Guiding a Youth Group through the Problem of Evil

If God is good, why do bad things happen?

Two weeks ago, I met with the youth group at my church for the first time.  It seems that for the foreseeable future, I will be teaching their Sunday school class and guiding their Sunday night discussion time every two weeks.  I asked them if they had any big faith-related questions they’d like to talk about, and in a few minutes, they came up with a list of eight.  We voted on which question to tackle first, and the winner, by a wide margin, was the problem of evil.

If God is good, why do bad things happen?  For many of the teenagers, “bad things” are not a hypothetical category; many of them have experienced serious illness in their immediate family and/or their parents’ divorce.

Of course, they aren’t the first to struggle with the tension between the love of God and the tragedies of life.  Christians have asked this question, officially titled “the problem of evil,” for centuries.  To my knowledge, Irenaeus (early 100’s – 202 AD) was the first Christian to tackle this question in an abstract, philosophical way.  Augustine gave it a shot too, as did Aquinas and Calvin and many in between.

But the problem of evil has taken on a new urgency within the past hundred years.  The 20th Century brought genocide after genocide, global warming, and nuclear weapons.  Life on Earth has always tended towards carnage and violence, but modern technology has both expanded military capabilities and shortened the distance between “viewers at home” and victims “over there”.  Many Christians across the globe have abandoned their faith altogether over this exact issue.

And who can blame them?  To claim that there’s a loving Deity in the driver’s seat of human history is not only laughable; it’s borderline insensitive.  Who can look at Auschwitz and say “a God of love made (or at least allowed) this to happen”?  How could God’s approval, however indirect, be stamped over such horror?  What could be more profane?

I don’t have an answer to the problem of evil.  I’m working on it, but I haven’t arrived.  All I know right now is that I cannot leave this question unanswered forever.  I think this is a question like “Will you accept this job offer?” or “Will you marry me?”.  Of course, with these sorts of questions, we could never know enough information to give an answer that we are certain is correct.  Yet for each of these questions, failing to answer is an answer in itself – the one answer that is certainly incorrect.

The problem of evil is both difficult and important.  But these teenagers don’t need to be told any of that; if they didn’t know that already, I doubt they’d have chosen this question to discuss first.  What they need, I think, is a guide to help them work out an answer for themselves.

In good Methodist fashion, I will help them to consider different answers that are offered through Scripture, Church Tradition, Reason, and Experience.  Over the coming weeks (or, perhaps, months), we’ll talk about Genesis 3, Job, and the mixed messages of the Gospel of Matthew; Augustine, Calvin, Moltmann, and James Cone; free will, control, and love; faith, trust, and hope.  I expect that in the process, I will learn at least as much as they will.  I hope that the rich resources of Christian theology, so often kept out of reach from laypeople, will be like rafts to grab onto as these kids drift through the unpredictable sea of life.

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