Anyone who affirms God has to deal with the age-old question, “What about evil?” No matter what our theology says about the divine—no matter whether we believe that God is nonviolent or full of violence, full of love or full of wrath, a respecter of human volition or a bigger Calvinist than Calvin himself—the problem of evil and suffering is, well, a problem. Majorly. We should all recognize this.
In fact, when atheists bring up the problem of evil, when they ask, “How can an all-powerful, all-loving God allow evil to exist in the world?” my temptation is always to say, “Right?!” And yet, I’m not an atheist. I was, for a while. But not any longer. So, I obviously have to wrestle with this question—constantly.
And while the following may not satisfy everyone’s curiosities and out-and-out concerns, here’s the best of what I could come up with. It’s no thesis—duh, right?—just a primer on how I tackle the issue.
First off, I can only approach the problem of suffering and evil with a particular ending in mind. To put it in fancy theological terms, I think about suffering eschatologically; more specifically that, in the end, all things will be reconciled to God through Christ, whether things on earth or in heaven (Colossians 1:20). (For those interested, the Greek word for this concept, as it is used in Acts 3:21, is “apokatastasis.”) So, no matter how much suffering I’m enduring, no matter how much evil plagues humanity and, really, the whole of creation, all suffering will one day be transformed and redeemed. This is my starting point. All other options, to my mind at least, distress my heart and soul too great to put into words.
Now, does that mean we should sit idly by and allow for evil to exist in our world? Of course not! Thinking that “all will be well” is not a justification for not making it well now. On the contrary, this line of thinking actually motivates us to make things well in the present moment. You know, “as it is in heaven,” and all that. Plus, as mimetic creatures, it shouldn’t surprise us that we imitate the gods we follow. Hence, if we believe in a divinity that will one day restore the creation and eliminate suffering, we should, in theory, respond in kind by doing what we can over the course of our own lives.
So, I suppose the next question is this: What gives me the justification for making such bold claims? Well, simply put, because of what happened on the cross and, subsequently, what I believe happened three days later. What we learn here is that, not only does God endure his own suffering, but that suffering doesn’t end merely in death. There is a purpose to it—if we want to even call it that—which is that suffering and evil are only present so that they can be transformed and resurrected. To show us this, God suffers and dies, but then rises in glory. One of my favorite theologians, Jürgen Moltmann, has this to say on the matter:
“Every theology of the cross must end in a theology of resurrection. Two remarks of Paul in the letter to the Romans: How much more is grace than sin, and, how much more is the resurrection than the crucifixion. How much more is opening the future where you see no way out. So the joy of God and the joy with God at the end is certainly greater than the long way of suffering and grief before.”
To that end, if we focus our attention back to the question, “How can an all-powerful, all-loving God allow evil to exist in the world?” I would have to initially suggest that A) God is not all-powerful in the ways we might typically think and B) God doesn’t “allow” evil to exist. Instead, God has chosen to incarnate God’s self as less-than-all-powerful human beings and then works with and through us in the power of the Holy Spirit to eradicate evil and suffering wherever and whenever we come across it. That means the evil and suffering in our own lives, in the lives of others, and even throughout the whole of creation. I believe that is what being a child of God means. The Apostle Paul seemed to have the same understanding when he writes:
“I consider that the sufferings of this present age are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subject to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
Again, however, none of this probably suffices as a complete answer to the problem of evil. That much is obvious. But what it does accomplish for me is that it gives me hope. Not hope in a deus ex machina that will swoop down, capriciously, whenever he damn well pleases, but hope in a God that will experience the same sufferings we experience and then transform our dying and decaying bodies through our own resurrections. Call it a fool’s hope, but call it hope nonetheless.
So, let me know what you think. Am I going too far out on a limb in approaching suffering in such a way? Are their other ways to talk about the issue? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Until next time. Peace, love, and all that good stuff.