Last Sunday morning, the Adult Christian Ed group gathered in conversation to discuss a Christian response to Charlottesville, and one thing became very clear – right now people are afraid. These days it seems there is much to be fearful about. Protests that end in violence and death. A government divided. Hurricanes that devastate homes and wreck lives. The possibility of nuclear war. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, a parishioner said to me “I just don’t understand why God allows these things to happen. Mudslides in third world countries, tsunamis - terrible things are happening to regular, good people.” It’s true – terrible things often happen to good people. Natural disasters like the recent mudslide in Sierra Leone that killed more than 1,000 people. The outbreak of war in Syria that has left millions stranded as refugees fleeing the violence. A beloved friend diagnosed with terminal cancer. Every day, it seems we hear of another tragedy happening to regular, good people that causes us to ask “Why?”
Why does a good, loving, all-powerful God allow the manifestation of evil? The attempt to answer this question is called theodicy. St. Augustine of Hippo was the first to develop theodicy. His argument was that God is perfectly good and evil is the result of humanity’s original sin. Evil in the world is a punishment for sin and evil continues because humans misuse free will. God is not responsible for evil or suffering. Thomas Aquinas, influenced by Augustine, proposed a similar rationale that stated God is goodness and there can be no evil in him, and that the existence of goodness allows evil to exist through the fault of humans. John Calvin, also influenced by Augustine, supported the view that evil is the result of free will, and that sin corrupts humans which requires God’s grace for moral guidance. St. Irenaus had a different solution to the problem of evil. Irenaus asserted that there is a two-step creation process in which humans require free will and the experience of evil in order to develop spiritual maturity. Perfection is something that comes about through personal growth, therefore the experience of evil and suffering is necessary to fully develop. Similarly, Origen referred to the world as a schoolroom or hospital for the soul.
I struggled with this question in seminary, particularly in light of my studies on the Holocaust. How could a good and loving God allow the destruction of 6 million people? Why didn’t God stop the horror? Is Christ’s sacrifice for sin enough to make up for such an event? And then, in my systematic theology class, I heard a powerful statement that helped me to bridge my theological gap. The Dean was teaching on Dostoyevsky’s story about the brothers Karamazov, Ivan and Alyosha. Alyosha, a monk, is in conversation with his brother Ivan, a world traveler, about the horrors that Ivan has seen in his journeys. How, Ivan asks, could a good God allow such things as innocent children being brutally tortured and murdered to occur? No, says Ivan, “too high a price is asked for harmony; it's beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket." In response to this powerful story, the Dean said “What Christ also does on the cross, in dying for our sins, is to take responsibility for creating a world in which he allowed evil to exist.”
Sin is a reality in this world, in our lives. The effects of sin, the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf (as Enriching Our Worship confesses), have real consequences in the world. No disrespect to St. Augustine, but the power of God, for me, is not in the lack of responsibility for evil. The power of God is that Christ takes on the responsibility for the suffering that occurs in the world, that he takes on our sin and the effects thereof, and that in doing so, he breaks the power of sin and death.
The doctrine of substitutionary atonement, proposed by St. Anselm, speaks of this payment as a debt that had to be fulfilled in order to satisfy the power of sin and thus reconcile us to God. In my opinion, this sets the power of sin as greater than the power of God, that God was required by a power higher than God’s to atone for sin. But there is another theory, set forth by Peter Abelard, that the power of love is what overcomes the power of sin, that Christ, in the supreme act of love, was not required but chose to become a sacrifice and thus becomes the ultimate example of God’s gracious love. He writes, “our redemption through the suffering of Christ is that deeper love within us which not only frees us from slavery to sin, but also secures for us the true liberty of the children of God, in order that we might do all things out of love rather than out of fear – love for him who has shown us such grace that no greater can be found.”
God loves us so much. God suffers with us when evil and suffering hold sway in our lives. For me, the compelling message of the Christian faith is that God allows free will, but that God has also taken responsibility for the results of that free will. We humans have capacity for great evil, but, because of how God created us and through what Jesus did for us, we also have the capacity for great love. It is our responsibility to embody that love when suffering and disaster strike. We are to be instruments of God’s peace, God’s love, God’s compassion. So when tragedy occurs, the question for me is not “why did this happen?” but “how can I be the love of Christ in this moment?” How can I emulate Christ? Perhaps that means opening my home to a refugee from disaster. Perhaps that means sitting through chemo treatments with the friend who has cancer. Perhaps that means donating whatever I can to help those who have lost their homes. Love means reaching out to take care of my neighbor as well as I care for myself. These small acts of compassion shine through the evil and suffering in the world; evil cannot overcome love. There is no need to fear, but perfect love casts out fear. And God’s love is always enough.