By John Rieping | Published 7 March 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Few of the 300 writings by ancient Greek philosopher Epikouros survive today. One paradox said to be his we know only through an early Christian writer in North Africa, Lucius Lactantius (A.D. 250-325).
In it, the problem of suffering is posed as a riddle for those who believe any god cares for humanity.
"God either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can," Epikouros allegedly wrote.
"If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful, which is equally foreign to god's nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful -- and so not a god.
"If he wants to and can, which is the only fitting thing for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?"
Throughout history, many believers in divinity have proposed solutions to this mystery. But perhaps none match that offered by Christianity, insofar as every element of its message is in part a reply to the problems of pain and evil.
A drawback of this is that any quick or brief response to the scandal of evil falls short, both of the question and of the depth and breadth of Christianity's answer. Yet even Christianity admits it has only "partial" understanding of such divine mysteries (1 Corinthians 12:12).
So what can be said?
First, let us be honest here. When the paradox of Epikouros most hits us is not in a classroom or amid peace. It pierces when you lose someone you love and there's no remedy. It smashes in when we do our best or worst and the results are terrible beyond expectation. It crushes when we feel trapped in misery with no hope left.
In such moments, we don't want a rebuttal. We ache for restoration, if not immediately then someday.
This too Christianity promises, but that can fail to comfort when doubts overwhelm any belief in such assurances. Such skepticism can be fed by past disappointments, when our pleas for help seemed fruitless.
Hence the problem of pain can be a problem of perception.
Imagine, for example, a deathly ill child brought to doctors for a cure that requires an agonizing treatment. The boy resists, so the doctors ask the parents to hold him down. What betrayal he may feel as his supposedly loving parents, who gave him life and provide for him, seem deaf to his cries for escape.
Sometimes the healing we seek frightens us more than the sickness that devours us. We may prefer destruction to change.
Alternately, we may not even realize we're dying at all if not for symptoms that shout too loudly for us to ignore, like despised prophets of doom.
"We need crises," writes Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft, "for we have spiritual sleeping sickness and need frequent alarms.
To unravel the paradox of Epikouros, though, is not a task for the mind so much as the heart. Both are precious, but the wounded first need aid, not insight.
The instinct of Christianity has always been that the mystery of evil can only be understood at the foot of another mystery -- the cross. For Christians assert as true what seems foolish to some: God chose to become man to liberate humanity from evil by suffering and dying.
Reflecting on and reacting to this mystery of the cross is the greatest answer to the mystery of evil any Christian heart can find. Yet how often we believers look away, whether the crucifix before us consists of metal or flesh.
"When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged him on a tree, / They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary; / They crowned him with a crown of thorns, red were his wounds and deep, / For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.
"When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed him by. / They would not hurt a hair of him, they only let him die; / For men had grown more tender, and they would not give him pain, / They only just passed down the street, and left him in the rain.
"Still Jesus cried, 'Forgive them, for they know not what they do,' / And still it rained the winter rain that drenched him through and through; / The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see, / And Jesus crouched against a wall, and cried for Calvary." (G.A. Studdert-Kennedy)