Each week we’re taking one of modern societies objections to Christianity and talking about it. Today our objection is the big kahuna likely the strongest of them all. And that’s the problem of suffering. If I was to ever let one of these objections pull me away from the Christian faith (which will never happen) – But if it did, it would probably be the problem of suffering.
And I’ve got a lot to get to. We’re not taking communion this morning, just to allow us a little more time. Hope that’s ok with you, we’ll of course pick it back up next week.
I need you to do this with your hands, now this. Ok, now you’re buckled up. (Buckling up motion)
(Stephen Fry Video)
English actor, comedian and writer. – But he’s also a brilliant thinker. And an outspoken critic of faith. And I’m just going to warn you, that if you’re not in any circles where you hear criticism against the Christian faith, this might feel a little painful and uncomfortable to hear this man talk like this. But I think it’s worth a watch.
Objection: If God can’t stop evil and suffering, then he might be all-good but he’s not all-powerful. On the other hand, if God can stop evil and suffering and doesn’t, then he might be all-powerful, but he’s not all-good. Either way, an all-good, all-powerful God doesn’t exist.
Tim Keller – Speaking to families of 9/11 victims. “Talk about suffering and evil” – And you have 7 minutes. – Wow. 7 whole minutes. And he says ‘So like a typical preacher, I took 8 and a half.’
- God is all-good.
- God is all-powerful.
- Evil and suffering exist.
You can only believe 2 of these, not all 3. Or so the objection goes.
- Deny first 2, – Atheism.
- Deny just 1st one – An Evil God
- Deny the 2nd one – A Limited God
- Deny the 3rd one – Pantheism – “There is no evil, everything is good. Everything is God..”
As followers of Jesus our emphasis can never just be “Why does evil and suffering exist?” But also “What can I do to make it better?”
So we’re gonna talk theology for a bit, but we can’t ONLY do that without discussing the responsibility that we all have when it comes to those of us who suffer.
1. Disbelieving in God doesn’t make suffering any easier.
(Don’t worry, this is the only philosophy in this message.)
When we experience horrible suffering, one of the ways we respond to it is by backing away from or even abandoning our belief in God. It’s a completely natural thing to do and lots of people do it. But disbelieving in God doesn’t make suffering any easier. In fact, it makes it harder. Why?
Martin Luther King Jr. – In his letter from Birmingham Jail which is a very famous little document says :
“A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.“ He’s saying that if there was no higher absolute moral law, there would be no way to know whether a particular human law was just or unjust. (Martin Luther King Jr.)
Someone could say “That law is unjust!” – But that’s just according to their standards. And what makes their opinion more important than anybody elses?
Let’s say there is no God. There is no higher moral law – then how can you say anything is unjust? You can’t. If nature is all there is, there’s nothing more natural than violence. Right? Natural selection. The strong eating the weak. Survival of the fittest. So the Holocaust. That was just stronger creatures taking out weaker creatures. It’s perfectly natural.
‘If God did not exist, everything is permitted.’ (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
That’s the truth. You may have a feeling that something is wrong or unjust, but that’s all it is. A feeling. – It’s just like your opinion, man.
So if you’re a Christian, evil and suffering are philosophical problems. I’ll give you that. But if you’re an atheist, evil and suffering are an even bigger philosophical problem because how can you even say anything is wrong or unjust? You can’t.
If there is no higher moral law then nothing’s wrong with the world, everything is exactly as it should be. That’s what you have to look forward to in atheism.
The truth is this: Without an absolute good, there’s no such thing as evil.
There exists no good. Only unrealized evil. (Popular rock band)
What a stupid thing to say. It’s a sentence that cancels itself out. If there is no good how would you know what is and is not evil? Evil in a sense is just the absence of good.
Pot-hole / Donut
Let’s see if this illustration is helpful to you: Evil is like a pothole in the road. A pothole can cause major damage. It can cause you to get into a accident, or break your leg. But a pothole isn’t really a thing, is it? It’s the absence of a thing. It’s just the absence of road. That’s how evil is. Evil is just the absence of good. Another example would be a donut hole. A donut hole is not a thing, it’s an absence of a thing. It’s the absence of donut. Which is evil, to be frank. Anywhere there can be donut and there isn’t donut, that’s just not right.
Philosophy lesson over. Just a simple point to get us started: The absence of God doesn’t make suffering any easier, in fact it makes it harder because without a God, you can’t even say that you’ve been wronged.
2. The Bible clearly depicts God at war with the forces of evil.
Matthew 13:24-30, 37-39
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. (Matthew 13:24)
But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. (Matthew 13:25)
When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. (Matthew 13:26)
“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ (Matthew 13:27)
“ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ (Matthew 13:28)
“ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. (Matthew 13:29)
Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’ ” (Matthew 13:30)
A little later the disciples come up and say “Wha?!”
Jesus explains :
He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. (Matthew 13:37)
Son of man is one of the things Jesus calls himself.
The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, (Matthew 13:38)
and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. (Matthew 13:39)
That’s a pretty amazing parable.
Let’s think about it in it’s simplest terms:
- God brings something good.
- The devil brings something bad and messes up God’s good.
- God says that someday he will make everything right.
This is a clear picture of a world where things happen that oppose what God wants. That’s what Steven Fry’s scathing remarks don’t take into account. That the parasites that make children blind, perhaps those are contrary to what God wants.
The Bible teaches us that God is not the only supernatural force at work.
The Bible describes our enemy, the devil as:
- The god of this age (2 Corinthians 4:4)
- The principality and power of the air (Ephesians 2:2)
- The ruler of this world (John 12:31; 14:32; 16:11)
- The one who controls the entire world (1 John 5:19)
- The one who leads the whole world astray (Revelation 12:9; 18:23)
- The one who holds the power of death (Hebrews 2:14)
“We have to be able to say, “An enemy did this” and stop blaming God for what Satan and demonic powers do. I’m convinced the devil’s most successful trick is this: He comes and sows weeds and then gets people to blame the farmer. He comes and screws up creation so that it’s filled with earthquakes, mudslides, hurricanes, malaria, cancer… and then says ‘Look what the Creator brings!'” (Greg Boyd)
So let’s not fall for it. “An enemy did this.”
“If you do not take the distinction between good and bad very seriously, then it is easy to say that anything you find in this world is a part of God. But, of course, if you think some things really bad, and God really good, then you cannot talk like that. You must believe that God is separate from the world and that some of the things we see in the world are contrary to His will. Confronted with a cancer or a slum the Pantheist can say, ‘If you could only see it from the divine point of view, you would realize that this also is God.’ The Christian replies, ‘Don’t talk damned nonsense.’ For Christianity is a fighting religion. It thinks that God made the world, but a great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made and that he insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again.” (C.S. Lewis)
Jesus was (and is) at war with evil.
… The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. (1 John 3:8)
They’re at war with each other.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10)
Litmus Test – “Hmmm… How do I know where this came from? God or the devil?” “What is it?” “It’s cancer.” “Well does that fall into the life and life to the fullest category or does that fall into stealing, killing, and destroying? – “Uhhh… The second one.” Then it’s the devil not God.
So before we get to point 3, I want to revisit our initial objection:
- God is all-good.
- God is all-powerful.
- Evil and suffering exist.
You can only believe two of these, not all three.
So I’m going to spend the next 5 minutes arguing for this answer: Premise 2 needs to be reinterpreted.
3. God limits his use of power in order to make genuine relationship possible.
It’s not that God doesn’t HAVE the power to do whatever he want. He certainly does. But he’s chosen to LIMIT his power to make genuine relationship possible. You can’t have loving relationship where only one person has decision-making power.
Jordan / Grace — travel. – House myself.
This doesn’t happen often, but occasionally my wife Jordan and daughter Grace will travel somewhere, maybe to see family or go to a conference. And I get the house all to myself. And I behave very differently when I’m the only one in the house.
I eat whatever I want to eat. Want to order a huge pepperoni pizza with extra green chili and eat it breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Go for it. Maybe I’m not gonna eat breakfast, I’m gonna eat at 10, and then 4 and then 10pm. That’s gonna be my 3 meals.
I’m gonna turn the air conditioner down to 60! I wanna play video games all night and turn it up super loud? Go for it. If I wanna turn on super heavy rock music first thing in the morning while I get ready. Go for it. I live as the King of my own little Kingdom. A bachelor can live like that.
But when a bachelor decides to get married. Well then he has to willfully surrender a certain amount of his decision making power to make room for someone else. And now it’s not just the world as I see fit, it’s the world as we together see fit.
Genesis 1 — God – risky.
Well in Genesis chapter 1, we see God doing something very risky.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Genesis 1:26)
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28)
So this is amazing. It’s saying that you’re made not just special, but made like God. In his image. Certainly not a perfect representation. He’s omnipotent, we’re not. He’s omnipresent, we’re not. He’s omniscient, we’re not.
And he tells us to use our God given power to shape the world. And he says from this moment on, what happens on this planet is not just MY business, it’s OUR business together. – And I’m leaving you in charge. Don’t mess this place up. Too late.
The risk of God: “Now that I have created something else in my image, I am choosing to limit my overpowering nature, so that we can co-create the future together. And that’s the rest of the story of the bible.
Where God could do things much more efficiently and cleanly. Certainly with much less evil and suffering, but he choses to limit his overpowering nature so that we can create the world together.
And you can see him limiting himself over and over again. So that he can give humanity another chance to make the right choice that will lead to a better world.
It was a risky thing to do. Because he gave us power to alter not just our own future, but the future of others. And he gave us the power to love him and with that comes the power to NOT love him.
C.S. Lewis talks about how God’s greatest miracle was making creatures that could say no to him.
Robot ‘I love you.’
Let’s say you create a robot, who does nothing goes everywhere with you and just says ‘I love you I love you I love you’ all day. He has no choice. How could you really say that he loves you? You can’t. There is no love without choice.
4. We live in the tension of the Already and the Not-_Yet_
There’s this beautiful greek word in the bible: “Maranatha”. It’s a word that has two meanings. “Our Lord has come.” And “Our Lord is coming.”
And that’s really how we understand the the reign of Jesus Christ in the world. That the kingdom of God has come and is coming. We’re living right now, in a super unique period of time that has never happened before and will never happen again.
Explain: Something can be true while at the same time not fully realized.
(Cut the lights. Ok, now turn them back on.)
Amazing: The room was filled with light when Becky turned on the lights. – He hit the switch, the room was filled with light. Do you agree? Pretty much instantaneous. We’d assume. Actually! There was a period of time from when he hit the switch and when the lights came on.
A few nanoseconds:
- The power to get to the light
- The light to fill the room.
- 186,000 mi/second – Very fast. – Still! It takes time.
There was a time when the lights were ‘on’, but the room wasn’t full of light.
‘Muon’ (Subatomic particle)
Imagine you’re a ‘muon’. A muon this tiny thing created when the UV light from the sun hits our atmosphere, and they only live for a nanosecond. If you a ‘muon’ (small subatomic particle).
Light travels at one foot per nanosecond. So if you were a muon in here, your entire life would be spent watching the light travel one foot from the bulb.
You’d be sitting here watching photons gradually fill this room. But as humans, it just happens instantaneously. God experiences time differently than us.
With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. (2 Peter 3:8)
No I don’t not think that this is some precise measurement by which we can determine when Jesus will return. This is a poetic way of saying that God experiences time differently.
His timeline is much larger than ours. – His story arch is huge!!! Ours is like 100 years. Here’s how it applies: In principle, light has been turned on. We don’t yet see the world full of His light because it hasn’t spread yet.
We live in a time where God has defeated evil, but that reality hasn’t spread to the whole world yet. But it will soon.
- In principle – Christ is ruling over all things. – Don’t see that fully realized in the world.
- In principle – Evil has been defeated. From our Muon perspective it hasn’t happened. There’s still horrible evil that happens every day.
- In principle – All opposition has been defeated. In principle, sin, death and the grave – All been defeated. But that has not been fully realized yet.
This is yet another reason why things happen that are opposed to what God wants. Because his light has spread but we’re still waiting for that truth to be fully realized.
Beautiful miracle OR Someone dies in faith
So when we see a beautiful miracle. Someone who had cancer is now healed. And they’ll get to see their kids grow up. We say “Thank you Lord that you’re kingdom has come.” But then when we see someone who dies in faith, we say “Jesus thank you that in your kingdom, pain and death will be just a distant memory.
5. Our desire to understand evil can never get in the way of our calling to fight against it.
When you see evil, when you see suffering, don’t immediately go to philosophy go to ‘How can I help?;
When you’re not just a bystander, but you’re someone who’s involved in fighting the good fight, then you earn the right to come and ask questions.
Jesus shows us the example of this in John chapter 9:
Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?” (John 9:1-2 (MSG))
So here we have a man who needed help. And what do the disciples do? They turn to Jesus and ask him a philosophical question. “Who sinned? Him or his parents that he’d be born blind?” – Think about that question. BORN blind. BORN. He was BORN BLIND. So the question of “Who sinned, him or his parents?” Is a little comical, because most of us would think that it’s difficult to sin before you’re born. – Well, turns out that’s exactly what they thought. They believed that you could sin in-utero. Not exactly sure how that could work. I don’t think you can smoke cigarettes in there or something. Perhaps he gave his parents the middle finger in the sonogram.
And maybe THAT’S why this man was born blind. So the question, who sinned, him or his parents. Never mind that the man needed help. Never mind that the man could probably hear them talking.
Look at how Jesus responds:
Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. (John 9:3-5)
1st century jews – karma
These first century jews had a very karma-based understanding of the world. They believed if something bad happened to you, it’s because you sinned or possibly your parents sinned and it was a generational curse. So in their mind, suffering is always punishment.
Jesus comes and completely rejects the idea of karma. Now we know that when suffering comes into your life, we cannot assume that it’s because you did something to bring it upon yourself. Of course sometimes you have. But that can never be the base assumption.
So he gives 2 sentences to their theological question then switches to ‘How can I partner with God to bring healing?’ And he goes on and heals the man.
Closing Statement: There’s no denying that in this world there is evil and suffering. But that doesn’t need to be an indictment against an all-good, all-powerful God if you rightly understand how he set the world up. God took an enormous risk by giving a certain amount of his creative power to free-agents on the earth. Beings with the ability to choose and co-create our shared future. He does this to make genuine relationship possible.
As followers of Jesus, we believe that God is always on the side of life. Life to the fullest. Satan is always out to steal, kill, and destroy. And unfortunately, sometimes he succeeds. But the light is spreading. The light will win. And a day is coming where all wrongs will be made right.
Closing question: What is something you can do this week to help the light of Jesus spread through our city?
Maybe it’s something to do with your family or your loved ones. And God would use you to be a light to them. Maybe it’s something at your work. Maybe it’s in this community, where God would lead you to reach out to hurting people. Maybe it’s just as simple as putting on the love of God wherever you go, to be an encouragement and a kindness to the people you come into contact with.
Refusing to be people who see suffering and only ask why, but to be people who see suffering and ask ‘How can I help?’