Within the Pangs of a Dying World or, The Hope of Sabbath

DSC01993St. Augustine’s City of God stands as a centerpiece within the annals of Western Christianity. One can easily say that within City of God Christianity officially moved West and became a type of its own brand, away from the prolific East (I leave it up to the reader to decide whether that is a good or bad thing). What is often ignored in the many debates caused by Augustine’s is the backdrop to why he wrote the book. The Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 – a relatively tame sacking comparatively speaking – causing panic and uproar within the Roman Empire. It would be akin to a foreign army of untrained soldiers attacking New York City after defeating the US military to get there; the shock would be beyond belief. Augustine was writing to the suffering inflicted, but to promise them that though violence may reign now, peace holds eternity (hence his title, “City of God”).

As I type this, millions of people around the world are suffering. One of the greatest realities of suffering, and possibly its saddest, is that the majority of these people are children. An estimated 1-3 million children worldwide die from malnutrition and starvation every single year, and that number is actually down from just a few decades ago. Of course, much of the malnutrition and disease is a side effect of manmade wars. In Syria alone, millions of people are displaced, and this is not to mention the ongoings in Iraq. In this violent upheaval families are displaced, they mourn the loss of those closest to them, the most unfortunate being the lone survivors of a narrow escape, the ones who live with survivor’s guilt.

Of course, I speak of survivors as though one can survive violence; the thing about violence is that what it cannot extract from the body it will most certainly rob from the soul. We think of soldiers coming back from a war with a “thousand yard stare.” Even soldiers in the most justified of wars are still casualties of that war in a way, having seen things no one ought to see. We don’t even need to go to foreign lands to see the impact of violence and PTSD; occupying the headlines are tales of various NFL players abusing loved ones (and sometimes loved ones defending the abuse), of college campuses having to define rape – a violent act – because apparently somehow rape is ambiguous. That we even have to define that “no means no” (contra Rush Limbaugh) shows that we live in a violent culture, even if we have to hide our violence behind sexuality.

The Western world feels like something is underfoot, that we’re on the verge of collapse. It’s as though we’re simply awaiting the Visigoths to arrive and send our world into a tailspin, as the modern day barbarians of al-Qaeda and ISIL have already done in the Middle East. With the events in the Middle East quickly getting out of hand, Russia’s not-so-secret invasion of the Ukraine (as well as flying its bombers near Swedish and US airspace), the fact that South America has quietly become the most violent region in the world, sub-Saharan Africa on the brink of another genocide, and the seemingly weakening social structure of Europe, it is a wonder that more people have yet to embrace nihilism. Considering the status of the United States is only worse as its infrastructure is falling apart, its middle class might go extinct long before the polar bear, its police are becoming more and more violent against citizens (all while most citizens capitulate out of necessity), and “Land of the Free” is used more for irony than patriotic statements.  Continue reading


A Story of Christmas or, Sin and the Nativity

IMG_1029A friend sent this to me explaining a dream he had. I shall keep him anonymous and simply post what he wrote

Enter into the temple of creation, see its glorious ruins. We humans are a paradoxical people, enjoying the beauty around us while destroying it. This war against nature extends beyond the realm of ecology, beyond what toxins may contaminate; it extends beyond our bullets and our bombs launched at one another in misguided hatred; it extends beyond the self-mutilation of our psyche, beyond the civil war that rages inside everyone. Our war goes out beyond the realm of our universe, beyond our ontological barriers. Our struggle is one against Reality Himself.

We who wallow in darkness fear the light, for it brings pain to our shadowed eyes. We react to the light by running into the dark. We ask, “Whence is this light in our darkness?” but shut out the light when it encroaches upon our realm. We were drunk on our own glory, but are hung-over in our regret. Now any illumination is ruled too bright. We complain of the night, but dare not venture out into the day.

Once when contemplating evil, I saw the Son of Man wrapped and bound in thorny vines. The thorns dug in, drawing blood from the innocent one. “Why not command the vines loose?” I cried out. But he did not answer me. He instead walked toward me, each step tangling him more, thrusting the thorns deeper. “Please,” I begged. “Stop this sight, speak them out of existence!” And yet the Lamb said nothing to me as the blood began to flow. In anger towards his weakness, I threw sackcloth on him, I spat upon him, and I cursed his name. Still, he said nothing, only lamenting the pain.

The light invaded my dark room, as it seemed to shine from every drop of blood. I wrapped more sackcloth around him to snuff out the light, but as the thorns dug deeper, he grew brighter. My struggle against Reality stood as my greatest failure, the greatest in a long list of failures.

Angered, I relented to my lesson, but continued to mock him. “And I suppose,” I said. “That these are my sins that you took for me?” As the thorns disappeared beneath his dark skin, he still remained silent. Smugly, I stated, “I know the theologies of your substitution. Yes, I see, my sin you’ve taken upon yourself and now I am saved.” At that, my mouth went dry and tongue swelled, I struggled to swallow and feared for death.

“All this,” he finally said. “Is your sin. But I do not suffer for you, but for your victims. The thorns that dug into my flesh, these are the sharp stings delivered to others by your tongue. The sackcloth is your loveless apologies that hold no meaning to reconciliation. You offer peace, but still war in your heart. The light, however, is my glory. No matter the depth and resolve of your darkness, I will always shine through.”

He then touched my lips and I felt my thirst quenched. “You act like an enemy, but I treat you as a friend. You came against my beloved, but I call you a lover. You act in hate, but I am Love. You are finite in your fallacy, but I AM.

After this, he took me to an orphanage, one in a country long forgotten by civilization. I watched as a little girl played in isolation, as she cried out in hunger, and how the workers looked on. No one showed concern for her neglect. I was then taken to an old factory, where distraught women with blank expressions herded into a cramped van. They were off to sell their bodies under duress and without hope.

I saw more images of neglect and suffering, more than I thought possible. I watched the world writhe under the weight of evil while succumbing to its darkest passions. In all its victims, I saw individuals unified in familiarity. All different, yet all held the appearance of Divinity, the Eternal Light bursting forth from their pain in subtle beauty. Their oppressors also struck me with ugly similarity, with faces I knew. In their own way, each one looked like me.

I looked at my Divine Guide, confused and shocked. “The least of these hold my light.” he said. He did not look at me, but continued to stare at the suffering. “And you, the oppressor, bring darkness.” I objected quickly, stating that I am not to blame, that I did nothing to the least of these. “Yes, but you did nothing for them. Do you not realize,” he continued. “I made none of you to be separate. Every action committed in time ripples across time and space, into eternity. Your sin brings darkness to the world, you contribute to the sin of others.”

All light vanished, along with the Word, and I stood in complete darkness. In the distance a dull light brightened, and it shone upon a manger. Inside, a young baby cried and moved about. The star grew brighter, showing the ones I saw suffering bowing before the babe. Behind them were their oppressors, also kneeling in reverence.

I watched as the Spirit hovered over the formless void, shining light and bringing order to chaos. He spoke to me, showing that Hope had come into the world. The dark clouds began to lift, allowing the radiance of the moon to expose the majestic tranquility of the new creation. The angels sang and proclaimed the beauty of the event.

O sinners and enemies of God

To those who war against man

See where thy evil did trod

Observe the failure of thy plan

O abused, diseased, hungry, and tired

To those overcome by the world’s harms

Leave at once where you mired

And find rest within his arms

Into the darkness came the Word

Not to condemn but to save the lost

Peace he brought, not a sword

All saved, paid at such a cost

Today Immanuel, God is with us

As we await the full redemption

Incarnation, Divinity you now posses

Embrace this with full reception

I awoke from my slumber, feeling the cold night air through my open window. An immediate sadness came over me, knowing I was unworthy to see such a sight. A gentleness, however, subdued my sadness and I stood from my bed. I walked outside, staring at the bright Christmas Eve moon. I lit my pipe and sat in my chair, and calmly waited in anticipation.

Evil is not Solely a Manmade Disaster or, Why I Still Believe in the Devil

n1190070022_30272815_7694Conspicuously missing from most modern theodicies – including some of my own writings – is the role that Satan plays in our fallen world. Most philosophers of religion most likely attempt to stay away from the Devil’s role for a myriad of reasons, notably that Scripture isn’t exactly clear on what the Devil’s role is and it’s quite taboo to admit a belief in the existence of the Devil. Many naturalists believe that belief in the Devil is akin to belief in Zeus; even for fair minded atheists, who forgive a belief in God, forgiving a belief in the Devil goes a bit too far.

Even among Christians, however, there is a great reluctance to speak of Satan (unless, of course, one happens to be Pentecostal or Charismatic, but then there is much superstition around such beliefs). For Christian intellects the issue of Satan appears to be quote superfluous; ultimately, we humans are the cause of our own sin and natural evil is caused by natural forces. While many well-meaning Christians believe in an active God, they implicitly believe in a passive Devil. Yet, this is not what the Bible or Christianity present. The Bible is quite clear about Satan’s existence, attributing at least 180 passages directly to dealing with the Devil.

There are consequences to downgrading or even eliminating a belief in Satan. For one, even without a belief in Satan, we must deal with the fact that evil is present within our world. As St. Nikolai Verlimirovic wrote,

As long as man regards men, and not Satan, as the source of evil in the world, fratricide will rule in place of brotherly love.

Without a source of evil beyond ourselves – though we still stand responsible for evil – it is easy to condemn the man along with his actions. Such a view is actually what has existed for quite some time within human history, but it is not an accurate view.

The Bible is quite clear that while we ultimately bear responsibility for our moral choices, the enemy seeks to destroy us, seeks to tempt us into giving into sin. 1 Peter 5:8 says that the Devil roams around like a lion, seeking to devour the weak. 1 John 3:8 says that Christ came into the world to destroy the works of the Devil. Notice that He didn’t come to destroy the works of man, but the works of the Devil. While Ransom Theory – the idea that Christ ransomed us from the Devil – is by itself an incomplete view of the Atonement, there’s some merit there; Christ ransomed us from the works of the Devil, works that we had adopted as our own. 2 Corinthians 11:3 states that just as Eve was deceived by the Devil, so too can our own thoughts deceive us, indicating that Satan and the angels who followed him (popularly called demons) attempt to manipulate us into justifying our own sin.

The Bible, especially the New Testament, seems to indicate that Satan is the source of our temptation, of evil, of suffering, and so on. When we give into his deception and lies we only perpetuate his evil. 2 Corinthians 4:4 says that unbelievers are blinded by the “god of this world.” In other words, Satan is not some metaphor for evil, some mythical figure concocted by early Christians in order to explain away evil. He is an actual person, an entity who was created by God for good, but chose to rebel against God instead. The world, then, is a battleground between God and the Devil. We are not merely caught in between, pawns in some supernatural struggle; we are the reason for this fight.

The atheist philosopher Stephen Law posed a challenge to theists to support the presupposition of “God is morally good.” While I gave my own response, let me summarize the response by saying, “We exist.” We know what it looks like to give into evil in a total manner, we know this because we see the Devil. He is pure narcissism, which is why he doesn’t care one bit about anyone else. He is rage for the sake of rage, because it satisfies him. Were God evil, being an absolute being, we wouldn’t exist because His narcissism (the ultimately root of all evil) would prevent Him from thinking about anyone else. Satan, being a finite being, but deal with the reality that other beings exist, and in so doing treats them as objects of his desire. Thus, the fight over us is between Love and hate. Love is self-sacrificial, self-giving, and seeks to protect; hatred is the opposite of all those things.

At the same time, the battle between God and Satan is not a battle between equals. We only use the term “battle” because our language is inefficient. It is not as though God is at any risk of losing this war or is struggling. Rather, we call it a battle because we are involved in the battle, and as finite beings we can lose. We can either follow our original purpose, which is to love God, or we can rebel against God. Rebelling against God, however, is the same as rebelling against love, it is to take sides with the enemy of love, Satan. It is to become a co-belligerent with a person who is worse than Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot or any other tyrant throughout the ages. These tyrants, though evil, still masqueraded their evil behind a cause. Satan, however, stood behind these terrible acts and simply enjoyed the show, enjoyed the destruction of God’s image because that’s just who he is (John 8:44).

None of this is akin to saying, “The Devil made me do it.” We have a choice to follow God or to align ourselves with His enemy, but we should not think that we are the ultimate cause of evil. When a person does something evil, while he chose that path, we should recognize that he was also deceived. In creating a victim, he is also a victim. A murderer has destroyed a body, but at the cost of destroying his soul. I once heard a preacher say, “Christ came to save us from ourselves” (a line I have often repeated). While that is somewhat true, it is not entirely true; He came mainly to save us from death, from the great whims of the Devil.

What, then, are we to do? We serpent roams the earth, seeking to devour the weak and helpless. What can we do against such a force? We are not powerless. Genesis 3:15 contained a prophecy that the future descendent of Eve would crush the serpent. This descendent is God in the flesh, Jesus Christ. Through the incarnation human nature finally overcame the Devil. He only roams on borrowed time and ultimately holds no power over those who have begun the process of deification. While he may fight and clamor, it is in vain against those who have given into the path of light. Is it any wonder that the banishment of Satan coincides with the arrival of the New Earth? With no one to whisper words of rebellion into our ears, we will be able to grow with Christ.

Therefore, I do very much believe in the Devil. I believe in the Devil because I believe in my salvation. I believe that I shall be saved, but there must be something from which I am saved. I believe in the Devil because I see evil in this world and I see that the perpetrators of this evil are, in many ways, victims to their own desires. I believe in the Devil because I have seen him in the hopelessness of this age, but I also believe in his defeat because I have seen the Hope of eternity.

On the Paradox of Creation or, Between Light and Dark

DSC01983If one reads the Bible carefully, it is easy to see that the coming of Christ into the world was a type of second creation. In the first part of Genesis, God speaks into a dark void, into an abyss of nothingness, and draws forth everything. In the beginning of the Gospels, eloquently stated by St. John the Apostle, God sends the Light into the World, a Light not overcome by the darkness. In the first creation the world springs forth from nothing. In the second creation, the world exists, but is spiritually dead and physically dying from the sin thrust upon it. The Light comes into contact with the world, not to condemn the world, but to save it.

In the first creation, human destruction begins in a garden. Adam and Eve rebel against God and choose their own path, they choose autonomy. The first man and the first woman speak for all humanity at that point and direct the human will away from God. In the second creation, human glorification begins in a garden. It is here that Christ says, “Not my will, but yours” to God, deifying human nature. In the second creation, human glorification culminates in yet another garden, the garden of the tomb. In this final garden, Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener (though not inaccurate). In the first creation, in the first garden, man hid from God and blamed woman; in the second garden, God finds those who have been hiding for so long and instructs the woman to give this news to man.

All of creation has found itself somewhere between these two gardens. We have teetered towards the Garden of Eden or the Garden of the Tomb. When we war with each other, send countless bodies to an early grave over land disputes or selfish ambition, we move closer and closer to the pride and arrogance that forced us out of paradise. While disease and the elements serve as a natural consequence of our rebellion, we remain in the Garden of Eden when we fail to help out the victims of these acts. We push ourselves closer and closer to the Garden of Eden when our own flaws, our own evilness, or worse, our apathy aides in the suffering of these victims.

There is a reason God would not allow us to return to the Garden of Eden, not as some punishment, but as an act of grace. If we were capable of even glimpsing at what we lost we would despair and lose hope. We would go mad and find nothing but regret. There is a reason that only the greatest of saints have ever been allowed a glimpse into what was lost, and it is only because of their humility. Yet, even those who saw the paradise we lost still felt burdened.

We attempt to return to the Garden of Eden, but as some hapless subject in a Greek mythology, the harder we try to move back to Utopia, the further we move away. We have created a myriad of utopias, all attempts to get back to some perfect state. The 18th and 19th centuries gave us political ideologies that implanted these utopias into the minds of revolutionaries. These revolutionaries acted as midwives and in the 20th century we saw the early births of these utopias. In the end, the 20th century became the bloodiest century in human history. We lost 4% of the human population (over 109 million deaths, though many government sanctioned murders are simply not included). In our attempt at various utopias, various Towers of Babels back to the Garden of Eden, we only intensified our hellish experience.

Yet, in other parts of creation we have tended more towards the Garden of the Tomb. While we can never return to the site of our greatest tragedy, we can move forward to the site of our greatest triumph. We have, at times, made strides towards this new paradise. We love and cherish the arts, beauty, poetry, redemption, and the like because they all point to love. Within love there is only beauty, no ugliness, because love is the ruling virtue in the Kingdom that has come and shall come.

Yes, evil happens, but those who move towards the Garden of the Tomb will bring goodness to these evil acts. They will feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, and help the helpless. As we move further away from the Garden of Eden and more towards the Garden of the Tomb, we begin to sense the redemption of creation, we begin to see it in our own acts and in the acts of others.

Paul succinctly wrapped up the two gardens in Romans 8. He contrasts the past/present with the future, of a present groaning caused by a past offense that will be removed in future glory. Creation in its current state, then, is quite the paradox; it is beautiful, yet fallen, groaning while knowing it will be made new.

What is good and beautiful is logical and rational, even supra-rational (that is, beyond our ability to reason, but not irrational). Beauty comes from God and God is incomprehensible and supra-rational. God is not irrational in that He doesn’t make any sense, but God is supra-rational in that He is beyond our reasoning. The beauty that flows forth from Him, an uncreated energy of God, is supra-rational.

Evil, on the other hand, is always irrational, yet masked in logic. A dictator commits genocide, which is irrational, but provides an incredible calculus to justify his actions. On a smaller scale, a man will cheat on his wife and provide some logical matrix that justifies his actions. A child steals from his parents and justifies his actions. Evil is always irrational, always illogical, but always defensible via some twisted use of logic. Therein lies the problem of evil and why Christians struggle to respond to it; we are always attempting to provide a logical explanation for something that is by nature illogical. There is no reason in evil, no logic to be found, and therefore it cannot be explained as, “Well A, therefore B.”

One cannot explain darkness by appealing to the properties of light, except to say that darkness results from the lack of those properties. Likewise, one cannot explain evil by appealing to logic and reasoning when evil lacks the properties of logic and reasoning. We can certainly explain things about evil in a logical manner (as to why it is here, what caused it, why it’s bad, and so on), but none of this addresses the ding an sich (thing in itself) of evil, mostly because there is not ding an sich of evil. Evil, in an ontological sense, doesn’t exist and therefore cannot be deduced to a series of equations and argued away via propositions.

Rather, for those of us who live amongst this groaning creation, awaiting the day of reconciliation, the answer to evil is to overwhelm it with good. The answer to the problem of evil is not a logical one, but an existential one. The answer to the problem of evil is not to explain what went wrong in the Garden of Eden, but to point to the Garden of the Tomb and move toward it. The solution to the problem of evil is not to hide behind the bushes of logic to hide our naked ignorance (as Adam and Eve did), but to embrace the mystery of the risen Lord and go and tell others what He has done (as Mary did). There is a paradox behind our beautiful yet fallen creation, and the more we embrace that paradox and recognize it for what it is, the better equipped we are to move our world towards light, towards the Garden of the Tomb.

Through the Fires of This World or, Evil Persists, but Shall not Prevail

IMG_0966For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by Romans 8. I would go so far as to say that it is possibly one of my most favorite passages in the Bible. Yet, as much as I have read it, it wasn’t until recently that I began to realize that Romans 8 serves as Paul’s theodicy (and really the only explicit passage in the New Testament that tackles the problem of evil; though I could argue that the entire Bible actually serves as a theodicy). The entire passage is about how though we must suffer through this world and how creation itself groans in anticipation for its own redemption, there is a better future. Paul does what many Christian thinkers have been unwilling to do, namely admit that evil exists, it is a problem, and there is no greater good to it.

We exist in a world that is filled with the absurdity of evil. A married couple can be split apart by their own selfishness in just a few years, or ripped apart by life itself after decades together. A man can go to work, spend his time there, work hard to save up money, come home an empty shell to his family, and repeat this process every single day, becoming nothing more than a husk with a title. We live in a world where the more we progress in technology and wealth, the more we regress into isolation from each other. A child in a distant land can starve to death, die of a disease, or be brutally murdered by a group of young boys who have been deluded and drugged into committing war crimes for a maniacal warlord. The evil listed here hardly touches the surface of what the world faces on a daily basis.

Romans 8 is beautiful because Paul doesn’t attempt to deny the ugliness of this world. This is part of what is so beautiful about the Bible, is that as a Holy Book it is also very earthy and acknowledges this world for what it is. Every major Biblical character – with exception to Christ – has his or her flaws on display. Ironically enough, many critics of the Bible point to these flaws and say, “See? Even your great heroes of the faith sinned and the Bible celebrates it!” The point of their sin is missed, showing that everyone commits evil, even the greatest in the faith. Of course, Christians do themselves no favors when we attempt to downplay the evil of this world or say that for every act of evil there is an equal or greater good to counteract it. The simple, brutal, and depressing truth is that sometimes evil happens and nothing counteracts it, sometimes the light goes out and darkness rules.

The Bible presents a different approach of evil, one that simply treats the world as evil and every act of good as Divine intervention. That is, every instance of healing in this world, every instance of good, every moment of happiness is a miracle. These positive aspects are droplets of water to the parched souls who wander through this mortal desert in search of the imperishable and boundless oasis of life. These rays of light penetrate the darkness of our cells and give hope to life beyond this dungeon.

In the closing passage of Romans 8, Paul offers the following benediction:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;

we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is such a beautiful answer to the problem of evil. We shall suffer evil, but it shall not overcome us, for even when we die, even when evil has seemingly held the last laugh, we are lifted into the arms of a loving Christ who has already descended to Hades and robbed it of it keys and power. Not even death, with its illusion of finality, can overcome the love of Christ.

If Romans 8 is my favorite passage or chapter in the Bible, then Matthew 11:28-30 are possibly my favorite verses. Christ famously states:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Life is labor, life is burdensome. The biological reality of this world is that from the moment we are conceived we begin the process of dying. From the very moment we come into existence a clock begins to tick that counts down to the days of our death. From a spiritual and psychological reality, we are all alone. No one can truly understand us, even in our most intimate moments. Ultimately, we all die alone, even if surrounded by others, for none of them can ever know what we are experiencing. Yet, here is Christ telling us that in the darkness of this life, He serves as the light toward whom we walk.

We all must travail the fires of this world, but there is hope of a soothing balm in the end. We will all walk upon the cold and dark path, only to come upon a warm and bright fire. We will all hunger and thirst, physically or spiritually, but we must seek the feast of eternity, where hunger and thirst do not exist. Nietzsche’s nihilism cannot grasp the depth of Christianity, for our answer to the argument of evil is found in nothingness and silence. The answer is found in the nothingness of the tomb, where the only sound heard is the weeping from devils over their defeat. Yes, we live in a world full of evil, we live in a world where evil persists; but this is a world that is not void of God’s love.

In Matthew 16 Jesus tells Peter that the Gates of Hell (evil) shall not prevail against the truth of Christ being the Messiah. A simple question can change how we view this passage. Typically, this passage means that no matter how much evil attacks us, we will prevail against it. Yet, this is not what Christ is saying. After all, how do gates prevail on the offense? Gates are purely defensive, they do not march, they do not increase territory, they do not prevail in conquest. Rather, gates prevail in defense, they prevail against invasion, and we are told that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against the Gospel. That the Gates of Hell will not prevail against the Gospel means that the Gospel is not on the defense, but is on a march against evil. Love will always prevail, it will always conquer and vanquish death, it is only a matter of time.

Love is on the march whenever we display this love to those who are trapped behind the gates of evil. When we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, when we allow Christ to fill us and we become Christ to a world in desperate need for a Divine Lover, we have loosened the gates every so slightly.

Some view the admission of evil as proof that God does not exist, but Christians ought not be ashamed of admitting that evil exists, evil of the most gratuitous sort; Christians can admit to gratuitous – albeit finite – evil because we can quickly point to the lavishly inexhaustible love of God.


What Problem of Evil?

The problem of evil is only a problem if God exists.  More specifically, it is only a problem if the God of Classical Theism exists.  The moment we deny the existence of God we dissolve the problem of evil entirely.  Why?  Because without God there are no moral absolutes, no objective values, and hence, no evil to “cause a problem.”  Ironically, by removing God from the equation, we also remove any grounds we might have had for holding real moral indignation (by “real” I mean something more than our personal dislike for a given set of circumstances but, rather,  a true moral outrage in the face of true evil).

This is what I find so fascinating about the current arguments against Theism.  Those who hold that “God is dead” claim to be the most horrified and the most incensed by the existence of  evil in the world, yet, oddly enough, they adhere to a worldview which teaches that evil is merely a feeling, an evolutionary accident, or a social convention and not an objective reality.  For example, I recently entered into a dialogue about creaturely pain and suffering with the popular Atheist blogger John W. Loftus.  He seems truly dismayed by the overwhelming number of people who have suffered excruciating deaths at the hand of various pandemics throughout history.  In his eyes the amount of pain that, for example, the millions of people who contracted the bubonic plague endured was a tremendous evil.  The implicit assumptions standing underneath his moral outrage are clear: (1) that human beings are inherently valuable and deserve to live a good life, free from horrendous amounts of pain, suffering and loss and (2) that death is a bad thing.

Now this is a very curious state of affairs.  From a worldview perspective, Atheism doesn’t allow for the existence of objective evil or objective goodness.  According to Atheisms grand metaphysical story, human beings are meaningless, temporary, bits of matter with absolutely no intrinsic value or purpose.  If this is true, however, then the pain and suffering regularly experienced by humans is normal and valueless. The subjective meaning that individual human beings ascribe to life is merely an automatic, predestined, physical event (because all mental phenomena are ultimately explainable in terms of the laws of physics). Furthermore, there is no hope of ever escaping death–for there is no afterlife and no escaping the reality that we shall forever be finite, limited, dissoluble beings.  Death, therefore, is a normal physical process—in fact, death, is a crucial aspect of evolution.

Thus, in a strange turn of events, Mr. Loftus, and those like him, find themselves emotionally at odds with their own metaphysics.  They feel sorrow and even outrage at the idea of human suffering, while simultaneously advocating a worldview which denies the implicit assumptions underlying their indignation.  Namely, they feel upset about evil but maintain, philosophically, that human beings are not inherently valuable (and do not deserve to live a good life) and that death is fundamentally not a bad thing.

This, however, brings us right back to the original problem.  For, it is only when we posit the existence of the God of Classical Theism that we have grounds for believing human life is intrinsically valuable and that death is a horrendous evil.  It is only then that a “problem of evil” arises because it is only then that evil is said to actually exist.

This, of course, forces us to make a choice (that is, if we do not wish to live in a state of internal conflict or inconsistency):  we can embrace Atheism, deny the existence of evil or any objective value—thus eradicating the so called problem of evil—or we can embrace Classical Theism.  If we embrace the former, we must be prepared to accept the fact that life is utterly futile and that pain and suffering are ultimately vain physical happenings.  In the words of Pavel  Florensky, “all of reality becomes an absolutely meaningless and insane nightmare.”

If we embrace the latter, however, our distain for pain, suffering, and death, is valid.  For our distain becomes more than a predestined feeling or mindless automatic physical response to stimuli but becomes a proper reaction to real evil.  Beyond this, if we accept Christianity, we also have hope for a future free from pain, suffering and death and filled with Divine love and meaning.

What Are We Really Asking With the Problem of Evil?

I often begin to ponder the problem of evil on this site and even wrote a long 10 post series on it. In addition to that, as some people may have noticed, I’m quite critical of most theodicies that Christians offer concerning the existence of evil in this world.

I think modern theodicy has shown quite adequately that the existence of evil does nothing to threaten the existence of God. Christianity teaches that humans have free will and the existence of free will always allows for the chance for evil to occur. While some may debate whether or not we have free will, that deals more with the correspondence of Christianity to the real world, not with the internal consistency. In other words, to prove we don’t have free will would do more to question Christianity as a religion itself; there would be no need to bring up the problem of evil.

Thus, when we ask why God allows certain horrible actions to occur, we could equally ask why we continue to do them. Likewise, if God did step in to stop the most atrocious of evil actions, then the somewhat “acceptable” evils not would become atrocious and we would ask why God doesn’t stop those. Eventually, God’s duties would be relegated to ensuring that our ice cream never fell off the cone and that our internet never went out. Of course, this would destroy all free will which would negate a very important part of the Gospel. In addition to the above, what is evil is often subjective. If God were to stop every instance of evil then would we have a monarchy or a democracy? Some would argue a democracy, others a monarchy; whichever system God put in place, some people would consider it an evil. All individuality would be lost if God stopped every instance of evil, but this would be necessary if God stopped all gratuitous evil. Thus, by logical necessity (since God is consistent), if he is to allow free will then he must allow for gratuitous evil.

The above argument makes sense and, in my opinion, is a very solid theodicy. Yet I’m left feeling incomplete with it. In other words, what I have offered above is the best intellectual response that exists to the problem of evil, but it’s not satisfying. That’s not to say it’s wrong or that atheism has finally won; all the problem of evil can do for atheists is prove that an internal contradiction exists with Christianity, likewise the lack of a satisfying answer doesn’t mean the answer given is wrong. Rather, I think my answer isn’t satisfying because I’m asking the wrong question and approaching this issue with the wrong method.

I, and many others, aren’t really asking “Why does God allow evil?” We’re asking why he doesn’t stop it, specifically why doesn’t he stop the most egregious evils, yet in the Bible we see him stopping other evils. This is the wrong question to ask because we’re asking for specifics from an individual. We often forget that God is not some abstract concept that we study, but an actual person. Thus, when he acts, he has reasons for acting and sometimes doesn’t want those reasons known, or sometimes those reasons cannot be known. While some may roll their eyes (as I did) at the whole “his ways are higher,” it does make sense for specific evils and why he’d stop some and not others. Just as an infant cannot understand why his parents force this horrible mushy substance into his mouth, so too are we incapable of understanding why God acts the way he does in certain situations; it’s not that he purposefully hides it from us, it’s that by nature we’re incapable of understanding.

Yet, even this leaves me unsatisfied. Why do horrendous evils still occur? These evils are seemingly superfluous; certainly if God had a reason for allowing them we would eventually discover the reason, even if it took many generations to discover it. Yet, there are ancient evils that still baffle our minds. Here we are, a few generations removed from the Holocaust and rather than gaining clarity and seeing why God allowed it, we’re ending up with deniers of the Holocaust, celebrants, and we’re even more confused as to why it happened than we were when we first discovered it. While God’s ways are mysterious and we won’t always understand the specifics, I’m not sure this is a good answer, even if it is the right one. That is to say, while the answer is true, I’m not sure it works as an answer to the real question in the problem of evil (“Why doesn’t God just stop evil?”).

Ultimately, this points to the wrong method in answering the problem of evil. We often approach the problem of evil as an academic problem, something we see on paper that can be solved, and we especially do this in the West. But the problem of evil has only become academic because it really exists in our own lives first. We contemplate “why evil” long before we learn how to read, long before we gain critical thinking. Job was capable of questioning why God would allow evil without the aid of David Hume or Epicurus. A young girl who loses a parent (or both parents) can question the goodness of God without ever being introduced to the complex debates on theodicy. In other words, this is an existential problem long before it becomes an intellectual problem; in fact, I would argue that it’s primarily an existential problem with only the logical problem of evil (how can God and evil co-exist) composing an intellectual part.

Yet, if we pull back from the issue of evil for one second we’ll see that this is how almost all problems are concerning the questions that matter. Where do we come from? What is our purpose? Where are we going? These are primarily existential questions, not intellectual ones (they can be handled intellectually, but are then incomplete). We’ve been blinded to this because prior to Descartes and, really, Gettier, we adopted a Platonic way of understanding the world and our understanding of the world. Plato believed that our knowledge came form interacting with the ideal forms, which then translated down to this earth. Descartes also treated knowledge as an intellectual practice. In other words, every form of epistemology (save for one) that have existed in the Western world has placed an emphasis on the intellect, the mind, the nous. Even postmodernism or experimental forms of knowledge that place an emphasis on experience still, at their base, rely on the intellect (even if they later devalue it to the subjective).

Is it no wonder then that we’re woefully ill-prepared to answer the problem of evil? The problem of evil strikes every aspect of our existence, yet the epistemology we approach it with only does so from one aspect of our existence. This would explain why the answers given in any theodicy (save for Greater Good theodicies) make sense and work, but are still unsatisfying; it’s not that the answers are wrong, it’s that they’re incomplete.

In order to take on the task of providing a full theodicy, however, we first have to develop a new epistemology that addresses knowledge as gained and interpreted through every aspect of our being. Such a theodicy does exist (it’s implicit within the Early Church teachings and some Russian philosophers), but hasn’t really been systematized. In other words, while these works exist in English, the concepts really haven’t been translated. Such a teaching is still lost on the modern world and while touched upon by a few Russian thinkers (Pavel Florensky, Ivan Vasilevich Kireevsky, Vladimir Sergeevish Soloviev, to name a few), it’s difficult for Westerners to understand exactly what they’re teaching.

How I wish I could offer up this new epistemology, one that I think would work to give a more complete theodicy, but I haven’t really developed this epistemology or worked through it. I merely point all of this out to show that I think we’re approaching theodicy in an incomplete manner. If we’re approaching theodicy with an incomplete answer, then we need to stop exacerbating the problem by trying to use a failed method and revisit some of our more basic philosophies. While I think we can deal with the logical/intellectual problem of evil, that problem is ultimately superficial; no one quotes Hume at the death of a child, yet everyone questions God in such an instance. We can use Plantinga’s defense (or even better defenses) when in a debate with an atheist, but we can’t use it when counseling a man who’s been diagnosed with cancer. This means that while the free will defense, or other theodicies, are true, they’re inadequate and incomplete. But we can’t complete them with our current methods or epistemologies, we need something new. But who knows if or when that’ll ever come about.

So I leave this post not with answers, but with more questions. What will this new epistemology look like? Will it work? What will its ramifications be? Most importantly, is it true and we’ve simply ignored it for all these years? These are answers I do not have and may not have for many years. Thus, my apologies for introducing an even bigger problem to the debate, but I find it necessary.