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Acknowledging the Problem of Evil

Jul 10, 2020 03:00 am

One of the most persistent challenges to faith is what philosophers call the Problem of Evil. The problem is easy to understand, but much hard to answer. It says: If God is all-powerful and all-good, why is there so much evil in the world? This sets up three possible answers: 1) God is good but not all-powerful and therefore unable to stop evil. 2) God is all-powerful and could stop evil but chooses not to and is therefore not all-good. Or, 3) God does not exist.

Some skeptics engage this problem by observing the world around them. Stephen Fry, for example, is a famous comedian and atheist in the U.K. When asked what he would say to God if he discovered he existed after death, Fry responded: “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-spirited, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?” Fry went on to talk about bone cancer in children and parasites in people’s eyes—all manner of inexplicably terrible things.

For others, the Problem of Evil is deeply personal. Russell Baker was a well-known columnist for The New York Times and wrote frequently about his childhood. His father died when he was a boy, and Baker said, “After this, I never cried again with any real conviction, nor expected much of anyone’s God except indifference.”

Every worldview, including the non-religious ones, must address our universal experience of evil. Some do this by ignoring God, like Russell Baker. Others address evil by denying God’s existence altogether, like Stephen Fry. But in their attempt to solve the Problem of Evil, these answers actually create another problem. As celebrity atheists Richard Dawkins admits, without God there is “no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” In other words, by solving the Problem of Evil you create the Problem of Good. How does one explain the existence of goodness, justice, and hope in a world without God?

Other philosophies solve the Problem of Evil by denying the reality of evil preferring to redefine it as merely the absence of good the way darkness is the absence of light, but not a thing itself. Some Eastern philosophies go farther by dismissing suffering as merely an illusion one must transcend.

Christian faith is different. While affirming an all-powerful, all-loving Creator, it also acknowledges the very real presence of evil in the world. This seemingly paradoxical vision is what Jesus’ parable of the Wheat and the Weeds illustrates. Good and evil are real and exist in this age side-by-side; a truth that is self-evident. The parable, however, does not explain why evil exists but instead draws our attention to the coming harvest when evil will be extracted from the world and destroyed forever. For me, this is one of the more appealing aspects of Jesus’ teaching. Unlike others, he fully acknowledges and sympathizes with our experience of evil while also offering us hope for the day when it will be overcome by good.

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Matthew 13:24-30
Matthew 13:36-43
Revelation 21:1-4

C. Eric Lincoln (1924 - 2000)

Lord, let me love, though love may be the losing of every earthly treasure I possess.
Lord, make your love the pattern of my choosing. And let your will dictate my happiness.
I have no wish to wield the sword of power, and I want no man to leap at my command; nor let my critics feel constrained to cower for fear of some reprisal at my hand.
Lord, let me love the lowly and the humble, forgetting not the mighty and the strong; and give me grace to love those who may stumble, nor let me seek to judge of right or wrong.
Lord, let my parish be the world unbounded, let love of race and clan be at an end. Let every hateful doctrine be confounded that interdicts the love of friend for friend.

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