The Only Answer

(Habakkuk 1:2-4, 1:12-2:4; Matthew 28:1-10)

Talking with Aaron last week down at 1000 Park, I commented on the price of coffee; in response, he noted that it’s expensive right now in part because of natural disasters in coffee-growing areas. Most recently, there was the eruption of Mt. Merapi in Java last October and November, combined with an earthquake off Sumatra that spawned a tsunami. Between the two events, hundreds of people were killed, and hundreds of thousands were evacuated; the coffee crop was far from the greatest loss. It only makes things worse that this was just the latest in five-plus years of disasters for Indonesia, beginning with the Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami in 2004. That one is estimated to have been the third-largest earthquake, and the fifth-deadliest, in recorded history.

It’s not just Indonesia, though; doesn’t it seem like we’ve had an awful lot of major natural disasters in recent years? We no doubt tend to overestimate our own experience, but there’s some reason to think so; of the 25 earthquakes I know of that are believed to have been of magnitude 8.5 or greater, five have struck since Christmas, 2004. Add in the Haitian earthquake of January, 2010—which was “only” magnitude 7.0 but one of the deadliest in history—the upsurge in hurricanes that has given us storms like Katrina, and volcanoes like Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland, and it’s been a rough time for our poor planet. What’s more, human action often makes these things worse, as we saw with Katrina, and most recently in Japan, where the natural disaster of earthquake and tsunami set off a very human disaster in the nuclear power plants in Fukushima Prefecture.

Equally part of the pattern is the human impulse to turn someone else’s disaster to our own advantage; it’s Rahm Emanuel’s advice: “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Mostly that seems to be political in nature; but when there was no obvious political gain to be had, with the Boxing Day tsunami, the responses were theological. This was especially true from atheists such as Britain’s Martin Kettle, who wrote a column titled “God and the Tsunami” which concluded with the question, “Are we too cowed now to even ask if the God can exist that can do such things?” Later, novelist James Wood wrote, “If there is a God with whom we can communicate, who (sometimes) hears our prayers, why does He not hear our suffering? Or why does He hear our suffering and do nothing about it? Theology has no answer, and never has had.”

It’s exasperating; as my colleague and friend Jim Berkley noted at the time, it seemed that the secular press had all of a sudden discovered the problem of evil—and assumed that the discovery was equally sudden for the church. Actually, they were the ones who were late to the discussion, and asking the wrong question. They wanted an explanation for the disaster—as, I admit, a great many Christians did as well; as a result, they fell into the trap identified decades ago by H. L. Mencken when he wrote, “For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, easy to understand, and wrong.”

The truth is, we can’t find a satisfactory explanation for such things as the Boxing Day tsunami, or the abuse of a child, or the Deepwater Horizon disaster, or any of the other myriad ways in which human and natural evil devastate lives—there just isn’t one out there; and that should lead us to ask whether an explanation is really what we want. After all, let’s suppose that someone came along and offered an explanation of evil which really was sufficient, which really did explain everything in a satisfactory way, with no holes in it. What would be the cost of such an explanation? What would that mean? It would mean that evil is explainable, and thus that evil makes sense.

And for that to be the case, evil would have to belong in this world—there would have to be a proper place for it. For us to be able to explain why evil happens, evil would have to fit in with the way things are supposed to work; it would have to be somehow necessary to the proper order of things, which would mean that God deliberately created this world flawed from the beginning. If that were so, we would never be able to get away from evil; evil would be as eternal as good, because good would not be able to exist without it. That would be far too high a price to pay for any mere explanation.

Truth is, we could either have a world in which we can find a rational answer to the problem of evil, or a world in which the final defeat and total destruction of evil is a possibility; and it is the consistent testimony of Scripture that the latter is the world we have. Scripture doesn’t explain evil, because it offers no compromise with evil at all, only unrelenting denunciation of evil in all its forms. Trying to make sense of evil is futile, because evil doesn’t make sense. It can’t be rationally explained, because it doesn’t belong to the world God made; it’s fundamentally alien to the way things are supposed to be, and so it’s fundamentally inexplicable.

Does this mean that our faith has no answer to the problem of evil? Does this mean that God has no answer? No; he offers us the only answer possible: he offers us himself. Thus when Habakkuk complains about the evil God allows, what is God’s response? “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and it does not lie. If it seems slow in coming, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. . . . The righteous live by their faith.” The apostle Paul picks this up in Romans 1:17, applying it to the gospel of Jesus Christ: it is through Jesus, by faith in Jesus, that the righteous live by faith. It’s faith in a God who doesn’t fob us off with explanations, as if such thin soup would really make our lives any easier or any better, but instead comes down to bear evil with us, and ultimately to defeat it by his death and resurrection.

This is what Easter is about; this is God’s answer to evil. He doesn’t explain it, for to explain it would be to dignify it, to give a reason for it, and ultimately to excuse it, when evil is utterly inexcusable. Instead, he says, “I have overcome it.” He takes it on himself, paying the price for all of it and thus taking away the claim of evil on our lives; and then, when evil has done its worst, he undoes all of it, exposing its ultimate futility by rising again from the dead, unbeaten, unbroken, uncorrupted, undiminished. Evil takes its best shot, it does the most and the worst it can possibly do, and accomplishes . . . nothing. Indeed, it accomplishes worse than nothing, because it undoes itself; as John Piper put it, “God did not just overcome evil at the cross. He made evil serve the overcoming of evil. He made evil commit suicide.”

In the resurrection of Jesus, life has defeated death, and love has broken the power of sin, once and for all. Yes, there are still times when the pain of this world drives us to cry out with the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord?”; at times we wonder why God is waiting so long to raise the curtain. But we know that at the cross, he turned evil against itself, and on that first Easter, he broke it; and when the time is right, he will complete the victory he won that day. Evil will be banished, and all things will be made new; God will live among us, and he will wipe away every tear from our eyes, for death itself shall die, and grief and sorrow and pain will be no more. This is the promise, and the one who makes it is the beginning and the end, and all that he says is trustworthy and true. This is the meaning of Easter; this is why we celebrate this day; for the day of resurrection is the victory that has secured the promise.


Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, woodblock print, 1830-33.

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