In Gregory Boyd’s Satan and the Problem of Evil, he relays a story about a small Jewish girl named Zosia. Zosia had pretty eyes, and some Nazi soldiers noticed. Simply because they were bored, they decided to remove her eyes on the spot in front of her mother. The author whom Boyd quotes describes the scene, stating that the cries of the girl, the screams of the mother, and the laughter of the Nazi soldiers mingled together and made their way to heaven.
The author asks poignantly: Oh God, whom will you hear first?
It is a story that is difficult to imagine for most of us. I remember visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. when I was an 8th grader, and the whole experience was sad and also surreal. As I Christian, I believe in the depravity of man, but this… this is cruelty so awful that we have a hard time handling even seeing such things in fiction. But they happen in real life? By large groups of men?
Though the German Nazis are often considered the standard examples of evil, they are sadly not alone. Their allies, the Japanese, conducted horrific human experiments on POWs or other prisoners via a secret bio-warfare research unit called Unit 731, experiments that arguably outdo the Nazi’s in a contest of pure evil. In the present, ISIS has rampaged across Iraq and the surrounding region, murdering and raping all in the name of their religion. In addition, you can find sources online that discuss serial killers (who are often serial rapists) at length, and it is chilling material read. Such individuals hardly seem to qualify as human, tempting even the most strident atheist to consider the possibility that a demon put on human garb. To imagine being one of their victims, terrified and tortured, is deeply unsettling.
And of course, on October 1st, Steve Paddock gunned down 58 people and injured over 500 more at a Las Vegas concert in one of the worst mass shootings in US history. The event continues to be baffling as investigators struggle to ascertain his motive, given that a 64 year old rich guy is hardly the normal profile for a mass shooter. He joins a list of mass shooters in American history.
Thus, evil continues to abound. Not just evil like someone unjustifiably hurting your feelings, lying to you, or even stealing from you or beating you up. Those things are certainly not good, but the evil I described above makes all of that seem like child’s play. It’s evil that crushes a secular humanist’s optimism about the alleged goodness of human nature. It’s evil that detonates a moral subjectivist’s philosophy that there really is no evil. It’s evil that makes a libertarian’s strident hope in a “non-aggression principle” seem incredibly naive. It’s evil that obliterates a progressive’s belief that people’s feelings and desires should generally be trusted.
And it’s evil that shakes a theist’s confidence and leads others to reject God completely. Indeed, God, whom will you hear first?
Ever since I started reading philosophy back in high school, the problem of evil has fascinated me, and that has not changed as I continue in a doctoral program studying philosophy in seminary. The reason it fascinates me is not simply because it is an intellectually interesting issue but because I empathize with people who bring it up. Even as a Christian, I have wondered why God allows some especially horrific instances of evil and have even asked him why in prayer. It is a very understandable and natural response to react to great evil by wondering where the heck God was in all of it. Find me a Christian who thinks the problem of evil is no big deal, and I’ll say we found one who is arrogant, ignorant, insensitive, or all of the above.
This does not mean that I do not think there are good philosophical answers to the problem of evil. There are, but pretty much all of them deal with evil from a bird’s eye view. Few pretend to pierce the mystery of individual instances of evil: Why God intervened in one instance but not another, why some instances are allowed to be so unimaginably awful, and why justice seems so elusive against perpetrators. Even those who try to tackle the issue of “horrendous” evils must talk generally and speculatively. Besides, even though these philosophical responses are often successful, they tend to not address our gut feeling that a lot of these evils go way overboard. And so even Christians are left on our knees, wondering why our brothers across the world suffer horribly and why children get kidnapped and murdered while we thank God for helping us pass a test or find a well-paying job.
Thus, there will always be some mysterious and disturbing element to evil, and we will not have all the answers on this side of eternity. We may not even have them all when we are in heaven. However, this does not mean that things are hopeless for the world because of what Jesus and the Incarnation signify about God: He did not leave man to simply reap everything we sowed but entered into the world and took on all of that garbage on himself. While it often seems that God is not there, he has in fact heard the screams of victims, the laughter of murderers, and the cries of those who mourn. The proof of this is the cross.
Christians talk a lot about how Christ died for the sins of mankind. I think we fail to appreciate the magnitude of this because we often fail to think about the magnitude of evil in the world (as well as, frankly, our own sin). That God the Son, holy and perfect, would leave his heavenly perch and become flesh, living among men, and then suffer and die as punishment for all the horrible things men do is nothing short of mind-blowing. Verses like these should floor us:
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. – Heb. 4:14-16.
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. – Rom. 5:8
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. – 2 Cor. 5:21
The sinless, holy, and perfect Savior took on sin. All sin. Those horrible Nazi and Japanese experiments. Those rapes and murders. Those mass killings. Those kidnappings. Our lies, our thefts, our selfishness, our lusts, our greed. Everything. Christ jumped into that filth, swam in it, died for it… and conquered it as he rose again, all so that we would not have to swim in it forever. All the great evil in the world that horrifies and baffles us does not even come close to the power and value in the blood of Jesus.
When we really reflect on such great evil and sin in the world, it makes this passage jump out even more in its ridiculousness:
The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. – Rom. 5:20-21
Sometimes Christians make a mistake trying to minimize evil that we see, rationalizing that it really isn’t that bad. No, it is that bad. Some of it is downright horrific. But where that increases, grace abounds all the more. God’s love and goodness abound even more. It is a flood that can cover a mountain range of evil. And Scripture promises that in the life to come in Christ, all the evil in the world will pale in comparison and seem like nothing. Now that stretches our understanding. We may not get all the intellectual answers we want, but what we need is already here in Jesus Christ.
So whom does God hear first? He heard it all. He sent Christ. And now may people hear him call them unto salvation.