The Problem of Evil
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. – Matthew 25:46
This morning, as I sit at my writing desk looking out my window, I am struck by the inexpressible beauty of a blue, and brilliantly sunny sky. We north-westerners who live our lives, it seems, in gray, rainy dreariness, are always literally “beside ourselves” when these sunny spring days finally arrive. Spring has come and the sap in the trees is rising, bringing forth buds and the tender beginnings of new-green leaves. The house finches, black capped chickadees and robins have returned and are singing in the trees and building their nests. Nature is bursting at the seams with the vigorous, pulsing energy of new life everywhere I look.
So why am I thinking about the problem of evil on a day like today? Maybe because, in its purity, in its exultant, life-enthused innocence, it is the complete opposite of the consequences of evil that we sometimes encounter in our lives. Obviously, I am talking here about the acts of irrational cruelty and violence that human beings are capable of towards their fellow human beings, animals, and nature itself.
The problem is that evil is all too real. How can we understand, for example, the terrorists attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, or the actions of Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where so many of those who were murdered were the very epitome of innocence? How is it possible to understand the shootings at Aurora, Colorado and Tucson, Arizona, or the murder rates in our cities, or the suffering of the innocents who are abused, raped, or bullied in our world? This evil remains a mystery to us. Why?
Evil remains a mystery to us because it is irrational. It cannot be explained by reason, certainly not by reason closed to divine transcendence. The question “Why?” is the fundamental expression of our human rationality. Evil is the fundamental opposite. This is why evil is a mystery even to the atheist, the humanist, or the pure scientist. It is beyond reason. It is, in fact, un-reason-able. But it, and the suffering it causes, is real.
We Christians are not free from the question “Why?” either. We often hear ourselves crying out in anguish at the undeserved suffering that comes to us from the evil actions of others. We ask, “Why God?” “Why are you allowing this?” Or worse, “Why are you doing this to me, God?” We wonder at the mystery of why God “allows” such pain into our lives, or into the lives of the innocent. What is the meaning of this evil and this suffering?
Though, as believers, we too find it difficult to explain why God allows evil to occur, we have something that helps us to confront it meaningfully – our faith. In faith, we can hope that a greater good can follow from the consequences of evil’s irrational acts, even if we may not see it unfold as we desire. And we have a model to follow.
We can confront the suffering that is the result of evil because we have a companion in suffering. Jesus knows our suffering just as dearly as we do, indeed, more profoundly than any one of us could know, or ever imagine. Jesus took on our humanity in all of its fullness. He, the innocent one, the pure lamb, became the Suffering Servant of God. He suffered not only the insults and threats of others, the loss of family and friends to death, but also the lash, the crown of thorns, the nails in his hands and feet, the thirst arising from the loss of blood, and death itself. All of this he endured and more. He bore in his body on the Cross, all of the sins, the irrational actions of all of humanity. He did all of this willingly, out of his divine and transcendent love for each and every one of us. Through his divine transcendence he defeated the false power of the Evil One who hates the world and all of God’s creation, especially God’s beloved children.
Because of our faith in Jesus we, too, can transcend the senselessness of evil and the suffering it causes. We can transcend despair in and through hope. Because of Jesus, we know that, though irrational evil can come unbidden into our lives, and at times threatens to overwhelm us, we do not have to be defeated by it. In the transcendent strength of our faith we can meet the irrational consequences of evil and turn its senselessness into meaning, in and through our responses to it.
When irrational evil comes to us, because we have Jesus as our model and as our companion, we can freely choose to unite our innocent suffering with that of Christ on the Cross. We can offer our personal suffering up, along with Jesus, as a powerful prayer for others. We know, too, that when we see others bent and tortured by the suffering caused by irrational evil, we can choose, freely, to enter into their suffering in service to them, caring for them, walking with them, supporting them. As believers we can transcend the senselessness of evil by overwhelming it with the meaningful presence of love. In doing so, we take the false power of evil away from it.
Though we are often tempted to cower before evil, though we are often tempted to turn from the horrors it brings to the innocent because of its very ugliness, we know that with God’s grace, we can enter into their suffering and help them, and ourselves, to transcend it with love, compassion and hope. And maybe, just maybe, with God’s grace, some meaning will rise up for us out of the ashes of that suffering. Even if understanding of the evil is out of our reach, our response to it, in faith and love, is always meaningful, and is often healing. Why? Because the Transcendent One, the Lamb of God, is always with us in our free acts of love in the face of irrational evil. With God on our side, who can be against? (Romans 8:31)
The beauty of new life I see outside my window this morning overwhelms me with the transcendent too. I see in this vigorous, vibrant energy of spring, the natural hope that inspires all of creation. From the darkness of winter comes the bright bounty and vivacity of spring. I see God in it. Yes, hope does spring eternal. I am reminded here of the last lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “God’s Grandeur;”
“And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
Dan Doyle is a retired professor of English and Humanities. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology. To read more of Dan’s work, click here.