Author Insight: Os Guinness on Evil (Part 2)

Author and lecturer Os Guinness has written or edited more than 20 books, including The Dust of Death, The Call, and Invitation to the Classics. Earlier this month, HarperSanFrancisco published Guinness’s latest work, Unspeakable: Facing Up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror. Stan Guthrie interviewed Guinness. This is Part 2 of a two-part series. The first part appeared last week.

You framed the book around seven questions. What are they and why did you structure the book this way?
I came to faith in the early Sixties, and since then have had the privilege of talking to thousands of people about the problem of evil, sometimes in large audiences and often in one-to-one conversations. I have found that the best way to set out the issue is to see the seven steps that have to be thought through in the interests of a truly “examined life.” The book is structured around seven questions that highlight the seven steps, which are as follows:

Recognize the sources of evil and suffering;

Listen to the questions;

Acknowledge the modern transformations of evil;

Assess the different interpretations;

Take the appropriate actions;

Say No to false accountings; and

Appreciate the silver lining.

The different religions and nonreligious faiths respond differently to evil. What are the key differences, and how do these differences play out in the lives of individuals and societies?

My position on this is very politically incorrect. Far from there being a common core down below all the different religions, there are huge differences between the faiths. These differences make a huge difference, not only for individuals but for whole societies and civilizations. So I have separate chapters on the three great families of faith—the Eastern, the secularist, and the biblical—and argue strongly for the third only after looking at the other two.

On the one hand, I try to face the most difficult questions evil raises for the Christian faith, in this case seeking to answer the infamous “trilemma”: how can evil be truly evil, and at the same time God be all good and all powerful? On the other hand, I follow the principle that “contrast is the mother of clarity” and therefore invite readers to appreciate the key differences between the faiths, and make up their own minds as to which is true and adequate.

Evil can be overwhelming, both to our faith in God and to our faith in man. How should we respond to evil in terms of our own faith?

It is often said that after Auschwitz there cannot be a God—evil is so overwhelming that it is the “rock of atheism.” But as Viktor Frankl pointed out, those who say that were not in Auschwitz themselves. Far more people deepened or discovered faith in Auschwitz than lost it. He then gave a beautiful picture of faith in the face of evil. A small and inadequate faith, he said, is like a small fire; it can be blown out by a small breeze. True faith, by contrast, is like a strong fire. When it is hit by a strong wind, it is fanned into an inextinguishable blaze.

For example, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote that he came to faith in Christ through “the hell-fire of doubt.” The turning point for him after all the evils he had experienced was several hours spent looking at a painting of the descent of Jesus from the cross, after which he wrote, “I do not know the answer to evil, but I do know the meaning of love.” The cross—or as I put it, “no other god had wounds”—is only one part of the Christian answer, but we need to have a fully strong and adequate faith.

What would you say to someone who is suffering from evil?

Suffering is uniquely individual, so there are no recipe answers. The first part of reaching out in love is to listen and try to discern where and why the person is hurting, and only then to bring the reassurance that the gospel brings to that particular hurt. We must never forget that listening is love, that comforting someone with an embrace without words is love, and that if we do not know why someone is suffering, to pretend that we do and say what God is doing in his or her life can be insensitive, cruel, and dead wrong—as Job’s comforters were. That said, evil can torture the mind just as it can torture the body, and it is wonderful to be able to bring specific, comforting truths of the gospel to bear on specific points of anguish and see them make a difference. For example, I have seen more people helped by coming to appreciate the outrage of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus—and its significance for the notion that “the world should have been otherwise”—than by a hundred worthy expositions of the Fall.

How do you maintain your faith as a Christian in the face of pervasive moral horror?

I think you have the question the wrong way around. Where else are we to go? Which other faith comes close to matching the biblical answer for its combination of realism, hope, and courage? Buddhism, for example, has been described as the most radical No to human aspirations ever formulated. And while I personally have sometimes admired the nobility of great atheists I have met such as Bertrand Russell, there is a bleakness to the nobility that is almost unendurable. “Atheism,” in the words of John Paul Sartre, “is a cruel long term business, and I have gone through it to the end.”

In contrast to all such views, the gospel is truly the best news ever—with its prospect of a world in which evil and suffering are gone, justice and peace are restored, and the very last tear is wiped away.

Do you think the current focus on evil has any upsides?

My seventh step is to appreciate the silver linings in suffering and evil, but we have to be very careful. Recognizing silver linings is not the same as knowing why God allowed suffering and evil in the first place. That we often simply do not know, and the silver lining must never be made into the purpose. But in the biblical view, there is no such thing as “useless suffering.” People often cite growth in character through suffering, and C.S. Lewis is famous for his idea that suffering is “God’s megaphone” and gets our attention. A rarer silver lining that is very important in answer to our postmodern, relativistic, nonjudgmental age is that absolute evil assumes and requires absolute judgment. When an atheist instinctively says, “Godammit!” and actually means it, he is right, not wrong, and is unwittingly praying a prayer that blows apart his atheism.

At the end of the day, it is challenging and sobering to look at human evil, let alone modern evil, in the white of the eye. But from the very depths of my being, with no attempt at propaganda or special pleading, I would say after years of looking into the question, that there is no answer to human evil deeper and more adequate than the answer that is ours as followers of Jesus. But we need to speak it out, and act it out, with clarity, courage, and love today. The world is hungry for it, and so are many in the church.

About Stan Guthrie

Stan Guthrie is an editor at large for Christianity Today magazine and for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. His latest book is God's Story in 66 Verses. He also is author of All that Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy. He is co-author of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Besides authoring, writing, and editing books, Stan is a literary agent, bringing together good authors, good books, and good publishers. Stan writes the monthly Priorities colum for He has appeared on National Public Radio's €œTell Me More,€ WGN's Milt Rosenberg program, and many Christian shows, including The Eric Metaxas Show and Moody Radio'€™s €œNew Day Florida.€ A licensed minister and an inspirational speaker, he served as moderator for the Christian Book Expo panel discussion, Does the God of Christianity Exist, and What Difference Does It Make?
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