Posts Tagged ‘theodicy’

A defense of prayer in the wake of the Sutherland Springs massacre

November 7, 2017

I have exactly zero interest in wading into the politics of gun control and Second Amendment rights in America. This blog is not about politics. I recognize, however, that politics is at least the subtext of complaints on social media about the ineffectiveness of prayer in the wake of last Sunday’s massacre of 28 worshipers at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. Many politicians, including President Trump, urged Americans to pray for victims and their families.

In response, many critics said, in so many words, “These people were already praying! They were in church, after all. Fat lot of good it did them! We don’t need more prayer. We need action“–and, of course, the nature of this action is precisely what divides people on the left and right (which, again, I’m not talking about in this post or the comments section).

Actor and comedian Michael McKean, in one typical example, tweeted the following (which he has since been deleted):

His words, “They had the prayers shot right out of them,” were perceived by many as insensitive. He later clarified:

By “hypocrisy,” he likely means politicians who fail to do anything other than pray when it comes to dealing with mass shootings in America.

Regardless, one message from tweets such as this is, “Prayer doesn’t work. God’s not going to do anything. Let’s do something constructive instead.” Even an otherwise well-written, and heartbreaking, article in the New York Times on victims of the shooting included this headline:

Do you hear the message? “Even for people who were in church praying last Sunday, prayer doesn’t work.” Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 10-29-17: “Christ Alone, Part 2”

November 2, 2017

This is the second of two sermons on this passage from Hebrews 2, and the final sermon in my “Reformation 500” series. Among other things the author of Hebrews says that on the cross, Jesus “destroye[d] the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” How is this true, especially since Satan remains alive and active in our world? How did Christ win a victory for us?

Sermon Text: Hebrews 2:5-18

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Think back with me to the Exodus, when God delivered his people Israel out of bondage in Egypt. If you’ll recall, he sent a series of ten plagues as punishment against Egypt, until finally the Pharaoh relented and let Israel go free. And then the Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his armies after the Israelites, before being drowned in the Red Sea. But the climactic and most destructive plague—you may remember—was the Passover. Remember? The Lord told the Israelites in Exodus 12 to take the blood of a lamb, without blemish, and sprinkle the blood on their doorposts. An angel would then pass through the land and kill the firstborn son of every household that didn’t have blood on the doorposts—which would mean many, many Egyptians would die. And of course, this final plague was so effective that the Pharaoh let them go… at least at first.

When we read or hear about this event, we think of God’s anger toward and judgment against Egypt. Right? “The Egyptians are getting what they deserve for their sins! God is punishing them!” But not so fast… If the Passover were all about God’s anger toward and judgment on Egypt—if it were all about punishing Egypt for their sins—why would God bother having the Israelites sprinkle this blood? Couldn’t he just have sent the angel through the land and killed all the firstborn Egyptian sons? Why did the Israelites have to do anything? They were the good guys, right? They were the heroes! They were the innocent victims!

Right?

Wrong… It’s clear that if the Israelites hadn’t obeyed God and sprinkled the blood on the doorposts, they would have fallen under the same judgment as Egypt. Their firstborn children would have died as well. To be sure, God was incredibly merciful and gracious to give Israel the opportunity to be spared this judgment. But in sparing them God was not giving them what they deserved. Like the Egyptians, they too deserved death because of their sins. And their lives were only spared by the blood of the lamb. Their deliverance from slavery and death was made possible through an act of God’s grace by the blood of the lamb.

And it should be clear to us Christians why God did it this way: to point to that future sacrifice, when God himself, in the person of his Son Jesus, would shed his own blood to spare us from God’s judgment. The prophet Isaiah, in Isaiah 53, looks forward to Jesus’ sacrifice when he says that Christ was “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.”[1] John the Baptist looks forward to Jesus’ sacrifice when he sees Jesus coming in John chapter 1 and says to his own disciples, “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus looks forward to this sacrifice when he has the Last Supper with his disciples—which was a Passover meal—and he says, “This is my body and this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”[2] Jesus is telling the disciples that he will be the Passover lamb.

The Bible’s message is crystal clear: If God is going to forgive us, justify us, save us, deliver us, liberate us, give us eternal life, give us abundant life—however you want to phrase it—he is first going to have to deal with our sins by offering the bloody sacrifice of the lamb of God, Jesus Christ. On the cross, Christ absorbed God’s wrath—God’s justifiable anger—toward sin.

I talked about God’s wrath two weeks ago in my sermon two weeks ago, but I realize that some of us don’t even want to consider the idea that God has wrath toward humanity because of our sins. But what’s the alternative? Some will say, “God is love. So why would he be angry at us because of our sin?” But of course, he wouldn’t be loving if he weren’t angry. N.T. Wright makes this point in the following way:

The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates—yes, hates, and hates implacably—anything that spoils, defaces, distorts or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation… the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.[3]

But… if God is going to “root out” all this evil, well… he’s going to have root us out as well! What does the psalmist say? “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”[4] And the answer? None of us!

But please, please, please don’t miss this: While it’s absolutely true that every one of us who’ve ever lived—with one exception—deserve God’s judgment and God’s wrath because we’re sinners, in the same breath we also say that God so loved the world—including us—that he planned before the foundation of the world to save us from God’s judgment and God’s wrath. We know just how loving God is by his willingness to come to us, in the flesh, and absorb his Father’s wrath, suffer the penalty for our sin, and suffer hell on the cross! For us! As the Bible says, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[5]

Now I want to look at two things that the author of Hebrews says Christ accomplished for us on the cross: First, verses 14 and 15, through his death he destroyed “the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver[ed] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” And in verse 17, he became our “faithful high priest” who made “propitiation for the sins of the people.” I talked about “propitiation” in Part 1 of this sermon: this is what Christ did to turn away God’s wrath from us—sprinkling the blood of the lamb on the doorposts during Passover, for example, was propitiation.

But the author of Hebrews wants us to know that these two events—the defeat of Satan and the turning away of God’s wrath—are related. How?

For one thing, as we look around the world and scan the news headlines, it seems clear that Satan is alive and active in the world. And, as I’ve preached before, the Bible is clear that the devil has real power in the world. God’s Word says that in the beginning, Satan was an angel, created by God with free will, who chose to use his freedom to rebel against God—along with other angels. And like us, Satan can use this freedom to work great harm in the world. He has a limited power, to be sure—Satan can’t do anything in the world that God doesn’t permit him to do. And whatever Satan does, God can transform it into something good. But he does have real power to affect our world and our lives within it.

I was listening to an interview recently with Alvin Plantinga. He’s a world-renown philosopher who’s argued persuasively for God’s existence and the truth of Christianity. Plantinga has taught at Notre Dame and Calvin College. He also happens to be an evangelical Christian. And just this year, he won the Templeton Prize, which is awarded to the person who’s made the greatest contribution in the area of religion and spirituality—Mother Teresa, for example, was a previous winner of the Templeton Prize. The award is presented by Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace. And the cash award is over $1.5 million. It’s a big deal!

But I was listening recently to an interview with Dr. Plantinga. And he was talking about the “problem of evil,” and how a good and loving God could allow it. And he talked about how important it was for God to give us free will, which helps explain human evil. But then the interviewer asked about so-called “natural evil”—hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and the like. Or what about diseases like cancer. Why would a good and loving God allow those things? And Dr. Plantinga said, “I know this isn’t a popular answer today, but I believe those kinds of events happen in part through the power and influence of Satan.”[6]

That blew me away! But then I looked back at Job chapters 1 and 2: Satan literally has the power to affect the weather and cause all kinds of disease and pestilence. It’s right there in the Bible!

But as bad as these things are, they’re not nearly the most harmful weapon in Satan’s arsenal. What does Jesus say? “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”[7] No disease, no pestilence, no natural disaster has the power to cause any of us ultimate harm: Because none of these things—even if they kill us—has the power to send us to hell. Only one thing can do that: our sin. And Satan is at work in the world right now doing everything he can to keep us enslaved to sin; keep us from repenting of sin; keep us from trusting in Christ and being saved. Or, if we’ve possessed saving faith in the past, he’s tempting us right now to abandon our faith.

Satan’s power to tempt us is the most destructive weapon in his arsenal. And he’s still wielding that weapon. So how is that Christ’s death has destroyed “the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,” as verse 14 says?

Because of what the author of Hebrews says in verse 17: Christ became our “merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Through Christ’s sacrifice—offered once for all time—all of our sins, past, present, and future, have been taken away.

At Bible study last Wednesday, we were talking about the pervasiveness of sin in our lives—even after we’ve become Christians. We talked about the importance of repenting of our sins as we become aware of them. As the apostle John says, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”[8] And someone asked, “What if, despite our best efforts to confess our sins and repent, we die with unconfessed sin? Will we still be forgiven? Will we still be saved?”

What do you think? How would you answer that question?

Before we answer that question, consider this: we can’t begin to know all the sins we’ve committed in this life—even the sins we’ve committed this morning! Even in church! We’re not just talking about the things we do. We sin with every judgmental thought; we sin with every lustful thought; we sin with every prideful thought. We sin when we lose our temper. We sin when we lose our patience. We sin every time we fail to trust in the Lord with all our heart and lean not on our own understanding. We sin when our love for God and neighbor isn’t one-hundred percent pure! How often do we manage to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourself? Not often.

So… will we die with unconfessed sin? Of course we will. Will we still be forgiven?

The answer is a resounding yes! We will be forgiven, so long as we continue to trust in Christ!

How do I know? Because Christ our high priest has made propitiation for the sins of his people—all of our sins—past, present, and future! The Old Testament has a sacrificial system in which priests offered the blood of bulls and goats, but the author of Hebrews tells us that these sacrifices were just a “shadow of the good things to come… For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”[9] But Christ’s sacrifice was different: as the author says in chapter 10, verse 10, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”[10]

Once for all! Did you hear that?

I’ve told you before that I was adopted. I always knew, from my earliest memory, that I was adopted. So I never thought much about it. Until around fourth grade when some of my classmates found out. And let’s just say back then schools were not a “Bully Free Zone.” As far as we knew, when you were bullied, you fought back. And so I did. I got in a fistfight. I got sent to the principal. And my parents got involved, and suddenly the fact that I was adopted became a very big deal!

And my parents wanted me to know that I was one-hundred percent a full-fledged member of their family. In fact, they said I was extra special because, after all, unlike a natural born baby, I was chosen. They “chose” me. I’ll be honest: even as a ten-year-old I didn’t quite believe I was chosen: I didn’t imagine that they rolled out a bunch of basinets in the maternity ward at the hospital and told my parents, “Take your pick.” I figured my parents would have been happy with any baby they got. But still… I got their point.

I was a one-hundred percent, full-fledged member of the family. In a sense, I was chosen. And everything that belonged to my parents and my older sister Susan, who wasn’t adopted, now belonged to me: including their name and everything else. And one thing is for sure: my adoptive parents would have sacrificed their lives for me if they had to—just as I would for my own children.

The same is true of the One who adopted us and made us part of his family. Look at verse 11 of today’s scripture: “For he who sanctifies”—that is, Jesus—“and those who are sanctified”—that is, those of us who’ve accepted Christ as our Savior and Lord—“all have one source”—or as the NIV and other translations put it, we all have the same Father. Now listen to this: “That is why he”—Jesus—“is not ashamed to call them brothers” and sisters.

Everything that belongs to our big brother Jesus now belongs to us—including his very righteousness. It’s not that we Christians don’t sin, but from God’s perspective, we are as holy as his Son Jesus.

So… what can Satan do to us now? He can accuse us. His name means “Accuser,” after all. He can say, “When you die, God’s not going to save you. Look at all these sins you’ve committed!” He can remind you, again and again, of your past sins and try to make you afraid of meeting God in Final Judgment after death. But if you’re in Christ, you’re in his family now. And your adoption papers are signed in the blood of the Lamb.

So Satan’s power over you is destroyed. Amen?

How do we not sin in heaven?

November 1, 2017

In Christian apologetics, one pressing question is theodicy: How do we reconcile God’s love and goodness with the existence of evil? One important part of the answer to this question, for most apologists, is free will: just as Adam and Eve were free to break God’s law and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so we are free to choose evil over good. And we do. Often.

Who could argue that the vast majority of evil in the world isn’t man-made?

But “free will” isn’t close to telling the whole story of evil in the world. For one thing, our free will is itself so corrupted by sin—into which and with which we’re born—that choosing not to sin is impossible. Left to our own devices, apart from grace, our will is in bondage. This is why, for example, we Wesleyan-Arminians speak of God’s “prevenient” grace: we need the work of the Holy Spirit to enable us to make a free choice to accept Christ as Savior and Lord. This choice, we believe, isn’t determined by God but is made possible by God. Before we can be saved, in other words, our will has to be set free.

Despite how some Calvinist opponents of Arminianism frame it, we don’t advocate for “free will” so much as freed will. There’s a world of difference between the two.

Still, I recognize that “free will” arguments would not be persuasive to any Calvinist who holds his convictions with perfect consistency. This post isn’t for them, unless they believe, as I do, that we will possess free will in heaven.

But how could we, since heaven is a place without sin? If we can’t be free on earth without sinning, how can we be free in heaven without sinning? In this world, after all, sin seems unavoidable. How will it not be in the next? If we sin in heaven, how can we remain in heaven? On the other hand, if God prevents sin in heaven by overriding our free will, why didn’t he do this on earth—and spare us all the pain and suffering?

Do you see the problem? Many skeptics do.

Clay Jones answers these questions in his book Why Does God Allow Evil? In fact, Dr. Jones argues that one important reason for evil in this world is to teach us the folly of sin. Every time we sin—and suffer its consequences—we are learning how stupid sin is. (“Stupid” is his word.) I can gladly testify that this experience is an effective teacher!

But there are many other reasons that we won’t sin. First, our bodies will be perfect, and we’ll all—equally—have everything we need. How much of our greed, lust, anger, and envy come from a sense that we don’t possess what we need—and that someone else does? Imagine perfect satisfaction and perfect contentment in Christ for all eternity. As Jones writes,

In Kingdom Come, there won’t be any forbidden fruit. Presumably we will be able to eat as much as we desire—we won’t get fat as we’ll have spiritual bodies like Jesus had—and there will be no lack so there won’t be a fight over the last chunk of chocolate cake. In Kingdom Come the lust of the eyes won’t be an issue either, because we are all inheriting the kingdom. As Jesus said in Luke 12:32, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” He’s not just letting us visit the kingdom—which would be awesome in itself—He’s giving the kingdom to us. It’s not like some of us will have beachfront property while others are stuck in a slum. Mark Twain’s advice, “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore,” will be irrelevant. All of us will be coheirs in the kingdom.[1]

We’ll also be free from the destructive influence of Satan and rebellious humans. It’s hard to underrate how important their influence is in our choosing to sin:

Consider that many, if not most, of the temptations to sin come from sinful humans acting out their sinfulness. Adultery and fornication take at least two people, after all. Also, someone has to pose for porn, someone else takes the pictures, someone else distributes them, and so on. People produce media that makes us lust after people, positions, possessions, and pleasures, and they cause us to have wrong views about that which really matters. In the kingdom, we won’t have to respond to lies or to gossip or to the seducer. They will be no more.[2]

Jones even argues that the ongoing existence of hell will be a sober reminder of the “folly of rebellion.”

There’s more: just as our experience with evil in this world teaches us not to sin, our experience in Final Judgment will do the same:

What we didn’t learn about the horror of sin in this life will be declared to everyone at the judgment. Every evil intent and rank rebellion, even those cloaked with goodness will be exposed for exactly what it is to all the redeemed and angels. They will be unmistakable because the judgment will reveal them for what they really are.

But this education isn’t limited to God’s judgment of us, but our judgment of others. As Jones explains,

In 1 Corinthians 6:2-3, we learn that Christians will judge men and angels, so it isn’t as if we won’t have to attend the judgment of other beings, whether angelic or human. We’ll not only be attending, we’ll be participating in the entire judgment. And what information will come out at the judgment? Everything. Jesus said in Matthew 12:36 that “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” Not only will intentionally hurtful words be judged, but even careless words.[3]

Of course, from scripture such as Romans 2:16, 1 Corinthians 4:5, Hebrews 4:13, and Revelation 20:11-15, secret and hidden sins will also be disclosed and judged. Jones even estimates that the judgment of everyone who ever lived will take hundreds of thousands of years—so there’s a lot of time for education! While estimating time in this manner seems highly speculative, his point is a good one: We will have ample opportunities to learn about the folly of sin.

Finally, what Jones refers to as “epistemic distance between us and God” will be eliminated.[4] Faith will become sight. “We will know fully, even as we are fully known.”

With all of this in mind, Jones argues, the temptation to sin in heaven will seem as appealing as stabbing a pen in your eye. There is no scenario I can imagine in which I would ever be tempted to do that. Can you imagine temptation to sin being as resistible as that? We can look forward to that day!

1. Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2017), 147-8.

2. Ibid., 149

3. Ibid., 153.

4. Ibid., 155-6.

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 6)

October 18, 2017

Pastor and theologian Greg Boyd is no fan of John Piper!

(Click the following to see previous posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4Part 5.)

Eight days after the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis, pastor and theologian Greg Boyd responded to John Piper’s blog post on the subject, which Piper wrote the same evening as the disaster. I don’t know whether Boyd self-identifies as an Arminian; I know that some of his critics have identified him as such. But for some of these critics, unfortunately, “Arminian” has come to mean “non-Calvinist Protestant,” rather than an adherent to a robust Christian theological tradition.

One thing I know for sure is that Boyd is an “open theist.” This means that from Boyd’s perspective, God has limited himself to operating within our current time. Therefore, the future is unknown and unknowable to him: God can only know what might happen at any moment. I wrote the following in my original post in this series:

Does this mean that God is less than omniscient? Does God not know everything, as Christian theology has always maintained? Not all, the open theist would say. God does know everything—at least everything there is to be known—all knowable facts. Since the future hasn’t happened yet, however, any future event is not a knowable fact. Therefore, that God doesn’t know the future doesn’t compromise his omniscience.

Therefore, when bridges collapse and people die, this surprises God as much as everyone else. The open-theist apologist would then say, “Of course God hates this evil and suffering, but what could he do about it? His hands are tied!” [Or maybe I should say, “He’s tied his hands!” assuming God has limited himself to our time.]

Of course, this raises a question: Why is God, who knows all facts—including whether or not a bridge is properly designed, the tensile strength holding a bridge together, and the the external forces working against it—unable to anticipate the collapse of a bridge?

Or if God can anticipate a bridge’s collapse—not even by knowing the future but by knowing all pertinent facts about the bridge—yet does nothing to prevent it, how does open theism solve the problem for which it was apparently made to order?

My point above is this: as a defense of God’s goodness, open theism, in addition to being heterodox, is a non-starter. Even if God doesn’t know the future for certain, he would be better able to at least predict the future, based on his perfect comprehension of all contingent events happening at any given moment, such that he could still intervene to prevent disaster from striking—assuming he wants to. And I don’t think Boyd denies that God could miraculously intervene once disaster strikes. Therefore, if God—who has perfect knowledge of all contingent events at every moment and the power to work miracles—doesn’t want to stop a disaster, we still have to ask why.

And we’re right back where we started: Why does God allow evil and suffering? What would be Boyd’s defense of God’s goodness in this case?

One thing is for sure: He did not like John Piper’s blog post on the 35W bridge disaster. In this post, I want to begin analyzing what Boyd wrote.

Boyd begins by summarizing Piper’s post (not referring to Piper by name—why? They were in the same city! Everyone knew whom he was talking about!), concluding his summary with the following:

This pastor interprets Jesus to be saying that “everyone deserves to die,” for “all of us have sinned against God.” And this, he insists, is “the meaning of the collapse of this bridge…”

What is more, this pastor argues that catastrophes like this one are God’s “most merciful message,” since they mean there’s “still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction.” For this reason, the message of the collapsed bridge is “the most precious message in the world.”

This is a perfectly fair summary of Piper’s interpretation of Luke 13:1-5. (As I said earlier in this series, I agree with Piper’s interpretation as well.) But he goes on to say that Piper’s teaching “honestly concerns [him]”:

First, his interpretation of Luke 13:1-5 assumes that God was somehow involved in Pilate’s massacre and the falling tower of Siloam. He thinks Jesus was teaching that the ultimate reason the Galileans were massacred and the tower fell on people was because “everyone deserves to die,” and Jesus was simply saying to his audience; “You’re as guilty as they are, and you’ll die too if you don’t repent.”

I would agree with Boyd that, apart from the rest of scripture, Luke 13:1-5 neither implies that God was involved nor uninvolved in these tragedies. But the question of what this passage “assumes” is different: If we believe that Jesus assumes that the Bible is a truthful record of God’s revelation to us, then it’s fair to say that Luke 13:1-5 assumes that God was “somehow” involved.

Was God “somehow” involved in the tragic events that befell Joseph in the final story arc of Genesis? Of course! Although God’s involvement wasn’t apparent until Joseph’s retrospective theological reflection on those events in Genesis 50:20: “As for you [Joseph’s brothers], you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”

Was God “somehow” involved in the tragic events that befell Job? Of course! Satan initiates these events, but only with God’s explicit permission. I emphasize this fact because Boyd appeals to the freedom and power that demonic forces have to work evil in the world. Indeed, these forces are free, and they do have power. It is likely, given the constrained amount of power that God allows Satan to have in this world, that these evil forces played an important role in the bridge’s collapse. By all means!

But given the precedent of Job 1 and 2, Satan doesn’t work this evil without God’s permission.

In the New Testament, we see this same dynamic at work in Paul’s discussion of his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12: the thorn was both a “messenger from Satan” sent to torment Paul and a gift from God to keep Paul from “becoming conceited” (v. 7). So it’s not either God or Satan; it’s both/and. Satan can do nothing apart from God’s providential permission.

For a theologian of Boyd’s stature, this should be baby talk. He should know—as classic Christian theology has always maintained—that God sustains everything into existence at every moment. No creature, no matter how free, lives independently of God. So God is necessarily involved in everything that (even) free creatures do. But even more, the Bible promises that God is working through “all things” for the sake of his children and his redemptive purposes (Romans 8:28).

Tim Keller, perhaps quoting someone else, called God “the great Alchemist”: only God has the power to transform evil into good. If he can transform the worst evil the world has ever seen (the cross of his Son Jesus) into the greatest good the world has ever seen (the salvation of all who believe in Christ), then he can surely transform all lesser evils, including the 35W bridge disaster.

Let’s look at the next sentence in Boyd’s post:

He thinks Jesus was teaching that the ultimate reason the Galileans were massacred and the tower fell on people was because “everyone deserves to die,” and Jesus was simply saying to his audience; “You’re as guilty as they are, and you’ll die too if you don’t repent.”

Here Boyd gets off track: He conflates God’s “message” embedded within a tragedy with the “ultimate reason” for the tragedy itself. They’re not identical, unless God’s sole purpose in allowing a tragedy is to communicate a message. In the case of the 35W bridge tragedy, we can infer that Piper believes that God let the bridge fall for many reasons, only one of which was to communicate a message about repentance:

Talitha said, “Maybe he let it fall because he wanted all the people of Minneapolis to fear him.” “Yes, Talitha,” I said, “I am sure that is one of the reasons God let the bridge fall.”

“I am sure that is one of the reasons.”

Given these words, it’s clear Piper distinguishes “reasons” for a tragedy from the “message” communicated through it, and that he believes that there are many reasons. Even if God were communicating only one message through the 35W disaster, he’s still allowing it for many reasons.

Boyd continues:

In fact, if you read on five more verses, you come upon another catastrophe Jesus confronted: a woman who had been deformed for 18 years. Rather than assuming that God was somehow involved in this deformity, Jesus says this woman was bound by Satan (13:16). He then manifested God’s will by healing her.

See my words above about Job and Paul, both of whom suffered physical illnesses in which God is explicitly involved, alongside Satan. He continues:

This is what we find throughout the Gospels. They uniformly identify infirmities (sickness, disease, deformities, disabilities) as being directly or indirectly the result not of God’s punishing activity, but of Satan’s oppressive activity.

Even this isn’t true. What about the healing of the man born blind in John 9? Here are verses 1-3:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.

Clearly, the gospels do not “uniformly” identify infirmities as being “directly or indirectly” the result of Satan’s “oppressive activity” rather than God’s activity—since this man was born blind so that “the works of God might be displayed in him.” Surely Boyd wouldn’t argue that Satan wanted God’s works to be displayed in the blind man! While these verses don’t rule out that Satan’s oppressive power is also at work, Jesus himself doesn’t go that far: we only know that God is the ultimate cause of the man’s blindness. Either way, Boyd has misrepresented the gospels.

I’ll continue to look at the Boyd post next time.

Sermon 10-08-17: “God and Tragedies”

October 12, 2017

I preached the following sermon one week after the tragic events in Las Vegas, in which a gunman killed at least 58 people. How do we make sense of this kind of evil and suffering light of our Christian faith? Jesus shows us how.

Sermon Text: Luke 13:1-9

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A couple of days ago, Gary Chitwood nearly electrocuted himself—through no fault of his own—so what I’m about to say may hit too close to home for him. I don’t mean to be insensitive.

But back in the early-’60s, a psychologist from Yale named Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments involving shock treatment—or at least that’s what his test subjects thought. Back then, the world was still recovering from the evil of Hitler and the Nazis, and the purpose of Milgram’s experiment was to see just what kind of person would commit the atrocities carried out by Nazi Germany—what kind of person would participate in genocide—and under what circumstances.

So, in this experiment, Milgram told his test subjects that he was conducting an experiment related to learning. A “student” was in the other room, strapped to a chair, with electrodes attached to him. The test subjects, meanwhile, were told that they were to be the “teacher.” The person in the other room was asked specific questions, and every time he got an answer wrong, the so-called “teacher,” the test subject, was supposed to administer a shock to the person. The test subject had in front of him a shock generator with thirty switches labeled from 15 volts to 450 volts—with words ranging from “Slight Shock” to “Danger—Severe Shock.” The 450V switch was simply labeled “XXX.” Read the rest of this entry »

Why isn’t God’s presence more obvious?

October 6, 2017

In light of this week’s tragedy in Las Vegas, I’m preaching a one-shot sermon this Sunday called “Where Is God in the Midst of Tragedies.” My text is Luke 13:1-9. In my view, this scripture is Jesus’ most important word on evil and suffering. At the very least, it speaks directly to modern objections to God’s existence based on the “moral problem” of evil. I preached what I’m sure was a theologically and biblically inadequate sermon on this text back in 2010. I’m almost afraid to re-read it now!

Still, in preparation for Sunday’s sermon, I’m currently reading Clay Jones’s Why Does God Allow Evil. Among other things, he expands on ideas he debated on an outstanding Unbelievable? podcast in 2015. I admire the forcefulness and clarity with which he approaches a subject that most of us only approach with great caution. Perhaps he’s fearless because, as he says in the book’s introduction, when we understand who we are as sinful human beings, the so-called “problem of evil” vanishes. After all, no one asks, “Why do bad things happen to bad people?”

I don’t disagree with him.

In fact, I’ve been blogging for a while about how ill-equipped most contemporary Methodists are in dealing with questions of human or natural evil. Remember this official UMC article on the recent hurricanes? Most Methodist thinkers say something inadequate like, “We don’t know why there’s evil, but God is with us!”

Regardless, one nagging apologetic concern I have struggled with more recently is the apparent “hiddenness” of God. Why does God not make his presence more obvious to people whom he otherwise wants to save?

Dr. Jones tackles this question nicely:

If God wants us to be significantly free (know the kind of freedom we now possess), then God can’t make His presence too apparent; He can’t make His presence too “saturated.” His presence in the world is not smothering, like an overbearing parent. He is not an ever-present “helicopter God” (philosophers call this epistemic distance or divine hiddenness). This is so because if God’s existence were at every moment absolutely unmistakable, then many people would abstain from desires that they might otherwise indulge. As C.S. Lewis put it, “there must perhaps always be just enough lack of demonstrative certainty to make free choice possible: for what could we do but accept if the faith were like the multiplication table?” In other words, if Christianity were unmistakably true, then people would have less free will and they would be compelled to feign loyalty. For example, I’ve asked guys, “If you were getting up to speak at a podium, and there were cameras on you, and an audience watching you, and if there were a pornographic magazine on the podium, would you open it or even look down at the cover?” Of course the answer is always no. Why? Because they know that everyone is watching them! Similarly, God could make His presence and His power so evident that everyone would always do the right thing—whether they wanted to or not. But that would interfere with our acting freely.[†]

What would be wrong if the truth of God and his gospel were as obvious to us as the multiplication table? After all, we would know that God exists. We would know that the doctrines of Christianity are true. We would, in a sense, “believe in” Jesus.

But this wouldn’t be true faith. As I said in my recent sermon, “Dead Faith Can’t Save Us,” genuine faith is not merely knowing facts about God; it’s not agreeing to a set of propositions. It’s also entrusting ourselves to God—out of love for him and gratitude to him. It’s being loyal to him. Without this “epistemic distance,” as Jones says, we would “feign loyalty.” True faith may never take root and grow.

So without God’s “hiddenness,” the vast majority of people would believe in God, but they wouldn’t have faith in God. There’s a big difference!

Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2017), 112.

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 4)

September 18, 2017

This is Part 4 in a series of posts. Click here to read previous posts.

I’ve been arguing on my blog for years that we Methodists are not, in general, well-equipped, theologically, to deal with tragic events—such as the recent hurricanes that ravaged the east coast of Texas, the Caribbean islands, and Florida over the past few weeks.

Case in point: Read this article from last week entitled, “Ask the UMC: How do United Methodists understand human suffering from natural disaster?

(What an ambitious title, by the way! Did we convene a General Conference without my knowing it, so that this author—whoever it is—could speak on behalf of the entire church?)

Needless to say, no one asked yours truly—a United Methodist—how I understand human suffering from natural disaster. I find this article deeply—though typically—insufficient.

The author quotes a John Wesley sermon called “The Promise of Understanding”:

[W]e cannot say why God suffered evil to have a place in his creation; why he, who is so infinitely good himself, who made all things ‘very good,’ and who rejoices in the good of all his creatures, permitted what is so entirely contrary to his own nature, and so destructive of his noblest works. ‘Why are sin and its attendant pain in the world?’ has been a question ever since the world began; and the world will probably end before human understandings have answered it with any certainty” (section 2.1).

By way of interpretation, the author writes the following:

While Wesley admits we cannot know the complete answer, he clearly states that suffering does not come from God. God is “infinitely good,” Wesley writes, “made all things good,” and “rejoices in the good of all his creatures.”

Our good God does not send suffering. According to Wesley, it is “entirely contrary to [God’s] own nature, and so destructive of his noblest works.” Suffering is not punishment for sin or a judgment from God. We suffer, and the world suffers, because we are human and part of a system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.

Let me begin by saying—and I mean this as respectfully as possible—”Ultimately, who cares what Wesley said?” The Rev. Wesley himself, a convinced Protestant, would likely appreciate my saying this. We are supposed to be “people of one book,” and that book is not ultimately a collection of Wesley’s standard sermons: it is the Bible.

Having said that, I disagree that this author has interpreted him correctly. Notice Wesley begins by saying that we don’t know why “God suffered evil to have a place in his creation.” While I think Wesley’s words are a bit strong here, this is one sentence from one paragraph of one sermon preached over the course of a long life of published sermons, tracts, magazines, and books. Wesley “never had an unpublished thought,” so the old joke goes. This paragraph hardly exhausts Wesley’s thinking on the subject.

While I don’t have the reference now, one of my Wesleyan theology professors in seminary said that Wesley didn’t hesitate to explain the divine origin of at least one or two natural disasters that affected England in his day.

Besides, what we know from the rest of Wesley’s corpus is that he was a “greater good” apologist for evil, like most of his contemporaries: In other words, now that sin and evil are a part of this Creation, God will use them redemptively in order to bring about a greater good. Wesley would likely point to Romans 8:28 and some of the scriptures I’ve dealt with as part of this series of blog posts.

Regardless, Wesley is speaking about God’s allowing evil to begin with; not what God is doing with evil and its “attendant pain” right now.

The author writes that Wesley “clearly states that suffering does not come from God.” He does no such thing! Notice how easily the author conflates evil with suffering. Why does he or she do this? To say that evil does not originate with God is not the same as saying God doesn’t send suffering. Do I have to rehearse my arguments from scripture in the previous three blog posts? For example, recall that God literally struck down Ananias and Sapphira for their sin in Acts 5. Was that not suffering? Or what about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12? There is clearly a sense in which God wanted Paul to suffer from his “thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble. Or what about those Christians in the church in Corinth who got sick and even died from eating the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:30)?

While we might say that in a world without sin God doesn’t want his children to suffer, we no longer live in such a world. In our world, God does want us to suffer if by doing so he can accomplish his good purposes—as the Bible and our own experience prove that he can.

I’m reminded of a question that Rob Bell raised in his book Love Wins. Bell was kind of, sort of arguing—in that mushy, hard-to-pin-down, Rob Bell sort of way—that it doesn’t make sense that God would send sinners to hell. Why? “Doesn’t God love everyone and want to save them? Does God not get what he wants?” Mark Galli’s response, in his own book God Wins, was dead on: “Yes, but God wants more than one thing!”

God wants more than one thing. This is true when it comes to suffering.

By all means, all things being equal, God doesn’t want a world of sin, evil, and suffering. But not at the expense of creaturely freedom. In other words, God obviously wants this world of sin, evil, and suffering more than he wants a world in which sin, evil, and suffering are impossible.

In the end, it will be clear that all the suffering of this world, alongside God’s redemptive plan for it, will be to his glory. I can imagine some ways in which this might be true—and our best Christian apologists have helped us to imagine it—but whether I can or not is irrelevant: the fact remains that if God didn’t want the world in which we live, we would live in another world.

If you disagree with my logic, please tell me why.

Notice the question-begging that “Mr. or Ms. UMC” engages in with the following statement: “We suffer, and the world suffers, because we are human and part of a system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.”

Yes, but why? Could God not have created a world without such a “system of processes” or “physical environment”? Sure, if you’re a “process theologian” who denies God’s omnipotence, or an “open theist” who denies God’s foreknowledge, then you might have a case. But even I, who doesn’t have the authority to speak for the entire United Methodist Church, knows for sure that our denomination’s founding documents and doctrines rule out such a belief.

Finally, notice the contradiction in the author’s citation of John 9:

When Jesus and his disciples encounter a man born blind, the disciples ask Jesus the question we are asking. “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2). Jesus, why does seemingly arbitrary suffering occur?

Jesus’ answer, “Neither he nor his parents,” tells us that the disciples are asking the wrong question. “This happened,” Jesus continues, “so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). Jesus asserts that it is in our response to suffering that God is found, in moments of everyday grace and in grand and sweeping gestures of care and solidarity with the suffering. God’s mighty works are found in hospitals and nursing homes and shelters.

“Why does this seemingly arbitrary suffering occur?” By the author’s logic, Jesus ought to say that the man was born blind because he was born into a “system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.” And given that this happened to him—and no one knows why—now God can redeem his suffering through a miraculous healing.

But this isn’t at all what Jesus says.

Instead, Jesus says God sent this man’s suffering, and Jesus even tells us the reason: “so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.” Jesus’s words only rule out that God isn’t punishing the man for his sins, or the sins of his parents, not that God didn’t enable or allow the man’s suffering for a reason.

The author asserts that “it is in our response to suffering that God is found,” but that’s not true in this case: God is also found in the man’s being blind in the first place. His blindness was a part of God’s plan for his life—for a good reason! To glorify God!

If you think that my words sound cold-hearted, how would you interpret Jesus’ own words?

When I read officially sanctioned Methodist articles such as this one, I’m struck by how human-centered they tend to be. It’s as if Methodist thinkers such as this author imagine that we human beings exist for our own sake, rather than for God’s—as if our happiness is God’s chief concern, and when we’re unhappy, then something has gone badly wrong, and God owes us an explanation. Sadly, these Methodist thinkers tell us time and again, there are no explanations.

Of course there aren’t explanations! It’s as if we’re looking in the wrong end of the telescope and asking why our universe is so small!

Just this morning, one UMC pastor, Drew McIntyre tweeted the following:

He’s writing in response to something that Methodist bogeyman John Piper said (taken out of context, as most tweets are):

Given what I’ve written above, you won’t be surprised at my response to Drew:

Anyway, speaking of John Piper—and picking up where I left off in my previous post in this series—these words from his controversial blog post on the collapse of the I-35W bridge resonate with me. This is an example, I believe, of “turning the telescope around” and looking at the question of suffering from the correct perspective:

All of us have sinned against God, not just against each other. This is an outrage ten thousand times worse than the collapse of the 35W bridge. That any human is breathing at this minute on this planet is sheer mercy from God. God makes the sun rise and the rain fall on those who do not treasure him above all else. He causes the heart to beat and the lungs to work for millions of people who deserve his wrath. This is a view of reality that desperately needs to be taught in our churches, so that we are prepared for the calamities of the world.

The meaning of the collapse of this bridge is that John Piper is a sinner and should repent or forfeit his life forever. That means I should turn from the silly preoccupations of my life and focus my mind’s attention and my heart’s affection on God and embrace Jesus Christ as my only hope for the forgiveness of my sins and for the hope of eternal life. That is God’s message in the collapse of this bridge. That is his most merciful message: there is still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction for those of us who live. If we could see the eternal calamity from which he is offering escape we would hear this as the most precious message in the world.

What can I say to this but Amen?

More opposition to theodicy from the Protestant mainline. Why?

June 7, 2017

Drew McIntyre, a fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger, reflects on a book by William Placher, who says, like so many others in the Protestant mainline, that we Christians ought to avoid traditional theodicies. The answers we give, in our well-intentioned efforts to reconcile a good and loving God with this world of evil and suffering, are worse than simply living with the tension.

Placher writes:

Theologians have often been justly criticized for announcing a “mystery” whenever they find themselves lacking a good explanation. But it is not intellectual cheating to refuse to explain something if you can give an account of why just this should not be explicable; and reflection on the nature of sin, I have been arguing, provides just such an account. Christians therefore should say both that there is not a single point where God is absent or inactive or only partly active or restricted in action, and that there are irrational events that are somehow not caused by God. They should be willing to say both without worrying overmuch about how both could be true, for the attempt to resolve such worries leads inevitably to a search for sin’s causes that makes it explicable, and it therefore loses its full irrationality. Even worse, it starts to produce accounts of why those who have suffered somehow deserved it – the one thing biblical texts like Job and the Gospel healing stories so firmly reject. (211, emphasis added)

Needless to say (if you’ve been reading my blog for a while), I disagree. I wrote the following in comments section of McIntyre’s post:

I disagree with the author’s overall point. I can happily affirm his two points (in bold) above—that God is always fully active in events yet is not the cause of irrational (by which he means evil?) events. But assuming that’s true, I don’t believe there is tension between them, logically if not experientially.

The Book of Job, after all, says much more than Brueggemann says that it says (go figure!) when it comes to theodicy. At the very least, Job affirms that Job’s suffering is not meaningless: As we’re explicitly told in chapter 1-2, God has a reason for allowing Job to suffer. Right? Job doesn’t know the reason, and his friends don’t know the reason, but we the readers do know.

And you may say, “Yes, but that’s an unsatsifying reason!” But Satan is real, and God clearly uses him to accomplish his purposes. Remember Paul’s thorn? It is both a “messenger of Satan” and something that “was given” (divine passive) in order to keep Paul humble. Paul inderstood that this suffering was deeply meaningful. Of course, there are many more scriptures I could cite. But the very fact that God transformed the greatest evil the world has known (the crucifixion of God’s Son) into the greatest good the world has known (the means of our atonement) proves that God can do this with all “lesser” versions of evil and suffering in our world.

My point is, we can say that God allows evil and suffering for a good reason, even if we often don’t know what that reason is. (How could we know in most cases? The ripple effect of even one insignificant event in time could have consequences centuries later. A historical “butterfly effect” is easy to imagine.)

Of course, to say this at a hospital bedside or graveside probably won’t be pastorally helpful, but that doesn’t mean it never needs to be said.

This “greater good” theodicy, to which I fully subscribe, was accepted by Wesley and Arminius—if that matters to anyone.

Regardless, I find this theodicy immensely comforting—the squeamishness of the Protestant mainline notwithstanding.

“Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him”

January 18, 2017

unbelievable_banner

A recent episode of the Unbelievable? radio program (and podcast), “How I Lost My Child but Kept My Faith,” featured Jessica Kelley, who describes the heartbreaking experience of losing her 4-year-old son to brain cancer. To cope with her son’s suffering, she adopted what’s often called a “warfare” view of human suffering, influenced by pastor and theologian Greg Boyd. As best I can tell, it’s a form of “open theism,” which limits the extent to which God knows the future and his power to change circumstances in our world.

Open theism is such a non-starter for me, on biblical grounds, I haven’t investigated it deeply: I’m not sure if Boyd would say that God limits his foreknowledge (if that were possible) or that God can’t know the future with certainty. Boyd’s concern, I think, is his mistaken belief that if God knows the future infallibly, this knowledge therefore determines it, thereby overriding human free will. I’ve heard him say that God can only know (whether by choice or by necessity) probabilities of events occurring—given every antecedent event happening at any given moment.

This seems crazy to me. Even fallible human parents can often know, with a high degree of certainty, what their child will do under a certain set of circumstances. Yet God can’t?

Besides, God’s foreknowledge does not determine. As William Lane Craig, among other apologists, has argued, while God’s knowledge of future events is chronologically prior to the events happening (obviously), it is logically subsequent to these events happening: God “sees” humans and other free agents (including angels and demons) making choices, and “what God sees” becomes the basis of his foreknowledge. God can intervene to change future outcomes as he sees fit without running roughshod over free will.

In other words, God factored in the free choices of human and angelic beings (including, in the case of humans, our prayers) when he created the world. He factored in the sin, evil, and suffering that would often result from these free choices. He factored in our human need for discipline and punishment. And he factored in the need for our world to be governed, as a rule, by stable physical forces. Whatever else God factored into this world that he created, he did so according to his good purposes and for his glory.

Therefore, having done so, we can be confident that what God causes or allows to happen right now is in accordance with his will: even—and I say this with fear and trembling—a 4-year-old dying of brain cancer. (I’ve written at length about the difference between God’s antecedent and consequent will, which might prove helpful. Click here for more.)

I find the doctrine of God’s sovereignty immensely comforting. But if you don’t, what’s the alternative? One Unbelievable? listener, “Wallace in Charleston,” puts it like this:

One question I would have liked to have asked Jessica, especially when she spoke of Jesus’ miracles of healing, is whether she believed God had the power to heal her son? Given her theological comments, it seems she would have had to answer no—”God didn’t have the power, because of these other wills and forces in the universe that, at least in my son’s case, were stronger than God’s.”

But think about the devastating implications of such an admission for Christian hope. How can I trust that a God who was powerless to heal my child will someday have enough power to raise him from the dead? How could such a God could ever accrue enough power to raise all the dead and create a new heaven and a new earth?…

I can sympathize with how Greg Boyd’s theology has appeared comforting to Jessica as she watched little Henry die, but I’m afraid that comfort comes at too high a price and has implications that are not comforting at all. Better to own the sovereign hand of God and say with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”

Another listener, “Tim from Saskatchewan,” emphasized that we believe in God’s sovereignty because of scripture.

[Jessica] stated that most Christians start with the assumption that God is sovereign. But through her experience, she’s come to understand that God is not fully in control, but works on the side of good. She quotes John 10:10 to defend her position, which says Jesus came to bring life.

The issue I have is that Christians don’t assume God is sovereign: the Bible states it explicitly. Jesus didn’t come to make alive people feel better; he came that dead people may receive life. It’s impossible to read John 6 and not think that the Bible is clear that God is in full control of everything. Isaiah 46:10 says, “My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.” The fact that Christ was slain before the foundation of the world [Rev. 13:8] shows that the immeasurably horrible suffering of the cross was part of God’s plan. He didn’t do the best he could; he did exactly as he planned.

I would only add that our belief in sovereignty is based on much more than John 6.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I like Jessica. I’m sympathetic with her. And I find her story deeply moving. I also agree that Satan and his evil forces are at work in our world, opposing God’s people and the work of God’s kingdom—possibly even causing the evil of brain cancer. By all means!

But if I were Justin Brierley, I would have asked her: Does God have the power to prevent Satan from causing this harm? If her answer is yes—and how could it not be if God has the power to create the universe and everything in it, including Satan himself—then the difference between God’s causing and God’s allowing the disease, while important, isn’t as great as it first appears. Her version of open theism hardly solves the “problem” of evil.

Does a good God allow “gratuitous” evil?

March 8, 2016

In the latest episode of Unbelievable?, Josh Parikh and Cory Markum square off over this question: Does the existence of evil presuppose the existence of God? In my view, the answer is obvious: The moment you call something “evil,” you are appealing to objective moral facts, which themselves depend on the existence of a Judge who defines what is good and bad. As Tim Keller argues in his masterful book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, in making an argument against God on the basis of the existence of evil, you end up “relying on God to make an argument against God.”[1]

If I were Parikh, the Christian debater, I would have exposed the sentimentality that atheist Markum depended on to suggest that evil is incompatible with God’s existence. He began by citing the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in which hundreds of thousands—disproportionately children—died in one fell swoop. Surely a good God wouldn’t permit this!

Parikh should have intensified the problem: In other words, if Markum is right, he doesn’t go far enough. By what logic does a good God allow not only the deaths of hundreds of thousands in a tsunami, but even the death of one person, for example, whose trailer park was struck by a tornado? Unless Markum can justify even one death, he’s neither helping nor harming his case by appealing to scale. Logically, multiplying the problem of one death from “gratuitous evil” adds nothing to the problem.

Besides, as C.S. Lewis points out in his masterpiece The Problem of Pain, no one suffers more than one death.

Suppose that I have a toothache of intensity x: and suppose that you, who are seated beside me, also begin to have a toothache of intensity x. You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x. But you must remember that no one is suffering 2x: search all time and all space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone’s consciousness. There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.[2]

Years ago, I read an online debate between N.T. Wright and agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. When Ehrman made this inevitable appeal to what Lewis calls the “sum of suffering,” Wright pointed out his logical inconsistency. Ehrman never grasped the point, unfortunately. Because it is a good point…

Or it’s a bad point inasmuch as it works against us believers in the Christian God. Again, either we can justify one person’s death from so-called “gratuitous evil” or we can justify no one’s death from it. It’s that simple.

Later in the episode, Markum appeals to the massive scale of animal suffering as another spin on the argument. What about a baby bat with a broken wing who dies a seemingly gruesome death in bat guano by being eaten alive by creatures living in the guano?

How is this not a facile example of anthropomorphizing animal pain? By all means, nature is red in tooth and claw, but Markum’s argument only holds water if we ascribe human-like self-consciousness to the bat—as if the animal were thinking (paraphrasing the Carpenters song), “I’ve only just begun to live/ So much of life ahead…” While many animals experience pain, God has designed them such that they are unaware that they are themselves experiencing it. They’re not capable of thinking, “Why is this happening to me?” They lack any awareness of regret, or remorse, or a sense of their own mortality—things that often makes human suffering so painful.

Again, Lewis tackles this question in his book. Other Christian apologists have done so more recently.

Besides, has Markum not heard the Disney song (by way of Tim Rice and Elton John) “The Circle of Life”? It’s good and necessary for the ecosystem that organisms in the guano feed on the baby bat. Right?

After all, when the cheetah attacks the antelope in the National Geographic special, we always feel awful for the antelope. But if we’re going to anthropomorphize, let’s anthropomorphize all the way: Let’s follow that cheetah as she feeds the antelope carcass to her cubs. Isn’t that sweet? (I’m a cat lover. I think it’s sweet when a house cat leaves a dead squirrel on the doorstep.)

Nevertheless, I agree with Parikh that the cross of Jesus Christ represents the worst evil the world has ever known. If God can redeem even that evil, then he can surely do the same with all lesser forms of evil. Suffering may be “gratuitous” in the sense that it isn’t necessary to fulfill God’s purposes, but it’s never meaningless—which is to say, it never happens outside of God’s providential purposes.

Does that make sense?

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 103-4.

2. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 116-7.