Evolving in Monkey Town, Part 2: Reinventing the Problem of Evil

On my flight home to visit family in Tennessee two weeks ago I decided to finally read Rachel Held Evans’ first book Evolving in Monkey Town.  I have read Rachel’s blog pretty regularly for a while now and have frequently found it to be a refreshing perspective sympathetic to my own relationship to the evangelicalism I grew up with, so I was excited to finally read this book.

Rachel Held Evans
Rachel Held Evans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rachel grew up in both Birmingham, Alabama and Dayton, Tennessee, attended Bryan College (named for William Jennings Bryan, who was the prosecuting attorney and “defender of Christianity” at the famed Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton), and since graduating in 2003 has worked as a writer, speaker, and blogger based in Dayton. Evolving in Monkey Town is her first book and alternates between short vignettes from her experience growing up in evangelicalism and theological reflections on the challenges she sees to the evangelical tradition.


In a previous post I discussed a common aspect of Rachel’s journey and my own experiences in evangelicalism, namely an emphasis on apologetics, and how reading Rachel’s book has challenged me to think a bit more critically about the way that aspect of our experience connects to the history of evangelicalism and prompts serious questions about the very core of the conservative evangelical project.


Rachel’s own journey in many ways centered on wrestling with what is frequently labeled the problem of evil.  This is a point at which Rachel’s experience of evangelicalism and my own are slightly different– the problem of evil did not prompt the same questions for me as it did for her, but this may be because Rachel approaches the problem of evil from a different direction than I did and in doing so raises a major theological challenge for the neo-Reformed establishment in contemporary evangelicalism.

The Problem of Evil

In the apologetics courses that I took, the problem of evil was presented in two stages.  The first stage was the logical problem of evil.  The argument went something like this:

  1. If God exists, then God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent.
    1. An omniscient God knows how to stop evil.
    2. An omnipotent God is capable of stopping evil.
    3. An omnibenevolent God desires to stop evil.
  2. If evil exists, then either God:
    1. Does not know how to stop evil.
    2. Is not capable of stopping evil.
    3. Does not desire to stop evil.
  3. Evil does exist.
  4. Therefore, either God:
    1. Does not know how to stop evil.
    2. Is not capable of stopping evil.
    3. Does not desire to stop evil.
  5. Therefore, God is either not omniscient, not omnipotent, or not omnibenevolent.
  6. Therefore, God does not exist (via denying the consequence of premise A).

The counter to this argument, as I was taught it, was to challenge premise 2.  That is to say, there might be conditions which place limits on each of the three attributes of God in question and how they interact with God’s intervention in cases of evil.  For instance, some have used the idea of open theism (a theory about the openness of the future which entails that God does not know the future because it is open and therefore incapable of being known) to suggest that God may not always know how to stop evil.  Others have suggested that human free-will prevents God having the ability to intervene in evil (arguing that if God intervenes our freedom is lost).  Others have argued that God might not want to stop every evil because there may be some greater good at work which can only be brought about if certain evils are allowed to happen.

That last suggestion, that evil was permitted because it led to a greater good was the favorite of most of the Reformed evangelical thinkers I knew because it didn’t require humans to have free-will and because it allowed God receiving glory through the redemption brought about by Christ to be the greater good.

However, there was a second challenge specific to this greater good defense that had to be met.  That challenge was called the problem of gratuitous evil.  Gratuitous evil referred to evil that could not be linked to such a greater good, evil that seemed to serve no purpose.  The charge was that the existence of such evil negated the greater good solution and thereby re-instated original problem of evil.

Countering this second stage of the problem, I was taught, hinged on human finitude: we cannot know all of God’s purposes, the respondent would say, so we should not suppose that we will be able to find every greater good God might intend to come out of evil.  Our own inability to find such a greater good does not preclude one from existing, so the problem of gratuitous evil should not be taken as a real problem, just a symptom of our own limitations.

Rachel Held Evans and the Problem of Evil

I introduce both of these stages of the problem of evil because Evans interacts with both throughout her book, particularly as she recounts how others have responded to her own questions.  But what Evans really does in her book is introduce a new version of the problem, one that has very different ramifications.

Evans personal encounter with the problem of evil centers on the experience of watching a young girl in Afghanistan being executed by the Taliban shortly before the US invasion.  She writes:

CNN repeatedly aired the tape, perhaps to make us feel better about going to war against the Taliban.  But it wasn’t the Taliban I was angry with.  Each time I watched Zarmina’s execution, I got angrier and angrier with God.  God was the one who claimed to have formed Zarmina in her mother’s womb.  It was God who ordained that she be born in a third-world country under an oppressive regime.  God had all the power and resources at his disposal to stop this from happening, and yet he did nothing.  Worst of all, twenty years of Christian education assured me that because Zarmina was a Muslim, she would suffer unending torment in hell for the rest of eternity.  How the Taliban punished Zarmina in this life was nothing compared with how God would punish her in the next.

Suddenly abstract concepts about heaven and hell, election and free will, religious pluralism and exclusivism had a name: Zarmina.  I felt like I could come to terms with Zarmina’s suffering if it were restricted to this lifetime, if I knew that God would grant her some sort of justice after death.  But the idea that this woman passed from agony to agony, from torture to torture, from a lifetime of pain and sadness to an eternity of pain and sadness, all because she had less information about the gospel than I did, seemed cruel, even sadistic.  God knew long before Zarmina was born– before her first giggle, before her first steps, before her first words– that this was her fate.  He knew it from the beginning and yet created her anyway.  I wondered how many millions of people like Zarmina died every day in similar circumstances.  I thought about the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the gassing of Iraqi Kurds, and those terrible, haunting images of warehouses full of eyeglasses and shoes and prayer shawls left behind by victims of the Holocaust.  Was I supposed to believe that all of these people went to hell because they weren’t Christians? (90-91)

This personal encounter with evil then turns into a serious questioning of a major aspect of evangelical theology that puts a new perspective on the problem of evil.  Evans explains it this way:

In Sunday school, they always make hell out to be a place for people like Hitler, not a place for his victims.  But if my Sunday school teachers and college professors were right, then hell will be populated not only by people like Hitler and Stalin, Hussein and Milosevic but by the people that they persecuted.  If only born-again Christians go to heaven, then the piles of suitcases and bags of human hair displayed at the Holocaust Museum represent thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children suffering eternal agony at the hands of an angry God.  If Salvation is available only to Christians, then the gospel isn’t good news at all.  For most of the human race, it is terrible news. (92-93)

What Rachel has done here, I think, represents a re-invention of the problem of evil.  Her concern is not with suffering in this life but with eternal suffering.  Her question is not why evil exists in this world but whether or not divine judgment should be counted as evil.  Evans’ argument is that divine judgment, as it is presented by most evangelicals (especially those who call themselves Reformed) represents a kind of cosmic lottery.  Anthropological evidence tells us, she writes, that the most important factor in determining the nature of one’s existence, including one’s religion, is the place and time in which one is born, a factor completely out of one’s control (98).  While that factor might be out of our control, according to most traditional theologies it is entirely within God’s control.  So when Evans concludes that we don’t choose our worldviews; they are chosen for us (98) it is implied that the one doing the choosing is God.

What is remarkable about Evans reformulation of the problem of evil is that it is a problem that only exists for neo-Reformed evangelical theology.  Evans effectively calls the bluff of those neo-Reformed advocates who would argue that their theology does not entail double-predestination: if God determines every aspect of our existence, then God has chosen our worldview for us, Evans points out.  And if that worldview is what determines our eternal destiny, then God has determined that most of the human race is destined to an eternity of torment.  The seeming arbitrariness of this gospel leads Evans to ask if this kind of judgment does not actually make God evil.

Evans finds relief from this problem when she discovers that there is more to Christianity than the neo-Reformed tradition of contemporary evangelicalism.  Reading figures ranging from Origen of Alexandria in ancient times to to CS Lewis, Karl Barth, and Clark Pinnock in the 20th century, Evans discovers a world of Christian thought that does not see God as an arbitrary judge saving a few and damning the rest but as a loving advocate seeking salvation for all.  Finally, Evans finds that such a view of God is inherent to scripture itself.  For example, she reflects on Isaiah 55, writing:

Isaiah 55 provides an entirely different framework for thinking about God’s justice, because it suggests that we have it back-ward– the mystery lies not in God’s unfathomable wrath but in his unfathomable mercy.  God’s ways are higher than our ways because his capacity to love is infinitely greater than our own.  Despite all that we do to insult and disobey, God abundantly pardons again and again. (136)

The closest I have gotten in my own journey to the issues Rachel is raising is a brief aside in a paper about epistemology and free-will (which you can find on the Articles and Papers page) and some musings about Descartes’ evil genius.  For me, epistemic questions were more important to my journey and my understanding of human depravity relieved a great deal of the tension around the problem of evil as an ethical issue.  Even still, I think that Rachel’s point is a very important one and is a serious challenge to neo-Reformed doctrine.

Though we arrived there by different routes, Rachel’s journey and my own were similarly strengthened by the discovery of diversity in the Christian tradition.  Likewise, I think that we have arrived at similar conclusions about an important theological concept that floats through this entire discussion:  election.  Rachel writes about election that:

From the first covenant with Abraham to the vision of John at Patmos, salvation has always been described in terms of a blessing on the entire world, not just an exclusive privilege for a select group of people.  The “election,” first of Israel and then of the church, is not a spiritual condition but a vocational calling, a calling to serve the rest of the world, inviting others to join the kingdom of God.  (132)

This notion of election as a calling or responsibility that Rachel hints at has likewise been important to my own theological journey and it serves as a good launching off point for the issues we will consider in the final part of this review tomorrow.


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