Daddy, I'm scared to go to the beach. What if there is lightning again?
But daddy, if there was lightning, you would protect me, right?
wouldn't God protect me?
Catalina and I led Elin through a lengthy discussion. We used the chatechism and other truths she had learned to help guide her. If we got struck by lightning and died, what would happen to us? Well, our souls would enter God's presence. Elin is a dualist and knows that we are more than just our bodies. Would God ever let anything bad happen to the souls of those who love him? No! So while God may choose not to protect our physical bodies from lightning in a particular moment, he would certainly preserve our souls, and he would one day resurrect our bodies. Plus, the Bible promises that, since God loves us, he will make all things work out to be good for us in some way, even when we can't figure out how. We tried to explain a temporal ill in light of an ultimate good. God may allow bad events to occur, but he would never allow an ultimate evil to befall us.
We were thankful for the wonderful discussion we could have with Elin. How many parents get to have such a deep conversation with their four year old? We savored the once in a lifetime opportunity to answer such a thoughtful question. Then the next day came.
Daddy, why is God sending another storm? Why is he ruining everyone's fun?
I explained that as parents, we aren't only focused on the immediate enjoyment of something. We limit things like desserts and screentime not because we want to stop fun, but because we understand that there are long-term consequences for our actions. I said that we are God's children, and it is the same with us. Catalina asked Elin why rain was important and what other benefits come from the rain. We talked about drinking water for us and animals, how plants need water to grow, how the fish in the oceans need water, etc. We talked about how God's sending of rain wasn't intended to stymie our enjoyment, but it was actually for our long-term good and is his way of taking care of other people, animals, and things. We encouraged her to not just focus on herself in the question but look to the good of the broader world around her. While I'm sure Elin still feels that God and her parents are mean when they interrupt her fun, I hope her spirit was able to start to receive the truths we discussed.
The Problem of Evil
Without knowing it, Elin was thinking through the problem of evil. How can God be good if he allows bad things to happen? If God controls things like the weather, does that mean when the weather harms someone, God is guilty of evil? I think our question-lead discussion with Elin was age appropriate and sufficient, but it got me thinking a bit deeper about the problem of evil. There are logical responses to the problem of evil - the answers we lead Elin to, as well as others. Human choice is a large component of evil. Abel was killed by the hand of Cain. Understanding that consequences and pain are in one small sense a mercy which reminds us that we are not god and points us to the one who is can also be helpful. Nebuchadnezzar discovered this mercy when he worshipped God - but only after being stricken with insanity. And trusting in God's justice - knowing that the evil God does allow is for the ultimate good of those who love him - is vital. We see this in Joseph's enduring of slavery and imprisonment in order to sustain his family - the family which would eventually produce the savior of the universe. And this savior of the universe would also submit to humanity's evil choices and the allowance of evil by God. He did this so that we would ultimately be freed from evil altogether.
I talked a bit about the problem of evil in our last newsletter. I found it interesting that the conversations I have with non-believers and struggling Christians almost always revolve around this problem of evil. Unfortunately, no amount of logical explanation seems to unseat the hold of doubt that the problem of evil has formed in their minds. Even the strongest theodicy just won't do. I believe this is because the problem of evil for most people isn't an intellectual problem, but rather an experiential one. Just like Elin can hear and understand my reasoning for why she can't have more dessert or more screentime - yet still think I'm mean - so it is with those who hear explanations for the problem of evil. Reasons don't matter all that much. What matters is one's current experience.
So what should be the Christian response to evil? While I think there is a very important place for intellectual endeavors, and I have great Christian thinkers like Alvin Plantinga to thank for using intellectual arguments which have helped me remain a Christian, I believe the main Christian response to evil must be experience rather than argumentation. Of course a part of this means creating a positive experience for those who are struggling with evil. We must listen, be an open community which those in pain can enter, we must love, and we must serve. But stopping there would be letting ourselves off the hook. We would merely be working with those in pain rather than entering into it ourselves. Even the world does this. The world responds to disasters, the plight of refugees and immigrants, and other humanitarian crises. The world deals with the experience of evil that others have. Christianity may be positioned to help with greater depth and frequency, but especially in an age of humanism, humanitarians abound. But there is one experience Christianity can display which the world cannot. We can fight the problem of evil with the problem of joy.
The Problem of Joy
Christianity is uniquely positioned to answer the problem of evil. It's one of the few systems which can acknowledge with internal consistency that the problem exists in the first place. Many Eastern religions would view evil as an illusion, while materialistic thought cannot produce the prescriptive backing to call something evil. Whereas on Christianity a child's murder is evil in its breaking of God's standard, to many Eastern adherents such evil is illusory, and to the materialist it can only be described as an action which our mechanistic synapses don't prefer, and it is an action which isn't good for the survival of humanity. Only on monotheism do we have "oughtness," an obligation to some standard outside of ourselves. Only on monotheism does evil truly exist.
But Christianity also provides us with a counter-experience to evil which can't be produced in either Eastern thought or materialism. It provides us with the ability to experience joy through any and all circumstances. James explicitly tells us that we should have joy when we experience trials. We are constantly told to be content and joyful, regardless of our circumstances, in light of God's good will and grace towards us. We not only see these ideas and commands on the pages of scripture, but we see this joy lived out in the lives of the apostles and early Christian martyrs who faced imprisonment, torture, and execution with joy. This joy is central to Christianity, as it was also a central experience of our savior. Jesus, our great high priest who was tempted in all ways that we are, chose to endure the cross "for the joy that was set before him."
This joy that Christians are to have is not a naive joy. Christ's drops of blood, his agonizing groans, and his pleas to God as he faced the cross are testament enough of this. Christian joy is not borne lightly. Christian joy is not a joy which ignores the existence of evil, like Eastern thought. It doesn't reduce our experience of evil to randomness, or another's evil actions against us as merely alternative evolutionary preferences. Evil is real and ought not to be. God is good and wants his world to be restored. Whatever evil we experience now, we truly do experience. Yet we can find joy in knowing that our God is in control, our God seeks our good, our God has reached out towards us for restoration, and our God personally understands what we are going through because he himself has endured evil. We can find joy in the purposes of God, the empathy of God, the sovereignty of God, and the good we know is being produced right now in us through the trials we face. We can endure with joy because we are in relationship with our God right now. It is this relationship which produces joy within us. Just as I hope Elin can one day find joy in obedience to me, trusting in me and knowing that my actions towards her are not intended to malign her, so I think it should be with our Father in Heaven. We may not know why God does what he does. We may not know how he will bring about our good. But we know God.
It is also important to understand that Christian joy is not necessarily an outward exuberance or a lack of mourning. While our joy may be expressed in elation at times, it may also be overshadowed by the legitimate expression of sorrow. Nevertheless, we do not mourn as those who have no hope, for we have a risen savior. Even our mourning has at its core an inexplicable joy. While those in Eastern religions bide their time in the illusion of this life, awaiting the loss of self when they are joined with the one, and while materialists work hard to avoid trials and enjoy pleasures now, neither of these systems can provide us with a joy through current trials. Only Christianity can do that.
Our job as Christians, then, is to live a life of contentment and joy. Yes, we are to love others well when they experience evil. But that's easy to do in comparison to personally experiencing and displaying joy when we ourselves come face to face with evil. Nobody wants to listen to a Christian who has arguments about God without any experience of him. Our job as Christians is to know God - to experience Him. That experience will undoubtedly show forth in our lives and will be unmistakable to those who see our display of the joy only a living God could produce within us.
So how can you believe in a God when so much evil exists in the world? I can give you a number of answers to the problem of evil. But can you explain how true joy could exist in the face of evil apart from God? Can you answer the problem of joy? Christians, join together and defeat the problem of evil by embodying the problem of joy.