Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Berlin,
hit by bombs in WWII, preserved as a memorial of that nightmare.
Whoever rejoices in the beauty and goodness of truth has to face the shock of facts that are ugly and cruel. When something terrible happens, it is common to ask, “Why me?” or “What did he do to deserve something like that?” or “All her life she was so good to people, and look what happened to her.” The question mingles a cry of unknowing with complaint and doubt. We have an instinct for justice and fairness. We understand if destructive persons reap what they sow, but some persons suffer far beyond what they deserve. Some people react to terrible events by denying God’s existence or goodness; others turn to religion’s profound resources.
To justify injustice insults the victims. None of what is said here denies the fact of evil in finite, mortal experience. For many people, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”; many know life’s cruel blows and contradictions, the monotony, the cataclysms, the testing in the midst of galling corruption, complacent greed, culture wars and clashes of civilizations, intolerable abuses, agonizing disease, bad religion, sophistic philosophy, misleading science, environmental pollution, anti-art, antagonisms in society, the complexity of modern life, gross economic inequities, and war.
For all that, life on our world is not, on the whole, a pool of misery, despite the fact that commercial media would go out of business if they published too much good news. On balance, there is much for which to be thankful; and everyone who deals constructively with what is intolerable brings a better day closer. A religious interpretation of evolution can interpret evil as a phenomenon that gets recycled.
Seventeen considerations strengthen faith in an eternally perfect, all-knowing, and all-powerful Creator in the face of the facts of pain, suffering, and evil.
1. The most powerful defense against being overwhelmed by suffering is personal experience of the goodness of God. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” The more deeply we know God, the less likely we are to have our faith shaken by things that are part of life.
2. We cannot discern how terrible things fit into the eternal wisdom of God’s plan for us and our future. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so [God’s] ways are higher than your ways.” To acknowledge mystery is an essential part of the total response to suffering, the I-don’t-know part of the response. God is the First Cause, but primal causation is quite beyond us; science knows only secondary causes. Faith regards God as sovereign, but we cannot trace the operation of the lawgiver. Responding to suffering by simplistic answers can discount the reality of the other’s pain. Silent companionship in suffering is often the best we can offer.
3. Not everything is good, but faith can embrace the thought: Evil gets recycled. God and those who cooperate with God so labor that all things (including things which are not good) eventually do work together for good; and we have a responsible part to play in the process. If all things are ultimately part of the outworking of a divinely governed evolutionary process, we can see the entire universe as friendly. This includes the distressing phenomena of our inner life, our physical problems, as well as problems in society. We humans have hurt one another so much that only the practical realization of brotherhood in our world will show that we have learned the lessons.
4. We should not assume that this world is the best the Creator could do. There is a heaven of eternal perfection where the will of God is done, as well as this evolving realm where human beings are invited into the adventure of becoming perfect. Jesus prayed, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Some of the needed healing and justice happens after this life.
5. Think of all the different reasons why things happen. Natural processes follow their course, and accidents happen in our evolutionary world. An earthquake should not be called an act of God. We live in a realm of everlastingly dependable causal law.
6. We bring suffering on ourselves and others by misusing our free will when we violate—deliberately or not—laws of health, sanity, morality, or happiness.
7. Some suffering occurs because God chastises us in love in order to prod us to turn from evil into the way of life.
8. Some suffering results from our failure to exercise vigorous, positive attitudes.
9. Anxious craving causes suffering.
10. Some suffering is needed to develop a noble character.
11. If human beings are to be able to recognize and choose the good, we need potential evil as a contrast.
12. The possibility of evil is inherent in the Creator’s choice to give the priceless gift of free will to imperfect beings. The Creator is not responsible for our wrong choices that result in actual evil.
13. It is misleading to think that God gives permission to wrongdoers. A human lifetime is over surprisingly quickly, and judgment must be faced.
14. God does not put off all correction of evil to the next life. God-given, moral reason and righteous indignation rouse responsible people to bring justice to outrageous wrongdoers.
15. God goes through everything with us and does not leave us alone. “In all their afflictions he was afflicted with them.”
16. We need not think of the world as filled with suffering. On balance, there is much for which to be thankful.
17. Once an episode of suffering is over—really over—we look back and the suffering no longer feels substantial. Evil can exist only for a time by being parasitical on realities that are good. Eventually the good will outshine and recycle the evil. “They who sow in tears will reap in songs of joy.”
Are there experiences you could share of working through evil to greater good?