God's providence and the problem of evil
Hespeler, 25 February, 2018 © Scott McAndless – Annual Meeting
Mark 8:31-33, Romans 8:18-30, Psalm 10:1-18
leven days ago, a young man walked into a school in Florida with an AR-15 rifle near the end of the school day. He pulled a fire alarm and started firing on students and teachers indiscriminately for about six minutes. By the time he dropped hi
s pack and gun and left, 17 people were dead and 15 more wounded. It was an afternoon of bravery and terrible suffering on the school grounds with one teacher even putting his own body in front of his students. It was an afternoon of a million tears. And yet we as Christians proclaim, “The Lord is king forever and ever.” I have to ask: what kind of king stands by and watches something like that?
At the end of last September the tenth most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean finally sputtered out. When that hurricane, named Maria, was near the peak of its strength, it had slammed into the island of Puerto Rico with unprecedented destructive power. The island, already destroyed by decades of economic neglect had seen almost all of its infrastructure destroyed including power, water and housing. In the immediate aftermath over sixty people died, but in the time since, the number has grown to well over a thousand. The legacy of Maria in Puerto Rico may well be an entire lost generation of potential. And yet we proclaim, “The Lord is king forever and ever.” What kind of king permits that to happen to his people?
A man shot a young aboriginal man at point blank range in the back of his head at a moment when neither he nor his family were in danger of violence and yet was found guilty of no crime. Yet we claim, “The Lord is king forever and ever.” Is not a king responsible to see that justice is done?
The list goes on and on. We could cite so many disasters and crimes and injustices that have happened over the last few months. They are all, in their own way, horrible and awful. And each one of them raises a challenge to us as people of faith. They are a challenge because we proclaim a God of providence – that is to say, a God who cares about this world and who seeks the good of the people who inhabit it. This is something that we affirm every time we say, “Thank God,” when something good happens or something bad is avoided. In fact, we are inclined to give God the credit for all sorts of great things.
But here is the problem: if God gets the credit for all the stuff that goes right, doesn’t he also have to take the blame for all of the stuff that goes wrong? I mean, how many times have you heard of someone who got into an accident – who was afraid that they might get killed or injured and just managed to come through it – and came through the other side full of praise and thanksgiving for the God who saved them. But if you are going to thank God for saving you through an accident, how can you possibly object if I were to blame God for the accident even happening in the first place, not to mention all of the other people who didn’t get saved or helped or healed in the midst of the accident or disaster.
With all of this in mind, I am glad to see the three questions that we have from A Catechism for Today today. The Catechism rightly speaks about God’s providence – about how God truly cares about the needs of his creatures and responds to them – and then goes on to consider God’s sovereignty – the recognition that God is in charge in this world which is actually something that makes God’s providence possible. But, most important of all, it recognizes that you cannot have those first two things – God’s providence and God’s sovereignty – without it raising very serious questions about the evil that exists in this world under God’s supposed benevolent watch.
So, the question is, why is there so much evil in this world? I appreciate the response to this question in the Catechism because it acknowledges right away that there are no simple or easy answers to that question. “Evil and suffering are a mystery and fill us with anguish.” Now, calling evil a mystery might seem like a cop-out, but compared to a lot of the other “answers” to the question of evil I have heard, it is actually not a bad answer at all.
Because, if you ask people – especially people of faith – that question, some of the answers you get are not as helpful as they seem at first. One of the answers you might get, for example, when you ask “Why do bad things happen,” is that some people will say, “Everything happens for a purpose.” That sounds good, of course, because it is always nice to think, even in a tragedy, that at least there is some purpose to it all. But the problem is that the purposes that people come up with often lead us to twist our view of God.
If we say that God permits evil as a way or testing us, for example, it turns God into some kind of mad scientist who is running these experiments on us – making us live through horrific experiences – simply as a way of discovering things about us. We require human scientists to design their experiments in humane ways, why wouldn’t we expect the same from God?
Sometimes people will try to justify God by saying that God allows the bad things to happen because he has plans to bring greater good out of them. But that argument tends to lead us into some kind of gruesome calculous – trying to outweigh history’s greatest evils with even greater good. Who would dare to go to the family of 17 people gunned down in a high school eleven days ago and suggest that anything – anything no matter how good – that happens as a result of that crime could possibly make up for what they have lost? (It is especially discouraging when you begin to fear that nothing at all will really change.)
Now, I realize that some might argue that our reading this morning from the Letter to the Romans is making the argument that God allows evil to bring about greater good. Paul writes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now.” He seems to be comparing the evil and trouble in this world to the pain that a woman goes through when she is delivering a child, pain that I cannot personally attest to but that certainly seems to be overwhelming in most cases.
He seems to be saying that, just as a woman will find the pain that she went through to be worthwhile once she holds her healthy child in her arms, we too will find that the evil of this world will have been worthwhile when we see what God is bringing into being.
In addition, Paul also writes a few verses later, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” This has also been taken to mean much the same thing on the level of the personal lives of believers, that yes, God might allow bad things to happen to you personally but that you shouldn’t worry because God has a plan to bring even greater good out of that evil.
So, what it says in these passages does somewhat resemble the popular idea that God allows evil in order to bring about a greater good, but I do not think that that is exactly what they are saying. I don’t think that Paul is saying that God causes bad things to happen in order to bring about a greater good as much as he is saying that God works to bring about some good even in the evil that does happen. That is an important distinction that I would make.
You see, the Bible doesn’t really solve for us the mystery of the evil that is found in this world, but it does affirm something that is very important. The Catechism puts it this way: “In such a world – a world filled with too much evil – only a God who has entered into our sufferings can help.”
And I believe that that is what Paul is affirming in this passage. He doesn’t necessarily promise God will solve everything for you, but he does say that, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” He is saying that, in very significant ways and even if we are feeling so lost that we don’t even know what to pray for, God will actually join us in our pain and anguish. God will not leave us alone and that makes all the difference.
Of course, for Christians, the moment when God most decisively entered into our suffering is the Jesus event. “As we ponder our Saviour upon the cross, we know that God is with us in our pain.” This is the central mystery of the Christian faith, that God would not stay safely at a distance and far removed from this world and its suffering and evil but would actually choose to enter into the muck and mire of this world. God didn’t need to, but God chose to experience everything that it means to be human by somehow becoming one of us in the person of Jesus Christ.
That is what the incarnation – the Christmas story and really the whole story of the life of Jesus is actually about. The wonder of it is not, as some suggest, that Jesus was somehow God. The true wonder is that God was somehow human – not just seeming human or pretend human but real human with everything that goes with that.
God does not promise that there will be no evil or suffering in this world. Neither does God offer to explain why the suffering and evil are even permitted. Maybe that is something that you will understand someday when you can look at this life from a completely different perspective, but, here and now, God doesn’t always answer the why question.
But God does promise one thing: he will not leave you alone in the suffering. He is with you in it – and not just in a handholding but insincere way (you know, like you sometimes get from people who listen to your tale of woe and say, “I know exactly how you feel,” when you know very well that they don’t). God is with you in it in the sense that he feels what you feel, knows the depths of your pain and loss. And that is only possible because of Jesus.
You know, it is ironic in some ways. We tend to look at the suffering of the innocent as the greatest evil that you can find in this world. A gunman walks into a school and guns down children who have never done anything to deserve such treatment. A hurricane strikes the countryside, destroying young and old, good and evil in its path. These things are taken by many people to be the greatest indication that God is not there or, if he is, God is not worth worshipping.
And, yes, those things are evils and great injustices. But, for Christians, the greatest proof that God exists and that God cares is in fact, a case of an innocent man who suffered unjustly. His name was Jesus, he didn’t deserve anything that happened to him. There was no redeeming good in the terrible violence that was committed against him on the Friday just before Passover. But there was love – the supreme demonstration of God’s love seen in God entering into our suffering and into the suffering of the innocent. And love changes things. Love brings hope and life and new beginnings.
I don’t have an explanation for why there is so much that is so wrong in this world. If I tried to offer you one, it would fall flat. It is a mystery. But so is hope, and love and life itself. And I will continue to worship a God who doesn’t answer all of the why questions but who isn’t afraid of entering into them with us either.