Given that I am not naturally bent toward reading fiction, I suppose it is something of an accomplishment to have recently finished the book Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier. My wife had encouraged me to read for entertainment; I ended up with a book that was intense. Those of you who know the two of us will be surprised by neither of the clauses bracketing the semicolon in the above sentence.
Frazier won the National Book Award for Cold Mountain, and for good reason. The novel delves adeptly into basic issues of human existence and struggle, against the backdrop of Frazier’s masterfully vivid yet bleak portrayal of the South during the Civil War. I’ll not be recommending the book for the church’s bookstore, but this is due to some of its content more than to the nihilistic perspective that swirls particularly around the male protagonist, Inman.
Cold Mountain offers an uncomfortably close look at what theologians have sometimes called the problem of evil, a problem with which Christians should be well-acquainted. Too simply stated, the problem of evil is this: While the Bible claims that God is both good and all-powerful, terrible evil exists in the world. On both philosophical and personal levels, we struggle with why a good, all-powerful God would allow such evil. When those who don’t know Christ struggle with this—or when Christians struggle with this—clichés and pat answers offer a salve with no active ingredient.
This does not mean, of course, that the Bible can’t bear the weight of this struggle, or that God fails in being good or all-powerful. John Feinberg offers a thorough and scholarly theodicy (justification of God) in The Many Faces of Evil, and Philip Yancey addresses the problem in Disappointment with God. Tim Keller has a good chapter-length treatment of the issue in The Reason for God, as well (see chapter 2, “How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?”).
For the time being I’ll refer you to these resources and make what I think is a very important request: do not take this issue lightly, wherever you stand spiritually. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, recognize that for many who do not know Christ personally, the problem of evil presents a significant intellectual and gut-level barrier to faith. Do some honest digging and be prepared to make a respectful defense (1 Peter 3:15–16). If you aren’t a Christian, don’t think that the persistence of the objection in your own mind and heart means that it can never be resolved. Do some honest digging and seek out a respectful defense.