Question of evil lingers after Easter

Saturday, April 10, 2004

A classic issue that has consumed countless books of philosophy runs like so: If God is loving and has absolute power, why is there such evil and suffering in this life?

The days surrounding Easter add a special seasonal aspect to this problem among Christians as they think about the impact of Jesus Christ's death on the cross and his rising from the dead.

Some New Testament verses teach that the powers of evil were defeated through Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. But as Richard Hays of Duke University Divinity School observes, that appears to contradict other New Testament verses, "not to mention our own experience of evil in the world."

In triumphant tones, the Apostle Paul writes that with the Crucifixion, God not only forgave people's sins but "disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them" (Colossians 2:15).

In the same letter, Paul says that God "has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son in whom we have redemption" (1:13-14). Further, the risen Christ is called "the head of all rule and authority" (2:10), suggesting complete power over events.

Such verses troubled Mathias Eddie, a Solomon Islands reader who wrote Christianity Today about this. Hays responded in the magazine's "Good Question" column.

Hays explained that Paul's words are "a visionary statement that sees God's final redemptive purpose as though it were already complete, since the final outcome is guaranteed by the cross and resurrection."

"Why do the powers of wickedness continue to operate effectively in this world? Because the story is not over," he said. "The climactic victory has been won on the cross but there is still much residual resistance. So we live in a tension-filled interval."

Theologians use the phrase "realized eschatology" for the idea that Christ's triumph means the kingdom of God is fully present here and now.

But most Christians believe the kingdom was established only partially, with the culmination coming at some unknown future point. The Lord's Prayer phrase "thy kingdom come" implies this sense that complete earthly fulfillment lies ahead.

To Hays, the Bible clearly teaches that earthly evil was not totally eradicated. Paul speaks in Colossians about "my sufferings" (1:24) and prays that fellow believers will be strengthened "for all endurance and patience" (1;11). He also looks toward future culmination: "When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (3:3-4).

Elsewhere, the Paul who depicted Christ's triumph over "powers" and "darkness" addresses "the sufferings of this present time," the way that "the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now" and the fact that individuals likewise "groan inwardly," awaiting full redemption (in Romans 8:18-23).

In fact, belief in evil's existence is a hallmark of orthodox Christianity, Hays wrote, in contrast with, say, the Christian Science religion, which denies the reality of evil, or certain ancient Gnostics and modern groups that think the spiritually pure are somehow removed from the material world and its evils.

Another facet of the mystery was addressed by John Timmer, a Christian Reformed Church minister in Grand Rapids, Mich., in his intriguing little book "God of Weakness" (CRC Publications).

God himself is not weak, Timmer wrote, but he exercises his infinite power in ways that defy human expectations, working through weak earthly partners. Biblical Israel, a small and sometimes erring nation, and the fallible Christian church are examples. Due to the universality of sin, so is each individual.

Still, the question lingers why God does not impose immediate perfection and rescue all oppressed and suffering people. Timmer says that "Christianity has no answer for deep pain," nor will anyone have the answer in this life. "All it has is a reply, a concrete way of dealing with it."

The latest of many devotional books on coping with the problem of pain is "Why?" (W Publishing) by Anne Graham Lotz, the Rev. Billy Graham's daughter.

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