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"A Response to the Problem of Evil"

#89-13
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on November 28, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries


Listen (5-10mb)  Download (35-70mb)  Reflections

Text: Luke 1:1-4

My son, Titus, asks lots of questions, some of which I'm able to answer. One day, we were walking down a path in our neighborhood. Titus was just two years old, and I'm carrying him on my shoulders. On the path, walking toward us is a stranger. Titus says to me, "Daddy, what's his name?" The stranger hears Titus' question and smiles at us. I say to Titus, "I don't know, but let's talk to him." Turns out the stranger's name was Ben. He lives in the house across the street from us. Now, he isn't a stranger anymore. In time, he became a friend.

Three years later, when Titus was five, he asks another question that I can't answer. I'm tucking him into bed for the night. He says to me, "Daddy, why did God let that happen?" He was referring to events that happened earlier in the day. My parents were in town for the weekend visiting. We went to church that morning. Afterwards, we went out to eat at a restaurant. Titus and his older brother and sister rode in the backseat with grandma and grandpa in their car. They park at the restaurant and, Titus, sitting in the middle, fumbles to unbuckle his seatbelt. He turns to the right to go out of his brother's door. But his brother, thinking that Titus would go out the other side, shut the door. Then, Titus looks to the left, and his sister, thinking he's going to go out to the right, shuts her door. Titus is locked inside. It wasn't immediately obvious to him how to get out.

Meanwhile, the family's in the restaurant, in the waiting area. About five minutes later, someone asks, "Where's Titus?" We look around. We start to panic. I go outside, and there I see him, our sweet little boy, running across the parking lot, his hair tousled and sweaty, tears streaming down his red cheeks, brokenhearted look on his face.

But what broke my heart was the question he asked later that night. "Daddy, why did God let that that happen?" Five years old, and already he's agonizing over life's deepest, darkest problem. I sit down next to him on the bed, and I tell him the truth. "Titus, I don't know. But let's talk to Him." With our regular bedtime prayers that night, we talked to Jesus about this, too.

Standing behind Titus' question, "Why did God let that happen?" is what is commonly called the "problem of evil." What is the problem of evil? Let me give you an image for it. Imagine you have three very large, super-sized glasses filled to the top with water. You're trying to carry all three of them in one hand. You only have one hand in this thought experiment. You can't put your fingers down inside the glasses because no one wants your fingers in their water. You only have one hand, but it's a very large hand and can carry two of the glasses in one hand, but not three. When you try to carry three, at least one of the glasses always spills. You realize that you have to set one of those three aside. The problem of evil is like that. It's three very large unwieldy glasses of truth about life in this world.

Truth number one: there is evil and suffering in the world. Turn on the news. Read the headlines. Talk to a social worker who deals all day with cases of child abuse. Talk to a nurse who works in the cancer unit at the children's hospital. There is an absurd amount of evil and suffering in the world.

Truth number two: God is good. Now, if you are a Muslim or a Jewish person, or even a believer in God in a general sense, you'll probably agree with that truth: that God is good. If you're a Christian, if you're a follower of Jesus and you know Jesus and His sacrifice for us on the cross, you'd even want to add more and say, "God isn't just good. He's compassionate and forgiving and loving. God is love."

Truth number three: God is all-powerful or, as the Bible says it, "Nothing is impossible with God." If you've ever said a prayer to God, if you've ever appealed to God as a higher power, as the highest power, then you probably agree that this glass also is filled to the top.

There they are three unwieldy truths about life in this world. Here's the problem: having only one brain, you can't carry all three at once. That is, you can't explain how all three are true at the same time. To explain things, you have to set one aside. That's the problem of evil.

Now, in real life, the question might sound like this: "If God is so good and so powerful, why does He allow so much evil and suffering? Why is there evil at all?" To offer a satisfying answer, you have to set aside one of those truths. Now, for Christians or for any believer in God, in general, we're not likely to set aside the truth that God is good. You pick one or the other two. Maybe you set aside the truth that God is all-powerful. You say that there are some evils from which not even God can deliver us. Some things God can't help.

Now, notice this actually solves the problem of evil. "Bad things happen," you say, "because God can't stop them from happening." But that creates another problem. If God can't help us, should we pray to Him? Should we even call Him God? No. For Christians who drink from the whole truth of the Bible, we can't set aside either truth about God's goodness or God's power. It's more common that a Christian will set aside the truth about evil. We might say that evil doesn't really exist. Something might appear to be evil now, but in the long run, we'll look back and see that it was actually good-that all suffering and all evil were necessary for the greater good.

But, again, for Christians who drink from the whole truth of the Bible, this won't work for two reasons. The first is Jesus teaches us to pray, "Deliver us from evil." Jesus says that evil is real and that we need to be saved from it, that there is a real enemy. Jesus' mission is set against real evil. Jesus' mission is not to bring balance to the universe. It's not to make sure that there's the right mixture of suffering and blessing in the world. It's not to compromise with evil or convince us that all evil is really actually good. Jesus isn't a philosopher. He's a Savior. The Bible says that Jesus' mission is to root out evil, to destroy the works of the devil, to deliver us from evil. Christians can't deny evil because denying evil we would deny our need for Jesus to save us.

There's a second reason we can't deny evil. Because if we start to believe that evil and suffering are actually good in the long run, we'll be less likely to help people who are suffering from real evil right now, which is the opposite of what Jesus taught us.

We're talking about the problem of evil. This is an everyday kind of problem. It's not just a problem for college philosophy classes. The problem can be raised by a five-year-old at bedtime, or by an 85-year-old in a nursing home, or by any person's suffering, who asks, "Why did God let this happen?" It's especially a problem for followers of Jesus because there are these three big biblical truths that Christ-followers can neither deny nor fully explain: God is loving, God is all-powerful, and evil continues to exist.

What do we do? First, we admit what we can't do. We can't carry all three of these in our brains at once. We'll never be able to satisfy a skeptical thirst for answers with elaborate mental balancing acts. Just leave those three truths right where they are on the table, and let Jesus deal with them in His time, in His way. That's the Christian response to the problem of evil. Be still and know that He is God. Watch Jesus do what only the all-powerful, all-loving God can do. Only Jesus can drain evil of its power and its permanence. Only He can drink that cup, empty it, and remove it.

My son Titus is 13 years old now. Recently, we had a conversation about the question he had asked me when he was five. I told him we can't answer the question because the Bible doesn't tell us why God lets evil happen. But the Bible does answer a related question, which is, "Even though evil happens, what has God done? What will God do?"

Now, notice the difference between the two questions. The first question, "Why does God let evil happen?" though an understandable question to ask, leads us down a path toward increasing doubt about God's love and God's power. But the second question, "What has God done? What will God do about evil?" that may start in a position of doubt or uncertainty, but it follows a path toward knowing God more deeply. It's more like Titus' other question about the stranger when he said, "Daddy, what's his name?" That question set us on a path toward knowing the stranger, letting the stranger become a friend that we can trust. That's the Christian response to the problem of evil. We let God introduce Himself and tell us His story. We let Him show us that He's trustworthy, even when we can't comprehend His timing or His method for delivering us from evil.

How does God go from being a stranger to a trusted friend for you? It's simple. Listen to His story. Start by listening to one of the ancient biographies of Jesus recorded in the New Testament. Pick one and listen to it from start to finish. Listen on an audio Bible. Go for a walk. Take a long car ride. If you're not sure where to start, listen with us on this program. We're going to be listening to the Gospel according to Luke. Luke's Gospel is written to a specific person. Luke names him as Theophilus. It's a Greek name. It means "lover of God."

Now, we're not sure if it's a specific Theophilus that Luke had in mind or if it just stands for anyone who is or who is open to becoming a lover of God. Maybe, it's both. Maybe, it's Luke's way of alerting us to the intention of his book. Inspired by God's Spirit, Luke wrote it not to answer all our questions but to help us trust in God, to make us fall in love with God.

Listen to how Luke starts his book. He says, "Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative, an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, even as they were passed down to us by those who, from the beginning, were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Also, it seemed good to me since I have carefully investigated everything from the beginning to write a narrative, an orderly account, for you most excellent, Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things which you have been taught."

The good news of Jesus, according to Luke, is a response to the problem of evil. Luke doesn't answer why God lets evil happen as it does. Luke doesn't explain that evil is really part of some greater good. No. What does he do? He writes a narrative. He tells a story. In that story, Jesus invites you to trust Him even when you can't comprehend His timing or His method to deliver us from evil.

When I was in school studying for my doctorate, I read many books about the problem of evil. I read books by well-meaning Christians, offering explanations about why bad things happen and about how all this bad stuff in the world really is part of a greater good. Also, at that time, I was serving as a pastor. Over the course of the year, I visited an eighth-grade boy who eventually died from leukemia. I'll call him Steven.

On the brief walk, through that hallway, from the elevator to Steven's room in the cancer unit at Children's Hospital, every one of those explanations from those books failed me. One afternoon, I was so overwhelmed by this problem. I had to take a break from my studies, and I went to take a walk. I had an audio Bible on my phone. The narrator was reading from the Gospel according to Luke. I listened to him tell me about Jesus again, about the things Jesus did, the things He said, and the promises He made. I found myself trusting Him, loving Him again, nonetheless.

The next time I visited Steven in the hospital, I told him some of those stories. Steven said he trusted Jesus, too. My son, Titus, is an eighth-grader now. He recently went through the right of confirmation at our church. Part of that includes standing up in front of the church, his family, and friends, and fellow students to confess the faith. Titus confessed his faith in Jesus. Even though he knows we can't hold all the answers in our heads; Jesus is holding us nonetheless. He's not a stranger. He's a Friend, a Friend like none other. He's introduced Himself, and we are listening to His story and trying to live like we believe it. That's what we do as followers of Jesus. You're welcome to join us. We listen to these narratives, and in them, in Him, we find the certainty of the things which we have been taught. Let's talk to Him.

Dear Jesus: I want to know You more. Help me be still, and see what You are doing. Amen.






Reflections for November 28, 2021

Title: A Response to the Problem of Evil


Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. And now we'll hear more about Advent devotions. Once again, here is our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. I am visiting today with Dr. Kari Vo, who serves as a writer for Lutheran Hour Ministries. Thank you for joining us, Kari.

Kari Vo: Thank you for having me.

Mike Zeigler: And thank you for sitting in today. You were with us as we recorded this message on Luke 1 and this business about the problem of evil and what God is going to do and has done about it. And this relates directly to the series for Advent devotions. It's titled The Child of Promise: What God Has Done. What was the inspiration behind that title, The Child of Promise?

Kari Vo: The beginning of the booklet, we have several days where we are dealing just with the Old Testament promises about Jesus coming—promises that God gave to strengthen people, to comfort them, to help them look to the future, and all the wonderful things they say that He's going to be doing, how God will save His people through Jesus. And so it seemed a natural title for the story of Jesus' conception and birth.

Mike Zeigler: All right. So this series of devotions coming up for Advent, which will start this coming week, it's not just on the story of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. It's reaching back into the Old Testament. But each devotion is based on a text of Scripture, and you're going to walk through the entire story of Scripture to arrive at Jesus.

Kari Vo: Yes. We have the Old Testament stuff first. And then we move into the story of John the Baptist and how God sent him to prepare the way. And then all the traditional things: the annunciation to Mary, Joseph trying to figure out what to do, the trip to Bethlehem, the shepherds, the angels, and what happened afterward, including some of the very evil stuff where King Herod is killing babies.

Mike Zeigler: Now, Kari, as you wrote these, did you find that there were echoes of the Old Testament and of God's promises that just kept coming back and recurring in your mind, in your thoughts?

Kari Vo: There's a constant reassurance that God gives us that He knows our situation. He knows the trouble we're in, the evil that we face, and He is coming to save us. All of His promises will come true, have come true, in Jesus Christ. And so that's what we come back to, again and again.

Mike Zeigler: Yeah. Yeah. I think of the very first promise, you mentioned Genesis, that Eve would have a Son, an Offspring, who would crush the head of the serpent.

Kari Vo: I'm so glad that we're on this side of the fulfillment of the promise because it must have been difficult looking ahead to imagine how that would happen.

Mike Zeigler: That is so true. Then you have the promise to King David that he'll have a Son who will inherit the throne and rule forever.

Kari Vo: The promise to Abraham that he will have a son, even though he had none. The promise to, was it Ahab, the evil king, the one that was not at all interested in the miracle God was about to do, but God gave him a promise anyway.

Mike Zeigler: Yeah. So many promises God fulfills again and again, but culminates in the birth of Jesus. And that's the focus of the devotion series. When you wrote these, I'm guessing you had present-day people and situations on your heart. Tell me about that.

Kari Vo: Well, it's impossible to forget that we are still in the middle of this horrible pandemic, and the number of people that we know, that we love, who have become sick, who have lost jobs, who have even died as a result of this. It's a life-changing experience. It's horrible. And so, yes, I had that in the back of my mind while writing this. And I hope that God will use it and speak through it to bring some kind of strength and comfort to people who are in a very bad time.

Mike Zeigler: Yes, we don't want to diminish or lessen the real suffering, the real pain, the evil that people face. And the story of Jesus doesn't do that.

Kari Vo: Oh no.

Mike Zeigler: Like you mentioned Herod. That's right there in the middle of this story, in the Gospel according to Matthew, that these Gospel stories of Jesus recognize the real evil that we face.

Kari Vo: Well, yes, you're never going to find this on a Christmas card, but there's Herod, insanely jealous, worried about his throne, deciding to get rid of Jesus by killing a couple dozen babies that never did him any harm. And there are those who say, "Well, it's not fair that God let His own Son off and let the other ones die." But when you think about it, He didn't let His Son off. It just took 30 more years. And Herod got Him in the end too, on the cross. So that evil, God Himself suffered as well.

Mike Zeigler: Right. He drinks that cup. He drains it to the bottom. What would be some promising ways that people might use these devotions in their spiritual growth or an Advent habit that they want to develop? What would you recommend?

Kari Vo: Well, my husband's a morning person, so he tends to get up and read them on the internet every morning with his coffee. And I'm not a morning person. So I'd be more likely to see them in my e-mail later on. Other people will use them different ways. I know families who use them to start discussions with their children, especially because there are three pretty simple questions at the end of each one. So you can use it that way.

Mike Zeigler: So it doesn't just have to be an individual effort. It could be something you could involve your household or a friend or call someone up on the phone. And there's some discussion that could happen.

Kari Vo: Well, we even had a Bible study that was using them for a while as source material. Because you can get a discussion going.

Mike Zeigler: All right. And there's a variety of ways you can find these devotions. You mentioned you can sign up for an e-mail, so they sent to you every day. And that's at lhm.org. Just look for the Daily Devotions banner there.

Kari Vo: There's an app that you can download and have it on your phone if you want to. It's done vocally, so you can listen to it rather than reading it.

Mike Zeigler: Sometimes just hearing a human voice speak the words to you is very nice.

Kari Vo: Yes.

Mike Zeigler: You mentioned the app. And so if you downloaded that app on your smartphone, you could also see all the archive devotions from the past. That's another nice thing about that app.

Kari Vo: Yes, you definitely can. And if you miss something for the day, it's very easy to backtrack and read that.

Mike Zeigler: All right. So we're talking with Dr. Kari Vo and she's written these series of devotions, and we're focusing on the season of Advent. The title is Child of the Promise, and you can find all of these devotions, they'll be released one day at a time starting this coming week at lhm.org.

Kari Vo: I think they also have a version that you can download and print and turn into booklets. So some churches like to do that and have those available for people at the door.

Mike Zeigler: Thank you so much for your time and your effort that you put into crafting these and letting God speak to you so that He might use you as a vessel to speak to others.

Kari Vo: Thank you. You're welcome.






Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Savior of the Nations, Come" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)


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