It's one of life's biggest, scariest theological and philosophical questions: How can a good God, who is all-powerful, allow evil to exist in the world? Scholars have attempted to produce an answer for as long as we have had the ability and inclination to assign meaning to our lives. The problem of evil is an audacious choice of discussion topic for a group of 12-18 year old teens, but as the youth group I volunteer with finished our final series of the year last week, we discovered that questions are good, and uncertainty is okay. We want our kids to know this as much as we need to remind ourselves.
As leaders, we try to address the questions we know they're hearing "out there" and most likely asking themselves. So there we were, sitting around a bonfire in our youth pastor's backyard, a few adults sprinkled in among the dozen or so teenagers who make up our youth group, listening as a guest speaker offered us his thoughts on this question that has plagued so many for so long.
Our speaker, standing above us in the light of the campfire as dusk settled in, laid it all out for us:
We have no answer.
We know that God's heart breaks for those who suffer; so too should ours break.
We know that God comforts those in pain; so too should we comfort those who mourn.
We know that God values those the world has put last; so too should we advocate for the powerless.
This is our response: that we see God's heart, and we make it our own.
When you're in the middle of something extremely painful, it can be comforting to put your pain in the context of God's plan, to push through it in faith that he is working it all out for good. There is a truth to that, even if it loses momentum when we begin to look outward at the seemingly senseless pain, violence, and injustice in the world. Sometimes it helps to truly weep, to grieve, to lament the fact that a painful thing has happened and to ask God why. There is a truth to that, too. When we look at this logical "problem," we have the advantage of knowing this is not the final truth. We know that we worship a great God who is preparing a place for us where all our pain will become untrue.
Teenagers want answers. I have heard it said they are natural scientists—they want to dissect things, to understand them, to boil them down to a formula. As a youth pastor or youth leader, you can try to simplify things down to bullet points and lists and logical defenses. But with every year I learn more that not everything can be simply good or bad, wrong or right.
The problem of evil is a question many of us have seen lead people we love away from faith. If it were a question that could be answered definitively, to the satisfaction of those who will not believe, we would have done so by now. But this does not mean we have no response. This does not mean God is not good, and all-powerful, and yet still allows evil to exist in the world.
Logic is our attempt to understand and articulate truth; but logic is from us, and truth is from God—we cannot be shocked when there appears to be a disconnect.
"In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." These words in John 16:33 offer all the response we can give to this problem of evil. "Behold," God tells us, "I am making all things new" (Revelation 21:5).