SEPTEMBER 11 AND THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
The dramatic events of September 11, 2001 have raised - again - the most
important theological question people ever ask, whether they're religious
or not, Christian or Muslim or Jew:
Why do bad things happen?
Around the world we watched CNN; we felt horror and anger and
revulsion against the perpetrators; we wept with those who wept
(my clients who have suffered most cried the most). From the
National Cathedral in Washington we heard Billy Graham say (in what may have
been the most watched and listened-to sermon in history): 'I have been asked
hundreds of times in my life why God allows tragedy and suffering. I have to
confess that I do not know the answer totally, even to my own satisfaction'.
But first to put it all in perspective.
1. Christians are being dispossessed, tortured and killed by Fundamentalist
Muslims in much greater numbers than the 3000+ who died on September 11.
* Today's Religious Persecution website's prayer point
"Sudan's Head of State Omar al-Bashir plans to continue with the Islamic
course decided upon by his government. He reportedly seized power in order
to strengthen the implementation of sharia, or Islamic law. Since 1989, four
million people have had to flee their home regions, and two million have met
their deaths in the civil war that erupted over this Islamization policy. "
* More than 10,000 have been killed and 300,000 displaced in the Jihad
attacks on Christian communities in the Malaku Islands of Indonesia between
January 1999 and June 2001.
* As I write, Muslim mobs in Nigeria are killing hundreds of Christians and
burning their churches.
2. What fanatical Islam is doing to Christians is akin to what fanatical
Christians did to the 'Infidel Turks' in the Crusades 1,000 years ago.
3. Back further in history, it's also what the Israelites did to the
inhabitants of Canaan: 'When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving
you, do not learn or imitate the detestable ways of the peoples there...
Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord, and because of these
detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out these nations before
you' (Deuteronomy 18:9,12). (A key question here: is the God of the Old
Testament the father of Jesus? That will have to wait for another time...)
4. Islam has not had a Reformation as the Western Christian Church
experienced in the 15th and 16th centuries. So to accuse Islam of being
'medieval' is to say it is behaving as Christendom did until just four
centuries ago. (Then, as with Islam now, apostasy or 'heresy' often resulted
Back to the Big Question.
Evil is whatever impairs our well-being. Some evil is perpetrated by humans
against others. There is also a good deal of evil that has nothing to do
with human free will: human diseases, genetic defects, natural disasters,
animal pain, etc.
* 'Evil, then, is most often committed in order to scapegoat, and the people
I label as evil are chronic scapegoaters. In 'The Road Less Traveled' I
defined evil "as the exercise of political power - that is, the imposition
of one's will upon others by overt or covert coercion - in order to avoid.
spiritual growth" (p. 279). In other words, the evil attack others instead
of facing their own failures. Spiritual growth requires the acknowledgment
of one's need to grow. If we cannot make that acknowledgment, we have no
option except to eradicate the evidence of our imperfection.' (M. Scott
Peck, People of the Lie, Simon & Schuster, 1983, p. 74).
* 'The able bodied men are separated into one group. The weak men, the
elderly, the women and children, including a mother and her daugther are put
with a second group and ushered into a building. The Nazi soldiers are very
powerful, but the simple faith of most of us tells us that God is infinitely
more powerful, and yet God does not stop the Nazi soldiers as they force our
mother and her daughter to undress and move into a second room with
showerheads in the ceiling. The little girl begins to cry and her mother
tries to comfort her. The mother loves her daughter very much, yet our
simple faith tells us that God's love is infinitely greater than even that
of the mother for her child, and yet God does nothing to save them as the
doors of the room are sealed and poison gas begins to fill the air. How
could a loving and powerful God exist and allow that woman and her daughter
to be murdered? How could a God who loved that woman's child and who has the
power to save her not save her? And yet God did not save her or six million
other people during the holocaust. And every day since then the God who
supposedly loves all of us, and the God who has complete power over every
aspect of the creation, has not stepped in to stop our suffering.
* In Cambridge Massachusetts two men lured a 10-year-old boy named Jeffrey
Curley with promises of $50 and a new bicycle. The police said that when the
boy refused to have sex with the men, one of them, Charles Jaynes, who
weighs 115 kg, sat on Jeffrey and smothered him with a gasoline-soaked rag.
Then, according to the police, the men had sex with the corpse and after
that bought a 50-gal. container, sealed the body in it with duct tape and
dumped it into a river on the Maine-New Hampshire border...
WHY DO SUCH EVIL THINGS HAPPEN TO PEOPLE?
Traditionally we ascribe to God two very important qualities - complete
power (omnipotence), and universal love. One of our favorite hymns says God
is 'Holy, holy, holy, author of creation! Perfect in power, in love, and
God is all-powerful and God is love. So why do we suffer? There would seem
to be only four logical answers: either God is not loving, or God is not
powerful, or 'evil' doesn't really exist, or it is God who doesn't exist.
Or to put it another way (to paraphrase C.S. Lewis in 'The Problem of
Pain'): 'If God were good, God would protect us from harm; if God were
powerful God could do it. But we suffer, so God lacks either goodness or
power or both.' The late Episcopal Bishop James Pike put the issue bluntly:
If God is all that strong, and all that smart, and all that nice, why are
things in such a mess? ('God would if God could, but God can't. This is
inconsistent with God's being omnipotent. God can, but God won't. This is
inconsistent with God's being all good. God can't and wouldn't even if God
could. This is inconsistent with God's being all powerful and all good').
The word we give to all this is 'Theodicy' (from the Greek words for God and
justice). The best-known modern theodicy is Rabbi Harold Kushner's 'When Bad
Things Happen to Good People'. Kushner was the father of a terminally ill
child and a Reformed rabbi.
For some, theodicy is about putting evil into a simple cause/effect box.
1. Suffering is a punishment for sin. In a just world people get what they
deserve. The righteous are rewarded - in this life and/or in the next - and
the wicked are punished.
2. We are creatures of flesh and blood who are vulnerable to accident,
disease, and other destructive assaults upon our existence and well-being.
3. We are free moral beings and can misuse our freedom to cause harm to
ourselves or others.
4. Suffering is designed by God to be a part of the world so that by facing
the challenge evil poses, we can freely move toward moral perfection, which
is God's aim for us.
5. We live in a world where beings interact with each other.
Destructive interactions and consequence are bound to follow.
6. The world has an excellent design within the limits of what is actually
possible. Any other design would likely have produced a less favorable ratio
of good in relation to evil. The strongest version of this argument insists
that this is the best of all possible worlds.
7. Satan (a superhuman angel with free will who went wrong) is the cause of
much suffering and evil in the world.
There is some truth in each of these. For example, we know that without
freedom, there can be no authentic love. But none of these is the whole
truth, or the best truth. Limited theodicies are good ideas that miss the
main point. As Nietzsche once said, any theodicy has conscience against it.
The surprising fact is that the Bible is almost silent on this issue.
Jesus doesn't answer the question of theodicy, except in a parable about a
field where an enemy sowed weeds among the good seeds in a field. God, said
Jesus, will sort it all out on Judgment Day.
THE BOOK OF JOB
About the only place in the Bible that tackles the theodicy question head-on
is the ancient Book of Job. It has the best answers I know to the age-old
questions: What have I done to deserve this? What could I have done to avoid
this? Where is God in all this.?
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away a man experienced an assortment of
apparently meaningless, senseless tragedies. The story is gripping and
challenging. The Book of Job is a great poem - some have said that it is
perhaps even the greatest poem in all literature. It's an epic drama much
like Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey. Neal Simon borrowed Job as the
setting for his play, God's Favorite, as did Archibald MacLeish (J.B.),
and Robert Frost before him ("The Masque of Reason"). Novelist Muriel Spark
again tried to update the plot of Job in a contemporary setting (The Only
At the beginning we're handed some program notes that tell us something
about the drama - happenings in heaven about which the actors are unaware.
God is meeting with the angelic court. The Satan is a kind of spy - the word
means an 'accuser' - and he asserts that anyone who claims that human beings
are loyal to God from a pure motive is deluded. God responds, 'All right,
we'll test your theory.' So Job who was 'blameless and upright, one who
feared God and turned away from evil,' a man of great integrity in every way
is chosen to be the proving ground.
Is Job upright for what's in it for him? Or does Job love God for God's
sake? The accusations are directed against the integrity of both Job and
God. Satan's invitation: 'Stretch forth your hand now against all that he
has, and he will curse you to your face.'
Job can't even know that this is a test, and that God knows he is upright
and innocent in all of this.
One by one, tragedies strike. Marauding bandits steal his livestock and kill
his servants; lightning destroys his sheep and their shepherds in the
fields; his great herd of camels, true wealth in the oriental world, has
been destroyed in a natural catastrophe. Then comes the heartrending news
that his seven sons and three daughters were enjoying a party when a tornado
hit. The house was demolished and they were all killed.
Job's fortune and future are gone -- wiped out in a morning.
His initial response is move back and forth from suffering in silence,
saying nothing, to worship. He tears his robe, shaves his head and falls
face down on the ground, blessing God, with words I've quoted at many
funerals: 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return; the
LORD gives, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.'
How can Job worship a God who allows all that to happen? How can we believe
in God when there's Auschwitz, Cambodia, Rwanda, September 11?
But 'In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing.' Satan is
taken aback, so he asks God to change the rules. Satan has decided to attack
Job more directly and petitions God for the right to afflict Job's body.
This God grants. Without warning, Job is suddenly stricken with a series of
terrible boils, or carbuncles. When I was a boy I suffered from boils,
though never more than two or three at a time. Since then I've had a deep
sympathy for dear old Job. There is nothing more aggravating than a painful
boil which is not relieved by any kind of medication. You can only grit your
teeth and endure the agony until the boil comes to a head, and heals itself.
Job had these from the top of his head to the sole of his foot.
Job's wife is the one whose faith succumbs. In her depression and anger she
turns on him and says, 'Are you still holding fast to your integrity? Why
don't you curse God and die?' But Job stands firm, determined to be
Then comes another test, via three of his friends. They arrive to bring
comfort and wise counsel. Approaching from a distance, they do not recognize
Job, so profoundly has his affliction changed him. Tearing their robes,
covering themselves with dust and ashes, they weep, and sit with him in
silence for seven days. Sometimes in these situations silence is the only
authentic way to be present -- there is nothing to say.
Their discourses with Job then occupy most of the book. Each takes three
rounds with Job. Each has three arguments, nine arguments in all. They
suggest, ever so tactfully at first, then more and more insistently, that
Job should search his conscience to see what he has done to bring God's
wrath down upon him. From their human (very human) point of view the
haunting question, 'Why do senseless tragedies afflict people?' comes down
to one major proposition. If God is indeed just, then the righteous are
always blessed and the wicked always suffer. Job must have committed some
awful sin. He'd better confess it and God will bless him again.
Now that's not necessarily wrong. There are tragic events -- catastrophes,
heartache, pain, and suffering -- which occur because we sin. Sin is
all/only about violating the laws of God. These include, for example, laws
about health. When we break them there's a physical reaction: a lot of
suffering comes back to that.
But Job's friends didn't know that this is not the only explanation possible
for all kinds of suffering. They 'darken counsel by words without
knowledge'. They are 'minimizers', looking for happy endings; they accuse,
they lecture: we don't need such 'friends' in a time of grief.
Job moves from slight irritation with them, to anger and sarcasm: 'No wisdom
will die with you' (12:2); 'You've got all the answers, you've solved all
the problems, you know everything. So there's no use talking to you any
longer!' 'All these pat answers don't help at all!' Job can't confess sin
because he is genuinely unaware of anything he's done that has offended God.
Moreover, he can't believe in justice any longer because their arguments
that the wicked always suffer are simply not true: many wicked people are
prospering and living in ease, and nothing horrible is happening to them.
Furthermore, he says, he doesn't know what to do because God won't listen to
him. God hides from him and cannot be found. He yearns for an 'umpire', a
mediator, who can plead his cause with God. Eventually Job rages at these
friends in the turmoil of his confusion, bewilderment, anger, hurt, and
frustration. He says he is afraid of this God, who is not the God he has
A young man, Elihu, has been listening to all this. He's had a better
education and has been taught to argue logically: 'You are all wrong. You
friends of Job are wrong because you accuse him unjustly, and Job is wrong
because he blames God for his difficulty. He is accusing God in order to
exonerate himself.' Elihu offers nothing positive either.
The three friends and Elihu rationalize, minimize and theologize. It never
occurs to them that a just God would destroy a righteous person. Job also
knows that he is not the only innocent victim, and he issues a general
indictment of the way God is running the world.
But then the Lord himself answers Job, in a whirlwind. In chapters 38
through 40, God takes Job on a tour of nature. Creation is wonderful,
meaningful, worthwhile -- yes, even playful. But it's also a vast
intricately intertwined universe which requires a superhuman mind to direct
all its activities. In displaying the wonders of creation God puts Job
firmly back in his place.
Someone has written: 'God has not made it thus by the sheer elimination of
darkness, wildness, chaos, or evil. Rather, God has drawn them together in a
balance of light and dark, civility and wildness, order and chaos, good and
evil to create a world not only of spectacular beauty and power, but one
where authentic freedom and love are real possibilities.' God's ways are not
our ways. God's justice is not reducible to our conception of it. God will
not crush wickedness every time it appears, nor obliterate the dark side of
life. These chapters challenge the whole 'justice-injustice' approach to
Faced with the awesome power and wisdom of God, Job falls down on his face
and says: 'I had heard of you. but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise
myself, and repent in dust and ashes.' (Job 42:5-6).
God's essential argument: life is too complicated for simple answers. (For
example, God is not bound by our notion of justice -- personal retribution).
If you are demanding that God come up with simple answers to these deep
problems, you are asking God to do more than you are able to
understand. Only God can adequately deal with the answers to these kinds of
'The message,' writes Philip Yancey (When The Facts Don't Add Up,
Christianity Today, June 13, 1986; p. 19) expressed in splendid poetry boils
down to this: UNTIL YOU KNOW A LITTLE MORE ABOUT RUNNING THE PHYSICAL
UNIVERSE, JOB, DON'T TELL ME HOW TO RUN THE MORAL UNIVERSE. God criticizes
Job for only one thing: his ignorance. Job made his judgments on the basis
of incomplete evidence - an insight that those of us in the "audience" had
seen all along.'
We too are invited to respond to evil by trusting God. The Hasidic teacher,
Rabbi Bunam, said that 'You should carry two stones in your pocket. On one
should be inscribed, "I am but dust and ashes." On the other, "For my sake
was the world created." And you should use each stone as you need it.' The
experience of the Whirlwind has taught Job to use the first stone. But what
we need, and what the book of Job tries to teach us, is how to use them both
The last chapter sees Job praying for his 'friends', and the 'compassionate
and merciful God' (James 5:11) restores Job's fortunes to double what they
were before. 'And Job died, old and full of days' (42:17).
We humans respond to evil in many ways, as these ancient characters did -
with anger, depression, confusion, despair, or with neat rational
explanations to deal with problems of cognitive dissonance. Kuschner asks
for noble suffering. C.S. Lewis seeks a revelation. Kierkegaard suggests an
irrational leap in the dark. And history offers ample evidence that when
human beings zealously try to eradicate evil from their midst, they often
end up doing more harm than good. Think of the Crusades, the Inquisition,
the witch hunts, the holy wars, efforts to achieve ethnic cleansing, to
purge evil from the land. Think of war itself, in which the innocent are
almost always those who are hurt the most. Maybe that's why Jesus rejected
the use of violence, because violence so often destroys the very thing it's
trying to save. It tears up the wheat along with the weeds.
The key lesson from Job is that emotional responses and/or rational answers
are understandable but not ultimately helpful. God has perfectly good
reasons for the way he has treated Job, and Job shouldn't expect to know
what they are. Did Job get no answer to his anguished demand to know why
God had afflicted him? Yes and no. In the end Job says to God, 'Now I see
you.' In seeing the face of a powerful and loving God, Job has an answer to
his question about why God has afflicted him... God allows his suffering for
a good and loving purpose, but Job doesn't discover precisely what the
nature of that spiritual good is or how it is connected to his suffering.
We cannot know the whole picture. With raw honesty we concede that life is
too complex to be handled by humans alone. And neither pious words nor
rituals will help most when the crunch comes. We are here in the realm of
mystery. It's not something we human beings can explain, not now.
In essence the key question in Job is not 'Why do the innocent suffer?' but
rather 'What will you and I do with our innocent suffering? Where will we go
with it? Who has the power to transform it into good?' Job has used his
suffering to get angry at God -- to argue with God. That's O.K. Anger is not
sin - so long as it is verbalized (as it is in about half of the biblical
Psalms). Maybe only unspoken anger is sin.
Like Job we are invited to trust God whose creative power can govern the
universe without our help; and who cares deeply for all God's creatures.
Suffering sometimes involves bearing bad things innocently - serving a
purpose we cannot conceive or understand. Job is not guilty of sin or pride.
He has simply been living with a false notion about God. You and I are not
saved by our opinions about God -- our theology, orthodox or heterodox --
but by trust in God, the dynamic we call faith.
Not all suffering occurs because we are bad: it can be the source of some
ultimate good. Job's final faith-affirmation: 'God knows the way that I
take; when he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.' (Job 23:10).
The apostle Paul agrees: 'We know that in everything God works for good with
those who love him, who are called according to his purpose' (Romans 8:28).
Discuss some or all of these:
1. Job's opening words in his first speech: 'Damn the day of my birth; God
damn the day I was conceived. Better I should have died at birth.' (Job
3:1ff.) Do you blame Job - or yourself - for uttering curses in this sort of
2. How about this: 'Though we must abandon our rationality when we let go,
it is more precisely an arational leap. It is more like falling in love, if
one can compare love and death, for it is the willing abandonment of self
for the sake of another. It is the remembered God we see in shapeless void,
making all our life but preparation for this last step. That true memory of
Him is faith, the falling is hope, His arms are love.'
3. Or this: 'The opposite of theology is not atheism, but idolatry, the
substitution of human aspirations for divine justice. Idolatry replaces God
with something patently false, simply to make God more malleable, more
manageable, more liveable.'
4. What do you think of the statement: 'Anger is not sin, provided it is
verbalized. Only unspoken anger is sin'?
5. 'For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the
earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh, I shall
see God.' (Job 19:25, 26). When you hear those words said (or sung in
Handel's Messiah) what passes through your mind?
6. Talk about Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of Job's yearning for a
7. Discuss this: 'Yes, the book of Job does have an answer for evil, for
pain, for suffering. The answer is as complex as the book itself, for the
answer is not a formula, a pill, or a prescription, no, the answer is a
person, the answer is God.'
8. Some parents won't allow their children to attend funerals of loved ones,
ostensibly to shield them from grief/evil... What do you think about that?
9. When someone has experienced a massive tragedy, like Job their first
reaction is numbed shock. Perhaps they might ask, 'How long will this last?'
How do you help with that question?
10. Many who had a 'faith' and went to war, came back without any 'faith'.
What happened to them?
11. We still have in our churches many who, like Job's comforters, 'inhabit
simplicity this side of complexity'. They want simple answers and neat
12. 'The only way to deal with tragedy is to develop a habit of unshakable
gratitude. Life - all of it - is a gift beyond our deserving' (John
Claypool). What do you make of that?
PRAYER (from Ray Stedman):
Our Father, thank you for this look into Job's heart. Thank you for
recording for us the struggles of this dear man as he frankly, openly, and
honestly voices his doubts, airs his grievances, addresses you with his
complaints. Lord, we hear ourselves, in our irksome petulance crying out to
you, blaming you for our circumstances, unwilling to believe that you have a
purpose behind them and are able to work them out. Lord, teach us to rest in
you through the great and wonderful revelation that in every circumstance we
are privileged to be instruments in the working out of victory over Satan;
to demonstrate once and for all that the only life worth living is a life
lived by faith. We pray in your name. Amen.
15th October 2001.
Note: this material may be borrowed, adapted, circulated and/or preached -
with or without acknowledgment.