The Minor Prophets and the Problem of Evil (part 1)
What can the Minor Prophets teach us about God and the problem of evil in our world? This is a question not much reflected on in the Bible generally, with the exception of Job, and in the Minor Prophets specifically, with the exception of Habakkuk. Habakkuk posed the question with a stroke of artistry, poetically reporting a conversation he shared with the God of Israel:
Our eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
swallow up those more righteous than themselves? (Hab. 1:13)
But even Habakkuk’s question to God differs significantly from that posed by people of the modern world. Habakkuk wondered how YHWH could overlook the treachery which had infected Israel, as the people who swore themselves to loyalty to their God were breaking every law in the book. When YHWH responded that he was raising up the Babylonians to punish Israel for her sins, the prophet questioned why God would use a more wicked kingdom than Israel as his tool of chastisement. And let’s just say that YHWH’s answer, which has been interpreted six ways to Sunday, would not satisfy a modern inquisitor: “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4).
A couple of years ago I first listened to a riveting debate between two of the world’s most highly esteemed New Testament scholars, Bart Ehrman and N.T. Wright. The debate concerned the problem of evil in our world, a theme on which both scholars had produced very thought-provoking books, Ehrman’s God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question- Why We Suffer, and Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God. I am a confessing believer in the God of the Bible. In other words, I came into this conversation between Ehrman and Wright knowing that I was going to side with the latter, the one who was offering an argument to vindicate God in the face of accusations from skeptics. Ehrman went first, I was blown away.
Ehrman stated that as his knowledge of God and Scripture became more nuanced, more mature, more sophisticated, so did his understanding of the problem of human suffering against the backdrop of the traditionally defined Christian deity. It was then that he truly began to wrestle with the problem of evil in a world created and governed by an all-powerful, all-good God. Ehrman says:
Suffering increasingly became a problem for me and my faith. How can one explain all the pain and misery in the world if God—the creator and redeemer of all—is sovereign over it, exercising his will both on the grand scheme and in the daily workings of our lives? Why, I asked, is there such rampant starvation in the world? Why are there droughts, epidemics, hurricanes, and earthquakes? If God answers prayer, why didn’t he answer the prayers of the faithful Jews during the Holocaust? Or of the faithful Christians who also suffered torment and death at the hands of the Nazis? If God is concerned to answer my little prayers about my daily life, why didn’t he answer my and others’ big prayers when millions were being slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, when a mudslide killed 30,000 Columbians in their sleep, in a matter of minutes, when disasters of all kinds caused by humans and by nature happened in the world?
As a human, I sympathize with Ehrman’s inner battle. As a Christian, I ask the very same questions. As a pastor, I struggle to come up with answers. For my current purpose, I wonder if the Minor Prophet’s understanding of YHWH, the God whose character Christians believe to have been fully and finally divulged by Jesus of Nazareth, can provide us with any guidance in the matter.
The Minor Prophets and the Problem of Evil (part 2)
What if the one of the Minor Prophets was faced with a covenant community that was asking the question being posed by Bart Ehrman and myriad others? Are there clues in the messages they preached, beacons to guide nonbelievers, believers, and teachers of Scripture alike to an understanding of how they would have dealt with this issue? My goal is to determine if they give us any direction in the matter, and if so, to figure out which way they steer us.
In the opening statement of his debate with N.T. Wright concerning God and the problem of evil, Ehrman spoke about how his faith was maintained during a time of questioning and answer-seeking. He concluded that God demonstrated himself to be a God of suffering when Jesus was crucified as a ransom for human sins; thus, as suffering occurs in the world God created, so the compassionate God suffers right along with his human creatures. As time crept along, however, Ehrman eventually dropped this explanation. A nagging question persisted: Why does God not just end the suffering? The tension between God, as he had come to understand him, and the intense reality of evil caused by human and nonhuman forces proved too much for him. Ehrman forcefully states what led him away from his long-held Christian faith.
“We live in a world in which a child dies every five seconds of starvation. Every five seconds. Every minute there are twenty-five people who die because they do not have clean water to drink. Every hour 700 people die of malaria. Where is God in all this? We live in a world in which earthquakes in the Himalayas kill 50,000 people and leave 3 million without shelter in the face of oncoming winter. We live in a world where a hurricane destroys New Orleans. Where a tsunami kills 300,000 people in one fell swoop. Where millions of children are born with horrible birth defects. And where is God? To say that he eventually will make right all that is wrong seems to me, now, to be pure wishful thinking.
For Ehrman, generations of Christians have failed to adequately account for the discrepancy between their theology and the harsh facts of human existence, and after two millenia of Christian thought and practice no entirely satisfying thesis has been proposed. Ehrman’s faith disappeared. He was a follower of Jesus no more. I am reminded of Steve Kells’ Hymn for the Disillusioned:
I can’t believe ‘em
Maybe their wrong.
I can’t believe ‘em
Can’t sing their song.
For the first time in my life, as I listened to this debate on my Ipod while driving home from my brother’s college football game, I was moved by an argument against God. Mind you, I was not ready to abandon ship just yet, especially after hearing Wright’s response, but for the first time the question was on my mind. Soon, it would metastasize through my brain and plague my every thought. It is now three years later, and while I still find Ehrman’s argument gripping and deserving of serious consideration, I have settled on a conclusion which affirms the combined goodness and power of God, while like likewise accounting for the problem of human suffering.
Like Ehrman, the process of wrestling with these tough questions and analyzing them against Scripture has brought me to conclusions which I too believe are more nuanced, mature, and sophisticated. Many humans suffer horrible atrocities. Yet, God is all-good and all-powerful. I believe the historical event of the resurrection of Jesus is God’s way of declaring this to be true about himself, and that this act in history indicates that God will end death in all its ugly forms when the risen Jesus returns to provide life and healing to his creation.
My current quest is to see how the Minor Prophets contribute to the conversation of God’s justice in the face of evil, as the questioned is posed on the modern stage. I find that the character of YHWH as faithful to his promise is the answer the Minor Prophets give to the problem of evil. Through Jesus the Messiah, Israel’s God has promised to restore the created world, to rid it of death in all its forms, from a mere fever to the expiration of life (the final chapters of revelation provide a beautiful description of the hope of the future world). YHWH has always shown himself faithful to his promises, prompting the Minor Prophets to announce that he would indeed bring his wrath upon the people in keeping the word he spoke through Moses. YHWH will remain faithful to his promise of ridding the world of evil at Christ’s return.