Saint John's in the Village

An Episcopal Church, where in the name of Christ you are always welcome


By The Rev'd Lloyd Prator

Books and books have been written on this, which is probably the most frequently asked question about Christian faith, by Christians and non-Christians alike. Let us take a moment and try to understand what is behind this difficult question.

There are two kinds of evil. Volitional evil and natural evil. Natural evil is the sort like hurricanes, epidemics, plagues, and the like. Volitional evil is a result of human choices---such as a President who lies to his people, or a communist dictator like Stalin who kills 14 million of his citizens, or a personal decision to cheat on income taxes. That kind of thing. Both must be tolerated in order for freedom to have any meaning at all.

If God were to step in and set aside every hurricane and every virus which plagues us, pretty soon the natural world would lose its predictability and we would be unable to rely upon an orderly nature. The same law of gravity both pulls a fully loaded airplane down from the sky, killing 300 people, and, at the same time, enables us to drive ambulances along roadways to bring people to medical care. Evil is a result of consistent created order.

In order for human choices to have any meaning, we have to be able to choose bad things. My decision to love you, for example, is utterly without significance unless I also have the ability to hate you. The price of having a Mother Theresa who witness so powerfully to God's love is that we also have to have Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler who witness to ideological hatred.

The issue is freedom: The natural order is free to do as it will, and the human will is free, too. God seems to put a high prize on freedom.

Having said all of that, (and that's quite a lot, isn't it?), Christianity offers only limited hope for glory in this life. What Christianity teaches is that the fullness of God's reign is only known in another world beyond this one. This is what Christians call the resurrection life. The Christian vocation is to make this life as much like the risen life as we can---that's why our vocation is to struggle against all forms of suffering and injustice and evil. But we believe that the fullness of God's purposes do not come about until we die and are completed and perfected by God in the resurrection life.

Which is a little like saying that we can strive all we want to and we should, but in the end, the whole matter will only be resolved on the other side of the grave.

Having said all of this about volitional and natural evil and the problem of human suffering, one thing remains. That is the question about how we cope with the suffering which comes our way, how we make sense about it, and how we survive it emotionally and spiritually. This question has to do with another concept in theology called redemption. Redemption means the ways in which God brings something good out of something bad. One of the most compelling ways in which God redeems human suffering involves the community which God has called together, called the Church. Even though we are not Jews, we trace our community all the way back to the call of Abraham, and the creation of the faith community called Israel. Jesus, following the same dynamic of community formation, left behind a Church to be his community. It is so closely bound to him that sometimes we call the Church his body. And it is well to remember that God understands our suffering, the suffering of his body on earth, because he himself suffered in his earthly life; Jesus knew our suffering firsthand, and can stand with us in our suffering.

The Church is filled with the spirit of God, which was poured out upon it at the day of Pentecost, that time right after the resurrection when the disciples felt the power of God and saw the vision of tongues of fire resting upon their heads. This bound them together to live in the power of the resurrection and to share that power with each other in times of need. This is the Church at its very best. When we suffer the loss of those we love, when we receive the news of the terminal illness, when we are rejected by the world, we bring those concerns and those pains to the community. Being sustained by those who love us, being nurtured at the altar, hearing the word of God preached in a way that touches our pain---these are some of the ways in which the community redeems the suffering which comes to each of us.

In fact, if you take a look at the architecture of the Church, it tells you something of the power you can find there. What do you see in a church? An altar. A baptismal font. A book open on a lectern. Those tell the story. Broken by the world we come to a place where God meets us at the door, gives us a cool, refreshing bath, calls us to the table, feeds us with bread from the finest wheat and wines strained clear, and then tells us the stories of how our fathers and mothers in the faith found strength to go one. That strength can become our strength.


Suggested further reading: Evil and the God of Love by John Hick