The challenge to faith from acts of gratuitous evil

Stomach in knots all day over the children killed in Syrian gas attack. Honestly, it’s the sort of thing that challenges my faith in God — Rachel Held Evans

I understand where Rachel Held Evans is coming from here and, unless you have a solution to the problem of evil and suffering, gratuitous acts of evil will rightly challenge your faith in God. This is why many would rather settle for trite answers: from the repugnant Calvinistic/Augustinian “God planned it for a secret reason”, to the powerless “humanity didn’t pray enough, or have enough faith for God to intervene”, or the cold, deistic “God is at a distance and will meet us on judgement day - we’re on our own until then”. There’s no simple answer which is why people who don’t accept trite answers often appear to look like they’re struggling with faith, but the opposite of faith is not doubt: the opposite of faith is certainty. If faith is a gift from God then trusting God in the midst of doubts, questions and contrary evidence puts a person squarely where they should be in their journey with God.

Chemical warfare against children is a challenge in my faith to the way of a non-violent messiah - Christ’s example of a human life lived without violence, demonstrated principally on the cross where Jesus forgave rather than harm his murderers. Practically speaking, how can nations bring about peace here without violence?

Acts of gratuitous evil provoke greater challenges in other ways too, particularly in that it should present a challenge to those who believe that Satan is an individual living being rather than, say, the personification of the evil actions of humanity. Humanity doesn’t need Satan - dropping chemical weapons on children demonstrates that we’re capable of the worst and most gratuitous acts of evil all on our own - we don’t need any help. Without championing the cause of demythologising scripture - a temptation for all modern thinkers, the point is this: we should remain aware how convenient a scapegoat the concept of Satan is for our own evil actions: “the Devil made me do it!”; “Satan tempted me!”, the implication being that the wrong I’ve done is really not my fault. We must remain vigilant against any view that reduces our own responsibility for evil and places it upon someone else.

The battle-front between good and evil is not found in-between innocent humanity on one side and evil Satan & his demons on the other, rather the line between good and evil runs through every single human heart.

If Satan did not exist would humanity invent him anyway? Inventing a devil external to ourselves that we can blame for the evil we commit would be yet another example of humanity creating yet another scapegoat in humanity’s flock of scapegoats.

The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. — Genesis 6:6 (NIV)

But the biggest challenge that chemical warfare against children presents is not a challenge to our faith in God, but a challenge to God’s faith in humanity. We’ve known of chemical warfare in Syria for a long time and done very little about it (and to be clear, I’m not suggesting military intervention). But further than that, as the writers & compositors of Genesis suggest, given the sheer level of evil that humanity commits, it’s a challenge to God’s creation of humanity in a place that is in some way separate from Himself (“on the earth”) - that our actions within this universe calls into question the primary purpose of the creation project itself: the fashioning of beings that are ’other’ from Himself, that are free and so able to love God and one another, and journey into union with God and each other. Is this journey that takes each human through experiencing selfishness & evil, both as victims and perpetrators, worth it in order to output unique beings that are genuinely capable of love, choosing right over evil, free beings that choose to love, becoming ‘other’ individuals and all the other positive things that come with all we experience through life here in creation? Acts of evil and suffering on the scale that we’ve seen in the past few days are a challenge to the creation project itself.

“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” — Matthew 2:18 (NIV)

While ultimately the answer is “yes”, God grieves for the children of Syria who suffer at the hands of wholly human action and inaction.