Monday, September 11, 2006

The "Problem" of Evil

Here's a quote from a comment on one of my recent posts:

The problem from evil DOES disprove the existence of a loving omnipotent god.

I figure it needs a bit of space to respond to, so I might as well write a bit on it...

The "Problem"

The classic statement of the "problem of evil" goes something like this:

1) If God is omnipotent (all-powerful), he can stop suffering if he wants to
2) If God is loving, he will stop suffering if he can
3) So if God is loving and omnipotent, he will stop suffering
4) Suffering exists
5) Therefore God is not loving and omnipotent

As you can guess, I don't think it works at all.

Problems with the "Problem" - 1. Misdefining "love"

There are a few problems with the so-called "problem of evil". First, statement 2) is flawed. It assumes that "loving" means "wanting others to avoid suffering as much as possible". As far as I can tell, that's a fairly modern cultural assumption, and it's one of those assumptions that stops working if you look at it for long.

For example, a loving parent will often allow their children to play, even if it might mean the children hurting themselves. If they wanted to minimise pain, they'd put the child on a morphine drip and lock them in their room. As the child gets older, a loving parent might well allow the child to cross roads on their own, despite the risk of getting run over. They might allow or even encourage their child to learn to drive, despite the risks of road accidents. The best way of minimising pain is to give someone a massive dose of anasthetic and kill them. And if you let them live, don't let them ever get romantically involved with anyone else. Love does not mean "aiming to minimise pain".

But what if we're talking about serious suffering? What if when we say "suffering", we mean "dying before age 35"? Once again, love doesn't mean "always wanting to preserve life". Steve Irwin died recently in what seems to have been a freak accident with a stingray. Was it loving of his wife and family to let him go? Yes. Given what Steve Irwin's persona seems to have been like, it would have been unloving not to let him go.

In the same way, God lovingly allows us the dignity of the consequences of our actions. If I hit someone, they can feel pain. If I sit alongside someone, they can be comforted. If I drive at 100mph off a cliff, I die. If I bury a landmine, it might explode and hurt or kill someone. Our actions are our fault.

Problems with the "Problem" - 2. Missing the Point

Another problem with the "problem" is that it completely misses the point. Christianity doesn't claim that God makes life pain-free or suffering-free. Actually, it claims it makes life more painful, with more suffering (and more joy and hope) for those who follow it.

What is promised for Christians who are suffering is endurance, hope and joy, not freedom from suffering.

Problems with the "Problem" - 3. REALLY Missing the Point

What is the main thing Christianity says about suffering?

That God himself is not an impassive observer - that he came to share in the world's suffering - that he was rejected, persecuted, beaten, suffered, and that he died, and that somehow through that suffering and death, he accomplished a great good. Jesus showed that suffering and death is not the final word - he showed that he can and does use it for God's glory and for the good of God's people.

Problems with the "Problem" - 4. Forgetting the tenses

The other point worth mentioning, of course, is that God has promised that he will one day deal with suffering totally (for his people, at least). There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. But that isn't yet - God hasn't yet finished what he is doing and the way he is working in the suffering of this world to accomplish his purposes.

God is omnipotent, he is loving, he shares in our suffering, he suffers for us, he promises that one day there will be an end to suffering. I'm grateful that he's God, and not me, and not anyone else.

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