Helping People Think Through “Suffering and Evil”

March 19, 2009 at 8:18 pm Leave a comment

I was talking with a Bible teacher recently who brought up the difficulty of walking people through horrible instances of suffering. A few years ago I did some reading for a Seminary class on “Evil and Suffering”, and I found the following helpful.

When it comes to human suffering and evil there will always be questions. How should we, as Christians, respond to the questions that grow out of the deepest pains of human existence? Honestly, there are some questions, like “why”, that have no clear explanation- when it comes to the particulars.

For what its worth, here are some thoughts on suffering and evil, and some things to keep in mind when thinking through these issues.

Types of Evil

It is often helpful to identify the ‘type’ of evil that someone has experienced, or has questions about, when walking alongside them through dark times.

  • Natural Evil is that which does not involve human willing and acting, but is merely an aspect of nature that seems to work against human welfare.
  • Moral Evil is that which is the direct result of human volition.
  • Physical Evil is suffering caused by corruption in the body.

These “types”  will allow for a little more clarity when approaching a specific subject within the umbrella of “suffering and evil.”

Biblical Themes Concerning Suffering and Evil

When walking alongside someone who has experienced suffering and evil it is important to keep the following themes in mind.

1. The Theme of ‘Order in Creation’

God created the world in a purposeful and orderly way. One of the aspects of this particular world is that God’s creatures have the power of volition, which can be used to bring about good or evil. Within this particular good world, it must be stated that the possibility for evil and suffering became present at the fall. It must also be stated that God created this particular world with comprehensive foreknowledge of the actions each creature will could and would make.

2. The Element of Satan

Satan is first and foremost, a personal being. Beyond that Satan was once an angel who deceived himself into believing that he could oppose God successfully. Satan is seen as an adversary or accuser. Often Satan will tempt people in order that they do wrong; in doing so Satan attempts to builds his case of accusation.

In the NT Satan resists the children of God. Satan uses deceit in order to fulfill this function. Satan not only accuses people before God, but provokes humans against one another. On a personal level, Satan torments individuals with ‘self-accusation’ arising from sin.

It is important to remember that Satan may influence creation, but Satan cannot force people to sin. Satan tempts and influences people to do wrong, but human beings are held responsible for their own actions and sin.

3. The Element of Creaturely Rebellion

It was not God’s desire that man have the burden of the knowledge of good and evil. But, the first man and woman exercised their freedom and rebelled against what God desired for them. God must judge mankind for disobedience against His revealed will.

Furthermore, ‘The entrance of sin into the good creation affected not only the relationship of these beings to God, but also brought deleterious effects upon all of creation’.

4. The Element of Divine Justice and Discipline

God is holy and just, and will judge all sin. Evil is present in the world due to human rebellion which demands Divine punishment. Within the Bible we also find instances where evil occurs within the context of divine discipline. Evil is never ascribed to God, but occurs due to the lack of goodness in people.

This is often viewed as the ‘basic solution’ to all other themes of suffering and evil. In its most basic sense, ‘God must judge people for their sins’. As one author argues, this view ‘imposes suffering with the expectation that its punishment will lead to repentance or at least to a cessation of evil acts’.

Again he explains, this view ‘considers affliction as a visitation from God…God disciplines his people, collectively and individually, that they may be brought closer to him. The purpose of God’s discipline is often to teach a lesson, to train and to mature his children through suffering’.

5. The Element of Spiritual Maturity

In some instances evil and human suffering result in the maturity of a believer. It is not that evil and suffering are brought on persons in order to advance them, but rather, through these instances one grows in their faith as they trust in God, the one who creates and sustains. Times of intense suffering often cause the believer to cast all their pain upon God, which results in finding God’s grace as sufficient.

This view argues that through some instances of suffering, one gains entry into a fuller knowledge of God. This is obviously dependant on the attitude of the sufferer.

“Three major ideas are included in this approach, (1) since the world is evil and often in the control of wickedness, the godly must wait for the disposition of wickedness and righteousness which is sure to come. (2) In this probational period, the depth of a persons faith is submitted to a rigid test, the result of which reveals the true character of his or her faith. (3) In the New Testament, especially, this struggle is seen as inevitable for the Christian life, and hence is evidence in itself that one is a Christian.”

6. The Themes of Redemption and Eschatology

The term ‘redemptive’ can refer to many closely related theories. Some evil may be redemptive that it is suffered for others, or instead of others. Some evil may be redemptive for the sufferer in the sense that God sometimes brings about good, in spite of, and even through, suffering.

There are instances where God uses evil for His redemptive purposes. The ultimate conclusion of God’s redemptive purposes involves God’s final triumph over evil through the deliverance of the saints, the defeat of Satan and those who have rejected Christ, and the unveiling of the new heaven and earth in which God’s people enjoy Him forever.

Again, there will be complete victory over evil in the end times. This solution to suffering sees the answer to the problem of evil and suffering as existing beyond the present conflict.

7. The Element of Mystery

There do remain some things that we do not understand completely. Such as, the way God orders the worlds affairs. One author notes, “all of the solutions found in the Bible are legitimate approaches to the problem of evil. Each principle has a specific application, but none of them claims to be the total or final answer. There is always an element of mystery”.

Christ; Suffering and Evil: Our Only Hope

Ultimately, the Gospel of Jesus Christ- the good news- is the only comfort we can provide someone who has faced the horrible tragedies of life.

I think Tim Keller puts it well;

“The death of Jesus was qualitatively different from any other death. The physical pain was nothing compared to the spiritual experience of cosmic abandonment. Christianity alone among the worlds religions claims that God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ and therefore knows firsthand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture, and imprisonment. On the cross he went beyond even the worst human suffering and experienced cosmic rejection and pain that exceeds ours as infinitely as his knowledge and power exceeds ours. In His death, God suffers in love, identifying with the abandoned and godforsaken. Why did he do it? The Bible says that Jesus came on a rescue mission for creation. He had to pay for our sins so that someday he can end evil and suffering without ending us.

If we were to ask the question: “why does God allow evil and suffering to continue” and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we now know what the answer isn’t. It cant be that He doesn’t love us. It cant be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself.

So, if we embrace the Christian teaching that Jesus is God and that he went to the cross, then we have deep consolation and strength to face the brutal realities of life on earth. We can know that God is truly Immanuel- God with us- even in our worst sufferings” (Tim Keller)

For further reading on the subject of ‘Evil and Suffering’ I recommend the following books;

1. D.A. Carson, How Long O Lord’: Reflections on Suffering and Evil, Baker Academic, 2006.

2. John Piper and Justin Taylor, Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, Crossway, 2006.

3. John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil, Crossway, 2004.

Works Used In Writing this Post

[1] Millard Erikson in ‘Christian Theology’ (1998).
[2] David P. Nelson’s chapter on ‘The Work of God’  in ‘A Theology for the Church’ (Edited by Daniel Akin, 2007).
[3] Bruce A. Little’s class notes on ‘The Problem of Evil’.
[4] The “themes” are a combination of ideas presented in three different books. John P. Newport’s ‘Life’s Ultimate Questions’ (1989); L. Russ Bush’s ‘Handbook for Christian Philosophy’ (1991), and David P. Nelson’s chapter on ‘The Work of God’  in ‘A Theology for the Church’ (Edited by Daniel Akin, 2007).
[5] The section quoted from Timothy Keller’s ‘The Reason for God’ (2008).

Entry filed under: Christianity, Faith, Religion, Thoughts.

Church History Teasers (Part 9): Calvin ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion; Book Three’ Carson, Keller, and Piper: “The Gospel and Churchianity”

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