The Problem of Good.
Disclaimer: If you’ve recently been up close and personal with death, evil, chaos or pain, go read footnote 1 first.
You might be familiar with the problem of evil.
It goes a bit like this: If God created the world, then he is responsible for the kind of world he created. Our world seems to have a disproportionate amount of suffering and evil for one created by an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good God.
If he’s all good, he should want good things for us, his creation.
If he’s all knowing, he can’t plead ignorance.
If he’s all powerful, he can’t say there was no other option.
Scholars and theologians have spent thousands of years proposing solutions to this problem.
Maybe evil is a necessary condition for free will.
Maybe it’s a means by which God builds our character.
Or, maybe even the worst sufferings and evils of this life are reduced to nothing “when read aright in the chronicles of eternity” (From “For Those Fearing Failure” in Every Moment Holy by Douglas Kaine McKelvey).
I tend to take the view that this task is simply too complex for human minds.
We may be bright, and insightful, and a thousand other great things, but we were not there when God shaped the creation, and we certainly wouldn’t be up for the task ourselves.
We overstep our limits when we attempt to peer into the darkness of God’s spirit hovering over the deep, and calculating all the good against all the evil in the world is simply beyond our purview.
Some might view this as a pretty serious issue, and one worthy of serious consideration.
Anyone in that camp would be right to notice that I treat this intellectual argument somewhat flippantly and in passing. Don’t get me wrong; that’s not because I haven’t spent plenty of time seriously contemplating the problem of evil, it’s just that my time considering the problem has made the intellectual arguments increasingly less important.
I’ve tried to express this sentiment before, but never quite found my own words up to the task. There’s some definite irony in that I found those words in the work of Nietzsche, but nevertheless, I love what he says.
I work as a high school Bible teacher,
and there are few settings with more potential for evil, chaos and disorder than a room full of 16 year old’s, especially when those students are being asked to think about the Bible immediately after coming from a chemistry test or a timed essay.
Teaching high schoolers is not an easy job, and it’s made more difficult by 7am start times, rapid turn arounds between periods, and stacks of grading to do at the end of each day.
I’ll be honest with you — there are days where I wonder whether my days of work do much of anything for these students, besides absorb an hour of their days.
But then, there are other days.
Days where the student who can’t concentrate on a lecture for more than thirty seconds grabs a stack of post-it notes, writes, “You are loved,” on each one, and then painstakingly draws out a heart beneath the words before handing one to every person in the classroom, myself included.
Days where during class presentations, one student uses musical chairs to communicate how God’s love means students don’t need to worry about “finding a seat” at the right college.
Days when I conclude class by saying the same prayer that I conclude every class with, and spontaneously the class period begins praying it out loud with me.
Days when our conversations about holy subjects become so real that I can nearly see the Holy Spirit hovering over the “waters” of the classroom, the community, and the hearts of my students, and I get to watch as God works order out of something with so much potential for chaos.
On days like that, every other day: every hour of grading, every moment spent pulling students aside for discipline issues, every late night finishing a lesson plan, it all becomes worth it.
Might not the rest of our existence be the same?
Might not every singular moment of goodness, beauty, and joy render the rest of everything else good, affirmed, and justified?
In a world with so much potential for chaos, disorder and evil, might not every moment of goodness stand as a testament to the love of God?
If every moment of good, beauty or joy is an argument against evil, then the Christian narrative invites us into God’s grand argument against all things evil.
As the body of Christ, followers of Christ are meant to work faithfully as God directs, and as we do, we have the ability to see God relieve suffering, repair brokenness, and use what the enemy intended for evil for good, all through us.
I argue against evil by seeing beauty in my students.
I argue against evil by finding goodness in a well-written book.
I argue against evil by seeing God in the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, and we all argue against evil when we write notes of affirmation, text that friend before they have a review at work, or give someone a hug right before they leave for a long trip.
I think the author of Ecclesiastes echoes this point when he says this;
Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes, argues life is utterly meaningless, and he would happily conclude that the world is full of evil and suffering too. At face value, all is vanity.
However, before anything is good or evil, meaningful or vain, it is first a gift given to us by God, and that means we are meant to enjoy that gift first and foremost. In doing so, we affirm that death, suffering and evil will not have the last word, and rather, the creation will conclude with…
If you’ve recently been up close and personal with suffering, pain or death, this might not be the best article to read. It does cover some intellectual arguments against the problem of evil, but it doesn’t quite match what I might call a pastoral response to that problem. At times, this kind of intellectual arguing can do more harm than good, and I might encourage you to find a friend or pastor that you trust before consulting this as a guide for how to process pain.
The above is not a fully fleshed out or rigorous philosophical argument against the problem of evil, but in my own wrestling with pain, sorrow, loss and despair, this is where I land time and time again. It’s also worth saying I can only make the above argument because I’m in a season of life where evil, death, chaos and pain are relatively far away. Even just a year ago, the above argument would have made no sense to me, and I know there will be other seasons where I might wish to renounce these words. It’s also worth saying I write from a tremendous place of privilege, and even my work as a teacher is easier and more enjoyable simply because I look like the stereotypical definition of what a Bible teacher is. Even with those acknowledgements I still find myself grateful, and I hope you will too.