THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
"Outrage and violence, that is all I see,
All is contention, and discord flourishes."
No, this was not written by someone who had just read the morning paper or watched the news on TV. It is from the prophet Habakkuk, who lived many centuries before Christ. Despite all the change we see around us some things don’t change.
Meanwhile where is God? There are many whose belief in God falls at this hurdle, the problem of evil. It has been the agonising cry of all the ages before us, even in the Scriptures. "How long shall the wicked triumph? They bluster with arrogant speech; the evil-doers boast to each other" (Psalm 93). The writer of that Psalm did not stop believing in God, but he solved the problem of evil to his own satisfaction. However, he did it in a way that says nothing to a Christian. "[God] will repay them for their wickedness," he said, "destroy them for their evil deeds. The Lord, our God, will destroy them."
Vengeance on the enemy is a regular theme in the Old Testament, disconcerting when it turns up in the Daily Office of the Church. On Sunday mornings we read the lines, "Let the faithful rejoice… Let the praise of God be on their lips and a two-edged sword in their hand" (Psalm 149). That is a headline for religious terrorists rather than for disciples of Jesus. It is there in the Psalms, but every Sunday morning I wonder why we have to use it.
There is a lust for vengeance in Habakkuk too; it was the only recourse that people of his time had, since they didn’t believe in a next life - and they had not heard the Good News, the Gospel. Yet, in Habakkuk there are some redeeming sentiments. He was more willing than others to stay with the question: "Why do you [God] look on the treacherous, and are silent?" (1:13). He was also aware that the problem of evil was a profound mystery, and not just a matter of settling a score: "The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!" (2:20). And he was able to hope for something other than the destruction of his enemies: "The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (2:12,14). Finally, he almost anticipates the New Testament when he says how we are to live our lives in the teeth of evil: "The upright will live by their faithfulness" (3:4). That phrase became a keystone in St. Paul's teaching on justification by faith. (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:12).
"The apostles said to the Lord, 'Increase our faith!'" It is only by faith in God that we can endure the evil of the world without becoming twisted and vengeful. We are not too big to learn something from children; they can survive terrible situations when their father or mother is with them.
The Old Testament blossomed in Jesus, and Paul and in all the other great figures of the Christian faith. They are the blossom and fruit of that tree. We should not be too shocked when we see dead leaves on it too, and twisted roots. But we are to hold fast to the Good News. For us, the problem of evil is seen in a new light. We see the death of Jesus and we don’t call for vengeance but we strive to understand the inscrutable ways of God, "the mystery hidden for ages in God" (Ephesians 3:9). That is what shapes our attitude to all evil, whether man-made or natural.
One of the peaks of Christ's teaching is "Love your enemies" (Matthew 5:43). We are used to hearing it now, but it was a strange thing for a religious leader to say. More typically they tell people to hate their enemies, not just with an ordinary hatred but with a religious (= infinite) hatred; demonise them; say they are enemies of God (= there is nothing to be said for them). But he said, "Love your enemies." In his time it must have seemed like saying black is white, or evil is good.