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The Problem of Evil and Suffering

Philosophy of Religion

The problem of evil and suffering: Christian Responses

Information: This article gives a brief review of matters related to the problem of evil and suffering, from the Christian perspective. Before reading this article, you may find it useful to read The problem of evil and suffering: An introduction. A version of this article was originally published on the website www.faithnet.org.uk.

Introduction

In order to explain why there is evil and suffering in the world, Christians usually turn to the first book of the Bible (Genesis). There we read about how Adam and Eve disobeyed God's command not to eat from the fruit of the tree, which was at the centre of the Garden of Eden. The consequences of doing so were believed to have had dramatic consequences for the world, and everyone (and everything) in it. Genesis chapter 1 and 2 tell us that originally humans and the world were created perfect. But when the first humans disobeyed God's command not to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, their relationship with God, the world and other humans changed forever. Genesis chapter 3 describes these events, which are also known as the Fall.

The Fall of Man by Lukas Cranach

The Fall of Man by Lukas Cranach - Source: Wikipedia

The relationship between humanity and God

  • Before the Fall: God walked in the 'cool of the garden' with man and woman, and spent time with them (Genesis 3:8).
  • After the Fall: Men and women now hide from God. They do not want to be with God (Genesis 3:8). Humans have also been denied the gift of eternal life, and cast out from the presence of God (Genesis 3:22-23).

The relationship between men and women

  • Before the Fall: Men and women were innocent and felt no shame, even though they were naked (Genesis 2:25).
  • After the Fall: Men and women realised they were naked, and sought to cover their bodies with garments made from animal skins (Genesis 3:7). Women will also now experience unbearable pain when giving birth to children, and will become subordinate to men (Genesis 3:16).

The relationship between humanity and nature

  • Before the Fall: The world was perfect and 'good' (Genesis 1:31). There was a garden (Eden) where humanity spent time with God, and where there were lots of nice fruit and vegetation (Genesis 2:8-9).
  • After the Fall: The ground was cursed, and man had to work harder in order to grow plants and crops for food. The ground now also produces weeds to hinder this, and make his work more difficult. (Genesis 3:16).

These verses show that as far as the Bible is concerned, it is humans (not God), who are responsible for evil and suffering in the world. They also suggest that if our first parents had not disobeyed God (or sinned), that the world would be a very different place than it is today.

Not all Christians believe the events described in Genesis 3 (the Fall) actually occurred, but many do.

Is God responsible?

Clearly the account of the Fall in Genesis raises interesting questions for Christians to find answers to. For a start, if God is omnipotent and omniscient why did God create humans with the ability to make wrong choices, and still create the them knowing they would? Now there are some who believe that our ability to make free choices is an important part of what makes us human, and that if God had made us like robots, only programmed to do good things, then we would not be free to choose what to do (and also whether to believe in God, or not). Also, if we lived in a world where there was no pain or suffering at all, then we could in theory stand under a falling tree and never die if it hit us. Such a world would be a very strange place to live, if actions had no bad consequences at all.

As far as many Christians are concerned, Genesis teaches us that we are to be held responsible for our actions. Freewill is far too important to give up, even if it means God allows us to make choices God may not want us to, and if it leads to a world where there is evil and suffering.

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Satan (the Devil) and Job

Picture of Satan from South Park

In Genesis 3 we read that it was Satan in the form of a serpent, who originally tempted humans to disobey God. The Christian tradition describes the devil as an angel who was thrown out of heaven for disobeying God, and is the cause of much evil and suffering in the world today. This occurs when people give in to Satan's temptations to disobey God, or when Satan actually causes bad things to happen.

Although Christians believe Satan tempts people to do wrong, they still believe people have a choice whether to give into temptation, or not. For instance, Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, but never gave in (Matthew 4:1-11).

One example of Satan causing evil and suffering in the world is found in the story of Job, in the Old Testament. In Job chapter 1 and 2 we read how Satan approached God to ask if Job may be tempted to see if he would turn away from God. As a result of God allowing this, the devil inflicts all manner of pain and difficulty on Job. Job loses everything he has - even his health and his family, but through everything he never loses faith in God, and simply accepts that suffering is a part of life. Job's friends attribute his suffering to something he has done wrong, but this is not why Job suffered.

Although God gave back to Job more than he lost, God never really explains why he suffered. This is why some Christians believe that sometimes people will never know why they suffer in life, and that it is not their place to know either. They just trust that there is some higher purpose to all they are going through.

Christians working against evil and suffering in the world

Jesus said that people should show God's love by working to help those who are in need, and to do this is as good as helping Jesus himself (Matthew 25:37-40). He also taught that people should work to establish the kingdom of God here on earth, rather than wait for it to come in the future. In the light of Jesus' teaching, many Christians throughout Church history have worked to address evil and suffering in the world.

William Booth and The Salvation Army

Picture of William BoothThe Salvation Army began in 1865 when Methodist minister William Booth and his wife Catherine, became concerned that the poor were not being welcomed into London's churches. William also began to feel that they not only needed to hear about Jesus (their spiritual need), but also required practical help (their physical need). He believed the 'Church' should go to the people, rather than people coming to the church, to be touched by the Christian message. After a difficult start, by 1900 the 'Army' had spread around the world to 36 countries. The aim of The Salvation Army is ‘the advancement of the Christian religion… of education, the relief of poverty, and other charitable objects beneficial to society or the community of mankind as a whole’ (Salvation Army Act, 1980).

While women weep, as they do now, I'll fight; while children go hungry, as they do now I'll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I'll fight; while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I'll fight, I'll fight to the very end! (William Booth)

Martin Luther King and The Civil Rights Movement

Photograph of Martin Luther King Jr.Martin Luther King Jr. was the son of a Baptist minister, and pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. During the 1950s in the southern states of the USA, there was much racial division. This came to a head in Alabama in 1955, when Rosa Parks (a black American) refused to give her seat up to white man on a bus (as required by the law at that time). Martin Luther King Jr. was a key person in the formation of the Southern Leadership Christian Conference (SCLC), which organised non-violent protests against racially discriminatory laws. In Washington (August 1963) he delivered his now famous 'I have a dream' speech, where he set out his vision that freedom and equality for all people in America, would become a reality.

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! (Martin Luther King Jr.)

Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Picture of Mother Teresa of CalcuttaMother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Macedonia in 1910. At the age of twelve, she felt God calling her to be a missionary. At the age of eighteen, she began work teaching in a school in Calcutta, India. She became a Catholic nun in 1930. Due to the immense poverty she saw outsider her school, she gave up teaching in 1948 to work amongst the poor in the slums of Calcutta. In 1950 she started was given permission by the Roman Catholic Church to start her own order 'The Missionaries of Charity', whose chief aim was to love and care for people nobody else was prepared to look after. In 1979 she received the Noble Peace Prize in recognition of her work.

I see God in every human being. When I wash the leper's wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord himself. Is it not a beautiful experience? (Mother Teresa)

Many Christians believe prayer is a necessary part of asking God to help those who are suffering. This kind of prayer is known as intercession. Praying for the needs of people around the world is a common part of Christian worship.

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