Thursday, 11 September 2008

Reflections on evil and suffering

Last week the BBC showed ‘God on trial’ – a film portraying a debate held by Jews in Auschwitz over how God could allow the horrors they were undergoing. And the question is not limited to the holocaust. We see natural disaster, starvation and atrocities daily.

The Bible does give reasons why these things occur. But they are not easy to stomach. Nevertheless, they are given for a reason, and so we must remind ourselves why we believe, recognise the extreme limits of our understanding, and seek to trust the wisdom and justice of God in it all. As Paul writes in Romans 11v33-36: “Oh the depth and the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever! Amen.”

So what wisdom does the Bible bring?
  1. In the broadest sense these things are facets of God’s curse on humanity for its ignoring him. Our world is handed over to moral decay and subjected to frustration (Rom 1v18-32, Rom 8v20-21).
  2. Nevertheless, personal experience of evil and suffering is only rarely a direct punishment for sin. It is part of the ‘blanket’ punishment on all humanity in the curse. And for the Christian, for whom there is no condemnation (Rom 8v1ff), it is no longer even that, it is instead a means of God shaping our character, building our hope and allowing our faith to shine forth (Rom 5v1ff; 8v28-30).
  3. The apparently random nature of evil and suffering, so often inflicting some much more than others, holds much mystery. However, just as God brought order from chaos in creation, so it seems the chaotic and random nature of evil and suffering is intrinsic to its nature as a curse. We are a world cut off from its maker, and that inevitably means randomness and injustice. Eg tyrants die of old age whilst children starve.
  4. What follows from all this, is that the worse the evil and suffering experienced in the world the more serious we recognise humanity’s sin to be, and the more justified and weighty God’s justice and anger at it. Given our limited perspective, we are understandibly (though not justifiably) appalled at God permitting such things, yet we are almost never appalled at how bad human sin must be for him to express his anger in this way. We blame God, when we the ultimate blame lies closer to home.
  5. Yet the more serious sin is and the more extreme God’s subsequent reaction to it, the more incredible it is that he is willing to forgive and do so by sending his only Son to suffer that same evil and suffering. As Paul puts it: Why would anyone die for a wicked man? And why would God sacrifice his Son in order to be reconciled to his enemies? (Rom 5v7-10) If we are generally good, and if God is not really angry, then his love is no greater than that of anyone else. But as the reality of evil and suffeirng brings home the seriousness of sin and extremety of God's anger at it, we become astonished that God would still show mercy.
  6. We conclude then that the worse the evil and suffering in the world, the more God’s love is ultimately magnified, for the evil and suffering show how sinful we are and how rightly angry God is, making his willingness to act for our good quite incredible.
  7. Moreover, whatever other higher purposes God may have in permitting evil and suffering as he does, one purpose certainly is that it displays the glory of his justice and by consequence his mercy (Rom 11v30-32). As Paul again puts it, all is therefore “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph 1). Without evil and suffering we would never witness the reality of God's justice or the depth of his mercy. But because of it we will forever take joy in praising him for them.
  8. What follows is that although it would take a strong faith and clear biblical understanding, when we ourselves endure horrific evil and suffering, a key way of processing it, is to reflect on the fact that, although it is not a direct punishment on the Christian, it does bring home to us the seriousness of sin in general, the weight of God’s justice and anger at it, and so the wonders of God’s love displayed in Christ. It therefore humbles us, and keeps us from trivialising sin or becoming complacent about God’s grace.
  9. Moreover, not to teach all this for fear of offending others, is to prevent perhaps the key purpose God has in evil and suffering – for it to lead people to wonder at his mercy. To keep quiet then is to hide God’s glory, and give the sense that there is a total pointlessness to our pain.
For a superb article regarding the BBC's 'God on trial' see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/sep/07/religion