The following is the outline used in a 20 minute radio interview on the subject of evil and suffering. The interview was given on July 16, 2010 on Radio Luz: XHTE in Tehuacan, Puebla in Mexico. The program is a favorite of the listeners called, “Un Cafecito Con Jose Angel”. The questions were asked in Spanish through an interpreter, Michel Lagunes, and I replied in English through the same interpreter.
I was in Tehuacan as part of our bi-annual term teaching more than 100 Christian leaders the subject of Apologetics. Jose Angel, one of the station owners, was part of the class and invited me for the interview.
Question: What is Evil?
- Evil is the absence of the good, which comes from God; the exception to the normal that God created. Evil entered the Cosmos through the fall of Lucifer (Ezekiel 28:15)
- Sin is a choice to step away from truth righteousness and goodness; it is choosing something partial, twisted, negative or improper. Sin entered the human race through Adam (Romans 5:12)
- Suffering is a direct or indirect result of evil entering the Cosmos and gaining a foothold. In Genesis 3, the curses followed the disobedience.
If God is good, why does he allow evil and suffering in the world?
God’s reasons are above and beyond our understanding (Isaiah 40:13). We do know certain things about God:
- He is good (Deuteronomy 13:4)
- He is wise (Job 12:13)
- He is all-powerful (Isaiah 44:6)
Maybe the best way to capture the essence of at least part of God’s reasons for allowing evil and suffering into the Cosmos is because he desired that people have real choice. Only with real choice can we truly choose him. Maybe we can over-simplify this and juts say that God, who loves us, wants us to really love him in return.
That choice to love God cannot happen if he pre-programmed us to love him. Only when we may choose to love or not love; obey or not obey, is there the possibility of love and obedience freely given. Sadly, some of his angels chose not to love him and evil entered the Cosmos. Then the human race chose its own way in the Garden, bringing the infection of sin into the human race.
The good news is that we may still freely choose him by faith. Hebrews 2:10 refers to Jesus Christ bringing many sons into God’s presence. We become God’s children through this choice we call faith.
How can the problem of evil and suffering be dealt with?
- God has decisively dealt with sin and evil. He did this through his son Jesus on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21). This means:
- He personally knows the horrors of evil as well as the mental stress and agony of suffering (Philippians 2:8).
- He has dealt a decisive blow to evil, sin and suffering (Colossians 1:20).
- Someday God will put an end to suffering (Revelation 21:3-4).
- In the meantime God is so wise and powerful that he can use all things (including the evil and suffering he didn’t cause) to work for the ultimate good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).
The issue of morality is a tricky one when people begin to discuss community standards. Whose standards will be adopted and codified into law? Why should the morality of one group be preferred over another? Why shouldn’t one individual’s opinion be considered just as valid as that of others?
One person may say, “I live by the Golden Rule: Do to others what you want done for you.” Another says, “Anything goes so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” Still another puts it like this, “The only one I have to please is myself.” All of these are definite standards for making ethical decisions and all of them affect other people. But where does true morality come from?
In North American society, the current approach is that morality is defined and decided by majority rule. This idea sounds eminently reasonable to our democratic way of thinking. Yet, thinking a bit deeper brings up some troubling problems with the idea of morality by majority consensus. Where did the majority get their views? Who are the shapers behind that public opinion? Why should the views of the morality-shapers be allowed to dominate the minds of so many? In other words, what guarantee is there that the moral opinions of the masses are right or good?
Consider Germany in the 1930s. The Nazi Party was steadily gaining power. It controlled the press, the educational establishment and even many of the churches. Nazi propaganda took advantage of certain ideas and feelings already shared by many Germans, and cleverly shaped those notions into the kind of public opinion it desired. As a result, the world was torn apart and millions died, including six million Jews. Yet, if we agree that morality should be decided by public opinion, we have little room to criticize the morals of Nazi Germany. Their consensus was just different than ours, that’s all.
Some will point out that we aren’t like those terrible Nazis or the German people they duped. Really? The moral standards of North Americans as just as subject to shaping by the media, government and education as any other culture in history. Others will point out that we are different because we value tolerance. The truth is that it really depends upon which side of the current notions of tolerance you fall on. There are a sizable group of people in our culture right now who would claim that intolerance, not tolerance, rules the day. North American society may be tolerant of some people and beliefs, but certainly not all. It just depends on who is in and who is out of power at the time.
Another problem with morality by consensus is that it is subject to constant change. Like a ship with no compass and no chart, a society which has no external moral standards is directionless. External principles are essential both to individuals and to cultures simply because they provide a necessary corrective when standards become out of sync with reality.
So what is the alternative? Let me put it plainly: there is a God. He created the Cosmos. He built into his creation certain moral laws based upon his own nature, by which people should live. The truth is that right and wrong, good and evil, exist independently of what people may think about them. Thomas Jefferson referred to this in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote about, “..certain inalienable rights endowed by our Creator.”
In the final analysis, workable moral standards are only possible when they are based on a source external to the changing whims of the masses or of those who generate public opinion. That external source is God. He is both truly good and truly wise. He alone is impartial, favoring no one. To follow his standards, which Jews and Christians believe are given in the Bible, is to have both a compass and an anchor. In contrast, morality based on the ever-changing opinions of some manufactured majority consensus is biased, arbitrary and chaotic. It seems that we are not far from this in our own times.
We must think clearly about this issue: If there is such a God as is revealed in the Bible, then it follows that there are external standards of right and wrong. In that case, what the majority happens to believe is irrelevant. On the other hand, if there is no such God, then morality is indeed invented by people and agreed upon by each generation. But in that case, true moral principle ceases to exist, and in its place is a mere scramble to shape and dominate the masses. That is why, if God does not exist, both Nazism and Communism make perfect sense. Power is all there is.
No matter what notions are currently popular, our consciences still tell us there there is a God and that his standards are good and fair and right. So the question is, who will we listen to? Those who say, in effect, there is no right or wrong, just power? Or the God who created us and loves us?
I remember coming across a timely poem in my high school American literature class. At the time, reading it was only an assignment, but for some reason it has stuck with me over the years. It is titled Richard Cory, by Edwin Arlington Robinson:
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
I guess what makes this bit of verse so vivid to me is that it points out a significant contradiction in the way we live: We know the futility of status, wealth and charm in themselves, and yet we crave them relentlessly.
All of us know a Richard Cory or two: those who seem to have made it and have everything. They are rich, beautiful, successful and admired. They drive their sports cars around in perpetual sunshine with the convertible tops down, while we blunder through the fog in our clunkers. The Richard Corys of the world represent the ultimate goal of so many people: to make it, whatever the cost.
Yet, from time to time, we hear the unsettling news that some celebrity or jet-setter has ended his or her life, either deliberately or through some kind of substance overdose. We hardly know what to think at such times. This person seemingly had it all, but threw it away. What could have caused such despair?
Thinking a little deeper might alert us to the warning this is for all who wish to trade places with Richard Cory. The person who makes it to the top so often goes to bed with the sinking realization that everything they have is– in itself– empty. Beauty, wealth and popularity give only temporary satisfaction and leave a long-term hunger for something more. Hence the never-ending search for deeper pleasures, a more impressive record, an enhanced body, more extravagant vacation or just more stuff. When these things fail to satisfy as well, leaving that gnawing hunger for fulfillment, people sometimes decide that the pain is unbearable.
Fortunately, there is an antidote to such futile living. It can be found in the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 6:19-21, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”.
In these words, Jesus gives us a piercing insight into the workings of our own souls. He tells us frankly that earthly treasure does not last: it can be eaten up, rusted through and stolen. He teaches us that we can diagnose the state of our soul by examining the type of treasure it craves. When we examine ourselves according to Jesus’ words, we may conclude that we have been seeking the wrong things most of our lives. Jesus’ answer? Acquire incorruptable treasure. In other words, exchange the desire for temporary, shallow things for that which is ultimately fulfilling. But how?
It starts by getting real with ourselves. The truth is that we desire unfulfilling things simply because they make us look and feel good without inner change. They promise that we can bypass the struggle required to actually deserve the admiration of people and the fulfillment, which comes from an approving conscience. In other words, a focused desire for wealth and status points out our insignificance and smallness of character. When it becomes clear that this is what we really are, then we must repent. Repent: such a harsh and unpleasant word. But there is no real shame in this. It is a universal human condition. The sooner we get there, the more quickly we may actually become something and acquire that which will really satisfy our souls.
Then we must seek from God those things, which can give us real significance and make us truly admirable. Things like: the ability to love people; an inner contentment regardless of circumstances; joy which cannot be suppressed by the fickleness of life; and the knack of living in and by the grace of God. The great thing about asking God for things like this is that he is very good about giving them.
Despite his wealth and position, Richard Cory never really lived because he was just a shell. But then, often so are we. Jesus invites us to become truly alive and truly fulfilled by drawing our life from him: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6
It is my observation that many people are practical atheists. I know this sounds pretty extreme, but from dealing with hundreds of people over the years, I maintain that it is true.
The popular image of atheists is that they are extreme or even belligerent people. Perhaps the image that comes to mind is of a person devoted to a purely secular way of life who gets upset when religion is mentioned. Or maybe you think of an outspoken crank crusading against the public acknowledgment of God.
But atheism has more than one face. Militant atheists –the kind who believe in no deity– are fairly rare. Most people profess some form of theistic belief. A good many actually have a fairly standard concept of God and Jesus as they are taught in the Bible. For practical purposes, however, some of these folks function as atheists simply because they live as though faith in God had little or no connection to daily life.
So, I repeat my assertion that many people who profess belief in God are actually atheists from a practical point of view. God doesn’t really count for anything substantial with them. He gets nothing from them in terms of what they truly value: time, money, devotion. If they throw him a few bucks now and then or give up a couple of hours on a Sunday once in awhile, they feel God should be satisfied.
Practical atheists feel that their lives are their own business and that, unless they specifically call on him, God should respect that privacy. Only when a crisis comes is there some focused thinking about God and some kind of attempt to contact him.
The Bible tells us, however, that we actually owe God our very beings. If not for him, we would have no existence. It tells us that the reason we are estranged from him is because of our own choices and attitudes. It also gives us the incredible news that Jesus came to offer us forgiveness and re-connection with God. It promises us that, far from being indifferent to our need of him, God is eager to give us restored relationship and eternal life.
Another irony I have observed is that some of these practical atheists even attend church. I can only conclude that they have fallen into a confused logic, believing in God theoretically while living as though he were irrelevant. Either the God of the Bible exists or he does not. If he does not exist then, “..eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” If he does exist as the Bible describes him, then life has no real meaning without him and every aspect of our lives must be lived in light of who he is.
Here’s a question that was put to me recently about the interaction of Jesus’ divine and human natures:
Question: Since Jesus, as the Son of God and Second Person of the Trinity, is coequal with God the Father (and of course with the Holy Spirit as well) and since God is omniscient, how can the Son not know the timing of the future in Matthew 24:36? “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (ESV)
Answer: The conventional theological explanation is that because Jesus emptied himself of the right to use certain divine attributes (Philippians 2:6ff), he therefore voluntarily put himself in a position where he limited lots of things about his divine nature in order to be truly human.
For example, he was limited to being in one place at a time, he was limited in that he had to eat, sleep, etc. It is natural therefore for him to be limited in knowledge as well, though that seems to have been periodically overridden at times when he had special insight into people’s thinking, etc.
I hope this sheds some light on the issue.
Lessons from a familiar holiday story
Isn’t it amazing how things often don’t turn out as planned? You think things through very carefully and get key steps set up ahead of time, with all details considered. Finally, you are ready to go. Then, without warning, something unforeseen changes the situation and all your effort seems for naught. How could this happen? Maybe it is a catastrophe affecting not only yourself, but others as well. It may be that someone you were counting on lets you down. Either way, your plans are no longer possible—at least in the form you intended.
For most of us, this causes frustration and depression, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, when things don’t run along smoothly according to your plans, it can be the gateway to much greater blessing that you had previously imagined.
Take for instance the case of a young carpenter. He and his bride-to-be are making plans to settle down in a small city and begin life as a family. They are from devoutly religious families, so their plans include a deep desire to serve God. The wedding, the preparation of a home, their dreams for the future—all make life exciting. But suddenly everything changes. Before they are married, the young man’s bride becomes noticeably pregnant. And, if this isn’t problem enough given their culture and religious upbringing, the prospective groom knows beyond any doubt that he is not the father of the child.
She has told him and her parents a far-fetched story about being visited by an angel and told that God is going to give her a supernaturally-conceived child. But who would believe such a story? Most people would draw the natural conclusion that she is either a liar or somehow deranged in her thinking. So, scratch one wedding. But then, the prospective groom is also visited by the same angel. He is reassured that his fiancée’s story is true. The wedding is on again, but under much different circumstances.
The plot thickens. As the time draws near for the birth of the child, there is another drastic change of plan. The government of the nation which has conquered and occupied their people has ordered a census. This is to be carried out by mandating that everyone return to their ancestral towns to be counted. So, late in Mary’s pregnancy, the couple makes a hasty and extremely arduous journey to a distant city where they have no connections. This would be like asking all of us to return to the place where our paternal ancestors originated generations ago. In my case, it would involve traveling back to a small town just south of Rotterdam in Holland. Few of us would be more than outsiders in such places.
Upon arrival, the carpenter and his young wife find that Bethlehem is swamped with visitors. This is because the family of their distant ancestor, King David, was a large and prosperous one. Therefore, lots and lots of their remote cousins have also been forced in this journey. That is why every available room for rent as already been taken. We don’t know how long Joseph and Mary spent asking around and receiving no help, but it must have been a relief when some kind-hearted person offered a stable where the desperate couple could shelter. It was in these less-than-ideal circumstances where Mary gave birth to the baby who would change the world.
Plans change; lives are dramatically affected; and yet God is sovereign. I often wonder why God asks people to do amazing and difficult things and then, seemingly, gives few details about how the plan is to be carried out. The Bible is full of such cases. Undoubtedly this requires living by faith, but I’m sure that Mary and Joseph would have appreciated at least a rough outline of what they would have to face along the way. In my study of the Bible, I have found that God typically gives the overall direction and the promises to go along with it. But he leaves it up to us to navigate our way through the details of fulfilling that objective. And, when it all seems impossible, he steps in at crucial moments to orchestrate circumstances and motivate people to make possible the fulfilling of his plan.
If you are experiencing a major setback in life or a significant re-arrangement of your neatly-ordered future, it may be well to remember this record of some people who experienced much the same thing. Mary and Joseph trusted God. They accepted his plan in their lives and believed that, if he called them to fulfill a certain purpose, he would also provide the means to do so. In their faith and obedience, they experienced blessing themselves and were the means of unimaginable blessing for the rest of us.
So, trust God: he will never let you down. He may not give you the detailed road map you desire as you follow him through the twists and turns of your journey, but he will see to it that you arrive at the destination. Of course, ultimately, the true destination is home, not to the inadequate city of a remote ancestor, but to the eternal and unspeakably wonderful city of God our Father!
Are you ready for the holidays? There is shopping to be done, cards to send, meals to plan and a thousand preparations to make this time of year. The month of December is usually a very happy time of year. But amid all the flurry of activity, what exactly is this thing we blithely refer to as the holiday season?
With just a little examination, the term holiday itself reveals much of its own meaning: holidays are holy days. These seasons are times we have set aside for certain sacred purposes. For instance:
Family. God has ordained the family as the basic unit of society. Families exist for the purposes of loving, nurturing, encouraging and accepting their members. Because they were created by God, for these vital functions, families are sacred, and therefore figure heavily into any holiday celebration.
Rest. What is holy about rest? In the Old Testament portion of the Bible, God himself prescribes regular times and seasons for the cessation of labor and the keeping of festivals. Because God designed human society for both productive labor and restful celebration, to stop our working and spend a few days in relaxation and enjoyment is a sacred activity.
Worship. Obviously, holy days imply a renewal of our contact with God in some way. Many churches hold special services during the holiday season. Family worship is also a highly appropriate way to express our devotion and gratitude to our Creator. Personal worship, including a time of Bible study, reflection and prayer can go a long way in this regard.
So, let’s enjoy the holiday season! Spend time with family if you can. Relax and change the pace of life for a few days. By all means make it a point to come into God’s presence through worship. May your holiday season be bright and joyous.
(Santa is No Substitute)
I am not one of those people who are opposed to Santa Claus, the Christmas tree or the yuletide spirit. Personally, I think that it can be a wonderful thing when families and friends enjoy the American and European traditions of Christmas at this time of year. Our family has always had a tree in the house in the weeks before Christmas Day, and it would be a yearly event to decorate it and the rest of the house with all sorts of festive nick-nacks. Over the years, my kids enjoyed waiting for the coming of Santa on Christmas Eve and, on Christmas morning, opening the gifts left under the tree in his name. It is my belief that traditions are hard enough to come by as it is in early Twenty-first Century America. It would be a pity to lose these types of happy memories and excitement during the Christmas season.
However, it should be remembered that, for followers of Jesus, the focus of the season has always been the incarnation of the Son of God. The Christmas season is meant to be a strong object-lesson in God’s personal care and love for each of us since he made the unfathomable sacrifice and took the immense trouble to take on flesh and blood and live on this globe just as we do. The manger, not the fir tree, is the central symbol of what we celebrate.
Though the mixing of Christian and traditional elements in the same holiday is confusing to some, many people can maintain this dual celebration without much effort. The trick is to enjoy the trimmings without losing the focal point. So, let’s sing Jolly Old Saint Nick and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Let’s feast, send cards and decorate the house. But let us never forget to bow our knees in awe and with a deep sense of gratitude for the birth of God’s Son into the world. Without that, we would indeed be lost and hopeless. No amount of Yuletide cheer could ever substitute for the birth of the baby in Bethlehem!
If I have any regrets related to the years in which my wife and I were raising our four children, the biggest would be that I was not paying attention. Melinda has asked me several times in the past couple of years if I remember one incident or another in the lives of our children when they were small. My answer has sometimes been, “No, not really.”
Of course, she was much more focused on their day-to-day upbringing than I was. I was a busy solo pastor of a smaller church, trying to care for and build a congregation in the midst of acquiring property and constructing buildings. The truth is, I do remember many things about my kids from those days. They were cute and funny and we had some amazing and sometimes hilarious times. But my memories are in the form of snapshots, not video, and it is difficult for me to reconstruct some of what went on more than twenty years ago.
I was always focused on the future–the next Sunday’s sermon, the upcoming business meeting, the next step in the building program, dealing with someone’s urgent concerns, etc. The actual “now” was almost always sacrificed on the altar of the near or distant future. I suspect that my situation as a pastor is not all that different from many people whose lives are goal-oriented.
Recently, I have been in a minor crisis about God’s will for my life. For the past several years I have made my living as a part time adult ministries pastor, part time missions executive and part time college instructor. Talk about fragmentation! In all of this multi-tasking, I have begun to seek God’s will for a more focused future. I have prayed, “Father, which direction should I pursue? Where should I be five years from now (if you permit me to remain on earth that long)? What is the best use of my training, talents and experience?” Through months of prayer, I have received the same types of answers most sincere believers receive: impressions and difficult-to-interpret circumstances. This has led me to ponder the bigger question of what it means to live by faith in a providential God.
In this quest for personal direction, it has dawned on me that my need for more specific guidance is heavily influenced by my American culture. We Americans and other Westerners have come to believe that we have a certain right to know what is happening to us so that we can make informed choices affecting the outcome of our lives. After all, if we are going to be pursuing life, liberty and happiness it is important that we have at our disposal as much information as possible about what may lie ahead.
But as I have thought about it, there is really nothing in scripture which supports this assumption. On the one hand, in several places Proverbs teaches the wisdom of at least tentative planning. Yet on the other, James 4:13-16 plainly says that we are not to be presumptuous about either the ultimate wisdom of our plans or our ability to carry them out,“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.”
Scripture teaches that, though the making of goals is wise, goals should be made with enough flexibility so that God may direct us in ways we do not have the wisdom to plan for. Practically, this means that thinking about the future should never overshadow living in the present. The truth is, we do not know enough about God’s specific purposes for our lives to do that much advance planning. But we do know enough about God’s will to live full and abundant lives. Some things the Bible teaches very plainly and simply: we must honor God with the “now” each of us is given. We must love and bless people around us. We must fully enjoy God’s good gifts–family, friends, experiences, possessions. And any planning we may legitimately do for the future should be done with these very types of things in mind. In other words, we should get our neurotic fingers off the fast forward button and hit play.
If there is something which is almost guaranteed to horrify people in contemporary society, it might be the fear of missing out on some significant life-experience. The thought of going through one’s years without something which many others enjoy is a highly disagreeable one to most North Americans and Europeans. As a result, there is a frantic rush in our society to do all those things which are commonly accepted as making life worth living.
Parents, for example, are concerned that their children not miss out on the commonly accepted activities of childhood. As a parent myself (and now grandparent as well), I have always wanted my kids to have as many positive experiences and helpful tools as can be provided. Many parents share this seemingly legitimate desire. Hence we enroll our children in a myriad of sporting events, music lessons, clubs and enrichment activities. We take them to fairs and outings and spend a significant amount of money on vacations and educational events.
Or what about all the material possessions on the “must have list”? The newer car, the larger home, the more fashionable clothing, the more exotic vacation are always topics of conversation and comparison. For many people these things truly dominate mental activity. I also have experienced the gravitational pull of things on lists like this. I certainly wouldn’t make the claim that the things on such a list are necessarily wrong. Nice things are just that: nice things. To acquire some of them can be quite legitimate pursuits.
Even so, I am wondering whether this fear of missing out on something is in itself the cause of losing other, more lasting benefits. In our frenzy to acquire a chunk of the “good life” we may have lost sight of some of the things, which make life truly good. Consider this: The generations now coming into their own such as GenX (born after 1965) and the Millenials (born after 1985) have clearly had more advantages than any previous groups. At the same time, they are also the generations with the least amount of religious training of any kind. I should know: I have taught young people from these generational groups on a college-level for the past two decades in courses such as philosophy, world religion and western civilization. These younger people certainly have plenty of opinions. It is just that many times, they lack the factual framework and formal religious training on which to base a valid opinion.
I have also wondered whether there is any link between the trend away from religious training and the rising rates of teen suicide, drug use, sexual activity and alcohol abuse by these same generations. Or what about the broken marriages and disjointed lives, which are so common? How about the staggering numbers of lawsuits and the flood of recent legislation designed to ensure that people get what they believe they rightfully deserve?
Now contrast this picture with the profound inner peace, simplicity of lifestyle, and clarity of life-focus which are promised in the New Testament to those who fully put their trust in God. There is also the sense of relaxation about having the things needed for daily living, the ability to weather the storms of interpersonal relationships and the ability to bravely face the uncertainties of life. All of these things are offered to those who take up their crosses and follow Jesus.
Many people are missing these very things because of their desperate desire not to miss out on the “good things of life”. It would seem that the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:24 turn out to be right: A person cannot serve both God and mammon (riches). He or she will end up loving and serving one or the other, but not both (my paraphrase).
Missing out? The comparison of these conflicting pursuits begs an important question: Who is really missing out on things which are of true importance?