June 22, 2014

Evil, Suffering and God

Passage: Isaiah 25:1-9 Luke 13:1-5


A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Amherst Island, ON,

June 22, 2014, by Zander Dunn

I have a friend who keeps asking me

why there’s so much evil in the world,

why there’s so much suffering in the world,

why God doesn’t stop those things?

She’s upset by the disappearance of Flight 370

with close to 300 people missing.

She’s appalled by the kidnapping of 275 girls

raped or to be sold as slaves in Nigeria.

She’s horrified by the civil war in Syria -

thousands killed and millions of refugees.

She’s disgusted by the sinking of the South Korean ferry and

hundreds of drowned students.

She’s shocked by the R.C.M.P. report that over 1,000

native women have been killed or are missing.

She knows much of the evil is perpetrated

by men and women but she cries out that God

should do something to stop such things.

How can a God of Love do nothing, but

simply allow such horrible things to happen?

If God is good and all loving, how can evil exist?

This question about how evil and suffering can exist

if God is a God of love is one of the most

difficult questions we’ll ever face.

Let’s simply be honest and admit that life is hard.

Not for everybody, but for many people

evil and suffering are big issues.

We, who live in a good, rich part of the world,

don’t have to face nearly as many problems

as do the people of poor countries.

But even in Canada many of us suffer poor health

and we are victims of evil.

Even good people, religious people, loving people

must deal with evil and suffering.

We may believe in God but still we’re hurt by

evil and suffering.

I’ve spoken with many people who say that

the best argument against the existence

of God is the reality of evil.

They ask me,

“With all the evil in the world,

how can you believe in God?”

Thousands of books have been written

on the problem of evil,

on the source of evil,

on why the innocent suffer.

Even Jesus cried out in despair,

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

That question is ironic because I believe that

God does not forsake us in our suffering.

Nor did Jesus believe that God had forsaken him.

He was quoting Psalm 22,

a psalm which goes on to declare,

“God did not despise or abhor

the affliction of the afflicted;

he did not hide his face from me,

but heard when I cried to him.”

I cannot explain why there is evil and suffering.

Of course, sometimes we bring evil and suffering

on ourselves.

I cannot explain why our loving God allows

evil and suffering to defeat us time after time.

I believe God is with us in evil and in our suffering

and that often suffering can be transformed

into powerful joy.

I believe God is with us always, and even the worst

that can happen to us can be turned into

a blessing and a new beginning.

Despite what I believe, the truth is that for many

people God seems to be absent when they

suffer unjustly.

Evil seems to defeat Goodness.

God seems to be helpless when evil triumphs.

Perhaps the best example of this is contained in

Elie Wiesel’s book entitled, “Night.”

The scene is set in the Auschwitz death camp.

In that camp Jews were exterminated by the Nazis.

One day when we came back from work,

we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call.

SS all around us, machine guns trained; the

traditional ceremony. Three victims in

chains - and one of them, the little servant,

the sad-eyed angel. The SS seemed more

preoccupied, more disturbed than usual.

To hang a young boy in front of thousands

of spectators was no light matter. The head

of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were

on the child. He was lividly pale, almost

calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its

shadow over him. The three victims mounted

together onto the chairs. The three necks

were placed at the same moment within the

nooses. “Long live liberty!” cried the two

adults. But the child was silent. “Where is

God? Where is He?” someone behind me

asked. At a sign from the head of the camp,

the three chairs tipped over. Total silence

throughout the camp. On the horizon, the

sun was setting. “Bare your heads!” yelled

the head of the camp. His voice was raucous.

We were weeping. “Cover your heads.”

Then the march past began. The two adults

were no longer alive. Their tongues hung

swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was

still moving; being so light, the child was

still alive.... For more than half an hour he

stayed there, struggling between life and

death, dying in slow agony under our eyes.

And we had to look him full in the face. He

was still alive when I passed in front of him.

His tongue was still red, his eyes were not

yet glazed. Behind me, I heard the same

man asking: “Where is God now?” And I

heard a voice within me answer him,

“Where is He? Here He is - He is hanging

on these gallows.”

Where is God when evil and suffering beset us?

Jeremiah discovered the answer to his own suffering

as he took the suffering of his people on

himself and cried out to God for them.

Jesus discovered God with him in his suffering.

Yes, Jesus asked where God was.

But did you notice Jesus asked God that question?

“My God, my God, why have you

forsaken me?

Jesus knew God was with him; he could talk to him

even when God appeared to be absent,

even when death appeared to win.

Jesus believed not even death could defeat God.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls it

“divine pathos.”

Pathos means suffering; sym means with; put them

together and we get sympathy - to suffer with.

The Jews believed God suffered with them.

In suffering with the Jews, God gave them

the strength they needed to endure.

One Christian theologian calls God the

“fellow sufferer who understands.”

The Psalmist sings:

“Where can I go from your spirit?

Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.”

Sheol is the place of the dead.

The Jews had no concept of hell.

The Psalmist is telling us that no one can escape God.

That is what has bolstered and uplifted the Jews

over all the years they’ve suffered evil

at the hands of other people.

Despite hatred, pogroms, cruelty and injustice,

even from Christians, they have endured.

When so-called Christians killed six million Jews

they did not defeat the Jews because

the Jews knew God was with them.

At the worst times in their lives

the Jews prevailed because God was with them.

Only a few years ago Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a

book entitled, “When Bad Things Happen to

Good People.”

He wrote that book out of the sadness in his life

when he and his wife discovered that their son,

Aaron, was born with progeria, that

incurable disease which causes

aging and early death.

Aaron always looked like an old man.

He aged rapidly.

He died, of old age, at 14.

Kushner declared that often, when bad things happen

to good people, God can’t help them.

God may love them but God is limited.

God can’t solve their problems;

God doesn’t eradicate the evil in their lives;

God’s unable to stop their suffering.

I don’t agree with Kushner because

I don’t dare try to limit God in any way.

But it’s true, that when evil hits or suffering strikes,

God does not intervene to save us.

A blind man was brought to Jesus.

His disciples asked the standard question:

“Who sinned, that this man was born blind?”

Jesus answered that it was nobody’s fault.

That man was not blind because

he’d sinned or because his parents had sinned.

Bad things happen - without explanation.

Luke tells us about two calamities.

First, Pontius Pilate slaughtered a group of Galileans.

That was an act of political violence - an atrocity.

Second, a tower collapsed, killing 18 people.

That was a whim of fate - a tragedy.

Were the men Pilate had killed

worse sinners than all other Galileans?

Were those who perished in the tower catastrophe

worse sinners than others in Jerusalem?

Jesus told his followers:

“Those men were not killed because

they were bad or wrong or sinful.

They were in the wrong place

at the wrong time. Bad things

happen. No easy explanation.

If you want to know the cause

of the disasters, then blame the

cruelty of Pontius Pilate or blame

the poor workmanship of those

who built the tower and the scaffolding.

But don’t ever say God was punishing

those who died.”

I remember being deeply moved when I read about

the death of the 21 year old son of The Rev.

William Sloane Coffin, the pastor of

Riverside Church, New York city.

Alex Coffin drove off a bridge into

Boston harbour and drowned.

Trying to comfort him, a woman said to Coffin,

“I just don’t understand God’s will.”

The Rev. Coffin lashed out in anger,

“I’ll say you don’t understand God’s will, lady.

Do you think it was the will of God that Alex

never fixed that lousy windshield wiper, that

Alex was probably driving too fast in such a

storm, that Alex had probably had too much

to drink? Do you think it is God’s will there

are no street lights along that stretch of road,

no guard rail separating the road and Boston


Coffin later commented,

“For some reason I can’t get it through

people’s heads that God doesn’t run

around the world pulling trigger fingers,

clenching knives, turning steering wheels.

God is dead set against all kinds of

unnatural deaths. This is not to say there

are no unnatural deaths. There are. But

the one thing that should never be said

about any violent death like Alex’s death

is that it is the will of God. My own

consolation lies in knowing that it was

not the will of God that Alex died - but

that when the waves closed over the

sinking car, God’s heart was the first of

all hearts to break.”

The tsunami of 2004 killed thousands.

American television evangelists declared that God

was punishing Muslims and Hindus for the

ways they treated Christians.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 killed thousands,

mostly black people, and Franklin Graham,

Billy Graham’s son, announced that God

had targeted New Orleans because

it was a wicked city,   sexually perverse.

Those are lies about God.

God does not punish people by storms.

When a typhoon, a hurricane, a tornado

wipes out a town and kills its children

God is not against the people;

God is with them.

Our favourite passage of Scripture is Psalm 23

which tells us that even when we go through

the valley of the shadow of death, God

is with us.

We’re frustrated because God doesn’t explain

why certain bad things happen to good people.

God doesn’t explain; God comforts.

God doesn’t comfort us by kissing our wounds

and saying, “There, there. All better now.”

God gives us strength to face the worst.

And in doing that we come to realize we are not alone.

Rabbi Kushner, also wrote a book about Psalm 23.

He knows he will be strengthened at his own death.

He writes,

“When my time comes, I will feel less alone

because I know that God is not only grieving

for me but is with me at that moment.”

Some people blame people with AIDS for

their own predicament.

They got AIDS because they shared a needle,

or because they were sexually promiscuous,

or because they didn’t protect themselves.

I remember a minister afflicted with AIDS

who came to our clergy group to be hugged.

He said to us,

“You’d be amazed at how many people

are afraid to touch me. They won’t even

shake hands with me. Good Christian

people, nurses and doctors, won’t come

near me. They know I’m not contagious

but they fear me, they fear being close to

me. The only people I know who will hug

me are ministers and priests. That’s why

I’ve come to be with you today. In a few

weeks or months I’ll be dead. Today I’m

very lonely and I need love and support.

I know you. I know you’ll give me what

I need.”

We ministers in our group knew this man was a

homosexual but we also knew that it was

among homosexuals that he received

the love he needed.

When he came to us

we received him literally with open arms.

We hugged and kissed him; a month later he died.

But he died knowing that God was with him.

That’s who we were for him - the agents of God.

God had not rejected him but was hugging him.

He died knowing that God would go with him

through death to new life.

The truth of the matter is that

God does not reject;

God does not condemn;

God does not punish;

God does not send us to hell.

God is our Father, our Mother, who loves us

and will never let us go.

What about those Bible verses which indicate that

if we don’t do as God commands,

then God will punish us

by sending us to hell?

You can struggle with those verses if you want;

I can’t be bothered because I know

that God is love.

Evil and suffering seem to show God does not love us.

We very quickly take the blame upon ourselves.

We ask questions like these:

“What have I done to deserve this pain?”

“Where did I go wrong that my son is sick?”

“For what is God punishing me?”

Can’t we see that by asking such questions

we’re saying that God is a monster?

If God sent the tsunami to punish

Muslims and Hindus for hurting Christians then God is a monster.

If God sent the tornados to destroy homes and farms to teach us some moral lesson,

then God is a monster.

If God refuses to rescue us from

climate chaos,

vicious victors,

and sadistic sickness

that certainly raises questions for us

but God doesn’t reverse the choices we make or save us

from the consequences

of those choices.

In love God watches us struggle with

evil and suffering and then God empowers us

to go on dealing with those things.

That may not be what we want and we may not

understand it, but that’s God’s way.

But even more difficult to understand

is the unmerited love that God has for us.

God doesn’t give us what we deserve;

God gives us better.

God doesn’t give us what we want;

God gives us more.

God doesn’t give us what we hope for;

God give us higher than that.

I don’t know about you, but I hope I can

handle the evil and suffering that come my way

because I know I am blessed by the

love of God which will see me

through all of life and all

of death to new life

and beyond.