My Approach to Evil and Suffering

My Approach to Evil and Suffering June 27, 2018
Courtesy of Pixabay

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.”

You see, the notion that God could and did die completely subverts the traditional notion of “power.” When we typically think of God’s power, we think it means that God can do whatever God wants simply because he’s the biggest, baddest being in the universe. But the Christian message is that God isn’t any such thing. Rather, it’s that God’s power is revealed from below. It’s revealed in his suffering—his suffering with and as us—and then in his ability to transform death into life. All death, according to the Apostle Paul (see Romans 5:12-19 and 1 Corinthians 15:22-28).

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.

About
Matthew J. Distefano is the author of 4 books, including the recently released "Heretic!" He is also a co-host of the Heretic Happy Hour podcast, married, and has one daughter. He lives in Chico, California. You can read more about the author here.
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  • swbarnes2

    All other options, to my mind at least, distress my heart and soul too great to put into words.

    Ahh, the classic example of a fallacy of the consequences.

    Thanks for providing yet another shining example of Christian intellectual integrity.

  • WisdomLover

    “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.”

    I don’t think this is simply something that feels right. I don’t see how it could be any other way.

    Because God does exist, and He is All-Good, and All-Powerful and All-Knowing and All-Wise. Because of that, all suffering must be like the travails of childbirth. The love of the child so far outweighs the pain of the mother that she does not even consider the pain worthy to be compared to it. The fact that she receives the child through such pain only increases her love of the child.

    With that said, it may be our lot to never know how all suffering is transformed and redeemed. It may be that we just have to know that all suffering is redeemed and transformed and accept it.

  • You’re welcome.

  • ashpenaz

    I think Christian Science is right–evil doesn’t exist because God didn’t create it. This is essentially the doctrine of “privatio boni” developed by Augustine–evil is a negation of good and has no actual substance. Sin, sickness, and death exist only in our distorted perceptions, as shapes in a mist or images in a dream. Disperse the mist or awake from the dream, and we will see they were never there to begin with. Jesus didn’t conquer sin, sickness, and death–He revealed their nothingness, the same way light shows the nothingness of a shadow. His death on the Cross was a demonstration of Truth–that Truth destroys error, that Truth destroys our false beliefs in sin, disease, and death. Jesus didn’t cure the leper–He helped the person understand there was no leprosy to begin with because leprosy was never part of God’s creation, which was and always has been all good.

    If you say disease exists, who created it? If God created disease, it must be good and eternal, so why try to fight it? If Jesus healed people of something that God created–if God created the withered hand or the leprosy–then Jesus was working against God. And if God doesn’t create disease, then who does? Is there a power other than God which can add something new to God’s creation? Then the First Commandment is false–there is another God. If you say our free will brought sin into existence, then you’re saying we have a power to do something God can’t do. How can we have a power God doesn’t have? So, the only real answer to evil is that God didn’t create it, it doesn’t exist, and if I see it, the problem is my perception. I can’t fight or destroy sin, disease, or death–but I can awaken from the dream of evil, I can disperse the mists of evil, and and I throw light on the shadow of evil and use Truth to show that evil is nothingness.

  • I take a similar line. God is patient in allowing this fallen creation to continue to exist while people get saved. Evil is the negation of God, and hence he will withdraw support of everything contaminated by evil at a time of his own choosing. God has not abandoned us to our fate however, for he has sent his Son and his Holy Spirit into the world to save and help us. This is my view https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/1888f54c27e672afac357c1b6891e6fecdc3019b2dfc55e418a56e2479b4676b.jpg in my free ebook, Achieving Atonement. Various
    eReader formats are available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/838364.
    A PDF version with numbered pages may be downloaded from http://www.5icm.org.au/Resources/Achieving_Atonement_-_Derek_Thompson.pdf
    and Academia.edu at http://www.academia.edu/36826441/Achieving_Atonement

  • Craig

    If multitudes of people go on after they die to suffer and be in torments in an eternal and everlasting hell / lake of fire, then the problem of evil and suffering will continue for all of eternity future.

    A God who was morally perfect and pure would not create and bring into existence people that He already knew He would be subjecting to everlasting sufferings and torments.

  • Ulf Turkewitsch

    How do you know that?

  • Craig

    Being morally perfect and pure includes being morally wicked and cruel to multitudes of people is….. illogical.

  • Ulf Turkewitsch

    Actually , you dont even know that. Remember, you are not God, with the emphasis on not.

  • Craig

    I do know that.

    Being wicked and cruel to multitudes of people ( could be millions, billions, or even trillions of people ) for all of eternity future can’t be reconciled with being morally perfect and pure.

  • Ulf Turkewitsch

    Again my response to your attitude is that you have a very limited and shortsighted view of the eternal timeline ; and that because you are a human who will only be on the earth for 70 or 80 ought years. Also your intelligence is naturally extremely limited ,when compared with Gods mind. So you only see what is right in front of you. You cannot judge what you do not understand.

  • Craig

    I most certainly can judge the God that you believe in as being Wicked and Immoral. Namely, because no justified reason that God can give for certain actions that He does will ever benefit those whom He wilfully brought into existence [ already knowing ] He will be subjecting them to an eternal hell.

    The damned will never be the recipients of any justified reason that God can give.

    When the dust is all cleared, the only recipients for any justified reason that God can give is “The Elect”.

    All of the Non Elect will never benefit. God was wicked and Immoral to them to bring them into existence.

  • Ulf Turkewitsch

    No living thing , or any other created being anywhere in the universe, or multiples thereof can judge the Lord of lords. He is supreme and does not give a rats ass what you or anyone else thinks. All you can do is give miserable, ignorant opinions. You only see him as a vindictive , judgemental god. Perhaps that is because you are like that .

  • Craig

    It is not my fault that you are a Sociopath – if not a Psychopath.

    You have no empathy for your fellow human being.

    You don’t even allow for other people to disagree with you. You can’t be reasoned with.

  • Ulf Turkewitsch

    I dont know what your views on god and theology are. But your objections to the existence of a loving divine “godhead” may, and I stress the “may” be due to your worldview. If you agree with the existence of a god then what do you think of the existence of evil? Check out what theologians say about “theodicy”. Have you thought about whether good can exist by itself, or why evil is allowed to exist if god is love? Is the universe good or evil ? Are people good or evil? Do all people get to spend eternity in heaven,, ,,if you believe in heaven. I know that many people in the developed countries like America have certain beliefs and it is easy to agree with them. A person must think for himself, not just accept blindly what the society believes, without really checking it out for themselves. So I appreciate your conversation, I wish you all the best. Thanks for replying to me. I know that without extensive interaction one can get the wrong impression of a person’s ideas. Good luck. !!!

  • Craig

    Theology 101: God is Omniscient ( All Knowing ).

    God first planned a Hell and a Lake of Fire and then He created it !!

    God willfully created and brought into existence all the people that He “already knew” would go there.

    That God that you believe in is NOT morally good to all those people that He wilfully brought into existence “already knowing” He would be subjecting them to intense sufferings and torments for all of eternity future.

    I will never believe what you do !

  • Ulf Turkewitsch

    I hope that you dont think that I am trying to “convert” you to my thinking. But in the short time that it took to respond you could not have looked at, and thought about all the questions that there are concerning good, evil, god , man, the purpose of the universe, etc. etc. etc. I dont have all the answers and what does it matter to me what you think , really,,,,,,,,,,. Just think ,a lot . Good luck.

  • The Mouse Avenger

    Oh, hush, silly! You know nothing about this man’s intellectual integrity, let alone that of Christianity in general!

  • The Mouse Avenger

    I think this is the very best explanation of the problem of evil, & how to approach it, that I have ever heard! ^_^ In fact, it matches the beliefs I’ve held about such things for a very long time! 🙂

  • Linnea912

    This is very close to what I’ve come to believe. I think that, far from being removed from us, God is especially close to those who are suffering, and works through rescue workers, health care professionals, and others who work to relieve suffering in this world. And as for the corrupt, power-hungry “Caesars” of this world, well, their power is time-limited. I do believe that Christ will return, and when he does, the “Caesars” of this world will have a nasty surprise in store for them.

  • Nimblewill

    I think it might have been AW Tozer that said ” God has yet to use a man greatly that he has not wounded deeply.” Suffering burns off the dross. We go through hell to get to heaven.