The Problem of Evil

Genesis 8:1-5, 13-22
October 30, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Introduction to scripture:

In the year 2000, George Barna conducted a poll which asked people, “If you could ask God only one question and you knew God would give you an answer, what would you ask?”  The most common response was, “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?”1

This was also a question that one of you posed in my “Ask the Pastor” series, and so in this final sermon of the series, I am going to tackle that universal question.  For some, the question is primarily a theological one: “Why would a perfect God create such an imperfect world?  How can a good God allow evil to exist?”  For others the question is more of a lament: “Why God, must we suffer?  What good are you if you can’t stop genocide, or school shootings, or even the bitter strife of our current political campaign?”  In fact, I suspect that until November 8th, more of us than usual will be asking, “Why must we suffer so?”

Whether the question is asked as a philosophical puzzle or as a personal prayer, in theological circles, this question is known as, “The Problem of Evil.”  In fact, in the 1970s, some atheists argued that the persistence of evil in the world proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that God cannot exist because, they claimed, a morally perfect all powerful God would not allow evil to be present in the world but since we know that there is evil and suffering, it is logically impossible for there also to be a God.   I’ll come back to their argument later in the sermon, but before I do, I’d like to turn first to a famous Biblical story that addresses this very question: “Why is there evil in the world?”  The story is familiar one but its conclusion is one that may surprise you.  (My sermons are starting to sound like You Tube ads:  “Listen to this story; what comes next will surprise you!”)

The story I’m going to talk about is the story of Noah and the Ark found in Genesis 6-9.  Most of the story is familiar to you so I am just going to read some pertinent excerpts from that story.

[Read Genesis 6:5-8, 8:20-22]

The book of Genesis contains what I have referred to as teaching stories.  These are stories that were not designed to be historical but were told to teach us something about our human experience and our relationship to God.  One of these teaching stories is the story of Noah and the Ark.  You can tell right away that this story was not intended to record history but to teach a lesson because after Noah gets off the ark, what does he do?  He kills some of the animals he has saved as a sacrifice to God.  If this is a historical story, Noah just caused some species’ extinction — he’s only got two of every kind — but the story is not concerned about making sense historically.  It tells us upfront that this will be a teaching story about the persistence of evil in humankind.  The story teller reveals that intention in the opening sentences which say “the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth.”

The story of Noah is essentially a story about the problem of evil — where does it come from and what do we do about it? — only in this story, it isn’t people who are asking those questions; it is God!  God looks down from the heavens and realizes that the perfect creation God intended has somehow gone off the rails.  People aren’t behaving as God hoped they would and instead of filling the earth with compassion and beauty, human beings have soiled it with wickedness and evil.  When God decides that the only course of action is to start all over again, the story implies that God has concluded that the presence of evil in the world is a result of some fundamental flaw in the original creation of human beings.  The original programming had a bug in it and rather than trying to update the app and fix the software, God is going to start over from scratch.  God’s going to reboot creation.

So at the beginning of the story of Noah, God considers the problem of evil and comes to a conclusion that many of us make ourselves: that evil comes from some fundamental flaw in people.  We even use words like “inhumane” to describe evil people because in Middle English, inhumane literally meant, “not human.”  “Those evil people are not really human.”  While we may cause ordinary sorts of hurts to others, we assure ourselves, someone who is cruel on a Hitler sized scale must be alien to the human experience; they must be irredeemably flawed.

In the story of Noah, God starts out in the same mental place:  “These people I made,” God sighs, “are so bad that there is no saving them.  There’s only one family in the entire place that came out the way I intended so my best course of action is to throw all the rest out and start again.”  And if we have any doubt about the fact that this story is supposed to be a re-boot of creation, the story tellers are explicit in the imagery they use showing how Noah’s story echoes the original act of creation.

In the very beginning, Genesis 1:1 says, “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

In the final days of the flood, Genesis 8:1 says, “God made a wind to blow over the earth and the waters subsided.”

In the story of creation, God gathers the waters together so that the dry land might appear.

In the story of Noah, God makes the waters recede from the earth and the tops of the mountains appear.

And just in case the listener hasn’t gotten the parallel yet, the Noah story notes in chapter 8 verse 13, that it was  “on the first day of the first month of the year that the waters dried up and Noah took the cover off of the ark.”  The first day of the first month of the year:  what’s that day?  It’s New Year’s Day.  God has swept away the old and from this day forward, everything starts afresh.  It’s a new creation and this time, God hopes, things will look different.  People will be the kind of people that God intended from the start because God has rid the earth of that flaw that caused all of the evil and suffering to begin with.

Only, God’s plan doesn’t work.  And here is the part of the story that we don’t generally tell our kids in Sunday School:  after Noah and his family leave the ark and plant a Garden (does that remind you of any other story), Noah uses the grape harvest to get roaringly drunk and passes out naked in his tent where his sons see his shame.  Noah is selected by God as the most righteous man in the world, and yet just like Adam, he repeats the cycle of sin and shame, and — bamm— we are right back to where we started.

At the end of the story, with what must have been the deepest sigh in all eternity, God concludes, “The inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.”  God realizes that God can’t rid the world of evil if God is going to keep the people, because all people, even the best among us — even the Noahs — have the capacity for evil in our hearts.  And God, at the end of this story, suddenly understands the nature of this creature that God has made: to be human is to be free to choose between good and evil and sometimes some of us will choose evil.

Why is there evil in the world?  The story of Noah says it’s because we are human and to be human is to be free to choose our own path.

Now, to go back to that argument made by some atheists in the 1970s, the atheists said that an all powerful all knowing God could have decided to create human beings in such a way that we would always choose right so no one would suffer but the philosopher Alvin Plantinga put their argument to rest when he pointed out that while God might have created such a creature, whatever that creature was wouldn’t have been human.  A creature that always choses right is a robot or an angel or a puppet; whatever it is, it is certainly not us, because what makes us human is our freedom to make moral choices.  In fact, it is that freedom to choose that makes life meaningful to us.  We hold the love of our family and friends dear because we know that instead of love, they could choose to hate us or ignore us.  When their love for us is freely given, when they continue to love us even when we mess up and others fall away, when they love us through sickness and tough times, when they choose to sacrifice their own needs in order to remain steadfast in love, our hearts are strengthened and our souls are made whole because we know that they chose us.  We could program a robot to tell us that it loves us and instruct it to meet our every need but such a love would not be very meaningful because we would always know that the robot was only doing what it was programmed to do.  The meaning of our lives comes from the choices that people freely make on our behalf and others.

Alvin Plantinga said, “God could not eliminate much of the evil and suffering in the world without thereby eliminating the greater good of having created persons with free will with whom God could have relationships and who are able to love one another and do good deeds.”

In the story of Noah, people don’t change after the flood but God does.

“The inclination of the human heart,” God concludes, “is evil from youth so what am I to do?  I cannot prevent them from making choices that will lead to suffering, but I can do this: I can promise that they will not have to bear their suffering alone.  I will be with them,” God pledges, “as long as the earth endures,” or in the words of another who bore our suffering to the cross, “I will be with you always even to the close of the age.”

This is the face of love that Christ showed us from the cross and told us that we are to show to one another. Like God, we too have to understand that we cannot eliminate evil from the earth but we can make it harder for it to exist by refusing to give in to the evil of our own hearts.  Jesus said that we are to pray for our enemies and return hurt with forgiveness, because at the least — at the very least — we will have lessened the evil in the world by lessening the evil of our own hearts.  To try to defeat hate with hate is only to shift the battlefield from our enemy to ourselves.

But we have a greater promise than even this because as Christians we know that the cross didn’t end with defeat.  Christ’s insistence on love even in the face of brutality and evil opened up new paths for the world.  It reminded people that they were free to choose their own way forward and showed them that when they let go of their hatred and chose instead to follow the way of love, new life was possible.  One could argue that after the story of Noah, the rest of the Bible is a story of God’s determination to show us that we have the freedom to choose love as well as hate, light as well as dark, and that when we believe that and choose life, we can live not only lives of meaning for ourselves but we can defeat evil by setting free the hearts of those in its dark embrace.

In the late 2000’s a young man named Derek Black was a prominent face in the White Nationalist movement, a movement that preaches white supremacy.  He had been nurtured in the bigotry of that worldview: his father ran a popular website promoting white supremacy and his mother had previously been married to David Duke.  When Derek became a teenager, he began his own radio show supporting white nationalist and even organized youth conferences to spread their beliefs.  Derek was homeschooled but at age 21, he decided to go to college to learn more about European history, thinking his studies would legitimize his claim that whites were superior to other races.  He enrolled at New College, Florida and moved away from home for the first time in his life.  At first, he kept a low profile.  Though he still continued to call in weekly to his radio show, none of his friends knew about his views.  In 2011, however, when Derek went to Germany to study abroad for a semester, a classmate discovered his involvement with the White Nationalist movement and posted his discovery on the college forum.  The forum exploded and Derek’s views became public.

When he returned from Germany, Derek was ostracized by his fellow students so he  moved off campus, continuing his studies but also his involvement with the White Nationalist movement.  It seemed that the attacks he had received and the isolation had not changed his views.

Until one day, a student named Mathew Stevenson decided to try a different approach.  Stevenson was an orthodox Jew who hosted weekly Sabbath dinners at his apartment for anyone interested in participating.  His regular attendees included Christians, atheists, black students, latino students, anyone open to good food accompanied by a few prayers and candle light.  Matthew knew Derek was anti-semitic but decided that since isolation hadn’t worked to change Derek’s mind, maybe inclusion would.  Derek, for his part, was tired of being alone.  Since this was the first invitation he had received since being back at college, he took it.  The regular guests were quite anxious when they heard Derek would be coming to dinner but Matthew told them not to bring up Derek’s views, and the conversation remained polite.  In fact, Derek enjoyed the dinner enough that he came back the next Friday, and the next, and eventually became a regular attendee.  As the months went by, and the group became friends with Derek, they began to ask him about his views, listening without attacking, and in turn Derek began asking them about their lives and their beliefs.

Derek’s conversion — one might say redemption — didn’t happen immediately; it took months and years of more talk, more study, and a growing recognition that his belief system didn’t fit the world he had learned to see.  Finally in 2013, Derek admitted that he had been wrong.  He wrote a long letter to the White Nationalist website disavowing his past views, and causing a terrible rift with his family.  He says that the pain of that split is hard, but it feels good to trust people again.2  Before, he had believed that hatred and mistrust were the only paths before him, but Matthew Stevenson and his friends at the Sabbath dinner had showed him another path.  He could choose instead to love, and it was the freedom of that choice that saved him.

We suffer because we are human.  We are mortal and so we will sometimes hurt others too often be hurt ourselves.  Because we are free to choose, we will sometimes choose cruelty instead of kindness, and vengeance instead of mercy, but God promises to be with us through it all, to bear the suffering with us, to hold us up when we fall, and to constantly point us in a better direction where we can choose love.  When we choose the path of love, we will bring defeat to the evil that enchains us all and we will be saved.

Footnotes:

1. Though this survey is cited frequently on the Internet, I couldn’t find the original source. The Barna Group, however, regularly surveys religious attitudes in America and you can read about their methodology at http://www.barna.com

2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-white-flight-of-derek-black/2016/10/15/ed5f906a-8f3b-11e6-a6a3-d50061aa9fae_story.html