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In a bewildering world, Easter brings hope Sickness, grief and death are everywhere, but the Christian story helps us endure

A Christian worshipper kneels in prayer by the shut doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem. Credit: Gali Tibbon/ AFP /Getty

A Christian worshipper kneels in prayer by the shut doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem. Credit: Gali Tibbon/ AFP /Getty


April 12, 2020   4 mins

I know I wasn’t alone in turning to Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague when coronavirus struck. It tells of the rise and fall of an epidemic that hits Oran, an Algerian city, and its devastating effects on the inhabitants. As the story unfolds, it raises the age old questions of, as the town doctor puts it, “the only certainties we all have in common, which are love, suffering and exile”.

The local priest, Father Paneloux, interprets the plague as the judgment of God on the faithless people of Oran, and decides that either he has to give up his faith, or accept the plague as God’s will — there is no middle way. Camus obviously thought this as well. He doesn’t even consider the possibility that God might be opposed to the plague, or even more so, than the inhabitants of the city. And so he raises the age old question: if God is all powerful, and hates it as much as we do, then why does he allow it to happen?

Over the years, theologians have taken three broad approaches to the problem of evil. Evil exists either because God thinks it is in some way good for us in a wider mysterious plan (as Father Paneloux thought), or because of a power at work within the world opposed to the will of God, or because of the misuse of human free will. In other words, either the blame lies with God, with Satan or with us.

Now each of these has something to be said for it. We all know from experience how struggles and suffering can teach us a great deal. There are other times when we have to reach for the language of evil — something dark and superhuman, whether in the cold malice of a psychopathic child abuser, the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, or the death cult of ISIS. And it’s also true that much of the routine, daily misery we experience is down to the hurt we do to each other, whether by careless words, deliberate cruelty or sheer neglect.

Yet none of these arguments really satisfies. The idea that God deliberately sends disease or death and the misery they cause because it’s good for us is hard to accept in a Covid-19 ward. Not every bit of inexplicably nasty behaviour can be blamed on the Devil. And it’s hard to see how human choice explains the mutation of a virus like this one.

There is a reason they don’t provide a rational explanation for evil. It is because evil is, by definition, irrational and devoid of explanation. There is a long tradition of Christian thinking that thinks of evil as the absence, or more precisely, the corruption of Good — a kind of ontological wasting disease, like a virus that destroys the cells it fastens onto. There is a randomness about evil that makes it unpredictable, without order or pattern.

So, when we ask the question of why evil exists, it isn’t really a proper question. Evil does not ‘exist’ in the sense that God exists, or you exist, or the screen you’re looking at exists. Evil is simply that process of corruption, or disintegration, that ends up destroying everything. So, when we ask why evil exists, or what purpose it serves, there cannot be an answer — evil has no purpose, because it is the absence of purpose. It can have no meaning, because it is the absence of meaning. It can have no explanation because it’s the absence of explanation. It can have no point, because it is by definition pointless.

As a result, any attempt to explain the mystery of evil can only ever be partial and incomplete. We might decide that these arguments about suffering don’t make sense, and resolve not to believe in God. But by doing that, have we solved the problem? Sickness, grief and death will endure no matter what we believe.

Where, then, might we find the resources to live through suffering and fight against it? Richard Dawkins wrote: “finally and inevitably, the universe will flatten into a nothingness that mirrors its beginning
 If you think that’s bleak and cheerless, too bad. Reality doesn’t owe us comfort.” He may be right that we have no right to comfort, hope or justice, but it doesn’t make it any easier to live without them.

But somehow, in the Covid ward or the crematorium, we have to find hope, because without hope, there is just despair, and it’s very difficult to live life that way.

Deciding not to believe because it’s difficult to reconcile a good God with the existence of evil may allow us to strike a bleak pose of intellectual heroism, but doesn’t help much when you are watching a dear friend struggle for breath in a hospital bed. We still somehow have to find some hope that failure and fate are not the last word.

I have never met a Christian who claims to have understood and answered the problem of evil. Nonetheless, they still believe. They believe because they have discovered something so good and compelling that it persuades them to believe anyway.

They have heard the story of a God who in Jesus Christ entered into the darkness of a world that has turned away from light and life, a God who took on evil and conquered it in the events we celebrate at Easter, and who now invites us to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem, by gradually being turned outwards from our self-obsession, learning to love not just ourselves, not even just our neighbours, but even our enemies

Over against the enigma of evil, comes the assurance that after everything is said and done, after Coronavirus, tsunamis and cancer, God is good after all.

Christians trust in that goodness not by some act of philosophical contortion, but because they see it in the face, the hands, the life, the death and resurrection of Jesus, in a way that gives them hope that he has broken the power of evil and will one day eradicate it for good. They believe because if Jesus Christ really is the clue to the mystery of ‘love suffering and exile’, then the secret at the heart of all things is the love that conquers death, loss and evil.

That is why we Christians believe. Not because we know the answer to the problem of suffering, but because human beings cannot live without hope. And the Christian story gives us hope that we cannot find anywhere else.


Graham Tomlin is Bishop of Kensington

gtomlin

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Miriam UĂ­
Miriam UĂ­
4 years ago

Christians trust in that goodness not by some act of philosophical contortion, but because they see it in the face, the hands, the life, the death and resurrection of Jesus, in a way that gives them hope that he has broken the power of evil and will one day eradicate it for good.
Beautifully put. Thank you!

lizzzygoode
lizzzygoode
4 years ago

Thank you for this article. So often faith in Christ is denigrated without any knowledge of what that faith is and the absolute joy it brings. Particularly in difficult times.

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
4 years ago

I just wish atheists weren’t so obsessed with destroying my culture simply because they disagreed with the existence of an abstract entity. It just feels like such a pathetic and childish reason.

Julia McMaster
Julia McMaster
4 years ago

Why do you think that Christians have no critical faculties? Do you know that the resurrection of Jesus is a historical, proven fact? To prove your critical thinking you might want to look into this. Lee Strobel did, and has published his findings in the book “The Case for Christ”.

johntshea2
johntshea2
4 years ago

“In other words, either the blame lies with God, with Satan or with us.”

Obviously not with us, since none of us was alive at the time of the Fall, and none of us inherits any guilt or responsibility for it, though we may inherit other effects as one inherits genetic and other qualities and limitations without deserving them.

I note Bishop Tomlin subscribes to the privative concept of evil. He’s far from alone in that, and I concur most of the time. But not always. Some evils do seems to have an agency of their own, such as Fascism and Communism in the twentieth-century. But I do not put the Coronavirus in that category.

“Reality doesn’t owe us comfort.” Not for the first time, Richard Dawkins contradicts himself by preaching dogmatically about the personality of reality, even as he tries to deny reality has any personality. How can whatever he believes “reality” is owe or not owe us anything in his scheme of things?

Spong Burlap
Spong Burlap
4 years ago

If evil is entropy given a readily identifiable name, then life is even more valuable to celebrate and to fight for. The very universe cannot defeat the eventual arrival of a final entropy but our species can, in our time, choose a path through the immediate future, with “we, us, ours” rather than “I, me, mine” of recent years helping us battle through the coming post-viral world. We’re seeing examples of this with every news bulletin worldwide. And that truly is something to celebrate.

Wildly, off-topic, It’d be interesting to read how, say, a practicing Jain views this catastrophe: after all, a virus is life too.

Jules Parkes
Jules Parkes
4 years ago

Millions do not. Even some very intelligent people (not I confess me). However, faith is unquestionably a gift – but you can ask for it. Happy and Holy Easter to you all.

Michael Baldwin
Michael Baldwin
4 years ago

There cannot ever be any satisfactory explanation to the problem of evil within the current mainstream Christian belief system, which is not as far away from atheism as it likes to think, in the following sense.

Atheism, as represented by Mr Dawkins for example, tells us we as individuals are doomed to die forever.

Christianity tells us that we only live (on this planet Earth) once, and will either go to heaven or hell depending on how we behave or what we choose to believe.

Christianity does not even seem to be clear on our likely fate, as many if not most Christians seem to hold the view that faith is the key factor in whether we get to heaven or not, and not works or deeds.

And there are also rumoured to be some kind of intermediate possibilities between heaven and hell such as “limbo” or “purgatory”, but I personally have never been able to see where those ideas originated in anything Jesus himself said.

The part that seems especially concerning about apparently only ever getting one life chance to determine if we shall go to heaven or hell, is the vastly unequal chance we apparently have, regardless of whether our chances depend on works or faith.

What of the person born in some still remote parts of the world who have never heard of the Christian message; or those who die at early age who again cannot have had any chance to even properly understand the idea of a Jesus or God at all? Or those who are born mentally disabled or into abusive or criminal families, who do not therefore appear to have an equal chance, or indeed any chance of exercising their free will to believe or disbelieve?

And the current Christian teaching (I speak as raised a Christian, so subjected to current Christian dogma for the usual period of years as a child) also leaves other enormous major questions unanswered, which strangely don’t seem to bother the vast majority of Christians in the least.

Of which the two main ones that concern me are firstly, what exactly Jesus was doing in between the ages of 12 and 30, and I don’t think carpentry is a satisfactory answer.

And secondly, if we add up Jesus’ mere actual estimated 2000 total words reported in the gospels, and consider that he was said to be teaching for around 3 years, one presumes on most days of the week, if we assume he was speaking 1000 words a day (which is a very conservative estimate) for let us say 300 days a year for 3 years, that would suggest he probably spoke around one million words, of which we therefore have only a few thousand, so perhaps 99.8% of what he said we do not have, and therefore do not know.

If we actually also stop to consider that the actual events described in the gospels are so few in total likewise, it becomes clear that we likely also don’t know 95% or more of what he actually did, and even less of what he said.

So would anybody think a judgement could be passed on their own lives, if only a tiny proportion of what they said and did was allowed to be known? Would anybody think that if they heard only less than 1% of the dialogue in the movie, and saw only 5% of the events in it, they would understand the story, follow what was going on, consider themselves fit to review it?

Especially when it was a life story in which in any case, even had they watched the whole movie, only a tiny proportion of the last 3 years of the man’s life and words were shown, and the preceding 30 years almost nothing whatsoever was shown of at all.

So then we have to ask ourselves why, in the case of such an extraordinary man, whom his modern followers believe to the Son of God, and actually by some divine mystery also beyond their understanding, God Himself also actually, has so little of the whole story been passed on to us?

What exactly was it that apparently no record of history has been passed on to us, that it seems therefore nobody took the trouble to report or say?

And then, we have in my view, the even more bizarre notion, that an almighty God would deliberately send “His only Son” to be tortured and murdered in a terribly painful way, by ignorant, hateful and cowardly humans and despots, as some kind of inexplicable “salvation” for everybody else.

Ah, but the point is, we are told, he “rose from the dead”, he defeated death.

Fine, but why couldn’t God have found some less painful means than torturing and having murdered his own son to demonstrate this possibility, when after all he had already brought a man’s dead daughter back to life, so he had already demonstrated that “being raised from the dead” was possible?

I could I suspect go on raising all these massive doubts about the approximate modern Christian teaching for quite a long time, but I think the above is enough.

It is not that I hate Christianity or Christians, it is simply the presumably “God given reason” that I appear to have been born with, and I think most other people have been born with also to approximately the same degree, results automatically in me asking these questions, if I actually dare or bother to think about the modern Christian teaching, which clearly, if others do not have such doubts, they do not.

So I suggest the reason for the massive emptying of Churches in the last century or so, since Darwin really and his modern disciple Mr Dawkins, is not due to the concerns over the existence of evil at all.

But rather because modern people cannot make any sense of the Christian teaching, which appears to require mostly blind belief, or one is advised one may be going to hell, which then becomes religion by threat of eternal punishment, and not the one of love and free will.

Now I think about it, I am also in fact not very sure that Jesus actually said that man had any “free will.” Which is in itself a very difficult question, whether looked at from the religious or atheist point of view, as it appears that most of us are still almost entirely motivated by our instincts, such as to feed and breed, and avoid things that would cause us pain and seek out those that bring us pleasure.

But if on the other hand we look at the problem of evil from the Eastern religious perspective, all of a sudden everything becomes clear.

That is, the Eastern religions like Buddhism/Hinduism are fundamentally different than the modern Christian simply because they include the concept of reincarnation.

This means everyone gets a fair chance at life and “salvation.”

Because even if you are born into awful circumstances and without much intellect or tendency to culture – you know, as one of the vast majority of Joe Sixpack or Jane Soccermom people, whom some amusing commenter I saw express the state of the masses as lately – in later lifetimes you too (the individual soul that passes from life to life on its spiritual journey, that is) eventually via enough further incarnations get to be a cultured and intellectually and emotionally intelligent and morally advanced person, and start to become perhaps worthy of being a disciple of advanced beings, or alleged sons of God, like Jesus.

And if we reject this idea, and insist each of us only has one life, then we also end up with the difficult to make sense of idea that God actually fills heaven – wherever and whatever that may be – with sinners.

And if so, where exactly even does He draw the line – that is, fair enough, if we all have to pass through purgatory to get purified first, then fine.

But if that’s the case, why don’t we all just die now, and then however bad a sinner we may be, if we “do enough time” in purgatory, surely that will safe a lot of pointless suffering “down here.”

Whereas again, if we look at the Eastern religious view, we have no such problems, as heaven is not actually a place, but a state, like the Buddha’s enlightenment, that one achieves in the full physical body, though only after probably thousands of reincarnated lifetimes, in which we inch gradually close and closer to such perfection.

And unlike Christian religion, that has this serious problem about whether “faith” or “works” is the way to go, Eastern religion is totally clear that we eventually have to get rid of absolutely every selfish imperfection and trace of egotism before being worthy or able to get to this “heaven”, this state of enlightenment, or “union with God.”

Which would also explain Jesus saying “the way is narrow, and few are those who find it.”

Whereas it appears to me, most of the practicing Christians (as I was one for quite a while myself) think that they will somehow make it to heaven in one single lifetime as long as they are “good” and have “faith” and get some kind of “forgiveness” for their sins.

Eastern religion (in its more enlightened versions) also explains both human evil and what appears to be evil coming from Nature, or so called “Acts of God.”

That is, if we see that we are not engaged in a process of animal evolution as Richard Dawkins suggests, but actually spiritual evolution of the soul, via numerous incarnations, and that collectively speaking for the whole of humanity also, then what we see is that we are actually in the transition stage from animals to gods – just as Jesus said in John 10:34: “Ye are gods.”

The average Christian if anybody else claims such a thing, like Nero possibly, would regard this as blasphemy, but without understanding that such an idea does not usurp the authority of “the Almighty.”

The point is, that in Eastern philosophy, it is explained that one achieves “union with God”, so is not an egotistical person any more, with all their petty loves and hates and favouritism, but merely a channel through which God works.

In fact, the Eastern version of religion says that the whole universe is nothing other than the body of God, so that the idea any of us are not “part of God”, and that we are ultimately the “individuals” we believe ourselves to be, is in any case just an illusion.

But while this illusion persists, it is very clear indeed that we ourselves are responsible for the evil in the world – which really simply amounts to needless suffering – as not only do our individual actions towards one another create suffering, but our collective actions also create collective suffering.

Again this is clear from the Bible itself, which warns us to follow God’s commandments, and shows the clear example of how floods, plagues, famines, earthquakes and other destructive catastrophes are the direct result of man’s failure to apply God’s law.

Of course modern man does not much think so, because he doesn’t believe there is any scientific basis for this to happen, as he believes mostly in modern science now whether he calls himself a Christian or not.

But Eastern religion once again comes to our rescue by explaining that Nature is not as simple as the scientists think, and that there are subtle forces, powers of Nature that respond to human feeling. It is known as “the Deva evolution”, which is effectively God’s virtually unlimited army of “little helpers” who carry out the laws of Nature, and so that once human suffering due to evil actions gets to a certain peak in the world, the balance of Nature is automatically upset, creating all these what we might call “natural disasters”, including outbreaks of contagious diseases like this virus, which no scientist is able to explain the origin of – they merely say a new “mutation” has arisen, but have no idea why, so called it “random”, without explanation.

And the public loves to buy into that explanation, because such as with the divorce issue, the public wants to believe that nothing bad that happens is ever “its fault.”

Tthis “self-righteousness”, whilst carrying out even the most terrible wrongs (e.g. Tony Blair’s Iraq war, and even now after causing up to hundreds of thousands of deaths, he still walks around smiling, as if he’d done nothing wrong), the public is no longer in most cases willing to accept it does wrong, or that anybody else can ever judge it.

That’s also why there is a general disbelief in God. Because the idea of being judged by an “angry and unjust Father figure” who tells you “you are wrong”, “you are a sinner”, effectively “you are no good”, has become totally intolerable to most modern people, many of whom either fly into a rage or easily break down into tears if anybody (let alone God) dares to judge them, tell them they are doing wrong.

And so then, when some horrible thing comes, like some disease, they hold their hands up to the sky (as if there were a God there, whom they continually deny) and cry out “what have I/we done to deserve this! This is so unfair!”

And then the population cries buckets of tears as nurses die trying to administer to the masses of dying (actually not significantly more than usual at this time of year, Peter Hitchens says he checked official figures and the weekly death toll is only up to about 11,000 from the 5-year average of about 10,000) allegedly of this virus, and so presumably the idea is “if God is causing this, that only proves He’s a heartless monster!” etc, thus justifying their disbelief ever more.

Whereas the real truth for example that nobody is looking at, is while we focus on the tears of the few dying nurses and 1000 a week more in the UK dying than usual, every 4 seconds, so that’s 21,000 a day, are dying of starvation in far away places.

But for them we do not cry any tears, nor witness their mass agony as they die helpless and possibly all alone, at the rate of nearly 1 million a year.

And we do nothing hardly about it. Instead we even overeat, and develop an epidemic of obesity, while this nearly million every year die of starvation for what we throw away.

So surely God sees this, and even if He were an “Old Testament God” who allegedly handed punishments out, He at least might say “while you let so many of my children die for no cause, when you yourselves suffer far less in numbers, why should I intervene?”

But the Eastern religious view – for example as explained by theosophists like Alice A Bailey or New Age authors like Benjamin Creme – says God does not act like that anyway, He does not “do vengeance.”

He merely sets up a creation, a universe in which he gives man “free will.”

Then He sends prophets to teach man how to live, and explain what His laws (which are none other than the laws of Nature, but also include moral laws the scientists refuse to accept could exist) are, and the prophets warn what will happen if man does not obey them.

And then when man flouts those laws en masse, as he is doing now in almost every way (and of course has been doing to a lesser or greater extent since our history began) then these bad things happen – the earthquakes, the plagues, the famines, floods, and so on.

I almost hope I am wrong, because what that says if that man is going to continue to suffer ever more, until he turns back to the laws handed down by the prophets, and gets out of this currently ultimately totally suicidal state of “denial.”

A now almost titanium strength shield of denial, of refusal to admit there is any such thing as “sin”, or that he or she personally ever does that, or is in any way to blame.

Not to blame for the suffering he or she inflicts on family or friends or strangers, not to blame for the fact that somebody dies somewhere else in the world of starvation every 4 seconds, or that wars like Iraq take place, allowed by us all to be carried out by our government, murdering and mutilating hundreds of thousands of total strangers, while our government congratulates itself on “a good job done”, a job in fact that has resulted in terrorism against us, which may outbreak and kill any of us at any time.

So though I am not trying to force anybody to change their religious views or even atheist ones, I am just pointing out, that it appears from both the Bible and other religious views, that man himself is the main or soul culprit for his own suffering, and unless he can somehow be brought back to “obeying God’s laws”, then he is likely going to suffer far worse.

A Happy Easter therefore to everyone – at least we still have food on our tables to celebrate it, which is more than many elsewhere do.

d.tjarlz
d.tjarlz
4 years ago

“We still somehow have to find some hope that failure and fate are not the last word.”

And if you think that believing in the sky fairy accomplishes this, then well done; good for you for leaving your critical faculties at the door. Personally I find Christian Easter to be a load of bunk.

Jerry W
Jerry W
4 years ago
Reply to  d.tjarlz

Me too, but it is nice to be able to express such a view these days, with little fear of the Inquisition knocking at your door. Slowly, slowly, the human race is growing up and one day, who knows, we may be able to face the universe unaided.

David George
David George
4 years ago
Reply to  d.tjarlz

Belief in God is not the same as knowing something via “your critical faculties” and neither is the apprehension of love or beauty. These are spirits beyond the material realm, where rationality and science reign supreme.
Hope isn’t anything real or material either, it’s transcendent, a vision of the future that doesn’t exist in any material way. Does that mean it doesn’t exist at all?

Spong Burlap
Spong Burlap
4 years ago
Reply to  David George

“Knowing is one thing. Believing quite another”. — anon.

Michael Bigg
Michael Bigg
4 years ago
Reply to  d.tjarlz

For goodness sake. Please give it a rest with the “sky fairy” nonsense. It’s such a gross distortion of what the Abrahamic religions actually believe about God that it’s almost as if you’re not trying to engage in anything meaningful.

Happy Easter!

David Booth
David Booth
4 years ago
Reply to  d.tjarlz

There is no fairy in the sky in the Easter the Bishop knows about. There’s a torture victim heaved up against the skyline.