Right about the time the first person declared “There is a God!”, one of his friends spoke up and said, “Oh yeah? Well, if there is a God why does he let bad things happen?”
That question has haunted religion ever since, especially faiths like Christianity which claim that despite all the evidence God is in fact a good and loving God.
It’s often referred to as “the problem of evil,” “the problem of pain,” or simply “Are you kidding me, God?”
More so than evolution or any other scientific breakthrough, the problem of evil presents the biggest challenge facing the Christian faith or any other faith the claims that God is good.
Despite the efforts of some of the greatest minds in history, we have been unable to answer the problem of evil.
But fear not!
Kirk Cameron has done what no other human being in the history of mankind has been able to do.
In his new film Unstoppable, Cameron claims he has once and for all answered the immortal question “Why does God let bad things happen?”
I guess it kind of makes sense if you think about it. After all who better to answer the problem of pain than the guy who starred in Growing Pains, right?
I mean at the very least, he’s gotta know more about pain and evil than he does bananas and evolution.
So does he succeed in finally solving the problem of evil?
SPOILER ALERT: Kirk Cameron has not solved the problem of evil.
Now, to be fair I haven’t seen the movie.
I was going to show you the preview, but it’s been pulled from YouTube (I’m guessing pranksters were involved, though “scams” and “commercially deceptive” do seem fitting reasons to pull it)
So, if I haven’t even seen the movie how do I know Kirk fails in his valiant quest?
Because the problem of evil is a problem that cannot be solved.
Even the Bible knows this.
Yes, the Bible declares that evil has been or will be redeemed, but it doesn’t definitively answer the question of why God allowed it in the first place. Perhaps fittingly, the oldest book of the Bible, Job, takes this question head on. And what is the answer it give to why bad things happen?
They just do.
Of course, the Bible does have more to say about the eventual redemption or healing of pain and evil, but I’ll come back to that in a minute.
No matter how Cameron has chosen to frame his film, there are essentially only three ways to explain or understand God’s relationship to evil. Either God is all controlling and therefore causes all acts of evil or God causes only some acts of evil for his divine purposes or God causes no evil whatsoever, evil simply happens on its own.
Each of these approaches has their problems, some more so than others.
If God wills all the terrible things that happen in the world, as someone like John Piper would claim, then we are left with a monstrous picture of God, a cruel and petty deity who deserves our abject fear, not our worship, or if our worship, then a sort of pagan worship meant to stave off the wrath of that God in hopes he won’t arbitrarily decide to destroy us.
If God only wills some bad things as part of God’s mysterious divine plan for the universe, then we are still left with a rather perverse image of a cruel and petty God. Even if we try to renarrate divinely appointed evil as not really evil because God is behind it and “God isn’t evil,” then not only does the concept of evil itself stop making much sense, but at best we’re still left to explain why God allows the rest of the evil in the world to occur and at worst, we once again have a God who willfully chooses to inflict pain and suffering on creation. Even if God does so as part of some mysterious plan, why worship a God who has, and apparently is incapable of not having, a Machiavellian bent towards evil?
But let’s say we claim that God does not will any evil that occurs in the world. Surely that solves the problem of pain and alleviates God of responsibility for our suffering, right?
Even if we take a sort of open theist position and claim that God has limited God’s self and what God can and cannot do in the world by giving us the gift of free will, it does not change the fact that God chose to make the universe the way that God did. In other words, God may not be directly behind the Holocaust, for example, and God may not have had the ability to force Hitler not to choose to do the things he did, but God did choose to create a world in which God could not, or would not, intervene to stop that evil.
Simply put, if we believe that God created the universe, no matter how we believe God ended up designing it, God is ultimately complicit in our pain and suffering and no amount of theological or philosophical gymnastics will ever resolve that tension.
Which means Kirk Cameron has not solved the problem of evil because he can’t.
None of us can.
So are we left without hope?
I don’t think we are.
In some of its most raw and honest passages, the Bible does provide us with a response to the problem of evil – protest.
This is how the writers of the Psalms and Lamentations and Ecclesiastes and countless other passages of scripture choose to respond to God’s allowing of evil in the world.
They get angry.
They yell at God.
They hold God accountable for the choices God has made and the actions God has not taken.
And in an incredible act of grace, God listens to their protests.
I find hope in the fact that God let’s us protest the presence of evil in the face of God’s claims to love and watch over us. To me, this willingness to listen, and more so to ultimately respond to our protests in the person of Jesus, speaks to a God who takes our pain seriously and is doing something about it.
Do I find a protest theodicy completely satisfying?
But I do find hope in it.
I find that hope both in the gospels and perhaps most vividly, in the book of Revelation. It is there where we can see the Bible’s answer to what God will ultimately do in response to our protest, to our pain and suffering.
There God promises that one day all things will be made right. One day there will be a new heaven and a new earth and the old order of unexplainable pain and suffering will be no more.
“[And] God’s dwelling place [will be] among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
But one thing I think most of us miss in this beautiful account and which we almost always miss when we try to write off pain and suffering as essentially trivial and irrelevant in light of God’s redemptive plan, is that even when God finally redeems all things and makes all things new, even then there still will be scars in heaven.
“Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne…”
The scars Christ gained on the cross he will bear throughout eternity as a witness to the fact that God cares deeply about our pain, that God takes our suffering seriously, that God suffers with us and will never pretend, even in heaven, that our pain did not matter, that it did not grieve the very heart of God.
I am keenly aware that as hopeful as this might be to people like me, it does not answer the question of why God allowed that pain and suffering in the first place.
Which is why I’m worried about the message Kirk Cameron will present in his new movie.
I fear that he will unintentionally portray God as a monster who wills evil for the sake of some mysterious divine plane.
I fear that he will portray evil as good, as some sort of perverse declaration of God’s glory.
I fear that he will leave his audience with too many answers, and a zeal to share those misguided insights with people who need room to grieve, not answers.
I fear there will be a mother who has lost her child who will see film and hear “God killed your baby.”
I fear that in his desire to help, Kirk will only hurt.
I hope I’m wrong.
But I fear I am not.
Obviously, I don’t know exactly what Kirk will end up saying, but regardless of whatever answer he does offer I wish Kirk would learn what so many of us in the church need to learn.
Sometimes, many times, the best answer to the most questions of faith is “I don’t know.”
Grace and peace,