God, Evil, Suffering, and Teens: Part 1- (Re)Framing the Conversation

Rooted contributor, Mark Howard, writes this important series about helping teens deal with their questions about the presence of evil and suffering in a world ruled by a good, sovereign God.

If you’ve worked with youth for any length of time, then it’s likely that at some point you’ve faced a question something like this:  How can God allow so much evil and suffering in the world?

Such a question demands an answer.  But how should we go about answering such a deep and difficult question?

Ultimately, as with every question, we’ll need to take them to scripture to discern how God answers the question for himself (which we’ll do later on in this series).  But in some cases, the person asking the question isn’t a believer and doesn’t trust the scriptures – just as they don’t really trust a God who would allow for evil to exist.

Moreover, the whole point of this conversation isn’t to win an argument or merely transfer knowledge – but to foster a relationship with the Father in Christ by the Spirit.  And so it’s helpful at the outset to begin with God, showing how the problem of evil and suffering is actually only valid if you assume a Christian view of God and reality.  Let me explain.

In order for the question concerning the problem of evil to make any sense, the categories for good and evil must make sense.  This means that good and evil have to truly exist as meaningful categories.  If there is no such thing as good or evil (if morality is relative to the whims of people), then the problem vanishes with the absence of any meaningful way of defining evil.

But if the categories of good and evil do exist, then there must be some sort of objective moral standard beyond our feelings that defines what good and evil actually mean.  If there is an objective moral standard to which we can appeal to define evil, then there must also be a moral standard giver–it requires a moral God.  And so we discover that the very problem that calls into question the existence of moral God actually requires that a moral God exists.

C.S. Lewis, thinking back to his days as an atheist, puts it this way in his book, Mere Christianity (a good book to read through with anyone questioning Christianity):

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed cruel and unjust.  But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.  What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?  If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?  A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet.  Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own.  But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too–for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies.  Thus the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist–in other words, that the whole reality was senseless–I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality–namely my idea of justice–was full of sense.”

This quote by C.S. Lewis leads us to another important discovery: the problem of evil is not an abstract philosophical problem, it’s a tangible practical problem that impacts people personally.

Evil exists–not theoretically–but in reality. Though often presented in philosophical terms, the question of evil and God is actually quite personal.  The youth posing the question are most likely struggling with something specific that’s happened to them, someone they love, or someone in their world.

Perhaps someone has abused them, their parent has cancer, there was a devastating natural disaster, or there was a recent shooting in a community.  They’ve been confronted with evil and intuitively know it’s wrong. Evil doesn’t just confuse their minds; it breaks their hearts.  They hurt.  They feel injustice in their bones.

And since the problem is personal, our role with the youth requires us not to just answer their questions, but to minister to their mind, body, and soul–to shepherd and care for someone in our flock who is hurting emotionally, physically, and spiritually because of evil.  Our response to their question must be real, tangible, and practical.

Not surprisingly, then, when we turn to scripture, we don’t find that God gives us an abstract philosophical treatise on the problem of evil.  We cry out to God, “Why do you let evil exist?”  And like a loving Father he personally invites us to draw near to him as he begins his answer by saying, “Let me tell you a story…In the beginning I created the heavens and the earth…”

And so as we seek to answer the question of God, evil, and suffering over the next several weeks, our approach will be to see how God addresses the problem of evil in scripture, and then to engage the practical implications for us as Christians living in a world still plagued with evil.

As with all Rooted blog postings, comments are welcomed as they provide a good way to continue the conversation.

Part 2: So, Where Does Evil Come From?
Part 3: Humanity and God’s Solution to Evil

1 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996) 45-46. First printed in 1952.

Mark Howard was a youth pastor for five years before joining Elam Ministries, an organization that seeks to strengthen and expand the church in Iran and surrounding areas. Through Elam, he's had the opportunity to work with Iranian youth as well as talk with American churches about God's work in Iran. Mark has his M.A. in Theological Studies from Wheaton College Graduate School and serves on Rooted's steering committee.

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