How does Christianity respond to the argument from the problem of evil?

One argument against a traditional notion of God (omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent) is to point out various bad things that happen, that it seems God could stop. Yet, He doesn’t. Therefore, there probably isn’t God in the sense understood.

How does Christianity respond?

The first step is to start with context. Christianity begins as a response to various bad things that happen. As a response, it advocates loving your enemies, forgiving, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, and so on. In this context, it is odd that bad things that happen are used as an argument against Christianity, when Christianity starts as a response to bad things happening.

The second step, and the standard classical response, is that God gave humans and angels free will, and this is the path to the greatest good. Yet, it must therefore introduce the possibility of suboptimal actions. So, many of the bad things in the world are a result of free will.

The third step is to look at where the bulk of human suffering is. It’s actually emotional, and in particular anxiety caused by thinking about the future and sadness from thinking about the past. Eckhart Tolle gets things right here – it is our own misuse of our minds which causes a large majority of human suffering. By returning to and being aware in the moment, which is the gateway to God’s presence, we remove much of the suffering. This is reflected in the story of the Garden of Eden – we are separated from God, and this is why original sin is an important element of the Biblical arc. Original sin points towards an inherited state of separation. It is only through a way back to God – embodied in Jesus and his teachings – that we can be reunited with God. Once we are reunited with God, there is much less in the way of emotional suffering.

The fourth step is to look at the metaphysical context. If you die, only to be united in eternal bliss with God, death no longer seems like a bad thing. Similarly, if you suffer from acute physical pain for 3 years, but then go to an eternity of bliss, whatever plan it was that brought that about doesn’t seem like such a bad plan, even though it involved suffering. Similarly, if something suboptimal happens, but it paves the way for future success, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing in the end.

In sum, do these considerations go all the way to addressing the intuitive appeal of arguments against the existence of something like God by reference to bad things happening? For me, they lessen the straightforwardness of the argument, even though I think it still has emotional impact.

Yet, it seems to me what is central to Christianity isn’t an omnipotent, omniscient God understood in the classical sense, but rather aligning with God (which is to say, the Good) and then taking action. Perhaps, at the end of the day, omnipotence, say, has to be understood in some significantly different way than the classical sense, but that doesn’t change the central thrust of Christianity – love God and one another.

The good news of Christianity in a nutshell

What is the basic, distinctive message of Christianity in a nutshell? What is the ‘good news’ Christians talk about?

The problem is death – the problem is obvious.

The solution is eternal, abundant life. If that were possible, it would indeed be good news – the term ‘good’ is an understatement.

The Christian good news is that it is possible – through the Christ, eternal, abundant life can be attained – there is a way, and this way has come about because God loves humanity and wants to open up a path for anyone to follow to eternal, abundant life.

That way – as narrow and difficult for the ego as it might be – is through the Christ’s teachings, example, and existence as an ascended spiritual Master with whom we can have a direct link.

Now, if this were true, it would be good news, and this is the distinctive message of Christianity in a nutshell. The question for anyone is whether it is plausible.

The 3 L’s

Christianity in a nutshell can be reduced to 3 L’s. Those are

  1. Learn. Life is a spiritual adventure, and much of the purpose of life is us becoming better. Many of the challenges we face can be seen as challenges which are stimuli for us to grow spiritually, and so Christianity is all about us learning (in a spiritual sense).
  2. Love. Jesus says the summation of the Law is to love God and love one’s neighbour as oneself. Jesus gives a new commandment, which is to love one another as he loves us. And you get the definition of God from St. John as simply “God is love.” So connecting to and integrating love into our daily lives and actions is the purpose of much of Christianity.
  3. Let go. This can be thought of in two primary ways. The first is to let go of negative emotional energy – to forgive in an experiential sense is to ‘let go’ of the emotional debt you feel is owed to you, to release the negative emotions. Jesus teaches to forgive not 7 times but 7 and 70 times. This letting go applies not just to feelings of anger and resentment, but pretty much all negative feelings, and much of Christian spiritual practice is aimed at how to do this. The second sense is in terms of ego – to let go of focusing on ourselves and instead focus on God, which means focusing more on the good and others. It means letting God guide us in our day-to-day life, and again, much of practical Christianity aims at creating these sorts of habits.

Developing spiritual strength

Spiritual strength is a bit like physical strength – if you don’t allocate time to it, it is foolish to think it will improve.

So, a key is to figure out how to allocate time consistently to develop spiritually. The classic formula for this is pray in the morning and then in the evening. First in the morning is a time pregnant with possibility, before the concerns of the day have a chance to distract or preoccupy the mind. Just before bed is particularly interesting because it can prime the mind to work on problems while asleep (but the downside is people are often tired at this point, even falling asleep if they attempt to pray). Regardless, figure out a time that might work for your schedule, and then develop it into a habit.

Allocating time is the first step. Then, you have to get results, so the question becomes how to get more rapid results – again, just as with developing physical strength. A person can set aside time for developing physical strength, but not get rapid results, and so with spiritual practice. So, you need to be experimenting, reading, trying things, and noticing what works for you – what gets results.

Pray with joy

God is love, and prayer centered on love is highly important in Christian practice. The second aspect is conviction (or faith). (See Ask, and it shall be given you.)

This isn’t meant to be understood in an abstract way, but a concrete, experienced way. For it to matter, it has to be real.

So, pray with joy. Joy contains love, and is a kind of enthusiasm. Hence, it contains both love and cultivates conviction. By praying with joy you connect with God more fully.

A recipe for prayer is to infuse joy into prayer, and then let go, letting God do his work. This recipe will increase both love and conviction in your prayer life.

How do you infuse joy into prayer? The first step is to ask God to come into your heart and mind. Then actively see joy in whatever situation you are praying about – don’t focus on what you fear, but a joyful outcome. ‘Love casteth out fear.’ Then let go, knowing God is working to align things and guide you in your actions to bring more joy into the world.

The point of prayer with joy is to bring more joy not just into your heart (which is highly important) but into the world outside.

Fear -> Love

One process of violence is as follows.

Lie -> fear -> anger -> violence.

The lie is often something one tells to oneself – a mistaken belief about the world which, upon reflection, we can see isn’t well grounded. This belief causes fear in us – perhaps a belief we will lose something – and the fear causes the emotion of anger. Basically, we feel threatened in some sense, and so respond with violence to destroy whatever might cause us to lose something.

This process then causes similar aspects of the process in another person, which leads to more violence, hence a cycle of violence.

The violence here could be physical, but also emotional or verbal – in essence, it is negative energy directed toward things in your thoughts. In an expansive and perhaps truer sense, this is what violence is. (‘Thou shalt not kill’ can be understand in this more expansive sense, and certainly that’s the logic Jesus works to unpack.) So, this cycle is an everyday cycle, something that for most people happens everyday and perhaps many times per day. It negatively affects our relationships, our stress levels, and our well-being.

So, how does one break the cycle? Through ‘metanoia’, or changing one’s mind. The key is to detect the lie, feeling of fear, or feeling of anger, and instead

Let go of negative emotion -> forgive -> love -> focus on goodness for the other person or situation.

Ask, and it shall be given you

The Gospel according to Matthew has the famous section which begins

“Ask, and it shall be given you.”

Matthew 7:7

Jesus then reiterates what he is saying to emphasize it.

“For every one who asketh receiveth.”

Matthew 7:7

Yet, this seems puzzling. Many Christians ask and don’t receive. What is going on here?

A clue is in the letter from St. James.

“Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.”

James 4:3

St. James is saying that they ask in the wrong way. This leads to another question – what is the right way?

Here we can turn to St. John.

“And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do.”

John 14:13

Note ‘name’. Name here does not mean a label or tag – rather it means the essence of something. So we should ask ‘in’ God’s essence – what does that mean? We get the answer shortly after the above verse.

“If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.”

John 15:7

So here we can see that asking in the right spirit means abiding in God and his words abiding in us. To abide means to rest in, or to dwell in. It means more than just a fleeting experience. So what does it mean to abide in God? Finally, we get the answer in St. John’s first letter.

“God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.”

1 John 4:16

The language here is very similar to that in John 15:7.

So, the answer to our question of what the right way to ask is, is in the abiding spirit of divine love.

Here is what I want to emphasize. This isn’t abstract – rather, to pray in the right spirit is to experience love – to have a tangible experience of the presence of God. As St. John says, God is love. This is the key to much of the Gospel message.

So how do you have an experience of love? Much of what Jesus says is aimed at this. For examples, letting go of fear, resentment, and anger is important because those block the experience of this love. Letting God into one’s heart, which is to say letting God’s love into one’s heart. Divine love and emotions like fear are incompatible – one will inevitably end up removing the other one.

Once you are in the right spirit, you also won’t be asking for things like you might in a selfish state (as St. James says, ‘consuming it upon your lusts’).

However, this isn’t all there is to say about how to ask. St. James gives us the second big key.

“But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think he shall receive any thing of the Lord.”

James 1:6

The term ‘faith’ here is meant to convey conviction. So, we have the two keys to asking.

  1. Ask in the abiding spirit of love.
  2. Ask with conviction – with a certainty in God.

The coming of Christmas

Advent is a period of anticipation of – of looking forward to – the coming of Christmas. Christmas in turn celebrates the birth of the Christ Child, Jesus.

‘Christ’ means christened as King, and this is why the Magi are depicted as kneeling before the Christ Child – literally, the King Child. They were kneeling before a new king, and this king had been anticipated in Jewish society for some time. Presumably, the Magi were from somewhere like Babylon, and so were familiar with Jewish prophecies regarding the coming of a new king. Yet, Jesus’ kingdom was spiritual, and so he is a spiritual king, as he made clear to Pontius Pilate (‘My kingdom is not of this world’, as in, not a kingdom regarding worldly things, but spiritual ones – we might say ‘metapolitical’).

Yet the celebration of Christmas can be thought of not only as historical, but present-tense. This is because Christians are all christened as spiritual kings. Jesus is the King of Kings, and the latter Kings are … us! We have both power and responsibility as spiritual kings or queens.

In this sense, Advent is not only anticipating the celebration of the birth of Jesus, but also anticipating the spiritual birth of God within ourselves – perhaps most obviously with baptism, both water baptism but also with baptism by the Holy Spirit. In the latter case, God is in a sense born in us, and so we become ‘born again of the spirit’ – born again with a new identity as kings. Jesus was born the Christ, and we are born again as christs.

So just as Jesus the Christ was born in a manger, so we are born as christs through various spiritual experiences, most dramatically baptism by the Holy Spirit but really occurring whenever we turn towards God and let him into our hearts. In a sense, we are all kings to begin with, but separate ourselves from God, only to return as the prodigal son did.

So Advent is a period of anticipation of and focus on preparation for the spiritual breakthroughs in our own lives – of the coming of God in ourselves. Just as Jesus wasn’t born in the busy inn, but in a quiet manger – perhaps a converted shepherd’s cave – so God typically incarnates in us when we remove ourselves from the busy-ness of day to day life, quiet our minds, and turn our attention back to God.

How to transform anger into joy

Anger affects not only the object of the anger, but the person who holds the anger. And we do ‘hold’ on to it. So, how do we transform anger into an emotion like love or joy?

  1. Let go of the negative emotion. Just as we hold anger, we can let it go. This can be prompted by simply feeling the emotion being let go.
  2. Re-contextualize. Often, especially with more powerful emotions, it is difficult to simply let go of the emotion. So, it is useful to also re-contextualize the situation. The archetype for this is Jesus’ words as he was being crucified – an extremely dramatic way for him to make clear the point and importance of forgiving. “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Here, Jesus re-contextualizes what is happening – it is a product of the people who are crucifying him not having spiritual truth.
  3. See harmony, joy, love, and so on, instead, in relation to the situation. Again, Jesus gives the keys here. “Bless those who persecute you.” So, see good things for the situation, and in particular, send love towards the person who is the object of your previous negative emotions.

Repeat these, switching from one to the other until the felt intensity of the negative emotion is gone, and there is a felt intensity of the positive emotion.

It might require a large number of repetition before the negative emotion is gone (“How many times should I forgive, 7 times?” “7 and 70 times.”)

It is very difficult for a negative emotion, such as anger, to exist simultaneously with a positive emotion, such as love. This process will typically benefit not just the object of the negative emotions (for example, you will be better able to respond to their behaviour, think clearly about the situation, take steps towards a better relationship where appropriate, and so on), but (often more importantly) it will benefit yourself, because you will no longer have the direct impact of those negative emotions on your physiology and the effect of them on how you interact with other people who may not have any involvement in the situation.

Doing this when you have quiet time and the ability to focus on and connect with God will help with appropriately responding to the emotions when they come up in the moment.

Repeatedly freeing yourself from the bondage of negative emotions leads to a kind of emotional freedom, and often this is characterized by a quiet joy in your day-to-day life. You are no longer controlled by these negative emotions (as much), and can choose a better way to respond and better things to focus on.

Fear not

Jesus repeatedly warns against fear (including worry). Why?

Part of this comes from the first commandment of the Old Testament. ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’ When someone fears something, it is easy for them to put that thing ahead of God. So, instead of doing what God leads us to do, we do what our fear leads us to do.

There are some cases where fear is warranted and useful. In these cases, it is a call for action – there is some action we should take (a plan to make, something to practice, and so on), and so the appropriate response it to take the action and then let go of the fear. Usually, however, it isn’t warranted and limits what we can do.

This is why trust is integral to Christian practice. If you don’t trust God, but instead fear every little thing when it comes to your vocation or what God is telling you to do, you’re not going to get very far. Trust is the antidote of fear.

We say that ‘fear has a hold on one’, but the truth is more the reverse – we hold onto emotions of fear. The way to let go of fear in many cases is to literally feel oneself letting go of the emotion.

  1. Quiet your mind and reach out to God.
  2. Think of the fear. Now feel yourself letting go of the emotion of fear. Repeat this until there is no more fear present.
  3. Now, replace that with a feeling of goodness, harmony, love, success, and so on (whatever is relevant), for the situation.

This is a simple pattern one can repeat whenever one senses a fear that doesn’t have a legitimate basis (again, where it does, take the relevant action and then let go of the fear). We are holding onto it, and in the process making an idol of what it refers to. By letting go of the fear, we can more easily put God back into first place.