A Response to Reasonable Doubts: Is God to Blame for Evil?

Ok, so here goes… I was recently asked a series of difficult questions by a friend who struggles to find faith.

These questions are complex and difficult ones that carry with them an enormous burden for both theology and faith. So I will try to deal with them in a serious way, hopefully answering them better this time than I did the last. I hope not to trivialize in any way the validity of the questions but rather to answer them in a substantial and significant way. Part of the difficulty in answering these questions is that one question really opens up a gateway to a series of extraordinarily complex theological questions.

The questions and answers found here are my best understanding both for myself and the understanding that I’d offer to others.

So here goes:

The first question was essentially, Is God to blame for evil?

In order to answer this question there are at least a couple of problems that must be answered before we can really answer this particular question.

Firstly, we must hold that God is benevolent. God is good. The church I ‘grew up’ in had this call and response that we used every Sunday for most of my young adult life. “God is good all the time,” the pastor would say. The people would respond, “And all the time, God is good.” This call and response is remarkably simplistic and yet it carries with it an assumption that God’s existence is as loving, caring, and compassionate God. This belief is so foundational to the Christian understanding of God that we can’t even begin to have a discussion about evil in the world apart from that central understanding. 1 John reminds us “God is love.” (4:8)

It has been pointed out by many that there are many creation myths in the ancient world and even in modern times. However, the creation story related to us in Genesis is unique. It’s very opening lines place us in a world where there was nothing apart from chaos, darkness, and lifelessness. It is out of that darkness and chaos that God brings forth both order, light and life. It is the belief of Christians and Jews for millennia that God creates the world in an act of gracious love. That the whole of creation springs forth from the love of God. I said a moment ago that the creation narrative in Genesis 1 is unique it is so because there is no violence, no anger, no evil, only the generous act of a loving God who grants existence to humanity, the world, and the whole of the cosmos.

When God creates humanity God creates us for relationship with God’s self.  God creates humanity in God’s own image. The record of Genesis tells us that it doesn’t take long, however, before humanity messes things up by choosing waywardness and sin over faithfulness to God’s command. There is something in the creation of humanity that is also of consequence to this discussion.

When God creates humanity, God creates humanity as free moral agent. That is to say, that humanity is created with the ability to freely choose good or evil for itself. That freedom is something that God doesn’t take lightly. It is true God could have created a world in which people didn’t have the freedom to choose but it forces us to ask the question, of what value is love that is coerced? The same question might be asked of good as well, of what value is good that is not done with the consent of human free will?

The third concept that must be addressed is the source of evil in the world. Is evil the fault of the devil? Is evil the fault of human sin? How did evil come into the world? The story of Genesis 3 tells us that sin enters into the world through human choice. The temptation to ascend to positions of power and abuse the good gifts of God is a part of the human consciousness. In Genesis 6:5, “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.”

I am always hesitant when people are quick to blame the devil for evil in the world. There’s that old saying, “the devil made me do it.” My initial response to that is doubt. I think that phrase has often been used by folks to escape the consequences of their own free choices. I am not astonished at the capabilities of human beings to accomplish evil.

As we stand at the beginning of the twenty first century, we stand in a unique time. Humanity is slowly and steadily destroying the world in which we live by overpopulation, overconsumption and misuse of creation. However, if we look at the whole picture, humanity possesses the ability to take what is a slow death and make it into a remarkably quick death. Human beings posses the ability to destroy the whole of the world. We have enough nuclear weapons to wipe ourselves from the face of this planet along with much of creation itself. (According to wikipedia, there are approximately 30,000 nuclear warheads available for use in the world.)

Yet we are surprised by human evil?

These concepts play strongly in the answer to the question of whether God is responsible for evil in the world.

In Genesis, we see the first recorded human on human violence. In the story of Cain and Able, Cain is jealous of Able because God accepts Able’s sacrifice and rejects Cain’s. The scriptures seem to indicate that Cain’s sacrifice is rejected because he doesn’t offer his best to God. In Genesis 4:7 God says to Cain “If you do well, will you not be accepted? If you don not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” In his anger and jealousy, Cain rises up and strikes down his brother Able. Cain still chooses evil in spite of God’s warning to him. We see the foundation of human evil. Human evil arises from a rejection of God’s word and a choice to give in to sin. The first act of human violence is fratricide, that is to say brother killing brother. This first act of violence is a portent for the violence to come.

Some have wondered, why in this first act of human violence God did not intervene? What we find in this story is that God did speak a warning to Cain, yet Cain still choose to do that which was evil. It is true that God didn’t stop Cain from murdering Able. However, that doesn’t imply that God is incompetent or impotent. God in the very creation of humanity chooses to limit himself in order to create a people who are free to make the choices for good and evil.

C.S. Lewis once said, “God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.”

If God were to intervene to prevent human beings from choosing evil, then human beings would be unable to choose good either, thus limiting their ability to act as a free moral agent in the world. The consequence of limited evil is limited freedom or no freedom at all. Evil entered the world through human disobedience by an act of free choice. So too, evil is perpetuated in the world by human disobedience.

Human evil has led to the murder of millions of people throughout our history. When I look at the horrible examples of human violence, I am grieved to my core. I cannot imagine the pain that humanity has inflicted upon itself across the generations. When we look at the holocaust, genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda, or in Darfur, we cannot help but wonder how people could do such horrid things to other people. I have to confess that I too in those places have to wonder as the faithful have in generations past, “How long O Lord.” How long will you allow evil to persist? How long will people demonize and dehumanize the others in order to nullify the value of their lives?

I’m not sure how we can look at those situations and not wonder if God was absent. I am convinced that God is not absent in those places. The Psalmist tells us that it doesn’t matter where he might go he couldn’t flee from God’s presence. In those places where humans do terrible things to other human beings, God is present. God is concerned about the plight of the poor, the oppressed, the dehumanized, the fatherless, and all who suffer in any way.

The message of our culture is one that says, “God helps those who help themselves.” Nothing could be farther from the truth, God stands on the side of those who are helpless. We, as human beings, have regularly rejected justice and social responsibility for our sisters and brothers who are in need and hurting. Our hearts have seen so much violence in the world that we are numb to the sensation. We are numb to the costs of war, numb to the excruciating suffering of other human beings. Those moments where we are truly aware of the plight of the suffering are fleeting moments.

Whether we talk about the Japanese earthquake, the tsunami, hurricane Katrina, all of these share one thing in common. For a moment, they captured our attention but now that we are years removed from them they are a distant memory. However, the suffering of these people have not ended. We have a responsibility, as God’s people in the world, to act on behalf of those who are in need and suffering.

I think my answer to this question will likely shock some.

I come once again to the question:

Is God to blame for evil? Yes (at least in part)

Inasmuch as God gives human beings the freedom to choose good or evil, the answer is yes. God limits God’s self to afford us the ability to choose good. It is true that God shares some responsibility for the existence of evil. Let me make clear what I am saying here. It is only that God permits the existence of evil in the world because to refuse the existence of evil is to negate the power of humanity to choose good. I am not saying God is not the agent of evil in the world. Evil is ultimately a consequence of human agency.

If you enjoy this article please continue to follow the blog… I’ll be answering at least two other questions soon.

Advent’s Almost Over

It seems almost preposterous that we are three weeks through the season of Advent. It seems Easter was just yesterday to me. Yet, we find ourselves here almost at the end of this season of waiting. Advent like its cousin, Lent, is a season of preparation. Advent has certainly taken on itself a different atmosphere than Lent in the Western Church.

Advent is a season of dual purpose.

Firstly, it invites us to wait: to remember the experiences and emotions of those who waited in generations before Christ for his coming. We read the prophets and we hear their voices as they cry out for peace and for the coming of God into the world. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” the prophet Isaiah writes some 500+ years before Jesus. So we remember those who have cried out and been long suffering enduring pain of both heart and life as they have waited for the coming messiah.

The prospect of the Christian gospel is, as ridiculous as it sounds, that the long awaited one has come. Not simply that he has come, but that he has come as a child born to an indigent family who eventually flee the land that they have known and run away into a foreign land to protect the Child Jesus. It is indeed absurd to assert that God descends into our midst as a child. Yet, that is our proclamation. God becomes one of us. Not just one of us, he becomes one of the lowest and most lowly among us. He was born in poverty, lived in a family of immigrants in the land of Egypt, he likely grew up in a carpenters shop. These are not historically the marks of a successful individual.

It would be a different story for us to tell if we asserted that Jesus came among us as the son of a king, grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth and ruled over a nation. God might come in that way, but no one ever expected God to come to us in the way he did in the person of Jesus. It is the absurdity of the Gospel that calls us to faith. In his birth Christ identifies with the lowly; he identifies with the poor, the needy, the immigrant, and those who labor to provide for their families.

We wait during Advent that we might prepare our hearts to receive the Christ child. That God might, as he did in the coming of Christ, turn our hearts and lives upside down.

Secondly, Advent is a season in which we confess that we are still waiting. We are still waiting on the return of the messiah to rule and reign as sovereign of the whole earth. This waiting is perhaps the most difficult because we already know the beginning of the story. We know of Christ’s birth and life. This waiting, waiting for the restoration of all things, bids us to hold on to hope even though we sometimes have a hard time seeing hope in a world gone out of control.

Perhaps, I’m alone; I doubt it but perhaps. I often look around and see so much brokenness, so much fighting and violence that I find it difficult to see hope in the midst. When I watch the news and they tell me what the average family will spend on Christmas gifts that they don’t really need and will not likely use, I become somewhat disillusioned. I am disillusioned because though our children have in great abundance; other children are starving to death. Looking at the inequalities and the injustice of this present age is enough to cause a glimmer of doubt even in the most hopeful of outlooks.

I look around and I see those people who, through no fault of their own, bear the sins of others in their bodies and their lives. My heart breaks, and I have to confess: I perceive the light in those places to be far too faint. Yet I realize that it is into a place where the light was just as faint that God’s own Son became truly human. And though I may, in those dark places, be tempted to lose hope and give up. I know that God has been and will be faithful. Even as I type these words, I am convinced that there is no other name in heaven or earth by which we may be saved.

Advent is an exercise in waiting and remembering that God has been faithful to God’s people in generations long past, and brought about the mystery of our redemption in an unexpected way. God will be faithful to us. Therefore, we wait to celebrate the Christ Child, and we anticipate the day when Christ will banish the darkness and establish a reign of peace, justice, and equity.

May Advent remind us of the absurdity of the coming of the Christ and the hope yet to be fulfilled.

I offer this Advent Prayer:

Almighty God, through observing this holy season of waiting, may we: be reminded of the advent of Christ, bear your holy light into the dark places, learn patience in our waiting, and by waiting in faithful obedience obtain all that you promise.  We pray, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

On Damnation – Part III

This is continued from Part II

Bell ultimately concludes that we do have the freedom to choose God or hell. His position is not unorthodox, but Rob Bell does spend more time arguing the universalist position before he finally, in about six pages, comes around to a more orthodox Christian position. I agree with Bell that heaven and hell, life and death are set before us and the choices that we make in this life are consequential.

He does raise an intriguing question and one that I think deserves further attention. He tells a story in the very beginning of the book about Mahatma Gandhi, in which someone attaches a note sharing that Gandhi is in hell to a piece of art work. To which Bell responds, “Really? Gandhi in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? and that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?” (pg. 2)

The questions here beg us to be more aware of what we say and why we say it. Further, it begs us to be aware that we are not the ultimate judge. When persons die apart from faith in Christ it is not the proper place of any pastor/preacher/teacher/church to proclaim condemnation upon them. “Pope John Paul II wrote that the “silence of the Church” was “the only appropriate position” on the question of whether any particular person was saved or lost.”

We are not the final judge and authority when it comes to the question of whether a person receives eternal life or whether they are condemned. We proclaim salvation in and through Jesus Christ, but ultimately God is the sovereign over life and death and salvation and damnation. That does not mean that we back away from proclaiming the gospel of a holy God who desires his people to live holy lives thereby transforming the world. It does mean is that we must be careful with our words. I am hard pressed to find any passage in the Gospels where Jesus walks up to someone and tells them they are running head long into hell. Jesus does, however, speak to sin and proclaim truth in a way that disarms.

When Jesus meets the woman beside the well in the middle of the day (John 4), he doesn’t come out and threaten her with hell fire and damnation instead he offers her the living waters. Perhaps this represents a better evangelical model. What is it that we have to offer the world? It is not simply an escape from the fires of hell. It is a relationship with a holy and loving God that transforms lives. A relationship with the God who “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.” This is the radical proclamation of the gospel: that God so desired to reveal himself to humanity that he became one of us, and moreover that he gave his life that we might live.

This is the heart of the gospel.

I hope I’ve answered all of the questions that were asked of me in these three posts; if not I’d love another chance at answering them. Just post them here.

On Damnation – Part II

This is part 2 of a series of posts on Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Here is part 1.

I would have never imagined writing this article. Hell is, as mentioned previously, not my favorite topic; however, it is a topic that we must address, and Rob Bell set off a firestorm with Love Wins. My own opinion is that if we talk about hell more than Jesus did, we ought to stop and reexamine where we’re headed. Bell’s book floats a number of ideas about hell. He poses a lot of possibilities without offering many answers. I’m going to take a look at some of the theological claims that Bell makes about about God and hell here.

Firstly, Bell questions the place of human choice in salvation. Bell doesn’t word it this way but what he asks is a question about free will. Are human beings free to make choices for God or against God? As you might imagine that the way you answer this question will greatly influence the discussion about hell. Bell’s argument goes a little something like this, if salvation depends fully upon God-> then God must get what God wants (Bell asks it in the form of a question). He is right when he says that God desires the salvation of all of humanity, but to ask the question, “Does God get what God wants?” misses the point. He argues that no response is necessary to God’s grace, and he claims that this is a form of salvation by works. While he is decidedly correct that salvation is a gift of God’s grace, he is decidedly incorrect about the nature of the human response to grace. Bell asks “Isn’t that what Christians have always claimed set their religion apart – that it wasn’t in the end a religion at all – that you don’t have to do anything, because God has already done it through Jesus?” On one hand he is correct that salvation is not achieved by our works. We could never earn it. However, the scriptures take a very serious view of human decision.

If we conclude that human beings have the freedom to choose, then that freedom means nothing without the ability to disobey (the very definition of sin). If we conclude as Bell does that we cannot choose, then we must accept that salvation is not a consequence of our choice and so God must either predestine folks for heaven or hell without the freedom to choose otherwise. This position has always and does now seem incoherent to me. Why would a God who has already determined the outcome of life even bother to allow us to live it? This is a decision of profound consequence upon everything that we say, do and believe.

I’d contend that if we answer this question with the idea that we have no freedom then God must necessarily save all people. It would arguably be the only acceptable act of a loving God. However, if we affirm human freedom, then we must have the freedom to choose God or not. Love that is coerced is not really love at all.

Bell argues that hell is a temporary state of being, a purgatory of sorts. A place where folks go to be cleansed of their sinfulness and then ultimately redeemed. He rightly quotes Origin and Clement of Alexandria as proponents of this perspective.  Perhaps, my biggest beef is he holds this position out as an orthodox opinion without representing it’s true history within the Church. (see this article)

To be continued…

On Damnation

This is the first in a series of 3 blogs reviewing Rob Bell’s Love Wins:

I recall the first hellfire and brimstone sermon I ever heard, and I have been asked by members of congregations on more than one occasion why I don’t preach that way. I was not then nor am I presently impressed with those who threaten folks into faith. I can easily say that this is at best misplaced zeal and at worse a case of verbal manipulation. Jesus only mentions hell about 11 times in all four of the gospels. I’m not convinced that this should be the primary emphasis of the Gospel. I believe that those who proclaim this as the central truth of their faith have lost the overarching narrative of the scriptures as a revelation of God’s love. It is hard for me to read the scriptures and then proclaim a message centered upon damnation. I do not find this as central to the ministry of Jesus and therefore will not invest my life or energies to proclaiming this word. There are many who have chosen to reject this as the center of the gospel, and I join together with them.

The most recent to challenge this proclamation has been Rob Bell. Bell’s new book, “Love Wins,” invites the questions about hell and divine punishment and the reason for divine punishment. In the book Bell poses some intriguing questions. I’d like to take a look at some of the questions he asks and the argument that he puts forth.

One of the first questions Bell asks in response to the proclamation of damnation is a question about hope. “No hope’? Is that the Christian message. ‘No Hope’? Is that what Jesus offers to the world?” This question gets at the heart of those who are convinced that the gospel is more than damnation. He’s right that for many the message of no hope has become the center of the gospel. Some seem to take great pleasure in telling others that they are going to hell. This is not the proper role of the church nor the proper proclamation of the gospel. Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom was largely about love of God and love of neighbor and occasionally did Jesus venture down the path of bring hell into the picture. I’m not so convinced that this is necessary. It is possible to proclaim a gospel of repentance without enjoying the proclamation of  damnation.

To be continued… Part II

Lent: Renewing our Baptism

We are now a little more than halfway through the season of lent. Lent is the 40 day season of fasting in which the Church prepares for Easter. In this season we deny our selves, we walk along the way of the cross and with some patience and perseverance we arrive finally at the glory of Easter. I imagine that most of us have from time to time wondered why we made the commitment we did on Ash Wednesday. I’ve had moment’s where I’ve wanted a big steak and a batch of onion rings. As we walk along the way of the cross I think we also recommit ourselves to our baptism.

I have determined that walking through the season of lent is one of the best ways for us to understand the missio dei, the mission of God in Jesus Christ.

We come to know what it means for Jesus to become truly incarnate. We deny ourselves following in the example of Jesus who was willing to limit his divinity and become truly human for our sake. Our denying helps us to realize the profound nature of Christ becoming truly human. In becoming truly human, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity significantly limited his divinity. The God who could be in all places at all times is suddenly limited to the life of a first century Jew. We often overlook the profundity of this tremendous moment in human history. We’ve heard the story so much that the absurdity no longer effects us. In the denials of lent we identify ourselves, in some minor way, with the God who for our sake was willing to limit himself to teach us God’s way.

In Baptism, we are baptized into the missio dei. We become part of God’s work in the world. In baptism God claims us as his agents in the world. We’ve talked about this as the grace of adoption. In which we become God’s sons and daughters.

In the early church there was a wonderful baptismal tradition in which the catechumens, those who had spent all of lent learning the Christian faith, went down into the waters before the sun rose on Easter Sunday. There they would wait. When the sun began to rise, they would turn toward the darkness and would be invited to curse the darkness. Then they would turn back toward the sun and would be invited to confess their faith in Jesus Christ place their trust in God and be baptized. In the waters of baptism we too curse the darkness of sin.

Secondly, we come also to walk through the passion of Jesus. The whole of lent ramps up to Holy Week and Easter. We are reminded in this of God’s profound love for us. That message is at the core of the Christian life. Jesus’ cross represents, for us, not simply an instrument of torture (though this part of the message is often overlooked) it is the means of our redemption. In Lent we walk into this profound and yet deeply intense period in the life of our Christ. We continue to descend into the darkness of Christ’s death.

In baptism we vow to leave behind our sinful ways and to follow after God. In the waters of baptism we are granted  by God the gift of the Holy Spirit and the direction of our lives is transformed. Lent is a journey into the grace of baptism that we might die to sin. Dying to sin is not enough though. We need more, and indeed God has given more.

Lent would be incomplete without the resurrection. We don’t observe lent as if Jesus is not raised, rather we observe lent because Jesus has been raised. In the waters of baptism we are ‘born again’ to a new purpose of God in our lives and to God’s kingdom in the world. We die to our way and live to God’s way. We die to ourselves and live for Christ. St. Paul says, “It is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me.”

Lent then is a journey into the waters of our baptism, a journey to realize the great gift that God has given us in the waters. It is an opportunity to celebrate once again the new life that we have received in Christ. Over the next few weeks as we walk through the passion of our Christ, through his death and resurrection, we will renew the vows of our baptism and learn more deeply what it means to live to God.


+ The blessing of God Almighty: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.

Baptism: Grace and The Christian Life

Continued from part 1:

There is a story told of Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer. The story purports that when faced with the most significant temptations in his life that he would constantly remind himself, “I am baptized.” Martin Luther knew something that many protestants have forgotten over the years. Baptism is a fountain of grace into our lives. Baptism is a sacrament that is received one time, but it is truly a life time journey into the grace of God and signifies a profound moment of transforming grace in our lives.

Luther constantly reminded himself that he was baptized because he knew that the waters of baptism are the first sprinkle in the tidal wave of God’s grace poured out upon believers. The problem is that we as protestants have often forgotten to return to the font and remind ourselves that we have received this grace in our lives.

What happens in baptism?

In baptism, we receive the grace of adoption. We are adopted as God’s daughters and sons. We are numbered among God’s children. We often neglect the significance of this claim in our lives. There is great grace in being counted as those who are worthy to call God our Father. The scriptures remind us in those great words that we become heirs of God and coheirs with Christ. (Romans 8:17)

We are also because of that adoption united spiritually to the Church, God’s people in all places and times. We often speak of baptism as a sacrament of initiation, i.e. that in it folks are inaugurated into the church and into God’s kingdom in this world.

Baptism in the early church was regarded as the great equalizer. It didn’t matter if you were poor or rich, young or old, male or female. When it came to the kingdom all were equal. We see this confession in that passage from 1 Corinthians 12:13 “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

The fourth thing that occurs in the waters of baptism is that we are filled, marked and sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. This seems to be the normative pattern in the New Testament. St. Peter is shocked in Acts 10:44-48 when the gentiles receive the Holy Spirit before baptism and takes this as a sign that God is pleased to pour out his Spirit upon the gentiles and therefor the gentiles must be baptized because they’ve already received the Holy Spirit. “Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’”(Acts 10:46b-47)

The fifth thing that happens in baptism is perhaps the most significant part. The scriptures refer to baptism as the ‘washing of regeneration.’ (Titus 3:5) We, United Methodists, hold that in the waters of baptism we are born anew into God’s kingdom. We also hold that in the waters of baptism the stain of original sin is washed away, and we are set at liberty to be obedient disciples of Jesus.

When we were baptized, few of us were aware of all that God would do through the waters of baptism and the work of God’s grace and Spirit in our lives. We are invited by God to live into the grace of our baptism.

Remember that you are baptized!