In this lecture given at Columbia University on September 11, 2012, Dr. John Lennox discusses the problem of evil and suffering.
He admits that it the most difficult question to answer and that there are no simplistic answers. Cancer looks different in the eyes of the oncologist than it does to the patient who has been informed they have only months to live. Evil and suffering must be dealt with on both the intellectual side using reason and the existential side with pastoral care and concern. In the end the pain and suffering we are most concerned with is our own.
When confronted with the problem, we must deal with the “why” question. But this is a right brain question, it cannot be broken down, analyzed and rationalized. Yet answering “why” helps us makes sense of how evil and suffering fits into a worldview and also provides perspective and hope. If my worldiew cannot meet the objections and difficulties, then it is not worth believing.
Some skeptics argue that there is too much suffering, so there can be no God. If we grant that, then the problem evaporates and there is nothing we can call evil and suffering. But does this really solve the problem?
Richard Dawkin’s would have us believe that there is no such thing as right or wrong or justice or evil, that we are just machines for reproducing DNA and we “dance to its music”. But were people like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and other assorted mass murderers and rapists just “dancing to their DNA”? Yet Dawkins is outraged by evil in spite of his philosophy. His outrage presupposes an objective standard and he expects others to agree. If matter/energy is all there is, there is no transcendent, no God, how can there be such a standard? If there is no good and no evil, the concept of morality disappears and moral outrage is absurd.
But we find ourselves to be moral beings, outraged at evil and suffering. The existence of objective moral standards is consistent with the existence of God and very difficult to explain without Him. But the existence of God gives rise to the problem. Isn’t it obvious that God is part of the problem, not the solution? What of all the evil and acts of violence committed by those who call themselves Christians? How do I respond? I am completely and utterly ashamed of it. I am ashamed that the name of Jesus Christ has ever been associated with violence. Those who commit violence in the name of Christ are not obeying Christ, they are disobeying everything he taught.
John Lennon would have us “Imagine” a world with no religion, no heaven, no hell. But John Lennox asks us to “Imagine” a world with no Taliban, no Northern Ireland, no 9/11, no Hitler, no Stalin, no Mao, no Pol Pot.
Then there is the problem of justice – we all feel we deserve to get justice. If atheism is true, then death is the end and there is no ultimate justice. Millions never have and never will get justice. The promised utopia has never come. How can you believe in justice when the vast majority of humanity will never get it? For the Christian, justice will be served, but it is not the justice of an angry God. The only thing that gets God angry is that which destroys life – sin.
But there are those who don’t like a God who judges. Why doesn’t He just stop evil? Well, what if He did, but he starts with you? But you really don’t want Him intervening in your life. We are not just spectators. G.K. Chesterton responded to the question “What is wrong with the world?” in the London Times with the following, “Dear Sir, I am, Yours Faithfully, G.K. Chesterton”. We must recognize that we are part of the problem. So to ask, “If God exists, then why is there evil?” is the wrong question. The correct question is “If God exists, then why does He tolerate me?”
God could have created us without the capacity for moral evil. Yet He has created creatures without that capacity, we call them animals. We have created things without that capacity, we call them robots. (A side note, for an interesting exploration of this, see Star Trek the Next Generation episode “In Theory”) God created us with free will and the ability to choose and in doing that God took a risk.
This doesn’t apply to natural evil. Earthquakes are the result of techtonic plate activity. But that is essential to life. It becomes an evil to us when we build inadequate structures in areas susceptible to them. Could God have made electricity that doesn’t electrocute? Fire that doesn’t burn? A world that can sustain life without techtonic plate activity, hurricanes, bacteria, . . .? What about other “earthquakes”, like heart attacks, cancer, etc.?
Dr. Lennox and I admit that we have no ultimate answer.
Then there is another question: We see glimpses of the good and beautiful even in tragedies, but what of the preventable evil and suffering? We can argue about what a good God could, would, should or might have done. If we grant the world is like this, with good and evil, pain and beauty, hatred and love, is there any evidence anywhere that there is a God who can be trusted with it? Has God made provision big enough with the fact that humans have gone their own way?
This brings us back to justice. There must be a judgment, and I will have to face it. Atheism has no way out. But how does Christianity face it? At the cross – the heart of Christianity. If Jesus is God, and He was crucified for that claim, then what is God doing on a cross? The answer to this question is the most profound answer of all – God suffered with us. He has not remained distant but He has become a part of it. He suffered for me, who made a mess of my own life. There are some who cannot live with the mess, they have no way out, there is no meaning, so they commit suicide. But there is a way out, a source of meaning. The death of Christ is not the end, He rose from the dead. If I could see what God has done with those who have suffered, instead of questioning, I’d probably bow my head and worship. God knows how to compensate.
To watch the video of this lecture, go here.
That you may know, Roger