Sermon on the Mount: What Is God’s Answer to the Problem of Evil?
Everyone knows what it is to suffer. It’s just part of the human experience. Someone once made the observation that, no matter how diverse our cultures may be, you can always relate to a person on the level of suffering. It’s universal. We all speak that language.
At least one major religion–Buddhism–takes suffering as its explicit starting point. Indeed, any system of thought that doesn’t have an answer to the problem of suffering is going to become pretty irrelevant pretty fast. A system that doesn’t talk about suffering isn’t talking about my life.
So it’s no surprise that suffering makes an early appearance in the Sermon on the Mount.
The second Beatitude is,
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Mt. 5:4).
At some point in the past, it may have preached well to say that this “mourning” specifically refers to sorrow over your sin. The word certainly can be used that way (James 4:8-9), but that meaning comes from context, not from the word itself. The word Jesus uses (pentheo) does not focus on any particular reason for your grief. It’s also not the word for outward expressions of grief (like crying, etc., as in Acts 21:13).
This word refers to the emotion itself. It’s the emotion you feel when mourning a death (Mk. 16:10) or facing a devastating loss (Isa. 3:26). In the Beatitudes, the context seems as broad as possible.
Jesus is simply saying, “Blessed are those who feel deep, painful loss.”
If this world were a perfect world, this wouldn’t make any sense. Grief and happiness are opposites. But this world isn’t perfect. You are going to suffer. You can deny it or hide from it, but that’s not going to get you to happiness. The only hope for happiness is to have a way to deal with suffering–to overcome it.
In the academic world, scholars wrestle with suffering as a logical problem. They talk about “the problem of evil”–the most extreme and problematic end of the suffering spectrum. In simplest terms, the problem of evil is the problem that that which should not be, is. If God is all good and all powerful, why is there evil?
Put technically, are these three statements–1) God is maximally good, 2) God is maximally powerful, 3) evil states of affairs obtain–logically coherent? Is it possible that all three can be true?
You might be surprised to learn that Alvin Plantinga solved this problem (in God, Freedom, and Evil, and summarized several other places). To recap his argument briefly, free will is the key (as we, the mere mortals on the ground, tend to suspect). It is possible that all evil states of affairs result from free will decisions, and it is possible that free will is a good that outweighs the cost. So a good and powerful God allows evil as the cost of free will.
Plantinga’s achievement is monumental, but why didn’t this make the news?
Why isn’t this common knowledge shouted from the housetops? The dirty secret about the intellectual problem of evil is that, even if you solve it, nobody cares. If a parent shares Plantinga’s answer with their child who has cerebral palsy, it rings rather hollow.
You see, we don’t want to know why God allows evil things in general. We want to know why God allowed this evil thing. Why did he allow the specific thing I am suffering? This “why?” we cry out is not an intellectual question. It is an emotional one.
God understands that an intellectual answer will never land. It’s almost beside the point. This is why, even though God himself is asked the question at least four times in Scripture (Job; Jer. 12; Habakkuk; Luke 13), he never answers it. Usually he says, “I hate to tell you this, but things are going to get a lot worse.” At most, he says, “You just have to trust me.”
As an emotional question, the only answer to the problem of evil is the grief process itself.
People just have to grieve. In other words, in the face of suffering, the only way to get through to an emotionally better place (to be “happy” if you will) is to mourn. People need to have some denial, to try and bargain out of their loss, to be angry, to be depressed. The best thing we can do to help them is to grieve with them (Rom. 12:15). That’s the one thing Job’s friends did right (Job 2:11-13).
When you are suffering loss, it helps just to know that you’re not alone.
So that’s exactly what Jesus did. He stepped down into our suffering and grieved with us (Jn. 11:35). In fact, in the cross, Jesus walked the road of suffering all the way to the very end. This means that, no matter where we find ourselves stepping onto that path, we find Jesus. He’s already there, waiting for us, ready to walk with us as far as we need to go.
But that is not God’s only answer to the problem of suffering. God takes no time dealing with evil as an intellectual problem. He takes evil as a practical problem.
His goal is not to explain evil. His goal is to end it.
When Jesus died on the cross, he took the curse. Every curse–from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13) to the very curse of Adam (Rom. 5:17). In the story of Scripture, our sin and the brokenness of the world are intertwined (Gen. 3:17-19). On the cross, Jesus took it all. And on the cross, it died with him.
And so he was raised as the firstborn of a new creation (Rev. 1:5). How could he be otherwise, since the old, cursed creation died with him? In the resurrection, death is swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54-55). No matter how immediate our suffering may feel, the resurrection stands as a testimony that the suffering we grieve is not the last word.
The Holy Spirit–poured out from the ascension of Christ–is how both God’s emotional and practical answer to suffering make contact with us.
Living in us, the Holy Spirit is the presence of God to comfort us. We are not alone (John 14:16-18). Also, through the work of the Holy Spirit, our heart is now part of the new creation (Rom. 8:10; 2 Cor. 5:17). The Holy Spirit living in us is a down-payment (2 Cor. 1:22) foreshadowing a world where we won’t suffer any more (Rev. 21:4).
When I’m suffering right now, I’m not going to be happy about it. I’m going to be in denial; I’m going to be angry; I’m going to be depressed. But when I cry, I know 1) that I’m not crying alone. I am crying in the arms of Jesus. And 2) a day is coming when I won’t be crying any more. The crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ is God’s answer to the problem of evil. This is his comfort for those who mourn.