The Problem of Evil

It is with more than a little trepidation that I even approach the problem of evil. The entire Bible, directly or indirectly, is devoted to the subject, as are all of the world’s major religions. And there are so many types and sources of evil from which to choose! There’s self inflicted evil (“you reap what you sow”), there’s evil that is inflicted upon us by others, and then there is generic “evil” that seems to come along “naturally”. Pain, death, floods, droughts, famines, typhoons, tornadoes, tsunamis, birth defects and diseases (both genetic and acquired), to name a few.

Along the way, I have learned that it is generally unproductive for those currently going through personal pain and suffering to question God’s actions, or, as the case may be, inactions. The inquiry degrades from “How can God allow evil in this hypothetical case?” to “Why me?” There is a barb attached to the inquiry; a bias in the questioning that rejects most valid answers as unacceptable, cold and without compassion, and thus not very “God like”.

But for those seekers/inquirers of God who honestly desire to reconcile the Bible’s description of a holy, compassionate and all-powerful God allowing rampant evil to pervade his creation, let’s open the discussion…

First, I offer this anecdote regarding the generic form of evil that confronts humankind “naturally”:

My maternal grandmother was a saint – not in the Catholic sense with the characteristic halo and Mona Lisa smile, but in the catholic (universal) biblical sense. She understood God’s grace and thanked him in return with her love and service on a daily basis. Her life was full of trials, ending with a painful death from breast cancer and dementia. My uncle is an atheist and uses this event to “prove” the non-existence (or at the very least absence or apathy) of God. “If God existed”, he’d say, “he sure doesn’t take very good care of his followers.” Then he might follow up with the more classic, “How could an all powerful, compassionate God allow a righteous person to suffer needlessly?”

So, does this “prove” the non-existence of God? Is it reasonable to expect God to give preferential treatment to his followers? A short reflection on this should make it clear that, if “natural” pain and suffering is permitted for anyone, it is only fair that it be permitted for everyone. Another perspective is that pain, suffering, death, et. al. shouldn’t even be considered part of “evil”, since these things are part of the natural order, “circle of life”, “a time to be born, a time to die”, and the like.

What about behavioral evil, that is, evil that is inflicted by one person on another. Why doesn’t God just eliminate all evil and be done with it? The Bible hints that behavioral evil wasn’t part of the original creation – but introduced by his creation (in this case Satan, but Man certainly shares culpability) . Once in the mix, it has proved remarkably resistant to removal. Jesus sheds some light on the topic with the following story:

He told another story. “God’s kingdom is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. That night, while his hired men were asleep, his enemy sowed thistles all through the wheat and slipped away before dawn. When the first green shoots appeared and the grain began to form, the thistles showed up, too.

The farmhands came to the farmer and said, ‘Master, that was clean seed you planted, wasn’t it? Where did these thistles come from?’

“He answered, ‘Some enemy did this.’

“The farmhands asked, ‘Should we weed out the thistles?’

“He said, ‘No, if you weed the thistles, you’ll pull up the wheat, too. Let them grow together until harvest time. Then I’ll instruct the harvesters to pull up the thistles and tie them in bundles for the fire, then gather the wheat and put it in the barn.'”

Matthew 13:24-30, The Message

With this parable, we are introduced to God’s version of Gene Roddenberry’s Prime Directive (those of you unfamiliar with the Star Trek franchise please bear with me). Also known as the Non-Interference Directive, it limits Starfleet personnel’s contact with lesser developed cultures. The thought is that most interaction would likely have unexpected and deleterious results. According to the mythos, the Prime Directive probably originated from the hyper-logical Vulcan race.

Jesus thus answers here two often asked questions: “How can a loving God allow evil to exist and thrive?”, and, “Why doesn’t God just eliminate evil once and for all?” The answer to both questions: “He chooses not to interfere because rooting out evil would damage the good.”

Think about the implications of this for a moment. God’s economy, if you will, runs on faith. Direct interference tends to damage that faith. True, there are times when God chooses to interfere in a big way, but it follows a calculated weighing of the costs vs. the benefits.

Another mistake people make when judging God for evil’s effect on our lives is the thought that our comfort is paramount. God illustrates in the Gospels that relationship with him trumps our comfort, and even our very lives, every time. This lesson is aptly demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus.

“Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death – and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion.

Philippians 2:8, The Message

So far, it would appear that I’ve been building a case for God having his hands tied when dealing with his creation so as not to interfere with its natural development. Thankfully, God knows no such limits. I’ll discuss this topic in a future post. Until then, I welcome your thoughts and comments.

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