A sermon preached on The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity at
The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete,
September 8, 2019 11:00 am (slightly expanded)
The Problem of Evil
Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. Jeremiah 18.11
Does God do evil? The reading from Jeremiah certainly seems to suggest as much. And it is not just Jeremiah. Isaiah suggests the same (especially in the AV/KJV translation):
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. Isaiah 45:7
So, when bad things happen to us is it because God is punishing us? In Jeremiah the God is so great that everything that happens is attributed to God. Thus he appears to be the cause of suffering, or, at the very least, appearing to allow it. In this he comes across to us as an angry parent, a wrathful monarch, or a demanding teacher.
For many people this is sufficient reason not to believe in God. If God is responsible for everything, if God allows basically good people to suffer – a child killed in a car accident, or an infant murdered by an errant bullet, or an already oppressed woman taken out by a cluster bomb – if God can allow that, where is the justice? How could a God like that be loving and fair? If we are justly condemned for ours sins, how is it that God makes no distinction between the oppressed and the genocidal wicked?
This is the problem of evil. How do we reconcile the goodness and love of God with the wickedness in the world? If God is omnipotent, why does the divine allow sin and evil to reign? The technical term for any attempt to deal with the problem of evil and God is “theodicy,” which comes from two words for God and trial, θεός and δίκη.
Theodicy in the Bible
Scripture has several approaches to evil.
1: Good Things Happen to Good People, Bad Things to Bad People
The first approach is very simple, and might be described as the “majority” opinion. It is seen in parts of the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament. It is the idea that God is indeed in charge of everything as the creator of the universe and the maker of peoples and nations. As described in Genesis 2 and in Jeremiah 18, God is like a potter working with clay, and has the right to do with it as the deity chooses. So, when kings and the peoples depart from God’s ways, as shown in creation and revelation, then God will punish them, in the hope that they would repent and turn back. Paul notes, in the first chapter of the Letter to the Romans, that for the pagan idolators:
what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
The Israelites had been given the Torah and were, as such, the chosen people of God, The non-Israelites should have known from the beauty and diversity of creation that there was a Creator, but instead began to worship the creation itself. Thus, they are depraved, and condemned.
The Israelites received the Torah from God, and agreed to be faithful to it. In the books of the so-called Deuteronomic History – Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings – we see that God promises to bless Israel, but if they turned from him and followed other Gods he would chasten them. It is also the theology we see in many of the ancient Israelite prophets. It is a simple enough understanding: good things happen to good, faithful people, bad things happen to bad, faithless people. After David and Solomon the Israelite kingdom divided into two, sometimes antagonistic realms, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Israel, although perhaps more wealthy than Judah, followed other gods and set up idols in their places of worship. They also neglected the widows and orphans, took the land of the poor, and accepted bribes in courts of law, and used fraudulent weights in the market places. So God sent the Assyrians against Samaria and Israel, and the ten tribes of the north were exiled and disappeared from history. Likewise, several generations later, the Neo-Babylonian Empire conquered the Assyrians and came down and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, set up tributary kings and governors, and deported the ruling elite and skilled workers to the waters of Bablyon, in what is now Iraq. After forty years the Neo-Babylonians themselves were overcome by the Persians of Cyrus the Great, who told the transplanted Judahites – or, as we now would call them, Jews – to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, and worship in peace. All of this, in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and many of the Twelve Prophets, saw the hand of God in these historical events, first punishing faithlessness, and then relenting and acting once again to save the Chosen People.
2: Justice Delayed – Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People, and Good Things to Bad People?
So far so good. But after the return to exile a problem with this relatively straight-forward approach was identified, and this led to a second approach to theodicy, which is a modification of the first. This is the recognition that bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. It seems fundamentally unjust, and cannot be explained away by saying that God is righteous, even if it that doesn’t appear to be so. Indeed, when the Persian Empire was conquered by the Greek speaking Macedonian Alexander the Great, his successors in the Middle East, the rulers of the Selucid Empire, persecuted the Jews for their fidelity to God, demanding that they conform to the imperial religions and customs. Many refused, and were martyred as a result. So where was God is this?
The solution had a couple of elements. During the Exile in Babylon the Jewish leaders and teachers were exposed to Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of the Persians (which exists still as the faith of the Parsees). This ancient faith is more or less a monotheism and worship is offered to Ahura Mazda, but he is opposed by a demonic being. This may have been influenced the Jewish people into believing that there were evil forces working in opposition to their God. Late texts in the Hebrew Bible seem to bear that out.
Thus, evil in the present was attributed to Satan, whose name literally means “the tempter.” The second idea was that God was merely postponing justice for a bit. In time, perhaps very soon, when things got even worse, God would break into history and lift up the oppressed and pull down the evil, both the demonic and the human.
We see this theology in the later parts of Isaiah, in some of the later prophets like Zechariah and Haggai, and in the book of Daniel. It is the theology behind the growth in the belief in the general resurrection, when God will send the Son of Man to judge the quick and the dead. It is the belief behind the death and resurrection of Jesus, in which, in solidarity with suffering humanity, the Word becomes flesh and lives among us, and overcomes death and takes away the sins of the world, beginning a new creation. It is the power that takes Paul and transforms him from one who persecutes the followers of Jesus to being one of his most fervent apostles. For Paul the delay of justice was an occasion of grace, as it gave time to take the good news of Jesus Christ to the pagan world and perhaps save some who would otherwise be lost. It is the theology that is behind the Book of Revelation, and John’s visions on Patmos. The message here is, Repent, and have faith, and in the fullness of time all shall be well.
3: From Out of the Whirlwind, The Incomprehensible and Our Incomprehension
But even this second approach is not satisfying. Why does God delay? After all, as Martin Luther King, Jr said, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Why does God allow Antiochus Epiphanes, the Selucid emperor of the middle of the 2nd Century BCE, to kill the faithful Jews with such torture and suffering? Or, to bring it up into modern times, why did God allow the Atlantic slave trade, and the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas? Why did God allow the rise of Hitler in the the first half of the 20th century, and the loss of so many lives in war, and the murder of six million Jews? Why did God allow the rise of Communism in Russia, China, and Cambodia, where it allowed genocidal leaders like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot to murder tens of millions of their own people? Why does God allow civil wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Congo? In the face of such suffering and death, delay seems unjust and unconscionable.
The third biblical approach may be found in the Book of Job. In it we are introduced to the prose story of God and Satan having a contest and using Job as place of that testing. God celebrates the righteousness of Job, but Satan says that if bad things happened to him he would abandon the Lord. So God tests Job. Job loses everything – his belongings, his children, his health, and he finally breaks down. Poetry begins, and he sits in ashes – the equivalent of our garbage bins – and curses the day on which he was born.
Now, Job is described as having done nothing to incur his suffering, and he has no expectation of justice. Several friends come by and give him bad advice, but he replies that he is innocent – which God already confirmed in the first two chapters – and he demands that he be able to face God and put him in the dock, to put his ways on trial. So God appears in the whirlwind and says, “Where were you when I was making the universe” – not actually answering Job, but pulling rank, as it were. Job, overcome by the presence of God, humbles himself, acknowledges his presumption. In the words of the psalmist, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it.” Afterwards, returning to prose, God gives him twice as many possessions and twice as many children, which seems to be some recompense. But still, Job suffered and he never knows why. This long book, I think, develops in a poetic way the exasperation we have with God, and ultimately confesses that we cannot reconcile both the majesty and power of God and the reality of evil and suffering in our lives.
Some of you may remember a story told by Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Prize winning author and Holocaust survivor. In Auschwitz he witnessed three Jews, close to death, conduct a trial against God. Inspired by this the English screenwriter and novelist Frank Cottrell Boyce created a play set in Auschwitz in the Second World War, which was dramatized as “God on Trial” and broadcast by the BBC in 2008. God is put on trial, and in the end the vote is that God has indeed broken the covenant. Just before the vote a rabbi among them says, “God is not good. He was just on our side. But now he has broken the covenant with us. He has made one with somebody else.” A very stark conclusion. And then they ask, “So what do we do now?” The reply is: “Let us pray.” But then the Jewish prisoners are taken off to be murdered, and as they wait for the gas to overcome them, they begin to cry the Shema in Hebrew: Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One.”
This, then, is a third approach to the problem of evil, which we might call the minority opinion. It is the approach which says that we will never really have an answer, and any attempt at an answer is doomed. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) said that theodicy after the Holocaust was a blasphemy. He should know – he lost almost all of his extended family in it (while he was a French POW in a German camp, his wife and daughter only survived because they were protected by nuns). We might give historical reasons as to why humans created the conditions in which such a thing happened, but we can never understand why God might allow it.
Christ and The Problem of Evil
I personally do not think it is possible to answer the question of why God allows evil. Levinas, although a faithful Orthodox Jew, believed that on philosophical and purely rational grounds we humans find the divine fundamentally in the ethical responsibility we have towards others. We might sense it in creation, in the history of the world, but all of that can, and is, challenged and undermined. It is in our intuition of responsibility to others that we find the trace of the divine, and the source of meaning in life.
So where does that leave us as Christians today in the year of our Lord Two-Thousand and Nineteen? Ultimately we can never explain evil, or justify it from the perspective of God, because we can only see things from the human perspective, which is so limited. But in the revelation of God in Jesus we do see what we may be called to do and be in the face of evil. And what might that be?
- As Christians, although we may not ever be able to explain or “justify” the existence of evil, we can proclaim in Jesus of Nazareth the revelation of God as one who lives and dies with us, and who overcomes death, one who cares for us, and who loves us, one who calls us beyond death to life. In the drama of Holy Week we describe a deity that withholds nothing from us.
- As individuals and as communities we are called to amend our ways. We can hear this personally, but I suspect we need to hear it even more so communally. The apocalypse is upon us, whether we see it in environmental degradation, the rise of racism and anti-Semitism, the denial of facts in favour of spin and outright lies, or increasing inequality in incomes.
But of course, the apocalypse has been always with us, whether it was the the threat of Assyria to Jerusalem in the 7th century BCE, or in the 20th century the rise of totalitarian, genocidal regimes through communism, the rise of murderous totalitarian regimes in Fascism and Nazism, or the challenge of nuclear war. Each generation has its challenges, but the call to repent and amend our ways remains in every era. And so we are called.
- And we are called to be in solidarity with the majority, the poor and the oppressed, as Jesus was. We cannot ignore them, or justify their suffering as the results of historical or economic processes, much less blame the victims and exculpate the oppressors. This is the practical theology behind Paul telling Philemon that he needs to free his slave Onesimus. He tells him to do it on the basis of love, not because Philemon owes him, although Paul feels quite justified in saying that he would be right to command him to do it. Also, behind this is the belief that in Christ there is no longer Jew and Greek, male and female, or free and slave.
- But this is costly. Freeing a slave was a costly thing to do. Working for justice may cost us relationships. In following Jesus we may lose relations with our relatives, and we may lose income and possessions. I think this is what Jesus is talking about in the gospel reading today – that being a Christian is a costly endeavour, that grace is not cheap, and following Jesus means taking up crosses. The parabolic language Jesus uses may seem over the top, but the blank stares we might get when we tell people we are Christians in this post-Christian society is a hint of the cost of discipleship. Christians, at cost to themselves, live the justice of God among themselves and with the strangers in their midst.
What Kind Of A Vessel Are You?
As we remember the one who created us, and as we look back over our lives and see how we are like clay that a potter has refashioned time and again, may we recognise the cost that Jesus paid, and be ready for the calls coming to us to pay. May we hear the call of God to turn now, all of us, from our evil ways, and amend our ways and our doings. And may God give us the Holy Spirit to have the grace so that the sharing of our faith may become effective.