“Divide the human race into twenty parts. Nineteen of them are composed of those who work with their hands,… In the remaining twentieth part, how few men do we find who read! And among those who do read there are twenty who read novels for every one who studies philosophy. The number of those who think is exceedingly small, and they are not aiming to disturb the world.” – Voltaire
Voltaire wasn’t known for being optimistic. Even if he’s right that thinkers are in the minority, what can we make of his assertion that they are “not aiming to disturb the world”? Perhaps the world would be a better place if it were occasionally disturbed by thinking people, as thinking people are disturbed by the world. It appalls us that the world is full of bad things: suffering, sickness, and injustice affect all of us at some time or another. How can a good God allow these things to happen? We all wish we didn’t have to deal with the problem of evil in the world. The questions asked in David Hume’s eighteenth century work Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion express the difficulties eloquently:
Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil? [Then where does evil come from?]
Can we give a satisfactory explanation to those who disbelieve in the existence of God on the grounds that a good God would never allow evil in the world? The problem of evil is ubiquitous. An interesting thing to notice is that it is mainly in the west, where we are infused with the notion of the goodness of God as taught by Christianity, that the problem of evil as an objection to the existence of God gets so much attention.
In areas influenced by Hinduism, by comparison, evil is accepted as part of life. The notion of karma, that we all get what is coming to us, predominates. No Hindu is surprised at calamity. It is regarded as only natural and to be expected. Hume’s objection itself begins with a very “Christian” assumption: that life should be good, that good is somehow better than evil. So, logically, we could dismiss Hume’s argument right from the start on the basis of his assumption. Unfortunately, trouble cannot be dismissed as easily as that!
At the outset, I want to recognize that we should be outraged at the evil in our world. Being shocked and appalled at tragic events and circumstances, and being stirred to indignation at injustice are the correct responses that every human being ought to have. We should never shrug off suffering as “the will of God,” but should work to alleviate it as much as we can. We should never ignore injustice, but should work to put things right as far as we are able. This is why so many Christians have worked to establish hospitals, clinics, orphanages, and hospice centers all around the world. We know that we were made for a better world than that which we now experience.
The Christian explanation for the evil in the world has to do with our cherished free will. We believe that God has created people as free agents. It is his plan that we love God and live in harmony with each other. The difficulty is that we do not choose to do so. We lust; we fight; we kill in order to advance our own agendas. Our propensity to sin seems only surpassed by our willingness to blame God for it! A great deal of the evil in the world is directly caused by human sin. We simply do not behave in the way we should, whether we are polluting our drinking water or repeating malicious gossip. These are the types of things that cause pain and suffering for ourselves and for others. This is why we must fight so hard against sin in our own lives and in the world around us.
Man’s inhumanity to man is not the only cause of human suffering. Christianity teaches that when humans fell into sin, they pulled the whole of creation in with them. The quality of life on earth changed because of the introduction of sin. In Genesis 3:17, God said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you… It will produce thorns and thistles for you.” In some mysterious way, creation itself has been “subjected to frustration” due to our sin (Romans 8:20). Some scientists theorize that the earth was physically different before the fall into sin and that the dangerous extremes of weather that we now experience were previously impossible. There is much that we do not understand. We can imagine that we have fallen far from the ideal of a sinless world, though we have only small glimpses of what such a world would look like.
The good news is that God has not abandoned us in our suffering. He sent his Son Jesus Christ to begin the process of redeeming this fallen world and to give us hope for a more perfect world to come.
While we are temporarily stuck in this place of suffering, we can trust that God has his purposes and will use even the most difficult of circumstances to bring character and goodness into our lives. Though we suffer now, we are not without hope, “for our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all… For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16). Even the creation has been waiting “in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:19). We believe that we will someday be remade to conform more closely to the glory and grandeur of God. The earth, too, will be remade into a new earth where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
While we wait for this new life to begin, we have a responsibility to do what we can to fix what we can within our personal sphere of influence. When we work to counter the effects of sin, it gives others less to point at, and we fulfill the mandate of Christ to love one another. It is our way of taking back what we have lost and freeing the earth from the curse that holds it captive. The least we can do is to try to make things more comfortable while we are waiting.
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