Some Thoughts on Evil, Suffering, and Hope

Yesterday, my sister-in-law lost her mother to cancer. A horrible disease which took a sweet person way too soon. In times of sorrow and suffering the question of why is always on the forefront of our minds. Why now, why her, and why did she have to die from this horrible disease? 

In 2009, my wife and I lost our second child, Samantha, to a rare genetic abnormality. She was four days old. Why so soon? Is God punishing us? Children are to outlive their parents, right?

These moments of uncertainty and pain are times when we ask the big questions of life. When life is good, bodies are healthy, and we’re walking in the calm before the storm, the concerns of immortality are not the burning existential conversations front and center.

And yet, when cancer, sorrow, suffering, loss, and death comes knocking on the door, answers most often fall flat. Times of rumination and reflection on the existence of God, and tight apologetic arguments on suffering, and eternity, and why a good God can’t coexist with evil, rarely help in the midst of the storm. 

Apologetic arguments didn't help my wife and I as we grieved the death of our daughter.

But what I do know, or know in part, is that suffering and evil are real. Live long enough and will come in different shapes and kinds. Death is real and no one can outrun it. 

And what I know, again, in part, there’s hope in the storm. Not hope in a life where suffering and sorrow and death are avoided. That world doesn’t exist. Yet, I know a hope for walking right in the middle of the pain and loss. Hope with a steel spine. 

A couple weeks ago I ran across a quote that described this “steel-spine” hope. When I meditated on the words, it gave me hope in a season where many people in my life are walking through hard times. Experiencing much sorrow and the dark night of the soul.  Maybe you know a few. 

Here is what Frederick Buechner said about evil and suffering:

God is all-powerful.
God is all-good.
Terrible things happen.
You can reconcile any two of these propositions with each other, but you can't reconcile all three. The problem of evil is perhaps the greatest single problem for religious faith.
 There have been numerous theological and philosophical attempts to solve it, but when it comes down to the reality of evil itself, they are none of them worth much. When a child is raped and murdered, the parents are not apt to take much comfort from the explanation (better than most) that since God wants us to love him, we must be free to love or not to love and thus free to rape and murder a child if we take a notion to.
 Christian Science solves the problem of evil by saying that it does not exist except as an illusion of mortal mind. Buddhism solves it in terms of reincarnation and an inexorable law of cause and effect whereby the raped child is merely reaping the consequences of evil deeds she committed in another life.
 Christianity, on the other hand, ultimately offers no theoretical solution at all. It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene—not even this—but that God can turn it to good. -Originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words

The cross of Jesus is where evil was ultimately disarmed, given an eviction notice, and an expiration date. On the cross, Jesus winked at death, sin, hell, and Satan and said: nice try, it is finished. 

The steel spine hope we need is not found in what our intellectual minds can muster or hearts can feel. Hope is found in a person, Another, and in historical realties and events in time and space.  

Cross and Resurrection says: no life is too far gone, nobody too ravished by cancer, no sin too deep, mind too warped, relationships too shipwrecked, or death knocking on the door, to have hope. 

God had an eternal plan through the death and resurrection of Jesus to restore all that was lost, and all that is unjust, and all that is dark, and all the messes we’ve made because of ignoring our Maker and Redeemer. 

We don’t have to have tight answers to existential questions to have hope. The problem of evil and suffering is difficult even for the most devout disciple of Jesus. But, there’s always hope. 

The realities of life under the sun expose three truths: God is all-powerful, God is all-good, and terrible things happen. The cross helps us live with the tension that evil and sorrow and pain can be turned to good. We need not ignore, minimize, or pretend evil and suffering is easy, or try to find destructive ways to avoid it.

But thanks be to God a victory has been won on our behalf in Christ Jesus. Thank God, we still have a steel spine hope afforded to us.

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. -1 Corinthians 15:56-57