Suffering and the Problem of Evil
Written by: Arlene Sanchez Walsh
Pentecostals are in a theological bind. To be consistent about the nature of the God they believe in, God cannot be the source of evil, so when good people suffer alternative explanations are needed. Pentecostals have a firm belief in the existence of evil and a clear theological picture of the source of evil. Satan is a real entity in Pentecostalism, as are his legion of demons that spend all of their time in an active pursuit of trying to undermine all of God's work.
While Pentecostals are loath to blame everything on Satan, there is a difference of opinion among Pentecostals over the nature of suffering. The questions surrounding theodicy (the role God plays or does not play in allowing evil in the world) are never easy to answer, and Pentecostal answers to this most vexing question of why God allows suffering, may strike some as too simplistic and unsatisfactory. These answers often perpetuate stereotypes about Pentecostals: that their penchant for hyper-spiritualizing and overly emotional responses have predisposed them to blaming demonic attacks for nearly everything that goes wrong in their lives. This answer is certainly too simple, and it should be noted that belief in ongoing demonic activity does not necessarily mean that Pentecostals do not struggle with theodicy. However, Pentecostalism also holds that humanity is involved in a cosmic battle, an active struggle between God and Satan.
Pentecostals do not believe that suffering and evil exist only in the mind. Pentecostals accept the reality of suffering, but often differ as to the author of suffering. Many hold that people suffer because God allows such things in order to build faith and character. The biblical teachings about trials and tribulations validate their own suffering, which is temporary, a test. Perseverance, Bible reading, prayer, fasting, and other spiritual practices are all a part of recovering from episodes of suffering.
That said, however, there is a sub-group of Pentecostals that does not accept the idea that God has anything to do with suffering at all; this group has a different interpretation of key biblical passages that suggest that God allows suffering. They point to the example of the thorn in Paul's side (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) stating that there is no biblical basis for assuming that God gave that thorn to Paul. The prominent Word of Faith teacher, Charles Capps, believes that a demonic messenger was responsible for this thorn, and that Pentecostals who use this famous passage as a way of blaming God for suffering as a necessary part of one's life are "religious" people: they have been deceived by "worldly" accounts of that passage, rather than just reading that passage by itself.
This alternative view of suffering among Pentecostals is especially pronounced among Word of Faith adherents. E. W. Kenyon (1867-1948), an early influence on the movement, posited the idea that Jesus' redemptive suffering took place largely on a spiritual plane, not a physical one. The result of such theological innovations is a doctrine called "Duel-Death," espoused by Kenyon and later by contemporary Word of Faith healer Kenneth Copeland. The "Duel Death" doctrine holds that upon Jesus' death, Satan seized him and breathed into him his own spirit, so that Jesus experienced the same spiritual death that befalls all humanity. Jesus was "born-again" in hell and then rose to heaven, thereby securing his exalted status as the resurrected Son of God. The importance of this doctrine is that there can be no evil, no suffering, that emanates from God. Such things are either the fault of people with no faith or demonic activity. For the Word of Faith movement in particular-and Pentecostalism in general, although the "Duel Death" doctrine is not accepted by all Pentecostals-God must be viewed as the person who gives us everything we ask for and is responsible for the abundant goodness of our lives, and never the source of diminished goods or expectations.
The devil exists for Pentecostals, as do his legion of demons. Demons can afflict Christians if they allow certain "doors to the demonic" to be opened. What usually opens the door for such demonic activity is moral laxity, the transgression of strict Pentecostalism standards for piety and sexual morality. On nearly every deliverance ministry website, there is a section that informs visitors that certain behaviors are more apt to stir the demonic into action-such things as "sexual sin" (usually adultery and homosexuality), occult activity (fortune-telling, palm reading, tarot cards, Ouiji boards), and sometimes even body piercings. Many deliverance ministries offer services for exorcism, while others offer such things as the anointing and consecrating of homes.
Pentecostals focus on exorcising demonic activity, no doubt because that is one of the biblical commands (Mark 16:17) that signals that a person has received the Holy Spirit. This focus on the demonic is especially true in global Pentecostalism, where the reality of evil activity is accepted as part of everyday life. Entire denominations in Latin America and Africa, especially, have been built on their ability to "cast out demons."
This specialization can have its own set of problems. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Brazil, for instance, has reduced almost all of its congregational activity to the demons and spirits it will cast out during that particular day. Because the Universal Church is a hierarchy, only its approved pastors can exorcise demons, and the methods that they employ have come under scrutiny. Blending popular religion, folk Catholic practices, and Pentecostalism, the Universal Church makes use of objects such as rose petals, holy water, sanctified oil, bread, and tree branches, among other things to perform the exorcisms. These practices, among other perceived heterodox ideas, have placed the Universal Church outside the circle of orthodox Pentecostalism. The Universal Church as well as churches in Africa that allow blended worship using African rituals have been the most prominent groups that are illustrative of such hybridization.