What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith

What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith

by Thomas G. Long


View All Available Formats & Editions
Eligible for FREE SHIPPING
  • Want it by Thursday, October 25?   Order by 12:00 PM Eastern and choose Expedited Shipping at checkout.


What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith by Thomas G. Long

Tsunamis, earthquakes, famines, diseases, wars &mdash these and other devastating forces lead Christians to ask painful questions. Is God all-powerful? Is God good? How can God allow so much innocent human suffering?

These questions, taken together, have been called the "theodicy problem," and in this book Thomas Long explores what preachers can and should say in response. Long reviews the origins and history of the theodicy problem and engages the work of major thinkers who have posed solutions to it. Cautioning pastors not to ignore urgent theodicy-related questions arising from their parishioners, he offers biblically based approaches to preaching on theodicy, guided by Jesus' parable of the wheat and the tares and the "greatest theodicy text in Scripture" — the book of Job.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802871398
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 03/11/2014
Pages: 158
Sales rank: 1,226,846
Product dimensions: 8.80(w) x 5.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Thomas G. Long is Bandy Professor of Preaching and coordinator of the Initiative in Religious Practices and Practical Theology at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. His other books include The Witness of Preaching and Accompany Them with Singing — The Christian Funeral.

Read an Excerpt

What Shall We Say?

Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith
By Thomas G. Long

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Thomas G. Long
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6514-4

Chapter One

The Shaking of the Foundations

"If God exists, who needs enemies? ... I'll take Aphrodite, or Lady Luck." Letter to the editor, New York Times

Here is an ordinary diary with a startling entry:

There never was a finermorning seen than the 1st of November; the sun shone out in its full luster; the whole face of the sky was perfectly serene and clear; and not the least signal of warning of that approaching event, which has made this once flourishing, opulent, and populous city, a scene of the utmost horror and desolation....

What city and what "utmost horror" are being described here? If the diary had referred to August 6, we might have guessed Hiroshima. If it had read "September 11," we would have named New York. "January 12," and it would have been Port-au-Prince. But the day was November 1, and this is the account of a local merchant who had the misfortune to be in Lisbon, Portugal, on that dreadful day in 1755, when at 9:40 in the morning all hell broke loose and the world seemed to have come to an apocalyptic end.

November 1 is All Saints' Day. It was a holy day in Lisbon, and most of the population was in church that morning. In the mid-eighteenth century, Lisbon was one of Europe's most religious and pious cities, a center of archly conservative Roman Catholicism. Of its 250,000 residents, fully 25,000 of them, one out of every ten citizens, were priests or monks or nuns. Historian Charles Boxer says that Portugal in that time, Lisbon included, had more priests per capita than any other nation on earth, with the possible exception of Tibet.

But Lisbon's religion was, in many ways, a leftover medieval piety. Woven into the fabric of the devotion was a dark dread of the Day of Wrath, a sense of personal and social sinfulness and the always impending judgment of God. For two hundred years, Lisbon had served as the headquarters of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, the foreboding and stern face of the church, devoted to rooting out and punishing heresy. Thousands had been burned at the stake, imprisoned, banished, or sentenced to galley slavery. It was not uncommon to see marching through the streets of Lisbon bands of penitents hoping to show for all to see their devotion, flailing themselves with whips and chains, beating their breasts in remorse for their sins, and crying out, "Penitence! Penitence!" Lisbon desired not only to be devout, but also to be pure.

But it was never enough. Lisbon's God was a jealous God, and the prophecy of doom was ever in the air. As Nicholas Shrady has observed,

For as long as anyone could remember, soothsayers and diviners, pamphleteers and prognosticators, clerics and ascetics had been preaching unequivocal doom for the Portuguese capital. The signs and portents, they insisted, were varied, if unmistakable — a rash of stillborn infants, a comet streaking the heavens, the feverish dreams of a cloistered nun, a vision of avenging angels hovering over the city — and they all pointed to Lisbon's destruction at the hands of a wrathful God.

What the prophets of doomcould not agree on was just how this destruction of Lisbon would take place. Some said by earthquake, others said by wind, some warned of fire, and still others presaged flood. As it turns out, they were much too modest. Lisbon's day of hell included the catastrophic forces of all four.

At about 9:30 that morning, a massive earthquake convulsed the ocean floor some sixty miles out in the North Atlantic, and the tremors rippled with fearsome force toward the city. The churches of the city were packed, especially the church of the city's patron saint, the Basilica of Saint Vincent, where the crowds filled every available space, spilling down the front steps and into the square. Just as the priests intoned "Gaudeamus omnes in Domino, diem festum" ("Let us all rejoice in the Lord on this festival day!"), the walls of St. Vincent's began to shake violently. The bell towers swayed like reeds in a wind, their bells clanging wildly. Candle stands fell to the floor; shards of stained glass exploded onto the terrified worshipers; panicked priests fled from the altar. Some worshipers stayed in place, praying for mercy, while others fled into the streets, to be met by the crowds streaming in terror from other churches and buildings. They got there just in time for the second, and stronger, shock wave (about a 7.0 on the Richter scale, scientists today estimate), which toppled buildings and demolished the city. Churches, homes, and government buildings collapsed on the crowds in the streets, killing thousands of people instantly, leaving others bleeding and wounded. The dust stirred up turned the sky black, and all across the city could be heard the sounds of weeping and cries of "Mercy, dear God, mercy!"

But there was no mercy. Fires, many of them started by fallen candles in the churches, were being fanned by strange and howling winds that whipped brutally through the city, and, as if that were not enough, minutes later a third shock wave passed through the city. By now, there was hardly anything left standing to destroy. With the city ablaze and the land now littered with rubble and corpses, dazed survivors instinctively made their way toward the River Tagus, toward the water, toward what seemed to be the only safe place left, the harbor. But like the "beast rising out of the sea" in the book of Revelation, this evil thing was not done with the people of Lisbon, and it seemed to pursue them with a malevolent intelligence. As thousands stood on the wharf, hoping to board ships and flee the devastation of the burning city, according to some accounts, the water was suddenly and mysteriously sucked out of the harbor, dragging ships out to sea and revealing old shipwrecks and refuse on the now-waterless harbor floor. As the people stood dumbstruck by this latest omen, they looked up and discovered where the harbor water had gone: a mountain of ocean water, a tsunami, summoned to massive height by the concussion of the earthquake, was heading toward them. Almost before they could register their alarm, the huge wall of water obliterated them, and thousands more were drowned in the sudden surge.

No one knows for certain how many people died in Lisbon on that All Saints' Day. Some say 15,000; others say as many as 50,000 or 60,000. What is known is that the bodies of the victims floated in the harbor for weeks.

The Aftershocks

The seismic shock waves that destroyed Lisbon were soon followed by moral and theological shock waves that shook the intellectual, philosophical, and religious foundations of Europe and the West, and continue to shake them to this day. Historian Thomas D. Kendrick called the Lisbon earthquake "a disaster that had shocked Western civilization more than any other event since the fall of Rome in the fifth century," and philosopher Susan Neiman said, "The eighteenth century used the word Lisbon much as we use the word Auschwitz today.... It takes no more than the name of a place to mean: the collapse of the most basic trust in the world...."

It is clear why the Lisbon earthquake turned the city to rubble, but why is this one calamity of such magnitude in the cultural and intellectual history of the West? It was not as if the world had never before experienced a natural disaster. Cataclysms and catastrophes have always been a part of human experience. Devastating earthquakes had happened before, and Lisbon, in fact, was no stranger to them. Nor was it a matter of scale. In terms of the magnitude of terror and the sheer loss of life, the Black Plague was far more calamitous than any earthquake, including Lisbon's. Recurring in waves over two centuries, the Black Plague was "one of the greatest biomedical catastrophes in human history," a vicious epidemic that wiped out a third of the population of Europe. The Black Death struck with fearful swiftness, taking people from health to the grave in a matter of hours. The Italian writer Boccaccio said that the victims of the Black Death "having breakfasted in the morning with their kinsfolk, acquaintances, and friends, supped that same evening with their ancestors in the next world!"

But the All Saints' Day earthquake in Lisbonwas different. It was a catastrophe that not only destroyed a city but also symbolized the destruction of a worldview. "At one particular moment in Europe ...," wrote Susan Neiman, "an earthquake could shake the foundations of faith and call the goodness of Creation into question." The reason for this was a matter of timing. The Lisbon tragedy happened in the midst of a major turning point in human understanding, right in the middle of the breakup of the way that medieval society viewed the world and the emergence of a new set of assumptions about knowledge, reason, and nature—atimewe have come to call the Enlightenment. The Lisbon earthquake, then, not only toppled churches, shops, and homes; it also symbolized the toppling of an old world and the way that world grasped faith and held on to hope.

Prior to the Enlightenment, natural disasters such as earthquakes, famines, floods, and epidemics were viewed as coming directly from the hand of God. Fourteenth-century physicians who labored to stem the spread of the Black Death may have differed on the best practical treatments to employ on the victims—leeches? garlic necklaces?—but they agreed that God was the cause of all of the distress. They could debate what to do, but the issue of who made this epidemic happen was never in doubt.

Ever since Aristotle, people had assumed that, for something to exist, whether that something be a table, a person, or a plague, four ingredients — four "causes" — must be present: (1) the maker, (2) the form, (3) the material, and (4) the reason. A table, for example, doesn't just happen. Someone has to make it, according to some form or design, out of some material, and for some purpose. By the same logic, medieval society knew that the Black Death had a maker, a form, constituent material, and a reason for being made. As for the form of the disease and the material from which it was made, those were physical matters, questions of "nature," and therefore the physicians could debate them and experiment with various treatments. But when it came to the questions of who made this disease and for what reason, these were metaphysical questions, and the physicians, like virtually everyone else, nodded in assent to the answers of the theologians: God (or, for some, Satan) was the maker and the reason was punishment for sin.

Magnus II, a king of Sweden who reigned in the fourteenth century at the height of the plague, spoke not only for himself but for the whole medieval culture: "God for the sins of men has struck this great punishment of sudden death. By it, most of our countrymen are dead." Even two centuries later, the French royal surgeon and medical writer Ambroise Paré could still agree: "The plague is a malady come from God: furious, tempestuous, swift, monstrous, and frightful, contagious, terrible, fierce, treacherous, deceptive, mortal enemy of human life and that of many animals and plants."

If God had caused the Black Death, then only God could stop it, and medical treatment for the plague was a strange combination of therapy and theology, a blend of practical, trial-and-error remedies (leeches, bloodletting, herbal poultices, isolation of the afflicted in "pesthouses") and prescribed acts of religious penitence. "The medieval world," notes historian Mark Harrison,

... was very different from our own, and the coming of the plague was interpreted very largely in the light of Catholic theology. As far as the Church was concerned, there was one obvious conclusion to be drawn from the plague: that God was punishing humanity for some form of wickedness. That wickedness and those responsible for it had to be identified and rooted out.... People were exhorted to acts of penance, pilgrimage, and propitiation, which included processions of flagellants which moved from town to town scourging their flesh with whips to remove the sins of humanity.

Today, someone with a bad case of the flu would be shocked and probably offended if a physician were to say, "Take Tylenol every four hours, drink plenty of fluids, and say your prayers of confession, since God has caused this as a punishment for sin," but for medieval physicians, divine causality of disease was the water in which they swam. As Joseph Byrne observes, "Acceptance of metaphysical causes in addition to natural causes [ for the plague] was not merely a matter of religious belief or adherence; it was a matter of accepting the philosophical framework that united the entire Western intellectual enterprise."

By 1755, however, that philosophical framework was undergoing dramatic renovation. Symbolically, the Lisbon earthquake would be the first disaster of worldwide proportion that could not be neatly fit into the accepted idea of divine causality. The medieval intellectual synthesis, and along with it the accepted theology of the time, was colliding with new ways of thinking as violently as the undersea tectonic plates that precipitated the Lisbon disaster, and what was inexorably beginning to take shape, in Europe and elsewhere, was what we today call the "modern scientific worldview."

The deeper transformation of intellectual life may have come slowly and have been hidden from view, but on the surface the cultural changes were rapid and palpable, especially in natural science. In the hundred years prior to the Lisbon earthquake, telescopes and microscopes with complex systems of optics were developed, and human beings began to explore the vast reaches of the universe and the secret recesses of nature close at hand. The new breed of explorers called themselves "natural philosophers" (we would call them "scientists," but that term would not appear until early in the nineteenth century), and they employed the logic gained from philosophy to reason about what they were observing in nature. Their discoveries were staggering. For the first time, human blood cells were visible under the power of the microscope; the refracting telescope disclosed that Saturn had rings and a large moon; the principles of calculus were articulated; the rotational periods of Jupiter, Mars, and Venus were calculated; the mercury thermometer and the navigational sextant were invented; and Benjamin Franklin in America conducted his experiments with the mysterious force called "electricity."

What these natural philosophers were finding was not simply a collection of cells, planets, orbits, and lightning bolts, but much more: a world that seemed to operate on its own steam. Far from waiting on God to raise the sun each day, the world, from the smallest cell to the sweeping orbits of the planets, seemed to be self-regulating and appeared to work according to predictable principles and definable natural laws. In 1716,when perhaps the greatest of these natural philosophers, Isaac Newton, published the second edition of his groundbreaking Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, he could define time and space in these words: "Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external, and by another name is called duration.... Absolute space, in its own nature, without regard to anything external, remains always familiar and unmovable."

Notice that for Newton both time and space have their "own nature" and can be defined without relation or regard "to anything external." This claim has staggering implications for theology, of course. If time, space, and presumably everything that moves within them can be defined without recourse to anything outside of them, then what is the role of God — or even the need for God? Newton was a religious man — a tad eccentric, perhaps, but religious nonetheless — and he was careful to say that the very design of the universe pointed to a creator. "We see the effects of a Deity in the creation," he wrote. The job of the natural philosopher is to observe the natural world and to consider it to be the visible effects of certain underlying causes. These causes are, in turn, the results of deeper causes, and the task is to keep unwinding the strands of cause and effect until they lead inevitably to God. "'Tis the business of this Philosophy to argue from the effects to their causes till we come at the first cause."


Excerpted from What Shall We Say? by Thomas G. Long Copyright © 2011 by Thomas G. Long. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. The Shaking of the Foundations....................1
2. The Impossible Chess Match....................19
3. Road Hazards....................41
4. Fellow Pilgrims....................57
Interlude — Howl: Job and the Whirlwind....................93
5. Walking through the Valley of the Shadow....................113
Coda: Pilgrim's Progress....................152

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews