Several years ago, I went through a time of intense suffering. My sister who was only 25 years old was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was not a Christian believer at the time she was diagnosed, but she was living according to the health principles in the hope that her disease would pass somehow. She went through totally innocent sufferings. When I visited her in the hospital the last time before her death (as her brother, but also as her pastor), I still saw in her an extraordinary desire to live. When I had to tell her that I came to prepare her for death and to call her to commit her life totally to Christ, she still did not believe that it was the end. However, although the doctors said that she would live 15 more days at the most, she lived almost three times as long. During the time she was bedridden, she watched several evangelistic meetings on DVD, committed her life to her Savior and Lord, and was baptized on her deathbed in December 2003, exactly 40 days before she died.
Thank God for this final decision and the obvious revelation of His powerful grace. I am sure that the epitaph on her grave, from John 11:25, indeed reflects her and our faith in the resurrection of the righteous. But still, every time Christmas and New Year approach (times when both my sister and my father died), although God did reveal something of His explanation of this suffering, the same question returns to my mind again and again: Why did You permit this, oh Lord?
I do not know whether the death of my sister could even partially be called horrendous evil, but truly there are many other examples of human beings who suffered much more than my sister or my family. The history of humanity is full of horrendous evil. If we just pondered upon the specific cases in history, we would be overwhelmed by the intensity and duration of suffering that God has permitted: the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Vietnam War, Russian gulags, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and Iraq, to name a few. In all these extreme cases of suffering, human dignity and personality were degraded, which explains why philosophers and theologians partly see in them a real threat to the theistic explanation of this world, namely, that the world has been created and sustained by the omnipotent and benevolent Creator.
Furthermore, behind each of these general evils lies particular horrendous evil or suffering. Marylin McCord Adams, in her book Horrendous Evil and the Goodness of God, makes a point that many particularly horrendous forms of evil make it difficult to explain the goodness of God and are “dysteleological horrors.” In other words, these evils could not be explained through general theodicy (or defense of God) because they do not have any telos (purpose) for the participants in these horrors.2 Adams just confirms the fact that horrendous evils could not be explained in general theories or theodicies (theoretical abstractions about the relation between evil and a benevolent and omnipotent God). Naturally, in order to solve this problem of contradiction between horrendous evil and the goodness of God, one has to “prove” that this goodness of God exists and works in the case of the particulars, namely, that God is good to individuals who participate in this radical form of evil.3 This, of course, poses the problem, both theoretically and then practically, in our own human experience.
In this article, I would first like to explore some contemporary, controversial issues within the philosophical discussion of the problem of evil and then try to offer some practical guidelines as to how to approach those who go through intense suffering, especially in the context of pastoral ministry.
Philosophical and theological discussion
Throughout the history of the philosophical problem of evil, there were many who offered relevant solutions or theodicies. Of all of them, it seems that Alvin Plantinga offered the closest solution faithful to the general Christian worldview. He stated that God had to allow the exercise of the free will of His creatures because a world
containing creatures who are sometimes significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but he cannot cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if he does so, then they are not significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, he must create creatures capable of moral evil; and he cannot leave these creatures free to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. God did in fact create significantly free creatures; but some of them went wrong in the exercise of their freedom: this is the source of moral evil. The fact that these free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against his goodness; for he could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by excising the possibility of moral good.4
To sum up this argument of Plantinga, he affirms that God could not create free creatures (in the very meaning of freedom as nondetermined by God) and at the same time prevent all evil in the world. That is why God had to create persons capable of moral evil. There are many different approaches and even limitations of free will defense or free will theodicy,5 but two of them are significant. The first, we already have seen in Adams’s critique of the problem of the general presentation of the issue. Plantinga’s theory never answers the problem of particular horrendous evil to the particular individual who needs to believe in the goodness of God.
It is too general. The second critique comes from the evaluation of the free will. As D. Z. Phillips commented, “Hasn’t God given us too much freedom? Why couldn’t he curtail it from time to time when there is an obvious need to do so? Such curtailment would show no lack of respect for human freedom. We may have the greatest respect for the freedom and independence of others, but we would not hesitate to intervene to save a person from impending disaster. Often, it is the least we could do. Why doesn’t God do the same?”6 Here, Phillips had in mind cases such as the real situation of multiple raping, torturing and killing of a small innocent girl by a group of young men. This horrendous evil per se could never be explained by the respect of free will in order to prove the goodness of God. Therefore, although free will theodicy offers the crucial insight into the problem of God’s permission of horrendous evils, it still does not solve the problem of the goodness of God to individuals and the problem of too much value of freedom in the face of extreme suffering.
The solution lies elsewhere. Philosophically and theologically speaking, there might be the closest solution to the problem of evil in the great controversy theory. Speaking about the causes of sin and suffering in this world, Ellen G. White says,
The inhabitants of heaven and of the other worlds, being unprepared to comprehend the nature of the consequences of sin, could not then have seen the justice and mercy of God in the destruction of Satan. Had he been immediately blotted from existence, they would have served God from fear rather than from love. The influence of the deceiver would not have been fully destroyed, nor would the spirit of rebellion have been utterly eradicated. Evil must be permitted to come to maturity. For the good of the entire universe through ceaseless ages Satan must more fully develop his principles, that his charges against the divine government might be seen in their true light by all created beings, that the justice and mercy of God and the immutability of His law might forever be placed beyond all question. . . .Thus, the history of this terrible experiment of rebellion was to be a perpetual safeguard to all holy intelligences to prevent them from being deceived as to the nature of transgression, to save them from committing sin and suffering its punishments.7
Ellen White clearly states that the solution does not lie only in the permission of the exercise of our freedom but in God’s permission of exercise of Satan’s primitive plans in order to secure the eternal good of the universe. This position, therefore, is founded on two pillars. The first is eternal purpose in God’s mind and the second is the mysterious unleashing of Satan’s intentions. Let us briefly discuss both of these points.
In the broader discussion of the “eternal purpose,” valuable is the citation by John R. Schneider, who comments on the book of Job in the context of horrendous evils that God allows. “It is very hard to see how what God permitted to happen to Job was necessary to bring about some indispensable great good. The only candidate I can see for this is the kind of wisdom that Job acquired—not in spite of his experiences, but directly because of them. . . .Perhaps it is the kind of wisdom that human beings must acquire and possess in order to have a mature relationship with God forever in heaven. I do not see why this scenario is implausible.”8 Schneider made a very insightful comment here. When God permits evil, He has some specific goal in mind. Even in horrendous forms of evil, His intent (general, but also particular) is to have a perfect and mature relationship with His creatures. This is a perpetual safeguard against future rebellion. While it is true that it is extremely difficult to fit the scene of the raped and tortured girl into this perhaps general picture, there still might be a possibility that God’s goodness becomes somehow justified in the face of His eternal purpose, although we must humbly admit that we do not always know how.
Speaking about the second pillar of the great controversy, or Satan’s role in the problem of evil, in the context of the book of Job the Lord never said to Job and his friends that there was a being such as Satan, but He affirms the fact that He does not rule the universe arbitrarily and that He is always in conflict with “Leviathan and Behemoth,” forces of evil sometimes totally out of control.9 Therefore, in the atmosphere of the so-called grudging domestication, God has to allow the development of evils caused by Satan and his cohorts just because the war has not ended. The sovereignty of God is not questioned in Job, but is severely challenged by the freedom of true agents of evil. Job admits his ignorance in regard to this mysterious reality of the cosmos. Grudging domestication reflects the reality that God does not like the permiting of Satan’s freedom, but still something seemingly mysterious exists in that God has to allow this evil being to almost fully develop its plans. God is sovereign, but because of His eternal love and eternal wisdom and purpose (perspectives we very often lose), He enters into this conflict with a limited but still relevant being of the evil one.
To sum up, not only the free will but the mysterious relationship between God’s eternal purposes and unleashed activities of agents of evil provide formal framework for better insight into the problem of intense suffering.
After this discussion on the problem of evil,10 I offer some practical suggestions for pastoral ministry.
Guidelines for pastoral ministry
French philosopher Simone Weil, who dealt much with the problem of evil, once said, “To those who live in this world, everything can happen without any rule.” It seems that the philosopher Van Inwagen is also correct when he states that
much of the evil in the world is due to chance. There is generally no explanation of why this evil happened to that person. What there is—is an explanation of why evils happen to people without any reason. And the explanation is: that is the part of what being separated from God means: it means being the playthings of chance. It means living in a world in which innocent children die horribly for no reason at all, and it means something worse than that: it means living in a world in which the wicked, through sheer luck, often prosper. Anyone who does not want to live in such a world, a world in which we are the playthings of chance, had better accept God’s offer of a way out of that world.11
What else could we say to Christian believers except this valuable insight? This is the objective reality of the problem and no one can deny it. It calls for reflection upon our reality of suffering but also for the final “exit” provided by the grace of God.
In our practical application of this principle and in the face of philosophicaltheological discussion above, there are a few guidelines I think we should follow in our work with those who went through horrendous forms of evil, or any evil that subjectively seems horrendous to particular persons.
Do not defend God. If we try intellectually and rationally to defend God’s benevolence or love to the person in the particular circumstances of horrendous sufferings, we will always forget something of the whole picture. The explanation is beyond human understanding and comprehension—beyond our grasp of the whole because we are limited. Free will theodicy might be closest to the general solution, but still how do we explain God’s silence in the case of particular innocent suffering (like the suffering by the genetic disease as in my sister’s case)? Some kinds of sufferings are not caused by the wrong exercise of anyone’s free will and no one is really guilty, they are caused by mysterious and unexplained chance. They just happen. We do not know why particular sufferings happen to particular persons. Let us be cautious not to play God’s role. Victor Hugo once said that if we could explain God (in the context of the problem of evil), we would be God.
Allow the person to question and lament. Without questioning God and the reality of suffering, there is no true faith. Allow the member of your congregation to ask. As the victim, they need to be completely free in expressing intellectual doubts, emotions, fears, laments, and even accusations of God.12 This is the only way to possible healing because after this purification process or catharsis, comes the “vision” of God (like in the book of Job). God Himself will permit this person to express their feelings and doubts and if they are honest and their life is going not from but toward God, God will first reveal Himself as the true Comforter and, second, He might even explain reasons for permission of the suffering, if necessary. We, as pastors, very often do not like expressions of faith through doubt and lament. Sincerity, however, includes these expressions and we should praise this sincerity in our members.
Be compassionate. Compassion remains as the only secure attitude toward the sufferers because it is Christlike. It seems that without compassion it would not be possible for anyone to transcend the intense suffering. Show compassion to the particular person by specific actions and words. Compassion also includes forgiveness of sins if the person is guilty for the suffering they experience. Compassion is always the key to complete understanding. Be sympathetic and considerate.
Emphasize the great controversy. Although we do not have final solutions, we might emphasize the eternal purpose of God. Persons who are going through intense suffering still need to keep their faith in God, who is at the same time sovereign and benevolent. They also need to understand that we are at war and it is not over yet. The mysterious unleashing of Satan could be felt by anyone, anywhere. This mysterious whole theory or great controversy theme might trigger the sense of divinity within the heart and bring some comfort or correction of a wrong accusation of God for a particular evil.
Direct the sufferer to participate in Christ’s suffering. Finally, even when we’ve used all our silence, compassion, and true theological and spiritual insights to help those who go through intense forms of suffering, there is one more thing to do: guide the person to Christ. This seems simple, but it is not. Through intense suffering, people are inclined to blame Christ and not to love Him. For this reason, we need to direct them to Christ by telling them about the participation in Christ’s sufferings. The apostle Paul considered this participation a special call and an honor13 and we know how intensely Paul was suffering. Through the power of Christ’s grace, we may love and honor Him even in a horrendous form of suffering, but only if we voluntarily accept participation in His sufferings as a special call of God. This is something to be grasped or to be rejected. Every disciple decides whether they will follow Christ through the suffering or not. In this participation, it seems, lies the ultimate theoretical, practical, and pastoral solution to the problem of radical suffering that will be very soon erased from the face of the earth once and for all.
Until that final point of history, it might be useful to have in mind C. S. Lewis’s remark: “If tribulation is a necessary element in redemption, we must anticipate that it will never cease till God sees the world to be either redeemed or no further redeemable.”14
1 This article is partially the summary of recently published work of Aleksandar S. Santrac, An Evaluation of Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defense: Whether Our Power To Do Bad is Something Good, with Interview and Comments of Alvin Plantinga (New York: Edwin Mellon Press, 2008). https:// www.mellenpress.com/mellenpress.cfm?bookid=7353&pc=9.
2 Marylin McCord Adams, Horrendous Evil and the Goodness of God (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999), 52.
3 Ibid., 78.
4 Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), 93, 94.
5 See Santrac, An Evaluation of Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defense: Whether Our Power To Do Bad is Something Good, 19–36.
6 D. Z. Phillips, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 106.
7 Ellen G. White, “Why Were Sin and Suffering Permitted?” in The Great Conflict Between Christ and Satan (Silver Spring, MD: Better Living Publications, 1990), 279, 280.
8 John R. Schneider, “Seeing God Where the Wild Things Are,” in Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil, Peter Van Inwagen, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 256.
9 Gregory A. Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 223–226.
10 For further philosophical-theological investigations of the problem of evil, see two compilations of the articles by famous philosophers of religion and theologians: William L. Rowe, ed. God and the Problem of Evil (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2001), or Peter Van Inwagen, ed. Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004).
11 Peter Van Inwagen, 72.
12 See the excellent reference book for pastoral ministry and the problem of evil by John Swinton, Raging with Compassion: Pastoral
Responses to the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 104. Swinton says that the lament is very often overlooked by pastors, and that this repeated sorrow mixed with rage is a prayer not only for the purpose of purification but also to prove to the whole universe that the person is the victim (ibid., 104).
13 Colossians 1:24 or Philippians 2:5–11.
14 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2000), 114.