(This is part 2. For the introduction, see part 1.)
First, let’s talk about the larger, big-picture issue. Theologians of course are people that think about God and try to understand and explain who he is and what he does. They have a special word for this particular topic – Theodicy. Theodicies are ideas that have to do with what is often called, “the problem of evil”. (Note, for a very handy overview of approaches, see here.) Why is there suffering in the world? If God is good and also in total control, why is everything obviously a mess? This question (or some variation of it) is probably the #1 reason people don’t believe in God or lose their faith in him.
Now, the secular world has a very simple answer to the problem of evil. It doesn’t exist and God doesn’t exist. The most popular idea in the modern world – the one you are most likely to hear on TV or in textbooks, is that our ideas of good and evil are a “social construct”. Someone told you certain things were bad when you were a kid and that’s what “evil” is for you. It could be something different for somebody else. So whatever you think is right or wrong is really just some made-up ideas in your head that you picked up from somewhere else – not something that reflects the natural world. And God doesn’t do anything about it because he’s just NOT THERE to do anything about anything! You’re on your own. Oh, and while you’re at it, it would behoove you to adopt the most current politically correct values of right and wrong. This will help you go with the flow and have fewer problems getting along with people during your short and meaningless life.
Christianity, on the other hand, has always wrestled with the problem of evil head on. To fear God is also to love good and hate evil and to discern what is right and wrong in the natural world – the day-to-day world all around us. It is to be offended when things are unjust and unfair, and to be happy and relieved when they are just and fair and good. Beauty and mercy are to be praised. Ugliness and cruelty are to be condemned. And our creator God is sovereign over all of creation – over all the heaven and the earth. And He is very, very good. But wait? Why is creation full of injustice? Why so much slavery and murder and hate and to make matters worse, apparently nothing bad happens to many of the pimps, killers, and jerks. In fact, they often seem really successful. What gives?
Christians have tried to answer the problem of evil in various ways over the centuries. Saint Augustine (who lived in the 4th century) said that if God is the light, then evil is the shadow cast as the light shines on creation. Evil has no creative substance in itself, but is really just some kind of necessary side-effect of existence – an absence of total good since God is separate from His creation. OK, maybe there is some truth in that classic image, but it’s just a metaphor. It’s not a very satisfying answer for most folks.
Other people have conjectured that for man to have free will, there had to be a “bad” for us to choose. The fall of man into sin was brought about when Adam and Eve, the prince and princess of creation, chose evil. Instead of treating us like babies or machines, God gave us the dignity to choose to love him or not. God is in control of everything, but he himself chose to limit his power in this way so as to make man special and unique. There are a lot of variations of this explanation out there and depending on what church denomination you are part of, they might have these officially written down somewhere, (or not).
Still, it is a great mystery and there is only so much we can say about why evil and injustice exists in the world. It’s not one of those things that you can just figure out if you think hard enough about it or read enough books. For now, it MUST be something that doesn’t have a complete answer. But I believe it DOES have an answer and that Christianity gives us the best one.
I think our best bet is to look to the future and to the promises of a God that has conquered death. What do you need to make amends for war and put the world to rights? Not someone who is watchful and prevents tragedies, but rather a God who can raise the dead. I would like to suggest that our hope lies in the promised resurrection of the dead, and in Jesus Christ’s return to earth to rule forever. Example: Yes, it was terrible that your 5-year-old daughter died in that car accident, but after the resurrection, when she’s lived a thousand years in the light of King Jesus, that tragedy will be only the most distant memory, as if it just didn’t matter any more.
It says in Hebrews chapter 11 of Abraham and Moses and all the great prophets: “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” These were some of the most faithful and holiest of people that lived in history and yet they were swallowed up in death. But they knew that death would one day be swallowed up in life. Jesus Christ did that work when he rose from the dead on Easter morning. His work just needs to fullness of time to be completed. We’re waiting on that.
I’ve been reading the Lord of the Rings to the kids at home and we got to the part where Frodo and Sam lay down to die on side of the volcano after their quest is complete. But in the next chapter, Sam wakes up in a fragrant place, surrounded by friends. He’s been rescued and the great evil permanently vanquished. He sees Gandalf (whom he thought died about 500 pages earlier) and he exclaims, “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?” Tolkien, the author, was a Christian of course. I don’t think he thought winning a war with a powerful enemy would make everything sad come untrue. Only a loving and merciful God could do that. That was HIS hope in life, and I believe it’s our hope too. I don’t know WHY injustice is allowed to persist for now, but I believe it WILL be completely made right in the future. That is a big part of God’s promise to us and why he is worthy of our worship and devotion.