Some years ago, I took a sabbatical to work on a book. During that sabbatical leave I planned on worshiping with a different house of worship every weekend. On my second weekend, I went to St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in D.C. where my friend and colleague Fr. Dimitri Lee was serving.
|About This Sermon|
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
May 3, 2020
1 Peter 2:19–25; John 10:1–10
That day was September 13 and he noted that it was a Sunday that lay between September 11 and the elevation of the Holy Cross on September 14. He said it was a Sunday that lay between two days of great tragedy and violence. Between two days that raised questions like: Why do the innocent suffer? Why does such tragedy happen? Why does God allow evil? And he said, “A perfectly good answer to those questions is, ‘I don’t know.’” And then he left it at that.
I was astonished. Only the Orthodox, with their embracing of mystery, could pose the great question of theodicy—of the justice of God—and be content to leave it unanswered.
No Protestant would have done that, that’s for sure. Most of us would try to answer.
So, as a Protestant minister preaching this sermon, why does God allow evil?
Well, I don’t know, either. To tell you the truth.
I have an idea—but I don’t know. Not for sure.
This is a question that has vexed theologians and philosophers for centuries. It would be hubristic of me to say that I had the answer for this most difficult of questions: why is there evil? Where did it come from? Why does God allow it to exist? Why do the innocent suffer? Why is there injustice in the world? Oppression and violence? It is known as the question of “theodicy.” Quite frankly, answering these questions is above my pay grade.
Still, as with all good questions, there is virtue in asking it. For a questioning faith is a living faith. When your faith has run out of questions, it becomes not faith but dogma. Not true religion, but merely a code of behaviors and a rigid set of understandings. No, for us, we ask the unanswerable questions precisely because that is a vital part of our faith. And while there are no easy answers, it’s not really about the answers, it’s about having the safe space to ask the questions.
Now, having said that, I do believe that there are answers that are helpful to us and answers that are not. And so, together we’ll explore this question and reflect on the possibilities to see where we encounter God in them.
II. WHERE DOES EVIL COME FROM?
The origin of evil is something that has occupied the attention of philosophers and theologians for ages. And there have probably been as many theories as there have been theologians.
One answer, that came early on, was the concept of dualism. The idea that the universe is locked in a perpetual struggle between opposing forces of Good and Evil. This is a belief of the Zoroastrians, who believe that the world is in the midst of a battle between the One true god, creator of all that is good, Ahura Mazda, and Aura Mainyu, the “spirit and promoter of evil.”  Good and evil are perfectly matched and it is the duty of the human being to choose between them.
This is a belief system also seen in Egyptian religion, in certain Christian Gnostic sects (the Marcionites, for example) and in a great deal of literature, both classic and popular. It is certainly the idea behind the Force (with contrasting good and ‘dark’ sides) in the Star Wars saga and behind much of fantasy literature.
Thus, the answer to the existence of evil for some is simply that as a First Principle, Evil has always existed right alongside Good.
But these answers are not answers that Christians can maintain. For, to argue that evil is ‘ungenerated’ or ‘uncreated’ is to argue that evil is an eternal presence, equivalent to God. As those who profess One God, creator of all things, not just all good things, we cannot confess that the universe is ruled by two equal and opposing forces.
In fact, the Judeo-Christian tradition winds up going in the opposite direction, choosing monotheism over any easy answer:
“I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:5–7 NRSV)
This passage from Isaiah, written by an unknown prophet in the midst of the Babylonian Exile whom some have dubbed, “the most unrelenting voice of monotheism in the Hebrew scriptures”, declares God to be the one who forms light and creates darkness, weal and woe, which are just English translations for shalom (peace/wholeness) and ra (evil).
This doesn’t always make us comfortable. We don’t like imagining God as the author of all that is good and all that is evil. But this idea, too, has a long pedigree. In Islam, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ mean what is in accordance with God’s law and what is not. But since God is not bound by God’s law, then nothing that God does can be seen as evil, even if it appears to us to be.
We see this idea, too, in Christian mythology of the devil. There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that the devil is a fallen angel and it is only in apocalyptic literature like Revelation that the devil is even powerful enough to put up a decent fight against God. But Christian conceptions of the devil certainly demonstrate the idea that Satan, one of God’s creations becomes the embodiment of all that is evil. We pray in the Lord’s prayer “Deliver us from evil” but it could also be translated “from the evil one”.
This idea is found throughout our popular literature. God created everything, but one of God’s creations “went bad,” so to speak. It’s found in many representations of evil in our books, films, and television, and serves as the backstory to the evil forces of Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings. But I can’t help but wonder if all this talk of the devil isn’t just a way to get God off the hook. That is, we can give all the good things to God and thank God for everything from beautiful weather to healings to parking spots, but the bad things, well, those are Satan’s doing. Because Satan is a creature of God, there’s no affront to God’s being the only one true God, but at the same time, you don’t have to raise the awkward question of why God did something evil. Well, that’s not God’s fault, it’s the devil’s, and we know how he can be. It’s the same phenomenon with some versions of the Santa Claus story: Santa brings the gifts to the good children, and Krampus (St. Nicholas’ enslaved demon) brings warning or punishment to the bad children. 
It’s not the only way we try to get God off the hook.
One way comes from the Jewish mystical tradition. Isaac Luria wrote that when God began to create the world, as God was infinite, there was no place to put the world. And so, God contracted himself—a process in Hebrew known as tzimtzum–creating a space into which the creation could be made. However, in the process of creating that space, God’s absence was also found and thus, in the absence of God, evil entered the world. Thus, the presence of evil is a byproduct of the necessary withdrawal God had to make in order to create the universe.
Evil is what happens, in other words, when God isn’t around.
D. The Fall
Of course, perhaps the most famous answer of all is that of St. Augustine’s. He had spent much of his early life trying to answer the question unde malum, ‘Where is evil from?’ He had fallen in with the Manicheans, who like the Zoroastrians, argued that it has always existed. And then with the Platonists, who argued that evil was illusory and that only ‘the good’ truly existed. Eventually, after his conversion to Christianity, he found the culprit for the origin of evil: we did it.
We did it when we chose to disobey God in the Garden of Eden. We were offered the opportunity to know life and instead we, quite against explicit instructions to the contrary, chose to partake of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. And in so doing, sin was introduced into the world and with it evil and death.
We are, in the words of 1 Peter, the sheep that have gone astray. We are the ones in need of a Good Shepherd, who came that we might, in spite of ourselves, have life and life abundantly.
It’s a wondrous idea and as a theological construct of the origins of human sinfulness and human evil, holding us accountable for our actions is not the worst thing in the world. However, it doesn’t necessarily address all the problems, particularly if you do not happen to maintain that the earth is only 6,000 years old.
For if you acknowledge the clear findings of science, that the earth is some billions of years old, that our species is some 150 thousand years old, then it’s hard to account for all the evil in the world as simply being the result of human sinfulness. Did animals not know death before we came along? Certainly they did; as any kid who has ever been to see the dinosaurs in a museum can tell you. T-Rexes had teeth for a reason. And what about so-called “natural evil”? Were there no earthquakes, no tsunamis, no hurricanes, floods, and mudslides, before we arrived on the scene? Did these fickle forces of nature behave themselves better before we arrived and only caused untold suffering after we managed to screw things up?
This may be why some Christians are so reluctant to embrace the findings of science. It’s not necessarily because it differs from the Biblical account, but it’s because their whole theology on the origin of sin and the need of salvation is based on Adam and Eve having taken that fruit and caused sin, death, and evil in The Fall.
St. Augustine was no slouch. He was a brilliant thinker. And his ideas bore out his experiences: so much of human misery is caused by human choices. But is that answer alone sufficient?
III. WHAT IS EVIL FOR?
Adding to the trouble is the question of if evil is part of God’s plan, what purpose does it serve?
A. Evil Is a Test
For some, evil serves as a test. A necessary corrective or a challenge. You see this in theologies that most heavily focus on God’s sovereignty, the Calvinists, the Muslims, and so on. Because God is sovereign, anything that happens has to be a part of God’s plan and therefore the bad things must be a test. A test of our faithfulness, a test of our response, of our continuing to choose God rather than something else.
We see something of this in the scripture lesson from 1 Peter today:
For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
In this way, evil provides an opportunity to demonstrate our faithfulness, just as Christ endured evil and injustice for our sakes. “If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.”
B. Evil Is a Warning
Sometimes evil is viewed as a warning. You see this particularly with natural disasters. Floods, hurricanes, droughts, and so on are all warnings from God about some decisions we make. They happen to us for a reason.
This, as with the idea of a test, seems lacking: might there not be some easier, less destructive way for God to warn us or to test us? Why does it seem that so many innocent people have to suffer to convince the rest of us of something important? Whenever some religious loudmouth argues that disasters, natural like Hurricane Katrina or the Coronavirus, or man-made like September 11th, happen because God is trying to warn us of something, I cannot help but think of those children on Flight 77 who were heading to California on an educational trip with National Geographic when their plane was crashed into the Pentagon. God meant for that to happen? God needed to kill innocent children to teach us some kind of lesson? Not the God I believe in.
C. Evil is Needed for Balance
And some answer that God allows evil to exist to provide balance. Without it, we wouldn’t know the good. Without tragedy, we wouldn’t know joy. It’s a fair statement, but doesn’t really address the scope of the problem in quite the same way. And, it is still focused on the survivors. Do tens of thousands of Chinese need to die from a virus or do Indonesian villages have to be destroyed in a tsunami and tens of thousands of lives lost for me to realize the beauty of life? Do millions have to die in the holocaust for the rest of us to appreciate the importance of doing good? It seems an imperfect system.
IV. WHY DOESN’T GOD DO ANYTHING ABOUT EVIL?
Which leads us to the biggest question: why does God allow evil to exist? This central question of faith is also a central criticism of religion from outside. See, Christians claim belief in a God who is Omniscient (All knowing), Omnipotent (All powerful), and Omnibenevolent (All good). The problem of evil makes that God impossible, the critics say. If God is all knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, then why is there evil? The conclusion they draw: because there’s no God. Atheism, is really just another kind of theodicy. But certainly, a God who fails at any of those wouldn’t be the God we proclaim.
A. God Doesn’t Know about Evil
Can it be that God doesn’t know that evil exists? In the Biblical story of Job, when Job the righteous man is suffering, his friends all assure him that he is suffering because he deserves it but perhaps he doesn’t realize he’s done something wrong. Job, believing himself (correctly) to be innocent, argues that God must simply not know that he’s suffering and that if he can just get an audience before God, everything will be made right.
The problem with arguing that God doesn’t know everything runs counter to our entire tradition. The fruit in the Garden of Eden is of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent tells the man and woman that to eat it will make them ‘like God, knowing good and evil.’ In the book of Exodus, God tells Moses that he ‘knows’ the sufferings of the Hebrew people in Egypt. In Job, God rebukes Job for his suggestion that God did not know what was happening.
So, if it were to be the case that God did not know what was happening, that would not be any God that we could proclaim.
B. God Can’t Do Anything about Evil
Others have argued against God’s omnipotence. In his famous book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Kushner argued that the world was still being created, and that there were pockets of creation over which God’s sovereignty was not yet firmly established.
It’s an intriguing idea, to say the least, but probably raises just as many questions: What defines these areas? Given what a mixed bag humanity is, does it vary from person to person, place to place? Kushner’s idea is an attractive one because it invites us into finishing the work of Creation with God. But I’m not sure that a God who is still lacking in sovereignty over huge swaths of the creation is the God we proclaim either.
C. God Doesn’t Care about Evil
The third possibility is that God doesn’t care. Or that God is not ‘good’ in the sense we understand. Einstein, who spoke of God not playing dice with the universe and of religion and science as necessary partners, was not a theist in the classical sense of the word. He saw God as the governing principal behind the creation of the Universe and the author of the rules behind its operation, but he didn’t necessarily believe that God cared about us or sought relationship with us, any more than a scientist cares about the germs in a petri dish.
Indeed, I had a colleague who found it very easy to accept the idea of a Creator of all things. What he could not easily accept was that this Creator cared at all about us. That conclusion, as with so many that lie at the heart of this question, was borne through experience and observation of the world.
“Really?” one might ask. “This is God caring for us?”
The goodness of God should demand more care for us from God. If we, broken, flawed, humanity can be coaxed by Sarah McLachlin to shell out $18 a month for the ASPCA to protect puppies and kittens, can God in God’s infinite goodness not be coaxed that much more easily to lend a hand to poor suffering humanity? Should we all just make more puppy-eyes and hire Sarah McLachlin to sing for us?
It seems a real quandary to maintain God’s power, knowledge, and goodness, and the world around us.
V. THE GOOD AND THE EVIL
Unless we have our understanding of goodness all wrong.
That is, we equate goodness with assuring a happy result. But is it? Might there not be some higher form of goodness to which God is oriented?
I believe that there is. For, I believe that God is a God of Love and that what love seeks, more than anything else, is the freedom of the Beloved.
You can love someone very much—or at least experience the feeling of love—but if you don’t seek their freedom, it isn’t really love. It’s control. We often want to possess those whom we desire, rather than seek them to be free. It is the hardest thing in the world to do: to let go of the one you desire. But it is the most loving thing in the world, too.
When I served in campus ministry, I saw that many of my students, especially the freshmen, were at some point traumatized by the college experience. Still finding their way, still finding a place and trying to figure out what this newfound freedom was all about. I would tell them to trust me that it was more traumatic for their parents. But they let them go. Knowing full well their kids would make stupid mistakes from time to time. Knowing full well that the world can cause pain and hurt that they would happily shield them from. They let their kids go to chart their own path, precisely because they loved them. Because that’s what love is. And it is not possible to be in a loving, equal relationship with someone who is under your control or to whom you have denied freedom.
A parent would shield her child from suffering forever, but for the fact that loving the child means letting go, knowing full well all the heartbreak, all the pain—but also all the joy—that may be coming their way. Freedom and choice are essential to love. But where there are freedom and choice, there are consequences.
And so, I do affirm what St. Augustine said, though I do not require it to depend on the biological and geological accuracy of the first few chapters of Genesis. Evil is the result of our choices. We continue to be responsible for the evil things that befall us. But they are the result of our freedom.
The good that God is dedicated to is the good of love, and that love requires freedom.
I also believe that the creation itself is free. From the uncertainty that guides subatomic particles, to the dynamism of plate tectonics, to the power of wind and wave—we see freedom in the creation all around us. It is a freedom not only reflective of God’s love but also a freedom necessary for life. Without continental plates sliding around, without ocean currents and wind patterns, life would not be sustainable on this planet. It seems, then, that our very being is tied up with freedom, but also with the uncertainty and risk that that brings.
And so, it is my belief that we suffer because of the consequences of being free. And we are free as a consequence of a loving God.
And that is really the difference: because while there are consequences, we are not alone in our consequences. For we have always proclaimed a God of knowledge. And the knowledge that we proclaim of God is not intellectual alone. When God says he ‘knows’ the sufferings of the Hebrews in Egypt, the verb used means ‘to know by experience.’ It is not detached. It is not removed. It is present and standing in solidarity. God is not removed from our sufferings, but God also suffers with us the consequences of our freedom.
For we also proclaim to know God through Christ, whose incarnation was a radical declaration of solidarity with poor, mortal humanity by the eternal God. In Jesus’ crucifixion, we encounter a God not removed from human suffering and the consequences of evil, but present in the midst of it. And therein lies the great Christian hope. This was one theologian’s answer to the question of theodicy. As he wrote:
God and suffering are no longer contradictions, as in theism and atheism, but God’s being is in suffering and the suffering is in God’s being itself, because God is love. 
For there will be things we do not know, and things that we do not understand. I wouldn’t dare to presume that one sermon—even a United Methodist sermon—could answer all the mystery that we encounter. No, it seems that the deeper we dig, the more mystery we find.
But what we do know, is that at the heart of that mystery we encounter a God who does not abandon us to evil, death, and destruction, but who stands with us, demonstrating our hope for restoration and resurrection, and declaring solidarity with us in the midst of a broken world.
1 Peter 2:19–25 • 19 For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
John 10:1–10 • 1 “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”