Book Club Discussion: The Problem of Evil is more than a riddle

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Anyone who’s read William P. Young’s The Shack will tell you that the first 80 pages are a difficult read. They take us through what the narrator (Mackenzie) calls his Great Sadness, as his youngest daughter Missy is abducted during a family vacation with the evidence pointing to her brutal murder. 

It’s not the best fiction I’ve ever read, but Young weaves together a compelling story, the first four chapters culminating with Mackenzie’s decision to follow up on a mysterious note he finds in his mailbox, apparently left there by God. 

These first few chapters are heartbreaking, but important in setting the stage for Mackenzie’s encounter with God. As difficult as it is to think about a little girl being kidnapped and murdered, I’m glad that Young doesn’t shrink away from the realities of the pain and suffering in the world. So often “The Problem of Evil” is discussed in abstract terms by college and seminary students in comfortable classrooms, far away from its horrific implications. Here, the advantage of using a fictional approach is that we become quite close to the characters affected by the “Problem of Evil” and so we are less inclined to resort to our theological expertise in explaining it away. 

As I understand it, the “Problem of Evil” goes something like this: 
    1. If God is all-good, He would destroy evil.
    2. If God is all-powerful, He could destroy evil. 
    3. But evil is not destroyed. 
    4. Hence there is no such God 

This line of questioning was first expounded by Epicurus 300 years before the time of Christ. It has always been explained to me as a sort of logical quandary with which believers must contend, a problem in the same sense that a mathematical equation is a problem, or a Rubik’s cube, or a crossword puzzle--a pesky riddle that secularists like to  pull out of their hats to deny the existence of God. 

The various evangelical solutions to The Problem of Evil have never made much sense to me. On the one hand, I’ve heard that evil exists because of human choice and that suffering is the result of rebellion against God, but on the other, I’ve been told that fallen humans have no choice but to sin because it is inherent to their nature, and God sovereignly allows suffering to continue.  In school I learned that if a skeptic asks about the Problem of Evil, the best approach is to remind the skeptic that the term “evil” suggests a universal standard of moral law, and that in order for a universal standard of moral law to exist, there must logically exist a supreme Law-Giver. This effectively diverts the conversation to issues of morality and absolutes and away from the unpleasant topic of the undeniable crappiness of this world.  

I think that just about everyone would agree that these explanations fall short whenever we personally encounter the Problem of Evil in our lives and in the lives of our fellow human beings. Reading accounts of the Holocaust from survivors, seeing footage of children starving to death in Sudan, and reading Young’s description of a senseless kidnapping and murder remind me that for those of us who have never witnessed genocide or war or widespread disease first-hand, a logical and succinct explanation for the Problem of Evil may be perfectly acceptable, but for the millions of people who have cried out to God in their distress to no avail, dignifying the grief and horror of their experience with an answer is nothing short of insulting. 

From this perspective, the Problem of Evil is not merely an intellectual problem, but an intuitive one, a problem that might be solved on paper, but never within the deep heart of man. 

We’ll talk more about Young’s take on “The Problem of Evil” as we continue our discussion over the next few weeks. Mackenzie’s story gets even more compelling in the upcoming chapters, when he goes to the shack and encounters God. 

Next week we’ll talk about that…and I want to know what you think about portraying God as the Trinity and with feminine qualities.

Keep reading!

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