When we ask the Question, we are operating under the unconscious assumption that God doesn’t do anything about evil, because we see it happening all around us. It also assumes that if God were to do something about evil, He’d do it the way we expect Him to. Yet I have never known God to do what I expect. What He does is better.
Though God does not stand above the world and wipe out its evil with a single blow, as askers of the Question often desire, it doesn’t mean He does not deal with evil. His method of doing so is much more intimate and personal. When questioners demand a nuclear strike, He offers hand-to-hand combat. When they want to see a righteously angry and sovereign King, He reveals a Servant who suffers with them. What does it look like when a loving, powerful God deals with the problem of evil? It looks like nothing so much as a young Jewish man being brutally murdered.
For the mystery of Christianity is its central tenet, that the powerful God outside history and human affairs took on the weakness of humanity and entered history to be confined by it. God’s response to suffering and evil was to be with humanity in it, as Immanuel—God With Us. As Douglas John Hall puts it, “Not through power but through participation; not through might but through self-emptying, ‘weak’ love is the burden of human suffering engaged by . . . God.”
Many people look at Jesus’ death on the cross and say it was an evil thing that an innocent man should die, and they’re right in saying that evil put Him on the cross. But it was His confrontation with the world’s evil that placed Him there, not simply the evil actions of a few people in one moment of history. The loving God whom questioners insist should do something about evil confronted all the evil history has and ever will encounter. Because of evil, He, like many innocent humans in war, in slavery, in martyrdom, died. (See Hebrews 2:14-15.)
Christ, however, did not enter human history and human suffering merely to show solidarity. He intended to strike a death blow against evil, and, despite all present appearances to the contrary, He did so. His confrontation with evil and His death were purposeful, serving a greater purpose than any other human’s death could have. In His death He offered Himself as the sacrifice, taking the ultimate punishment for the evil of the world, and in His resurrection He defeated the greatest enemy of the human race, death itself.
"The Gospels," writes N. T. Wright, "thus tell the story of Jesus, in particular the story of how he went to His death, as the story of how cosmic and global evil . . . are met by the sovereign, saving love of Israel’s God, YHWH, the Creator of the world.”
It is a shock to understand that God does not save the world from evil and suffering by eliminating evil and suffering, but that He saves it through suffering, with suffering and even evil itself as the tool, rather than by the power and anger humans often demand. It is, as John Swinton says, a different kind of power altogether, “grounded in suffering love, a form of love that suffers the fragility and fate of humanity under sentence of death and has overcome this tragic state through resurrection.” The wonder of it is that, knowing His own Son would bear the consequences for evil, God still chose to create the world and allow humanity its freedom to choose evil.
Those who ask the Question may not want this kind of response to evil. They want an instantly happy world. A God who does not give it to them like an indulgent grandfather may be rejected by their worldview. This is, of course, their choice, because God’s love has granted them freedom. On the other hand, it might be a more meaningful answer for postmodern young people who long for community and identification and find it so rarely. God’s personal identification with human suffering is more meaningful at the point of suffering than philosophical questions and answers.
In the end, however, God will strike the once-and-for-all, decisive blow against evil and suffering. He will do it in the time that He chooses and to His own satisfaction. He will exact righteous judgment on those who do evil, coming this time not as the humble Servant who suffers but as a reigning king who will put everything to rights. (See Matthew 24:36, Revelation 16:5-6, and Revelation 19:11-16.) At that time He will make everything as those who ask the Question instinctively know it should be: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
For Further Reading:
John Swinton, “Raging With Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil” (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007).
C. S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed” (HarperSanFrancisco, 1961).
C. S. Lewis, “The Problem of Pain” (Collier Books, 1962).Christy McDougall is a Web developer, writer, and aspiring missionary with bachelor's and master's degrees in Christian theology.