I rarely frequent the app formerly known as Twitter for long enough to be angered by anything, but I was last week.
A friend of mine posted a prayer request for her son, hospitalized for schizophrenia, with which he’s been grappling a long time. Most of the responses were what one would expect—expressions of love and concern.
One, though, was from a Christian man telling my friend that she could solve this problem quite easily: by taking away “secular” TV and music and video games. That response would be repulsive enough, but then I went and looked at some of this person’s other posts.
One of them, from sometime past, warned people about thinking about matters such as the Holocaust. He cited a famous Christian musician who went to Auschwitz and lost his faith in Christ. It’s better to think instead, this man recommended, about things that are lovely and pure.
Even Job’s friends had better counsel. Yes, many people have lost their faith—or never come to it—because they could not reconcile a good God with the atrocities and suffering they see in the world. Think of Dostoevsky’s chilling arguments from the mouth of Ivan Karamazov, for instance. The sort of willed ignorance to grave evil is hardly, though, a Christian response to such questions.
If this posture were just the ramblings of some random person online, I wouldn’t have given it much thought. But the sentiment expressed on that account—albeit crudely and rudely expressed—is one that many people unwittingly take: If I just remain very still and don’t think about what’s lurking out there, it will go away.
A few weeks ago, some friends and I were discussing the Book of Job, having read together Robert Alter’s translation. I mentioned to them something I noted in one of the very first issues of my newsletter: how the Book of Job fired the imagination of a young Stephen King.
King—perhaps the most famous American writer of horror fiction since Lovecraft—said in a 2020 National Public Radio interview with Terri Gross that, growing up in a Methodist church, he was fascinated by how much of what happens in Job takes place “off-stage.” You and I as readers can see the conversation between God and the Adversary about Job’s life, but he cannot.
That reading prompted King to ask whether there is, in fact, an evil outside of us or beyond what we create for ourselves. “The Bible tries to have it both ways,” he said.
As a Christian, I would argue that the Bible tries to have it both ways because it is both ways. There is an evil outside of us—and sometimes we see the repugnant enormity of that evil. We intuitively seem to know this, which is why every culture tells horror stories and attempts to come up with ways to distract us from seeing that horror. We also know there is evil within us—which is why every culture has categories of guilt or shame or injustice or atonement.
But it’s more than just this. The Bible has it both ways in that it speaks in seemingly contradictory ways about the cosmos around us. “God saw everything that he had made, and it was very good,” Genesis tells us (1:31). The apostle John, on the other hand, writes that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).
Don’t all of us—even those who reject the idea of supernatural revelation—intuitively seem to know that both of these realities are true, and that if we deny either one of them, we are lying to ourselves?
Some Christians dismiss the problem of evil by so emphasizing the decrees of God that they, as I heard one Calvinist pastor put it over 25 years ago, “end up pushing evil all the way back into the heart of God,” directly contradicting that the God we know is revealed in Jesus Christ, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Others—wishing to protect God from charges of injustice—attempt to explain away evil in ways awfully reminiscent of the counselors of Job, the very people that God himself repudiated.
In our group’s discussion of Job, one of our number—a wise Jewish thinker—responded to the critiques of those who have written over the centuries that the book does not provide a satisfactory answer to the problem of evil. He noted that the Book of Job isn’t about the problem of evil; it’s about the limits of human wisdom. God does not respond to Job’s complaints with a syllogism, but with his presence.
Evil is real. Suffering is real. We cannot comprehend it, which is perhaps why it is called “the mystery of iniquity” (2 Thess. 2:7, KJV). The question, though, is whether evil is normal—or if our affections and imaginations are right to signal to us that this is not the way it’s supposed to be.
Novelist John Updike once wrote, “If God does not exist, the world is a horror show.” He admitted that there is ample evidence for the world being a horror show: “landslides and plagues and massacres and falling airplanes and incessant carnivorousness,” not to mention the universality of death.
In the end, Updike was convinced not just of the horrors of the world, however, but of the existence of God:
Yet this and all bad news merits reporting because our general expectation is for good; an instinctive vision of health and peace underlies our horror stories. Existence itself does not feel horrible; it feels like an ecstasy, rather, which we only have to be still to experience. Habit and accustomedness have painted over pure gold with a dull paint that can, however, be scratched away, to reveal the shining under-base. The world is good, our intuition is, confirming its Creator’s appraisal as reported in the first chapter of Genesis.
What Updike says is true. On the flip side, the ultimate goodness of the world and of God cannot mean we disregard the evil. The earth is not only the site of the bygone habitats of Eden and Bethlehem. It is also the site of Golgotha.
The apostle Paul did not tell us that life in Christ would involve tranquil ignorance of the cruelty and horror of the world. As a matter of fact, he told us that creation itself groans, and that, by the Spirit, we also “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23, ESV). Sometimes this is in groanings “too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). In fact, what the Spirit prompts is itself a scream—a scream of “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15).
Jesus does not deny that we walk through the “valley of the shadow of death,” nor does he give us a detailed roadmap and timetable for that journey. He merely tells us that he will be with us.
He does not tell us that there is nothing scary out there. Rather, he says that we will find, ultimately, what’s chasing behind us is goodness and mercy (Ps. 23).
We can’t usually see that, in a world that does indeed often look like a horror story. But, as Paul says, if part of what it means to be conformed to Christ is to hope, “who hopes for what he sees?” (Rom. 8:24).
We live in a world haunted by sin and death and suffering. We live in a world that is a signpost of a glory too great for us to imagine. Both are true. If we forget either, we’ve become a people of something other than the Cross, of someone other than the Christ.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.