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Charles Darwin finally gave up his belief in God not because he discovered evidence for evolution by natural selection (a theory he developed some years earlier) but because of his anguish at the death of his ten-year-old daughter. When he published The Origin of Species in 1859, he purported to prove that the world itself did not need God, an act of vengeance against the God whom He insisted did not exist.
The problem of evil is not just a philosophical or even a theological problem. It is concrete, personal, sometimes irrational. Many people cannot conceive of a loving, all powerful deity, given the evil and suffering in the world. Even when they are convinced rationally that the existence of evil by no means rules out the existence of a good God, they are overwhelmed with the darkness they see in life. And though non-believers seek any pretext to rebel against God, Christians too are sometimes overwhelmed by tragedy and grief, to the point that they question their faith.
When one of their children is wracked with unbearable pain, or is brutalized by a criminal, or dies in a senseless accident, Christians can hardly keep from asking, why did God not intervene? Perhaps He cannot, which saves His benevolence at the expense of His power. Or perhaps He will not, which upholds His power, but which throws His goodness into question.
These conundrums can be solved rationally and theologically, as the articles in this issue of Tabletalk show. But the answers are sometimes small comfort to a soul stretched to the breaking point on the rack of this world. In all of his agony, he cannot help but ask, “Where is God?” Part of the problem is that people tend to imagine God as someone far away, looking down, as from a great height, on the pain and malevolence that plague His creation. Not only attackers but also defenders of God tend to operate in terms of that picture. But Christians do not believe in a God who is merely distant.
The God Christians know became incarnate in Jesus Christ. He entered the human condition. He suffered. He took the world’s evil into Himself. He died. And He rose again, so that those who have faith in Him will enter a realm where every tear will be dried and the problem of evil will disappear.
Much theodicy (the justification of God’s justice and goodness in light of suffering and evil) makes no reference to Jesus Christ. It analyzes an abstract deity. There is nothing distinctly Christian about it. The arguments could just as easily apply to the Allah of Islam. To be sure, the problem of evil applies to every kind of theism and such metaphysical reasoning has its place.
But the triune God of Christianity has a different relationship to His creation — and to sin, evil, and suffering — than the gods of other religions or the impersonal deity of the philosophers. Bringing Christ into the problem of evil does not answer all of the metaphysical questions, but He does complicate it in an important way. And, more importantly, Christ brings profound comfort to people in their deepest need, because they know that God is with them in their suffering.
The second person of the Trinity suffered. He was scourged. He fell under the weight of the cross. He was weary, thirsty, bloody. And on the cross He experienced the utmost physical pain the Roman Empire could engineer and was tortured until He died. And the physical pain was only part of Christ’s agony. He also experienced emotional agony. He was despised and rejected (Isa. 53:3). In the garden of Gethsemane, He knew loneliness. His friends and disciples abandoned Him. He was mocked, humiliated, stripped. And worst of all, He was forsaken by His heavenly Father. That should make a difference to someone enduring physical pain or emotional desolation. Jesus Christ, through whom the whole universe was made, was also wracked with pain. He too experienced rejection, isolation, ridicule, and cruelty. He too felt the absence of God.
But Christ’s suffering resolves the problem of evil in another way. He received the world’s evil. By His own will, He allowed Himself to suffer at the hands of evil men. But more than that, He bore in His body the sins of the world. That is another way of saying that He bore the world’s evil.
Christ took upon Himself the punishment that evil deserves. And through His work on the cross, He gives us evil people who turn to Him free forgiveness.
And in that mysterious exchange that took place on Calvary, in which Christ took on our sins and imputed to us His righteousness, something else took place. According to the prophet Isaiah, He would not only bear our sins. He would bear our suffering. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows (Isa. 53:4).
The problem of evil and the problem of suffering are resolved in Jesus Christ and His cross. God has intervened. He is not absent. His power and His love come together in the work of Christ. This is not just a solution to an intellectual puzzle. It gives concrete strength, support, and comfort to people in anguish. When the worst happens, the sufferer can know that Christ has been there, bringing redemption, and that even God the Father knows what it is like to lose a child.