What do Christians believe? Lesson III: The Problem of Evil

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At the invitation of my pastor, I have begun a ten-week Bible study at my church on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The title of the series is “The Nicene Creed: What do Christians Believe?” My intention is to present meditations and commentary on the Creed, line by line, illustrating how it is a succinct and comprehensive summary of the basic message of the teaching of Jesus Christ and His apostles. My goal is to provide a detailed but accessible introduction into the basic ideas of Christian faith by way of the Creed.

The third lesson is titled “The Problem of Evil.” In it, I address one of the most commonly raised questions about the existence of God, namely: If God exists, why is there evil and suffering in the world?

Here is the video of the lecture:

The audio is also available on the Christ is for everyone! podcast.

What do Christians believe? Lesson II: The Existence of God

Photo by Kamil Zubrzycki from Pexels.

At the invitation of my pastor, I have begun a ten-week Bible study at my church on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The title of the series is “The Nicene Creed: What do Christians Believe?” My intention is to present meditations and commentary on the Creed, line by line, illustrating how it is a succinct and comprehensive summary of the basic message of the teaching of Jesus Christ and His apostles. My goal is to provide a detailed but accessible introduction into the basic ideas of Christian faith by way of the Creed.

The second lesson is titled “The Existence of God.” In it, I provide a reason for affirming the Christian belief in “one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”

Here is the video of the lecture:

The audio of the lecture is also available on the Christ is for everyone! podcast here and on Spotify.

Where does the journey of “deconstructing your faith” lead in the end?

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These days, there is an ever growing number of celebrity “exvangelicals” who announce that they have “deconstructed” their evangelical faith in Christianity, having moved on to different ways of thinking about things. A recent example would include Kevin Max from the Christian band dc Talk, but one could also mention Joshua Harris of I Kissed Dating Goodbye fame, as well as musicians Michael Gungor and Marty Sampson. I admit that I don’t know very much about these individuals, since I never listened to their music or read their books. But they are significant figures nonetheless. These persons and many others besides talk about undergoing a process of “deconstruction” in which they questioned and interrogated the Christian faith commitments they received uncritically from others, a process which eventually led to the collapse of the edifice of their faith.

Others have responded to this issue in some detail, for example Gavin Ortlund and Jordan Steffaniak. They emphasize the importance of exposure to the intellectual tradition of Christianity. And this is a very significant point to make. American “pop” evangelicalism of the sort you might find in the suburban megachurch bears little to no resemblance to what Christianity has looked like for two thousand years, nor to what it looks like in very many parts of the world. Moreover, such “pop” evangelicalism has little to no awareness of the rich and varied history of Christianity, especially its intellectual history as it dialoged with ancient Greek paganism, heresies of various kinds, Judaism, Islam, and atheism throughout the years. Because “pop” evangelicalism has no historical consciousness, the average person in the pews confuses what is presented before them on Sunday with what Christianity is as a whole. And if the “pop” evangelicalism with which they grew up cannot survive their questions and interrogations, then they give up on Christianity altogether. Imagine the following analogous scenario. A person grows up only ever watching the Cleveland Browns football team. Because the Browns are terrible, he gives up on football altogether. The obvious response to make to this person is that the Browns are not representative of all that professional football has to offer! So also in the case of the “exvangelicals.” American “pop” evangelicalism is not all nor even among the very best that Christianity has to offer.

But there is another point to make here, one which cuts to the very heart of the notion of “deconstruction” in general. Many exvangelicals talk about the process of “deconstruction” as a journey. They consider themselves to be on the move toward some place. They know what they are leaving, but they may not exactly know where they are headed. It is true that “deconstruction” is a way of moving from point A to point B. It is also a truth of deconstruction that point B is just as deconstructible a stopping point as point A – even if one does not feel the need or inclination to engage in the “deconstructing” project any more. But from the fact that one feels safe, it doesn’t follow that one is in fact safe, just like the fact that one does not feel sick does not mean that one is in fact healthy.

Why is point B just as deconstructible as point A? Because the conditions which make deconstruction possible in the one case are also present in the other. After all, what is “deconstruction” except a recognition of the inevitably limited and perspectival character of knowledge? One previously believed something, but later came to see things from a different point of view, so that one’s prior beliefs, which seemed so founded and reliable, so accorded to objective reality, slowly come apart. But the new point of view is itself still a point of view. And it is always possible that there is still some third point of view which will reveal the second one to be inadequate. “Deconstruction” is the process by which an idea or a belief is relieved of its pretense to being an objective truth and unmasked as nothing more than a statement of the way things are from a certain point of view, a point of view one does not have to take. But we have not achieved pure objectivity simply because we go from one point of view to another. We are still “stuck” seeing things as they look from a certain point of view.

Any point of view both makes certain things visible but also hides others. From inside a house, one can see what is in the kitchen but not whether there is anyone on the driveway. From outside a house, one can see if the front door is open but not who is in the bedroom. The point of view one takes is at least in part a result of one’s interests and concerns. Depending on what one cares about, one positions oneself here or there in order to see how things are. Now, it is always possible in principle to seek a different perspective on things. Indeed, it is always possible that a new perspective will reveal the inadequacy or short-sightedness of the perspective one currently occupies. But a person might not care to do it, preferring to stay where he or she is. Or it could be that the factors which motivated the deconstruction of the initial faith are no longer there. This seems to have happened with many persons who left evangelicalism and even Christianity in general because of the apparently “blind” evangelical support for Donald Trump both before and during his presidency. Now that he is no longer president, such persons might not feel any pressing need to question their current beliefs. Even so, it does not follow that they are in any “safer” or “stabler” a resting place than they previously were.

The important lesson here is that the journey of deconstruction never ends. Regardless of the point of view one takes, it is nevertheless true that the way things seem to a person are informed by the point of view he or she has taken, and it is always possible that a different point of view can reveal one’s current perception of things as inadequate or incomplete in various ways. It may be that people do not continue down the path of deconstruction their whole lives, but that does not mean that it wouldn’t be possible for them nonetheless.

But this situation can seem troublesome. If all knowledge of things in the world is perspectival, if we can never have infallible confidence that we have reached a “final” resting place, that we have achieved definitive knowledge of some thing … then what? How are we supposed to live? How are our lives supposed to go?

There are two things to say in response to this question. In the first place, a choice must be made. There is no escaping this fact. One cannot sit in one place with one’s arms crossed, waiting for death. Even though we can only see things as “in a mirror, dimly,” as Paul the Apostle says (1 Cor 13:12), we nevertheless have to choose what kind of life we are going to live and what sort of persons we are going to be. Moreover, these choices cannot be made in a situation of knowledge. We cannot be sure ahead of time that we are doing the right thing. Life is thus a risk. We are put in the situation of making a choice without a prior guarantee that we will choose correctly. That is just how things are!

From this point of view, Christianity invites us also to make the choice in a certain way. It invites us to assume a certain perspective and walk along with it. That is what Christ is getting at when He called people to “repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). Christianity offers us the Gospel, which is a way of thinking about ourselves, the world, and God in the light of Jesus Christ. We can reject this Gospel, but we can also accept it and learn to see things from its perspective, to see what light it sheds on things.

The second thing to say is that the deconstructibility of our opinions does not necessarily lead to a rejection of God. Consider how exvangelicals talk about the process of deconstruction as a “journey.” It is true that, for any point along the way of a journey, it is possible to stop but also to continue going, or else to go this way rather than that. But – importantly – one cannot journey at all unless there is a path, a ground on which one can walk. The ground makes the journey possible. And one does not make the ground, but rather the ground is there for us to walk on as we please.

So also, we might follow a journey of thought, going from one point of view to another, thinking about things this way or that. We discover that for any one way of thinking about things, another way is also possible. But what comes before all our thinking, so as to make it possible in the first place? What is the “ground” on which our journey of thought is possible? Life. We can think because we are alive. We can experience the world because we are alive and can experience ourselves seeing this, hearing that, tasting this, thinking about that. But although we are alive, although we feel ourselves to be alive, we are not ourselves responsible for the fact of our living. Neither can we do anything to guarantee that we remain in life for even a second, since we must first be alive in order to act. We live, but this is not our own doing, nor can we preserve our life by our own efforts. Thus, this life which we feel within ourselves, on which we depend, which makes to live without our consent, over which we have no control — that life is God.

This is why the philosopher Michel Henry said, “God is more certain than the world. And we are, too.” For any thing “out there” in the world we might be curious about, we can look at it from that perspective or another, thinking about this way or that. We might have good reasons for thinking about it in a certain way, but nothing rules out the possibility that future considerations will undermine our present convictions. And yet, no matter what we say about the things in the world, at the very least we know that we are alive and presented with this world in our every experience. And if we are alive, it is only because God, who is absolute Life, is continually giving us life and making us to be alive. This thing is sure, if nothing else.

But then what is this world? What are these things about which we can debate and discuss endlessly without coming to a resolution? What are these things in the world whose essence seems to slip away from us, so as to make the process of deconstruction endless? All our knowledge of the world is perspectival and limited. That is why deconstruction is always possible. A new perspective can come along and undo what we take to be certain. But regardless of the perspective we take toward things, whether we look at them from here or from there, they are nevertheless still there for us to consider and to use for our own purposes. Whatever we think about them, whether we think about them or not, the sun still warms us, the shade of the tree and the wind keep us cool, the water refreshes us, and the beauty of the skies please us. And the very Life which makes us live also reveals all these things to us for our good. Or, as the Psalmist says, “You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart” (Ps 104:14-15). Thus, we can learn a new way of relating to the world: it is the gift given to us by God, who is our Life and who makes us to live in this world which is at our disposal.

It is true that the journey of deconstruction never ends. Whatever we say about a thing from this point of view, we might contradict if we look at the same thing from another point of view. But the thing is there, whatever the point of view we take toward it, for us to use and to enjoy. And we have no access to the thing at all unless we live. And we do not live unless God, the absolute Life, makes us to be alive by sharing with us His life or “breath” (to use the biblical language). It is thus possible to rise out of the endless cycle of deconstruction by turning our attention to the Life that was always there and which made that journey’s beginning and end alike possible. If we do this, we might come to “re-discover” God for the first time. Rather than thinking of God as an idea which can be endlessly debated and discussed from a hundred points of view, we learn that He was not very far from us at all, but rather “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).