If God exists, and is good, and is able to prevent suffering, then why does hurt persist? Put simply, If God is good, why do bad things happen?
This is the “Problem of Evil,” a question that people of faith have been asking for millennia. Since October 2016 I’ve already written about an answer I like, an answer I hate, five potential answers, and the (bad) answer given by Deuteronomy. For me, this question keeps coming up.
James Cone, a black Christian theologian, faces the problem in his book God of the Oppressed. Near the end of the book, after spending several chapters affirming that God wants black people to be free from oppression, Cone must face the obvious question: if God cares so much about liberating black Americans, why are they still oppressed?
On the surface, this sounds like the classic “problem of evil” that I mentioned earlier – the philosophical question about whether a loving God and the presence of suffering poses a logical contradiction. But Cone is quick to point out that the black community handles the question differently from most white Christian thinkers.
For comfortable, privileged thinkers like me, the problem emerges while we are trying to develop a persuasive theory of God and the world. But for the black church, the question emerges while they are resisting actual evil. Theorizing and resisting are two very different contexts for reflecting on suffering, and unsurprisingly, they produce two very different responses to the Problem of Evil.
Comfortable Christian intellectuals tend to justify the status quo. In order to “solve” the Problem of Evil, white thinkers typically argue that suffering isn’t truly a big deal – at least not a big enough deal to actually call the existence of a loving God into question. Amidst all their theorizing, they rarely have much to say about the reigning political structures that cause suffering and oppression.
Cone approaches the problem from a different angle. According to Cone, Jesus was present with the black church through slavery and beyond, comforting black people and giving them identity and dignity that their white oppressors could not take away. Jesus gave these people hope for a future without oppression, and this hope empowered them to condemn and oppose unjust systems. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus, we find God sharing in the pain of humanity, yet overcoming it in the end. For these reasons, although we can’t know why God allows suffering to continue, we can be confident that God is hurting with the oppressed people of this world and empowering them in their struggle for freedom.
This response to the Problem of Evil does not resolve the logical contradiction between a loving, powerful God, and ongoing suffering on Earth. As Cone points out, any resolution of this problem would end up justifying suffering, anyway. Instead, Cone offers an response to the problem of evil that energizes us to partner with God in resisting oppression in our world.
To learn more about my God Project, click here. To receive an email update with each new post (usually one or two per week), find “Follow Via Email” at the bottom of this page and enter your email address.