Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Problem of Evil and Suffering: Christian Responses


In order to explain why there is evil and suffering in the world, Christians usually turn to the first book of the Bible (Genesis) where we read about how Adam and Eve disobeyed God's command not to eat of the fruit of the tree. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was said to be at the centre of the Garden of Eden, and the effects of eating the fruit and disobeying God are said to have had dramatic consequences for the world and everyone in it:

The relationship between humanity and God

  • Before the Fall: God walked in the 'cool of the garden' with man and woman and spent time with them (Genesis 3:8).
  • After the Fall: Men and women now hide from God. They do not want to be with God (Genesis 3:8). Humans have also been denied the gift of eternal life and cast out from the presence of God (Genesis 3:22-23).
The relationship between men and women
  • Before the Fall: Men and women were innocent and felt no shame, even though they were naked (Genesis 2:25).
  • After the Fall: Men and women realised they were naked, and sought to cover their bodies with garments made from animal skins (Genesis 3:7). Women will also now experience unbearable pain when giving birth to children, and will become subordinate to men (Genesis 3:16).
The relationship between humanity and nature
  • Before the Fall: The world was perfect and 'good' (Genesis 1:31). There was a garden (Eden) where humanity spent time with God, and where there were lots of nice fruit and vegetation (Genesis 2:8-9).
  • After the Fall: The ground was cursed, and the man had to work harder in order to grow plants and crops for food. The ground now also produces weeds to hinder this, and make his work more difficult. (Genesis 3:16).
As far as the Bible is concerned humans are responsible for the presence of evil and suffering in the world,
but it should be noted that not all Christians believe the events in Genesis chapter 3 describe things that literally happened.

Is God at all responsible?

Clearly the account of the Fall in Genesis chapter 3 raises interesting questions for Christians to find answers to. For a start, if God is omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing), why did God create humans with the ability to make wrong choices, or create them in the full knowledge that they would do this?

Now there are some who believe that our ability to make free choices is an important part of what makes us human, and that if God had simply made us like robots, programmed to only do good things, then this would make our devotion to God and doing God’s Will somewhat pitiful. Also, if we lived in a world where there was no pain or suffering at all, then we could, in theory, stand under a falling tree and never die if it hit us. Such a world would be a very strange place to live if actions had no painful consequences at all.

Satan vs Job

In Genesis 3 it is said that Satan, in the form of a serpent, tempted humans to disobey God. Most Christians understand Satan to be an angel who was thrown out of heaven for disobeying God. Satan is also said to be the cause of much evil and suffering in the world today. This occurs when people give in to Satan's temptations to disobey God, or when Satan actually causes bad things to happen.

Although Christians believe Satan tempts people to do wrong, they still believe people have a choice whether to give into temptation or not. For instance, Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, but never gave in (Matthew 4:1-11).

One example of Satan causing suffering is found in the story of Job in the Old Testament. In Job chapter 1 and 2 we read how Satan approached God to ask if Job may be tempted to see if he would turn away from God. As a result of God allowing this, Satan inflicts all manner of pain and difficulty on Job. Job loses everything he has, even his health and his family, but through everything he never loses faith in God, and simply accepts that suffering is a part of life. Job's friends attribute his suffering to something he has done wrong, but as we know this is not why Job suffered.

Although God eventually gave back to Job more than he lost, God never really explains why he suffered. This is why some Christians believe that in reality people will never know why they suffer in life and that it is not really their place to know either. When people suffer they should turn to God for help, but not blame God. They should simply trust that there is some higher purpose to all they are going through.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
Christians working to overcome suffering in the world

Jesus said that people should show God's love in the world by working to help those who are in need (Matthew 25:37-40). He also said that in doing these people are working to establish the Kingdom of God here on earth. In the light of Jesus' teaching, many Christians throughout Church history have worked to help those who are suffering in the world:

William Booth and The Salvation Army

The Salvation Army began in 1865 when Methodist minister William Booth and his wife Catherine became concerned that the poor amongst them were not being welcomed into London's churches. William also began to feel that they not only needed to hear about Jesus saving their soul (their spiritual need), but also needed practical help (their physical needs). He believed the 'Church' should go out to the people, rather than people always coming to the church. After a difficult start, by 1900 the 'Army' had spread around the world to 36 countries. 

The aim of The Salvation Army is, "the advancement of the Christian religion… of education, the relief of poverty, and other charitable objects beneficial to society or the community of mankind as a whole" (Salvation Army Act, 1980).

While women weep, as they do now, I'll fight; while children go hungry, as they do now I'll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I'll fight; while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I'll fight, I'll fight to the very end! (William Booth)
Martin Luther King and The Civil Rights Movement

Martin Luther King Jr. was the son of a Baptist minister, and pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama (USA). During the 1950s in the southern states of the USA, there was much racial division. This came to a head in Alabama in 1955 when Rosa Parks (a black American) refused to give her seat up to white man on a bus (as required by the law in that State at that time). Martin Luther King Jr. was a key person in the formation of the Southern Leadership Christian Conference (SCLC), which organised non-violent protests against racially discriminatory laws. In August 1963 in Washington DC, he delivered his now famous 'I have a dream' speech where he set out his vision that freedom and equality for all people in America would become a reality.

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! (Martin Luther King Jr.)
Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Macedonia, in 1910. At the age of twelve she felt God calling her to be a missionary. At the age of eighteen she began teaching in a school in Calcutta, India. In 1930 she became a Catholic nun. Due to the immense poverty she saw outsider her school, she gave up teaching in 1948 and devoted herself to working amongst the poor in the slums of Calcutta. In 1950 was given permission by the Roman Catholic Church to start her own order, 'The Missionaries of Charity', whose chief aim was to love and care for people nobody else was prepared to look after. In 1979 she received the Noble Peace Prize in recognition of her work.

I see God in every human being. When I wash the leper's wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord himself. Is it not a beautiful experience? (Mother Teresa)

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