Suffering and the Problem of Evil
Written by: Ted Vial
While these theological moves seem to delay assigning responsibility to God for sin, in the end many people think that Calvin cannot avoid this claim. This is a root of the Arminian controversy, and it is this dispute that, perhaps more than any other, separates Reformed Christians from Methodists and other Arminian (or Arminian-like) traditions. In the end, while continuing to assert that sin is a human responsibility, Calvin's strong emphasis on God's omnipotence means that the answer to the question of why God allowed sin to occur, or why God set up the universe in such a way that it could occur, is simply a mystery. Methodists have a foot in both camps here, wanting both to emphasize God's omnipotence with the Calvinists, and to maintain a degree of free will in choosing to accept God's grace.
Though sin in the world is the source of human-caused suffering—evidenced in war, violence, poverty, hatred, anger, etc.—some of the suffering is perceived to be a direct outcome of individual and social behavior and thus a natural consequence, and some of it is perceived to be divine punishment. There is much diversity of belief around the meaning of suffering.
Most Protestants differentiate between suffering caused by sin and evil, as discussed above, and physical or natural suffering—evidenced in earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados, etc. While all suffering enters the created order because of the original break in relationship with God, not all suffering today has a moral source. That is, the natural order of creation is also broken, and thus tragic events occur in the world that display that brokenness but are not directly caused by some moral breach. Not all suffering is caused by sin. God sometimes permits suffering, even though God could have prevented it, for purposes that are beyond human understanding. The story of Job is a good example of this.
Whatever the cause of suffering, Protestants believe that God is greater than sorrow and pain and death, and therefore, Protestants have hope. God can redeem every grief and pain, no matter the source, and use it for divine glory and human good. God weaves good out of evil, and God's ultimate purposes will never be defeated. Suffering is destined to end, and all tears to be wiped away by God's hand. God intends joy to be believers' present reality through faith and their future reality in fullness.
1. How does monotheism complicate the problem of evil?
2. Do Protestants believe God created evil? Explain.
3. Why is it inappropriate to speculate about God's plans?
4. Why have various understandings of sin created controversy within the Protestant tradition?