I Want to Believe, But How Can God Allow so Much Evil?
Romans 8:31-39 September 1, 2019
Rev. David J. Clark
Today we wrap up our sermon series by addressing one of the obstacles that keeps people from believing–the question about if God is all good and all powerful and all knowing then why does God allow so much evil in the world? Maybe you’ve had something happen to you that caused pain in your life and it just felt heartless for God to allow something like that to occur. We look around at the world, the things people do to each other the horrible ways people suffer and we hear stories about God intervening in the world and we wonder why doesn’t God intervene more? What’s the point of believing in a God who would allow all this stuff to happen? For some this is the big hurdle that keeps them from fully believing. Maybe it’s you or someone you love so we are going to explore these topics today.
These are not easy questions and there is no single verse or chapter in the Bible you can go where you get a direct answer that explains all of this. In a way the whole Bible is a collection of writings from multiple authors who take a crack at addressing these issues from a variety of perspectives. And even at the end, it remains a mystery. No simplistic one-liner answer is going to satisfy.
Our Natural World Order
Much of the suffering we experience is caused by disease or mechanical failure or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time during some natural phenomena like a storm or an earthquake. Scripture says, “The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.” God isn’t causing these things to happen–aiming them at people as punishment against the wicked. We live in a wonderful world based on the laws of physics and the earthquakes and volcanoes and storms that bring so much destruction are also the very things brought the seas and mountains and landscapes and beauty we enjoy.
It’s not so remarkable that we are mortal and have limits and that our bodies give out. What’s remarkable is all the amazing ways the body can and does heal. The Psalmist affirms that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Even if you look at the suffering caused by genetic mutation you also realize that the whole process of genetic mutation and variation is the thing that helped every living species evolve into what it is today.
I remember when I served as a chaplain at a hospital where a plane crashed nearby, killing 112 passengers. But 184 lived. On the one had survivors testified to the miracles that saved their lives, “God must have saved me for a reason.” But grieving people who had lost someone in the crash overheard this and asked, “Couldn’t God come up with a reason to save my child?”
Many engaged in conversations about living in a world governed by natural phenomena, if the hydraulic system fails on an airliner people die. It’s not God doing it. Picking some for life and others for death.
This week I read a story about the captain of that flight, Al Haynes who died this week. He did an amazing job getting that plane to an airport and nearly completed the landing before the wing dipped and the plane erupted into a massive fireball that hurtled down the runway. To my knowledge in simulations no pilot has ever been more successful than what he did in real time. Captain Haynes said for the first several years after the crash he was haunted by the question why he couldn’t save them all. But over time it grew into an appreciation that anyone survived at all because if you look at it no one should survived. The faith question wasn’t about the suffering but the wonder of what is good.
In my experience I saw the Spirit of God alive in heroic actions of responders and volunteers, in family who hugged each other and cried. I saw the spirit of God alive in inspiring people to make course corrections in their lives. I witnessed first hand, good things emerging from a horrible tragedy. It is that spirit of life, that relentless surge toward goodness in the face of something bad that I call God.
Much of the suffering and evil has nothing to is the direct result of choices people make.
In the opening chapters of Genesis we learn that God gives us free will. If God wanted a relationship with robots, God would have created a fleet of those instead. But God desired to be in relationship with those who could freely to choose or reject him. Right away Adam and Eve choose against God’s intent. The next thing you know, Cain murders Abel. The message is that suffering and evil is not God’s will, it’s not God causing events to happen that bring pain and grief to people. We have the freedom to violate God’s will and choose violence and destruction and hurt we oppose God.
I think the people who struggle the most with these questions want God to be like a cosmic puppet master, pulling strings and micro-managing everything that goes on in the world. We want God to be something other than what scripture says. In other words, that’s not how God works. A faulty image of God sets us up for disappointment.
Even the way the Bible is put together highlights the essence of the problem. In the Bible you have books like Proverbs where the message is that God watches out for those who keep the commandments, for those who keep their noses clean and do good things. Good things will happen in their lives. They will prosper and be happy.
And that is the way it often works. You work hard. Be an honest person who treats others fairly, cultivate virtues in your life things go well. But sometimes they don’t.
I remember when I was a kid putting in a coin and turning the crank on the gumball machine. Every time I’d done it a gumball rolled out when I flipped open the little door. But one day it didn’t. I lost it, “Dad! I didn’t get my gumball.” Dad was like, “Eh, that’s life, kid. Get used to it.”
He wasn’t even going to complain to the grocery store manager? Get used to it kid? Though not earning a dad of the year award, he did teach me that sometimes you do everything right and through no fault of your own things don’t go your way. That’s life.
So in the Bible you have all these books in a row saying you get the gumballs of God’s grace and glory and a wonderful life and then they insert books like Job and Ecclesiastes. That say but sometimes you just get something completely unfair and horrible. Job asks the questions about why but in the end he doesn’t get a direct answer. God essentially says from a whirlwind, my universe, my rules. I’ve got a bigger perspective than you.” Even after 42 chapters of Job we don’t quite get a satisfactory answer to the question, “Why?”
When Bad Things Happen to Good People
Harold Kushner lost his teenage son to a horrible disease and wrestled with all these questions and wrote the book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. His take away–that has helped many people cope–is that God is limited. God can’t intervene. It’s no one’s fault that someone suffers. It’s not God’s will but God honors the way the world works and doesn’t step in beyond natural processes. Religion, he says helps us cope and support each other in the face of tragedy.
Some theologians say that even if God does not intercede in the natural order, there is still the good news that often a positive attitude, shared energy in prayer and the inner-peace the comes from a healthy spirituality facilitate healing and good things because we live in a world where on a quantum level it is not as mechanistic as Newton led us to believe. That is, the spirit and energy we bring to a situation matters.
In the New Testament Jesus doesn’t cure every disease, heal every hurt, put an end to every injustice, but gave people the spirit to deal with those things–to persevere, to rise. As the suffering servant, the one who dies on the cross he identifies completely with our suffering and our pain. The subtext of the entire biblical story is that God is in solidarity with those having a tough go of it.
At the tomb of his friend Lazarus, Jesus weeps with his weeping sisters. Jesus’ identifies so completely with our hurts that he says in Matthew 25 how you treat the least, the suffering of those in pain is how you treat him.
Where is God when it Hurts?
When I consider this question of evil in the world I have to ask about if the answers make sense in a world where genocide and the Holocaust can exist. Survivor Ellie Wiesel wrote the novel Night that captured the experiences. At one point two men and a boy were brought to the gallows to be hanged in front of everyone. The boy was too emaciated and didn’t weigh enough for his neck to snap from the hanging. Wiesel writes:
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”
Wiesel died a couple of years ago and shortly before he died he wrote:
Where were you, God of kindness, in Auschwitz? What was going on in heaven, at the celestial tribunal, while your children were marked for humiliation, isolation and death only because they were Jewish?
These questions have been haunting me for more than five decades. You have vocal defenders, you know. Many theological answers were given me, such as: ”God is God. He alone knows what He is doing. One has no right to question Him or His ways.” Or: ”Auschwitz was a punishment for European Jewry’s sins of assimilation and/or Zionism.” And: ”Isn’t Israel the solution? Without Auschwitz, there would have been no Israel.”
I reject all these answers. Auschwitz must and will forever remain a question mark only: it can be conceived neither with God nor without God. At one point, I began wondering whether I was not unfair with you. After all, Auschwitz was not something that came down ready-made from heaven. It was conceived by men, implemented by men, staffed by men. And their aim was to destroy not only us but you as well. Ought we not to think of your pain, too? Watching your children suffer at the hands of your other children, haven’t you also suffered?
Wiesel did not come up with a universal answer but he did come up with a way to frame his experience so that he could make peace with God. Some of you in this room have experienced unimaginable suffering. Perhaps you have wrestled too with how to make your peace with God.
In my own wrestling, I choose to believe that out of the pieces of our broken lives and broken hearts, the human spirit works toward wholeness, something better and no matter how bad it is,some good can come…though we may never see it.
Where is God when it hurts? Right there, hurting and suffering, too. Why does God allow himself to be hurt in this way? So much of the question about evil in this world isn’t why God allows it. It’s about why we allow it. We have the capacity to intervene.
The Spirit Intercedes for Us
I believe God does care about us–even when we are hurting. I don’t think of God as leaning back in his celestial Lazy-Boy recliner. I believe what God is doing is trying to work through us. It that thing stirring in us that wants things to be better. It is God’s spirit in us that helps us rise after tragedy. God’s spirit is that thing that attracts us to each other to take care of each other to respond, to help.
In the 8th chapter of Romans we find the message that God keeps working to try to make good things come out of the horrible situations. When we don’t understand and when we don’t know what to do God is still with us. I like that line in Romans 8 about the spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And how nothing keeps us from God’s love–so that no matter what happens we are never separated from God’s love. And when we are connected to that we can make our peace and know we are in God’s hands and going to be okay.