A Groaning God in a Suffering World, Part I

The Problem of Suffering in Divine Perspective

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Edvard Munch's most famous work, The Scream, continues to increase in popularity over a century after its creation. Considered one of the founders of Expressionism, Munch's artwork depicts a state of mind rather than an incident or a landscape. It was painted one year after an experience Munch recounts in an entry from his literary diary dated January 22, 1892.

"I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun was setting. I felt a breath of melancholy - Suddenly the sky turned blood-red. I stopped, and leaned against the railing, deathly tired - looking out across the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and town. My friends walked on - I stood there, trembling with fear. And I sensed a great, infinite scream pass through nature."

In the midst of the tremendous beauty of creation, Munch experienced a terrifying existential shock. He discovered a cause for great horror hidden within the splendor of nature. Nature can be beautiful and terrifying, peaceful and tragic, stable and chaotic, life-promoting and life-threatening. Munch's terrifying realization of nature's dark side - its "great, infinite scream" - and the emotional response it provoked have been forever captured in his classic painting. There is no escape from the truth: we live in a groaning, suffering world. To live is to occasionally suffer tragedy and to regularly suffer pain, grief, and discouragement.

There is no shortage of examples of human tragedy. News sources bombard us with a steady stream of calamity and catastrophe. Shocking stories of unexpected suffering keep us mindful that we may soon be recipients rather than spectators of seemingly random forces of evil. Though we may escape tragedy for the moment, it will inevitably touch us. If we live long enough, we will eventually lose our health, our family, our friends, and life itself. Until these precious gifts are plucked from our possession, we will continue to experience the normal physical, mental, and emotional pains that comprise life in a groaning creation. How does all this suffering reflect upon God? Where is God in the tragedies and human suffering? How is God related to the endless flood of misery, heartache, and despair? Why does God allow these things to occur?

The Problem of "The Presence of Evil" A "theodicy" seeks to justify God's active presence in a suffering world. It is a human attempt to explain God's purpose in allowing evil and suffering - the "problem of evil."

One simple way to state the "problem of evil" is as follows: 1. If God is good, he would destroy evil. 2. If God is all-powerful, he could destroy evil. 3. But evil is not destroyed. 4. Hence, there is no God.

The problem of evil capitalizes on the presence of evil within God's creation. How can God be both good and all-powerful and yet evil continue to exist? Since it is obvious that evil does exist, then God's existence -which is far less obvious - must be called into question. If God does exist at all, then God must not be good or all-powerful. Numerous attempts have been made to eliminate the problem of evil by weakening one of the propositions - either by denying God's goodness, limiting God's power, or denying the reality of evil. Some have argued that God is not good. Evil exists because an all-powerful God does not have the moral decency to use his powers for good. God is capricious, whimsical, and arbitrary in his dealings with humanity. He is not ultimately concerned with good or evil. He remains distant, aloof, remote, and unaffected by evil and suffering. He simply doesn't care about the human condition. It is not his problem. Others have argued that God is not all-powerful. God would like to eliminate evil but he simply cannot. The power of evil is too great for even God to overcome. Evil constantly thwarts God's intentions for humanity. This is the reason evil is so powerfully experienced. God wishes it otherwise, but even God cannot make his wish come true. Finally, others have concluded that the problem is not with God, but with our perception of reality. Evil is not real. We simply perceive things to be evil, but they are really just nature in action. Pain, grief, disease, and death are all normal. Human longings for something more are simply wishful flights of fancy fueled by religious lies and delusions.

Evil can also be denied through religion. Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science movement denies the reality of evil. Pantheistic monism, a philosophy that is the basis for most new age spiritualities, teaches that everything is one. Good and evil are, in reality, the same thing. One can deny the reality of evil, but it is much harder to deny the reality of pain. No matter how much we try to hide behind our philosophical systems and religious beliefs, the experience of pain jolts us back to reality. Pain exists, even if evil doesn't. Since pain is so undeniably real in this world, it is easier to deny God's existence then it is to deny the reality of evil. Evil seems so obviously real. God, however, doesn't. The presence of evil and the reality of pain call into question the existence of a good and powerful God. If God truly exists, then he must not be either good or powerful - or both.

But what if the presence of evil is not in conflict with the goodness or power of God? What if God's goodness, God's omnipotence, and the reality of evil can be found to exist together? In other words, what if the three propositions of the problem of evil are not mutual exclusive or contradictory? Perhaps all three can be found to co-exist together.

Is there an example of the co-existence of evil, God's goodness, and God's power? Although numerous examples could be given, the supreme example is the cross of Jesus Christ. At the cross, the reality of evil is fully manifested. Representatives from all humanity (described most broadly as Jew and Gentile) gather together to oppose God's Son. Though completely innocent, Jesus is betrayed, condemned, scourged, tortured, and murdered. The pure and undefiled Son of God encounters injustice from every angle, culminating in his death. A friend's abuse of trust, the state's abuse of justice, the church's abuse of religion, and humanity's abuse of humanity are all evidenced at the cross of Christ. Though evil so fully pervades the scene, God's sovereign power is evidenced. God does not cause the evil, it is brought forth by the free choices of immoral human beings. The evil remains utterly evil. Yet God in his great wisdom is able to use evil to accomplish his sovereign purpose of bringing salvation to all. At the very moment when it appears that God's purpose is fully frustrated by human evil, God's purpose is being fully accomplished (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). In the midst of human suffering, God is at work bringing redemption. God's sovereignty is demonstrated, not in his control of every aspect of the crucifixion, but in his use of the whole event to bring about good. No evil, no matter how great, can thwart God's sovereign purpose. In bringing forth salvation from the midst of great evil, God's goodness is shown. God's love is demonstrated to all, including his enemies. God demonstrates how willing he is to go to every extreme to put things right. He is willing to bear the full weight of suffering and evil, resulting in his death!

This is the first and greatest truth concerning God's saving work on the cross. There is a great mystery to God's purposes in this world. We cannot explain completely what God is doing. For this reason every attempt to justify God's ways in relation to suffering and evil always fall short of the mark. What we can demonstrate, however, is that the problem of the presence of evil in a world where a good and powerful God exists is not a problem. The presence of evil and the reality of God's goodness and omnipotence are not at odds. They can co-exist together. The cross is proof of this. Furthermore, the cross demonstrates that God has done something about evil at the cross. The reverberations of this act echo throughout the cosmos and will culminate in the complete restoration of the world (cf. Colossians 1:15-20).

The Problem of "The Possibility of Evil" is a further problem related to sin and suffering. If God is all-knowing then God must have known prior to creation that humankind would fall into sin. God must have created all things with the full awareness of the possibility of sin, suffering, and evil. Why would God create with the full awareness of potential suffering? Couldn't God have done something to prevent this from happening? And if not, why create in the first place?

James Emery White answers this question by comparing God's act of creation to his relationship with his teenage daughter: Some may say, "Well, if God knew how things would turn out, he should have never created us!" because everything from cancer to concentration camps isn't worth it. Yet when we blithely say such things, we betray how little we know of true love. Yes, the freedom to choose that God gave each of us has resulted in heartache and even tragedy. It is tempting to say that everyone - including God - would have been better off never having to endure it. But that's not the way love - real love, at least - works. To remember this, I need only reflect on one of the most defining realities in my life: my own role as a father. As I write these words, my oldest daughter is beginning her freshman year in high school. And because of this fact, all summer I've been a wreck. I thought sending her to her first birthday party was hard. She came home in tears because the birthday girl announced at the start of a game that "everyone can play but Rebecca." I thought leaving her at school for an entire day for the first time was hard. And then I learned that another child had purposefully tripped her on the playground. I thought that pulling out splinters, or holding her through the night when she had a fever, was hard. I thought that watching her experience the onset of puberty, and the painful awkwardness and insecurity of becoming a teenager, was hard. Now send your first child to high school, where she can wound and be wounded in ways that were unthinkable the day you first held her in your arms. Then you'll know hard. But let me - the one who loves her more than anyone, the one who would lay down his life for her in an instant - tell you what has never entered my mind: Never having her. Never bringing her into the world. Never going through life with her. Even though she can reject me and tear out by heart by hurting herself as well as others, if someone were to say, "Why do you even bother?" my only reply would be, "Because she is my daughter." And having known fathers who have endured far more anguish than I have, suffering through prodigal years, chronic illnesses, and even untimely death, I can say confidently that no matter the cost, the value of bringing our children into the world goes without question. [1]

God desires a genuine loving relationship with the people he has created. Love, by definition, cannot overpower, manipulate, force, or control. Love liberates rather than enslaves. It is freely given and freely received or it is not love at all. Forced love is rape. The world we live in is certainly not the "best world" but it is the "best of all possible worlds" in regard to providing an environment where real love can flourish. God could have created a world where all human beings, like good pets, instinctively loved and followed his will without question. This would provide the illusion of a relationship but certainly not genuine love. God could have created a world where all human beings were programmed from the beginning to love him. But again, this would hardly be the kind of love we celebrate. Instead, it would be the cold, mechanical response of a robot. In short, God could have created in such a way that there would be no real risk of sin, suffering, and evil, but there would also be no real possibility of a genuine, loving, responsible, relationship.

God took a risk when he created this world - a world with great potential for good or evil. The pinnacle of God's creation - the image-bearers named man and woman - held the key to whether good or evil would reign on this earth. Created free, they possessed the capacity to either love or reject God. There was no guarantee that the first humans would use their freedom to love God. Their capacity to grow in intimacy with God was matched by their capacity to degenerate into a pale shadow of their former selves through rejecting God. In order for there to be a potential for an authentic loving relationship brought about through freely received love, there also had to be the potential for rejecting God's love. Tragically, to reject God's love is to run from the only source of life, happiness, and security that exists in this world, thus bringing suffering, ruin, and death.

[1] James Emery White, Embracing the Mysterious God: Loving the God We Don't Understand (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press), 27-28.

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