Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Questionable Explanations 2

In my mind, I am writing a booklet on suffering.  The first post was:

Where is God?
Questionable Explanations
Christians deal with such perplexities in more than one way. If the suffering is distant, many have a tendency to say God sent such suffering as a punishment for sin. For example, the fact that the people of Indonesia and Japan are not predominantly Christian in religion made sin an easy explanation for the tsunamis that hit in 2004 and 2011 respectively. So God was punishing them for not having faith. Interestingly, we did not hear this explanation as much when tornados hit the Bible belt, where many churches were destroyed in a predominantly Christian area.

Many also saw September 11, 2001 as God’s judgment on the United States, when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center towards and the Pentagon. What is interesting when Christians take this position is that they usually are not thinking of the specific individuals who died in these buildings, many of whom presumably were strong believers. They are rather thinking of a corporate guilt that applies to the nation as a whole rather than the actual individuals who suffered on those days. The individuals who suffer thus represent the rest of the nation, rather than being punished for their own sins.

As another example, Westboro Baptist Church, an ultra-fundamentalist group centered in Topeka, Kansas, picketed the funerals of soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first decade of this century. They did so to protest the prevalence of homosexuality in America and saw the deaths of American soldiers as God’s judgment on the United States. But ironically, they were not claiming that any of the individual soldiers whose funerals they protested were actually gay. They saw God’s judgment as a corporate rather than individual judgment. The deaths of these soldiers represented the punishment of the nation, regardless of how godly they might have been individually.

Despite how prevalent these sorts of comments are in the American church, they raise significant questions biblically and theologically.  Those who say such things are selective in the passages and examples they quote and generally miss the overall trajectory of Scripture on these topics.  Unfortunately, they can also manifest a spirit that is quite the opposite of the Spirit of Christ and the gospel of the New Testament.

A more loving, but I believe also problematic perspective on evil and suffering is taken by certain Calvinists like John Piper. [1] Because Piper believes that any true freedom on the part of God’s creation would contradict God’s authority and control over it—God’s “sovereignty”—he insists not only that God allows evil and suffering, but that God orchestrates it through Satan.  God is thus directly responsible for everything that happens in the world, both good and evil.  All evil and suffering brings glory to God in some way.

Suffice it to say, it seems very difficult to reconcile this picture of God with any meaningful sense of God as love.  We certainly would not consider a man or woman loving who directed someone else to murder children or behead a Christian.  It is one thing to say that, in some circumstance, God might directly cause suffering for a greater good.  It is another to say that he directs and causes all evil and suffering.

Another position is thus that while nothing happens without God's permission, God never causes someone to do evil. [2] He only allows evil to be done.  And just maybe, God more often than not allows suffering rather than directly willing it.  God could stop evil and suffering at any time, but he allows them for some bigger purpose.

[1] E.g., Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, John Piper and Justin Taylor, eds. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006).
[2] We might call this an Arminian position.


Anonymous said...

The question seems oversimplified. There are many kinds and causes of evil and suffering. Some kinds of evil even seem pleasant for a while

One would not expect a "one size fits all" answer

Ken Schenck said...

As you'll see, I will give a rather narrow definition of evil. As I'll define them, suffering can be good but evil as I'll define it is never good in itself.

Anonymous said...

Is the "bigger purpose" solution much better than "collective punishment". Each posits that the individual life is inconsequential. I assume that the Good Reverend Phelps would argue that God's slaying of American soldiers ultimately serves His bigger purpose of ensuring that America is not overrun with homosexuals.

This is a difficult question that I don't think anyone has successfully tackled. I look forward to your next installment as you wrestle this angel!

FrGregACCA said...

Job, the one book of the Bible that deals with this at all directly, really gives no answers.

However, it is clear that in Christ, AS Christ, a Person-Who-Is-God suffers everything that each and every other human person does.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

In free societies, we allow for diverse viewpoints about most everything, but make a moral judgment when people make choices that are against the law. But, we
also make value judgments based on our personal political opinions about life in a free society.

America believes n diversity, not uniformity in all areas of our life, within the bounds of law. Uniformity is a conformity in one's personal convictons/values. Listen to what Gert Wilders said in Germany about Islam:

"Uniformity is a characteristic of Islam, but not of Europe. Islam eradicated the national identities of the peoples it conquered. The Coptic identity of Egypt, the Indian identity of Pakistan, the Assyrian identity of Iraq, the Persian identity of Iran, they were all wiped away, cracked down upon, or discriminated against until this very day. Islam wants all nations replaced by the so-called Ummah, the common identity of the Nation of Islam to which all have to be subservient and into which all national identities have to vanish."

Today Islam is seeking to change their status from a religious identity to a racial one!! And we already have minority rights on our books, where Church and State can be argued "both ways"!!! Is it an attempt to subvert our national idenity?

Church doctrines, of an "identity of Christ" and other such "conforming standards" have to do with bringing a uniformity to a collective people's identifications. Therefore, I believe that religion itself is dangerous, as it limits one's ability to know themselves apart from a religious culture! These kinds of cultures become demands about one's life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. There must be a choice about the right of free associaton and a right to dis-assoicate if requirements of "conforming" to Church dogma limits one's personal conscience.

Science is understanding more and more about individuals and their particularity. These should be embraced, otherwise, we discriminate based on our personal perferences and ways of being in and understanding the world! This has nothing to do with a collectivity.....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Science is understanding more and more about individuals and their particularity. These should be embraced, otherwise, we discriminate based on our personal perferences and ways of being in and understanding the world! This has nothing to do with a collectivity.....

I meant to say that: Science is understanding our particularity, and human right validate the importance of individual liberty, therefore, we must discriminate upon our personal preferences, and not upon a "uniformity" that demands "conformity" of personal choice.

Anonymous said...

"a Person-Who-Is-God suffers everything that each and every other human person does. "

And yet, we go on suffering. Some would claim that "accepting" Christ changes the attitude toward suffering. Is this the point? Or is it a changing of the subject?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

My point was to PREVENT suffering, in the first place! That means a free society that doesn't demand conformity to/aout religous views!

FrGregACCA said...

Scott F., I might be changing the subject here, but I don't think so.

Suffering is never good (does that make it intrinsically evil?),but suffering is REDEEMED by the fact that God, too, suffers, and therefore, suffering-in-God can be a pathway of grace, in suffering with the suffering God. Does that make sense?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

This is an attempt to create a religious identity IN suffering! Therefore, suffering is the 'perfection of faith"!

My suggestion is political liberty where suffering doesn't have to occur!!! Isn't that a BETTER Plan?

FrGregACCA said...

Angie, political liberty, however construed, does not guarantee freedom from suffering.

For example, political liberty does not keep one's child from dying of an incurable illness...

Angie Van De Merwe said...


Granted, no one is immune from suffering. But, without the structure of government that protects one from ill intent of others, then, we are bound to suffer under the hands of people grasping at or intruding into our lives without any protection.

And even when there are laws in place, people do what they do because we all tend to be focused on whatever is before us. Thus, suffering happens because of negligence. But, suffering will inevitably happen when laws that protect society are not respected.

Evil is when there is an intentional breaking of the law, or a deceptive use of the law. Lawyers and those who know how to use the law for their advantage do so to advantage themselves, but when the intention is to decieve, or keep others, that have a right to that knowledge, out of the loop to take advantage of them, then those actions become evil, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...


Perhaps "changing the subject" is not quite right. In keeping with your reference to Job, it is more like "you're asking the wrong question"?

With respect to Suffering vs Evil, I am eager to read Ken's next posts. On the surface Evil seems easy: God-gave-us-Free-Will-and-some-do-evil-and-are-sent-to-hell. Suffering, at least that from "natural" causes, leaves God more on the hook. They don't call them "acts of God" for nothin' ;)

We'll just have to see where this series goes.