The Cross: The Problem of Evil

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a weekly series of meditations on the cross during Lent by Church History Professor Kelly Pigott.

At the end of the crucifixion event described in the books of Mark and Matthew, Jesus uttered one of the most profound and baffling questions ever to face those of us who believe in a loving God. On the last day of his life, Jesus was beaten several times. He was whipped with a cat o’ nine tails, an especially gruesome torture device consisting of leather straps and sharp fragments of bone and pottery used to inflict the maximum amount of pain on the victim. He then had to carry a heavy cross to Golgotha, all the while jeered and spat upon by the crowd, and probably pelted with object. And all of this before he was then nailed to two pieces of wood to face one of the most horrific ways to die:  crucifixion.  I won’t even go into detail about all the agony inflicted on the body as a result of this form of torture.

But then, at that moment, the Son of Man looked to heaven and asked, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  If this doesn’t move you, consider also the fact that after he yelled his brutally raw interrogative/accusation, he was answered with silence.

My seven-year-old daughter entered the bedroom in the middle of the night in tears. “Daddy, my tummy hurts.”

I sat up, rubbing my eyes. “Do you feel like you’re going to throw up?” Always my first question when it comes to tummy troubles.

She nods her head.

Ugh, I think. There are few things worse than this. I know this is going to sound really selfish, but as I search for the throw-up-bowl and a towel, my mind reflects over the day to review how much contact I had with her in order to calculate the odds of catching the stomach virus myself.  I eventually wind up in her bedroom and sit next to her as she moans and cries. I know she’s miserable and I feel helpless because there’s absolutely nothing I can do.  This is just going to be a long, horrible, sleepless night.

“Daddy?” She sounds so pitiful.

“Yeah, baby.”

“Can you pray and ask God to take my sickness away?”  My heart sinks–because now, on top of feeling helpless, I feel like a hypocrite. Understand that I believe in the power of prayer.  I believe that God sometimes heals people.  But after a couple of decades of pastoral ministry, I also know sometimes people get sick and they don’t get better, despite our
most fervent petitions.  My anxiety increased because I feared that my daughter was about to learn this lesson the hard way, because I’m going to lead her in a prayer that I didn’t expect God to answer, and this was going to break her heart.

We prayed.  I mustered all the sincerity I could.  But her tummy just got worse and worse.  She cried harder and moaned deeper.  I tried patting her, wiping her brow with a wet cloth, letting her chew mint gum.  Nothing
worked.  Finally, in a heart-wrenching voice, she stared at me with narrow, red eyes and asked in dismay, “Why did God make sickness!?”

Then she threw up.

Her question fits under a general category called theodicy, whereby theologians and seven-year-old girls ponder why a good and loving God allows evil and suffering to exist.  Put plainly: why does God allow people like Hitler to slaughter the innocent; why doesn’t God just take grandma when she’s in such pain; why does God send tornadoes to wipe out
entire towns.

The dirty little secret of theology is that no one has been able to come up with a satisfying answer.  A lot of smart people have tried. And many have come up with something that satisfies them.   But ultimately one is left with one of two untenable positions: either God is not all-loving, or He is not all-powerful.  In a grossly simplistic way, this is the problem of theodicy.

The Bible gives us little hints and clues to help us understand the dilemma, but it doesn’t provide a smoking-gun answer. Instead, what we get is like a connect-the-dot drawing without numbers to guide us.  Essentially, we gaze at a page full of dots with labels like “sin,” “broken,” “love,” “sovereign,” “Satan,” “free will,” “grace,” “guilt,” and “evil” just to name a few.

And God gives each person a crayon with which to connect the dots.  Some draw a King who commands everything to happen.  He sends the earthquakes, tsunamis, dictators and diseases, and if people get in the way and die, they
deserve it for being a bunch of dirty rotten sinners.  It’s a disturbing picture, but one that attempts to satisfy the problem of theodicy by emphasizing God’s power and justice.  In the process, though, God comes across mean and cranky.  Did God really send the pedophile into the five-year-olds room because she deserved it?

Others connect the dots and create a picture of a loving father who grieves when tragedy strikes.  They blame our broken work on humanity’s propensity to choose sin.  In other words, evil exists because of the evil choices people make.  Some believe that even God suffers because of this.  Sometimes He intervenes to relieve the pain.   His overall presence keeps things from getting really bad.  But sometimes He doesn’t do anything and allows evil to reign.

It’s this last part that’s problematic.  Imagine a person who passes a house on fire and sees a child banging on the window for help.  And even though no risk exists in the rescue attempt, that person ignores the pleas and walks on.  What would you think of that callous individual?  He’s not very loving, is he?  Which leads to the other side of the equation, he must want to do something about it, but he can’t.

A myriad of other ways to connect the dots have been attempted, but there’s always a part of the picture that just doesn’t make sense.  It’s out of proportion with the rest of the figure, or unfinished sections remain.  Therefore, we must approach the subject with a great deal of humility, realizing that our picture may help us, but not necessarily
someone else.

Because when people suffer, they tend to become very emotionally invested in their picture.  Or else they become traumatized over the fact that their picture just isn’t working, and so they have to redraw it.  The problem of theodicy is one of the reasons why faith is faith.  It’s an area where understanding the question may be far more important than coming up with an answer.

Put another way, perhaps understanding the question better IS the answer. For the great picture of theodicy is Jesus hanging on the cross after hours and hours of excruciating pain, rejection, and injustice, at which point he gazes to heaven with a tear-and-blood-streaked face and asks, “Why?”

Real damage occurs when well-meaning friends feel compelled to provide the answers that they’ve come up with, convinced their wisdom will resolve the tension and make the victim feel better.  They say things like: “God always has a reason.” “Something good will come of this.” “God won’t test you beyond your ability.” “If you just have faith, things will get better.” “Maybe there’s unconfessed sin in your life.” There may be some truth in a few of these statements, but the vast majority of the time these words come across callous and trite.

When people suffer, the last thing they want you to do is to connect the dots for them.

Over the course of Lent, I will be reflecting on the Cross and how different people have understood it throughout church history, especially as it relates to evil and suffering in the world. The final meditation will be on Good Friday.

Kelly Pigott is a church history professor who teaches at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. You can find more musings on history, culture, contemplative spirituality and theology, along with interviews with authors at kellypigott.com. Follow him on twitter @kellypigott

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

    “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!” ~John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, September 3, 1816

  • Kelly Pigott

    Love the quote, Brian.

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

      I have no regard for human sacrifice as a worthy strategy to help anybody. It seems to make about as much sense as if I “hit myself in the foot with a shovel for your mortgage.” (Doug Stanhope)

      But I can still be a Christian, one I think closer to what Jesus expected. monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/jeffersons-religious-beliefs

      • Kelly Pigott

        I hope you will read the rest of the posts. Though I don’t offer any profound answers, I do try to address both the wisdom and the hardships found at the cross. Perhaps we can dialogue further….

  • Alex Symczak

    “But ultimately one is left with one of two untenable positions: either God is not all-loving, or He is not all-powerful.”

    You left out one, the position that he doesn’t exist. Or at least a god as you imagine it does not exist. If you consider both positions to be untenable but inescapable, this is the way out. You’ve reasoned your way to this point, don’t stop before the finish line. This is something I see all to often here on the progressive Christian channel. For the most part, it’s a group of great, open-minded people that have let their concerns for others guide them away from more entrenched, conservative, evangelical positions. But, despite their progress, they always seem reluctant to go too far. I’ve never understood this.

    Perhaps I’ll swing by and catch some of the other posts. Keep using that reason, buddy!

    • Kelly Pigott

      Alex and R Vogel,

      Thanks for the feedback.

      As you’ll discover in future posts, I’m approaching the topic more from a pastoral care point of view rather than a rationalistic one. The word “untenable” relates to my attempt at defining the tension found in the classical problem of theodicy for readers who may not be familiar with it.

  • R Vogel

    Why is it problematic that G*d is not all-powerful?

    G*d is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  • Ethan Wamsley

    We were just discussing the problem of evil in class today. Perhaps our problem (not the problem of evil) is the needing to know why. Given that we still don’t have a satisfactory answer to this question, it seems likely that we aren’t supposed to have one. Our need to “connect the dots” as you put it should never supersede our need to be there for one another. When we try and connect the dots for others this may reveal an insecurity in ourselves as much as it does our need to fix things. Maybe God isn’t all-powerful; maybe He isn’t all-loving. Maybe He’s neither or maybe He’s both. More importantly I understand that my responsibility is not to understand God but to love God and love other people. Don’t know if that makes sense but that’s basically where I’m at with the problem (though I do find it interesting to pose the different solutions provided).


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