Jon Stovell’s Notebook


On human suffering and the problem of evil

Problem: Human suffering.

God is all powerful. God is all loving. Choose one or the other.

Is it a paradox? A Mystery? Is God ‘hidden’ behind the work of Jesus?

Go, theologians.

—Posted by Roger Flyer on Tuesday, July 2, 2013, at 5:12pm

What kind of problem of suffering are you really asking about, Roger? The philosophical problem (or rather, some version of it), or the concrete problem?

To the philosophical problem, I’ll contribute two points:

1) Attempts to make sense of the existence of evil in God’s creation are doomed to failure. This is because trying to make sense of evil’s existence is equivalent to trying to find a reason why it is here, which is to try to give it a rational, proper place in God’s creation. But evil has no rational, proper place in God’s creation. It doesn’t belong here—that’s what makes it evil. It is fundamentally irrational and fundamentally should not be, and so it cannot be explained. The moment we find a way to make sense of suffering and find a proper place and role for evil in creation, we can be sure that something has gone horrifically wrong in our thought process and that we should stop, back up, and figure out how it was that we came to point of calling evil good.

2) The philosophical problem is built on the unstated (and false) premise that the creation of the world has already been completed. If the world is “all done” then there are obvious reasons to criticize the Creator’s handiwork as the result of incompetence and/or indifference. However, if the world is even now “under construction” then complaining that it isn’t perfect doesn’t make sense. Of course it isn’t perfect yet; it’s not done yet. The world is still on its way from the tohu vabohu (Gen 1:2) of its initial chaos to the good, glorious, life-filled order of its final completion (cf. Rev 21 & 22’s New Jerusalem imagery). A lot of good has been accomplished already, but there are still parts where the destructive forces of chaos and nothingness have yet to be driven out.

With this, we have now come to the concrete problem of evil. This is the part where we stop treating evil as an perplexing intellectual conundrum, and start treating it as a problem that needs to be fixed. My two points to contribute here mirror those above:

1) If the process of creation isn’t complete yet, then the proper question isn’t “Why would a loving and omnipotent God allow evil in his creation?” but rather “Why did he put us into this world before he was done perfecting it?” And the answer is “To help.” Both the Gen 1 and the Gen 2-3 accounts tell us, each with their own imagery, that the purpose of human beings was to go out and tame the wilderness that still remained in the world. (We are talking Middle Eastern, nasty, scrabbly, desert wilderness here, not beautiful North American forests and rivers; wilderness = bad.) Our task was to be one of the means by which God would make all things into a garden. Our sinfulness means that we have become cooperators with the forces of chaos, but that hasn’t negated our God-given calling. Instead, it means that we have to look to the Spirit of God to push back the encroaching chaos/desert/wilderness within us and thus to enable us to contribute (despite our sin) towards the eventual perfection of the world that he will bring to pass in the end no matter what.

2) This means that, on the concrete level, suffering can become meaningful. Suffering’s origins and causes provide no meaning, but when God takes up our suffering and transforms and heals it in such a way that he brings forth new good from the evil—then it becomes meaningful. By being changed into the seedbed of new good, it comes to have a proper place in the God-intended order of things. Based on the cruciform glory of Jesus, with its pattern of death-unto-resurrection and kenosis-unto-exaltation, we can see that the eschatologically oriented creative power of God is such that he takes our suffering, in all its horror and senselessness, and changes it such that the evil is displaced and new good comes into being. This isn’t a matter of making sense of the senseless in the way that we usually mean that term. Instead, it is a matter of God using his creative-redemptive power to actually make sense where there was none before.

A good example of this can be found the contrast between the way the disciples tried to make sense of the man’s blindness in John 9 and Jesus’ way of doing that. The disciples expected an explanation for the disability in terms of its cause, and were simply arguing about what that was. They were therefore trying to find a way to make the occurrence of this evil fit rationally into their understanding of the universe—in other words, to give evil a home in the proper order of things. Jesus, on the other hand, rejects their attempts to make sense of the disability in terms of a causal reason. Instead, Jesus says that the reason for this affliction is to be found in the way God will act in response to it. In other words, the affliction becomes reasonable—i.e. comes to have a proper place in the God-intended order of things—by being transformed and healed by God. It is when God brings forth good out of the suffering that it is changed from senseless suffering into redemptive suffering. In sum, the answer to “Why did this bad thing happen?” is not found in the cause of the situation, but in its transformation.