Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Nearly Christmas!

Christmas is very near!  

I love it.  

However, last night a good friend of mine had an accident that needed an operation to sort out. My friend, thankfully, is on the road to recovery now.  However, this was a reminder to me that for many this Christmas, Christmas will be spent in hospital, in accident and emergeny units, or coping with sickness and with tragedy.  I thought I would post today, therefore, the sermon I preached as a follow-up to the last one I posted.  It has been slightly amended to reflect recent events!

When talking about evil and suffering in our world, it is all too easy to be detached and unemotional. As Christians, we do have a responsibility to discuss the problem of evil and suffering in the world. We need to do so, however, with tears in our eyes.  After all, our Lord knowing that he would bring his friend, Lazarus, back to life, still wept that his friend had died in the first place.  We weep first and discuss much, much later.  

The Existence of Evil and Suffering

On Christmas Eve, I preached a sermon on the Existence of God.  I know many of you have taken a copy of it to read.  In it, I suggested that the way the universe is formed, its design, seemed to require the existence of a Designer.  I discussed the way scientists, confronted with this incredibly complex design, are struggling to explain it.  I argued, however, that if there is a Designer, then communicating with the Designer becomes an urgent priority for us who are part of his design (I use the male pronoun at this stage in the discussion and throughout the sermon for linguistic convenience!) 

Think for a minute of the millions of dollars being spent on scientific projects to attempt to find life in outer space and to communicate with it.  There is far less evidence for life in outer space than there is for a God.  Shouldn’t we take communicating with our Designer at least as seriously as communicating with aliens?  And if we don’t, doesn’t that suggest a certain human perversity?  If there is a Designer, or at least a possibility of a Designer, then communicating with him is a scientific as well as a theological and philosophical imperative. 

It being Christmas, I argued that we meet the Designer in the Baby of Bethlehem.  We see our Maker lying in manager.  I want today to pick up where this sermon left off.  For if we come to the existence of a Designer through the design of the universe, what are we to say about apparent ‘design faults’ in our universe, and what are their implications for our understanding of the Designer? 

This year, here in China, there was a terrible earthquake, which caused the most horrifying suffering and death.  What, for example, does this say about design and God?  Earlier this year, I visited again the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.  It never fails to move me. The holocaust is an event that has come to symbolize human cruelty at its most systematic and evil.  This evil was committed not by the uneducated and uncivilized, but by highly intelligent and sophisticated people.  What sort of world is it where things of this kind can happen and on such a scale? 

The problem for the believer is not so much what they say about the existence of God, but what they say about the character of God.  These examples of evil, and the many others we could give, do not mean, logically, that there is a not a God.  The design argument still has to be answered.  What they do force us to ask, however, is what sort of God he is to have designed such a world in the first place.  Is he One even worth bothering with, let alone worth worshipping? 

1.  Is he a God who, having designed the universe, has no more responsibility towards it?  Has he subsequently, left it to get on with it in much the same way as a car designer, after the car is made, will not interfere with what happens to the car?  The car designer’s job, after all, is to design the car, not drive it! 

2.  Is he a God who has little control over his design whether he wants it or not?  Has the universe taken on a life of its own so that God is, at best, limited in his ability to control it or, at worst, cannot control it at all? 

3.  Or, more sinisterly, is he a God who simply does not really care what happens within the universe he has created?  Are we just an amusing game that he only takes, again at best, an occasional interest in or, again at worst, derives a macabre pleasure from because of the way it has turned out? 

The problem of evil for the Christian (and, it might be added, for the Jew and the Moslem) is that it calls into question their view of God.  For the Christian – like  the Jew and Moslem – is not prepared to allow that God is just the Creator who designed and started it all, the Christian also argues that God is the Sustainer, who is still intimately involved in his creation and loves it, and, what is more, still has power over it.  Indeed, Christians, in their understanding of God, see him as both all-powerful and good.  It is this combination that causes all the trouble. 

For if God is all-powerful, he should be able to do something about the evil we see in our world.  If he is good, he should want to.  The fact that he does not would suggest that either he is not all-powerful or that he is not good.  Either way, the Christian version of God is in trouble. 

Before we go any further, we should, perhaps, pause to ask what we mean by evil.  If we are going to blame God for evil, it is only fair to ask what it is of which he is supposed to be guilty.  When people use the word, evil, they mean different things by it.  There are different types of evil which cause people to question God: 

1.  While we often describe what are natural events as natural disasters and, therefore, as evil, this is not really accurate.  It is the consequences of otherwise natural events that merit the description, evil.  A volcano is not itself evil, and if no-one is hurt as a result of it, we probably don’t even give it a moment’s thought.  When we talk about evil in relation to what are commonly described as natural disasters, it is the appalling suffering they cause that should be described as evil, rather than the event itself.  God, it is argued, if he really is all-powerful, should be in a position to prevent the disasters such natural events cause.  The first question of God then is: Why doesn’t God intervene to prevent suffering from natural causes? 

2.  Then there is the evil of natural phenomena within the world that seem to be intrinsic to it.  These do not cause evil, they are evil.  What are we to say, for example, about sickness and disease, about handicap and deformity, and all the things that make our life so prone to misery and death.  Nature can seem very beautiful, so beautiful that we want with the Psalmist to exclaim that the heavens proclaim the glory of the Lord (Psalm 19:1).  Closer inspection, however, reveals that nature itself is so ‘red in tooth and claw’ that we imagine and long instead for the day when the ‘lion will lie down with the lamb’.  The second question of God then is: Why has God designed nature to produce so much pain and suffering? 

3.  In addition to the evil caused by natural events, and the evil of natural phenomena, there is human evil.  All around us, we see the effects of human wickedness: wars, violence, injustice, poverty, exploitation, cruelty – the list is endless.  As awful and as evil as Auschwitz was, the holocaust, sadly was not an isolated event.  Humans, historically, have been guilty of horrific crimes against one another.  To read history is to read the story of ‘man’s inhumanity towards man’.  The third question of God then is: Why does God allow human beings to commit such terrible acts against one another? 

Both separately and, even more, together, these questions present a strong case against God.  The Christian response to these charges, their defence of God, varies. 

1.  Some try to lessen the seriousness of evil by making humans responsible for it.  This is not without validity.  After all, while we may ask why God allows wars and poverty, God could rightly ask why do we.  It is after all, not God, but we humans who start wars.  We have the wealth and means to end poverty, but choose not to do so.  And it was humans, not God, that built the gas chambers of Auschwitz

2.  Christians sometimes point to the value of suffering for the lessons it teaches.  Suffering, it is said, can enable us to grow spiritually.  Again, there is truth in this.  Some of the most inspiring people I have met have been people who have suffered and who have risen to great heights, not only despite their suffering, but because of it.  They have used their suffering to become better people. 

3.  Christians also point to freewill.  They argue that if God were to intervene to prevent human beings from committing evil, as his accusers would wish, this would override human freedom to choose.  You cannot just tinker with parts of the system.  God would have to orchestrate the whole of human behaviour so that we would end up as robots and not free moral agents.  We would become no more than automatons, not unlike characters in a computer game.  Those who criticize God for not intervening would be amongst the first to complain if he did! 

Although all these points have validity, the questions, nevertheless, remain: ‘Why did God create a universe like this?  Why do we have to live in a world so prone to disaster?  Why do we have to live in a world so full of disease and death?  Why did God allow a universe to evolve to produce creatures capable of evil to the extent that we are?  Could he not have made us good and free? 

The fact is that even after we have defined and qualified the problem – as we must – the problem remains.  We can mitigate the charges against God, but we cannot remove them.  We would not allow a tsunami to kill thousands of people, why does God?  We would not allow someone to die a slow, painful death from cancer, why does God?  We would not allow a baby to be born deformed, why does God?  The problem is that as soon as you claim that God is all-powerful and good, you have a problem. 

So what is the answer?  The answer is that there isn’t one.  Or, at least, not one that I, as a human, with my limited understanding and knowledge am in a position to know.  Evil and suffering do challenge our belief as Christians in our sort of God.  However, knowing we do not know everything encourages us to believe that there may be an answer.  The Christian begins with what he or she is in a position to know.  Moreover, Christians do not start either with a theoretical definition of God that they seek to justify, nor with a problem that they then seek to answer.  Rather, we start with a person we can know: the Baby from Bethlehem who became Jesus of Nazareth, Christ our Lord. 

Christians believe that this is their God and that God has shown us what he is like in this way because of our inability to understand him and his ways with our limited intelligence.  In Jesus, we see someone who does care about both evil and suffering.  He showed his attitude to the ability of nature to wreak havoc when he calmed the storm.  He demonstrated his attitude to disease and disability when he healed the sick and cured the blind.  He lets us see how God feels about human evil when he bore the brunt of it on the Cross of Calvary.  The God we see in Jesus is not a God who is indifferent to human suffering or human evil, but One who experiences it with us. 

This is not the God of the philosopher, nor even the God of the scientist: it is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  This does not absolve us from the need to study either philosophy or science.  Christians should do both.  However, in the words of St Anselm, who came up with the ontological argument, at first sight a very theoretical approach to God: 

‘I long to understand to some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves.  For I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order that I may understand.  For I believe this also, that if I did not believe, I would not understand.’ 

One of the paradoxes of suffering is that as many as lose their faith because of suffering, find faith through suffering.  In their pain, they discover peace and hope in God.  It does not mean that this peace and hope answers all their questions, but it does give them faith to believe that there may be answers. 

Until there is, Christians are called to address the evil and suffering we see in the world knowing that one day God will bring all suffering and evil to an end.  In a very real sense, we are called to be the answer to the problem of evil by demonstrating through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus both the love of God in the present and the hope of a new creation in the future.  A new creation in which ‘death, mourning, crying and pain’ will be no more (Revelation 21:4).  People need to be able to see what this new creation will be like by how we live our lives.  We, the Church, are called to embody the new creation here and now in the midst of the old. 

As Christians, we deny neither the reality of evil nor the reality of God’s love, but believe that one day God’s love will provide the answer to evil and that until it does love will always triumph over evil.  As Paul says: 

‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ 

(Romans 8:38-39)


No comments: