Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Problem of Evil: Part II

I have been thinking quite a lot about theology, lately. My theology, as in my thoughts about God and my relationship with God. Now, inevitably, anyone who believes in God comes up against the problem of evil: as in, if God is good, and God loves me, and God could cure or prevent the suffering in the world including mine, then why is there so much suffering? And why am I suffering?

Now, there are many theological semi-answers to this. A surprisingly good summary of them is at Wikipedia's Problem of Evil entry. Their thoughts are, frankly, a lot more sophisticated than mine because far better minds than mine have wrestled with this problem.

I have a somewhat different set of dilemmas in my mind partly because, due to my fundamentalist background, my thinking tends to be steeped in the Bible rather than in classical philosophy and theology.

In the Bible, I find two basic answers to the origin of evil. The first, and this is not a view generally held among Christians, is that evil comes quite directly from God. God is the creator of the universe and God created evil as well as good.

In the Old Testament, evil is mainly a word for the bad things that happen: natural disasters, plagues, losing battles, invasions, personal misfortunes. In other religions, the religions of the people who surrounded the Jews, a multitude of gods was the norm and gods were not necessarily good. Various gods struggled for power among themselves and a lot of disasters for humans were attributed to the temporary triumph of essentially malicious or callous gods and/or the general fall-out from the power struggles between the gods. Stories like the Iliad, where the war is caused by gods displeased with particular humans and also competing among themselves, reflect this kind of religion.

In contast, the God of the Jews was the only God. And although there are certainly times when disasters are caused by the sins of humans and the resulting wrath of God, God is often the author of disasters which seem quite unjustified, even in the story. For the Jews, God was the creator. There was no other creator, and therefore God must have created evil as well as good, just as he created darkness as well as light. One way or another, all the disasters and terrible experiences that happen to humans come ultimately from God:

I am the Lord and there is no other
I form the light and create darkness
I bring prosperity and create disaster
I, the Lord, do all these things.(Isiah 45:7)

Does evil befall a city unless God has done it? (Amos 3:6)

In fact, the God of the Old Testament is not necessarily the kind of flawless, perfect, loving and even consistent God we tend to think of as the Christian God. God is more like a sort of eastern potentate. Very powerful, but prone to changing his mind and even to bursts of what looks like sheer bad temper. One of my best friends once said to me, "I think God has a dark side", and I knew justwhat he meant.

Perhaps it is for this reason that Satan isn't portrayed as a very powerful figure. Satan is like a kind of courtier dealing with a powerful king. He doesn't really seem to be evil or opposed to God. He serves an important function as an accusor, a kind of prosecutor, in a court dominated by God as judge. Satan can suggest certain things to God, even challenge God, but God is very much in control and makes the final decisons.

This view is pretty much exemplified in the Book of Job. Essentially, the book begins with God boasting to Satan about Job, who is portrayed as a very good man who honours God and does everything right. Satan points out to God that this is because God has looked after Job and blessed him with prosperity. If God struck him and took those things away, Job's upright character and faith in God would quickly disappear. So God gives him over to Satan for testing and Satan takes away all his worldly goods, kills his children and afflicts him with horrible diseases. Job complains, at length, but refuses to curse God and die, as recommended by his wife. Various friends visit and tell Job that he must have sinned to bring such punishment upon himself, which is clearly not true. Job defends himself and refuses to concede that he has done anything wrong. In the end, Job is partially vindicated. God gives a long speech, stressing his own incredible power and majesty and generally making it clear that Job has no right to criticise his justice. But once Job admits he has no right to reproach God, God then restores all of what Job had and more.

Now, many people find the Book of Job comforting, and in a way it is. If you find it comforting to reflect on the fact that God moves in mysterious ways, that God is essentially just and merciful in his own way rather than in the ways that humans would prefer, and humans should stay humble and accept that this is all part of some overall purpose that we are too small and limited to see, then you'll probably like the Book of Job.

Personally, aside from the pleasure of the beautiful language, I find the Job story alarming. God allows Satan to do terrible things to Job and his family, esentially for a kind of bet. And while Job may wind up better off than he started, nothing is really said about the dead children who seem to be largely collateral damage. Although Satan has a role, it is essentially God who afflicts Job by handing him over. Frankly, I think Job's complaints against God are fully justified.

The New Testament seems to have quite a different view of evil. In the New Testament, evil is not so much concrete things like illnesses or disasters. Evil is a kind of radical evil, a spiritual force behind human suffering. The various demons and mysterious spiritual entitites who are more on the margins of the Old Testament stories are suddenly quite central. Both Satan and the minor devils seem much more unambiguously malevolent and cause a lot of human misery. Jesus spends a fair amount of time showing that he has authority over them by casting them out. Satan motivates Judas to betray Jesus, but Jesus triumphs in the end through his resurrection.

But this triumph isn't complete. The letters from various disciples to the churches tend to stress that Satan is the god of this world, somehow temporarily allowed to reign until God's purposes are all fulfilled. Evil and suffering are the norm, until Jesus comes back:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.(Eph 6:12)

Why go into all this? Well, because I think my spiritual crisis is about God as the author of evil and suffering. In my heart of hearts, I find the portrayal of God in the Old Testament and the Book of Job both alarming and convincing. Not so much at the intellectual level, on some abstract theological plain, but emotionally.

Terrible things have happened and are happening to me and to the people I love and God seems to do nothing about it. God doesn't seem very motivated to do anything about suffering around the world, either. Frankly, I suspect him of having something to do with it. Either he is causing it or he is allowing it, and I don't much care which of these it is because the real issue for me is the damage and the pain.

I do not know whether this issue for me is somehow tied up with theology, dodgy or otherwise, or even if it is simply that being in the midst of suffering, not reflecting on it in hindsight after a happy ending, or even just after gaining a sense of perspective, gives a person a kind of distorted view.

I am grieving. I am truly sad. I am so sad for my Big Dude, for the loss of so many of the good things he was, for the losses to our relationship. I am frightened of the implications of his illnesses for him, for me and for our baby. I am frightened about what will happen next. And I am so sad for my friend Judy and her daughter. And I am so sad for my sister, who was raped. If such terrible things can happen to such truly good people, then no one is safe.

It feels like I managed to deal with my feelings about all these things as they happened, individually and in succession. But for some reason that I don't quite understand, all these griefs now seem to be piling up on me somehow, and I am struggling to stand up under them. I manage. I even manage to enjoy most of my life. But there is some deep, wrenching grief doing on within me, half-buried beneath my daily life, and my deepest and most secret thoughts are often very dark. God apparently allows almost unbearable pain, and yet I can't feel that he is here with me, sharing any of it. I try to feel that he is here, I do, but I feel alone. And I feel afraid.

I know that I am not the only one. C S Lewis is one of my favourite authors. I love, not only the Narnia stories with their beautiful Christlike Aslan, but also a lot of his lesser-known fiction and non-fiction. He was a famous Christian intellectual and spokesperson who wrote extensively about issues like suffering. But frankly, a lot of it was remote, intellectual. When real suffering actually happened to him, when the wife he loved got cancer and died, his state of mind seems to have been something like mine. In A Grief Observed, Lewis wrote that, in the midst of grief, he was surprised to find that "grief felt so much like fear". He found that he still believed in God, but he was "in danger of coming to believe such terrible things about him." God must be a "Cosmic Sadist", even a "spiteful imbecile".

At the moment, I find Lewis's terrible grief and doubt after his wife died so much more convincing that his ultimate acceptance and reconciliation to her loss. This quote struck me with a terrible force:

Where is God? Go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the other side... There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited?

I believe and hope that I, and we, will come through this. That my faith in God will not be lost and may even be restored to me. That somehow I will find that God has been here with me all the time. But for the moment, God does feel like the careless God of Job who inflicts suffering and says that we are not allowed to criticise. He does seem like Lewis's Cosmic Sadist.

And I don't talk to sadists.


Anonymous Cat said...

My mom always reminds me that God didn't inflict anything on Job. That God allowed the devil to inflict things on Job by removing his protection from him. And I always remind my mom that the cermantics of how the pain was inflicted doesn't matter. But then she will say that the lesson was to remember that the Father protects us and when satan does inflict pain He soothes our spirit to endure.

Of course these conversations never seem to give me much solace when I am up at 3:00 am and my autistic son is banging the walls :)

I don't know where I stand with God but I do think the questions, the struggle to find the answers, to be correct is certainly a good start...

5:26 PM  
Blogger Desmond Jones said...

A wonderfully poignant, honest post, Emily. And I understand; better maybe, than I let on.

I won't insult you by telling you my troubles, and even seeming to compare them with yours. But I understand where you're coming from.

Job has been comforting to me, as has A Grief Observed. The main thing that I took from them is that the 'slammed door' is not the last word. As Lewis said in The Problem of Pain: God shouts to us in our pain.

I'd like to say that I understand, and I've got the whole thing figured out - that I really, deeply understand why there is such suffering in this life, and why it seems so randomly distributed. Lord knows there are plenty of my brother-Christians who seem to feel like they need to have it 'all figured out', but I don't. All I've got to go on is that I've come to know the Lord personally, and I know that, whatever else is true of Him, He's good. Even when it doesn't seem that way to me. Like was said of Aslan, the Lord is "not safe, but He's good".

And as soon as I say that, I admit that I have no answer for how His goodness is manifested in the Big Dude's illness, or your friend Judy, or your sister. I don't.

There is a book out now by an author named Hart; I can't think of the title, but it's roughly on the theme of "Where was God in the tsunami?" The reviews I've seen have been very good. If you're interested. . .

5:35 PM  
Blogger Desmond Jones said...

The book I was thinking of is 'The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?' by David Bentley Hart. If you're interested. . .

8:10 AM  
Blogger FTN said...

I won't leave a long comment, and Cat and Desmond have already said good things. As analytical as I may sometimes be, I still know God much more personally than intellectually. It's a relationship that's not always logical. As Desmond said, I can only go on what I know of the Lord personally.

I also won't try to debate why there is evil in the world, because I think we've discussed it before, and I doubt I could say anything you haven't heard multiple times before. But I would encourage you to think of the good things... your baby's smile... a good meal... enjoyable sex, when it does happen... Where do those things comes from? Who "allows" them to happen?

Hmm, how about I just give you a hug? Hugs cure everything. :-)

1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post . I think you summed up the basic issue of evil and the problem it creates for Christians in trying to explain it's existence There is no way to let God completely off the hook. I think for myself one of the issues that has created doubt and questions is the matter of prayer. james says that the fervant prayer of a righteous mion avails much but after years of of being deeply involved in church and parying thougsands of prayers I cannot poin t to ine event that I can say was changed by the prayers. Those who were terminal remained terminal. Those who rebelled remained rebellious. The thing is I don't believe God owes me ay favors. Why should I be spared trouble when so many others suffer for worse than I do? I know a lot of people I spend time with wold read your pst and feel very deeply for you but would offer you platitudes about God's love and care and not being anxious about anything. maybe the answer to your prayers will be found in the strength you have in yourself and which while I know it fails and seems nonexistant at times, is so apparent in your words. I'll sttop blather ing on but I do want to thank you for expressing your thoughts so well and know that you are not alone.

8:09 AM  
Anonymous Rosie said...

Did God actually create evil? I always thought he simply allowed it to exist the way he allows us to make mistakes since he did give us free-will.

4:58 PM  

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