Thomas G. Long, Bandy Professor of Preaching as Candler School of Theology, Emory University, has a habit of writing books on subjects that are pertinent to today. This time it is about innocent suffering. WHAT SHALL WE SAY? EVIL, SUFFERING, AND THE CRISIS OF FAITH, tackles head on the contention that a good God, who is all-powerful should not allow undeserved evil. In particular he responds to Bart Ehrman’s book, GOD’S PROBLEM: HOW THE BIBLE FAILS TO ANSWER OUR MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION – WHY WE SUFFER.
He reviews all the major arguments over the centuries and recent books on the subject, including those of the new atheists: Hitchens and Dawkins, and Harold Kushner’s sympathetic, WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE. His aim is to encourage preachers to deal with the difficult challenges of unbelief from the pulpit and to avoid bromides.
“There they are out there in the pews, people who want to believe but who are plagued with honest doubts, people who are reminded every day in ways explicit and implicit that their faith in a God who loves humanity and acts in the world benevolently is merely the ‘unresolved residue of childish fantasy,’ people who are pressed by the powerful ideology of science and the pressure of a secular culture to pack their bags and to head out ‘East of Eden’ along the road of unbelief, but who leave reluctantly and with regret and nostalgia, looking back as they go to see if someone, anyone, will speak a word that kindles their faith once again and gives them hope that God is alive and that life is more than a flat, technological world ruled by raw human ambition and power and punctuated by random and meaningless suffering.” (p.29)
He has some wonderful stories to tell – excellent witnesses to the spiritual mysteries that transcend our understanding and experience. He is aware that every day people in congregations face suffering for which their theology is not sufficient. They want to know that God loves them, and want to be shown how. After discussing all the arguments, and the book of Job, he ends by exploring the teaching of Jesus in the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30). Jesus locates the presence of evil to the work of the enemy, the devil.
“To say that the enemy is the devil is not to revert to pre-scientific fairytale images but to say, through the ancient language of the Scripture, that evil has a cosmic, trans-human reality. Evil is not just a failing; it is a force….Evil is not merely a problem; it is a mystery…It is cosmic because it recognizes that evil is a spiritual force; it is not just a result of human error, natural forces, and understandable conflict, but is rather a force that transcends human capacities and rational explanation….God’s enemy is a constant presence and a fact of life.” (134-137)
In my book SURVIVING HURRICANES I say the same thing. The problem of innocent suffering is really the problem of evil, the enemy, the devil, the cosmic fall. We have to endure it in this present age until the harvest, when the wheat will be separated from the weeds.
I commend Long’s book. It is superb. Anyone who has wrestled with the problems of natural disasters and the evil of human beings, accidents and disease, will find it a great comfort.