The problem of evil can be daunting. When we discuss our faith with friends and relatives who are non-believers, we will sometimes hear the question: how can God exist or be considered good when there is so much evil in the world?
One is tempted to suggest that such questioners should simply start reading the Bible and not stop until they are finished. The book of Genesis—the story of Adam and Eve--provides the basic explanation of the origins of good and evil. It introduces us to the idea that we—people—are largely responsible for evil, and that evil—indeed, all sin--grieves the heart of God.
If we receive a dismissive response to this we might say a quick prayer and keep trying. The problem of evil is thought-provoking, of course. Theologians can and do write books on this topic. One example is Can God Be Trusted? by John G. Stackhouse Jr. In this penetrating analysis Stackhouse looks at many different aspects of the discussion. For instance, before we can understand evil, Stackhouse suggests, we must define what is good. The word “shalom” describes what a truly “good” world might be: “...a full-orbed, comprehensive and harmonious wholesomeness in each particular creature, in the relationships among creatures, and in their relationships with God.” It does seem reasonable that harmony in relationships is a key element in understanding what is good.
The above vision, however, is in contrast to another possibility: “God could, one supposes, simply alter our mental states for eternity and let us “bliss out” in an endless and mindless euphoria. But this is not a vision of fulfilled human life.”
No, the shalom vision seems to be a more reasonable idea of what a good world would be. Problems would arise, but would be harmoniously resolved. Compromise might occur. Learning would take place. Relationships would strengthen.
So, what prevents us from living in a fulfilled “shalom” world? In a word, sin (see second paragraph above). We need to be healed. “We must mature in love, in dedication, in purity, in joy, in faithfulness, in enthusiasm, in patience and in a host of other virtues.” Stackhouse continues to reason: “If God made us stop sinning by somehow forcing goodness upon us and thus compromising the freedom of our wills, then we and God both would lose the goodness of authentic love, among other goods.”
Good and evil seem inextricably intertwined in so many ways. No sooner do we identify an occurrence of evil than we see there is an opportunity to do something good. A thief will steal—that is bad. A policeman will heroically pursue the thief—that is good. A man finds himself to be poor or starving—that is bad. Another man will give sacrificially and save his life—that is good. War will break out—that is bad. Doctors and nurses will work tirelessly to help the wounded—that is good. We might reach the surprising conclusion that good cannot exist without evil, but we will stop short of saying we want evil to exist. There really are limits to what the human mind can understand!
Stackhouse summarizes as follows:
We find the world to be an arena in which God reaches out in love to estranged and damaged creatures and helps them to mature into reconciled relationships with each other. Thus we live in a world in which human beings clearly have a measure of free will to do both good and evil, and to live with the consequences of their choices. We find ourselves in a world in which we can see the terrible results of human sin as well as the salutary results of human obedience to God and love for one’s neighbor. The world holds up to us a mirror which is daunting to contemplate.
It may be daunting to contemplate, but we can surely feel grateful to God for the astonishing and beautiful adventure that our fleeting mortal life is supposed to be. We live in assured hope for eternity.
Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name;
make known his deeds among the peoples!
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
tell of all his wondrous works!
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice!
Psalm 105:1-3 (ESV).
In faith and fellowship,
 John G. Stackhouse Jr., Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil (New York: Oxford University Press) 1998.
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