Three hundred years and more this house has stood
Along the gravelled road to Heald Pond,
Its lawns and gardens neighbored by the woods.
I knew it well. But decades now have gone
And I have not returned. Till now.
It seems To be an empty shell, a skeleton
Just like the trees beside: three mighty elms
Struck by disease, but strangely, not cut down;
Limb-lopped in years long past, left to decay.
In childhood I did not find them grim;
They simply were, these sentinels in gray,
Who gave no warning as the rot set in. . .
I turn away. I am a stranger here;
The past is gone, is lost, just as I feared.
Philosophy’s best answers to pain and doubt only get you so far. The Cynic’s reaction to hardship was that the life of the wise does not depend on material prosperity. Hence, in contrast to “boasting”, Epictetus writes: “bring on hardships, bring on imprisonment, bring on disrepute, bring on condemnation. This is the proper exhibition …” Likewise as a Stoic thinker contemporary with the Apostle Paul, Seneca wrote of the tortures, burnings, and deaths under Gaius, and of his willingness to die for loyalty. The Stoic stressed the courage of the man under trial and the Cynic emphasized independence from material prosperity, but is spiritual toughness an ultimate goal?
“How can a good and loving God exist when there is such evil in the world? “Why do innocent people suffer? “Why has this terrible thing happened to me?” Questions like these have always mattered, and people have always asked them—consider the Book of Job—and we must be ready to address them. Pain and doubt, suffering and evil: these are part of the human experience. Difficult as these topics are, we cannot afford to ignore them; these issues are cited, over and over again, as the causes of crises of faith.
We can begin, paradoxically, by turning the ‘problem of evil’ on its head. The very fact that we protest evil means that we recognize the reality and ultimate priority of goodness.
Why, after all, is suffering a problem? We recognize that there is something fundamentally wrong about certain kinds of events that happen to us, which in turn suggests that we have a deep-seated sense of what the right state of affairs is (even if we have never fully experienced it). We do not take suffering simply as a given, as it would have to be taken if, in reality, the material world is all that there is. Recognition that evil is evil points toward the existence of a moral law. Nearly everyone, if asked, will assert that some particular heinous act is wrong (child abuse or racism, for instance), even if they then try to frame their moral response in relativistic or utilitarian terms.
Protesting evil and ugliness means that we instinctively recognize goodness and beauty, and we prefer them— even when the evil, ugly condition is pervasive and persistent. The utter predictability and inevitability of death and disease has not led people to accept them; quite the contrary. A diagnosis of cancer in a friend or loved one alarms and dismays us, no matter how commonplace such an occurrence is. The ‘problem of evil’ is thus also the ‘problem of good’: the very fact that we can distinguish good from evil, and that we value the good and reject the evil, suggests the reality of an underlying moral order.
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John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
Meet The Author
Dr Holly Ordway is Professor of English and faculty in the M.A. in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University; she holds a PhD in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
She is the author of Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Emmaus Road, 2017) and Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius, 2014), and she has contributed chapters to C.S. Lewis at Poets’ Corner (edited by Michael Ward and Peter S. Williams), C.S. Lewis’s List: The Ten Books that Influenced Him Most (edited by David Werther) among other volumes; she is also a published poet, with poems in Word in the Wilderness and Love, Remember (edited by Malcolm Guite).
Her academic work focuses on the writings of the Inklings, especially C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Her current book project is Tolkien’s Modern Sources: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages (forthcoming from Kent State University Press, 2019).
She lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and travels regularly to speak on Tolkien, Lewis, and imaginative apologetics.
Photo of Holly Ordway by Lancia E Smith