Thursday, March 26, 2020
Part One: God's Morally Sufficient Reasons for Permitting Evil and Suffering: Thoughts on COVID-19 And Jesus' Raising of Lazarus From The Dead.
John 11:1-4 "Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. 3 So the sisters sent word to Him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” 4 But when Jesus heard this, He said, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.”
Introduction: Let me say upfront...
In this post and the next, we want to consider reasons why God delays (or seems to delay) in preventing pain and suffering. I want to say from the onset that this post in no way claims to know specific reasons why God would allow certain things to happen in particular situations. I've learned it is sometimes better to wait and remain silent than to offer what can often be presumptuous and ill-timed remarks. If details within the circumstance presents themselves in light of scripture and to a heart prepared for the answer, we then may have liberty to communicate what God is possibly doing.
The intentions I have instead are to offer what morally sufficient reasons God has in His working through the broader patterns of evil and suffering in our world. Such Divine reasons do apply in every detail of life, with the understanding being that we may or may not ever find out what those reasons are. God's desire is not for us to just know that He exists, but for us to know Him in a saving way (see 2 Peter 3:9-10). I would encourage interested readers to explore the end notes I have included in this post that dig deeper into the discussion.
The problem of evil, suffering, COVID-19 and God's morally sufficient reasons for allowing such.
The problem of evil and suffering or, as C.S. Lewis calls it: "the problem of pain", has occupied both philosophical and theological discussions among thinkers past and present.1
Whether we're talking about humanly-contrived evils such as 911 or naturally-occurring evils such as the COVID-19 virus, people's minds rightly raise the question: "why so much evil?" In a recent conversation I had with a friend, they brought up the good point that we could raise a second question: "why does God, as a holy and just God, continue to remain patient with us?"
As we find ourselves in an escalating pandemic, it is important for Christians to shine the light of hope in Jesus Christ to all people. The Christian worldview uniquely has the resources to equip people spiritually and psychologically to face the turmoil of COVID-19 while seeking medically and socially viable solutions to this crisis. We will consider today and tomorrow an episode in Jesus' earthly ministry that involved Him as God-incarnate dealing with the death of a beloved friend - Lazarus.2
As we reflect upon this episode in John 11, we will offer five truths (with the first three today) that can aid greatly in understanding the realities of evil, suffering and disease as they are morally permitted by a God that is Himself all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful. This post will aim to offer some reasons why God would allow such evils as COVID-19 to be in our world.
1. God's first morally sufficient
reason for permitting pain and
suffering is to bring about a
greater good related to His will.
John 11:5-6 states -
"Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. (6) So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was."
Jesus purposefully delayed going to Lazarus. Why? a greater good was in view. What was the greater good? John 11:14-15 tells us:
"So Jesus then said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, (15) and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.”
Jesus knew that if He raised Lazarus when He raised Him, the disciples' faith in Him would strengthen. They were in no position to see that outcome. In many instances, the possibility of God working out a greater good through His Divine permission of evil and suffering seems quite remote.
Nevertheless, the Bible and Christian worldview affirm two important features of our world in light of God's existence: there is a purpose to our life and there is no such thing as pointless suffering.3 Furthermore, the Bible and Christianity affirms two additional truths which bring focus to the first two truths: Jesus' incarnation and the cross.
The incarnation of the Son God meant that God, as the Person of the Son becoming also a man, came to deal directly with pain and suffering. The cross reminds us that the incarnate Son of God experienced first-hand pain and suffering, resulting in the proclamation that God has overcome sin and death by His resurrection from the dead.
The timing of Jesus in waiting for two days before going to Lazarus was such that the delay proved quite strategic, as we will see later on in John 11. So, God often-times wills to permit evil and suffering to bring about a greater good which accomplishes His purposes.4
2. God's second morally sufficient
reason for permitting pain and
suffering is to develop
Why else would God permit evil and suffering to persist in our world? for the development of moral character in people. Think about His conversation with Martha in John 11:20-27
"Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him, but Mary stayed at the house. (21) Martha then said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. (22) Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” (23) Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” (24) Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” (25) Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, (26) and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” (27) She said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.”
By the end of the conversation, Martha's faith and perspective on Jesus and the meaning of life had shifted to a more Christ-centered direction. She would never be the same after this miracle. What if Jesus had arrived two days prior? Would we had witnessed this conversation? Would Martha had experienced such a life-altering change?
As the late pastor and SBC statesman, Adrian Rogers, noted about God's seeming delays: "God's delays are not God's denials". God can use circumstances - both evil and good, difficult and easy - to nudge a person in a moral and spiritual direction (see John 16:7-11). So, God's morally sufficient reasons for permitting pain and suffering include some greater good and the development of Godly character. Notice a third possible morally sufficient reason God may have for permitting evil and suffering in our world.
3. God's third morally sufficient
reason for permitting pain and
suffering is to bring about
conditions which bring about a
positive response to the Gospel
The situation of Jesus and Lazarus in John 11 reminds me of another episode in which Jesus answers questions directly related to why God allows evil and suffering in our world. In Luke 13:1-5 Jesus has the following conversation -
"Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. (2) And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? (3) I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (4) Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? (5) I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Jesus is dealing with two incidents, both of which He never gives the full reasons for why God permitted them to occur. The only common thread we find in Jesus' two examples is the urgency for His audience to repent. Jesus showed His audience that they ought to see themselves as sinners in need of grace before a Holy God, rather than to presume their entitlement to an easy life that they think God owes them.
Repentance is both a Divine gifting of grace and definite turning of the mind and heart from sin unto Christ (see Acts 2:36-38; 2 Timothy 2:24-25). Mind you, these morally sufficient reasons cannot on their own explain every instance for why there may be suffering in a given situation, yet, increasing darkness can prepare people for a more likely reception of light.
Closing thoughts for today
Jesus doesn't lay out the philosophical nor theological reasons for the Tower of Siloam falling on bystanders nor the slaughter of worshipers of God in the temple. But one thing is certain: God can use bad things to get our attention. We may not grasp the "whys". All we know is that it is incumbent upon every person to be sure they are right with God through reception of Jesus by faith. When we return back to John 11:45, we read the following outcome of this miracle - "Therefore many of the Jews who came to Mary, and saw what He had done, believed in Him."
1. Skeptics have historically raised two types of arguments against God's existence with respect to the problem of evil.
The first sort of argument suggests it is impossible to affirm both God's existence and the reality of evil. The second type of argument poses a more modest proposal, namely that given all of the evil in the world, it is improbable that God exists.
The first of these arguments, called the "logical problem of evil" assumes God has no morally sufficient reasons for willing to allow evil in the world. The way to respond to the first argument is to show the skeptic that no one is in any position to affirm there being no such reasons, since we are finite and God is infinite.
The second type of argument, called "the probabilistic argument of evil", focuses upon the amount and types of evil as being far too much to account for God's existence. Again, the Christian can show that whenever we consider the lines of evidences for God's existence (origin of the universe, fine-tuning of the universe for life, the reality of objective moral values and duties and other arguments), then such evidences counter-balances and outweighs any improbability one could affirm if they only focused on the world's evil and suffering. The above post covered what is perhaps one of the most familiar miracles of Jesus recorded in the four Gospels - the raising of Lazarus from the dead. In this particular post, I simply wanted to lay out some of the Biblical and life-practical reasons that explains God's morally sufficient purposes for permitting pain and suffering. What followed was not meant to be exhaustive, since there are morally sufficient reasons that God has for permitting much of what we see and yet, we're not in the position to necessarily know what those reasons are.
2. As we turn our attention to Jesus' actions in John 11, the overwhelming questions before us is this: "why did Jesus delay in healing Lazarus and allow him to continue to suffer and then die?" As I noted already, Jesus expresses Himself as God in the flesh (see Matthew 26:64; 28:17; John 8:58). Moreover, Jesus' own disciples and the Gospel writers concluded that Jesus was indeed the decisive revelation of God in human flesh, being truly God and truly man in One Person (see Matthew 1:23; John 1:14). Most of all, Jesus' own enemies drew the conclusion that Jesus' actions and words were meant to convey that He regarded Himself as God-incarnate (see Mark 2:5-7). We have then a test case for wrestling with what possible morally-sufficient reasons were used by Jesus in what He would say and do in light of Lazarus' death.
3. The literature refers to the idea of "pointless suffering" by the technical name: "gratuitous evil". Some atheists have attempted to argue against God's existence on the grounds that events such as the death of animals in a forest fire counts as an example of "gratuitous" or "pointless evil". Such a move attempts to undercut the Christian conviction of purpose and meaning in our world due to God's existence. The Christian can respond by pressing the atheist to list criteria by which we could judge a given event as an example of "gratuitous evil". It would be argued that no skeptic can shoulder the burden-of-proof required to demonstrate any evil or suffering as "pointless".
4. As we consider the pathology of such diseases as COVID-19, we only have three choices for explaining why it is ultimately happening: chance, Satan or God's sovereignty. What people claim they believe and how they behave can often differ.
The concerted effort to strategically fight the virus suggests that, deep down, people don't believe we are the result of blind-chance and forces of nature. The second option for why such a thing as COVID-19 existing could be Satan. There is no doubt about, Satan is directly responsibility for much of the evil in our world, yet, He is not Sovereign and furthermore, He is bounded by finite limitations as a creature. Whatever level of involvement Satan may have (we know he can work in diseases, such as Job's case in the book of Job), the fact there are often greater goods to emerge from otherwise ravaging evils suggests Satan is not the ultimate explanation.
The only option left is that God's Sovereignty wills to permit the occurrences of such evils. The Bible rightly reminds us that God is not the author of evil and suffering (Habakkuk 1:13; 1 Corinthians 10:13; James 1:13). God does use evil and the choices of sinful creatures to bring about His greater purposes (see Genesis 50:20; Acts 2:23-24; 4:27-28; Romans 8:28).