12.17.2021 – Firefighter Theo and the Problem of Evil

Becky and I are recently back from a trip to Memphis and a pre-Christmas visit with our daughter and her husband and our soon-to-be-four-year-old grandson Theo.  Much of our time in Memphis was taken up with dinosaur hunts and serving as part of Theo’s fire brigade.

Theo has been fascinated by fire engines, fire-fighting helicopters, and firefighters for more than half his life.  Our recent service on the fire brigade consisted mostly of Theo providing the siren noise to our living room sofa fire engine and then taking our hoses (Brio train tracks and Duplo pieces work, but the rubber snake was the best) and spraying water all over the burning forest, building, or occasional parking lot.  Once in a while we might rescue a kitten trapped in the top of a burning-or-not tree.

Theo loves fire engines and playing firefighter.  The siren noise and spraying water is the main point.  There’s never been a kitten in a treetop or a man in a burning building who has not been rescued by Theo’s intrepid brigade.  Any damage caused by the many fires to which we responded seems to have been repaired as quickly as Wile-E-Coyote recovers from a TNT explosion.

The last day of our visit, though, Theo asked the inevitable question that must be answered, and nearly-four is about the right time to ask it. “Papa and Grandma,” he wondered, “how do fires start?” We offered some don’t-worry-it-won’t-happen-here answers about people forgetting to blow out their matches and other such possibilities. Our answers did not seem to satisfy Theo, however, and finally he suggested that it was probably thieves who started them.

We asked our daughter about the role of thieves in Theo’s understanding of the world, and she said she wasn’t sure, but that they seem to be some amorphous force of evil who are the source of much that goes wrong or causes sadness.  Undoubtedly one of the hundreds of books he has had read to him must have mentioned thieves.

So, thieves, not people who forget to blow out matches, start most fires.  Works for me.

In fact, and of course, the “thieves” answer to the question of the source of evil in the world doesn’t work.  The question is vexing and meaningful answers are hard to come by. The Pew Research Center recently asked nearly 6,500 Americans about the problem of evil and suffering in our world. Christianity Today has provided a nice summary of the findings. It turns out that many of our answers are no more satisfying than Theo’s “thieves” answer.  Most of us believe bad things “just happen.” Others point to the consequences of human decisions or unjust social structures.  Mostly, it would seem, it is not our fault.  Or God’s fault. While most of the survey respondents said they believe in God or some spiritual force, this God or higher power is mostly a passive observer of human pain and sorrow.

The CT article is modest in its reporting, and I am glad it is.  Templeton Prize scholar Alvin Plantinga is quoted as saying that the problem of evil is “the hardest thing to confront as a Christian philosopher.”  As to an answer to the question of the source of evil in our world, Plantinga says, “There are lots of suggestions people have made, theories people have tried out. But I don’t think any of them are very satisfactory. At the end, this is a puzzle.”

It is a puzzle.  Was it Satan or our first parents’ weakness that brought about the Fall?  And who put the serpent in the garden? What about God’s testing of Job?  There are lots of questions. It is a puzzle.

Or maybe it was just the thieves, whoever they are.

I had no intention of answering the question of the source of evil in the 750 words of this post.  It is a puzzle.  But evil does not go unanswered in our world. In Advent we celebrate the coming of the One who is the answer.

“No more let sins and sorrows grow nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found, far as, far as the curse is found,” we sing in Isaac Watt’s wonderful paraphrase of Psalm 98.

Fires burn, tornados rampage, viruses erupt, the nations rage. We ask why and have a hard time finding answers.  But then we hear the prophet’s voice, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…”