Saturday, August 05, 2017

Looking back on evil

John Feinberg is a Christian philosopher and theologian with more firsthand experience of suffering than most Christian academics. I'm going to quote some of his material. I will rearrange the material. First section will present his outlook before adversity began to pile on. Second section will describe the adversities. Third section will describe his initial reaction. Fourth section will describe his adjusted outlook. The final section will be a quote from Robert Adams.


I had always viewed the problem of evil as a major hindrance that keeps unbelievers from turning to Christ and sometimes causes believers to turn away. I thought that as long as one had intellectual answers that explained why God allowed evil in the world and as long as one could point to specific benefits that might accrue in the life of the sufferer, the sufferer would be satisfied. When I saw others struggle over their relationship with God because of some tragedy, I naively thought that if I could just offer them some answers, that would resolve everything. I was somewhat impatient with those who seemed unable to move past their struggles. In principle, I agreed that the sufferers need pastoral care, but I thought that a lot of that care involved explaining intellectually God's purpose in allowing evil…After all, I reasoned, once one goes a certain distance with Christ and reaches a certain level of spiritual maturity, even really big problems aren't likely to derail spiritual growth. there might be temporary disruption in one's relation to the Lord, but that would soon be put to rest. John Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil (Zondervan, 2nd ed., 1994), chap. 13.


In the midst of dealing with these events, we [John and Paul Feinberg] were overwhelmed by another set of events. In late spring of 1988, our mother suffered a stroke as a result of complications from diabetes. By the end of that year she had suffered another stroke and had to be moved to a nursing home. As a result of the stroke, she was unable to feed herself, so a feeding tube was inserted into her stomach. Though she was not continually comatose, she fundamentally did not interact with the external world. At the same time, the aging process in our father was having a rather dramatic impact. By early 1990 it became clear that he no longer could care for himself…Dad is still in a nursing home, but his condition continues to deteriorate as the aging process takes its toll. John & Paul Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Crossway, 2nd ed., 2010), Preface to First Edition (October 1992), 17. 

In August of 1995, our father, Charles Lee Feinberg, went to be with the Lord after many years of declining health. Second, Paul had diabetes, and over the ensuing years the disease began to take its toll. The first major complication was heart problems, and that was followed some years later with kidney problems…Very sadly and unexpectedly, in February 2004, after Paul had hip surgery, his heart and kidneys gave out and he entered into the presence of our Lord.

Third, my wife Pat's Huntington's disease has continued to develop over the years since we first wrote this book. In the last eight to ten years there have been major complications in her condition as the disease takes its toll. After many years of caring for her needs, it became increasingly clear that I no longer had the physical strength to do everything she needs. With great reluctance, in November 2007 we moved Pat into a skilled nursing home where she is now. Her condition continues to deteriorate. Ibid., Preface to Second Edition (January 2010), 11.

My wife eventually wound up at a neurologist who made the diagnosis–Huntington's chorea….On the physical side, it involves the gradual loss of control of all voluntary bodily movement. Psychologically, it involves memory loss and depression, and as the disease progresses, it can lead to hallucinations and paranoid schizophrenia.  

As bad as that news was, the story gets even worse. Huntington's disease is controlled by a dominant gene. This means that only one parent needs to have it in order to transfer it to their children. Each child has a fifty-fifty chance of getting it, but as mentioned, symptoms don't' show up until about thirty at the earliest. We have three children, all born prior to Pat's diagnosis. The Many Faces of Evil, chap. 13.


After this news came, my immediate response was shock and confusion. How could this be happening? Before we were married, we knew that my wife's mother had mental problems. At the time of our wedding, she had been in a mental institution for five years. We asked several people, including doctors, how likely it was that this might happen to my wife, believing all along that it was a purely psychological problem. Psychologists assured us that if my wife were to have such problems, they would have already surfaced. Since she was in her twenties and nothing had happened, there was no need to worry. 

Along with those feelings [of hopelessness] came a sense of abandonment. There seemed to be no answer and no one to help. Yes, there were friends and family, but what could they do? 

Given that mindset, had I known the truth about my wife's family medical history, I wouldn't have married her. Pat has said that had she known, she probably wouldn't have married at all. If we had known, we wouldn't have had children. Nobody wants to put people they most love in this kind of jeopardy! I was angry at family members who knew and didn't tell us, at the doctors who knew and never explained it to the family…If anyone had give us the information before we married, I could have avoided this situation.

Though I didn't want to admit it, I was also angry at God…I felt that God had somehow misled me, even tricked me. 

I was also confused for another reason. I was raised around people who suffered greatly; my mother had one physical problem after another and this in part sparked my interest at an early age in the problem of pain and suffering. In seminary, I wrote my master of divinity thesis on Job. Later, my master of theology thesis was on God's sovereign control  of all things and how that relates to human freedom. My doctoral dissertation even focused on the problems of evil and led to my book The Many  Faces of Evil. If anyone had thought about this and was prepared to face affliction, surely it was I. And yet when the events I have recounted happened, I found little comfort in any of it. I had all these intellectual answers, but none of them made any difference in how I felt. The emotional and psychological pain was unrelenting, and the physical results from the stress and mental pain were devastating. Ibid., chap. 13. 


After my wife was first diagnosed, and before we went for a second opinion, we requested a copy of my mother-in-law's chart from the hospital in New York…As I read the chart, I didn't understand much of it, but one thing I saw horrified me: the family medical history and the diagnosis of Huntington's disease were recorded in her chart. The information that could have saved me from this situation was there for five years before I even met my wife. The information could have kept us from having children and saddling them with this burden was right there from 1967 onward. It had been there for twenty years, and no one had told us about it. I was furious. 

But in the months and years that have passed, I have come to see this in a different way. For twenty years that information had been there, and at any time we could have found out. Why, then, did God not give it to us until 1987? 

As I wrestled with that question, I began to see his love and concern for us. God kept it hidden because he wanted me to marry Pat, who is a great woman and a wonderful wife. My life would be impoverished without her, and I would have missed the blessing of being married to her had I known earlier. God wanted our three sons to be born. Each is a blessing and a treasure, but we would have missed that had we known earlier…There is never a good time to receive such news, but God knew that this was exactly the right time. 

At various points along the way when we are ready to hear it, God adds a further word. One of those words of help comes from Ecclesiastes 7:13-14; the thrust of the passage is that God hides the future from us so that we will trust him. 

Why does God give this alternation of good and bad? Why doesn't he always reveal how things will turn out? The writer says God does this to conceal the future. But why would God do that?…If we don't know what to expect, we must just simply wait on the Lord for what will come next and entrust it all to him. 

If we knew how or when life would end or even what evils would befall us along the way, we mighty be totally horrified and unable to act as fear paralyzed us. Hiding the future is compassionate because knowing it could easily harm us. 

Hiding the future is also compassionate because we must not ignore the present. One of the things that our experiences have done for me is to focus my attention on the present. I have always been a goal-oriented person with a focus on the future. I still plan for the future but now for the near future, not the distant future. I don't want to know any more about the distant future than I already do. I find myself focussing more on the present and enjoying it more. In fact, I am better able to cope when I focus on where my wife is today, rather than on where she may be in her condition somewhere down the road. 

At that point Dad said, "John, God never promised to give you tomorrow's grace for today. He only promised today's grace for today, and that's all you need!" Ibid, chap. 13. 

My wife still needed a husband, my children a father, and my students a teacher. Falling apart wouldn't help any of them…I realized that I couldn't wait until all those answers arrived to continue with life. Too many people needed me, and I needed to be there for them. 

There is a sense in which one never completely recovers from tragedy and always needs the love and concern of others. Ibid, chap. 13.

Counting one's blessings may seem trite, but it does in fact give a different perspective on what is happening to you. Ibid., chap. 13.

I had seen too many evidences of God's work in my life to decide there was no God. Ibid. chap. 13.


You may still think, for example, that the life you had planned or hoped for before an evil befell you ten years ago would have been better than your actual life. Yet you may be so attached to actual projects, friendships, and experience that would not have been part of that other life that you would not now wish to have had it instead of your actual life. R. Adams, The Virtue of Faith (Oxford, 1987), 74.


  1. "Though I didn't want to admit it, I was also angry at God... I felt that God had somehow misled me, even tricked me."

    In the last few years, I've come to think that this is where we so often go so wrong. The Bible explains in many, various and repeated ways that this world is fallen, and that our expectations of earthly things, to be realistic, should be set very, very low (relative to the expectations we're born with, that the world has, that we'd have from an unfallen creation, etc.). The fall was a devastating event. It affected everything, everywhere, radically. When tragedies come, they simply confirm that we really do live in that kind of world - and that unless our hopes are fixed ultimately upon the re-appearing of Christ, then there is no other possibility but deep, bitter disappointment. This is not to deny that there are many great joys and blessings to be tasted in this life. But they need to be understood from the point of view of Ecclesiastes: in a fallen world, they are not given to us as things that we can hold on to, guarantee, or count on being there forever. They are genuine gifts to enjoy whilst we have them to enjoy, understanding the limitations of life 'under the sun'.