The Problem of Evil

To conclude my series of blog posts with an apologetic theme, this post will wrestle with one of the classic objections to the Christian faith, the Problem of Evil. It can be stated as follows:

If God is all-powerful and all-good, there would not be evil and suffering in the world.

There is evil and suffering in the world; therefore, God is either not all-powerful, not all-good, or non-existent.

This argument is probably the most compelling argument I have heard and most people I have engaged with seem to find their biggest issues with Christianity here. I think this is because we are hurting and something in us knows that the world is not how it ought to be. Even if you believe in Christianity, you must answer this objection. First, I will layout the philosophical answer to the problem of evil and then I will give the uniquely Christian answer to this problem.

Imagine a perfect world where no-one ever does anything wrong… Did you come up with an image? If you did, it was probably grey, sterile or even boring and oddly futuristic. Maybe that’s not what you thought of, but because of our over-saturation of dystopian films and literature, we are often given a view of the issue that occurs when someone in power tries to eliminate all evil and suffering from the world. Equilibrium, Divergent, 1984, and even Avengers: Age of Ultron or Captain America: Winter Soldier are wrestling with the trade off between eliminating suffering and eliminating freedom. The focus of the debate on the problem of evil has always been whether God could, in His infinite power, create a world where evil did not exist but freedom of choice did exist. It truly seems impossible for such a world to exist. It seems that in order for human beings to have the ability to choose to live by love, they have to have the ability to reject the same. If God were to have created the world without that freedom, then we would be robots following our programming and functioning well, but we would not be humans loving well and creating community. While this is a much-repeated response, it seems to solve the philosophical dilemma. God is all-powerful and all-good. In his goodness and power, he created humans with an ability to choose freely (thus choosing to limit his power by his goodness) and God is constantly drawing humanity towards himself and towards love. This may seem like a sterile philosophical answer that does not go into the depths of suffering, but the next section of the blog will explore the uniquely Christian response that does not shy away from this tension.

Every worldview wrestles with the problem of evil. Some Buddhists claim that suffering is illusion, Hinduism claims that suffering is the result of Kharma, Muslims claim that God is ineffable and unquestionable in his absolute power but also balances his own scales of justice, Secular Humanists claim that innovation and progress will free us from incorrect thinking or the imbalance of power, Naturalists really have no grounding for what evil is but tend to cry out against injustice all the same. Amidst thousands of answers, Christianity tells the most compelling story in response to evil in the world.

God created the world and it was beautiful and good. He created humans and they were very good. Humans, in their freedom, chose pride and control over relationship with God. Since that point, God has been pursuing humanity throughout the ages. First he spoke to a small backwards tribe, the Hebrews, and constantly met them in their evolving understanding of God and the world. His message was communicated in poetry and power, in beauty and story and it was always an invitation to return to God. Instead, they chose to kill the prophets he sent and worship other gods (gods of power, money, and debauchery). The Hebrews were a microcosm of the problem with humanity in the entire world. We all needed healing from the cultural, systemic sin that demanded sacrifice and violence. Rene Girard spoke of the mimetic desire that describes human tribe’s need to find a scapegoat for their own guilt and difficulties in life. There is a famine, sacrifice a virgin. There is a murder, kill the murderer. A woman will not have you, take her anyways. There is a land dispute, go to war. Always moving towards violence instead of relationship with the Creator and the Created. Throughout all of this, God kept calling the Hebrews towards the beautiful and the good. He still saw the beauty that humanity could be and create. The world was broken but good and man would occasionally respond to challenges with singular acts of love and beauty. Yet still the cycle of violence and hatred remained.

Finally, at the time when his message could be heard and spread, Jesus came and entered into our suffering. God, the God of the universe, did not shun the world that was marked by suffering and evil. He dined with sinners and healed lepers. He lost loved ones to death and he experienced betrayal. God-as-man was tempted in every way as we are, but Jesus resisted and learned obedience through what he suffered. The uniquely Christian answer, and the one answer that truly gets to the core of the problem, is that God took upon himself the pain and suffering of us all. We demanded sacrifice, He provided the Lamb. All of our brokenness and systemic sin took Love personified and nailed him to the cross. God did not demand Jesus’ death, we did. God did not fear our darkness, he entered into it and the light overcame that darkness. Jesus entered into the depths of Hades and returned victorious over death.

He then returned to the close friends he had invested in (because it’s always a relational transformation) and empowered them with the knowledge and peace of the risen Christ. God’s answer to evil was submission to the effects of evil and victory through that submission. He then began with a small group of Hebrew fisherman and transformed the world by their lived message. Many of them were persecuted and killed, again conquering evil by giving themselves up in love. “Greater love has no man then he that lays down his life for his friends.” So when we consider the philosophical problem of evil and are faced with the reality of evil and suffering in our lives, God has an answer and it is Jesus. Because of Him we can be transformed into people who are free from systemic sin and healed from brokenness. A people transformed conquering the world through love and not violence. A people who do not have to fear injustice or even death, but can embrace all men through the power of the resurrection. The problem of evil has been answered, the challenge for Christians is to be a part of the solution.

Moment of Surrender


There once was a man who flew to Rome to meet Jesus. He had been told my a close friend that Jesus wanted to meet him there. When he got there he skipped the tourist sites and went to a basement chapel in one of those storied cathedrals. As he walked towards the altar he saw a man kneeling in the dust in unremarkable clothing. Jesus knelt before him and despite his promises not to ask anything stupid, the man asked, “What are you doing?” “Praying,” Jesus replied. “For what?” the man asked. “I gave man free will and I will never take that away, but I pray always that the hearts of man would be surrendered to my will.”

The most powerful moments in the Bible are characterized by the weakness of surrender. Abraham who surrendered his comfortable life to become a nomad with a promise. Moses who left his dessert home to return to certain death in Egypt as a prophet declaring freedom without hope of success. David who was so surrendered to God’s will that he would not kill Saul even as Saul hunted him. Mary who said let it be, disregarding the scandal and death that might await her if she was found to be pregnant. The ultimate moment of surrender as Jesus prayed, “Father not my will but thine,” in a garden; the very opposite of the first sin in the Garden.

The first sin of man was to reject God’s will, not to surrender. Ever since then, the battle for men’s hearts has been fought with the goal of surrender. The mystery of Christianity is that our surrender does not lead to the abolishment of identity or efficacy, in fact it leads to the very opposite. We surrender to God and become more truly ourselves. We surrender to God’s will and find ourselves more in control of ourselves than ever before.

Nevertheless, we continue to seek control in our lives. We are an anxious and striving people. We find the illusion of control in many ways. We try to get money which symbolizes the power to control our lives. We buy shiny things to distract ourselves from the lie. We build ourselves little kingdoms which are characterized by addictions, escapes from reality, self-loathing, or a false sense of holiness. The call of Jesus denies all these things. Our plans for our lives, our guarantees of success, our dependence on substance abuse, our media-insulated isolation… all of these things are obstacles in the way of surrender. Bonhoeffer writes that the call of Jesus can be summarized, “Come and die.” Everything in our fallen outlook screams at us to run from this invitation and clean to our false sense of control.

The lie is shown in the reaction that follows excess, the emptiness that succeeds our attempts at self-fulfillment. “There is a God-shaped hole in the heart of every man.” That moment of emptiness is when the call can be heard. “Pain is God’s megaphone to an unhearing world.” That is why Jesus says, “It is harder for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven…” When we fill ourselves with the shadows of God’s goodness, the earthly things that fade, we cause ourselves to believe in our own control, our own sufficiency apart from God. When that rug is torn out from under us we have two responses before us: we can proclaim all is meaningless and eventually cycle back into the illusion of control (whether through suicide or less extreme sedative) or we can embrace the moment of surrender. The invitation is always there, He stands at the door and knocks. It is an invitation into a “condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.”

The most powerful moments in history are when humans give back the gift of free will and find themselves truly free. God is always calling us to give up that thing that we need to be happy, that thing that you cannot live without. That is why it is a call to die, a call to die and experience resurrection. The result is love, joy, and peace if we will only let go. We need the moments of surrender, because it is only in our weakness that Christ can be strong in us.

Maranatha

Cruciform

In Power
Dead walking
Dry bones crying out
Nations bowing
Light dawning
Oceans roaring
Mountains crumbling
Life exploding
Blinding, and giving, sight
Unfettering captives
Freedom trumpeting
Fleeing sorrows
Jericho’s walls
Hell’s gates
Blown to bits by the Song

In Truth
Lived, touched, indwelt
Communicated at the KeyThat sets free
Written in trembling fear
Or joy or excitement or revelation
Truth reveived
Like arriving at a place you always knew but never visited
Like seed poking through soil with first tender shoots
Like a glimpse of something at the edge of perception
Gone upon further inspection
Transforming nevertheless
Gentle truth
That double-edged sword
That pierces and cuts and liberates and expands

In Beauty
Seen, heard, recalled, discovered, realized
The back door
Reality peeking into our grey worldBreathless
Felt, as deep calls to deep
Tears find their place
Paradigms shift
Lenses replaced
Clarity, awe, peace, challenge
The rose most appreciated among thorns
or in dirty hands

In Love
Sacrificial, Embodied
Health to bones
Life to flesh
Death to Self
Resurrection
All life finds expression
Power, Truth, Beauty…
Given substance and purpose
Mouths fed
Sick healed
Orphans adopted
Hearts restored
Longings fulfilled
Transformation, Birth, Marriage
Whoever says people cannot change
has not Encountered Love
Creation, dancing, laughterWild, gentle, messy perfection
Once upon a time and happily ever after
All in one

21

the ocean breeze breathes through

the march to death

the ground, sandy and shifting, beneath the knees

o, sweet earth!

Free, at last.

in the Name of Love

Rachel weeping bitterly

refuses comfort

my brother who loved and laughed and lived

is lost

a sword piercing my soul, also

“he is free!”

no bridge spans the chasm of grief

the emptiness that consumes

my God, my God…

died too, once

Jesus wept at a tomb

no stranger to grief

Comforter, comfort me

defeater of death, bridge the chasm

breathe life, set me free

Some Thoughts on the Nature of Sin: Freedom

michelangelo_-_the_creation_of_man1

Last post I detailed my thoughts on how sin and goodness work in our lives, how sin bends our souls and we are all crooked. The post before that talked about how sin affects every one of us because of the Fall. This week is the best yet. What is Christianity’s unique solution to what is wrong in the world? Jesus. So here is a basic outline of God’s redemptive plan for this broken world He loves so much.

While we were dead in our sins, God sent Jesus to be sin and to nail our sin to the cross. Through this death and resurrection, Christ defeated sin and offered us a way of new life. This new life is given freely to us with the forgiveness of sins and the freedom from the slavery of sin. Jesus bought our lives by his death from the slavery of sin. By His resurrection He made the way for us to rise to new life and live free from sin.

Because every command of God is motivated by His character, the new life is not about avoiding sin, but about becoming more and more of the person whose character reflects the love of God (the result being sinlessness). Before Christ, we are marred images of God and we cannot help but sin by our very nature. As new creations in Christ, we are being straightened out or transformed into the type of people who cannot sin by their very nature.

Let me clarify, I believe that man can do good without being Christian. I believe the Bible teaches that the law of God is written on our hearts, represented in nature, and is a part of our nature as broken images of God. People like Aristotle have developed the idea of virtue, that goodness is like working a muscle, the more you do it the more it becomes a part of you and a habit. In this we can all make choices that are good or sinful and these will be reflected in who we are. But without Christ, we would still be slaves to sin who would eventually become so twisted and broken by sin that we would die (and continue into eternity walking away from Love and all goodness, i.e. hell).

With Christ, we are being transformed into His image and will walk through death into eternal life. This process takes a lot of surrender, a lot of self-discipline, and yet is wholly born out by Christ’s work in us. As Christians, we can participate with Him in changing us or we can resist this process. The consequences of resisting that process include suffering. By God’s grace, our suffering of the consequences of sin leads to further obedience and life. Let me emphasize this point: suffering is NOT God’s punishment for sin, but the natural consequence of sin. God does not prevent suffering because that would be an invasion of our freewill, but instead sends the Rescuer to change us into ambassadors of compassion and transformation in this world.

So if sin is a lifestyle contrary to the nature of God which leads away from life, joy, and peace and into death, brokenness, and fear then why would it not be loving to speak the truth about sin? It is absolutely loving to encourage people to live towards standards of right and wrong. This must be done with love, humility, and discernment: see my post on ToleranceBut let us continue to dialogue with each other and the world about what is right, because life and death are in the balance.

A hymn printed in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and called Christ our Passover summarizes some of these concepts by mashing together verses from 1 Corinthians and Romans:

Alleluia.
Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us;
therefore let us keep the feast,

Not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil,
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. Alleluia.

Christ being raised from the dead will never die again;
death no longer has dominion over him.

The death that he died, he died to sin, once for all;
but the life he lives, he lives to God.

So also consider yourselves dead to sin,
and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Alleluia.

Christ has been raised from the dead,
the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

For since by a man came death,
by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.

For as in Adam all die,
so also in Christ shall all be made alive. Alleluia.

Tolerance

A_J_Gordon_Memorial_Chapel,_Gordon_College,_Wenham_MA

Tolerance has been flung around a lot in our current society as a virtue to be lauded above all others. Whether it is the highest virtue in our society or not, it seems generally agreed that tolerance is a good thing. I will not be addressing tolerance as a defense of relativism because tolerance seems to come up short in this view finding that there is one view relativism cannot tolerate and that is objectivism or any anti-relativistic philosophy. Much more could be said on that subject but I would like to focus on the way our culture has embraced tolerance as a virtue while sliding into some very intolerant viewpoints. Tolerance in the original usages of the word meant disagreeing and even desiring to persuade someone of your view but defending their right to hold a contrary view, with your life if necessary. Tolerance originally meant to bear pain or hardship. The key point here is that there was no compunction against attempting to dissuade someone from their view (especially if you thought your view would be beneficial to them) but there was a duty to allow the other to hold their view and even defend that right for them.

Accepting this view of tolerance should encourage dialogue among disagreeing factions: Republicans and Democrats, atheists and theists, prolifers and prochoicers. However, in our culture that seems to tote tolerance as a banner of goodness, that praises our democracy and idealogical freedom, we too easily discard tolerance as soon as it benefits the people we disagree with. For example, if someone disagrees with us politically we tend to malign them and discount their rationality. The ad hominem attacks multiply through Facebook and Twitter as people tear down any opposition to the truth (as they see it). George W. Bush, Bill Nye, Obama, Hilary Clinton, and many others become synonymous with stupidity, arrogance, or even demonic influence. To bring it down to a more relatable level, you see somebody shared and NRA meme supporting freedom to bear arms and you write them off as an ignorant “hick.” Or you notice a car with an Obama sticker on it and you immediately chuckle to your friend about the brainwashed liberal ahead of you. The problem is more than whether you are actually posting your thoughts and feelings on social media. Even categorizing people in your brain as idiots if they don’t believe exactly as you do is tearing our culture apart.

On Gordon College’s campus recently there has been a surge of dissatisfaction concerning our life and conduct statement and the stance regarding homosexual practice at Gordon. This dissatisfaction is not the issue. Disagreeing with your institution’s stance on an interpretation of Scripture or basically disagreeing with anything about your institution does not, in itself, cause disunity or discord. However, recently it seems that there have been lines drawn in the sand by people associated with Gordon on varying levels. It seems to have become such that if you disagree with one side then the other side assumes you must be ignorant, unchristian, immoral, or a bigot. Now maybe this is not true and maybe this problem is not as pandemic as I am making it out to be. If I am wrong then I am glad and I know that there are many people who have not fallen into this mindset at Gordon However, if you have felt afraid to share your views because you do not want to be persecuted or ostracized for holding them then I think there is a problem. People should be able to disagree with our administration or support our administration ideologically without consequence. We should be a school that promotes tolerance on all levels. We should be able to discourse on our stances regarding homosexual practice with charity and mutual edification. As it is, I find myself scared to share my opinions on the subject for fear of being irretrievably labeled as belonging to the “other” side of the debate. The fact that there seems to be a separation that calls for people disagreeing with us to be “other” than us is a symptom of the same problem.

I do not think that it is anyone’s goal to ostracize or intimidate people in Gordon’s community for holding differing opinions, but I think that these things are a current reality at Gordon. Ultimately, I think there are very intelligent and well-meaning Christians on both sides of this debate and I think that the call for unity and charity is greater than the call to persuade on this matter. Is this issue important to resolve? Yes. Do our beliefs matter and shape our actions as well as interactions with others? Yes. I just think that we need to focus on charitable and reasonable discourse at this time of conflict on Gordon’s campus and in the surrounding communities. We need to feel free and safe to share our doubts and beliefs with each other. We need to be able to say that we do or do not think that homosexual practice is Biblical without feeling that we will be targeted, ignored, or isolated. And we need to hold and communicate our views in such a way that wholly respects and loves the other person or persons with whom we interact. Sometimes that will mean silence, often it’s not as important that we tell the other person what we think and much more important that we listen and understand. I will end with a quotation often misattributed to Augustine but actually from an otherwise undistinguished German Lutheran theologian named Rupertus Meldenius. It is interesting to note that it appeared on a tract during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a war heavily influenced by religious intolerance.

In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity

 

For all of you who feel like you are not able to accomplish your goals… or anything productive for that matter.

This is a journal entry from today:
God, I feel like I have all these desires that i don’t fulfill. I want to order my finances, work out and eat healthy, order my spiritual life, journal often, write creatively and academically, and read many, many books. Not to mention find a second job, have a healthy social life, and treat my girlfriend well.
Then I asked God to comment on my desires and inability to fulfill them. His response:

Seek ME FIRST and all these things shall be added unto you.

Oh. I thought that was just referring to all the bad things on earth that we can seek. I didn’t think you meant to seek you before even all the good disciplines and practices that are a part of the healthy Christian walk? But of course I had bought into the lie. The lie that it was up to me to get my ducks in a row. The lie that God could not do through me the things that most people would argue come from putting your “shoulder to the grindstone.” JUST STOP. and talk to Jesus. He wants you to live the disciplined, fulfilled life, but He wants that life to develop out of a humble intimacy with Him. How does this work? When you wake up, ask Him what He has for you today. Spend time with Him and in His word. Just exist in His presence for a little while. It might feel awkward at first… but He is there and will meet you. Soon these disciplines will become the desire of your heart from a place of knowledge and identity in Christ, instead of an attempt to create the life you think you should live. God, and His kingdom, first.