In a recent sermon, pastor Kyle Cunningham dives deep into one of life’s most perplexing questions: why does evil exist in the world? He approaches this thorny philosophical and theological issue by first examining how other belief systems tackle the problem of evil and suffering. Ultimately, Cunningham argues that Christianity provides a unique solution centered on Jesus Christ and the doctrine of the incarnation.
Defining the Terms
Cunningham starts by clarifying that “evil” can refer to three conceptions:
- Moral evil – caused by human free will and agency
- Natural evil – brought about by nature, not human choice
- Spiritual evil – stemming from demonic powers and principalities
The question Cunningham focuses on is why an all-powerful, all-good God allows moral evil. Why do human beings choose to perpetrate horrendous acts against one another? This relates closely to the philosophical problem called “theodicy” – how to reconcile God’s goodness and power with the abundance of suffering in the world.
Other Belief Systems’ Answers to Evil
Cunningham evaluates the perspectives on evil found in other major religions and worldviews. For example:
- Islam teaches that God’s wisdom is beyond human comprehension, so we cannot judge how a good God would allow suffering. The Muslim response to evil centers on faith in eternal reward, developing spiritual perseverance, and upholding free will.
- Buddhism sees evil as an illusion arising from human desires and impermanence. Since there is no objective good or evil in Buddhism’s worldview, it cannot account for the true gravity of moral evil.
- Secularism struggles to define evil and suffering as fundamentally wrong without belief in a moral lawgiver like God. But it rejects God based on the problem of evil, creating a paradox.
According to Cunningham, while these perspectives offer glimpses of insight, the Christian understanding of evil is radically different.
The Uniquely Christian Response – The Incarnation
At the heart of Cunningham’s argument lies Jesus Christ and the incarnation. The Old Testament prophet Habakkuk cries out questioning why God does not restrain evil. Yet as Cunningham explains, it takes over 600 more years to receive God’s answer to the problem. That answer is the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas.
The doctrine of the incarnation means that God himself entered into human suffering by becoming flesh. Jesus gave up equality with God to experience the full range of human limitation, temptation, and moral evil. The Son of God was born into poverty, endured rejection and betrayal, and suffered capital punishment by torturous crucifixion. Therefore, when we question God regarding pain and injustice, Cunningham asserts that God can reply “I know” – because he lived it firsthand in Christ.
Cunningham explores how the incarnation provides more than abstract answers; Jesus directly experienced and overcame various dimensions of evil:
- Spiritual evil – Christ destroyed Satan’s works
- Moral evil – Jesus practiced radical forgiveness even while being executed
- Natural evil – Jesus wept at the sting of death and loss
So in effect, God’s response to the prevalence of evil is not to remove it, but to step into the midst of it. The incarnation means God understands human suffering through direct participation.
Implications for the Church
This perspective impacts how Christians should approach suffering – both their own and others’. According to Cunningham, the incarnation invites believers to “be Jesus” to those around us who suffer. Because God comforted us in our afflictions, we can now extend that same grace to others.
Additionally, Cunningham addresses the experience of hidden suffering at Christmas. Even in seasons focused on celebration joy, many wrestle silently with grief, depression, illness or heartache masked by fake smiles. Here again the principles of incarnation should define the church’s response to suffering – entering into the loneliness and pain around us.
In essence, Cunningham’s argument takes the problem of evil from abstract theory to a summons to embody God’s comfort. If God refused to remain distant from human anguish, neither should Christ’s followers. Christmas marks God stepping down into brokenness, and now the church must step into the suffering of the world as well.
Response and Discussion
Cunningham delivers a compelling perspective rooted in Scripture and sound logic. By becoming human, Jesus bridged the divide between God and the fallen human predicament to offer both empathy and salvation. God’s willingness to suffer is arguably the greatest act of love ever demonstrated.
However, questions remain. Some skeptics argue that an all-powerful God could eradicate at least certain categories of evil immediately. For example, why does God allow horrific evils inflicted specifically against innocents and children? Cunningham’s talk does not directly address such refutations. Also, suffering remains a reality for believers and non-believers alike in this life. Christians affirm eternal life and justice, yet must still grapple with present-day pain.
Additionally, Cunningham focuses primarily on God suffering in Christ, which meets human need for solidarity. But left unaddressed is how God might more actively remedy Situations causing systemic injustice and oppression. Christians maintain hope that God’s kingdom will one day obliterate evil. But in the meantime, some also look for Him to intervene against moral and natural evils infecting society.
In the end, no matter one’s personal conclusions on theodicy, Cunningham rightfully notes that Christmas marks a divine revelation of purpose in suffering. By binding himself in flesh to share in public humiliation and agony at human hands, Jesus displays viscerally that no pain, betrayal or injustice can separate creation from the Creator’s love. No philosophical explanation of evil’s roots solves the problem fully. Yet in Christ, the loving Lord enters into the worst of suffering so that it will never have the final word.