I am taking a course this summer entitled “Providence and Suffering” which deals very generally with the problem of evil: how it has been approached historically, how it might be approached biblically, and in what way it should factor into modern religious thought. Undoubtedly, that means that questions about suffering, free will, sin, natural disaster, death, evil, and providence will all feature more prominently in my thought as a result. Yet, before I even seriously begin preparing for this course, something about the problem of evil strikes me relative to the witness of Scripture.
My sole encounter with the problem of evil up to this point has been its somewhat clumsy application by the occasional atheist who I have encountered. It is generally presented as some great and exhaustive formula by which the concept of an all power, all loving God may be rationally undermined. It is the novel product of rational thought, emancipated as it now is from the ignorance and tyranny characteristic of the fundamentally religious culture of the past. Inevitably, I accept the argument on these grounds as a peculiarly atheistic attempt to undermine God and respond, myself somewhat clumsily, with rather shallow arguments from free will as if the recognition that humanity is responsible for most evil somehow expiates God from any culpability in its existence.
I don’t propose to solve the problem of evil here – though of course I expect to be able to present an entirely novel and thoroughly incontrovertible solution by the time my course is complete. What struck me at the very outskirts of my study is the blind acceptance that the problem of evil is somehow a modern critique of God born of rational thought or atheist “enlightenment.” Certainly, in its modern formulation – (A) God is omnipotent, (B) God is omnibeneficient, (C) Evil exists, therefore either not A or not B – the problem has a decidedly scientific, atheistic tone. When, however, it is rephrased to get at the root of the existential concern – why do bad things happen to good people, and good things to bad people – the question becomes one as old as Scripture and undoubtedly older, one that Christianity has by no means shied away from engaging, though perhaps not explaining as we might like.
It is something of a cliché to mention Job in connection with the problem of suffering, but he certainly represents a clear engagement of the problem. Qoheleth, though less commonly mentioned, is an equally important witness to the way that even early on the Judeo-Christian faith has understood that the world is not the ideal place which perfectly accords with our expectations of or hopes for it. “In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness” (Ecc. 7:15). The creation account and the flood account both try to understand why it is that death and toil and disaster enter the world, and the prophets are constantly explaining both natural and political calamity. Still, these only can justify why bad things happen to bad people, something which few if any would object to or even properly include in the problem of evil. What Job and Qoheleth lament is that bad things happen to good people.
The hope for a world which parallels our inherent sense of justice underlies Christian eschatology. Then the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished. Ultimate and providential justice are meted out fairly and without hint of corruption. The visions of Micah 4 and Revelation 21 where those who come to God are blessed and those who are distant from Him are destroyed sits well with some primordial expectation we have for sensibility in the world. Whatever the cause of inequity in this world which the faithful have always recognized as deeply flawed, there is always the hope, even the inviolable promise, of a sensible world where inequity is translated into perfect, universal, comprehensible justice.
I am certainly not encouraging metaphysical escapism, and I realize that Christian eschatology does not answer the problem of evil only promises that the problem will be corrected. My point is that the reality of inequity, the problem of evil, is not some great modern, atheist “gotcha;” it is not a philosophical trump card that should catch Christian’s by surprise or cause them some kind of new unease. It is a disquieting reality but one that is recognized as part of our theology which can be dealt with, ignored, or explained away but which should never shock us by its mere existence. That bad things happen to good people is the foundation for our eschatological hope, a great leveling where the room that we have left for God’s wrath is filled with His righteous, reasonable fury. We cannot be surprised when some giddy antitheist discovers the argument and seizes on it like a child with a piece of pyrite. We know that evil exists, in some sense and for some reason in spite of our all-power God of love. Whether or not we should even engage the problem depends largely on the person presenting it and their intention in doing so, but that the problem exists should neither surprise us nor subvert our faith. It has always been there.
In fact, I found particularly interesting the peculiar way that Scripture has us live out our hope for a perfect world in the reality of this imperfect one. It should not go without notice that while we affirm that a perfectly sensible world, ideally in accord with the will of the Maker, is one where bad things happen to bad people and good things to good ones, we are nevertheless never called to actualize such a world in the present. We are not told to dole out justice to the iniquitous nor reserve our praise for those truly virtuous. In fact the Christian, in an almost incomprehensible irony, is called to intensify the inequity of the world. On the one hand, Christians are told to accept willingly, joyfully, with almost reckless abandon suffering which comes on them in spite of and even because of their innocence (Matt 5:11-12; Jas 1:2-3; 1 Pet 2:19-24). On the other hand, they are commanded to treat the wickedest oppressors with the greatest munificence, praying for their enemies, blessing those who curse them, feeding those who hate them, and forgiving those who kill them (Matt 5:38-48; Acts 7:60; Rom 12:17-21; 1 Cor 4:12-13). It is almost as though God has commanded us to spit in the face of this warped, corrupted world. The recognition that we are powerless to truly redeem it (a power which lies inevitably with God, an event which we eagerly await) does not deliver us helplessly into apathy. It calls us to highlight, almost comically, the injustice of it. We proclaim our innocence but do not condemn those who make us suffer on account of it. We decry the wickedness of others but answer that wickedness with even more manifold blessings.
If the problem of evil is truly irresolvable, as I suspect it is, and Christianity does not have the answer to the problem, it at least offers a reaction which is infinitely better than fatalistic despair or self-deluded ethical nihilism. Christ - even if he has not imbued us with the comprehensive, inexhaustible knowledge of the Father - has taught us how to cope in a world which will always be, despite some foolishly optimistic claims of science, fundamentally incomprehensible to us as participators therein. In that way, Christians may offer an apology for the faith without presuming to offer any comprehensive answer to the problem.