Reflections on the problem of evil (Part 6) – Emotional Problem

Posted: August 16, 2011 in Philosophy, Religion
Tags: , , , , ,

by Dima Zhyvov

This post is a continuation of the series on the problem of evil. Please see Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5, if you have not read them yet.

The Emotional Problem of Evil

However, when I say “satisfactorily solved” I mean “philosophically resolved.” All this mental gymnastics may be of little comfort to someone who is intensely suffering from some undeserved evil in life.

I think for most people, the problem of evil is not really an intellectual problem: it is an emotional problem. They are deeply hurting inside and perhaps bitter against God who would permit them or others to suffer so harshly. This is a pastoral or spiritual problem, in that a person in its grip is not so much tempted to disbelieve in God as to adopt towards God an attitude she herself deplores. Thus a believer may find herself unable to trust God and to think of Him as a loving Father who cares for her. Such a person might reason like this, “No doubt you have some good reasons for allowing this, God. After all, you are all-knowing and sovereign, right? But I just cannot stand you doing this to me. It hurts and I don’t care about your lofty reasons and purposes, albeit morally sufficient and all”.

What can be said to those labouring under the emotional problem of evil? In one sense, the most important thing may not be what one says at all. The most important thing may be just to be there as a loving friend and sympathetic listener. I cringe as I think about formulaic answers or supposed “words of consolation” that some Christians are too eager to give to those who are suffering. Comforting a mother who has just lost her son by telling her that she need not grieve or be sad because her son is in heaven now is unhelpful, insensitive, and, in some cases, borders with spiritual abuse. As a result of such “well-meaning counsel” in addition to naturally feeling heartbroken over her loss the bereaved person may then be misled into thinking that her grief is somehow wrong or constitutes an “unchristian” response in her situation. False and unnecessary feelings of guilt may be developed as a result of such “comfort”. Telling a sick person that the reason he is sick must be because of some hidden sin in his life is both theologically false and emotionally uncaring, since not all diseases come as a result of sins committed by those who suffer from them[1], but even if they did, it is not always loving and appropriate to announce it to someone in pain. Few things make me angrier than such “Christian” counsel.

But still some people may need counsel, and we ourselves may need to deal with this problem when we suffer. Does Christian theism also have the resources to deal with this problem as well?

I am convinced that it certainly does! It tells us that God is not a detached Creator or an impersonal ground of being, but a loving Father who shares our sufferings and hurts with us. To quote Alvin Plantinga:

“As the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, coolly observing the suffering of his creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering. He endures the anguish of seeing his son, the second person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. Some theologians claim that God cannot suffer. I believe they are wrong. God’s capacity for suffering, I believe, is proportional to his greatness; it exceeds our capacity for suffering in the same measure as his capacity for knowledge exceeds ours. Christ was prepared to endure the agonies of hell itself; and God, the Lord of the universe, was prepared to endure the suffering consequent upon his son’s humiliation and death. He was prepared to accept this suffering in order to overcome sin, and death, and the evils that afflict our world, and to confer on us a life more glorious that we can imagine. So we don’t know why God permits evil; we do know, however, that he was prepared to suffer on our behalf, to accept suffering of which we can form no conception”[2]

If the Christian story is true, then Christ endured a suffering beyond all understanding: he bore the punishment for the sins of the whole world. Though he was innocent, he voluntarily underwent incomprehensible suffering for us. Why? Because he loves us so much. How can we reject him who gave up everything for us?

As a Christian when confronted with such love I can still feel and legitimately express all the anguish I am experiencing, I can cry out to God in my pain and utter confusion as to why this or that has befallen me, and yet there is something I cannot truthfully say or accuse God of – that he does not care or that he cannot understand me. It is at this point that I believe Christianity stands out uniquely among all other religions and worldviews. Christian God is not a distant God, but one that chose to be incarnate in Jesus in order that we would be able to say along with the author of the book of Hebrews:

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”[3]

Now please do not misunderstand me. With what I have written above I am not advocating yet another formula of what to say to someone who is suffering, because I loathe any all-fitting formulas or easy solutions when dealing with real people and real emotions. Rather what I am saying is that Christian theism, if true, does indeed have resources to deal with the emotional problem of evil. When God asks us to undergo suffering that seems unmerited, pointless and unnecessary, meditation on the cross of Christ can help to give us the moral strength and courage needed to bear the cross that we are asked to carry.


I want to conclude my article with some observations from the book of Job[4]. I believe this book gives splendid expression to some of the themes we have discussed in this series on the problem of evil. As the story begins, Satan challenges God: his servant Job, he says, is a flatterer, a smooth-tongued timeserver who will turn on God and curse him to his face if things don’t go his way. God disagrees, and then allows Satan to afflict Job. His friends Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite come to comfort and console him. After seven days and nights of silence, the narrator informs us, they tell Job time and again and at considerable length that the righteous always prosper and the wicked always come to grief:

Remember: who that was innocent ever perished?
Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity
and sow trouble reap the same (Job 4:7-8, ESV)

So according to their logic, Job must indeed be wicked to merit such great suffering:

Is it for your fear of him that he reproves you
and enters into judgment with you?
Is not your evil abundant?
There is no end to your iniquities.
For you have exacted pledges of your brothers for nothing
and stripped the naked of their clothing.
You have given no water to the weary to drink,
and you have withheld bread from the hungry.
The man with power possessed the land,
and the favored man lived in it.
You have sent widows away empty,
and the arms of the fatherless were crushed.
Therefore snares are all around you,
and sudden terror overwhelms you,
or darkness, so that you cannot see,
and a flood of water covers you. (Job 22:4-11, ESV)

Job must repent and change his wicked ways:

If you will seek God
and plead with the Almighty for mercy,
if you are pure and upright,
surely then he will rouse himself for you
and restore your rightful habitation. (Job 8:5-6, ESV)

Job is understandably irritated and offended:

Then Job answered and said:
“No doubt you are the people,
and wisdom will die with you.
But I have understanding as well as you;
I am not inferior to you.
Who does not know such things as these? (Job 12:1-3, ESV)

I have heard many such things;
miserable comforters are you all.
Shall windy words have an end?
Or what provokes you that you answer? (Job 16:2-3, ESV)

Job knows that the rain falls on both the just and on the unjust, and that the wicked, contrary to the dogmatic speeches of his friends, often prosper:

Why do the wicked live,
reach old age, and grow mighty in power?
Their offspring are established in their presence,
and their descendants before their eyes.
Their houses are safe from fear,
and no rod of God is upon them.
Their bull breeds without fail;
their cow calves and does not miscarry.
They send out their little boys like a flock,
and their children dance.
They sing to the tambourine and the lyre
and rejoice to the sound of the pipe.
They spend their days in prosperity,
and in peace they go down to Sheol. (Job 21:7-13, ESV)

Job also knows he has done nothing exceptionally heinous or wicked: “there is no violence in my hands, and my prayer is pure.” (Job 16:17, ESV). No doubt “no one does good, no, not one”; but Job is described in the beginning of the story as “blameless and upright”. He knows that he is not singled out because of being more wicked than all other people (in particular, he is no greater sinner than Eliphaz, Bildad, or Zophar). So Job begins to accuse God of treating him unfairly in permitting him to suffer in this way:

Know then that God has put me in the wrong
and closed his net about me. (Job 19:6, ESV)

Job does not fear to speak his mind to the Lord. Indeed, sometimes he appears downright sarcastic when he says:

Does it seem good to you to oppress,
to despise the work of your hands
and favor the designs of the wicked? (Job 10:3, ESV)

Sometimes Job even exhibits a certain self-righteousness and even defiance:

So these three men ceased to answer Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. (Job 32:1, ESV)

Far be it from me to say that you are right;
till I die I will not put away my integrity from me.
I hold fast my righteousness and will not let it go;
my heart does not reproach me for any of my days. (Job 27:5-6, ESV)

He believes that he is innocent of all wrongdoing and wants to go to court with God to set the record straight:

Oh, that I had one to hear me!
(Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)
Oh, that I had the indictment written by my adversary!
Surely I would carry it on my shoulder;
I would bind it on me as a crown; (Job 31:35-56, ESV)

But when he dolefully recalls that God would be prosecuting attorney, judge, jury, and executioner, Job isn’t too optimistic about the outcome:

If I say, ‘I will forget my complaint,
I will put off my sad face, and be of good cheer,’
I become afraid of all my suffering,
for I know you will not hold me innocent. (Job 9:27-28, ESV)

Just like we have noted in the beginning of this series there is at least two ways to understand Job’s problem here. In the first way, Job’s problem is really intellectual, because he cannot see any reason at all why God should allow him to be afflicted as he is; and furthermore, he is inclined to conclude that probably God does not have a good reason. On this reading the point here is that the reason for Job’s suffering is something entirely beyond his knowledge or awareness; but then the fact that he can’t see what sort of reason God might have for permitting his suffering doesn’t even tend to suggest that God has no such reason. And when God replies to Job at the end of the book, he doesn’t inform Job of what his reason is for permitting these sufferings (perhaps Job couldn’t as much as grasp or comprehend it). Instead, God attacks the implicit inference (a careful reader would recognize a “noseeum inference” here) from Job’s not being able to see what God’s reason is to the conclusion that probably he has none. God does this by pointing out how great the difference is between Job’s knowledge and God’s:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:1-7, ESV)

“Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this.¨

“Where is the way to the dwelling of light,
and where is the place of darkness,
that you may take it to its territory
and that you may discern the paths to its home?
You know, for you were born then,
and the number of your days is great! (Job 38:16-21, ESV)

Job complains that God apparently has no good reason for permitting the evil that befalls him. In reply, God does not tell him what the reason is, but attacks Job’s unthinking assumption that if he, Job, cannot imagine what reason God might have, then it follows that probably God does not have a reason at all. God seems to be saying, “All right, Job, if you are so smart, then tell me about it! Tell me how the universe was created; tell me about the sons of God who shouted with joy over this creation! No doubt you were there!” And Job sees the point:

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. (Job 42:3, ESV)

There is quite another way to understand Job – a way that can be combined with the first. Taken this second way, Job’s problem is not so much intellectual as it is emotional. The idea is not that Job is inclined to think that probably God doesn’t have a reason for allowing his afflictions. It is rather that Job just becomes angry with God, hates what God is doing (or not doing), and is expressing his dissatisfaction – and all this quite independent of whether or not he thinks God has a reason. Thus Job is akin a believer in the beginning of part 6 of this series who reasons as follows: “Sure, maybe God has a reason, but I cannot see the slightest hint as to what his reason may be; and why do I have to suffer so that he can attain these no doubt lofty and worthy ends of his without so much as being consulted? I hate it! And I am bitter and angry with him!” On this understanding of Job, there isn’t the suggestion that God maybe doesn’t have reasons and is in fact unjust (this thought does not really enter or at least is not in the center of Job’s mind). There is, instead, mistrust of God, wariness of him and his high ends, hatred of what this does to Job and requires of him, perhaps even a downright suggestion of rebellion. And, then, when God finally appears before Job at the end, it is not so much to convince him that God really does have reasons after all or that Job’s inferences are unwarranted (although this point might as a matter of fact very well have been established in the process), but, rather, it is to respond to the turmoil in his soul, to restore his trust for God, to heal him. And God achieves this end by giving Job a glimpse of his greatness, his beauty, and his goodness. As a result, the doubts and disquiet of Job’s heart disappear and are replaced, once more, by love and trust, similar to that expressed by the apostle Paul in his letter to Romans:

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39, ESV)

We have started this series with discussing various problems that evil poses to Christian theism. Yet we end, paradoxically, with the idea that even though the problem of evil is the greatest objection to the existence of God, at the end of the day God is the only solution to the problem of evil. If God does not exist, then we are locked without hope in a world filled with gratuitous and unredeemed suffering. There is no court to appeal to, there is no way to undue the evils of this world. If there can be anything like a final answer to the problem of evil, then it must be God, for he alone is able to redeem us from evil and take us into the everlasting joy of an incommensurable good, fellowship with himself.

[1] See the way Jesus deals with this false assumption in John 9:1-12

[2] Alvin Plantinga, ”Self-Profile,” in Alvin PLantinga, ed. James E. Tomberlin and Peter van Inwagen, p. 36

[3] Hebrews 4:14-16

[4] In what follows I rely on Alvin Plantinga’s brilliant insights on Job in the chapter Suffering and evil of his book Warranted Christian Belief, pp. 494-498

  1. dzyubam says:

    Nice! Quite a detailed conclusion you have here :).

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