Tag Archives: evil

Sometimes questions are more important than answers

A friend on Facebook wrote a few months ago, “Faith is not the opposite of Doubt. Hope is.”

I have pretty strong opinions about the way I see Christians reacting to doubt. Generally, I think we suck at it.

Certainty lures us with a promise of safety and emotional stability. Doubt wears a DANGER sign, by contrast.  Skeptics and Agnostics inhabit the land of Doubt, a place no Believer ought to be found, we say. So we rush past the questions, head tucked down and coat collar up.

Maybe if we move fast enough, the hard questions will stop chasing us.

This is Easter week, and today is the dark Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  If Easter were a musical composition, this is the part where the the dramatic negative music continues a little more quietly for a page or so before the score explodes into the joy and celebration of a Risen Lord.

In the biblical narrative, Doubting Thomas has already walked off after the events of Friday to simmer in his own disappointment. The women haven’t been to an empty tomb yet to understand what it means when we say “Christ conquered death.”  It’s bitter to think you had the answer and then have that ripped out of your hands by a Roman governor who would rather execute an innocent man than face the political backlash from making the better choice.

Christianity is crazy.  You either need to grasp that and own it in faith, or walk away.  The Norse used to deride the English monks for their worship of “the nailed god.”  Ha.  What good is a god nailed to a tree?

Either Christianity is robust enough to step into the shitty places of life, or it’s irrelevant.  If this truth hasn’t hit you yet, well…. wait.  The crisis will come.

I could move from here into a complex discussion of the Problem of Evil across a variety of philosophical and religious systems.  Truly, this is where the questions punch us in the gut and leave us on the mat, bloody and gasping.

Nobody has a clear answer there. The systems of belief (and non-belief and anti-belief) duke it out to prove their answer is better or more fitting or less harmful.  On this side of Glory, we aren’t given the answer to the question of how a God who says He is both Good and Powerful exists in a universe so marred by Evil.

And most of us don’t sit back with a cup of tea to politely discuss the situation; we are thrown into the ring by personal tragedy (ours or someone we love).  It would be weird if doubt didn’t show up in the small still hours of the dark to suggest perhaps this whole Jesus thing is a crock.

In my experience, people who doubt are met with quick answers. Too quick.   A good teacher knows you have to let students stew in a problem before they’re ready to to grasp an answer. Sometimes you just have to walk beside them until it “clicks” and the answer is clear.

Life is a lot more about walking beside people through the valley of shadows than it is about delivering them packaged answers, like pills popped from dispensaries for troubled souls.

Our proof texts and pre-packaged answers for doubting souls interrupt the very important process of growing to love God on our own within the context of a personal journey.

Worse, sometimes we jump in with arguments that God Himself never made.

This really bothers me.  I’ve seen a lot of young adults walk away from the “faith” they were raised in because adults taught them “truths” that weren’t so clear.  In our rush to explain, we deceive.  In God’s name.

Galileo proved that the Church’s interpretation of Joshua’s long day, which locked them into a geocentric astronomy as the only valid interpretation of the Bible, could never match the observations through his telescope.   The Church loses followers when she insists that God said something He didn’t actually say.

Here’s where you’re going to get offended. 🙂 But I can’t make this point without listing a few examples.   The  raging debates over how the universe got here (young age creationism) turn away scientists who assume they’d have to check their scientific training at the door to become a Christian.  Doctors understand that the beginning of life isn’t a clear-cut moment, but strident anti-abortion rhetoric shuts down any real discussion of just how difficult it is to “prove” that life begins at conception. The debate over homosexuality has devolved into two sides, one that uses the Bible as a club and the other which mocks Scripture as an irrelevant, judgmental, bloody book of vastly outdated cultural practice.

Christians can’t conceive of a public policy divorced from their personal moral codes, so they talk a lot about being “persecuted” while rarely understanding alternate viewpoints on the political and social issues they feel like they’re losing.

When Christians harden our rhetoric over issues not central to the definition of the Gospel, we run the risk of linking our own interpretations and fallible opinions to the eternal Word of God.  Instead of seeing Scripture and preaching as witnesses to Jesus, the fully revealed Word of God, we present stances that are locked in our cultural and political contexts.

As soon as those contexts shift, the flaws in our thinking are exposed.  We said “thus saith the Lord,” and people took us at our word.

When we focus our energy on fighting for a specific political cause — banning abortion or gay marriage, keeping tax breaks for churches, condemning food stamps and welfare as “stealing” the income of holy middle class taxpayers (never mind the complicated American history of race, poverty, and social mobility and opportunity), keeping a small federal government, refusing to listen to anyone who might be a “socialist” — we blur the lines between witnessing to the Truth of the Gospel and witnessing to our own personal viewpoints.

And because we failed in our preaching and practice to differentiate God’s thoughts from our human attempts to understand Him, when people reject our preaching or practice (whether they’re right or wrong to reject), they reject the Faith as well.

I realize that conversion is a complex theological topic.  We are all unbelievers; our only hope is in the work of Christ to renew our hearts.  But Scripture speaks of not placing stumbling blocks in front of people coming to know God — in front of children, in front of the world.

My decade in the high school classroom taught me this:   even teenagers can understand complicated, nuanced arguments if you take the time to explain them.  Questions need not be a moment for panic and alarm.  Answers are rarely as important as the process of deriving those answers.  A troubled soul needs a caring listener, not a sermon.

And a God who can weave the story of Redemption through His entire creation and all of human history truly is “big enough” to calm the doubts of His children. Trust the Holy Spirit to do His job of illumination.  Trust the Word to bear witness to the truth of God and His ways.

He is risen!
He is risen indeed.

Book Review: Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl (Nathan Wilson)

Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World
N. D. Wilson
Thomas Nelson, 2009
Amazon.com (affiliate)

Sometimes books, like the authors who write them, prove to be such a tangled mixture of wrong and right, beauty and deformity that I don’t know how to handle them. ND Wilson’s pithy, artistic revel through the problem of evil and good in our world provokes me to put electronic bits to electronic paper in an attempt to sort out how I feel about this book.

Without ruining any surprises for potential readers:  Nate Wilson sets out to discuss (observe? illuminate? illustrate? investigate?) the meaning of CREATION in a world so clearly broken and destroyed by sin.

His thesis is that our world, spoken into existence by the Eternal Word and held together “by His powerful word” (Colossians 1), is Cosmic-scale Art by the Master Artist.  The eternal, infinite God of the Universe stoops to paint Himself, His Image, in the layers and textures of Life in this cosmos, in all of its aspects. Consider the ant. Snicker at the snowflakes which heap themselves up on a winter night. Gasp in  horror at rodents and rabbits eaten by hawks and tsunamis. And Nietzsche.  The Lord God made them all. (Well, maybe not Nietzsche.)  We are all His poem, His Story.

First off, I have to say —  This is a beautifully-written book.  I get tired of people who hound me to read a book that turns out poorly written and ugly in the mouth. Artistry and Truth go hand-in-hand; otherwise, the Truth gets sent out wearing ill-fitting clothes and wondering why everyone is staring at Her as if she has toilet-paper trailing from a mismatched high-heel.  Nathan Wilson offers us soul-searching, thoughtful perspectives on sin and goodness and clothes them in a fresh, fashion-runway wardrobe.  He bounces between narrative, anecdote, quotation, and lightly-theological discussions. Puns abound. Clearly, Wilson observed the Great Author’s style in His Book and followed suit — no one has ever accused God of handing us a systematic theology text (though I get the impression many of my friends wish He had; it would make their inconsequential, long-winded arguments much simpler).

That said, my opinion must divide here.

I *love* Nathan Wilson’s “voice” in his writing.

I agree with so much of what he says, especially the chapters about the life hereafter (end of the book), both positive and negative; his imagery of the dead being “planted” in hope of the coming Life; the beauty of the creation around us as living, colorful, tactile parables of spiritual realities.  You gotta love the man’s chapter titles too: “The Problem of Evil and the Nonexistence of Shakespeare: A Paper by Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.”   I especially loved his personification of unimaginative cosmic materialistic science:  the god “Boom.”  I don’t think a non-theist would ever be convinced by his words, but passages like these were a lot of fun to read (in the same way that the MPs in the British Parliament like to cheer and chuckle when one of their own works over some muck on the other side of the podium):

If the world is fundamentally an accident, if in the beginning, there was no eternal personality, no eternal living Being, merely super-hot, hyper-dense I AM matter (with no space and no universe outside of itself) and if, wandering those hyper-dense, super tiny corridors of the Forever Matter, attending to its normal routine, there happened to be one little chemical that caught its toe and flopped into another very different chemical, and both of them said, “Oh crap,” in tiny voices and went deaf in the explosion, then when did the accident start making sense and why the hell do we have the Special Olympics?
Is it strange that an impersonal accident should start talking about itself, that shards of matter rocketing through space/time would start making burbling noises and pretend that they’re communicating with other shards, and that their burbling truthfully explained the accident? Is it strange to you that an accident would invent baseball and walruses and Englishmen?
If a hypothetical neutral observer had watched the birth of an ever-expanding universe from the womb of an accidental fireball, was he (or she or it) surprised when the explosion invented llamas?
You see, for me, llamas are entirely consistent with the personality of an easily amused God. A prank on the Andes and everyone who ever needed to use the long-necked, pack-sweaters. Surly, pompous, comically unaware of their own looks, spitters. Perfect. Tell me a story about the great god Boom. Tell me how he accidentally made llamas from hydrogen (pp 127-28).

Great stuff, right?

But Wilson and I break ranks almost everywhere he deals with the “problem of evil” (to use the theologians’ phrase).

Applied to daily living, I love what Wilson says. I agree that ants die because I step on them, so what if the tables turn and I’m the ant? OK, you got me. This world is messed up, but God holds the reins and anyone who names Christ and reads the Word learns that God promises He’s got this.  “Can disaster strike a city and God not be in it?” God says in Amos. Hard to argue with that. “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” was Joseph’s explanation for his years of slavery in Egypt triggered by his brothers’ sin.

We call this Providence. When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and I was 12, my mom asked for enough years of life to “raise” me. She got about 11 more sun-cycles out of the deal. None of us are bitter.
But the words that sing hope for the suffering soul turn ugly when Wilson uses them to explain God’s role in bringing evil to this planet in the first place. Essentially, “this is the best of all possible worlds.” Ah, Leibniz. Voltaire skewered your worldview 300 years ago.

Wilson, I’m disappointed…..

I won’t clutter this post with a review of the issues; I’ve mentioned it elsewhere on my blog and you can read for yourself in a good systematic theology (try Grudem’s).  Suffice to boil down the millennia of argumentation to this:
a) God is good
b) God is all-powerful (or sovereign or however you want to state it)
c) Evil exists

All argumentation about the existence of “evil” fights on that ground, at least within the ranks of Theism. Most of the time, people “solve” the problem by weakening one of those 3 propositions.  See, we’re left with the knotty problem that no human rationale can reconcile a) b) and c).  We can chuck one (or hide it or soften it) and be ok, but to hold all 3 at once — well, that’s what my professor Bell used to call “trying to carry 3 watermelons at one time.”  We humans just don’t have big enough brains to hold more than 2 at one time.

Wilson pulls a bait-and-switch in his argumentation.  To illustrate God as Author of this cosmos, he tells gripping stories about cute rabbits getting eaten by powerful, beautiful hawks; of Shakespearean characters who don’t understand why they’re in such misery at the pen of their Author; of kittens who eat mice AND remain cute.  And those stories are supposed to illustrate how our lives, at times senseless in their ironic, bitter brokenness, reflect a God who creates both kittens and and rabbits and hawks and violent ocean breakers. See? God’s got it all in His hands. It’s in the Plot. Calm down.

So … It’s not evil as long as it serves a plot-point….?

I wrote about this a couple years ago: some of my Reformed friends don’t realize they soften the evilness of evil in order to maintain God’s power and goodness.  Is Wilson really trying to suggest that child abuse and a hawk’s supper are on the same moral ground?

I appreciate that Nathan Wilson will go to the stake promoting God’s glory and power and goodness — that’s awesome.  But he does it by inventing a 4th proposition (God exists) and defending that (ok, awesome), while diminishing the reality of the curse under which we live in this fallen world. 

Do not resent your place in the story. Do not imagine yourself elsewhere. Do not close your eyes and picture a world without thorns, without shadows, without hawks. Change this world. Use your body like a tool meant to be used up, discarded, and replaced. Better every life you touch. We will reach the final chapter. When we have eyes that can stare into the sun, eyes that only squint for the Shekinah, then we will see laughing children pulling cobras by their tails, and hawks and rabbits playing tag (p154).

With apologies, my friend —

We ARE commanded to envision a world apart from feasting carnivorous predators, without the thorns that tear apart our fingers as we struggle to garden, without the unwelcome visitor Death (who was never meant to be a part of this world — not for humans, for sure).

The Creation waits and groans for the day of its release from its bondage to our sin (Rom 8).  Wilson’s right: we *will* see hawks and rabbits play together (Isaiah), but it comes at the horrific, measureless price of God’s own blood.  Not mine.  My good works on this earth DO count “for real,” but the Power of Redemption flows from God’s Grace, not my blood.

Lewis in the most famous Narnia Chronicle (Lion, Witch, Wardrobe) writes of the “deep magic” that even Aslan cannot violate: To redeem Edmund’s soul of his treachery, the Stone Table must have blood.

There is no “answer” in softening evil so that God can still look good and powerful.  

Child molesters devour the innocent when no one but God knows about it. I can’t explain how that is Just apart from an eternal view of this world and everything that happens in it, but God promises that Justice will thrive on the earth once the Blood has done its work.

People are starving to death on parts of this planet while American farmers are paid not to grow some crops.  God says He’ll break the arms of the oppressors…. in His time.
A hawk will swoop down and snatch a perky fuzzy kitten out of the sight of a screaming terrified toddler this holiday season …. because our sin is *that bad*.

And so I am left with the reader’s dilemma, and I invite you to join me.  Wrestle with ND Wilson’s words. Get out your Bible and search.  Glean the many gems from his pages…. but IMHO Wilson falls off the theological knife-edge in his quest to explain what God Himself makes no apologies for (other than to affirm that He is not the Author of the evil that chews us up from the inside out, apart from blood-bought Grace).

Read it.

PS. I’d love to teach a Sunday School class using this book along with C S Lewis’s The Problem of Pain and Mary Doria Russell’s outstanding fiction pair, The Sparrow and Children of God.

Basics of Evil

I typed this out as part of a response to a discussion on FB, and since it’s useful and pretty succinct, I’m posting it here for future reference.

Feel free to discuss, but I’m not trying to start anything… lol

I think a biblical definition of evil must include these core ideas:

1. Evil exists only as a perversion of goodness. It cannot exist in a vacuum apart from goodness.

The Hebrew and Greek words used for sin are incredibly visual: “pollution” “iniquity” “perversion” “twistedness” “crossing the line”….All assume the perversion of something that used to be clean/pure/straight/good.

2. Good and evil are not parallel forces which rely on each other for existence in some yin/yang construct. God is perfectly good and has been good since before the creation of the universe.

The Fall is not a necessary event in human history by which we now can see the glory and goodness of God better than we would have in a perfect universe. This is not a Scriptural conclusion, and I hate that so many Reformed folks go there in their attempt to explain where Evil comes from and how it operates within God’s sovereignty.

3. The Scripture never gives us any indication of where evil comes from or how it got here. We know only that, given the chance to know good-and-evil in the Garden (via the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil), Adam disobeyed God and came to his knowledge of evil through a rebellious action.

If Adam had obeyed God and not eaten the fruit, he would have gained just as much knowledge of Good and Evil through the experience… without triggering the Fall and all of its effects.

Review: The Shack

[Spoilers ahead!!]

I’m still scratching my head about the hullabaloo.

To hear people talk, you’d think The Shack was either the Holy Spirit incarnate or Satan Himself reduced to print form and corrupting the minds of American Christians one reader at a time.

I couldn’t escape the Shack discussions … dear friends recommended it highly; church elders dissed it.  I’ve heard it labeled “inspired”…”stupid”….”heretical”…”beautiful”… “insightful”…. “a load of crap.”   With appellations such as these, who could resist? Besides, it’s barely 200 pages.  Easy summer reading.

In a nutshell, I don’t think the book deserves either extreme of praise or disdain. It’s not well-written enough to provoke so much response.


I’m not being high-brow or elitist here; I’m just sayin’….  Young comments his book went through 4 drafts. Apparently none of them included stylistic revisions.  (If he did have an editor, I shudder to think what the firstdraft sounded like.)

Young’s style makes too much of what he doesn’t need to say (dumb details) and fails to pull off the sophistication one expects from great literature.  But I knew going in that this wasn’t a classic read.

Setting style aside, we must accept Young’s premise that he is writing fiction when he describes Mack’s encounter with the members of the Trinity at the location of his daughter’s murder…. the “shack” of the title. (Subtlety is not Young’s strong point.)  That said, Young proceeds to insert long passages of didactic explanations about all things deep and mysterious into the mouths of his Trinitarian characters.

It’s tough enough thinking about sovereignty, the problem of evil, or the hypostatic union of Christ’s human and divine natures without having the waters muddied by Young’s conjectures about such difficult problems of theology.  As Coart says, one ought never to put words in God’s mouth … especially if you have the chutzpah to make God a “character” in your story.  And anybody under the age of 80 who pretends to understand (much less explain) the interactions within the Trinity is smoking some pretty strong pot.

Side note: The book deals specifically with the problem of evil, an issue which all philosophers agree is the most pervasive thorn in the side of biblical Christianity. We are left with an uneasy mystery at best when we try to “explain” how God is entirely good and all-powerful, yet real evil exists in our world and it’s not His fault.  Young’s explanation (like every explanation I’ve ever heard) diminishes one of those three propositions, usually the idea that evil events really are that bad. 

On the positive side, Young provoked my thoughts on the evils of man’s isolationism and independence (that the Fall was a shattering of relationship and community).  He also offers neat insights into forgiveness and the self-centeredness which drives us humans to think we can judge God’s actions in the universe.  The book’s emphasis on a relationship with the God who is Truth offers a needed correction to today’s intellectually-heavy evangelicalism.  We rush into codified truth so fast that we miss the whole point.   His imaginings concerning the Trinity were interesting to consider …. I liked his “Holy Spirit” the best..

But having thought about it for a few days, my initial positive reaction has mellowed to a semi-apathy toward The Shack.

Perhaps if Young had handled his fictional metaphor more skillfully, infusing it with the depth of C S Lewis, the beauty of Tolkien, or the rich symbolism of Umberto Eco, I might be willing to set aside my theological uneasiness in favor of the book as a whole.

Fact is, he didn’t.

And while I was willing to set aside my propositional understandings of theology in order to appreciate his fictional “truth,” the theological sketchiness looms too large in such a badly written, badly-paced, badly-characterized story.

“Story truth” can be more ‘real’ than factual truth, as Tim O’Brien says, but not at the expense of craft and beauty.

Slightly related comments:
This is an amazing post from a Canadian farm wife about learning to respond to “failure” on God’s part.  Read it — you’ll be glad you did. [Edit, 5/20/2013 – this link seems to be dead; maybe this is the post I was referring to?]

If you’ve never read the book The Cry of the Soul, I highly recommend it.
Allender & Longman pick up Young’s theme of God’s desire for a relationship with His children and examine human emotions in that biblical light. Excellent reading.

For a much more beautiful, thought-provoking, and honest wrestle with the problem of evil, read Mary Doria Russell’s two books The Sparrow and Children of God.   Truth and beauty.

let’s poke it again (Problem of Evil)

To continue a point I was working on a few days ago:

1. God is good.
2. God is all-powerful
3. Evil exists.

Every religion must wrestle with “the problem of evil.:” Trying to affirm more than two of these truths at any one time shoves a person into logical impossibility. For Christians, knowing the promises of God doesn’t make the Problem of Evil any less knotty.

Many folks, unwilling to live on the precarious fault between faith and oblivion, solve the dilemma by weakening (or denying) one of the three core truths that cause the problem. Rabbi Neusner’s famous book When Bad Things Happen to Good People claims that God means well but doesn’t really have the power to do anything about the evil in this world.  Open theists suggest that God doesn’t have full knowledge of the future (again, diminishing His omnipotence) — a handy way to allow evil to exist without blaming God for it (as well as a neat way to explain the paradox between free will and sovereignty). Atheists and agnostics just deny both of the first two propositions, and there you go.

Conservative Christians are too well-versed in Scripture to let go of either the idea that God is good or that He is in control (though most of us will admit to doubting one or both when the going gets hard). Instead, I have noticed that “we” are tempted to diminish the full reality and horribleness of tragedy and evil which touch our lives from time to time.

Romans 8:28 has become a BandAid which Christians try to slap onto the gaping wounds caused by real pain or tragedy. I hear people glibly quote promises, Bible verses, or sermon snippets as if simple answers will take care of everything.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not taking aim at people who have hacked their way through the deep undergrowth of life’s trials and come out with a much deeper and stronger faith, one that allows them to minister comfort and assurance to their fellow, struggling siblings in the household of Faith. (See 1 Cor. 1)

But I think that Reformed theology (especially) with its emphasis on logical doctrine and precise systematization of theology pushes folks toward that which is glib. Evil is no longer evil … not really.  Because God *does* work much good out of (or in spite of) the tragedy of life, some people assume therefore that the evil itself is not really all that bad. “It’s just a flesh wound!” they cry to the person whose heart has been ripped to pieces by sorrow and loss.  “Cheer up! Be thankful! Your life could be much worse!” echoes at the miserable soul who finds itself trapped in the dark corridors of the mind and emotions.   We rush so fast to defend God’s honor that we try to soften the blow of reality.

I love the Psalms for many reasons. A few years ago I stumbled across this truth:  The Psalmist almost always ends up at the place of faith and soul-healing, but often after passing through dark and troubled waters. He doesn’t mince words, reduce true evil to an illusion of evil which the knowledge of sovereignty magically wipes away. Many of the Psalms are gritty and honest as the writer lays out his grief before the Lord.

My point?

Simply this:  Think before you speak.  Romans 12 says we should “weep with those who weep” in addition to rejoicing with the joyful.

When you find yourself in a position to minister to someone in trouble, first listen and mourn.

Don’t rush to admonish — the time for your exhortation will eventually come. [I’ve rarely met a conservative evangelical who needed help on that score. *grins*]

Real Grace floods into situations that are full of real Evil. 

We don’t have to play the game on “easy” because we’re afraid Grace will lose.