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?
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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.