evil, unresolved

i grew up in faith. i have wonderful christian parents, attended a great youth ministry and a church that connected me in ways outside of youth group. i attended a thoughtful christian college and grad school, have been a pastor for umpteen years, and have read stacks of books to continue my learning and growth since. but there are still areas of my theology that just don’t quite work for me. namely, two areas: atonement theory (specifically, the role of the cross, and the less-than-satisfactory reasoning of penal substitutionary atonement) and the problem of evil. i’m hoping scot mcknight’s upcoming book on atonement theories will help me a bit on the former.

yesterday’s sermon at my church was on the problem of evil (it was actually in a series on doubt). the teaching pastor did a great job of unpacking the issues with the best (i mean that) of what we’ve been saying for centuries: god’s desire for a genuine relationship with humans created a necessity of choice; choice means we make bad choices, even evil choices; those evil choices have consequences for us, for others, and for all of creation. yes, all that makes sense to me.

but that’s the problem. it makes sense to me. but when the real-life results of evil are everything from perpetrated evil (sexual slavery, genocide, 9/11, etc.) to un-perpetrated pain and suffering (tsunamis and hurricanes, millions of children orphaned or dying of AIDS in africa, etc.), i’m just not willing to settle for an explanation that ‘makes sense’ cognitively, but does nothing to actually bring healing or less suffering.

here’s what i’ve been thinking, each time i’m confronted with another case of massive suffering, especially when there’s not a clear evil perpetrator: i believe in a wildly creative and way-powerful god. god’s creativity and power are completely outside of what ‘makes sense to me.’ sure, it’s not surprising to me that little powerless and evil marko can’t come up with a better solution. but i want to believe that god could/can.

a friend of mine has gone through some horrific things in her life, and recently experienced another unbearable episode of evil done to her. her response, as would be true for many of us, was to struggle with the ‘god is pure good and god is all powerful’ tension. she moved into a (hopefully temporary) place of forfeiting the ‘god is pure good’ part of that tension, furious that god allowed this stuff to happen to her. i suggested to her that it might be easier for her, for a time, to reverse that, and to live with the question of whether or not god is all powerful. that would allow her to hold onto a belief that god is pure good and love, which, it seems, would be more helpful to her in this time of crisis. i told her i thought god could handle that, and would eventually help her get back to holding both sides of that tension in faith.

i’m not at that place: i’m still fine holding onto both ‘good’ and ‘powerful’. but this belief of mine does create some inner tension in the face of massive pain and suffering. i keep thinking god has a better solution up his sleeve; but that doesn’t work for me either, because it makes him ‘mean’ to hold it back. (yeah, yeah, the ‘solution’ is coming — heaven — and is here — jesus; but that does nothing for me when thousands die or millions suffer.)

the teaching pastor, yesterday, tried to frame large-scale suffering with the idea that we have no idea how much suffering god IS actually holding back. pfff. i struggle with that because i don’t — if i go along with that — like where god has drawn the line of what he’ll allow.

no, i’m not going apostate here. these are just the ramblings of my soul, grasping for hope, deeper understanding, and deeper faith.

24 thoughts on “evil, unresolved”

  1. I struggled like your friend a little, too, this past year. I have no way of answering your questions on the global, massive scale. But I can sort of speak from experience regarding my own situation. I was recently miserably hurt from a church I was going to for years. My husband suffered as well. It was so bad I nearly became depressed and I considered seeking professional help. I never wanted to go to church again but I wanted to be a Christian still. I stopped going to any church at all for over 6 months. During this time, I knew there was something beautiful in the situation. I knew there was something God wanted to do. I don’t like to use the word ‘vision’ but for lack of a better one, it was as if a meteor fell from the sky and crushed me beneath it, and when it fell is cracked in different places, revealing a pure light that was beautiful. I couldn’t understand how something so painful and jagged could have a component of such pure beauty and goodness. I kept this image in my mind for weeks, trying to convince myself that God was full aware of my pain and He had something awesome in store for me.
    Now, over the past few weeks I have joined a new church and I wake up each day with renewed joy that i haven’t had in 4 years. I am happy, but not just happy- content. I am forming new friendships with people I wish I could have met years ago, but i trust God’s timing and now is the time He meant for me to meet them. My heart overflows with compassion for them and I want to worship with them. It’s hard to believe that I almost gave up completely on other believers and on God’s promises during my season of intense emotional pain. I still have tender spots, but overall I believe God has healed me emotionally, and I can see the beauty in the situation. He has transformed me even after my initial salvation- how comforting to know that He is never finished with us, never forgets us, and He uses His creativity to sculpt us.
    I am deeply grateful for that which I never thought could be a good experience.
    I don’t know why the mass suffering continues. I don’t know why God allows it. But I trust Him and his inherent goodness.
    I think we need to remember that His word tells us that we don’t deserve His mercy. It may be dangerous theology to assume a sense of entitlement regarding God’s mercy and grace. It’s worth thinking about further.

  2. I to have, and probably will again in the future, struggle with the same thing. The conclusion I have come to, at least for right now, is that there may be no definitive answer. It may be one of those mysteries of our faith that we are just unable to comprehend. I’m not proposing that we just ignore it but that we are comfortable in saying, I believe that God is love and my lack of understanding this concept or any other concept will not change the idea that God is love.

    As for those instances where there is no clear evil perpetrator, remember not only are we fallen creatures, but we live on a planet that is also fallen. Hurricanes, tsunamis, etc…are a result of a fallen creation.

    Just some thoughts from one rambling soul to another.

  3. I struggle with this too. I seem to waffle on it quite a bit. One minute I seem to understand suffering, and the next minute, I start asking the same questions you’re asking. I think the Bible is full of people asking these questions. No one in the Bible struggled with whether or not God existed, it was a given that he did, the struggle (see Psalms) seemed to be with whether or not God was indeed good. This is what I struggle with, and as a youth pastor, I have a hard time explaining all of this to kids. The question of God’s goodness is central to many of the struggles these kids have with God.

    I think the Church needs to get more comfortable with the mystery of God and stop focusing so much on answers. My wife had a miscarriage a couple of years ago and I had so many people (well-meaning people mind you) say things like, “God has a plan for this.” I remember being very uncomfortable with that and thinking it was complete bullcrap. I had to come to the conclusion that I really had no idea why it happened, but God, in his mystery, knew. No one likes suffering, it makes our straight path rocky and uncomfortable.

  4. j.h. — i’m with you. i’m much more comfortable saying “i don’t understand it” than saying “here’s the explanation”.

  5. this too has been my spiritual journey these past couple of years. the easy theology of my 20’s and early 30’s has crumbled as i confront real pain and suffering in my own story, in my friend’s story and in the world.

    it was much easier with all of the answers – but believing that god was the author of these horrors and planned for them to happen just left me either in need of chucking that god or finding out who he really was.

  6. I don’t understand. I most likely never will. But for now, I rest easy knowing that I’m not the only one confused by all of this. Though some might find this feed unsettling, there is a small spark of unity that kind of makes it feel comforting, to me anyways. I don’t understand, but hey, I’m not the only one.

    I do add this thought, even though it is quite simple…like me in ways. I have never encountered a circumstance where God, in some way, didn’t use later. I might not understand the direct evil of the moment, but I do see that God can use anything for His glory. And yet, here we go again, taking another steo of faith together…

  7. Marko, j.h., brad, Jody, bobbie – thx so much for your willingness to share your struggles & pains with the “good” & “powerful” God that we have. I’m glad and encouraged to know that people who I respect and read (Marco) as well as people who I don’t know struggle as I do. Brad I have a empathetic heart as my wife and I have gone through two miscarriages. We want to have a purpose behind these pains and they aren’t there. Here is where most people say but – but I don’t have a but to say. I felt uncomfortable and even angry with the “God has a plan for this” junk that people throughout to us when we were going through this. As I have said many times to my wife and to myself “I’m sorry.”

  8. You got me thinking! I’m not sure what, exactly, I’m thinking about but you definately got me thinking. I know this much: I don’t understand it!

  9. I struggle too much with this. From my own life, to that of friends, to that of ministering this weekend to some of the students in my ministry whose friends’ 9yr old brother passed away last week. Funeral was today. Not easy.

  10. why do we see tsunamis, earthquakes, pain, suffering as evil? Where does it say in the Bible that these things are part of a fallen world? Was Noah’s flood evil? (didn’t God cause that one?) When He destroyed entire families in the old testament by swallowing them up in the ground was that evil? When Jesus died on the cross, was that evil? I think we have an incorrect concept of what is evil. Jesus said that when we suffer we share in his death and resurrection. Are not the poor, meak, mourning blessed? – Just some thoughts that surfaced – and by no means am I saying that we are being punished when these seemingly horrible things happen to us humans – I just don’t think our tiny minds truly understand what evil really is.

  11. I’ll add my “me too” to the mix. One thing I’ve found helpful – personally, I’ve always tended to view the question of evil as though it doesn’t affect God. Lately I’ve been trying to understand it in terms of the cross – that God Himself suffered. I think if you start with the “all powerful” perspective, it will drive you mad. That’s not to deny that God is all-powerful by any means, but it does reorient the way I think about God using that power. Remembering that God suffered does something to the question. It doesn’t resolve everything but it does help me to maintain the perspective of “God is good”, which seems to me to be the part of the tension that is harder to maintain.

  12. mdaele: i don’t see tsunamis, hurricanes and the like as direct evil (certainly not as personified evil), though i do believe they’re part of a broken-ness that exists in the world. and while there was certainly perpetrated evil that CONTRIBUTED to the impact of those events (politicians more concerned with their reputation than helping, for instance), this is why i went to lengths to seperate perpetrated evil from other things that bring pain and suffering into the world. i know (and still believe) that god can bring good out of crappy stuff, including tsunamis and hurricanes. but i’d be pretty hesitant to try to encourage — for instance — a new orleans mother who just lost her home, all her money, her mother, and one of her children (this is hypothetical — i’m creating a case study) that she’s “blessed”.

  13. scott: dude, now you’ve brought together my two theological cunundrums into one! if god’s need to slay his son on the cross is our encouragment in the face of massive pain and suffering, it doesn’t do much to solve the “all powerful, all good” tension. i mean, it might at some cognitive level — but not to a satisfactory degree on the street.

  14. Considering the corruption of my own heart I am really amazed at how little evil I observe in the world rather than how much. Personally I have had to surrender my addiction to the belief that I can by reason understand God’s goodness and workings in this world.

  15. I just read a great book(very old, but still great) about evil. It’s by M. Scott Peck and is called “People of the Lie”. It talks about some of these things, most specifically the personified evil in the world. I still don’t get it. don’t think that I ever will, to be honest. I have been on the receiving end of evil numerous times (sexual abuse and assault, 4 miscarriages, a mugging, watching our child suffer through 3 surgeries in the past 2 months, to name a few). But I also know that I have been on the giving end of evil. I have overlooked the needy, in my sprint to serve myself.I have taken before I gave. I have refused to see the needs of those around me. When I look at myself, I have to ask why God allows me to continue on? I don’t get why He allows the evil in this world (both on a personal level and on a larger scale such as tsunamis and such). And I do think that the church needs to be more open about telling folks that God is big enough to hear our questions and our frustrations about this. Scripture is full of just that… people pouring out their hearts asking god why He has not stepped in and helped out? If nothing else, my journey through evil has brought me closer to Him because I now feel free to ask those questions and know that He loves me anyway.
    Thanks for the discussion… it’s good for us to talk like this.

  16. marko:

    scott: dude, now you’ve brought together my two theological cunundrums into one! if god’s need to slay his son on the cross is our encouragment in the face of massive pain and suffering, it doesn’t do much to solve the “all powerful, all good” tension. i mean, it might at some cognitive level — but not to a satisfactory degree on the street.

    Ah, now there’s another way to approach this. The problem with I think the typical approach to penal substitution (why does that sound dirty???) is that it pits God and Jesus against each other. It looks at the cross as Father vs Son – and that’s what folks typically react against. I think it’s framed out poorly by most modern evangelicals, which contributes to the problem. So you’ve got guys like Driscoll who talk about God “crushing” Jesus for our sins and it comes out looking like something twisted, instead of something redemptive. And I think the onus is on the folks who hold that model in high regard to be more thoughtful about how it’s discussed and presented – I think the way it’s normally presented sucks, frankly.

    But – and this is a huge but – we as Christians are trinitarian. That means that we believe that God the Father and God the Son are one. So the Father vs. Son imagery that results from poor articulations of substitutionary atonement is on some level just not Christian. Instead, I think of it as God Himself taking on what we deserve. It’s sacrificial and heroic – God doesn’t judge us in the way we deserve; He instead takes the punishment Himself. The actions of the Father and of the Son are the actions of One God – so it’s not at all the same thing as what is commonly articulated, and what a lot of folks react negatively towards (as I think you’ve rightly said). And here’s where I think it intersects with the question of suffering – God Himself accepts suffering at the hands of sinful humanity so that He can redeem the very humans who caused His suffering. It’s quite beautiful on some level, I think.

    Anyway – does that way of looking at the issue help at all?

  17. it’s currently almost impossible for me to believe in an all powerful and good God. the circumstances of my life over the past few months have lead me to a place that feels like God gets some sort of pleasure from watching my life fall to peices (I know this isn’t true but most days right now it feels pretty true) just last night a friend and I were having this conversation and she started to tell me how “all things work together for the good of those who love God” then she realized that right now I just can’t belive that no matter how true I am told it is. so here is her solution for me right now. She is going to believe in a all powerful and good God for me and allow me to believe, doubt, question, and be angry as much as I need to. and she is going to walk with me through all this crap and when I am on the other side of it she is going to help me begin to believe again that God really is all powerful AND good. and this will probably be a process that we repeat for each other over and over again for years to come. right now it is good to know that I am not alone in this struggle, and that she is ok with me being mad and confused about it all…

  18. Just for clarity – I reread my comment and realized that it could sound as though I’m suggesting that mark’s comments are unChristian. That’s not at all what I intended to convey. I think the opposite – the dissatisfaction that a lot of us have with the way substitutionary atonement is often discussed is precisely that it pits the Father against the Son, and that is unChristian imho. So I’m agreeing that we need a better way to talk about the atonement while also holding to what’s good about substitutionary atonement, namely that God intervened on our behalf and suffered in our place.

  19. i hear ya, scott. i’m not ready to throw out substitutionary atonement either. i just want to ADD to it. i don’t find it a satisfactory theology of the cross on its own.

  20. Mark, I hope you will pick up NT Wright’s “Evil and the Justice of God” as soon as it is published- it’s due out in November. He was in the middle of a series of lectures on this while he was at Westminster and then had to interrupt them when he got appointed bishop. Unfortunately, the lectures he did get to complete are no longer available on line, but he took his material and has made it into the book. I’ve been reading through the lectures again because I’m going to copy them for a friend, and Wright actually addresses every point you bring up. I think this is going to end up being his most important work, right alongside his “Christian Origins” series.

    While you’re waiting for that, you might have a look at Robert Webber’s “Ancient-Future Faith”. The discussion of the Christus Victor/recapitulation approach to atonement theology was quite helpful for me. Wright and McKnight both see CV as containing all other “theories of atonement”.

    Here’s something very short that also might be helpful:

    God bless you.

  21. Marko, appreciate your public confession of your struggles. Oftentimes we try to keep these things bottled inside, pretend that we have overcome these struggles. But I definetly know these struggles still batter me down occasionally.
    Have you ever read anything by Clark Pinnock? He is a bit on the more radical side, and was even nearly thrown out of the Evangelical Theological Society, but he has some interesting thoughts in The Most Moved Mover. I also posted some thoughts on natural disaster on my blog a while back called “God, Why Natural Disasters?” which I’d welcome your thoughts on:

  22. Pingback: ysmarko

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