My Jeremiah post on evil a week ago today generated a number of fruitful responses to the conundrum of a God who “shapes evil” against people.

Two esteemed scholarly IASP commentators picked up the challenge and offered important and helpful insights.

Bob MacDonald points the way out of the morass of the apparently intractable conflict between good and evil when he comments:

Because of humanity’s love of binaries and being on the ‘right’ side of them, we fortify ourselves against uncertainty. Our problem is incurable. I don’t want to appeal to simple reasoning about a complex Hebrew word, because all our words are complex – in this way we are made in the image of the One who speaks to us. And we are quite capable of doing both harm and good.

We are so accustomed to navigating life by opposites and contrasts that it is difficult to let go of that determination to see life in terms of light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong, desirable and detestable, and the list goes on and on. But, as Bruce Bryant-Scott points out, the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures did not suffer from this dualistic view of the world.

Following the lead of an article on evil in the The Oxford Companion to the Bible (1993)  by Samuel A. Meier. Bruce writes:

The key thing to keep in mind is that in pre-exilic Israelite religion, before the binary of good and evil was personified in the opposition of Elohim/YHWH and Satan, God was preeminently the Creator who was in charge of everything, the “undisputed master of creation”.

“Both good and evil were in God’s control, and he actively employed both to accomplish his ends . . . Philosophical dualism finds no place in biblical literature.” Meier goes on: “Evil as a philosophical problem is never really addressed in biblical literature. Attempts in Judaism and Christianity to resolve the logical problem of the existence of evil in the world created by a compassionate, just, omnipotent, and omniscient God belongs to postbiblical reflections on the text.”

So “rah” is that which is “unpleasant, repulsive, or distorted” and there’s no real way to rehabilitate it as such by depending on the biblical texts. “Rah” is awful, and you really don’t want it.

In the passage from Jeremiah the evil which God is bringing upon the Judeans does have a rationale – it is the consequence of the leaders and peoples departing from God’s ways, and it is the means by which God will reshape the nation. The conquest by Babylon of Judea and Jerusalem was indeed terrible, but the result was a transformed people and faith.

Bruce then goes on to offer an important caution.

That said, the project of redeeming suffering is fraught. Since the Holocaust some Jewish thinkers have said that it is not possible to explain or justify evil; just as Adorno said “No poetry after Auschwitz” so Levinas said the Holocaust was “the end of theodicy”.

Christians have a Christological need to make sense of suffering, one which Judaism does not always share. This makes for important differences in understanding the trauma of history. So, yes, you should have been unsettled and unsatisfied with your preaching, because there is no good rational way to deal with evil. However, as Christians we do have the cross and resurrection, and an understanding that Jesus died and rose for us. Not all suffering is useless or unredeemable, but we should be careful about presuming that all suffering is redeemable, or that all suffering is meaningful.

The beauty of both Bob’s and Bruce’s arguments is that they liberate us from the need to make sense of evil. The willingness to let go of any rational explanation for evil makes it possible to arrive at the place which is appropriately indicated by the non-scholar Middle Man  who says,

Suffering, while neither useless or necessarily meaningful, seems inevitable and extremely important to face.

Suffering is real; it is often terrible and almost never understandable. But the worst response to suffering is denial or, as Middle Man calls it “by-passing”. Suffering can only do its refining work in our lives when we let go of our determination to resist pain and embrace the realities of our lives as they unfold.