Today marks the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorism attack on New York City and the Pentagon. In the midst of such commemorations, it’s important to ask ourselves (and to allow others to ask) hard questions. The Problem of Evil is among the most difficult topics to address.
Traditionally, the problem of evil is stated in three sentences, of which one supposedly cannot be true:
Suffering exists in the world
God is sovereign and in control of the world
God is good and loving.
Even some Christians attempt to “let God off the hook” by minimizing the pain of suffering. Hope gives strength to endure, but it does not mean suffering isn’t painful. Minimizing the legitimacy of suffering as a cause for doubt is intellectually dishonest and emotionally callous.
Yet, some defend God’s goodness by saying that he would stop all suffering and pain if he could. They determine any number of reasons why God can’t, but in the end, he would stop it if he could but he can’t. This version of God is kind and gentle, but powerless to save and unworthy of reverent worship.
Another response upholds God’s holiness but seems to minimize his compassion for the people who endure such suffering and pain. This God is holy and worthy of worship, but he is difficult to love.
One of the best Christian responses to the problem of evil comes through Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. At this point in the book/movie, all hope seems lost as the Dark Lord Sauron is growing in power and hope seems to be fading in Frodo and his team’s quest to destroy the ring of power. As Frodo is overwhelmed by the impossibility of success, he has the following dialogue with his friend and compatriot, Sam:
(I know you’re probably tempted to skip over this video. Don’t. It’s 2:30 long, and brilliant. If you’re somewhere public so you can’t listen, read the text HERE and watch it later, this scene is really just that good.)
The following is not presented as a “case closed” and theologically robust defense of God in the midst of suffering (which is referred to as theodicy in the world of philosophy). If you’re looking for a philosophically robust defense of God, please read THIS article by Dr. William Lane Craig. Instead, I hope to present some first steps in a Christian understanding the three statements of the problem.
Suffering Exists in the World
The Christian discussion of pain and suffering needs to find its anchor in Creation. Where we are is wrong. This isn’t how God created the world. And yes, God could have kept the serpent out of the Garden, protecting humanity from temptation – but what would have become? Would love be possible if there’s no choice, no cost, no redemption, no forgiveness?
I love Sam’s immediate response:
It’s all wrong.
By rights we shouldn’t even be here.
But we are.
Sam’s speech affirms what Frodo expresses. “I can’t do this, Sam.”
The suffering is real. The pain is real. The impossibility of overcoming sin and the effects of sin is real.
But suffering isn’t eternal. Sin brings death. Death only came into the world with sin (see multiple verses linked in HERE) – and when sin is fully judged and dealt with, death and suffering will also follow. Sin and death will not have the final word…
God is Holy and Sovereign
I understand why God’s holiness and sovereignty is called into question. We’re doing a great disservice by minimizing the challenges here.
It is BECAUSE OF his holiness and sovereignty that we have hope. The three statements of the Problem of Evil are all truthful statements, but they are not all secure truths. God will always be holy, sovereign, good, and loving. But suffering will not always be experienced here on Earth. In the New Heavens and New Earth we will experience the fullness of this promise,
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:3-4 (ESV)
Additionally, it is because God is holy and sovereign that sin has been satisfied. Sin couldn’t be ignored, overlooked, and stripped of power. In keeping with his holiness, God the Son came as a man in order to destroy the work of the devil and to reconcile God and man (1 John 3:8).
God is Good and Loving
It was the goodness and love of God, not the nails, which held the Son of God onto that cross. If you ever doubt the love of God, look at the cross. Because of what happened there, sin has received its own death sentence.
Truly, the greatest experience of suffering the world has ever experienced was the sin of crucifying God on the cross. John 1:10-11 declares, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”
Look for the End
The Hobbit, Samwise Gamgee, was a great theologian.
Sam: A new day will come.
And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.
Those were the stories that stayed with you.
That meant something.
Even if you were too small to understand why.
But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand.
I know now.
Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t.
Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding on to, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.
The story is not over. The suffering we endure is real. The challenge of holding onto faith in the midst of suffering is difficult. But a new day will come. A day when all that’s true will be revealed, and when all that’s only contingently-true will pass away with the sin upon which it depends.
We rely on the grace of God to strengthen us to endure for today. But we keep our eyes fixed on the end. It is hope which causes us to hold fast to the holiness and love of God, to be “sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1)… because so much of what we see today flows from the curse of sin.
When you are overwhelmed by the suffering of life and you feel like you simply cannot overcome, heed the counsel of Samwise Gamgee: “We should not be here. But we are.” Then look to the end, and remember the fight for goodness in the world is a direct reflection of God’s fight to destroy the suffering and death that is only true so long as sin remains.
And in the end, God’s holiness and love will remain. Sin and suffering will not.
That’s a statement worth holding on to.