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Why God? A Reflection on the Problem of Evil

“Why God?” This is the question that arises during times of sorrow and loss. I recently did the funeral for a cousin on my wife’s side of the family. She was only 32 and left two wonderful children at her passing. The funeral was in West Palm Beach, Florida. All around us were gated communities, with high HOA fees, and all the niceties that come with it. From the houses, to the grass, the air conditioning, and not to mention the awesome waterparks attached to various housing communities. The modern world has a way of causing us to forget about death. Well, at least until it comes close to us.

When death strikes, the pain unmasks our wealthy poverty. Grief is present and powerful. The relationship of daughter, mother, cousin, and more become so close that modernity itself comes to a crashing halt. What are we to say of suffering and God?

We cannot and should not blame suffering on the devil. This gives him too much power. Moreover, we cannot and should not blame all suffering on “sin,” although the Catholic Catechism is right to say that it acts like an air pollutant, and thus is part of the problem. Moreover, it does not ‘feel’ right to blame all suffering on God. We know he is good and just and merciful. So, how shall we answer the question of pain and suffering?

A quick aside. If you are in the middle of grief or suffering right now, philosophical answers tend not to go so far in the moment, even if they are true. I recommend, spending time with a friend or counselor to walk you through the pain.

The truth is that God is in some sense on the ‘hook’ for the suffering that we see in this world, because he set the world up to work and operate the way that it does. However, in another sense he is off the hook, because if he was going to create a good world, he has limitations on the kind of world that he can create in the first place. Perhaps a better way of saying this is that God could end all suffering right now if he was prepared to take away several of the most important and good attributes that this world has to offer in the first place. For instance:

  1. God could end all human evil, and hence the suffering that comes with it, if he took away free-will. Namely, he could have stopped Hitler’s action, he could stop the lies that happen in marriages, he could stop all the racism. However, for God free-will is a valuable and good thing, despite the consequences that it has for evil. Without free-will there would be no love, and hence there would be no Mother Teresa’s in this world or Ghandi’s etc. God considers the enshrining of free-will a greater good, that presupposes the possibility of incredible evil. If asked “why?” about a murder, the answer is that someone used their free-will to kill someone else. Free-will answers the question of human (moral) evil. But, what about the natural suffering in the world?
  2. God could end all suffering if he took away the natural laws that operate this world/universe. Remember, that the natural laws are things like gravity. With repeated experiments and observations scientists (and humans in general) have figured out the way much of the world works. Let’s use an example that is used in the Philosophy of Religion. It’s really simple; water. Water has the capacity to bring health to our bodies. One drink on a hot and dry day can greatly aid us. At the same time, water has the ‘power’ to drown us. Unless God is willing to change these properties in each circumstance we are in (and he is not willing in 99.9999999 (imagine seeing 9’s to infinity here) % of the time), then we will see the natural consequences that they bring. Namely, if we jump off of a building, we can know (that without a net or some other safety device) that we will crash into the pavement below in ways that destroy our bodies. Therefore, when we are asking “Why someone died?” we can simply answer by highlighting the natural circumstances of their condition or situation. So, in the case of a drowning, we can say that a given person drowned, “because water filled their lungs and they were unable to breath until they died.” The natural answer really is good enough here, as harsh as it may be sometimes.

Moreover, it would be a very strange world indeed if God did jump in to mess with the trillions and trillions of possible circumstances by changing the natural laws. Natural laws are a good thing. They help us to know that when we walk out of our houses in the morning, gravity won’t switch at random and we go up into space never to come back again. They help us to know and interact with the world that we live in.

Therefore, God sees that the natural laws are the very rules and tools for humanity to get to know the world. Having an orderly world means that we can use our reasoning in such a way as to make decisions. Without the natural laws, the concepts of free-will and reason (both of which God highly values) cannot exist in any strong or valid way.

A littler further reflection on Natural Evil

I myself think that natural evil does not make any sense. In the philosophical literature, moral evil is the kind of evil that humans do. I answered that above in a short paragraph on free-will. However, that is only one half of the equation about ‘evil.’ Very often we are asking questions that have no free-will attached to the apparent evil done. Examples of what are called ‘natural evil’ abound, such as, earthquakes, avalanches, tornadoes, tsunami’s, cancers, and much much more.

Why are these things taking place? Again, my answer is that these things are not actually “evil.” They just are. They are destructive for sure. They cause lots of pain and sorrow. No one will deny this. But, to call that “evil” seems to be attributing to a non-rational agent (let’s say an earthquake) moral power and capacities. However, natural events have no moral power whatsoever. They happen without intention or moral force. We cannot say, “That evil tsunami” because a tsunami is not evil. It is just a force that takes place in the ocean that impacts the land that humans and other living things abide.

Therefore, my answer to the question about the problem of evil is really that we only need answer the moral problem of evil. Once that question is answered with free-will, we simply need to understand that the natural laws are a prior good. Sure, they can cause much destruction, but ‘on the whole’ they set up the possibility of a better world than one without them. Again, if there are no natural laws, anything can happen at any time for no reason whatsoever, and that would be much more destructive than the world that we live in.

The universe that we live in, although set up by God, is set up for the good and long-range goals God has, such as giving people free-will, building an orderly universe, gifting human creatures with reasoning capabilities, and more. This means, that when events happen, God is not to blame in the sense that he did a given act in the moment. Instead, the moment can be explained in natural terms. Cancer takes lives. Lions eat antelope. Earthquakes hurt populations that build their societies near fault lines, etc.

Suffering and evil take place because the kind of things that make for learning, stability, love, and more are enshrined by free-will, natural laws, and the power of reason. These are great goods, which all the while allowing for great evil or destruction. We might say, for clarity purposes, that if God wants the incredibly important categories of free-will, natural-laws, and the powers of reason, there are certain possibilities that can always happen. Hence, suffering.

God and Time….and Services

Occasionally, one wonders about the length of our services. These prospective visitors, are making sure they will not be coming to a three hour marathon every Sunday. Here is my take on God, Time, and Services.

First, time is relative. In the book “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking, one learns that time is different depending on (1) where you are in the universe, (2) how far off the ground you are, and (3) how fast you are traveling. To give one example, if you could travel near the speed of light, you would not age as fast as someone on earth. We now know, there are no universal clocks. On earth we measure time based on earths turning (a day) and rotation around the sun (a year). This is not the same on Mars or Jupiter or in some other galaxy.

Second, God has no time. Therefore, his ‘ability’ to ‘move’ in a given length of service is the same. One does not get more of God, just because the services are longer. If you did, then perhaps we all should convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, because their services are long. 🙂

Third, most length of service discussions around the world are culturally driven. When I am in Honduras, I too preach for two hours. When I am here in Sun Prairie, I usually go for twenty five minutes.

Fourth, our length is an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes. In this ‘time,’ we try not to ‘generate’ the work of God, but rather trust that God is working. There is a big difference between us ‘priming the pump’ and ‘controlling’ how we think God should work versus just letting God work, regardless of what response we see.

Fifth, the church of the first 1600 years relied not on the length, but on the Word of God in Scripture and the Grace of God in communion. If these two arenas were covered, then a legitimate Christian service had been held and God’s grace was received.

Sixth, I think it is an act of kindness, especially in our culture, to let people out ‘on time.’ It means we prayed throughout the week, trusted God in the song choices, sermon preparation, and Scripture texts. God ‘works’ methodically in the preparation process throughout the week, not just in spontaneous moments on Sunday.

Seventh, on a somewhat separate note, if you wanted to write a theological treatise on ‘God and Time’, you could. There is actually quite a large and heady discussion on “time” in academia if you happened to be interested in spending your earth’s rotations on it. 🙂

-Pastor Isaac

 

A Better Christianity from Classical Christianity

I was reading about a church leader named Ambrose in the late 300’s. Because of his work showing the reasonableness of Christianity, he was helpful in the conversion of one of the largest theological and philosophical minds in history, Saint Augustine. I so wish we can regain the reasonableness of classic Christianity that Ambrose offered Augustine. Therefore, I am offering a number of correctives for our world based upon the Church’s teaching through the ages.

  1. We need to affirm God’s love for all people and His desire that all be saved.
  2. We need to affirm the goodness of our reasoning powers. At times our reasoning is flawed, such as when we miscalculate something. But, our reasoning has classically been looked at as one of the major elements of being made in the image of God.
  3. We need to affirm the goodness of our physical bodies and stop divorcing physical and spiritual life in such broad ways.
  4. We need to affirm that there are good reasons to believe God exists, not just a blind leap of faith.
  5. We need to affirm that Scripture, Tradition, and Reason are all trump cards over experience. If someone has an experience and I have a sound reason, then I am closer to the truth.
  6. We need to affirm the freedom of the will. ‘Get-rich quick type’ gimmicks abound in various parts of Christianity and sometimes bring in the numbers. But we must seek lasting fruit that allows others their free choice and room for God to work too.
  7. We need to affirm that “anointed” preachers and teachers do not get an ‘automatically true’ pass in their teaching and preaching. We have always been told to discern everything.
  8. We need to affirm being true to God and his way over and against the endless use of the phrase, ‘be true to yourself.’ Check out N.T. Wrights book “After We Believe” for a more robust look at this concept.
  9. We need to affirm both commands and character development as a means to honoring God with our decisions.
  10. We need to affirm that God created the heavens and the earth. Classic Christian teaching has always affirmed “that” God created all things, but it has not affirmed “how” God created.
  11. We need to affirm that Christians have the right to believe what they think is true regarding the age of the earth and universe without feeling like they betrayed the Faith. Historic Christianity has not ruled on the age of the earth, and therefore we are allowed to search these questions out ourselves with and modern science.
  12. We need to affirm that the Bible is not to be read as the same genre in all its books. There are many genre’s and literary devices that control how various books are to be read (literally, historically, religiously, poetically, metaphorically, a mixture, etc).
  13. We need to affirm that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, but we should not give in to easy speculations regarding percentages of persons going to heaven or hell. This is God’s domain, and he knows who are seeking him across the world.
  14. We need to affirm the mission of the church to preach the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the means of salvation and put our efforts forward to bring the message to our neighbors and world.
  15. We need to affirm the real presence of Christ in communion. “How” or in “what way” Christ is present, has been long debated, but that He is present has been long held.
  16. We need to affirm the reality of sin. With all the attempts to psychologize sin away, we still should hold that sin separates us from a good and holy God. This is exactly why, for 2000 years the Church has been preaching the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Believing in Jesus overcomes the powers of sin.

There is much more to say…but I am sure that is enough to chew on for now.

Yours in Christ,

Isaac

Miracles

I am in a reading group with some UW Madison students regarding contemporary debates in the philosophy of religion. We are using a text edited by one of my former professors in seminary, which at some level reminds me of the quality I had in this professor. The subject from last week was on miracles.

Miracles by definition should not be expected to happen every day and in every situation. In fact, if they did, they would not be all that miraculous (please take time to think about this thought). If they happened all the time they would be part of the regular sequence of nature, or at least a regular interruption of nature that could be counted on. Sometimes, as a Pastor, I might sound like the bad guy for saying that miracles are irregular events. But, I think this is part of the heritage of our Christian teaching, and the hard work of being intellectually honest.

Moreover, every miraculous report should not be believed. I think the New Testament itself bears witness to discerning all things. The early church often had to deal with other religious groups that made regular and wild claims about supernatural things. Christians were warned to test everything.

One part I really enjoyed from the book reading had to with evaluating miraculous claims in other religions. Sometimes, especially from our non-believing friends, we are challenged as to how we accept our religion’s miracles but reject others. The reading from this week highlighted a couple things I think are worth mentioning. The authors are Charity Anderson and Alexander Pruss.

The first is that no rational persons, whichever religion they find themselves in should believe every miraculous report. My thought from this is that just because one religion or perhaps even several might have legitimate miraculous claims, in no ways means all of them do. This means, just because we believe that miracles do happen, does not mean we believe all or even most reports.

The second point however was interesting to me. Given the idea that a good God does exist, we would not be surprised if we found miraculous reports of his blessing across the world at times to aid a person in need. Thus, we would not have to dismiss all other miraculous reports just because they are not found in “our” religion.

The counter argument against miracles in this chapter (5) was offered by Arif Ahmed. The point he makes is that we need to take into account the unlikely nature of miracles in the first place. He follows an old line of thought from David Hume that given how unlikely they are we should rather believe just about any other explanation than that a miracle did in fact occur. Ahmed thinks this in relation to the Resurrection of Jesus as well. Basically, ignorance, deceit, hallucination etc. is just as believable than an actual resurrection given how unlikely a resurrection is in the first place.

Of course there is much to reply to Ahmed with, such as the kind of evidence given for the resurrection makes it rational to hold to until a better explanation surfaces. Moreover, the discussion on background beliefs is important as well. If there is a God, miracles are possible. If there is no God, then Ahmed seems right, that there are none. Thus, we come back to the question about God’s existence.

https://www.amazon.com/Contemporary-Debates-Philosophy-Religion-Peterson/dp/1119028450/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=contemporary+debates+in+the+philosophy+of+religion&qid=1563994889&s=gateway&sr=8-1

Pastor’s Notes

There is lots to report this week. I hope you get to read all of it!

First – Defending the Faith – Last week I spent three days teaching High Schoolers in “Master’s Commission” hosted at Faith Christian Church in Mauston, WI. Six plus years ago I used to attend this church. They remembered my love for defending the faith and asked me to do three one-hour sessions on that subject. The students were so interested in the discussion and asked dozens of questions. In fact, the second day was so powerful to them that I was there for four hours instead of one. This experience with young people heavily confirmed my thoughts on how young people in particular are yearning and searching for answers!

Second – MP3 Pastor’s Meetings – Each month many of the Pastors of Madison and the surrounding area come together to hear an encouraging word and pray together. Most of the Pastors are in the Evangelical and Charismatic churches of the area, but we get a few Traditional Pastors as well. I was so encouraged by this last meeting. The meeting affirmed that we all trust in the “Orthodox” Christian faith. And, even though we may differ over ministry models and emphasis, we share the very same essentials passed on from the Apostles themselves. This is worth celebrating!

Third – Intimacy with God Conference at City Church – While at the MP3 meeting, Pastor Tom from City Church asked me to come and pray the morning before their Intimacy with God Conference along with other Pastors and participants. I was delighted and quickly accepted. In the nearly three years I have been here, I have deeply connected with City Church. Many times throughout the year I am teaching at their Bible College. Our churches joined for a leadership conference. Their Pastors and Prayer Team joins us each year here at Living Water for our Summer Tom Stamman meeting. This last January they asked me to lead their multi-church Young Adults retreats up north. You may remember me saying I was ministered to as much as I ministered. Finally, several of their Pastors and I get together for Pickle Ball about once a month. I look forward to continued collaboration with them into the future!

City Church is hosting the Intimacy with God Conference, but the conference is meant to bless the wider Madison area. I want to encourage you to make it if you can! Amos the prophet said, “Seek the Lord and Live!” Please pray about more opportunities for our churches (and other one’s too) to work and serve together! See the details of this conference below or click this link www.citychurchonline.org

Fourth – Sermon / Readings – This week the sermon text comes from Colossians 1:15-28. About 60-70% of the time I follow what are called the lectionary readings for which texts we read and preach on Sunday mornings. Long ago, church leaders divided up portions of the Bible to be read in churches over a three-year period that covers most of the Bible. I rely upon these texts most of the time (Minus Sermon Series and the like) for many reasons. The main reason however is that the congregation is fed a balanced diet. Every Pastor has their favorite texts, but the congregation needs more than one person’s favorites. Moreover, I find relying upon the lectionary puts me in a place of trusting God’s Word. It may seem like a tough Word on certain weeks, or perhaps something irrelevant to our situation now, but God will always come through for his Word. If you are interested in keeping track of the Scriptures on the lectionary from week to week, check out https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/

Refreshing Faith

I had a great conversation with two newer young (recently married) people after Church on Sunday. Given my sermon I figured I would get some interesting feedback. What I found in these two was a couple hungry for the truth and deeply in love with their Savior! These two recent converts to The Faith, demonstrated how they are on the front lines of several major forces that work to contravene both the truth of our bodies but also the truth of Jesus Christ. I could not have been more encouraged as they demonstrated their resolve to love people while not giving up the Scriptural truth!

Moreover, they mentioned how they were spending some time with Jehovah’s Witnesses (from here on JW’s) and they really wanted to show them that Jesus is truly God (something JW’s deny). One thing JW’s (and other cult-like groups) do is they have their position handed to them, and then they go on into the Bible (their own fairly changed translation of the Bible) to confirm their already formed beliefs. It is easy to walk into the pages of the Bible and pick verses that already agree with us. But, as Christians we are supposed to take a different route (a more fully human and honest route). We go on into the Bible and begin to form our beliefs from its content and not the other way around. We are not supposed to be building grand echo chambers, but rather a vibrant relationship with God formed on Truth.

Well, enough said there. I was greatly encouraged Sunday (and I have not even mentioned the Baptism’s!!). Let’s be praying for young people like those baptized and those I chatted with to be powerful light bearers in our sometimes dim lit society.

Communion, Children, Leftovers

The Bible does not tell us at what age children can take communion. Thus, churches can work out their own policies as to “when” they are allowed. Here at LWC we let the families choose. If the family desires for their child to have communion with them, even at very young ages, then they should. If the family desires their child to reach a certain ‘age,’ then they should follow their convictions too.

For me personally, I recognize that God’s grace is available to children even if they do not understand everything about the ‘meal’ (read ‘sacrament’). In fact, likely not one of us understands exhaustively this meal. But, that does not deter us from coming forward. What the Bible does make clear is that we should take part in this meal until Christ comes again (1 Corinthians 11:26). We should remember (re-present) the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins (Luke 22:19). Moreover, we should make sure that wealth/class/other (read ‘social division’) distinctions are dissolved during this meal (1 Corinthians 11:17-22). Finally, we should recognize the body of our Lord in this meal (whether literally, symbolically, pre-figural, or cosmically in the church) (1 Corinthians 11:27-32, Matthew 26:26-29).

Given my own convictions on the ‘meal’ are quite classic (read sacramental), I don’t like tossing the ‘leftovers.’ Thus, when some young people in the congregation have asked if they could consume the leftover bread and juice, I have given them the freedom to do so. From here on out, it will be done in the Narthex, rather than on the Altar (platform), but I find allowing this very beneficial. For one, there is joy and excitement from these young people over ‘the meal.’ The church has a role to train ‘desires’ to receive something of the Lord’s in a positive way.

One quick story to close. A Lutheran Pastor, Pastor Meyer, told me this years ago. In their tradition they also viewed the meal as a sacrament. Moreover, they used wine (not grape juice). Well, the Pastor’s were required to finish the rest of the wine after the church service. Some were getting tipsy because they poured too much for the congregation and had quite a bit to finish later. What should they do?

At first, they thought they could just pour the leftover wine down the drain. However, that felt too…well…dirty for the sacrament. Then, they decided that the leftover wine would be taken outside and poured out on the ground. A sort of ‘from the ground the grapes brought forth the wine, and to the ground the wine went back into’ motif. However, this was not always exciting in the north where temperatures in the winter can be bitter cold. So, the denomination created a spicket in their buildings that the Pastor can pour the wine into which empties outside on the ground without them ever having to go outside. To say the least, that is interesting. 

For now, we will stick to consuming the leftovers.

-Pastor Isaac

How we got the Bible Audio!

Pentecost Thoughts

Pentecost. Through the centuries there has been a lot of misunderstanding on the original Pentecost and what it means for today! Let’s clear some of the air.

  1. Pentecost is about God and His plan! It’s easy to make it about us, our plan, our ministry preference and our favorite giftings. We should make this season about God, not us and our preferences.
  2. Pentecost is about reuniting the divided nations! Early in Genesis we see the nations divided over language because they became enemies of God. In Pentecost, we see a gift of languages given to reunite what was divided long ago (Pentecost 2). This unique event brought the Gospel to numerous nations all at once who were present in Jerusalem for their large of religious festival.  
  3. Pentecost is about seeking God and not the gifts! One temptation Christians have had over the years is to seek the various gifts of God and not God himself. God gives gifts, but they are meant to point toward him. Let’s not get lost in the gifts, but in the Giver. 
  4. All Christians have the Holy Spirit! I have seen too many Christian Churches who claim to be “Holy Spirit churches” which have a sort of two-tiered caste system. Caste 1 – Christians who (supposedly) have the Holy Spirit (Spirit-filled) and Caste 2 – Christians who (supposedly) do not. I however reject this distinction. All Christians have the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Certainly, various Christians have new and important realizations of God the Holy Spirit in their lives. But, this does not mean they did not previously have the Holy Spirit. “Realization” is a key word for us, because it highlights something in a greater way that is already in one’s life. Moreover, it means we are all still growing and have something to offer each other. 
  5. The Holy Spirit points us to Christ. This is often lost in discussion on the Holy Spirit these days. We talk about signs, wonders, miracles, and missions, but we seldom talk about Christ. There is something slightly off with this. The whole purpose of the Holy Spirit is to point us to Christ (See John 16-17) and then lead us on into Christ’s mission (Acts 1:8 and 2:14-47).  

Pastor Isaac

Georgia’s Abortion Ban -?’s

Georgia passed legislation to ban abortion (with several exceptions) after a heartbeat is detected. Here is one of my responses to someone who was heavily opposed to it passing. and also used ‘race’ in the discussion, which can at times be a bit hard to disentangle. I added a little bit in what is below, for the final post reflected a few earlier ones. The person I was responding to said that this bill was anti-women. She also pointed out that black / brown/ and poor people will be the most affected. Finally, she pointed out that using my religion to force other people to its claims was wrong. Here is my response. 
 
 
1. You are pitting vulnerable women against the vulnerable in the womb. Why does it have to be an either or? Why cannot our laws reflect ways of helping vulnerable women who are pregnant and those in the womb who are vulnerable too? I just don’t think it is an either/or. It’s both/and. Can’t we find a non-violent approach to helping both?
2. You mentioned Christian ideals…but I did not. I actually mentioned science as the basis for why Roe must go. Moreover, I cited a heavily progressive and well attributed ethicist for agreement on that (Peter Singer from Princeton). Therefore, all you could say from my post is that I am pushing science (and those who know a lot about it) on others. Not my religion. Even more, I do not look at this as a religious issue. I look at this as a natural understanding that people are supposed to come to. Whether religious or not. Proof of this is found in the Right to Life movement, which has atheists involved as well as religious folk of many stripes.
3. As I said, there are many things the political parties do that are off the mark. I don’t always agree with everything pro-life bills propose. But, two things to note. The first is, I doubt the white people you pointed out specifically targeted black/brown/poor communities. That is assuming a lot about their intentions that we simply do not have access to. To be sure, you used the word “affected.” This may be the case, but I think it distracts from the point. One can use any socio-economic or minority group and talk about marginalization. In fact, the Pro-life movement often does the same thing when it points out that at least in the past Planned Parenthood clinics used to target black/brown/poor neighborhoods. The point was that black communities were disproportionately helping the abortion industry and lowering their population at the same time. Still, as much as those conversations have value, the distraction is that often this leverage on other moral issues (race) is used to control a distinct moral issue (abortion). It sounds really bad for Planned Parenthood to make a target market of black people. It sounds really bad of these ‘white straight men’ if what you say was part of their intentions. But that never gets to answering if Roe is based on outdated science or not. There simply needs to be a revision of that law in order to reflect how much more we know about womb life and fetology.
4. One more point about color and race. What if we globalize the subject of abortion and think along race lines from a global perspective? Large portions of the world whether South America, Africa, and Asia are opposed to abortion. Now, even this would not determine if it was right or wrong to have an abortion. But, if we want to use race to leverage this discussion one way or the other, then we could just as well do it against abortion.