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Evil and Suffering
Lecture 1 - Good & Evil: What Is The Difference?
We all live daily with the reality of the brokenness of so many people's lives. But, why is there such brokenness? Why is there so much pain in the world? Why is there such evil? This question has become particularly acute for many of us after the events of 9/11/01. The images of the planes flying into the twin towers, of the falling bodies, of the smoke and ash, of the people running – these will not, in this world, be erased from our minds.
Tonight we begin a series of studies related to this topic: the problem of evil and suffering. We commence with the most basic question:
Question 1. What is the difference between good and evil?
How do we differentiate; how do we decide what is good, and what is bad? This may seem an unnecessary question, because we can all point to events, behavior and actions that we regard as evil. But, the question is: ‘Why?’ What is the foundation on which we build that allows us to declare that certain events are evil? We are all aware that there are those who have denied that the terrorist acts of a year ago were objectively evil. There are some who have said that ‘evil is only a matter of perspective’; that the terrorists thought they were doing good; that we can certainly find them, fight them, bring them to justice, try them and punish them, but that we cannot say that what they did was truly evil; rather, it was only evil ‘to us’. How do we respond to such a view? How will we answer the question of whether we can objectively know what is good and what is evil? We will look at some of the options set before us in our world.
1. Western Materialism or Humanism (though we will include Marxism in our analysis here). Western thought for the last 300 years has moved ever more strongly in the direction of declaring: "God is dead (or at least, God is silent)—Humanity is free." For the first generation of those who reject Christianity and either accept a watered down version (many churches—a non-supernatural gospel) or become agnostic (we can't know God), or humanist (there is no God), the second table of the law seems self-evidently true (my parents). People were convinced they still knew what was right and wrong; they could define evil clearly. Jean Paul Sartre put it this way: "they suppress God at the least possible expense." Some, like Julian Huxley and other humanists, spoke of an ethics of reason, or an ethics derived from ‘scientific’ values.
However, no matter how we dress it up with scientific or philosophical language, gradually it becomes apparent that without God, humanity is the only source of law, the only source of the knowledge of good and evil. This gives only four possible options.
a). The individual decides for himself or herself. Sartre put it this way: "Man is condemned to be free ... to invent man." “Nowhere”, he said, “is it written that one must not lie, or steal, or beat one's wife. I have total responsibility for myself.” This might be fine if people were completely good, and if there were no corruption in human nature, but this is not the reality in which we all live. We have to acknowledge that it is the widespread acceptance of this emphasis on the ‘freedom of the individual’ that has created a situation in our society where, as in the day of the Judges, "everyone did as he saw fit" (Judges 21:25). Consider what evil may be done in the name of free choice!
b). The majority decides for us all. As William Golding put it: "If man is the highest, is his own creator, then good and evil is decided by majority vote." We may call this sociological law, or simply democracy: the rule of the people, and this is indeed how many Americans understand democracy. We will have many more referendums on moral issues as this view becomes more dominant in our society. Again, consider what evil may be done in the name of the majority!
c). Those in power decide: might is right. Those who are powerful may be dictators with guns (Idi Amin, Hitler, Saddam Hussein), or they may be powerful elites imposing their views on the many through the courts, the congress, the media, wealthy business interests, or the executive office. Consider how our culture has become subject to powerful groups, who may do evil in the name of good, or simply to further their own self interest.
d). An ideology decides. Marxism is the obvious example. Terrible evil may be done in the name of some supposed ultimate good. Consider this quote from David Aikman in Time Magazine, July 31st, 1978, written about Kampuchea.
"Where the insane reversal of values lies is in the belief that notions like "purity" or "corruption" can have any meaning outside an absolute system of values: one that is resistant to the tinkering at will by governments or revolutionary groups. The Cambodian revolution, in its own degraded "purity," has demonstrated what happens when the Marxian denial of moral absolutes is taken with total seriousness by its adherents. Pol Pot and his friends decide what good is, what bad is, and how many corpses must pile up before the rapacious demon of "purity" is appeased.
In the West today, there is a pervasive consent to the notion of moral relativism, a reluctance to admit that absolute evil can and does exist. This makes it especially difficult for some to accept the fact that the Cambodian experience is something far worse than a revolutionary aberration. Rather, it is the deadly logical consequence of an atheistic, man-centered system of values, enforced by fallible human beings with total power, who believe, with Marx, that morality is whatever the powerful define it to be and, with Mao, that power grows from gun barrels..."
The more confident one is that humanity is the only source of law and of the knowledge of good and evil, then the more readily evil will be done. Utopians, those who are sure that they are right and that humans are not fundamentally morally flawed, are those who will do the greatest evil. That is why such terrible evil could be done by, e.g. Stalin, in the name of improving society.
The more our culture lives with the absence or silence of God the more deeply pessimistic and cynical it will become. Consider the movie American Beauty as an example of this. To make ourselves the deciders of good and evil leads both to moral relativism and to cynicism. This does not mean that all people have lost moral character in their own personal lives – my parents were an example of deeply moral people who had no ultimate foundation for their convictions and behavior. But, there is a steady slide into a relativistic abyss. Consider the problems with children and young people in Britain right now (or the example on the news today of a man in Milwaukee beaten to death by a group of teenagers and children – some as young as ten).
2. Another alternative is radical Islam. In the view of Osama Bin Laden and his followers, almost the whole of the Moslem world since about 950 A.D. has been unfaithful to the roots of Islam. The view of the radicals (who are a tiny minority within Islam) is that there is a ‘house of faith’ or ‘house of peace’ and a ‘house of unbelief’ or ‘house of war’. Their calling is to take up the holy war, the jihad, first to cleanse Islam itself and then to take the world for Allah. They are committed, therefore, to the overthrow of Islamic governments that they see as unfaithful to their radical vision of Islam and to the destruction of their enemies. For them there are no innocent victims, only the holy war in which all means are legitimate.
The vast majority of Moslems in the world passionately reject the radicals understanding of Islam – and we might do well to think about the view of the radicals as another perfectionist ideology, rather than a form of Islam (though the radical strain of thinking has been present as one theme in Islam from the time of Mohammed). One of the problems of the radical Moslems, such as Osama Bin Laden, is that they have no belief in original sin, and consequently they can do terrible evil in the name of good.
3. The East, in particular Hinduism, and its influence on New Age thinking - What does Hindu thought have to say about good and evil? Notice very carefully I am not saying that Hindus live consistently with the views I am about to expound. Thankfully, people all over the world are persons made in the image of God and made by God to live in a moral universe and these two realities act as a restraint on the consequences of people’s beliefs.
a). There is no final distinction. Ultimately all is one: good and evil, light and darkness, life and death. God (or the gods) appear with many faces: creator and destroyer; giver of life and bringer of death; a kind or a scowling visage.
b). Evil is ultimately an illusion, it is only in the mind of an individual who has not come to terms with the ultimate nature of reality.
c). There is a cosmic justice, karma, which works itself out inexorably. But this is impersonal, an ongoing cycle of being reborn and dying, of joy and sorrow, life and decay.
d). A terrible fatalism is the consequence: "What will be will be." Nothing can be done except to accept calmly the appointed fate, and to long for the ultimate state of non-being.
e). There is no basis to fight against evil. Compassion is undercut. Suffering and death are normal and must simply be accepted.
4. What is the Christian answer here? The Bible takes this problem very seriously. Consider the Book of Ecclesiastes as it wrestles with this issue. It is asking the question: "if this is all there is, is there any meaning at all? How can we determine what is to be valued and what is to be shunned, what is good and what is evil?" (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11; 2:1-23; 9:2-6).
a). God exists. He is the ultimate reality. His righteous and holy character is the basis for distinguishing between good and evil. He is the same, yesterday, today and forever (Psalm 99:1-5).
b). His law expresses His character of justice, righteousness and goodness. His standards are not to be tinkered with by our own passions, by the majority, or by the powerful (Psalm 19:7-11).
c). He has made us in His image, to be like Him, to reflect His holy character. Consequently His commandments are for our good, for our fulfillment. In obeying them we follow the pattern of our Designer (Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; Psalm 119:33-48).
d). There is a present reality of evil and suffering that comes from ignoring the Maker’s instructions. This is the present revelation of the judgment of God (Romans 1:18-32).
e). There will be a final judgment when all evil will be condemned; when everything which is against God's character, law and intention for us will be exposed for what it is, will be found wanting, and will be rejected. Without the doctrine of judgment life makes no sense at all. The doctrine of judgment is good news! (Psalms 10, 96, 97; Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
f). This however creates a problem. What about us? Either we will be condemned, or, our wrongdoing and evil is condemned in Christ. Only thus is God both just and the justifier of the sinner (Romans 3:19-26). As C. S. Lewis put it, “on the cross justice and mercy kissed.”
Readings and Questions After Lecture 1:
Good and Evil: What is the difference?
1. What do you see as the most serious examples in our society of the loss of a solid basis for distinguishing between good and evil?
2. Do you know people who are cynical or despairing because they feel that life is ultimately meaningless? What do such people do to avoid cynicism, or despair, and to try to give their lives some sense of meaning? What answer does the film American Beauty give?
3. Have you read any books: e.g., Shirley McLaine's Out on a Limb or seen any films: e.g., Dead Again which express a New Age view of evil, karma, etc.?
4. Read Psalms 10 and 73: What answer does the Psalmist give to the apparent triumph of evil in this life?
5. Have you considered that the doctrine of judgment is an essential part of the good news of the Christian message? Read Psalms 96 and 97. Can you see why one can say these Psalms with gladness?
6. Do you see in your own life areas where you have been affected by the view that humanity is the source of the knowledge of good and evil? Where are you tempted to want to make your own choices about what is right and wrong and to ignore God's commandments?
7. Do you understand how God's justice is fully satisfied by the death of Christ on your behalf? Romans 3:19-31; 5:1-11; Hebrews 7:23-28; 9:24-28; 10:10-14.
Evil & Suffering
Lecture 2 - The Problem of Evil: What Is The Source?
In our first lecture we asked the question: 'how do we know the difference between good and evil?' We saw how our society struggles with this problem once it has denied the existence of any absolute measure. Cultural tradition is powerless against inexorable drift once it is acknowledged: 'It is nowhere written that...' as Jean Paul Sartre expressed it. As we saw it finally does not matter whether one is Hitler or Mother Teresa. The passion of the individual, the desires of the majority, or even their apathy, the will of the powerful, clashing ideologies—our society has become a battleground for these four protagonists.
Scripture, in contrast, declares to us the saving truth: 'there is a holy God, Creator and Judge of all.' We live in a moral universe where there is an ultimate difference between good and evil, for there is a Day of Judgment coming. Even now we live in a context where good has beneficial consequences, and evil has destructive consequences. We are all daily faced with this moral reality. What is more, every individual, as one made in God's image, has his law written on their heart and knows indeed that there is a difference between good and evil. This moral reality is inescapable and renders all men and women without excuse even if they proclaim moral relativism.
We saw too, that it is in upholding his character as just and righteous judge, that God has provided salvation for us through Christ bearing our judgment. This brings us back to the second major issue:
Question 2: What is the source of evil?
1. The answers of our culture - Most people will acknowledge that there are aspects of life that are not as they should be. Sickness, poverty, pain, prejudice, hatred, separation, grief, loss, warfare, death; all these and more are a daily reality headlined in our newspapers, flashing before us on our television screens, sometimes entering our own lives. How will this be explained once Christianity is denied? The vast majority accepts some form of evolutionary account of the natural world. Apart from a divine Creator there is no other alternative. Once one has accepted evolution then humanity is simply a part of nature.
a). Humans are aggressive by nature. This appears to have been the view of Charles Darwin, and is today the view of Raymond Dart and Robert Ardrey. We are descended from the baboon side of the ape family. Consequently to fight, to seek to dominate, to kill – these instincts have always been a part of human nature. Our early humanoid ancestors were club wielding, violent, bone-crushing killers. Evil is defined as this innate aggression with all its consequences.
b). Some socio-biologists and radical feminists accept a similar account of our history, placing the blame fully on men for the development of aggression, acquisition of property, a desire to control women, etc. They argue that man is by nature committed to reproducing his genes, so is naturally polygamous – and therefore polygamy, adultery and even rape are simply a necessary consequence of what it is to be male. The same would be true with the killing of other men or their offspring, this is part of the innate struggle for survival and begetting descendants who will carry on one’s genes into the future. I heard an entomologist making the same kind of argument, just a few weeks ago, but she extended this kind of approach to women as well as men. Behaviors like rape, a female ‘eating her lover’ after, or even during intercourse, homosexual behavior, incest – all these are natural among certain species of spiders and mosquito. They are also natural among human beings, and we should not regard them as evil. The same would clearly have to be true of brutality, warfare, etc.
c). Aggression (evil) is a product of culture. Rousseau said that "man was born free, but is everywhere in chains." Human nature is innocent and good. Cultures can enslave or enchain us. Richard Leakey gives one account of this. He argues that all our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, and were completely peaceable. Living examples are the Kalahari Bushman, the Kung, people also in Africa, and various Philippine tribes in the remote forests. Leakey argues that settled-ness and agriculture create a sense of ownership, and that this leads to acquisitiveness, defending one's property, aggression, warfare, etc.
d). Others see evil simply as a result of ignorance, a lack of education.
e). Marx understood evil to be the result of an economic situation. Once all people dwelt peaceably together in the natural world with no one claiming ownership of private property. All shared what they had with others. The desire to have one's own property, to sell the excess of what one produces for a profit, to use the labor of others to create even more excess for sale—capitalism—this is the source of all alienation and evil in the world. People become alienated from themselves, from each other, from the natural world. They are turned into 'things', into objects in a market and are dehumanized. Many people who would not claim to be Marxist are influenced by a view that underlies this, that is the idea of 'the noble savage' at peace with nature.
There are three important conclusions to all this.
(1) Each of these four views acknowledges that sickness, pain and death are a natural part of reality. They are NORMAL. The death of the individual, the death of the solar system, this is reality.
(2) Some say that suffering and death, even aggression, are necessary for progress to be made. The way of evolution is the struggle for survival, the survival of the fittest. This mechanism is the agent of change, of improvement in the natural world. Chardin wrote that evolution is the way of the cross—evil is good: it produces change, hope, life.
(3) Most deny that real moral evil is in the human heart. We are basically good. Something outside of us is the problem. So, change the circumstances.
2. Zorastrianism – teaches that there is an eternal dualism of good and evil, light and darkness, God and the Devil.
3. What does God's word teach us in contrast to this? It teaches us that originally there was only good, that the universe as it came from the hand of God was without any moral flaw. Good is NORMAL.
a). The historical Fall - First one third of the angels rebelled against God. They became proud of their own glory and beauty, and sought to displace God on His throne. They corrupted themselves. Second, the first human couple, Adam and Eve, led into deception by the Adversary, also rebelled against God. They disobeyed His commandment and tried to become their own gods.
b). This disobedience brought something completely new into being, which was not part of God's original order. God has not created evil, nor did He create flawed creatures. They flawed, changed and corrupted their own nature. In fact, everything is changed by their choice. All their descendants bear both the image of God and also this corruption. We have children like ourselves.
(1) God is separated from humanity, for He must judge evil and have nothing to do with it.
(2) Humanity is alienated from God, for now we fear Him and are even hostile to Him, reluctant to bow before Him, eager to take credit for every good thing we enjoy and to serve ourselves rather than Him.
(3) We are alienated internally, separated from ourselves. We experience shame, a guilty conscience, psychological brokenness, for we are not what we know we should be.
(4) We are alienated from each other. Pride and self-centeredness damage every relationship.
(5) We experience loss of dominion – over ourselves, our work, every area of life in this world, and over creation. We are alienated from the created world around us, polluting it, damaging it, abusing our dominion over it.
(6) We become separated body from Spirit at death as our bodies break down. Sickness, pain, death are the signs of this corruption in our bodies.
(7) Creation itself is subject to decay and corruption. It resists our attempts at dominion, for it, as our environment, is under a curse.
Again, there are several conclusions to draw from this.
(1) God is not tainted with evil. He remains holy, unstained. He is not the tempter; Scripture insists on this. He remains the just and righteous judge.
(2) The world as we know it is ABNORMAL. Nothing is as God originally made it. This is very important, for it means we can fight evil and its consequences without fighting God.
(3) We must acknowledge the corruption in the human heart. We may not like this, but it is indeed our situation. To pretend otherwise is to deceive our-selves and to compound the problem.
(4) We have to look to God for a resolution to the problems we face. We need a savior who is: "holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens."
Readings and Questions After Lecture 2 and Before Lecture 3
The problem of evil: What is the source?
1. As you remember your own education, what were you taught about human origins, about human nature, and about the origin of the troubles in the world? Did the teaching you received fit into one of the evolutionary views outlined in the lecture?
2. As you think about what you read in the newspaper, hear on the radio, or see on television, what do you think people are saying is the source of the problem in our society today? Lack of education? Economic practice and theory? Social structures? Inadequate leadership? Human nature?
3. How far do you think you have been affected by the view that the human heart is not the real problem? Do you find the doctrine of original sin offensive, and if so what do you put in its place?
4. Read Genesis 1:1-31 and 3:1-19. Can you find in chapter 3 the seven points of separation described in the lecture?
5. Read James 1:13-17; 1 Timothy 6:13-16. Do you blame God for the troubles in the world, especially for having created an original pair who sinned, or do you truly believe that God is completely unstained by the existence of evil?
6. Read Isaiah 6:1-5; 1 John 1:5-10. Considering the holiness and purity of God can you recognize your sin and be both aware of its shame and yet be glad to come into God's light to confess it?
7. How far do you want to explain away sins as normal? When do you want to say: 'that's just the way I am (or he is); that's just human nature, I can't help it'? In what areas do you think our culture has changed your views about various sins?
Lecture 3 - The Problem of Suffering: What Are The Causes?
In our second study we considered the problem of the source of evil. Given our broken and painful human existence, how will people explain this reality? We looked at several different answers to this question that are given when people deny a Christian worldview. If one accepts that this is simply a physical universe and that human beings are merely a part of the natural world, then certain conclusions inevitably follow. Sickness, pain and death are seen as normal. Some suffering may even be necessary to bring about progress in the struggle for survival. Evil is usually located in our social, political or economic environment rather than in the human heart.
Scripture, we saw, gives us a very different answer. The problem lies in the rebellion of both angels and humans against God. This disobedience has brought about an abnormal state where nothing is as originally created. Every aspect of human existence is now scarred and stained by the effects of sin. God himself is untouched by this debacle, in the sense that he is not its source or cause, and his own character is unblemished. However, God has allowed this desperate situation to touch his heart very deeply, as we see when we consider his resolution to our dilemma.
But, before we come to that resolution, we need to explore more carefully the Christian answer to the problem of suffering. We need to examine some sub-Christian answers and to look at particular causes of suffering. In calling them ‘sub-Christian’ I do not mean to imply that those who hold or teach such views are not personally believers in Christ. My point is simply that their answers to this question are not fully Biblical, and that, therefore, such confused and inadequate teaching will, in fact, create other difficulties in the lives of Christians who are impacted by such views. Truth sets us free; but the converse is also true: teaching that misses the whole truth has the effect of binding us and causing trouble in our lives.
Question 3: The problem of suffering; what are the causes?
A. Sub-Christian answers to the reality of suffering.
Because there is little clear teaching on this issue, answers multiply which are both inadequate to explain what we experience and which are unreflective of the full scope of Biblical teaching.
1. Loss of Genesis 1-3 as a historical record. If we feel compelled by the pressure of evolutionary ideas to abandon the historicity of Genesis certain problems arise. Genesis 3 will have to be seen as a parable describing the present human condition rather than an account of a world-changing event. What are the consequences of this?
a). Suffering, sickness, pain and death are seen as inevitable, in some sense normal. They are simply part of the world as it comes from God's hand.
b). God becomes responsible for the world in its present broken state. He becomes tainted by the reality of evil.
c). Christ's work will be seen as God's apology for the mess he created. God identifies himself in Christ's suffering with our human predicament. Substitution and atonement are no longer central to the cross. The focus shifts to Christ's suffering and our sharing that suffering.
d). God loses his power and sovereignty and we are invited to join God's side in helping clear up the chaos of the world.
2. All suffering is a consequence of individual sin. This was the answer given by Job's comforters and by the Pharisees. This view suggests that the books balance perfectly in this life - and it is the refuge of the self-righteous whose lives are flourishing at present.
a). This answer undermines compassion for the poor, the struggling, the defenseless and the weak, and is everywhere rejected by Scripture.
b). It fails to deal with those passages of Scripture which lament the prospering of the wicked (Jeremiah 12:1-4; Psalms 10 and 73).
3. A closely related view is the notion that all suffering is an indication of lack of faith. If we have faith, we will be delivered. This is very widely held. Consider the success of the 'health and wealth gospel' or 'prosperity teaching.'
a). This view abuses Biblical teaching on faith and prayer and turns it into a mechanical 'you can have what you say' technique – consider the popularity of The Prayer of Jabez.
b). It undercuts compassion for those who struggle and suffer by regarding them as in some way deserving their plight.
c). It makes those who suffer feel guilty and hopeless and so multiplies their pain.
4. All evil is good in disguise. All trouble and suffering becomes testing and refining. This view can arise in either an ultra-reformed context or in an extreme charismatic context.
a). Biblical teaching that we can trust God, have hope in suffering and even learn through suffering is emphasized at the expense of passages that teach that there is and should be real grief and anguish.
b). This can result in a 'victory through praise' mentality, which denies to hurting people the expression of sorrow and anger at their troubles.
c). Everything becomes good if only we have faith to see it.
d). God becomes the author of all our troubles and ultimately the source of evil. We can come close to an Islamic passivity in the face of trouble. 'It is the will of God' becomes the panacea for all ills.
e). Again compassion is undermined, and peoples' wounds are healed lightly.
To all these we have to respond that the heart of the Biblical teaching is that: God is not the source of evil; that the brokenness of this world is abnormal; that God hates evil; and that God is full of compassion to those who suffer. We have an answer to the problem of evil, but there is no answer that will take away our tears completely. This brings us to the second subject for our lecture.
B. The causes of suffering. Scripture teaches that there are many particular causes behind the troubles that come into our lives.
1. God's action. God as the righteous and just judge rules over this world and intervenes to work out His purposes.
a). He judges unbelief, disobedience to His commandments, offenses against His moral law and to His honor as our Lord and Master.
(1) This judgment is direct, as in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, when God intervenes and punishes sin.
(2) His judgment is indirect when God hands people over to the consequences of their sinful choices (Romans 1:18-32). Because it is a moral universe all sin reaps its own harvest of destruction.
(3) His judgment can be mediated through human agents as in the case of government (Romans 13:1-7).
(4) His judgment will ultimately reject and punish all evil.
b). God's discipline of believers (Hebrews 12:7-11). As our heavenly Father God chastens us because He loves us. This chastisement may be painful and may cause real suffering. His purpose is to bring us to repentance and to train us in righteousness
2. Satan's action. The devil is both God's adversary and the enemy of the human race.
a). He as a usurper of God's authority has sought to establish his own rival kingdom. He works to keep people under his rule, living in disobedience to God, and blind to God's truth (Ephesians 2:1-3; 2 Corinthians 4:4).
This enmity of Satan may even become a palpable reality in the case of demon possession in places where false gods are worshipped, and where there is occult practice and bondage – example of ***** .
b). Satan is the accuser of believers and can bring terrible suffering to us in his attempts to destroy our trust in God (Job; 1 Peter 5:8-9; Luke 22:31; Ephesians 6:10-12).
3. Our own choices, actions and lifestyle
a). False belief has destructive consequences. We become whatever idols we worship, for our lives are shaped by untruths. In the same way all disobedience to God's commandments brings distress, trouble, pain and suffering into our lives. Consider the abuse of drugs, alcohol, sex, or money. Think of the effect of dangerous driving, or of business dishonesty. Eventually one's sin finds one out because this is a moral universe.
b). For the believer too there are painful consequences to sin. Consider the example of David's adultery and the troubles it brought to him and to others. Our sins have ongoing results in the wounds to ourselves and in the world around us, though we are forgiven when we bring our failures to God and ask for His forgiveness in Christ.
4. The choices and actions of others
a). This is true in a simple sense that 'no man is an island to himself'. Everything we do affects others. If I drive dangerously others may be hurt. If I steal others are deprived. If I teach falsehood others are led astray.
b). This is true in a more complex manner. The sins of parents are visited on the children to the third and fourth generation. We are deeply affected by the patterns of life around us—though there is no absolute determinism here (See Ezekiel 18).
c). This is true in that humanity is a web of interrelatedness. Consider the marketing of an inadequately tested drug; or pesticide and fertilizer residues in food and water; or the devastation wrought by Marxist economic theory in the former U.S.S.R.; or the tribal tensions in the former Yugoslavia with its 1500 year history of warfare and oppression.
5. The general brokenness of the world - We live in a world that because of original sin is under a curse.
a). Much of the sickness and trouble we experience comes from this, for we are subject to mortality.
b). We can never create a utopia because the environment itself is subject to decay, and this affects every aspect of human life.
Readings and Questions After Lecture 3 and Before Lecture 4
The Problem of Suffering: What Are the Causes?
1. How have you regarded Genesis 3? Are you convinced of the need to see it as historical, both because of the way that it is written in Scripture and referred to elsewhere (Romans 5:12-19), and because of the consequences of denying its historicity?
2. Have you been exposed to the teaching that all suffering is a consequence of personal sin or of lack of faith? Do you have friends who are influenced by this teaching? How would you formulate a response? Read Psalm 73:1-17; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.
3. How do you put together both a confidence in the sovereignty of God: he has his hand over your life and over everything that comes your way? And how do you have also a confidence that God is not the author of evil, so you can pray against troubles or sickness, and in addition work to relieve the distress troubles bring and work to get rid of them? What will happen if you stop believing that God is sovereign? What will happen if you feel prayer against trouble and working against trouble is an offense against God's sovereignty?
4. Read Hebrews 12:4-11. Where do you think you have experienced God's discipline in your life? Read Psalm 32:1-5. Have you ever gone through a time like that described by the Psalmist?
5. Read Luke 22:31-34; 1 Peter 5:8-9. What do you think are the areas where Satan might sift you like wheat? In Peter's case it was his boasting about his love for the Lord. What is a comparable weakness in your own life?
6. Can you think of examples in your own life where you see the effects of your own sinful choices? True forgiveness from God, and from others, does not wipe away the consequences of our errors—at least not in this life. Are there situations that you could try to set straight where you have hurt others?
7. Are you able to hold in tension both a sense of individual responsibility and an acknowledgement of the impact on the individual of family, etc. Read Exodus 20:5; Ezekiel 18.
8. Where do you think the effects of the curse on our physical world are most clearly seen (Romans 8:19-22)?
Lecture 4 - The Problem of Suffering: Is There An Answer?
In our study on the causes of suffering we looked first at some insufficiently Biblical accounts and then at the different ways in which pain and suffering can come into our lives. We saw the necessity of upholding the historicity of the fall in order to maintain the abnormality of life now and to protect the character of God. We saw, too, the importance of not oversimplifying trouble by reducing it to a result of sin in every case, or of a lack of faith. We were challenged, too, to hold on to the sovereignty of God and yet maintain his hatred of evil and its consequences.
As we examined particular causes of suffering we found that there are many possibilities: the judgment of God; the discipline of God; the action of Satan; our own choices and behavior; the choices of others in both simple and complex ways; the general brokenness of our life in an abnormal world. Many of the troubles that come our way may be a blend of several of these. What Satan intends for evil, God may use to teach both believers and those who are seekers or unbelievers. The general problems of our culture may be compounded by our own choices. Often, for us as believers, it is not so important to know where a problem has come from, but rather how one will respond to that problem.
This leads us to our final study in this series:
Question 4: Is there an answer to the problem of suffering?
We will begin by looking briefly at what the society around us has to say and then turn to a Biblical answer.
1. Contemporary answers to the problem of evil and suffering. Most of the views we considered fail to identify corruption in our hearts as the root problem. Rather it is something about our social condition that is considered as the cause of our troubles.
a). Change our culture. "Man is born free but is everywhere in chains". Rousseau's statement will lead to some attempt to return to a state of nature. If civilization as we know it is our dilemma, then we have to try to recreate a simple lifestyle. There is an element of this in some New Age thinking, and also in the more extreme parts of the environmental movement. People have an ideal of 'the noble savage' living in harmony with nature.
b). Improve our educational system. All people need is enlightenment. Both liberals and conservatives hold this view: the one constantly searching for new ways to be politically correct, demanding that education must be free from the chains of imposing values on children, instead it is simply to help them explore their own values and learn to be true to themselves; the other believes that all we need is new editions of the Great Books and if we teach these vigorously to children they will respond by seeing their self-evident truth and value. Neither comes to grips either with the corruption of the conscience and will or of the mind.
c). Change economic and social structures. Present systems are oppressive and dehumanizing. These can be transformed over time—moderate socialists—or are to be overthrown by violent revolution—radical Marxists. Both of these are Utopian and quite sure they know what is best for everyone. That is why they can do so much damage. The far right also has its own version: a completely free economic setup, which is just as Utopian (for example - Ayn Rand). In fact, because of the corruption of sin, and the corrupting effects of power, including economic power, all human behavior needs the constraint of just laws (see the Old Testament laws concerning economic activities – Christians on the far right often speak as if these were not in Scripture).
d). Eugenics. Let's improve the race by eliminating disease, handicaps, etc. The most radical who hold this view lament the loss of natural selection. Consider the views of Peter Singer, perhaps the most influential ethicist today, who regards healthy dogs and pigs as having more value than handicapped babies or senile or terminally ill elderly people. It is too easy for the physically and mentally damaged to keep passing on their defective genes to a new generation. They propose a program of purification not too different from Hitler's Aryan dream.
Each of these answers fails to acknowledge that sin and death are the true enemies of humanity, and so the solutions offered are superficial, or sometimes, as in the case of Peter Singer, downright wicked.
2. The Biblical resolution to the problem of evil and suffering. The Biblical answer requires us to face up to the reality of evil and pain—this means that there is no answer that takes away all our tears now.
a). A Biblical realism. We need to recognize this is indeed an abnormal world, a vale of tears. "If in this life only we have hope, we are of all men most to be pitied." Ecclesiastes confronts us with the truth: if this is all there is, then there is no answer; life is meaningless, and all I can do is to drown my sorrows. "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."
b). God hates evil and all its consequences. The suffering of humanity brings both anger and grief from God. Consider Jesus' grief and anger at the grave of Lazarus. At an even deeper level consider the Gospel itself. Because God loves the world and is moved to sorrow and compassion by our plight He has sent His Son into the world. Christ came to set things right. God says: "this is all wrong."
c). Grief is the appropriate response to pain, sickness, loss and death. We are not to be stoic, passive or resigned in the face of suffering. We do not heal wounds lightly, nor should we repress grief. We must say with God: "this is all wrong; death is our enemy."
d). Christ has entered this world—the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, to share our pain, our broken condition, and even our death. God sympathizes with us in our struggles. He understands. What is more He has demonstrated to us His righteousness—that He indeed hates sin and its effects—by taking on Himself all these enemies—for us.
e). Christ has conquered death. He came out from the grave. In Him we see the first fruits of God's victory over sin, death and the devil. This gives us hope, for He has tasted death for us, and received its curse in our place.
f). Like Christ, we shall be victorious over death too. We wait for a time when every tear will be wiped away, and pain, suffering, tears and death will be no more. We, ourselves, and our environment, will be set free from sin and all its consequences. This glory will be eternal, making our present suffering seem light and momentary in comparison.
g). Even now, Christ reigns with power in order to help His people. Sometimes, He delivers us from particular troubles or suffering. Always, He promises to give us the grace and strength sufficient to endure despite our weakness and frailty. God is the Father of all mercy, and the God of all comfort, who is able to comfort us in all our afflictions.
h). We are to be like Jesus: He was a man of sorrows. We are to be His ministers of comfort to people in their troubles, praying for them and bringing solace (2 Corinthians 1:3-11; 7:5-7. This will mean weeping with those who weep, being a shoulder for them to cry on, being a practical help to them in their needs, working at the ‘substantial healing’ of our society as God’s ‘salt and light’ in the world, and, as we have opportunity, testifying to the hope we have.
Readings and Questions After Lecture 4
The Problem of Suffering: Is There An Answer?
1. Read Ecclesiastes 1:1-2:23. Ecclesiastes is wrestling with the problem: 'Is this all there is? If this is all, what does it mean?'
2. As you think of family members and friends, which of the avenues of satisfaction that Ecclesiastes mentions have they tried? Have they been satisfied? What could you say to them that might make them question their attempt to have hope only in this life?
3. Read Psalm 146:7-9; Isaiah 42:1-4; 61:1-3. What do these passages tell us about God's attitude to suffering, oppression and injustice?
4. Read John 11:17-44. Notice how John draws attention to Jesus' distress, grief, and anger in the face of death and separation.
5. Read Hebrews 2:14-18; 4:14-16. Why is Christ's priesthood an encouragement to us? Hebrews makes several points.
6. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18; 5:1-5. Is your hope in this life, or is it in the life to come? Do you find it strange that Paul anticipates so eagerly his bodily resurrection?
7. Read 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Hebrews 11:32-40. Are you able to accept that sometimes our troubles are taken away, and sometimes God helps us to endure them?
Copyright © Jerram Barrs 2002
Jerram Barrs, 08/04/2003
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