My wife pointed out a hole in the eschatology outlined last week in my review of N.T. Wright’s How God Became King. Namely, if Christians are called to make things better, to prepare the world for the arrival of the kingdom of God, which was inaugurated by the ministry and death of Jesus and proven by his resurrection – in other words, if God is currently king of the world to which he will return and physically rule at the end of time as we know it – then why does the world suck so much?
In other words, theodicy. Evil is the problem with this system.
But here’s the thing: Evil is the problem with every system.
Believe God is an all-powerful judge, waiting to destroy the world with fire and brimstone after rapturing his true followers to heaven? Believe God is the sympathizer-in-chief, stooping to identify personally with the grieving, the wounded, the outcast? Believe God is radically loving and gracious, to the extent that each and every person eventually will be welcomed into his presence?
Good for you. None of it explains the existence of evil.
Not that we don’t try. We have done our best to place as many filters as we can between God and the evil he allows to exist.
We point to free will. We blame Satan. We argue we couldn’t understand good without its opposite. We point to the Garden of Eden and the snake and the universe-changing bite into the forbidden fruit – and we attempt to absolve God of the responsibility for the world he’s created.
A world that includes cancer and murder and tsunamis and war and starvation, abortion and divorce and addiction and too many lives taken too quickly.
But the explanations all fall short. After all, if the existence of evil is necessary – to keep us from being robots, say, or to help us appreciate good – then why are we so sublime about its banishment from heaven, where presumably we will be unable to sin yet also perfectly happy? If it is unnecessary – the product of a single poor choice in Eden – then why do we insist on God’s omnipotence in the face of his failure to block it? And if it is inherent – built in to the evolutionary processes of natural selection and random mutation – then why do we try to shield God from evil as something he allows when in fact it is something he created?
No theology, soteriology or eschatology can resolve this uncomfortable fact: The best explanation for evil is that God does not exist at all.
This was the conclusion reached by Bart Ehrmans, who related his journey from being a pastor to the world’s most famous agnostic biblical scholar in God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question— Why We Suffer. I read the first chapter at Hasting’s one evening, and I was struck by the sensitivity and respect with which Ehrmans contrasted his own struggles with those of his wife, who remains a committed Christian, and other Christian theologians and philosophers, who have wrestled with the problem of evil and come through with faith intact. Ehrmans simply couldn’t do it, and I don’t blame him.
I’ve said before that it is much easier to be an atheist than a Christian. This is a frightening statement for many, myself included. But the more I think about this – the more theodicy becomes the intractable problem at the heart of every systematic approach to God – the more I am comforted by it.
Should faith be easy? Should it make sense? Should it be the most obvious solution? No. It would not be faith; it would be science, or something close to it. Faith is a choice, as I think Mark 9:24 makes clear:
It has often thrown him into a fire or into water trying to kill him. If you can do anything, help us! Show us compassion!”
Jesus said to him, “‘If you can do anything’? All things are possible for the one who has faith.”
At that the boy’s father cried out, “I have faith; help my lack of faith!”
The motto of this blog is Fides quaerens intellectum – “Faith seeking understanding.” It was coined by Anselm of Canterbury more than 900 years ago. Anselm believed that understanding could not be achieved without loving God and seeking to obey him. His intellectual rival from the 11th and 12th centuries, Peter Abelard, took what appears to be the opposite view; he believed truth was divined through questioning and intellectual exercise:
The key to wisdom is this – constant and frequent questioning, for by doubting we are led to question and by questioning we arrive at the truth.
Perhaps both men are right.
On the question of evil, perhaps we must decide that we will have faith. We will love God and obey him, despite our inability to understand why the world exists the way it does. We will love and serve others, doing what little we can to make this a better place – not because we have the answers but precisely because we recognize that we don’t. Yet we will not stop looking for them, because through questioning we might discover this: God not only can handle our doubts, he welcomes them, understands them and bears them, so great is his love for us.
And that truth turns out to be enough, at least for today.