Summary: Everyday people face hardship. But we believe in a good God who has made a good creation, so why is there so much suffering and evil?
We live in a world where the answer to nearly every question is right at our fingertips. All we have to do is log on to Google, type a question, and in a matter of milliseconds, we have hundreds and sometimes even hundreds of millions of answers to our query. Or, if it’s a little too inconvenient to get to the computer, turn it on, and navigate to the search engine, we can just press the “Home” button on our smart phones and ask Siri our question. It’s quite nice, really. Except for that fact that we are now conditioned to expect a definite answer to all of our questions, and the simple fact of the matter is that there are some questions for which no good answer exists. This question before us today is perhaps the best example of such a question, “Why is there suffering and evil?”
The funny thing is; this is not a new question. Humans have been asking this same question for thousands upon thousands of years; probably as long as we have existed! It is to some degree the question that is asked by the disciples in this morning’s gospel reading, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” They are in essence asking, “Why is this man suffering?” What’s interesting is that Jesus doesn’t really give them a direct answer. But maybe that’s because as I mentioned a few moments ago, there’s really no one good answer to the question of suffering and evil in the world.
As we seek greater clarity to this question, “Why is there suffering and evil?” I think it best for us to begin by considering why we ask this question in the first place. And for the answer to that question, we have to go all the way back to creation. Genesis tells us that as God created the universe and each part of it, God called it “good”; this includes the light, the seas, the land, the plants and vegetation, the animals and creatures, and even humans. So throughout history, faithful God-followers have looked at this story of the “good” creation, and leaned upon their faith in a “good God”, but that knowledge cannot be reconciled with the fact that there is indeed a great deal of “bad” in the world around us. So we ask, “Why?” And for a long time, humanity had a pretty straightforward answer to this question, which was basically that suffering happened because God was punishing a person or group of people for some specific reason.
This answer begins with Adam and Eve, the first humans who, the Bible tells us, defied God’s instructions and ate of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Their sin broke the relationship of all humanity with God, and subjected us to temptation and sin. We call this original sin. So throughout the Old Testament, we see this sort of cause and effect relationship between humans and God. The humans sin, defy God’s law and mandates, God punishes the humans. God sent ten plagues upon the Egyptians because Pharaoh would not release the Israelites from enslavement. When the Israelites didn’t trust God and built idols in the wilderness, God made them wait 40 years before entering the Promised Land. The Israelites were exiled to Babylon according to the prophets because they had not been following God’s commands and God’s law. So it was for thousands of years. Every earthquake, every disease, every disaster humans explained, was the doing of God, a response to the sin of the people.
But over time, two things have happened that make such a simple response to the question of suffering and evil inadequate. For one, Christ has come, the embodiment of God himself. And in his own suffering and death, we see God’s immense love for all people, and God’s desire to save us, not to harm us. Secondly, science has taught us a lot about the way the natural world works, and with the knowledge we have now, it just doesn’t make sense to point to every natural disaster and say that it is God’s way of punishing humanity (even though some people still like to do this). A good example of this is forest fires. Forest fires sometimes start because of dumb things we humans do, like burning leaves in the middle of a drought, but sometimes they begin with a lightning strike. Often, these fires spread rapidly, they decimate not only forest vegetation, but also animals and birds. They can even force people from their homes. They can cause immense destruction, but forest fires also cleanse the ecology and restore the system to balance, and often the wildlife that returns after a fire is more lush and beautiful than it was before the fire. That’s what we saw in that beautiful video we watched during the Offering. In the same way, the El Nino weather pattern that is causing so much flooding and extreme weather across the U.S. right now, is also bringing California much needed rain after years of extreme drought.