The Evil Question

It’s a perennial wonderment: why is there evil? A friend had a “stump the clergy” Sunday class, and maybe half the questions came back to evil, one way or another. It’s on the mind. And it’s no surprise that it is.
    Any serious person has to acknowledge that evil is really part of our life. And any thoughtful person wonders why. There are two sorts of answers. One is that what is experienced as harmful to one thing is the consequence of another thing flourishing. The lion eating the lamb is a classic illustration: the lion is just being good at being a lion when it eats the lamb.
    Yet why? Do things have to be that way?
    In addition, there is evil in the world that’s the work of human beings failing to flourish as they should. This is sin. Sin is our falling short of being truly human. Our sins bring evil into the world; we suffer as the sinner, others suffer as our victims.
    Yet why? Must things be that way?
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    Every answer to the problem of evil falls short of being fully satisfactory. Good may come out of evil, but that does not make evil necessary. Or rather, if we say evil is necessary, we are saying that God, who is complete good, is not the complete cause of all that exists. So if God is the creator, then evil cannot be in any way necessary.
    At least, when the lion eats the lamb, the lion is doing the good of flourishing as a lion. But sin does no good. There’s no point to it at all.
    We may admit that good can come from evil—the greatest example is the resurrection of Jesus! But that doesn’t make sin necessary. Jesus’ crucifixion was not necessary. Its necessity follows only from the prior existence of sin. If there were no sin, he would not need to have died.
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    Oddly, however, when we ask the question of evil we draw ourselves closer to God. For God is strange, good beyond our ability to understand good. We don’t understand the world; we don’t know why one thing’s (a lion’s) flourishing must be at the expense of another thing (a lamb). Much less do we understand sin. But we can see that God is the hidden yet intimate cause of everything that exists. He holds me in being every second. He is, as I like to say, closer to me than my next heartbeat.
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    I was writing these words in an airport last week when I reached for something and my laptop tumbled onto the floor. The screen cracked, and it would no longer let me do anything with it: no typing, no opening or closing of programs; I could only close it up, with these words inaccessibly locked inside it. It’s fixed now, but that little bit of evil suffered on the road slowed me down. Why are things like this?
    Not near as bad as what the lion did to the lamb, but still one of those things, a tiny mystery that points to the greater mystery.
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    Out & About. This Sunday, October 21, I’m speaking with the young adults of the Church of the Transfiguration on the topic of friendship. We meet at 5 p.m. at the Flying Saucer in Addison, Texas. (The Flying Saucer is a “Draught Emporium,” proving, I suppose, that UFOs favor British spelling?)
    The next Sunday, October 28, I will give my fall theology lecture at Incarnation in Dallas. “Rules and Personal Exceptions, with Particular Attention to Assisted Suicide” will look at the question of whether and how to make personal exceptions to moral rules, and I will consider questions of physician-assisted suicide as a way of probing this issue. The lecture is free and will be given in the church at 6 p.m., with a wine and cheese reception following.
    Looking a bit further ahead: On Sunday, November 11, I will lead a seminar discussion of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, a brilliant novel with a disturbing premise. Anyone who reads the book is welcome to the conversation (at Incarnation, 6 to 7:30 p.m.).

Release

One of my activities as theologian-in-residence is to meet with clergy and lay leaders to discuss a work of theology. Recently we discussed Bioethics: A Primer for Christians by Gilbert Meilaender.
    The book is (only) a primer—it’s short, not an extended study in moral theology. It is a theological sandwich: the first and last chapters deal with how Christians think about being human; the in-between chapters apply those convictions to various issues. I recommend it without hesitation: it is brief, theological, sometimes provocative; and it takes us back to the fundamental question: are we thinking about bioethical issues theologically?
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    The question comes up: whether we should think of death as a “release.” When the weeks that led up to death were painful, one naturally thinks, Well, at least now her pain is over. Such a thought helps us cope with the loss: she is no longer with us, but at the same time she is no longer in pain.
    Should we say she was “released” from her pain?
    Christianity teaches us (which is to say, the Bible teaches us) that the human being is both finite and transcendent; we are at once body and spirit. As embodied beings, we are limited in time and space, in our histories, in our genetic inheritance, and so forth. Nonetheless, there is something about us that transcends all those limitations, a freedom of our spirit. You can always be surprised by another human—to use the words Gandalf said of Frodo, there is more about us than meets the eye.
    This Christian teaching means that we should never consider our bodies as something to be escaped from. To be human is to be embodied. Even a diseased, pain-filled body is not simply a prison or a burden; it is not something that “the real me” looks forward to get rid of.
    Nonetheless it would be true to say, she was released from her pain. When the final day comes in the future, her spirit (or soul) and body will be put back together, and she will once again be fully human—this time with a transformed body that, while it will never suffer degeneration, is nonetheless truly a body.
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    One reason we should hesitate before aid-in-dying proposals is that they condition us to think of “release” in the wrong way. As body-and-spirit unities, we cannot desire escape from our bodiliness, however painful it, the body, may have become. Here we can remember him, the pioneer, who endured pain and death in order to conquer them and rise on the other side, never to die again. When he died, was Jesus released from his suffering? I guess so. But my, how much more than release is going on.
    We need to encourage one another, when we suffer, not to try to release ourselves from suffering, but to move through it with the mutual comfort that comes, ultimately, from him, our pioneer.
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    Out & About. On Sunday, October 14, I’ll lead the first “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar, on Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot. We’ll discuss the book (which means participants need to read it in advance) from 6 to 7:30 pm at Incarnation in Dallas, Room 205. This is not a lecture. Reservations are not required, but if you let me know you’re coming it will help preparations.
    Sunday, October 28, is my fall theology lecture, on Moral Rules and Personal Exemptions, with particular attention to questions about assisted suicide. It will be at Incarnation, Dallas, at 6 pm in the church.

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."