Philip Yancey on the Problem of Evil


The following are two excerpts from the Philip Yancey episode of Language of God regarding the problem of evil, pain, lament and disappointment with God.

Part I :

Part II:

Part I Transcript:

Jim: So first your book Disappointment with God, which was published in 1988. And at the time I got that in 1998, in Boston, I was in graduate school and I remember reading it intently because it seemed to acknowledge and take seriously some of the questions that weren’t always socially acceptable in the conservative church society that I grew up in. Isn’t it a bit unholy to say you’re disappointed with God? What led you to write such a book?

Philip: I don’t think it is unholy at all, and the reason is, I started reading the Bible, especially the Old Testament. And that book came out of an experience I had where I read the entire Bible all the way through, in two weeks, taking notes on why God would sometimes act and sometimes not act. And so, I started to skim the Bible and look for every appearance of the word ‘God.’ And I thought I’ll just read the whole thing. So I read the whole thing and I got this bird’s eye view of God’s actions.

And in the process of doing so, in books like Psalms, Lamentations, many of the prophets, Habakkuk, Job, disappointment with God is paramount. And I became impressed with a God who not only gives us the freedom to rebel, to lament, to cry out in anguish, but gives us a word, to use, the words, all the way through.

And about two thirds of the psalms, according to Eugene Peterson who paraphrased them into message, two thirds of them are psalms of lament, which really are ways of saying, “God, I don’t like the way you’re running the world.” And I started with three questions: Why does God hide? Is God unfair? And is God silent? And I found those are questions that we all kind of wrestle with at some point. You know, “if God would just show himself…” And I found out that there was a period of time when those questions did not apply, where God was not silent, where God was not hidden and God was very fair.

If you go back, particularly when the Israelites were freed from Egypt, God met with Moses in person. There were no little Jewish atheists in those days, because the tent of meeting was glowing and if you doubted God’s existence, just go over and touch Mount Sinai, and you would believe in God about one nano-second before you were incinerated.

And God was not silent. There was the pillar of fire and the cloud by day and you would just follow that. Guidance wasn’t an issue then. If God wanted you to move, God would move. And fairness — my goodness. Go through and read the contract in Deuteronomy as Moses spelled it out. “If you keep these laws you’ll never lose a war, all of your crops will be fertile, all of your women will be fertile, you’ll always prosper. But if you break these commandments…” — and then he describes a history of the Jewish race. Extraordinary.

But do we look back on that time as a time of great faith? No. In fact, Paul says this was, this was the proof that that style of working doesn’t work. That here, God was answering these questions in certifiable ways and yet that really wasn’t the problem.

And I started thinking, we want God to act like one of us. We want God to come down magically and fix our health problems. You know, the calf muscle that I just tore, or whatever it is. And so many of our prayers are along that line. Wait a minute, if God is a spirit, doesn’t God have the right to decide how God wants to act? And I found that as I looked at the Bible, on one hand, it looks like God is gradually withdrawing.

In the Old Testament scenes, God did intervene. But when the holy omnipotent God steps into the laws of planet Earth, they are usually body bags, usually scorch marks. So you touched the ark of the covenant and you die. You touchED Mount Sinai and you die. You know, it’s not easy. And gradually God withdrew in a sense from doing it God’s own self, through doing it through his Son who did become one of us, who was vulnerable, who got power, yes, but he didn’t exercise that. He could have called on legions of angels. He didn’t. He let himself be crucified. Whole story there, theologically.

And then gradually Jesus said, “When I leave, it’s actually for your good that I’m going away because the Spirit will come and the Spirit’s your comforter and God will live in you. And you will go places — Judea, Samaria, the ends of the earth, China, the United States, Japan — where I never got to go. So get going, guys.” And he turns it over to us.

And so God primarily, as I read the Bible story, has been weaning us away from that direct intervention and in a sense, turning over the mission to us. God is a spirit — he wants to relate to us in a spiritual way. So the Holy Spirit is not an inferior way of God acting. The Holy Spirit was what God intended from the beginning. That’s the most personal, intimate kind of communication. And yet we keep kind of yearning for that Old Testament-style. “Oh God, if you would just win our wars for us, if you would just solve our problems for us.” And so often it doesn’t happen and then people are disappointed.

Jim: So disappointment is a relationship of some sort, right, between my expectations I have for something and what that other something does or doesn’t do. So it sounds like the problem with disappointment is not with God, it’s with what our expectations are. That are our expectations are for God to act differently than God has chosen to do now. Is that a fair summary?

Philip: That’s an excellent point, Jim.

No fan of the Cleveland Browns was disappointed that they weren’t in the Super Bowl. They were ecstatic because they almost won has many as they lost! Whereas last year, they didn’t win a single game. Our disappointment is completely determined by our expectations. And part of what we should be doing, those who — pastors and others who exposit the Bible is to give us the expectation.

You know, I heard the other day on NPR, National Public Radio, I heard an atheistic cosmologist, a scientist, an astronomer, Italian, who said we have it all wrong. We tend to think that things are like the Rocky Mountains, where I live. Now that’s a thing. I mean you can slam your hand against it and it’ll get hurt. That’s, that’s a thing. He said Rocky Mountains aren’t a thing, they’re a happening. It took them several million years and then they kind of solidified, but go ahead two or three billion years and they won’t be there anymore. That’s not a thing, that’s a happening. Things are relationships, relationships like between electrons and protons and nucleus, between planets and the force of gravity. You know, relationship is the thing. And he’s not a Christian, he’s not even a believer in God, and yet the more he was talking, I was thinking, I think that’s how God views it too. Relationship is what’s most important. Things — even our bodies pass away. We die. It’s the relationship that will, that can be immortal, that can be eternalized.

Jim: So throughout the course of the book, I think it’s fair to say that you’re not attempting to somehow solve the problem of evil in this intellectual sense where you’re convincing atheists that have rejected God because of evil in the world or something. Rather, this is a meditation for people who already believe in God but are wondering about why are some of these things happening? Why won’t God act in this way? It is addressing more of that emotional side. Is that fair to distinguish between the intellectual problem of evil versus the emotional response that we might have?

Philip: Very much so. The way that book came about, I had written a book, my first book called, Where is God When it Hurts?, and that was pretty much on the physical problem of pain. Why there is such a thing as physical pain? And Dr. Brand, working with leprosy patients, made very good points about that that I’d never considered before. So he changed my whole way of thinking. And then I got letters from people who said, well, that’s helpful, but that’s not really my problem. My problem is my child who makes one self destructive choice after another and I pray and pray and pray and he just keeps doing the same thing.

Jim: And do you have a recurring character in here? I assume it’s a real person.

Philip: It is a real person.

Jim: That is working through some of those issues as well that you’re responding to.

Philip: Right. And often disappointment works kind of like Chinese water torture. It’s just one little thing after another. It’s the child who keeps crying. It’s the child who keeps going back to alcohol or drugs. It’s the parent with Alzheimer’s, you know. Maybe it’s not your own pain but you’re just in this orbit of suffering and it just wears away at you and you cry out to God. And even C.S. Lewis — who wrote a great book — the philosophical problem of pain was dealt with very well in his book, The Problem of Pain. But then when it was his wife, he wrote A Grief Observed. He said right when you need God most, you hear the sound of the double bolting on the door and nothing else. Then silence. And that’s the emotional side.

Jim: And yet this character, Richard, in your book, that you’re responding to, sounds like he’s asking questions, that he wants to know something. That some sort of knowledge might help that emotional side. I’m wondering how blurry that line can be sometimes between the emotional response and the intellectual side? That if we had answers, would that help us emotionally? Or maybe not?

Philip: I go back and forth on that Jim. In one sense, doctors tell me that a person who was a lifelong smoker, if you told them that they have lung cancer, it’s a little easier for them to take. They’re not that surprised. They’ve been watching these ads on TV for 30 years, you know. On the other hand, if it’s your child who is four years old and comes down with leukemia, that’s a slap in the face. That child is innocent. That child didn’t do anything.

So in some ways maybe knowing a ‘why’ would ease it a little bit. But it doesn’t solve the problem. You’re still dying of cancer, you know, either one. And so you have to step back and ask the larger questions. Why did God put put together this planet in the way that God did?

And then of course the Bible introduces something new. I’ve often wondered why is it that the Bible doesn’t have a book dedicated to the problem of pain. Job is not. I mean Job’s questions are about it, but God ignores it in his answer. He just gives him a tour of creation.

And I think at least in the New Testament, they don’t see this planet as something to defend as God’s final product. They would see this planet either as a spoiled planet or an incomplete planet. Clearly this planet — Earth — is not running the way that God wants it to. Jesus taught us to pray everyday that thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Why do you have to pray that? Because it’s not running on earth as it is in heaven. So what I often say with suffering people is, if you suffer, God suffers more. If you grieve, God grieves more. I remember standing at a church after the Sandy Hook massacre of students — and why did God allow this to happen? And I say with great confidence, believe me, what you feel, God grieves more far more. And God has the power to correct that one day, to resurrect those children who are lost today.

If you look at this planet and only look at the book of science without the book of Revelation you would have a pretty mixed idea of what God is like. Unless you look through the eyes of Jesus. Because Jesus — if you wonder how God feels about people who are sick, people who are dying, whose children are dying, just follow Jesus around. See how he dealt with a widow who just lost her only son or even a Roman soldier whose servant fell ill. He didn’t give any lectures about, “Well you just got to get used to it.” Or, you know, some theoretical problem of pain. He cried. He set it right. This is wrong. And that’s a promise that we have. And of course Jesus joined us in our suffering. And in the resurrection, we believe we have a template of what God plans to do with the entire planet — to set right, to resurrect what was wrong, what was incomplete, what was displeasing about creation.

woman sitting with bible in sweater

Part II Transcript:

Jim: We’re looking to the Church, these Spirit filled believers, to be the mouthpiece of God so that God is not silent. God is working through the Church. He’s given his image, his reputation, to this group of people. What I think that does for some people, though, is to say, doesn’t that distance God from these events that we’re concerned about here now that we wanted God to step in and intervene and do something about? If God has designated the church to be his hands and feet and mouth, does that take something away from our feeling that God is in control and that God will always look out for me and protect my kids and keep us safe?

Philip: Yes, it does. And not all kids are safe. And not all people are safe. There are Christians who were killed today because of their faith, who were imprisoned, who were beaten, and that has been true. That’s no surprise to Jesus. He told his disciples here’s what’s going to happen to you. You’re going to be hauled into court. You’re going to be beaten. Some of you are going to be killed. He told his 11 disciples. After Judas left 10 of those remaining 11 died martyr’s deaths, from everything we know. So there is a cost for sure in turning over the mission to the likes of us. And we do have a lot of promises in the Bible that it’s not always going to be like that. There will be a time when God will, in a sense, take the wraps off.

It’s a scary time. It’s book of Revelation where God appears once again with power unleashed. You talk about body bags. The scenes in Revelation are horrific scenes and they’re the final onslaught of evil and the final destruction of evil for the new heaven and the new earth. So that’s the hope, the shining hope that we have, and lying down with the lamb. You know, there are indications that all of the rules of creation will be different, which is an indication that God is not satisfied with those rules of creation now.

Jim: So now you say at the end of the book, the alternative to disappointment with God seems to be disappointment without God. So is disappointment, just part of the human condition that we’re stuck with here?

Philip: I hope we are, I hope every Christian is disappointed. I hope every Christian is disappointed that there are people who didn’t have enough food today, that there were nine year olds in India sold into slavery and in Hindu temples to be temple prostitutes. There are lots of reasons to be disappointed in the world and we’re called to feel that disappointment. And not just sit around feeling bad about it but to do something about it. That is part of our mission in the world. And again, as a journalist, I’ve seen it again and again, Dr. Brand being a prime example — so disappointed with people who are disfigured by the disease leprosy to dedicate his life to the lowest people on the planet. People who are in the untouchable caste in India, who had leprosy. Here’s this brilliant surgeon, he didn’t, he didn’t throw away his life. He invested his life. And that’s what we’re called to do as Christians.

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