Something is wrong. Commitment is a thing of the past. Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand. Charity is dead. We have ceased to instill our children with virtues and then we are shocked that they grow up to be reprobates. Materialism and hedonism are the philosophies of the masses because their education has not empowered them to define either. Our modern world has left us dissatisfied and disillusioned. We search for something lost. Classicism is on the ascendancy.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When Bad Things Happen to Good People: Christianity and the Problem of Evil

“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”  -- C.S. Lewis

The sad story has spread through the news and social networks, affecting not only a family but a whole community: Asher, only three years old, a little boy full of life and vigor and enthusiasm, died in one of the most tragic accidents imaginable. He was playing at his own house, one minute filling the backyard with his innocent laughter, and the next minute he was gone.

In moments like this, everyone - even the most faithful Christian - is left groping for answers to one of life’s greatest questions: If God is good and loving, why do things like this happen? If He cares like we claim He cares, why does He allow tragic accidents like Asher’s? Why do bad things happen to good people?

There can be no equivocating: these are difficult questions. Thankfully, we are not starting from ground zero. The greatest thinkers of human history have confronted these same questions, a long list which includes King Solomon, Paul of Tarsus, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Dostoevsky, C.S. Lewis, and Alvin Plantinga. Collectively, the questions we are dealing with have been distilled down to a philosophical argument, often referred to by philosophers as “The Problem of Evil.” The argument goes something like this:

1.      God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent; that is, God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good.
2.      God knows about every instance of evil in the world.
3.      God has the power to prevent every instance of evil in the world.
4.      A God who is all-good would want to prevent every instance of evil in the world.
5.      Instances of evil exist.
6.      Therefore, God does not exist.

We say God is all-knowing, He is powerful beyond measure, and He is perfectly good. I think almost everyone can agree on the first two statements: if God does exist, then He knows all things and has the power to do whatever He wills. Therefore, the third quality, or premise 4 of our argument, is the one which garners the most attention: is God really “good”, and if He is, would He desire to prevent every instance of evil in the world? Is it possible that God is either not all-good, or that the quality of being all-good does not require that He desire to prevent evil? That is, can God be all-good and yet allow evil to exist? This seems to be the crux of the problem, and it is what the casual agnostic is getting at when he says, “I’m not sure I can believe in a God who would let all these terrible things happen to good people.” It is an apparent contradiction that the theist must be ready to answer.

If God knows of every instance of evil, has the power to prevent every instance of evil that He knows about, and yet evil persists, the theist must focus on whether the quality of being all-good demands God prevent every instance of evil in the world; that is, the theist must show that God is not required by His own nature to prevent evil. Theists have attempted to answer this question in different ways, but their solutions have a common theme: is there something at work in evil – some greater good - which God deems valuable enough to allow evil to persist? Is there a greater good that comes of evil such that an all-good God would not feel the need to prevent it? When something tragic happens like Asher’s accident, God may have a purpose in allowing it that we might not readily understand. It is what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote that God “works all things to the good.” But what good could possibly come of such a sad accident?

For family’s like Asher’s that are suffering, I suspect attempts to explain God’s greater purposes often sound like hollow sermonizing; nonetheless, we might see what Christianity’s greatest minds have said about the problem. Augustine wrote in his Confessions that, “though the higher things are better than the lower, the sum of all creation is better than the higher things alone.”[2] Solving the Problem of Evil was a life-long quest for Augustine, and he ultimately believed that the universe is experientially more rich because it contains every form of existence: pain as well as euphoria, ugliness as well as beauty, sorrow as well as joy. It is because we see people acting ill that we have a proper appreciation for people acting virtuously. It is because we see much that is ugly in the world that we see the fullness of beauty. In the case of a tragic loss such as Asher’s, Augustine thought it is because we as humans experience such great sorrow that we can know such great joy.

C.S. Lewis took a similar route in approaching the issue in his work The Problem of Pain. He argued that evil is necessary because “The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it.”[3] Lewis understood the key to human happiness was obedience to God. He also understood obedience to God is not possible without the constant surrender of the human will, what Paul referred to as “[dying] daily.” Lewis argued that much of humanity is incapable of “turning [their] thoughts to God when everything is going well….,” so God allows us to be crushed on the rocks of pain and suffering. Once we have been ship-wrecked and realize our terrible state, only then do we turn our attention to God. Lewis’ position on pain seems to be similar to what Paul wrote of the Law: pain is something of a school-master, designed to lead us to a reliance on God. If the Law was designed by God so we could realize we are sinners in need of a Savior, then pain breaks our self-will so we forsake ourselves and rely on Him.

The ideas of Augustine and Lewis have a lot of merit. It seems to me that to some degree evil is even necessary for good to exist. There are certainly states that we all recognize as being “good” that cannot exist without an attendant evil: “heroic strength in the face of great suffering”, “extraordinary faith in times of terrible doubt”, and “humble forgiveness in light of a grievous wrong”, to name a few. Not even an omnipotent being could create “heroic strength in the face of great suffering” without “the great suffering.” And we all learn something about ourselves in these hours of overwhelming adversity. It is in the face of great evil, of debilitating pain and suffering, that humanity knows it’s most divine moments. Without Nazi facism humanity would never have known of the grace of Frank or the clemency of Schindler. Without Pearl Harbor we may never have known D-Day. Without 9/11 we would not have known of the courage of Beamer or his fellow passengers on Flight 93. Without a million Persians history likely would have forgotten the strength of 300 Spartans under the leadership of their king, Leonidas. Without slavery and racism, we could not have witnessed the resolve of Lincoln, Douglass, or Martin Luther King, Jr. God gives us opportunities to be heroes, and the stories of those who thrive in the face of such great adversity inspire others for generations.

None of this is likely to offer much comfort to those who are hurting, but our hope is in this: all things work together for good to those who love God.

(I approach this topic with all seriousness. My sincerest prayers and sympathies go out to Asher’s family and friends. This is my own awkward attempt at trying to help Asher’s memory persist and to make sense of his accident by helping us all to consider an important question. The joy and sorrow that we all share in this life binds us, and the questions that an accident like this makes us face are necessary.)

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, 1996), p. 83.
[2] Augustine, Confessions VII. 13.
[3] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 82.