As youth ministers, most of us have encountered questions about God’s power after tragedies. “Why does God allow these things to happen, if God is all-powerful and loving?” After Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, many of us will encounter these questions again. There are a few standard answers to The Problem of Evil. While some of us are satisfied with these answers, many others find the implications of these answers deeply unsettling.
That is: how do we support youth who have healthy understandings of righteousness (and that a hurricane is not right), while also believing in a good, loving God? How do we help them think through the broken world without undermining their developing understanding of evil or without teaching them to believe in an evil God? I am convinced the Problem of Evil is one of the most difficult problems in all of Christianity. Because of that, I think it is one of the most important questions in youth ministry.
I am convinced that Jesus stood against evil with His life and resurrection. I am convinced that, when I see evil in migrant communities or in flooded homes in Houston, Jesus is there because Jesus was there 2,000 years ago. It seems to me that, if we take Inaugurated Eschatology seriously, then God is actively at work in the world to resist evil, not to create it (Is. 65, Mt. 13:31-2). I am persuaded that the right response to Hurricane Irma will be to figure out the best ways to support survivors with my dollars, and do what can be done to minimize this sort of suffering in the future.
At the same time, I also see that theology matters. “Ideas have consequences,” as David Horner used to tell his students. For some youth, pointing to Jesus as He identifies with the suffering is compelling. For others, concrete questions about the nature of God are important. Thomas Oord, a theologian at Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho, recently published a book that has been helpful as I wrestle with these questions. Oord is an Open Theist, and because of that has somewhat different understandings of the nature of God. In The Uncontrolling Love of God, Oord sketches seven responses Christians often have to the problem of evil. Let me mention out a few of them:
1) God actually controls everything.
This idea, closely related to Determinism, is the standard Reformed answer to the problem of evil. There is nothing that happens that God does not actively control. This doctrine explains why, after natural disasters, many Calvinist pastors claim a natural disaster was God’s will (or, as Kirk Cameron recently claimed, God caused Hurricane Irma). In Calvinism, this has a logic to it. However, many youth will be horrified by the claim that, say, God wanted Hurricane Irma to destroy Florida.
2) God voluntarily self-limits.
God has the power to control everything but chooses to leave certain things outside of God’s control. God leaves room for freedom, the laws of nature, etc. This seems to avoid the problem of demanding God actively control and desire a hurricane, but Oord thinks it doesn’t really. First, you still have to ask why a loving God who has the ability to control hurricanes does not stop a hurricane that will kill people. This approach to the problem of evil works better when a human being does the evil act, but falls apart when describing natural disasters. Oord also argues that this is really an argument that means “we don’t have any idea why an all-powerful loving God allows bad things to happen. We just believe it.”
3) We have misunderstood the nature of God.
Oord argues that the first thing about God’s nature is not God’s power, but God’s love. God’s love is beckoning, but not forceful. That is, God, by God’s very nature, is simply unable to force a human being to do a certain thing. In the same way that God is Triune, God is unable to lie, God is unable to coerce creation. It’s simply part of God’s nature.
Instead, God calls and beckons us, through the Holy Spirit and the Incarnated Christ, to be loving like God. Or to put it another way, we are beckoned to continue the work of the Kingdom, spreading it like a growing mustard bush. But God is simply unable to actually force a human to do something. That is, the Holy Spirit called Bonhoeffer to resist Hitler, and the Holy Spirit may well have spoken to Hitler, but God is simply unable to force Hitler to do anything. This is not far from how Exodus tells the story of Moses and the burning bush.
For most of us, this is a different way to think about God! It immediately raises several questions. Doesn’t Paul claim God hardened Pharaoh’s heart? How does this reconcile with a God who creates? Oord and other Open Theists have responses to those questions, as you might imagine. If you’re interested, I’ve provided some sources below.
Theology that takes human suffering seriously
Whether or not you find Open Theism compelling, it is important to wrestle with theology that takes human suffering seriously. I am convinced our youth need to know that Jesus is slowly, surely growing the kingdom of God, where suffering and evil are done away with (Is. 65). I think it is important to see what Luther called the Theology of the Cross, that Jesus suffers.
I also see that these answers dodge a crucial question. Many youth will see that our ideas about God’s nature have concrete implications. If God is almighty (understood in the traditional way), and God allows suffering, then God is not good. Pithy responses to this logical dilemma create more problems than they solve.
Thomas Jay Oord has a fairly active blog, and his Open & Relational theology feature prominently there. He addresses a number of criticisms of Open Theology there.
I find the Wikipedia page on Open Theism extremely helpful, particularly regarding the nature of God and questions relevant to this blog post. For more on the problems many see in Open Theism, see the Theopedia page.
If you’d like an entire book on the subject, I can recommend Oord’s book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, or Clark Pinnock’s Most Moved Mover. Oord and Pinnock, while both in the same broad theological trend, disagree on several points. Also, Oord’s book probably addresses the Problem of Evil more directly.
“How do you think God feels about Hurricane Irma?” (You can talk about how Jesus felt about tragedies, including His responses to Lazarus’ death, His compassion for the vulnerable, etc. If we believe in Incarnation, we have a pretty good idea how God feels about Hurricane Irma!)
“Many of us wish God would have stopped the hurricane. Why do you think God should do that?”
“Are you sure God can stop a hurricane?”(This will probably reveal many theological assumptions which can be further engaged on their own.)
Stephen Hale is Director of Youth Ministries at First United Methodist Church Redondo Beach. He is also Director of International Programs for INALIENABLE, a non-profit working for the dignity of migrants. He received a BA in Social Sciences from BIOLA, an MA in Theology from Fuller, and is finishing an M.Div from Claremont School of Theology in May (he hopes). You can keep up with him at STEPHENPHALE.WORDPRESS.COM.