“Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” H.L. Mencken.
“then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’ Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:10-12
I am obsessed with the reaction to news stories. Mainly, tragedies because I love to see how people try to explain their worldview in light of particular tragedy. Nobody ever reads about a shooting anymore without a pre-conceived notion as to who the killer is and what could’ve prevented this. Depending on your left or right affiliation, it would behoove your case if the killer were a White, Christian, NRA member or any combination of the three, or a Muslim. So the conversation begins about a Muslim registry or gun control or guns on campus, or racism or what have you. You see enough of them and you’ll notice not only do people have the wrong conversations, the repetitive “Yeah, but” exchange of talking points, but these conversations only come up after emotions have been stoked. We only talk about what’s wrong with the world then what’s wrong with the world gets in the way of our political talk, which we use to subsume the issue. And while both sides have their own talking points, both share the common refrain “This shouldn’t happen in 2017”. People have this starry-eyed belief that the problem is so beneath us that it should be gone by now. How the idea that we are on this straight climb to utopia has survived all the atrocities of the last hundred years (at least) is beyond me. We’re able to look at the 2 World Wars, 9/11, the Soviet Union, more recently, the crime waves in multiple American cities like Baltimore, DC, St. Louis and Chicago. Despite all of that, people still believe we’re just a few twitches away from surging towards perfect equality and that we as a people can achieve it of our own strength, without God. What we’re going to do tonight is first look at the problem of evil the way most idealists do, as just a social annoyance we just can’t seem to get rid of. After that, we’ll slowly bring God into the conversation, dissecting a few last-ditch efforts to prove we have control of the problem. Lastly, we will essentially show how all that effort and all the discussion is a waste of time and misses the point entirely.
When you see the various races, backgrounds and motives of killers or the vitriol of our political climate or even the way people might treat each other in personal relationships, it should destroy the idea that humanity is any closer to peace than we were after the Second World War. One of the causes of this division is that different people have different concepts of what the problem is, but they all agree that the problem is somewhere out there and it is easily defined. It’s “mostly” Islamic terror, illegal immigrants, white cops, black cops, white people, black people, Conservatives, Liberals, Christians, Atheists or Muslims. The problem is, almost always “those people”, the ones that fit the individual’s personal biases and prejudice. All we see here is that people think there’s this dividing line between good people and bad, and there are disagreements as to what the line truly separates. When you ask the more reasoned people on both the religious and secular side, it appears the line doesn’t exist. Genesis 8:21 sees God declare “the heart of man is evil from his youth.” Atheists like H.L. Menken once sardonically said that humanity is, despite their best efforts, doomed to remain “irrevocably human”. Solzhenitsyn mentioned that a line existed but that “it cut through the heart of every human being.”
Despite this, the people most loudly protesting the ills of society don’t seem to consider themselves to be part of the problem. They do however have a solution: a rigidly enforced, fluid moral code which they, the self-appointed police are not required to live by. The results speak for themselves. We have the microagressions, where innocuous comments become grievous insults, or the safe space where differing opinions are considered a threat. Bias Response teams have been popping up across the country as well. These people were called by one Libertarian commentator as the “New Moral Majority”. They believe if they cannot legislate morality, they can force a new kind of morality through social pressure. For example, a tweet from a college student criticizing BLM, the Chick-Fil-A COO’s comment about gay marriage in a magazine, a Colorado bakery’s refusal to bake a cake and an Indiana pizzeria’s refusal to cater a wedding and so on were all met with aggression, anger, hatred and of course, internet death threats. If we look at how the idea of “unity” is applied in America today, we can see that it’s not really a guiding principle, it’s a concept of peace that has been weaponized on one end, and used to build a synthetic moral high ground on the other.
Then there are the people who get left behind in this chaos. The gentle idealists. They are the ones who invented the slogans of “why can’t we all just get along”, “we’re better than this” and “This shouldn’t happen in 2017.” They see a goodness in people that they can’t explain but they just know that sooner or later we’ll all just find, and in doing so, overcome whatever the social ill they’re protesting. And they will do this very soon. The reasons are essentially because “we’re better than this” and “we have to”. Very quickly, we’re not better than this. If we were “this” wouldn’t be here. Secondly, if we’re living in a world without God, which apparently we are, there is absolutely no real obligation to do “better”. Lastly, they fail to see that we all can’t get along because some of us (the agitators, the virtue signalers and so on) simply don’t want to.
In Terry Timm’s book “A Moveable Feast”, Timm describes a conversation from the author Jim Collins and Admiral James Stockdale about Stockdale’s time in the military prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton”. The conversation explains the “they’ll get it eventually” mentality:
“I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
Finally, after about a hundred meters of silence, (Collins) asked, “Who didn’t make it out?” “Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.” “The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier. “The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again.
The “We will just get it eventually” mindset harkens back to Admiral Stockdale’s view of the optimist. “This time we’ll get it right”. By Easter “we’ll get it right”, by Thanksgiving, by 2017. It hasn’t been true for centuries. Paul Harvey once said “Cain killed Abel with a ten-pound club and men have been fighting ever since.” So now let’s begin turn our humanist protestor turn towards God, and we come upon the phrase, “If God wanted to fix this, he would’ve by now.”
When someone says God would’ve fixed “this problem” by now, he’s usually pointing towards this amorphous idea of “the culture”. God needs to fix the hatred, the prejudice, the bias “out there”. The speaker also has no idea what he’s saying. Even if he says “God might exist”, he maintains that every implication of that is untrue as it relates to him. In other words, God’s desire for people to be more like Him, to have a functional relationship with Him, to change from the ways that got people into the mess in the first place, to, as the phrase goes “die to self” are roundly ignored. Think also, about what that actually says: “God, come down here, fix a few things, and then we’ll take it from there.”
So, while we’re looking for a solution to the problem of evil, we might first want to avoid the temptation to consider ourselves wise, the simplest approach isn’t the best approach, and we as a species will never “get it eventually” by ourselves. Our attempts to do better on our own strength are poisoned by the individual biases and prejudices we each bring to the table and the fallibility we all share.
The second step is to realize that the problem is not simply “out there”, As Genesis, Mencken and Solzenitzyn agree, the problem is internal. There are traits in each of us, anger, cynicism, doubt and so on, that poison our best efforts, and sometimes show what matters to us more than unity. Sometimes, it’s political party unity. Think about this election cycle. We had people who stopped talking to each other because of a political opinion. Let’s put this very bluntly, people had a choice between a sociopath and a demagogue and decided that the hill they were going to die on was to make a moral argument. Generally, one who made a moral argument against Trump did not make one defending Clinton and I’ll guarantee the reverse is true. The flaws of their chosen candidate were dismissed with “They’re not perfect but…” and interchangeably “who is” and “They’re better than the other guy”. The way people addressed the flaws of the side they favor is to completely ignore them or justify them with that dreadful excuse “The lesser of two evils”. The inconsistent moralism and specifically an inability to admit the as fully admit flaws of your candidate as you proclaimed the flaws of the other, ended friendships. And this is what we’re putting against the backdrop of the idea that we’ll get it “eventually” because we’re on this march of progress that “nothing can stop”. The inability to forgive, to see beyond our immediate thoughts and to doubt that God is at work in even the minute elements of our lives is not correct and doesn’t help anything, in fact we’re actually worse for it.
Even if people can overcome these flaws (which is no small feat) they will come to realize there is no real human “solution” to the problem of evil. The secularist can’t explain it (the humanist in particular, chooses not to), God does not give a lengthy reason on why evil exists in a world made good. In that case at least, it comes down to “because there’s sin in the world” and anything more is just an extrapolation. All we know that we can work with is that evil is an omnipresent problem. The secular worldview, with all its suggestions and options exhausted collapses. Reverting to the screeching and hollering that isn’t interested in progress because there doesn’t appear to be any progress to make.
So what do we need? When we finally realize that we may not have helped anything and have instead made some things worse, we need to know we are forgiven. Very quickly, forgiveness does not trivialize the sin. Both the person who was wronged and the one who wronged them are very aware of what happened. Forgiveness means we are determined to maintain a relationship with them. Wright notes that “Forgiveness is looking hard at the fact that it did happen and making a choice to set it aside so it does not become a barrier between one and the other. We find this forgiveness in Jesus’ statement regarding the blood of the new covenant “shed for many for the forgiveness of sins”. Forgiveness, in Scripture, is the way by which evil is defeated. The fact that God forgives can be taken in the self-centered manner where “God forgives” everything so the speaker does not have to change. However, as Paul writes, this is not a byproduct of that forgiveness. In Romans 6, Paul states that we are “by no means” to continue in sin so “grace may abound” We were baptized into his death, and thus his resurrection so that “we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:1-2, 4)
Finally, the only place left to turn is God who offers a promise to us that it won’t be like this forever. There are several differences between this promise that “It will be made better” and “We can make it better”. God’s promise of what’s to come doesn’t assuage the current situation, it doesn’t trivialize it, but it offers hope and a way out. Returning to N.T. Wright that “solution” comes in what we are promised: “That God will make a world where all will be well.” We are invited, meanwhile, to begin living as though that world is already here. The quest to “fix” the toxic political climate, the injustice of and the evil in this world are exacerbated by a narrow view of the problem, relativist approach to a problem and people’s faith in their ability to be, individually and collectively, their own savior. God grants us the ability to accept and forgive ourselves for our mistakes and others for theirs and gives us a foundation to face the problems of the world with hope. There is no other solution.
Another difference here is that in saying that God will make it better, that means it’s no longer about us. We’re conduits for God’s redemption of the world (2 Timothy 2:25) , we are agents of change, but we are by no means the focus and our existence is not justified in our works.
One last difference between the belief that God will make it better and the idea that people can, is that the belief has more to hold to and less to apologize for. As we’ve established, the idea that mankind’s definition of progress is vague, all we have to work with is some perfect utopia, and we have to look at all the evil and the atrocities just within our own country (let alone the rest of the world) as bumps in the road. Funny thing about that is, we now live in an age of nuclear weapons. If World War 2 is a bump in the road, then a World War in the nuclear age is, what, exactly? The idea that people are capable of making the world better denies history, projects the future based on blind idealism, and fails to explain the worst parts of human nature.
The Christian perspective, for one, doesn’t put its faith in human nature. It says that God will make all things new. Moreover, it holds to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as a sign of a new age and the world to come. 1 Corinthians 15:12-14, 20-23 states:
But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
Christianity begins at the point where being “wrong” comes naturally to us. So much so that we needed a Savior, and continue to need that reminder. When Paul says the resurrection is the “First fruit”, what he’s saying is that God has not given up on us, the offer and process of redemption, for us and for the world is as real then as it is now and it’s just as important
Secularism has no room for redemption, it has all but given up on the idea that such a thing exists. Despite not outwardly admitting this (actually vocalizing the thought), they live and believe as though they’ve accepted it. If being “right” is of utmost value, and there is no redemption for being wrong, one must believe himself to be objectively right. If he is not, he must maintain some semblance of the idea that he is so as not to fall into the utter hopelessness that is now perched on the fringes of his mind
I’ll close with thoughts on 2 scriptures. The first is Ephesians 6:12, which I’m sure you all know. Paul says that our battle is not against “flesh and blood” meaning that physical violence is not the means or the ends, but rather we are fighting darker unseen forces; pride, bias, prejudice, ego. While those who are lost know they’re lost, they believe that have the “most correct” of every possible option, they denied the idea that God can fix this or help them at all, they’ve tried protesting and failed, they insulted people who didn’t believe like them, that didn’t cultivate anything, they’ve preached tolerance and they don’t practice it. Think about one moment in your life where you were dead wrong about something but it took you a long time to admit it and yet, admitting the truth has relieved you of the burden of pretending you’re ok. How difficult was that for you? How much harder then will it be to get someone to believe in something that they believe so fervently doesn’t exist?
Lastly, Acts 9:1-5
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him “Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you Lord” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do”
I share this passage to point out Jesus’ response to Saul, who had been threatening, persecuting and killing Christians up to this point. Saul asks “Who are you, Lord”. He knows who Jesus is, this is just that last vestige of who he used to be dying. Jesus says in verse 15 “This man is my chosen instrument” to declare to the Gentiles who he is. The condemnation and the ensuing firefight that we’d expect is nowhere to be found. Jesus and Saul both understand each other enough to know that the game is over. Now it rarely happens this quickly, of course, but I bring that to bring this point home: People are caught up in their ways, more often than not they are destructive, self-serving, self-justifying, and are intended to avoid the logical conclusion of their core belief: which is that this wreck is all there is, that it is futile to try and fix it, and that no matter how much joy or comfort we think we’re creating it is either fleeting at best or it is created at the expense of unity, goodness and truth. But these same people have heard of Jesus, they know of him, but they do not understand Him. Which means they don’t have any concept of true unity (the political bubble), nor goodness (justifying riots, breaking off friendships, family relationships over opinions, etc) and they’ve already sacrificed truth (relativism). In order for anything to change, the people who are running in this circle not saying out loud what they already know must be brought to see the real Jesus and the redemption he brings, of which forgiveness and everything the individual seeks at their core is offered in full. Our job is not simple: we have to run alongside the people running in circles patiently, for as long as it takes, up to and sometimes past the point of exhaustion until finally they realize it’s ok to stop. The alternative is to let that mindset destroy them. We were not left alone in our sin, therefore we are not permitted to leave other people in theirs.
Evidence over emotion.
Evil exists. Prepare for it, fight it, defeat it.