Suffering and the Problem of Evil

The existence, and indeed prevalence, of evil and suffering in the world raises the question of the source of evil. A monistic answer posits a single ultimate source of both good and evil. A dualistic answer posits a battle between distinct forces of good and evil. Christianity, and Anglicanism within it, has taught neither of these, affirming that there is one God who is both all-powerful and all-good. Thus, the problem of evil has been acute for traditional Anglicans and other Christians, for the very existence of evil seems to indicate a God who is incomplete either in power or in goodness. Would not any parent, the proverbial question asks, prevent the suffering of his or her beloved child if he or she could?

There has never been an official Anglican teaching on theodicy, a term of 18th-century origin referring to the defense of God's power and goodness given the presence of evil. Traditionally, though, Anglicans have affirmed western theodical teachings, which hold that God created the world and all creatures, and created them good. God did not create evil. To some creatures, however, God gave the freedom to choose--to choose relationship with God or, on the other hand, to exalt self over God. To choose self over God is to reject God and, because God is wholly good and the source of all goodness, to reject goodness. Evil, therefore, is merely a corruption of the good, with no positive essence of its own.

This corruption, traditional Anglicanism continues, occurred when the first human beings (who had been made in God's image) rebelled against God, exalting their own desires over God's command. They fell from their created perfection, and evil entered the world--which is to say the complete goodness of the world became corrupted. The nature of things changed.

Humanity's nature changed from being in perfect communion with God (and therefore sharing in God's goodness) to being severed from God and naturally inclined toward evil. All people sin. Consequently, moral corruption will always taint, at times to the point of obliterating, human goodness toward one another. This is why moral evil pervades humanity, why all human relationships suffer, in some cases with horrific cruelty.

The nature of the rest of creation also changed. The consequence of human corruption was the corruption of nature itself. Nature is no longer whole and good, but broken and marred. Therefore disease, drought, flood, famine, lethal storms, and the rest of what are known as natural evils also entered the world through the rebellious exercise of human free choice.

Why, it is often asked, would God have permitted the fall, knowing (as an all-knowing God must) the incalculable suffering that would follow? The traditional answer is that to create and to prevent the fall would not adequately have demonstrated God's love and glory. On the other hand a rebellion and an undeserved redemption, with the ultimate consequences of rebellion borne by God in Jesus Christ instead of by the rebels themselves, demonstrate God's love and glory more fully. For this reason Christ is said to have been "glorified" in the crucifixion.

There are a few specifically Anglican points that need to be addressed here. First, in its early years Anglicanism was heavily influenced by Reformed thought, and a prominent theme was that God did not merely permit the fall, but rather decreed it as part of God's own plan fully to show God's glory and mercy. The Reformed stream in Anglicanism continues today. However, many Anglicans stress instead the freedom of human choice in the fall.

Secondly, although there is variety on this subject, most Anglicans reject the belief that a specific natural evil is the manifestation of God's wrath against a certain person or group of people on account of his, her, or their sin. For instance, most Anglicans reject the portrayal of Hurricane Katrina as God's wrath against the people of New Orleans because of their sin. That some suffer a natural evil from which others are spared cannot be explained according to human reason, as the biblical Book of Job attests.

Thirdly, as in other areas of belief, there is tremendous diversity in Anglican theodical thought, and no single perspective (whether or not traditional) can claim to represent Anglicanism generally. Some theologians (not only Anglicans but Christians generally) are open to answers to the problem of evil that tend more toward monism or dualism than the traditional Christian answers. Some see evil as a necessary part of the world for the sake of human spiritual growth. Human nature, on this view, is not fallen from perfection, but rather ascending toward perfection, and evil within creation is not wholly negative but rather has a constructive purpose in the development of human beings into God's likeness. Others attenuate or even set aside the idea of God's omnipotence. In these perspectives, evil is explicable in that God does not control outcomes in the finite world. Still others doubt the relevance of abstract defenses of God's power and goodness, emphasizing the practical instead, whether present or future. Such thinkers may project their focus forward to the complete manifestation on earth of God's victory over evil on the cross, or look to the present and to God's solidarity with human sufferers as manifested on the cross of Christ.

In spite of this theological diversity, there is within Anglicanism a broad agreement on the need for the Church and its members to seek to alleviate human suffering. Anglicans worldwide are involved in efforts to bring healthy living conditions, freedom, justice, and the Gospel to the impoverished and the oppressed.

Study Questions:
     1.     How do questions of evil challenge the Anglican understanding of God’s nature?
     2.     Explain the Anglican understanding of evil’s introduction into the world.
     3.     How was nature altered by human corruption? What did this pave the way for?
     4.     Why, according to Anglicans, did God not prevent the fall?

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