testament, we see a number of principles unfold. Paul does not ask, "Why?!" Paul simply assumes that in this world we will have trouble; he was looking for they ways in which Christ helps us to overcome the worst the world can throw our way. 

God uses pain to build our character.

  • “…tribulations work patience, and patience experience, and experience hope” (Romans 5:3-4).  
  • God used Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12), to fight pride and self-sufficiency,
  • Peter talked about the “genuineness of faith” as it is “tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:7)

Suffering molds us more into the image of God. In order for us to experience patience, compassion, mercy, grace, and sacrificial love—both to see them in God and develop them in ourselves—don’t we have to experience evil and suffering? How could it be otherwise? These attributes, once developed, can last forever—long after evil has disappeared. 

 God uses pain to develop a desire for relationships with God and others.  

  • Jesus “withdrew to a lonely place” to mourn a loss (John 11:34), was filled with anguish (Matthew 26:38), and was acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).  Perhaps that is why Psalm 34:18 says he is “near to the brokenhearted.”  He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7) because he has been there.
  • Paul said his suffering was “for the sake of the body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).  They enabled him to “comfort those who are in trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
  • Our suffering enables us to more fully “bear another’s burdens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).  

 Phillip Yancey has noted that asking  “Where is God?” is not as important as asking, “Where is the church when it hurts?” This is a great question. If the church carried out its mission effectively, people would probably not be asking this question of God quite so much. Our pain in broken world should be met with the comfort of Christ and His people.

 God uses pain to help us focus on the life to come.  

  • “Do not lose heart,” said Paul, “for our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but the things which are not seen.  For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
  • “Our present suffering are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).

 Suffering reminds us of life’s brevity and our closing window of opportunity to get right with our Creator.  Hardship can help us to trust God  in ways we are not prone to do when life is smooth and easy. One day, God will wipe all tears from our eyes; one day, there will be no more sickness, sorrow, or death. One day, we can experience life in its fullness. When creation groans, we long for redemption.

God uses pain to “make known the riches of His glory” (Romans 9:23; 2 Corinthians 4:7).  

  • After Joseph was sold into slavery, he told his brothers years later, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:19-20).
  • Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works together for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  

 This is not saying that God makes bad things happens so he can show up and be amazing. As both Joseph and Paul note, God's glory is seen when He is able to bring beauty from the ashes of our circumstances. 

Jesus’ Death and Resurrection show His love and power (Romans 9:23; 2 Corinthians 4:7).  

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only son, so that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but will have eternal life. For God did not send His son into the world to condemn, the world, but to save it.” (John 3:16-17).

We see in two verses the response to those who questions God's love, power or knowledge.  Because God is love, He is willing to endure the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of the world.  Because He's omnipotent, he can save the entire world, offering a total and complete redemption. Because He is omniscient, He knows what it will take to give us new life now and eternal life in the future.

Though God has revealed a tremendous amount of His character and wisdom, by no means can we expect to grasp the depth or immensity of the ways of God on this side of Heaven.  The potential goodness of specific instances of pain may not seem easily matched to the reasons listed above, and one should not expect them all to be.  However, we have hope that one day they will be understood.   

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part, then I will know fully” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

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Recommended Resources:

Intellectuals Don’t Need God, by Alister McGrath

The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis.

Evidence for God, edited by William Dembski and Michael Licona.

Where Is God When It Hurts? Phillip Yancey

“A Good Reason for Evil,” by Greg Koukl.

“No Other Name: A Middle Knowledge Perspective on the Exclusivity of Salvation Through Christ,” by William Lane Craig.

“Do Evil and Suffering Disprove the Existence of God?” by Michael Horner.

GCengage: Do Pain and Evil Disprove God? (Three Talking Points)

(Read Part One: Do Pain and Evil Disprove God? Two Skeptical Challenges) 

#1 Everyone has to deal with the problem of evil

Everyone seems to agree: something has gone horribly wrong. Existence could be different; maybe it even ought to be different. Wherever we look in the world, and in every corner of the past we find suffering, and we don’t like it. In other words, the problem of evil is a universal human issue. Christians are often challenged with the presence of evil, but we are not the only ones who need to give an answer.

If we leave God and accept atheism, has our problem gone away? Not at all! In this case, evil, pain and suffering still exist, and we still don’t know why! Well-known philosopher Bertrand Russell famously said, “No one can sit at the bedside of a dying child and still believe in God.” This is an understandably difficult situation. But William Lane Craig has some questions of his own. He asked:

“What is Bertrand Russell going to say when he is kneeling at the bed of a dying child?" … 'Tough luck? Too bad? That’s the way it goes? That’s all that’s left for him...'  You see, as an atheist, Russell has nothing to offer. Because if there is no God then we are trapped in a world filled with senseless and unreadable suffering with absolutely no hope from deliverance of evil.”

Atheism does not provide an answer to the problem; it merely eliminates one of the solutions. Children still die, forests still burn, and hurricanes still destroy. Atheism doesn’t remove suffering; it merely removes hope.

 Eastern religions believe that pain and suffering are illusory. They don’t exist. We’re just floating in the Matrix and merely have perceptions of pain and suffering. Their answer is to ignore it because it isn’t real. That hardly sounds helpful. Anyone who has experienced pain and suffering knows how absolutely real it is. Can you imagine telling the parent of a dying child that their child only appeared to be in pain? 

 Humanity is presented with what often looks like a long, dark tunnel. Atheism asks us to accept the tunnel. Eastern religions tell us that the tunnel may seem dark, but it isn’t real. Christianity admits that he tunnel is sometimes dark, but there is a light at the end. The tunnel is real, but it is not permanent. It can be painful, but it will end – and in the meantime we are not alone. In short, Christianity offers one thing no other worldview can: hope.

#2 Natural forces are not evil.

In the Christian worldview, God set up the world – and it was good. Since then, entropy has taken over. Everything dies. Iron rusts. People age.  So we have this tension: we live in a world that is both beautiful and broken. Both these states occur through the simple unfolding of natural events in a very complex world. This hardly makes the events themselves evil.  For example, trees, picnic tables, computers, guns, money, and bicycles are neither good nor bad – they just are. However, the events which they precipitate can be experience in very different ways. If a tree falls, is that good or bad? I suppose that depends on whether I wanted firewood or shade. Is rain good or bad? That depends on whether I am camping or farming.

These are minor example, but many things we call “acts of God” are simply a description of the natural order unfolding on a much larger scale. Natural disasters can be emotionally devastating because people are effected by them. We grieve the impact on those we love, as we should. We do our best to prepared for natural calamities. These response are clearly appropriate, but the condemnation of the God behind the creation of the world is more of a stretch. After all, the same forces that bring suffering are the ones that bring about astonishing beauty. Think about the following…

  • Is it possible to make electricity that does not electrocute?

  • Is it possible to have a system of plate tectonics without the possibility of earthquakes and sinkholes?

  • Can you have water without the possibility of drowning?

  • Can you have wind without the possibility of tornados?

  • Can you have oceans without occasional hurricanes?

  • Can you have gravity without the possibility of falling?

  • Can you have fire that burns wood in fire pits but not homes?

The God of cyclones is also the God of sunsets. In both instances, God created a world in which the wildly creative potential of the habitat would not be possible if it did not contain within it the possibility of incredible destruction as well. 

#3 We need to understand the nature of God’s Will

Is God responsible, then, when tragedies happen? Was it His will? If we are to understand what we (or others0 mean when talking about God's will for life, we need to understand two aspects of God’s will: things he commands and things he desires.

 God commanded the universe into being. Nothing could oppose him. God commanded his incarnation, death and resurrection, and no one could stop it. The fancy name for this is God’s decretive will (He decrees it).

 The other category of God’s will is his desires. He doesn’t want anyone to sin. It is not his will that any should perish. He has given us instructions that explain what we should and should not do. This is called God’s prescriptive will (he prescribes, like a doctor prescribes medicine). 

Command (Decretive Will)                                        Desire (Prescriptive Will)

God decrees it; it will happen.                                         God prescribed it; it should happen

We don't need to understand                                           We are helped to understand

Plans that can't  be thwarted                                           Instructions that can be thwarted

God's sovereignty  causes them to happen.                    God's restraint allows them to happen.

God caused the universe to begin to exist (decretive will), but he allows history to unfold in a cause/effect reality (prescriptive will). God caused people to be created in His image; He permits them to exercise free will. The unfolding of natural events and the consequences of our bad choices have impacted us from their inception. This is what we would expect in a meaningful world. 

GCengage: Do Pain and Evil Disprove God? (Two Skeptical Challenges)

The problem of suffering and pain in a world that the theist claims has been created by an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God has long been a flashpoint in the debate surrounding God’s nature and existence. The argument about the mere presence of evil pushes the limits of human history (i.e. Job), but the escalated horrors of the 20th century, specifically the Holocaust, have brought the debate about the magnitude of the problem to the forefront now more than ever. Interestingly, the problem of pain was not a serious threat to Christian thought until the last several centuries; suffering has only recently been seen as a ground for final skepticism rather than an incentive for inquiry. 

Christian theologians have responded in a number of ways. In the next post, we will look more closely at three important talking points when having this conversation. In the final post, we will look at how the Apostle Paul dealt with the suffering in his own life. In this post, we will look at two logical challenges that highlight the Problem of Evil.

Two Skeptical Challenges

The Logical Problem of Evil: God and evil are logically incompatible.

Critics of Christianity have dealt with this a few different ways. One is to say that if God is all-knowing, this wouldn’t have happened. If he was all-powerful, he could prevent it. And if he was all-loving, nothing would keep him from doing so.

 In response, Christians typically talk about free will. The Free Will defender argues that it was good for God to create people who had genuine choices. Humans were created to be able to make ethical choices in a morally significant way, and this ability makes this world more valuable than a world that does not contain free action. 

Much of the suffering in this life is our own making, either directly or indirectly, and the only way God could prevent us or our ancestors from disrupting the order he created would be to take away our free will. We have a dilemma. Which is more important: risky freedom or coerced happiness? A world in which nothing we do matters because there are no consequences, or a world in which everything we do matters, sometimes to the extreme, precisely because there are consequences?

 Though this is a complex subject with a rich history of debate, few philosophers today see the Logical Problem of Evil as a valid argument against God’s existence.

The Evidential Problem: There is so much evil that God’s existence is unlikely.

While the logical approach said that God and evil could not exist simultaneously, the evidential problem looks at the fact that it sure seems like God would fix things – especially the things that humans don’t seem to have caused. Why do animals die in forest fires? Why do babies get sick and sometimes die? If there were a God who loved us, he would not allow unexplainable and meaningless suffering.  

Philosopher William Rowe stated the argument along these lines: 

  1. If there are times of gratuitous suffering which an all-powerful, all-knowing, completely good being could and would prevent, then this being (the Christian God) does not exist. 
  2. These times clearly happen. 
  3. Therefore, the Christian God does not exist

 

G.E. Moore provided a response to Rowe’s logically phrased argument:

  1. If there are times of gratuitous suffering which an all-powerful, all-knowing, completely good being could and would prevent, God does not exist.
  2. God does exist.
  3. Therefore, there are no times of gratuitous suffering.

 

If there is a God who loves us, the suffering we see is not without explanation or meaning. Maybe God exists and he allows things to happen that we don’t like or understand. This doesn’t mean there is no God. At most, the problem of evil is not an attack on God’s existence, but an attack on his character.

The Christian worldview claims that we live in a world with an overwhelming, intrinsic good (Free Will) that and gives it worth in spite of the pain that accompanies it. It is a legitimate answer for the skeptic who thinks this is a challenge to God’s existence.