A friend of mine asked me for advice the other day. His name is Jack. Now Jack has been talking with his friend John about a Christian response to the problem of evil. It would be more accurate to say Jack asked me to recommend some good reading to pass along to John. Jack didn’t ask me for my advice. But before I made any recommendations, I wanted to know more about John, their relationship, and how Jack has lead the conversation so far. So I asked a few questions.
Both Jack and John are believers in Christ, so they approach the issue from a standpoint of faith. John struggles to reconcile two facts he knows for certain, yet seem to contradict one another. The first is that God exists. He is good. And He is all-powerful; The second is that gratuitous evil and suffering exist.
I’m not surprised Jack asked me for help on this issue. It’s a very sticky one. Consider, for example, that it has been around virtually since man has been writing and thinking. It’s a very difficult issue – not impassable – but very difficult. To be specific, the difficulty is in accepting both statements as true without contradicting one another. Acceptance is far more difficult than understanding intellectually how they can be reconciled. Isn’t that how most things are in life?
Here’s what surprises me. The more questions I asked Jack to properly understand what’s really going on with John and to best diagnose his issue, the more Jack became frustrated. Jack was frustrated by my not answering his question. He wanted to know what books and/or articles to read so as to help John. The implication I picked up from Jack’s subtext was, “Tell me what John needs to read so he gets it–so I can fix him.”
I applaud Jack’s heart to love John with truth and to call him to a deeper understanding of God’s truth, and ultimately to a deeper faith. But I paused when I realized Jack thought John’s problem was an issue of understanding — that John just doesn’t get it.
Even though Jack is my friend, I look up to him like a mentor so I didn’t have the heart to share with him what I’m about to write which is what went through my mind next.
When people are being illogical there’s usually an explanation. John doesn’t recognize that there are intellectual (Christian) resolutions to the problem of evil. In this context Jack knows John is being illogical, but couldn’t figure out why. I propose three ways to straighten out these curves in the conversational path.
1) It’s personal. John may have history encountering people he perceived as righteous, let’s even say they were faithful Christians, yet were unduly struck by calamity. Maybe he watched that happen to his parents or a close friend. Personal experience often dictates our most closely held personal beliefs whether they are intellectual or not.
2) It’s emotional. Maybe John sees himself as righteous and resents God for the calamity that has befallen him. Perhaps he is deeply hurt and he feels God is responsible. In this case his resentment prevents him from acknowledging God can be both good and powerful, yet evil can still exist.
3) It’s a sin issue. John may be in willful sin and the direct consequences are hurting someone else, not him. He can see the death that sin leads to, but because it isn’t his death, he has no motivation to stop. Yet, to admit that God is good and just, and that evil may abound now, but one day God will justify the righteous and penalize the wicked, would require him to submit to the authority of God and lay down his sin. That’s something he just isn’t prepared to do yet. In this case John’s sin is blinding him to the truth that evil is not a problem for God.
My next step is to have a conversation with Jack that people are more than just brains. Just because what they say is illogical, doesn’t mean they don’t understand what you’re saying. God made us in His image, and He is both glorious and complicated. Sometimes misunderstanding another human being requires us to dig a little deeper to make sense of what happened. Most of the time, I find it requires me to dig a little deeper to understand myself.