Sunday, February 03, 2008

Sermon 2/3/08 Life's Toughest Questions Part 4: Why do People Suffer

I can still remember what I was doing on September 11th, 2001 as two planes flew into the world trade center, killing more than 2,000 people. I had just gotten out of the shower and I was getting ready to go to class when my dad called. My roommate, who was half asleep, answered the phone and handed it to me. My dad was trying to explain to me that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center, but when his words failed to convey the enormity of the event unfolding, he told me to just turn on the TV. I remember having the TV on and watching the second plane hit the other tower. Driving to school that day all I could think about was, “How this could have happened?” As we all know now, September 11th has changed our lives forever.

The last seven years has seen its share of tragedy. The tsunami in Indonesia in 2004 killing more than 200,00 people, Hurricane Katrina which devastated the Gulf Coast and all but destroyed the city of New Orleans in 2005, and the school shooting at Virginia Tech in 2006. The list could go on and on, which leaves tough questions to be answered. Many people look at all of the evil in the world, whether from human hands or natural disastrous and wonder how a loving God who is all powerful could allow such horrible things to happen to our world. This challenge to the belief of God is commonly called “The Problem of Evil.”

In December of 2007, our congregation took a survey about life’s toughest questions. The question, “Why do people suffer” was the most asked question we received. Almost 19% of the surveys asked this question.

The Problem Defined
In the 1950’s J.L. Mackie wrote that the “problem of evil” poses the greatest challenge to the belief in God. He argues that people who believe in God believe: (1) God is omnipotent; (2) God is wholly good and (3) evil exists. He claims these three things cannot all be true. If evil exists, then God cannot be omnipotent or wholly good. If God is both these things, then evil cannot exist. To understand what Mackie is getting at, we have to understand how we views both omnipotent and wholly good. By omnipotent, we means that there is no limits on what God can do and that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can.

Theist, or people who claim that God does exist and is both omnipotent and wholly good have attempted to defend their belief in God in the face of evil in the world. These arguments have often been called theodicy’s, which comes from two Greek words meaning “God” and “justice,” meaning “the justice of God” or “to justify God in the face of evil.” Theists believe that they can hold a belief in God’s omnipotence and that God is wholly good if there is a morally sufficient reason for God to allow evil in the world.

While it has been shown by many Theist that God could have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil, some atheists now claim that God does not have a morally sufficient reason to allow the types and the shear volume of evil. For example, If God is omniscient, but he had sufficient reason to allow evil in order to accomplish his purposes, it would seem that he would only allow the evil that is necessary and he would illuminate the evil that is unnecessary. The goal of the theist is to not only show that God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil, but that God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing the kinds of evil we now see in our world.

Before going on, it is important to note that the “problem of evil” in which we find ourselves faced with is really only an issue if one (1) believes in God and (2) believes certain things about God’s character, namely that God is omnipotent and that God is wholly good. If someone does not believe in the one or two, or both these things, then there is really no problem of evil. The suffering in the world can all be explained by human and the laws of nature. Even when we raise the question of the “problem of evil”, we are actually assuming there is a God, or we would not really have a “problem of evil.”

Two Explanations
The first theodicy is called the free will theodicy, based on teachings from Augustine of Hippo. This theodicy basically argues human beings were created with the capacity to choose good or evil. Human beings have chosen to misuse their freedom and choose evil, therefore there is evil in the world. People who believe the free will theodicy believe that most, if not all the evil in the world can be accounted for by our misuse of freedom.

In saying this, it is important to note that God’s choice to create people with a free will, in some ways limits what God can do. If God gives someone free will, God cannot control what they will choice to do with their freedom. It is not that God is not omnipotent, but that God cannot do something that is logically impossible to do. That would be like asking God to create a square circle or a married bachelor. God being all-powerful means that God can do anything that is logically possible to do.

It is believed by those who endorse the free will theodicy believe the moral sufficient reason for allowing evil is because evil is the price we have to pay for free will. Free will is the “greater good.” Augustine uses an example of a real horse and a stone horse and says that the real horse, while it may be a runaway horse is better than the stone horse because while it runs away, it does so because it has self-movement and sense perception. The reason the stone horse does not run is because it cannot. In the same way, creatures that have free will and sin are better than people who do not sin because they have not free will

The second theodicy is called the soul making theodicy and has its roots in the teaching of Irenaeus. Basically, this teaching suggests that this world is designed to be a place of soul-making or a place in which God teaches us how to be more like God. The world has a certain amount of adversity built into it to help us grow by our overcoming the obstacles in front of us. This does not have to mean that God causes evil in the world, but God does allow them to occur in order for us to grow. An important point to make is that it would be logically impossible for God to create us perfect because only perseverance through suffering can cause that.[i]

The reason for the suffering and the amount of suffering that takes place are necessary for a greater good because it is what enables creatures to reach the potential that God created them to be. God could have taken away the evil and suffering, but it would have been at the cost of human beings not being who God wants them to be.

The Bible does not tell is explicitly which of these two theories are correct. I do want to suggest that both of them can be found implicitly in the biblical narrative and the Bible at times addresses this very important topic. To being with, let us turn to the book of Job.

The Old Testament
The Old Testament deals with suffering right off the bat in Genesis 1-11.
The Bible is an amazing book and it often answers questions that we do not expect it to. Many times it answers them in places that we least expect to find answers. Take the present question, “Why is there war and hate in the world?” If you begin to read in the Bible about the creation story, you will notice the first chapter of Genesis God creates the world and then the text says, “God saw that it was good.”[ii] Then, God creates human beings and says, “He saw all that he had made and it was very good.”[iii]

The next logical question that could pop into one’s mind is this: “If God created everything good, then why do we find a world that has gone so wrong?” Why is there hate and war in the world if God created the world and it was very good?

The story suggests the destruction of innocence occurred when Adam and Eve made a choice to eat fruit that God had forbidden them not to eat. On the outset, this seems like a very trivial thing to be the cause of such hatred and war, but I believe the writer is trying to use this story to explain a deeper truth about human nature. Notice the reasoning for which Adam and Eve ate the fruit. The consequence of eating the fruit, according to the wise serpent was that they would be like God, knowing good and evil. God had told them that they could eat any of the fruit from any of the trees. God would provide for their every desire if they would only trust him. BUT NO!!!
Genesis says that Eve ate the fruit for three reasons. (1) It was pleasing to the eyes, (2) it was desirable for gaining wisdom (3) and it was good food. In other words, she did not trust God to give her these things, so she went outside of good for them. Apparently Adam agreed with her and did the same thing.
The interesting thing about this event was that it set off a chain reaction of events that followed. The consequences of this action meant that humanity would struggle against each other, against creation itself, and against God. In the next chapter we see Cain kill his brother Able. In chapter six the sin of humanity has completely corrupted the world. In chapter eleven the people all want to be like God so they build a tower to the heavens.
The Old Testament then assumes this truth throughout most of it’s pages (1) God is all-powerful (2) God is wholly God (3) Humanity causes the sufferings that it endures. A great example of this is found in Psalm 1.
Blessed are those
who do not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but who delight in the law of the LORD
and meditate on his law day and night.
They are like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.[iv]
The Old Testament world view states that the suffering we encounter is due to our own sinfulness and it is used as a means by which God punishes us or judges us. This seems to be the dominate thought until we get to the book of Job.
Job’s dilemma

Within the context of the book of Job we are told that one day the angles came to present themselves before the Lord and Satan shows up. The Lord asks him if he has considered his servant Job and he explains that Job is an upright person. Satan then says that Job will curse him if he were to lose everything. So, the Lord gives Satan permission take away everything as long as he does not touch him. Satan then takes most his family and property. It is after this that Job uses the quote from above.After this the Lord again asks Satan about Job and talks about his faithfulness even after Satan took things from him. The Lord actually says, “And he maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.”[v] Of coarse Satan says that if the Lord will allow him to cause him pain, then Job will curse him. The Lord says that he can as long as he spares his life. Satan then inflicts sores all over his body. Now Job has lost all his family but his wife, positions, and now he is physically in pain.

The next part of the book involves Job and his friends trying to figure out why this has happened to him. Job holds the position that he is innocent and God is unjustly punishing him. He is asking God for an explanation. Job’s friends on the other hand, believe that Job has done something wrong in order to bring about the disaster that has befallen him.

This conversation goes back and forth for quite sometime until God finally breaks his silence in chapter 38. God responds not by given a straight answer to Job’s question, but by asking Job a whole linty of questions. Afterwards, Job repents and God restores to him everything plus some.

Gregory Boyd, in his book Satan and the Problem of Evil concludes this about Job,

[Job’s] arrogance as well as the arrogance of his friends was in mistakenly thinking that they could trace everything directly back to God or human sin. Such logic inevitably results in people either concluding that people suffer because God is punishing them (Job’s friends) or that God runs the cosmos arbitrarily (Job himself). Peace comes to Job only when he learns that, though suffering is a mystery, he can and must nevertheless humbly trust God. His suffering is not God’s fault, and God is not against him. God’s character is trustworthy.[vi]

I think Boyd is correct in suggesting that God does not explain his reasoning in Job’s case because Job probably would not have understood. Rather, he just asks for Job to trust him. When Job trusts God, he is then redeemed.

The wisdom of the book of Job does turn traditional Jewish wisdom over on its head. The book of Job concludes (1) Job did not sin and cause his own suffering and (2) It was not God causing Job’s suffering.

Evil and Redemption

Job is not the only book that flies in the face of traditional wisdom, we see examples of people suffering when they do not deserve it. For example, the suffering servant in Isaiah 40-55 suffers greatly. In Isaiah 53 we are told of a servant who was despised and rejected (vs. 3) took our pain (vs. 4) was punished (vs. 5) oppressed and afflicted (vs.6) and died (vs. 7).

NT Wright picks up an important theme when he says,

[T]he parallel between Job and YHWAH’s Servant in Isaiah remains striking. The Servant is innocent, after all, just as Job is. He doesn’t complain, as Job does, yet he too suffers indignity, pain, and despair. To look again at the larger context of the whole canon of Scripture, there may be something to be said for seeing the book of Job as an anticipation of the harrowing scene in Gethsemane, where the comforter again fail and creation itself goes dark as the monsters close in around the innocent figure who is asking what it’s all about.[vii]

Job foreshadows the death of Jesus, where God ultimately deals with the problem of evil. Evil choices put Jesus on the cross and killed him. Just as God redeemed the life of Job, God redeemed the life of Jesus in his resurrection from the dead. In this way, the God who is loving and all powerful deals with the problem of evil in the world by redeeming it. As Augustine and other theologians have said, human choices cause misery and pain, but God deals with this pain by allowing Jesus to suffer and then redeeming his life. God intends to deal with all the pain of the world in precisely this way.[viii]

“Why Suffering” may be the Wrong Question

Let me take a moment to summarize where I am with the Question: “Why do people Suffer?”

1. Most of the suffering that happens in the world are due to our misuse of freedom, which God gives us because it is what makes true love exists.
2. There are some sufferings that happen and these sufferings are not due to our sinfulness and the sinfulness of others.
3. The Bible really does not address why these unmerited sufferings happen, but it does address what God has done and will continue to do about the present suffering
4. God identifies with is in our sufferings as Jesus suffered on a cross
5. God intends to redeem our suffering so that one day it will all make sense.

When we go through tragedy, whether it is caused by our own bone headed choices, the bad choices of others, or for some unknown reason, God intends to use this tragedy for redemptive purposes. If God can redeem the death of Jesus on a cross, God can redeem us in any situation. Jerry Walls once wrote,

I have sometimes met people who have given up their faith in God because of some tragedy or misfortune which they have experienced. No what is interesting is that they sometimes imply that they have gained some advantage by rejecting belief in God. God has failed them they say, so they will turn their backs on Him…. But here is the reality that we must all face. Suffering and tragedy are part of life. Turning our backs on God will not change that. Those who turn their backs on God in the face of tragedy still have the tragedy to deal with. They will still grow old, their bodies will weaken, and they will die. Their loved ones will be struck with cancer or die in an automobile accident. The only difference is that they have given up on the best reason to hope such tragedies can be redeemed.[ix]

Jerry Walls points to one of the greatest promises in the Bible. Revelation 21 says, “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the order of things has passed away.”[x] Enough said, the end!
[i] See Philosophy and Religion, chapter 5, ‘The Problem of Evil” for a fuller discussion.
[ii] NIV Genesis 1:25
[iii] NIV Genesis 1:31
[iv] TNIVPsalm 1
[v] TNIV Job 2:3
[vi] Gregory Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil (Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, 2001) 226. See chapters 8 and 9 for explanations for the Problem of Evil
[vii] NT Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, 2006) 71. Wright makes the argument that innocent people suffering points to the cross where Jesus suffered on all our behalf.
[viii] I am indebting to Marilyn McCord Adams for this discussion in Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God(Cornell University Press: London, 1999) pgs 165-168. Adams argues that God identifies with our sufferings by becoming human in Jesus and by doing so makes the victim’s experience of suffering so meaningful that in retrospect, one would not wish it away.
[ix] Jerry Walls, Wiping Away Our Tears, “The Asbury Herald” Vol. 112, number 2 and 3. Pgs, 3-6. In the article, Walls compares the two theodicy’s mentioned above and concludes with this thought from this quote.
[x] TNIV Revelation 21:3-4

No comments: