A reader of my blog “Sic et Non” has raised the venerable problem of evil. Philosophers term it the question of “theodicy,” which focuses on whether and (if so) how, given the existence of evil, a belief in God’s goodness and in divine providence can be justified.
For the faithful, this is often one of the thorniest and most difficult of challenges. And it seems, at least temporarily, to have cost my reader his faith in a benevolent God.
In a recent blog entry titled “On a Disagreeable God”, I had written that “the God who revealed himself through the Prophet Joseph Smith and the Restoration” is a kind and benevolent Father who wants to give us everything that he has and to make us what he is.
That reader responded. It seems that somebody he loves has recently undergone a horrific experience of some painful kind, leading him to conclude that God, if God exists, is not loving and that revelations that describe God as loving are lies.
Obviously, one might reply by pointing out that chronic illness, economic catastrophes, birth defects, natural disasters, premature deaths, horrific accidents, plagues, war, hunger, debilitating mental and emotional challenges, violent criminality, betrayals, and other challenges to belief in a benevolent, almighty God have been on abundant display since the advent of humanity. Had the reader been unaware of that fact?
Joseph Smith wasn’t playacting during the Missouri persecutions when he cried out from his own imprisonment in Liberty Jail:
“O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?
How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries? Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them?” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:1-3)
And, from the cross on Golgotha, the Savior himself cried out ““My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). That is why, in answer to Joseph Smith’s anguished appeal from Liberty Jail, the Lord could respond by reminding Joseph that “The Son of Man hath descended below them all” and asking him, rhetorically, “Art thou greater than he?” (Doctrine and Covenants 122:8) He was not, of course, and, in June 1844, Joseph was murdered by a mob at Carthage Jail.
But to remind my reader that he and his loved one are not the first to have suffered would merely be to pile unsympathetic cruelty on top of already acute pain and, thus, to play the role of one of Job’s very unhelpful accusers.
We’ve all experienced grief in this life. Or, if we haven’t, we will. For one thing, every earthly relationship ends in death, if it has not already ended before. Without going into inappropriate detail, I can speak from at least a little bit of personal experience: For years, my own life sailed on blissfully without serious issue and, foolishly, I imagined that it always would. I’ve long since been cured of that delusion.
Those who confront their own suffering or that of a loved one should not be blamed or censured if the experience knocks them from their moorings. It’s one thing to discourse theoretically, perhaps while comfortably seated in a class at church or even a course on philosophy, about the challenge posed by evil and sorrow; it’s quite another to face sorrow and evil directly, personally, perhaps devastatingly.
C.S. Lewis wrote a wonderful and still helpful book entitled “The Problem of Pain.” Twenty years later, when he lost his wife to cancer, he wrote a very different book: “A Grief Observed.” Throughout his Christian literary life, Lewis had compared God to a physician, even to a surgeon, and had likened humans to God’s “patients.” At the end of “A Grief Observed,” he wrote that “Two widely different convictions press more and more on my mind.” One of them, he said, “is that the Eternal Vet is even more inexorable and the possible operations even more painful than our severest imaginings can forebode.”
My mention of the biblical book of Job, above, is entirely appropriate in this context. Theodicy, the problem of evil, is the focus and theme of that great piece of ancient poetic drama. And what is its answer to the problem? Basically, the answer given at Job 38-42 is that God is so much more powerful and wise than we are that any answer he might give us is beyond our comprehension. To put it in C.S. Lewis’s terms, God is a surgeon to whose superior knowledge and skill we patients must humbly submit if we are to be healed.
An entirely innocent and righteous man, Job has lost absolutely everything—his family, his possessions, and his health—and he wants to know why this has happened to him:
“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said,
“Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?
“Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.
“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.
“Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?
“Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;
“When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? . . .
“Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? he that reproveth God, let him answer it.” (Job 38:1-7; 40:2)
Job’s reaction is one of humble submission:
“Then Job answered the Lord, and said,
“Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth.
“Once have I spoken; but I will not answer: yea, twice; but I will proceed no further. . . .
“Then Job answered the Lord, and said,
“I know that thou cans’t do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee.
“Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.” (40:3-5; 42:1-3)
And the fact is that, in this life, we plainly don’t understand “why bad things happen to good people.” We know, yes, that we are here to be tested. (See, for example, Abraham 3:25.). But, in the end, sometimes believers can only say, as Job did, “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Glib, smooth answers, formulaic and therefore in a sense “easy,” carry no power and, in many cases, can actually wound. It is usually far better simply to stand by those who suffer, to pray and to weep with them, and to help if and where we can.
Even deity is challenged by the fact of pain and suffering. According to the shortest verse of the Bible (John 11:35), “Jesus wept” at the death of Lazarus. And, in Moses 7, speaking of his mortal earthly children, God himself asks “wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?” (See Moses 7:37.)
The prophet Isaiah will serve to represent all of the prophets who have spoken of a future day when such suffering will be in the past:
“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
“And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
“And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.
“They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:6-9)
But that day is clearly not yet. And even the most pleasant future day of peace won’t undo the suffering of the generations who lived and died before its dawn. Nevertheless, the Gospel does afford us answers, in a sense, and it offers answers of the most comforting kind.
In William Shakespeare’s play “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” the title character, who has endured assassination attempts, enforced self-exile, and the loss of a beloved wife and an adored daughter, hears heavenly music when, against all reason and expectation, he discovers his daughter alive. And when, shortly thereafter, he finds that his wife has also survived, he exclaims:
“This, this: no more, you gods! your present kindness
Makes my past miseries sports.”
The blessings to which Pericles refers so dwarf his past agonies that his previous sufferings are swallowed up and almost forgotten.
However, Pericles and his re-found family will still face eventual illness and death and all “the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Thus, what Shakespeare depicts in a fictional tale cannot compare with what the apostle Paul declares to be absolute and literal truth concerning the world to come:
“For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)
“All your losses will be made up to you in the resurrection,” declared the Prophet Joseph Smith, “provided you continue faithful. By the vision of the Almighty I have seen it.”
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes,” says John the Revelator of those who are saved, “and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
“But as it is written,” says Paul, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
The ultimate symbol for what I’m saying here, of course, is Easter itself. Death and resurrection. Jesus was subjected to inconceivable agony and, in dying, to the worst possible injury and defeat from a purely mortal point of view, the most complete and irredeemable loss. All earthly hopes and prospects were at an end. No ambitions remained. All human relationships were severed. But then, triumphantly, he rose from the dead “with healing in his wings” (Malachi 4:2) and he now sits on the right hand of the Father in everlasting, never-dimming glory.
Our faith, therefore, centers in Jesus Christ, “He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth; which truth shineth.” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:6-7.)
“The fundamental principles of our religion,” taught the Prophet Joseph Smith “are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”
One of the two things that C.S. Lewis said “pressed” upon his mind as he grieved for his wife was “that the Eternal Vet is even more inexorable and the possible operations even more painful than our severest imaginings can forebode.” But what was the second? It was, he said, quoting the words of the mystic Dame Julian of Norwich (d. ca. AD 1416), that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”