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A Few More Thoughts on Evil & Suffering

Bad stuff happens – cancer, war, floods, fires, racism, betrayal, poverty …

Two questions are often intertwined in the problem of evil.

Why is there evil?

Why doesn’t God do something about it?

The first is answerable. There is a kind of freedom in all of creation. Humans (and, according to the Bible, angelic beings) have the ability to consciously make choices. We (and they) at times make bad choices. Some bad choices are malicious, like invading a peaceful country, designing red-lining laws, or separating children from their immigrant parents.

Other decisions inadvertently cause harm. George Washington’s physicians honestly thought they were helping by bleeding him regularly. Some missionaries sincerely thought they were doing God’s will by replacing indigenous culture with occidental ideals.

Whether accidental or intentional, we humans have created quite a mess. We destroy the environment, produce disease-producing processed foods, oppress women and people of color, alter the climate, create wars, and build injustice into our systems of government, education, and commerce.

In another realm, some angelic beings chose to become forces of evil, the powers and principalities that lie behind much of the greed, selfishness, and hatred in the world.

There is also a form of unconscious freedom built into nature. Viruses are not living – they have no ability to reproduce on their own – but they are life forms that mutate in astonishingly complex ways. Most viruses are beneficial – without them bacteria would take over all life – but others cause pandemics and kill millions. They are not sentient, but make choices to survive.

Why is there evil? Why is there suffering? Choice. Freewill. Evolutionary freedom.

The deeper question concerns God. If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, all powerful and all loving, why doesn’t God step in and keep babies from getting cancer, send some rain to put out the forest fire, or stop the Hitlers, Stalins, and Pol Pots?

That question came to prominence in the 17th century. The Enlightenment brought Deism, the belief that while God exists, God does not intervene. Deists propose an absent God. God created everything like a watchmaker creates a watch, then left it to run on its own.

Enlightenment philosophy maintains that that the Creator has left humans in charge. It is our responsibility to make a better world. The most influential founding fathers of the United States were deists heavily influenced by the Enlightenment.

Deism cuts Jesus out of the picture. Thomas Jefferson took a scissors to the Bible and created his own version, sans anything miraculous. For a deist, Jesus becomes a wise teacher, on the level of Socrates or Confucius, but nothing more. Without realizing it, most Americans operate in an Enlightenment-Deistic mindset. We tend to be steeped in individualism, all about the freedom to do whatever we want to do, and trusting in human advancement to solve problems. Our common view of God is of a God who is “up there,” or “out there” someplace. We pray to a distant deity to zap our loved ones well. Then God can go back to God’s business.

I do not disparage the Enlightenment – it gave us science, medicine, information technology, a deeper understanding of human nature, universal education, and liberal democracy. But it also pushed Jesus aside.

A biblical worldview puts Jesus and the Cross at the center. Everything in the cosmos changed on Good Friday. God in human flesh absorbed all evil into himself. Evil imploded and killed him. In the process, evil destroyed itself, death died, and Jesus rose from the dead. He subsequently poured out the Holy Spirit on all humanity.

By that Spirit, God lives among us, with us, in us. God is here now. Emmanuel. God is not distant, off sitting on a throne in a remote place called heaven. God is with us, which means God is suffering with us.

Where is God when the hospitalized child or the elderly nursing home resident cries in pain? Where is God when the floods sweep away houses and people? Where is God when a powerful nation invades its neighbor?

The answer is that God is right there crying with the one in pain, drowning with the flood victim, grieving with the bereft, sheltering in the subway with the bombed. When we are in pain, God feels it. When we suffer, God suffers. One day, as I was standing at my son’s graveside sobbing, I felt the divine presence. With his arm figuratively around my shoulder, Jesus wept with me. Elliott’s death hurt Jesus as much (perhaps more) than it hurt me.

Jesus is the perfect reflection of God. “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. I and the Father are one.” If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. God weeps with those who weep, is incarcerated with the prisoner, sleeps under the bridge with the homeless, wails with the bereaved parent, feels the same pains as the patient, aches with the hungry. “If you’ve done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.”

The question is not, “Why doesn’t God fix this?” The question is, “Will we join God in making all things new?” Evil in the world is our invitation to do something about it. It is our call to activism, to justice.

That activism can take many forms. I think of the sacrifices of Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Height, Malcom X, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu, Joan Baez, Bayard Rustin, and Mary McLeod Bethune. I think of Jimmy Carter building houses with Habitat for Humanity and Shane Clayborne forging weapons into garden tools. But I also think of James Baldwin and Thomas Merton. We can join God in many ways. We can enter solidarity with those who are suffering by using our individual gifts and talents. Prayer and writing fit me better than marches and vigils, although I applaud both.

Rather than cutting Jesus out of the picture and wondering why an all-power distant God doesn’t fix stuff, we’re invited to enter into solidarity with the suffering and use our personalities and abilities to stand on the side of peace and righteousness against injustice.

Evil is our invitation to do good.


23 August 2022

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