Suffering and the Problem of Evil

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Christian Beliefs

Christianity believes in a God who is all-good and who created the universe and all things in it. The beginning of creation was God’s overflowing love, and God’s plan for creation is rooted in divine goodness. God created humans in order to love them as a parent loves his or her children.

In a universe such as this, how do Christians understand suffering and evil? Why would God, a benevolent creator who loves all creatures, especially God’s human children, allow evil and suffering to exist?

Christianity_Anno2_93Christians have faith in a good and loving Creator who has a plan for creation that is also good and loving. This tenet of faith has prompted Christians to seek explanations or justifications for suffering. Human suffering takes many forms: emotional, natural, and moral. Loneliness, anxiety, and grief are examples of emotional suffering. Fires, tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunami, and physical illnesses (e.g., cancer) are examples of natural suffering. Moral suffering is brought on by the deliberate acts of fellow human beings to cause suffering, something Christians call a moral evil.

Christianity_Anno2_94Toward the end of the 2nd century, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons and a Church Father, formulated a theodicy, an argument intended to show that evil is necessary for human moral and spiritual development and is part of God’s purpose. God created humans in a morally and spiritually imperfect state so that they can strive in response to suffering, in order to grow into full fellowship with God. This argument continues to influence Christian thought and belief.

Another early argument with strong contemporary resonance was advanced by the influential theologian Augustine, born in 354, who became the Bishop of Hippo in north Africa. Augustine proposed that, since God endowed people with free will, we were able to freely choose to do evil as well as good. Simply stated, there is evil in the world because humans choose to do evil things. “Free” will is not free if we can only choose the good, so God does not prevent us from choosing evil. Suffering is the price we pay for this freedom to choose.

Christianity_Anno2_95A third explanation of evil was advanced by the 18th-century philosopher G.W. Leibniz who believed that despite our suffering, and the tragic and catastrophic events in our lives, we are living in the best of all possible worlds. God is in control, Leibniz believed. When something terrible happens, it is not because God is not involved. God allowed it in order to prevent an even more terrible event from occurring. God is able to anticipate and prevent consequences that we cannot see. Since God is good and loving, we can trust that God creates and sustains the best possible world.

There are other Christian responses to evil that do not claim that evil is part of God’s divine plan. Some Christians believe that God disciplines us just as a human father might discipline his children. Our suffering, therefore, is God’s punishment and is a sign to us that we should repent. Others believe that God uses suffering to test our faith in divine providence and that suffering is an opportunity to make faith stronger and more constant. Another belief is that our suffering in our earthly life is only temporary and will add radiance and joy to our eternal life.

Others might say that evil is nothing but the absence of good, a strong reminder to us that we should work harder to bring good into this world. Still others might argue that God’s connection with the created order is so profound that God has bound divine providence and omnipotence to the human experience. God’s activity in the affairs of creation, then, is powerful, but not directive or controlling.

Christianity_Anno2_96More contemporary approaches to evil include the argument that evil is not a problem for Christian faith. In the Old Testament, the Psalms regard creation as a revelation of God’s goodness. Evil, also a part of God’s creation, must reveal that inherent goodness as well if we know how to look. Recently some Christians have stopped viewing evil as an existential problem, and begun viewing it as a practical problem. Some, like Alyosha Karamazov, the character in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, believe that the evil in our midst requires that we act to end it. Explanations or justifications of evil’s existence are only secondary to this call to action or are not at all meaningful.

In all cases, Christians have been heard to cry out with the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord?” One response, uniquely Christian, is the belief that God suffers too. Through Christ’s suffering and pain on the cross of crucifixion, God submitted to the same evil that torments so many. This response does not explain or justify evil, but it helps Christians to bear it. They trust that, even in their pain, God is with them. In the meantime, Christians hold onto the hope that ultimately God and God’s good purposes will prevail, permanently defeating Satan and evil.

Study Questions:

  1. Why do Christians struggle with the problem of suffering?
  2. How is suffering manifested?
  3. How does suffering become a vehicle to a closer relationship with God?
  4. What are the contemporary approaches to the problem of evil?

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Christian Beliefs

Christianity teaches that the universe was created through love by an intelligent power, namely the God of the Bible. Creation was purposeful, and, therefore, the universe is not morally neutral, but essentially good. In this purposeful creation, everything and everyone is intrinsically valuable. God’s design or purpose for creation reflects God’s intention that all creatures enjoy perfect love and justice. God works in human history to fulfill that purpose. God created human beings in the divine image, enabling humans to have some understanding of God and of God’s vast and complex design. The purpose of life is to love and serve God in order to help bring about God’s glorious plan for creation.

Christianity_Anno2_90Reason is a unique gift bestowed by God on humans and enables them to reflect on their own nature and conscience, and from that derive knowledge of God’s will for creation. But a complete understanding is beyond human reach. To fulfill the goal of wholeness in an existence perfected by both justice and love, something more is needed. Humans are not expected to accomplish the divine plan alone. The fulfillment of God’s purpose depends on God’s grace. For Christians, grace is God’s freely-given favor and love.

Reason is a good gift, sometimes misused for selfish, willful, or prideful purposes. The substitution of selfish ambition for God’s will is a condition that Christians call sin, meaning separation from God.

The Christian concept of sin originates in the story of Adam and Eve found in chapters 2-3 of the Book of Genesis, a story that has importance for Christians. The story relates Christianity_Anno2_91the creation by God of the first humans, a man and woman. God placed them in a beautiful garden called Eden, which provided for all their physical needs, as well as companionship with each other and fellowship with God. For these first humans, God had only one rule. In the garden stood “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” whose fruit Adam and Eve should not eat. When Adam and Eve later broke the rule and ate the fruit, God banished them from the garden, condemning them and their descendants to a life of hard work, pain, disease, and eventual death, and submitting the earth itself to “bondage.” Christians call this humanity’s “fall” from innocence.

Some Christians believe that these events actually took place, while others understand this story to be symbolic of the human condition. But all Christians tend to view the story as meaningful for all of humanity–that God is in a personal relationship with humans who must decide how to respond to God. They can obey God’s will, working together with God to take care of each other and creation, or they can follow their own desires, rebelling against God’s will and design.

The story illustrates the Christian belief in the inevitability and universality of sin. Throughout their lives, people will pursue their personal interests instead of seeking to serve God and follow God’s will. Some believe in the doctrine of original sin, following Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, who theorized that the rebellion of the first human parents is physically passed Christianity_Anno2_92on to all human beings from one generation to the next. Others believe that sin originates with Satan, who first tempted Eve and now preys on humankind, seeking souls to devour. Many contemporary Christians seek ways of understanding sin separately from the story of Adam and Eve, believing that we must take responsibility for our tendency to sin and the harm it does to our loving fellowship with both God and each other.

Christianity teaches that everyone is equally prone to sin and so it focuses not only on human behavior, but also on human nature. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote that “there is no difference, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). Even though there can be a considerable scale of wrongdoing in sinful human activity, a person’s sin does not make him or her less valued by God; everyone is equally a candidate for redemption.

Study Questions:

  1. Why might Christians argue that humanity is essentially good?
  2. What is meant by reason? Why must it be coupled with grace?
  3. Where do Christians believe sin originated?
  4. Why is sin a part of everyday life? How is it overcome?