The Problem of Evil

evil-emoticon_318-40171Well, the clear-thinking Christian is back!  After almost a year off, I’m back to blogging with a great deal to share.  In short form, I’m now retired…after 24 years of Active Duty in the Air Force, I’m moving on to other things, one of which I hope to be blogging more regularly.

Shortly after my announced retirement from the Air Force, I was invited to White Sulphur Springs — a Christian retreat center in Pennsylvania — to give eight talks in six days on this extremely difficult topic.  I have an interesting perspective here, since I can speak to the topic both as a theologian, and a brain cancer survivor who has known more suffering than most.  For those who attended that retreat, this blog is for you — essentially the written form of the first lesson or two I taught during the plenary sessions.

So if there is a God, at least the Christian concept of Him, why do we suffer?  Why is there so much evil in the world?  This is classically known as “The Problem of Evil,” and an attempt to answer it is formally called a “theodicy.”  If God is loving as we claim, then He would want to prevent all evil and suffering.  If God is omnipotent as we claim, then He would be able to prevent all evil and suffering.  Yet, it exists in abundance — so which is it?  Does it exist and He allowed it, so he is not loving?  Or does it exist and He couldn’t prevent it, so He is not powerful?  This is traditionally presented in this form as the “logical” problem of evil, often offered by atheists or critics of Christianity as a potential inconsistency or even a contradiction in the Christian concept of God.

But is there a contradiction or inconsistency here?  As Christians, we cannot deny either His sovereignty and omnipotence or His goodness.  Scripture is clear with regard to both.

  1.  God is loving.  We know from Scripture that our God is a loving God.  We can read in 1 John 4:8 that “God is love,” and we can read in 1 Corinthians 13 how He defines love.  That means we can take the description of love in Corinthians and actually apply those as attributes of God.  This means God is patient, kind, does not delight in evil, always protects us, hopes, and perseveres.  His love never fails.  Of course, the greatest expression of His love is found in John 3:16 and Romans 5:8, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us — and greater love has no man than this.  Why did He do that?  Because He loves us.  Ephesians 3:18 tells us that even the saints of God struggle to comprehend the width, length, height, and depth of the love of God.  There can be no question that God loves us beyond comprehension.
  2. God is powerful.  This is hardly in dispute, but Scripture is equally clear here.  This is evident from the very first chapter of Genesis — as the One who has created the universe — all space, matter, and time — He is spaceless, timeless, and immaterial, and immensely powerful.  Job tells us in Chapter 42 that “…you can do all things [this is omnipotence], no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”   Who can thwart God’s plans?  No one.  He is too powerful.
  3. Evil exists.  This is likely the least disputable of the three points normally offered in the “problem of evil” critique of Christianity.  Worthy of its own blog, evil is generally categorized into two “camps” — moral evil (man’s inhumanity to man), and natural evil (natural disaster, disease, etc).  In his book The Many Faces of Evil, John Feinberg documents the true extent of man’s inhumanity.  Dr. Clay Jones, my professor on this topic at Biola University, also wrote an article several years ago on human evil.  The facts are chilling.  In the 20th Century alone, communism has killed between 20 and 26 million, most in horrible fashion — such as the forced starvation of 6 million Ukrainians.  Under Mao, it is another 30 million, and Mao at one point bragged that he had buried alive 46,000 scholars who disagreed with him.  Read the Rape of Nanking — and we haven’t even mentioned the Holocaust yet, with its 17,000,000 dead.  This only scratches the surface — the human capacity for evil is unimaginable.  Natural evil is often more inexplicable, from the Asian tsunami in December 2004 to the Haitian earthquake a few months later, even cancer…if God is good and powerful, how are these things possible?

This is the “Problem of Evil,” classically presented.  The world is full of evil, both moral (human) evil and natural evil.  As a five-time cancer survivor, I have seen it and felt it first-hand.  In the next blog, we will work to present a basic theodicy — that is, a basic explanation of how the three facts presented above are not contradictory.  God is good.  God is powerful.  Evil exists.  This is not a contradiction.

(Note:  You can listen to audio from this presentation here:

Part 1:  Introduction and the Logical Problem of Evil 

Part 2:  Can God be Both Good and Sovereign, Given Evil?  

Part 3:  The Kinds of Evil, Mankind’s Capacity for Evil  

Part 4:  God’s Sovereign Will, Why God Allows Suffering  

Part 5:  Sermonette:  God, Evil, and Suffering  

Four Quick Tips on Conversing with Muslims

ChristianityIslam    Many times, when fellow Christians hear of my apologetic and evangelistic focus on Muslims, they are simply aghast. “I wouldn’t even know how to talk to a Muslim!” they say. “Weren’t you scared?” ask others. “How did you know what to say?” Well, I don’t always know. But I’ve talked to Muslims in Egypt and Turkey, and I’ve had lengthy conversations – some spanning years – with Muslims from Oman, England, Pakistan, and elsewhere, and I’ve never been scared, and I can hopefully shed some light on how to approach these difficult conversations.

  1. Approach them prayerfully.

If prayers for Muslims are not a part of your regular prayer life, they should be. As I pointed out in a previous blog, these wonderful people are beautiful creations of God, and God has already told us that He desires all men to be saved (1 Tim 2:4) and come to a knowledge of God. We are also clearly instructed by Jesus Himself to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us – this may apply to Muslims, or atheists, or almost any other unbeliever. How many of you have made ISIS a topic of regular prayer (for their salvation, not their destruction)? You are clearly commanded to in Matthew 5:44. The first step to any successful engagement with Muslims is to make them a regular part of your prayer life, and this may include your own attitude as well, so that your heart is “in the right place” to converse with Muslims.

  1. Approach them respectfully.

Muslims, and unfortunately many others in our society, are quite used to being disrespected and “talked down to” by Christians, especially those who are trying to evangelize. Muslims are not just backwater Mongols who led the Ottoman Empire to conquer a third of Europe in the 16th Century – they are prominent members of American society today, from doctors and lawyers to educators, business owners, even Nobel prizewinners in physics (Abdu Salam) and molecular biology/chemistry (Aziz Sancar). This is actually a good rule of thumb for all engagements in life, as you never know when you may be talking to a Muslim (or a Nobel prizewinner). I have a friend who is a devout Muslim, but rides a Harley and looks the part! Not all Arabs or middle-easterners are Muslims, and not all Muslims are middle-eastern or Arab, so approach each conversation with great respect for the person and the religion. You don’t have to agree with it, but my all means don’t disrespect it.   If you do, your conversation will be over before it starts.

  1. Approach them fearlessly.

This may come as a “shocker” to some. Let me say it again, very clearly – I am not afraid of Muslims, and you shouldn’t be either. When I left for Cairo to continue my Middle Eastern focus for my last Master’s Degree, many of my Christian friends strongly cautioned me not to talk to any Muslims (probably not possible in Cairo), and certainly not to advertise or talk about Christianity. Others assumed that every Muslim in the world is just wandering around looking for Christians to behead. This is ridiculous and ignorant. Though the numbers vary depending on which study you read, militant/jihadist Muslims constitute between 5 – 15 percent of all Muslims, and they are largely concentrated in certain areas overseas (Syria, eastern Sinai, parts of Saudi Arabia). In other words, there is about a 95% chance that any Muslim you encounter wants the exact same things that you want – to go to work, perform well, feed their family, and essentially live their life in peace. There is absolutely no reason to fear them, and no reason to be afraid of talking to them about nearly any topic. Others believe that all Muslims live by the mantra “convert or die,” which is more misinformation and ignorance. This is a good segue into our last point…

  1. Approach them deliberately.

What do I mean by “deliberately?” I mean that in order to engage in meaningful and productive conversations with Muslims, especially on the topic of religion, you must learn about them, study them, and truly work to understand them. By doing so, you are respecting them (point #2), you will quell many of your fears about them (point #3), and you will not make key errors that could derail the conversation. If you believe that all Muslims want to convert you or kill you, or that all Arabs are Muslim, or that all Muslims hate Christians, these false impressions will dramatically affect how you approach any conversation with Muslims. You must be deliberate – intentional – about how you approach them, and about with whom you converse. If your friend is a devout Muslim and you start the conversation with whether or not Muhammed is a real prophet, your conversation won’t get far. If your friend is a Sunni and you start trying to convince him that the twelfth or “hidden” Imam isn’t really coming back, you’ve just exposed your ignorance (this belief in a “hidden” Imam is exclusive to a subsect of Shi’a). Educate yourself about the basics of Islam – two great resources are “Understanding Islam” by Thomas Lippman or “Islam: A Primer” by John Sabini. When a Muslim you’re conversing with realizes – and it won’t take long – that you’ve made the effort to understand their religion and just want to talk, you’ll be amazed at the doors that will open.

Conversations with Muslims don’t have to be tense or standoffish, nor will they inevitably devolve into violence or disagreement. If you prepare for these conversations prayerfully, respectfully, fearlessly, and deliberately, you’ll find most Muslims to be kind, engaging, respectful in return, and willing to answer nearly any question you ask. And if you’re still not sure where to start or still have questions, just comment on the blog – I hope these past few blogs have helped your understanding, and I’ll answer any other questions that come up in my final blog next week.

The Doctrine of God: Tawhid versus Trinity

Allah    This topic has absolutely ignited the media in recent months. For whatever reason, this question – whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God – has been all over my Facebook feed, and just in the past few weeks has been posted by Ravi Zecharias, Franklin Graham, Billy Graham, the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, and Answering Islam, among others…and not always with the same answer.

Without question, there are many similarities. Both Muslims and Christians (and Jews) trace their lineage back through Abraham (Muslims through Ishmael, Christians and Jews through Isaac), and all three maintain a largely Old Testament-based view of monotheism. If a Muslim and a Christian were to list the attributes of God, the lists would look remarkably similar – a “spaceless, timeless, immaterial, powerful, personal creator God” would accurately describe both. However, similar descriptions cannot mask clear and critical differences. While my perspective may not agree with all these other bloggers, at the very least I hope to clarify the Christian concept (the Godhead or Trinity) as well as the Muslim concept (called tawhid), both of which are frequently misunderstood by Christians.

  1. The Christian Concept: The Godhead.

Most Christians likely (hopefully) have a basic understanding of the Biblical concept of God. He is manifest in three persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – each a separate person, but all sharing one essence (Godhood). The three are equal in status and power, but distinct in personhood. This has frequently been mischaracterized as polytheism or as an outright contradiction, though this usually does little more than expose a misunderstanding of the theology behind the belief. Some have tried to construct analogies to understand the Trinity (an egg, water, even my role as a father/husband/son/brother/etc), but all of these analogies fall short or commit a logical or theological fallacy. When it comes to really trying to understand the idea of “three in one,” I side with Martin Luther, who said, “Show me a worm that can comprehend a man, and I’ll show you a man who can comprehend the triune God.”  Though this may border on the incomprehensible, it is without a doubt Biblical. The word “trinity” doesn’t appear in Christian doctrine until the middle of the third century,[1] it is clearly taught through five basic points in the Bible:

  1. There is one God (Isaiah 43:10, 44:6, 8, 45:5, 14, 18, 21, 22, 46:9, 47:8, John 17:3, 1 Cor. 8:5-6, Gal. 4:8-9).
  2. God the Father is God (Deut 6:4 and throughout the Old Testament, as well as John 6:27; 20:17; 1 Cor 8:6; Gal 1:1; Eph 4:6; Phil 2:11; 1 Pet 1:2).
  3. Jesus Christ is God (John 8:12-59; Mark 2:3-7, Col 2:9; John 1:1-4; Acts 5:31; Col 3:13; Ps 130:4; Jer 31:34).
  4. The Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4, 9; 1 Cor 2:10-11; Romans 8:9-11).
  5. These three are equal, co-eternal, and distinct (Eph 3:15; John 5:18; 1 Cor 2:10).

Understood this way, it is clear that the actual word “trinity” doesn’t have to appear in Scripture, the concept is clearly taught. There are book-length treatments of this topic (especially good is James R. White’s The Forgotten Trinity), but this will have to suffice for now, and it is sufficient to point out the differences.

  1. The Muslim Concept: Tawhid.

In Islam, the doctrine of Allah is called tawhid. It is the central and defining doctrine of all Islam, and declares absolute monotheism, the unity and uniqueness of God as creator and sustainer of the universe.[2] More than just a religious belief, this doctrine has been central to Islamic reformers and activists as an organizing principle for human society and the basis of religious knowledge, history, metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics, as well as social, economic, and world order. Muslims are fiercely monotheistic, insofar as anything that even approaches equating something to Allah is one of the most severe sins in Islam (known as shirk). This strict monotheism is the root of all other beliefs, and the root of all values in the Muslim worldview. All values in Muslim religion derive from devoting one’s heart to Allah, and it is through this singly and wholeheartedly devoted love that a Muslim comes to divorce him/herself from the ways and things of this world.  This level of devotion is actually something that many Christians could learn from, and all Christians should respect.

Despite the differences within Islam and the sectarianism discussed in the prior blog, on this topic Muslims are almost completely united. Tawhid has been a rallying cry of Islam for centuries, uniting the Muslims throughout their history under the banner of various leaders from Ibn Taymiyya (14th Century) to Abd Al-Wahhab (18th Century) to the present day. No matter how diverse Muslims history has been, they have always re-united around the central doctrine of the oneness of Allah, the tawhid.

  1. Key Differences

On the surface, this sounds remarkably similar to the Christian theology of God, but when we turn to the center of Christian faith – Christ Himself – the differences emerge irreconcilable. Muslims deny that God had a son, and deny that Christ is divine, and would never consider Allah a “father” in the sense that Christians speak of their God. They deny both the deity of Christ and His resurrection, going so far as to consider these beliefs blasphemy (Qur’an 5:17, 5:73, 5:75). If Christians were to speak only of God the Father, the divine Yahweh of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and describe His actions and His attributes, Muslims would likely agree with nearly every word. When we advance to the New Testament and the deity of Christ and the resurrection, arguably the two most central doctrines of the Christian faith, we must part ways with the tawhid of Islam and embrace the Trinity of the Bible. Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? If we are willing to deny the deity of Christ and the resurrection, then yes — but we cannot. To claim Christianity is to affirm doctrines expressly denied by Islam, and therefore we cannot worship the same God. So how do we engage Muslims in conversation, and what common ground can we find for friendship and evangelism? That’s what we’ll discuss in the next blog.

[1] Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1967, p. 122.

[2] The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England 2003.