This last week we have been talking about the problem of evil in class. It’s a short unit, but you’d like to think it’s something that will come back around (the discussion, not the evil) throughout a lifetime. Attempting to reconcile good and evil is a difficult thing (unless you over-simplify it). And that is particularly true for Christians.
Earlier this year, Ephraim Radner was interviewed by the Anglican Journal, primarily about his understanding of the Covid crisis. He had published a piece or two that had gotten some attention and that demanded follow-up. (He has since written another one, a piece that I’ve been thinking about for a few weeks now and hope to write about in the next week). One thing I appreciate greatly about Radner is his sense of the span of a human life along with the need to ask difficult questions.
The question of God’s goodness in such circumstances is at the heart of the conversation for most people, of course. As we learn in class, God’ goodness and omnipotence are most called into question because of evil. And the church often doesn’t know how to talk about it. From the interview:
Yes, the issue isn’t that people before our era didn’t think God was good. They thought that God was good, but they understood goodness differently. You know, Hebrews 12 has this thing about God punishes those whom he loves. Chastises. And that’s suffering, and that’s how you learn. [God is] like a parent, and so on. That whole framework is not one which is acceptable any longer, by and large. And so we don’t have a way of thinking about God’s goodness that can comprehend our own suffering as God-ordered.
I’m not denying that there are all kinds of problems with thinking these ways, you know—God’s justice, and so on. It is complicated, but in the past, by and large, that wasn’t the issue.
Why did it become an issue now? These problems, which are real—”How can we have a good God who also has us suffer and thinks that’s good?” and, “Why didn’t he make things better so we didn’t have to suffer?”—People began to ask those questions in the 17th, 18th centuries, not before, and by and large most people didn’t ask those questions. Now, everybody asks those questions.
And believers, by and large, don’t want to ask those questions—that’s why they’re believers. I’m talking about our current day. You know, plenty of skeptics and atheists and agnostics are willing to realize the complicated problematic character of God’s goodness as we project it out of ourselves onto God. By and large believers don’t want to do that, because they’re holding onto a rather small way, as you put it, of understanding goodness that fits certain cultural patterns and so on. I mean we are a culture that believes—[Canadian philosopher] Charles Taylor wrote this—that the moral goal is to alleviate all suffering as far as possible. We don’t necessarily act that way, but that’s our ethic as a culture. There’s nothing in the Bible about alleviating all suffering as far as possible.
And then concerning Jesus, who represents the divine response to the problem of evil:
He chose to suffer. I lay down my life—nobody takes it from me—and you’re going to have to do the same. That wouldn’t have surprised many people, because everybody knew they had to suffer, but as you said, the fact that one could sort of deify that reality—give it over to the all-good, all-powerful God, was shocking, and it remains shocking to that extent. It’s not an obvious concept. But it’s always been at the centre of the gospel. My point is that COVID now has unveiled the fact that we haven’t, I don’t think, done a very good job of holding on to that at all. I’m talking about within the churches.
There’s more to it than that, of course. It’s an interview well worth your time.