Let’s Talk About Evil

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The idea of evil has been a part of humanity as far back as the notion of good has existed. But what is “evil” and does the problem of evil negate a good God? Since the time of the ancient Greeks, and possibly further, it has been thought that the idea of evil existing eliminates the idea of a good and all-powerful God. It seems to make senses that if God can stop evil but chooses not to, then he is not Good. It also seems to make sense that if God cannot stop evil he is not nearly as powerful as we make him out to be. In this post I hope to make it clear why neither of these are necessarily true statements. God can be good and evil can exist at the same time.

First let’s start with the famous Epicurus “Problem of Evil” which goes as follows:

  1. If an all-powerful and perfectly good god exists, then evil does not.

  2. There is evil in the world.

  3. Therefore, an all-powerful and perfectly good god does not exist.

Now for this to be a logically sound argument all the aspects of it have to be true. This is problematic because of several factors. First, Epicurus doesn’t define “good” or “evil.” To show why this is a problem one only needs to look at how different cultures regard good and evil. Epicurus himself had a very different understanding of good and evil than most modern people do. According to Epicurus’ philosophy good is what we find pleasurable and evil is what we find painful. He argued that sometimes a person will go through pain to achieve an even greater pleasure (example: exercising to have a better body) but ultimately all good is simply pursuing the greatest possible pleasure.

I don’t want to deny Epicurus his due respect, but I don’t think I could ever advocate the Epicurus moral system. What bothers me the most is morality in this case lacks any universality. Good and evil are completely subjective to the person. Joseph Stalin had a dream that one day the world would be a communist paradise free from class struggle, racism, poverty, and inequality. In his efforts though somewhere around twenty million people died. Ultimately Stalin is regarded by most as one of History’s greatest villains because after all that pain his dream never came to be. Out of fairness let’s talk about U.S. President Harry S. Trueman’s decision to drop nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hiroshima’s destruction killed between 90,000–166,000 and Nagasaki’s destruction killed somewhere between 60,000–80,000 people. These were men, women, and children who had committed no war crimes. These were people who’s only fault was living in the wrong city in the wrong country. In the end though, this pain ultimately probably saved more lives than it lost by preventing a full U.S. military invasion of mainland Japan.

Was President Trueman’s decision morally good? If Stalin had succeeded would he be seen as a great hero? That’s up for you to decide, but my point is that Epicurus leaves a lot open for interpretation. He assumes that evil exists, that God wants to rid the world of evil, and that if something apart from God’s will or desires exist then he ultimately cannot exist. There’s also a bit of narcissism in this argument since Epicurus defines good as what is pleasurable and he thinks that for God to exist he must ultimately provide nothing but pleasure or else he cannot exist.

Epicurus’ problem of evil is really just the first level of the problem though. The idea has been built upon, improved, and elaborated on many times. From what I can find the most current example goes as follows:

  1. God exists.

  2. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.

  3. A perfectly good being would want to prevent all evils.

  4. An omniscient being knows every way in which evils can come into existence.

  5. An omnipotent being, who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, has the power to prevent that evil from coming into existence.

  6. A being who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, who is able to prevent that evil from coming into existence, and who wants to do so, would prevent the existence of that evil.

  7. If there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being, then no evil exists.

  8. Evil exists (logical contradiction).

Ok, let’s break this one down. It starts with the premise being tested, that “God exists.” It then goes on to define God by saying that “God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.” So far this argument is set up well. It has established what it wishes to test and it defines God so that there should be no questions as to what is being tested.

Point three is where the argument begins to fall apart. “A perfectly good being would want to prevent all evils.” This is once again problematic because “evil” is not defined. If we assume that God is all good and evil is the antithesis of good then this point can stand. We assume here that “evil” serves no purpose and that this perfectly good being wants to rid the world of evil at this very moment, but for some reason cannot or is not. Can a perfectly good being allow evil to exist for a time if it ultimately serves a purpose for greater good? By Epicurus’ own logic this is possible and perfectly logical. As you can see, argument is becoming a little shaky, but it hasn’t crumbled completely just yet.

Point four and five are pretty sold, but point six doesn’t work for the same reason point three fails. A being who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, who is able to prevent that evil from coming into existence, and who wants to do so, would prevent the existence of that evil. Once again the assumption is that evil has no purpose and that God is just helpless to prevent it. Point seven and eight follow on point six.

So by this point you are probably wondering what my answer to the problem of evil is. Well, I say that evil exist because God loves us. How’s that for a contradiction! But seriously, I think evil has to exist for love to exist. I’ll explain why soon, but first let’s establish what evil is not.

thEvil is not this counter force that is equal and opposite to good. There is no yin-yang thing going on (which by the way doesn’t really have anything to do with good and evil) where there is some balance that exists where the good and evil sides are always in some constant war for the souls of man.

I know that this is a popular theme in what I like to call “pop culture Christianity” where the devil and angel on our shoulders are always tempting us to make good or bad decisions. We love the idea of God and Satan are bitter rivals in some cosmic war for the world, but ultimately that’s not really the case.

For starters evil is not a force to go to war with good. In one way of looking at it, evil is not even a real thing. Now I say evil exists, but only in the same way that cold exists in the absence of heat. Evil (in my understanding) is an emptiness that is left by abandoning good that can be filled up again.

Let’s look at the popular antagonist in the character of Satan. From the few things we know of him through scripture (he’s not as big of a figure as people paint him to be) he is an angel who was created good and beautiful but chose to rebel against God. Satan’s evilness isn’t something that was innately apart of his being, it is an emptiness left by his choice to rebel against what was good.

Choice is the key factor here. Christian theology believes that God created the universe good and perfect. Sin only entered the world when Adam and Eve chose to move away from the good will of God. Evil is nothing more than the absence or perversion of good. Greed is the choice not to participate in generosity, violence and hatred come from a choice not to participate in brotherly love and empathy, it goes on and on…. every sin comes from a choice not to participate in what God created for good.

So why would God give us the ability to choose? Simply put God is love and love requires a choice. If I had no choice at all whether or not I loved someone then it isn’t really love. Love requires that a person could leave or abandon the other. If a wife could never cheat on her husband, leave her husband, or even contemplate loving another then she isn’t his lover…. she’s his slave. The same goes for all types of love. A choice has to exist and God created us to love us and to be loved by us. God is relational and seeks relationships, and yet he will not force love.

Christianity believes that God literally did all the work required for us to join him and be forgiven of our transgressions, we simply have to choose to love him. He couldn’t have made it easier and every moment that he let’s evil run rampant is a mercy shown to us by giving us even more time to come to our senses and return to love. Evil exists because we are allowed to choose between good and not-good, and God allows it because he wants to give each of us opportunity to find and return to him.

Paul, when dealing with people who demanded God be quicker in punishing evil, had this to say:

So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

– Romans 2:3-4

So to wrap this up my answer to the problem of evil is simply this: Evil exists so that true love can exist, and because God is patient, kind, and willing to give each of us chance after chance to repent. A day will come when no more evil will exist, where God will fill in all the gaps of his creation with his glory and goodness, but until that day let us not ignore the grace and mercy of God. Let us not grow weary in doing good. And let us not forget that the good news we believe and hold true to is for all people, and it is our job to spread the love by pointing and leading others back to God.

How Kierkegaard, Jesus, and a Transgender Person are Making Me Rethink Labels

Philosophy has always been something that I enjoyed learning about, and with out a doubt my favorite philosopher is Soren Kierkegaard. I don’t want to spend too much time on him because he is not the focus of this article. The only reason I bring up Kierkegaard at all is because he is the author of a famous quote that I am just now beginning to understand:

“If you label me you negate me.”

– Soren Kierkegaard

I love Kierkegaard, but I always thought that this was a terrible quote. Labels are important after all. If we never labeled anything how could we organize ourselves. Compartmentalizing the vastness of stuff out there is important if we ever plan to get anything accomplished. The problem I am just now realizing though is that this is not always true with people.

As a culture we love labels. We love labeling each other and labeling ourselves. If you don’t believe me just look at how many Christian denominations there are out there. While I like to think that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, we still  have hundreds of different factions all over the place. Even Baptists (the faction I call home) have dozens of mini-branches under the umbrella term of Baptist. I’m not even getting into political beliefs, class, race, nationality, gender identity, sexual orientation, or societal/cultural concepts.

I could easily list twenty or so terms that “define me” as a person, but if I’m honest none of them are really all that encompassing of me. In a lot of cases I’m only partially synonymous with my label. In other cases I fit my label as it is defined, but not as it is perceived by others or as society as a whole. Labels can be too big, too small, incomplete, inadequate, and often changing with time. It’s almost impossible to define you by just spouting off labels. Even if I did give you the perfect terms to describe my heritage, religion, politics, class, gender, orientation, and philosophy would you actually know me?

My brain goes to that beautiful scene in “Good Will Hunting” where Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) really gets to put Will Hunting (Matt Damon) in his place for the first time:

“You’re an orphan right? You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally, I don’t give a **** about all that, because you know what, I can’t learn anything from you that I can’t read in some ***** book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t want to do that do you sport? You’re terrified of what you might say.”

– Sean Maguire from “Good Will Hunting”

So we get the point by now, labels are incomplete at best and hurtful at the worst, but why am I bringing any of this up? Well the other day I was faced with something I really never expected to be faced with. I was given the opportunity to minister to a person who felt like a man trapped in a woman’s body. This was the first time in my life I’ve ever had to interact with a person dealing with a non-hetero normative gender identity.

I am a licensed minister working at a Southern Baptist church and this young person (I’m still trying to figure out whether “He” or “She” is the more appropriate term) was suddenly placed under my spiritual guidance. I’m now forced to make a judgement call on how to approach something I know almost nothing about.

I mean I knew that people like this existed. I know about sex changing operations and I had read about clinical psychological studies on gender identity, but I had never actually had to deal with this on a personal level. Similar to Will Hunting, I had read the books but that didn’t mean I knew anything at all about this person. This is where it the idea of a transgender person became real to me for the first time. Suddenly transgender people weren’t a work of fiction, or some strange tribe living in strange places like New York or California. This was a real person with feelings, needs, hopes, dreams, and desires that I was encountering.

Luckily all the stress from this unexpected situation faded away quickly when I realized just how silly I was being about this whole thing. This person I was dealing with was not an embodiment of the entire transgender culture, any more than I am an embodiment of white heterosexual manhood. This was just another human being, and this person wants the same thing all of my other youth want; love, acceptance, compassion, friendship, spiritual guidance, and support for when times get rough. Yeah, I might eventually have to have to talk about this gender identity thing, but we can do that when and if that person decides the time is right. My job is the love this person and point them to Jesus, end of story.

Reflecting back on this realization it really dawned on me just how dehumanizing labels can be (even if they are accurate). It is so easy to make all sorts of assumptions and stereotypes based around whatever label we assign people, and every time we do that it robs them of their humanness and individuality. A person is not defined exclusively based on any one factor and yet we put so much work into labeling people as if that was the key to understanding them.

Jesus dealt with crowds and groups, but he also always saved times for individuals. Do you think the Samaritan woman was only that, a Samaritan and a woman, in Christ’s eyes.  Do you think he saw Zacchaeus as simply a tax collector like the rest of his community did? Were lepers just lepers in the Lord’s eyes? Was Nicodemus just a Pharisee? Peter just a poor fisherman?

The answer over and over is no. Jesus saw people for people. He knew their heart and he didn’t concern himself with trying to fit people into neat little categories. Over and over we see Jesus dealing with people from all sorts of classes and categories as individuals. He didn’t ignore who they were, but he also wasn’t so caught up labels that he missed the person underneath.

I’ll tell you right now that I would have never even considered asking a cross dressing transgender person to come to church. I’m deeply ashamed to admit that, but if I knew a person who had those labels attached to them I think I’d pass over offering them an invite. I’d just assume that they would hate it and that they probably already have a negative view of the church, but honestly who am I to make that call. Luckily for me, while I was trying to make a cool youth group for “church kids” one of my youth had the Christ like love to give that confused and scared person an invite to come and hangout with Jesus this week. I think that that alone makes that brave fourteen year old girl a much evangelist and representative of Christ than me. Thank God for people like her.

So I guess I’ll wrap this post up with a commitment and a challenge. I am going to commit to avoiding playing the label game as much as possible. I’m going to commit to looking at individuals and loving people regardless or whatever titles and baggage they have. I challenge you to do the same.

“… I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” 

– 1 Corinthians 9:22-23

Jesus Never Promised To Be Fair

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The other day I was listening to a discussion about homosexuality. One side was pro-gay marriage in the Christian Church. The other side had a more traditional understanding of marriage. Now I’m not writing this post to be about homosexuality, but the context is important because it was from this discussion that a big realization came to me. The pro-gay marriage side said something along the lines of “God is fair, so why would he create some people to get married and others not to?”  That is when it hit me…. God doesn’t make us equal, and Jesus never claimed to be fair.

Now maybe I’m going to upset a some people by saying that, but I think there is a lot of truth to it. Think about it, was it fair that Jesus picked twelve blue-collar guys to be his disciples instead of all the educated Jewish young men who had trained their whole lives to be a disciple of a rabbi?  Was if fair that Jesus healed some people but not others? Was it fair that Jesus raised some people from the dead, but not others?  Was it fair that Jesus told Peter, Andrew, and John to simply come and follow him, but the rich young ruler had to sell all his things first?  What about the mercy shown to the woman caught in adultery? What about the loyal older brother in the prodigal’s son parable?  Is it fair that Gentiles were simply welcomed into the faith without having to go through all the rituals, observances, and careful study that the Jewish believers had lived through? Is there really anything in the Bible that leads you to believe Jesus was fair?

The truth of the matter is that we are not all created equal and we don’t all get equal treatment, at least not in the sense a lot of people take that to mean. I was born a white male in a middle class American family. Is it fair that someone else was being born to a dirt poor Indonesian family that same day?  I certainly didn’t do anything to earn these blessings, no more than those born to poor families are any more deserving of their status.  I know people who were born with same-sex attractions that straight people will never have to wrestle with… is that fair?  One of my good friends is a quadriplegic who can only really control her head while I could get up and go for a walk or sit here and type this blog whenever I wanted.

So what am I getting at, that God and Jesus loved some people more than others?  Not at all!  God made Paul to be a Pharisee and a Roman Citizen for His purposes, just as he made Peter to be a fisherman and a loud mouthed apostle for his own. God made the Moses knowing he wouldn’t be a great speaker. He made Jacob knowing he would be a traitor. He made Noah knowing he would be a drunk. He made every disadvantaged broken person with the same tender love and mercy that he made every person of privilege.

Here’s the kicker though, it is a great thing that God and Jesus are not fair.  You see, a God who was obsessed with fairness would never have sent his Son to earth to die for sinners. If there is anything to be said about God’s sense of fairness it is that he has loved each of us far more than we deserve.

Yes, God has very different plans for all of us. Some of us were built to be Bankers and others to be Martyrs. Some of us were blessed with health, wealth, and prosperity so that we could be generous with our gifts and support all those who are need. Some of us were born with need so that we could be blessed spiritually and reach people who the upper middle class suburbanite never could.  Jesus himself was a poor traveler who often had no home or place to lay his head. Think about that, God wasn’t even fair to his own Son…

It is not fair that any of us should be given grace, mercy, love, or forgiveness from our Heavenly Father.  It is not fair that God continually gave Israel chance after chance to repent and return to Him. It is certainly not fair that God would send his son to earth as a poor carpenter to suffer and die on our behalf. The Gospel message isn’t fair, and that’s a good thing!

Some of us are not destined to be married, or have a nice house, or have a steady income, or have perfect health, or live to an old age, or to have all the perks and privileges that we feel entitled to. That is ok though!  God made you the way you are for a reason and regardless of your place in life, you have been blessed far more than you could ever deserve because the Son of God loved you enough to take your sins and shame upon himself on your behalf.

Let’s try to remember that next time we get upset about life not being fair.