I received considerable response recently regarding what I wrote about Pat Robertson’s alleged conversations with God. So clearly, going after him now for saying that the earthquake in Haiti was the result of a Haitian pact with the devil would surely provoke a lively debate.
But the depth of suffering in Haiti deserves a more thoughtful assessment than simply slamming Pat’s myopic worldview. And even though we know from the beginning there will be no satisfying answer to the problem of evil, it remains a question we must ask.
Traditionally the problem is stated something like this: If God is good, then the suffering of innocent human beings is something God would work to prevent at all costs. And if God is all powerful, then the prevention of innocent suffering is certainly something God is capable of accomplishing. In the face of unspeakable human suffering, including the suffering of innocents, we are faced with the prospect that either God is not all powerful or not good.
Through the centuries many different theological ideas developed to address this dilemma. For instance, there are those who argue that the justice of God supersedes whatever compassion may exist in the goodness of God. Even if God wanted to show compassion on a sinful humanity, the justice of God would not allow it. The law is the law and even God cannot get around it. All have sinned, Paul wrote, therefore no one is truly innocent.
This is basically where Pat Robertson left Haiti. When bad things happen to us, it’s probably because we did something to deserve it.
Of course we can always just give up on God altogether. The universe is random and things happen according to a course of natural law. Earthquakes happen because the earth crust moves, and innocents suffer because they live on the crust. The earth is a naturally occurring phenomenon, and the best thing we can do as humans is try to live where it does not move.
There may be another way. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible describe God as filled with grief and sorrow when the widow and the orphan are neglected. They portray God as angry when the poor are exploited, but also dismayed because they suffer. In other words, God seems to really care what happens to us.
Jesus said that the most important thing we do in this world is love God unconditionally. There is great wisdom in this saying. If we only love God when we get what we want, or if we only love God when God protects us from harm, then we are engaged in a very one-way relationship. To love God regardless of circumstances puts us in a position to endure whatever life throws at us. If we have some sense that God is with us and for us no matter what is going on, and we are committed to that God, great comfort is possible.
Jesus also taught us to love our neighbor. But if we are preoccupied with what God is or is not doing for us, we probably won’t pay much attention to what is happening next door. But if we can get to the place where we are no longer anxious about where God is or who God is for, then we can pay attention to the people we share this planet with and hopefully build an actual human family.
This does not solve the problem of evil, but we knew from the start that was not going to happen anyway.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.