What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ (Luke 15:4-6)
Imagine that I am a Shepherd. I take care of a flock of 100 sheep, to paraphrase a familiar story. For a moment, let’s not focus on what I am, but instead, on what the other sheep say about me.
The strong matriarch or patriarch preaches to the herd: “The creator of this green land and all in it and all the goodness we see around us is Tim. Tim is the greatest good. Tim sees all. Tim knows all. Tim can do anything. Tim is everywhere at all times. And Tim loves you.” After a couple of generations, belief in me grows strong in the sheep community, given that all the sheep are well taken care of.
The sheep gather near cool waters, and they all talk about the wonderful qualities of me, Tim, but today is different. A wolf attacks them while they’re grazing. Most of them scatter in an effective way, but Alex does not. The wolf catches Alex by his leg and crushes it in his teeth, immobilizing him. Alex is actually a believer in Me and cries out at that very moment for Me to save him. But it doesn’t happen. In the middle of a Tuesday afternoon and within earshot of a peaceful, babbling brook, Alex is gutted open by the savage wolf. The other sheep’s only choices are to endure Alex’s wailings until he dies or look away in sheer horror. The wolf finishes his meal and casually departs.
Now, without going into a lot of philosophy, I think we can agree that this wolf attack is “bad” in an uncomplicated sense of the word. And when the sheep reconvene after the clean-up of Alex’s mangled body, his blood still stains the grass. And what do my apologists say about me in the face of this tragedy? What can they say?
“Tim is the creator of all.”
“Tim is good.”
“He knows all.”
“He can do anything.”
“He is everywhere at all times.”
“Tim loves us.”
Spoken in isolation, these “truths” didn’t pose a problem. But in light of the sheep’s recent experience, what are they to think? Why would I create the wolf if I am good? I knew when the wolf was coming, but did not stop it? I was present with them when the wolf attacked and did not stop it? I love them, but when the fervent Me believer Alex cried out to Me in my ever-presence for help, I was silent? This is what we call the problem of evil.
This argument is something of a “silver bullet”, because it is, I think, the single most honest question that can be asked about faith. All of the claims about Me are fine in isolation. When the world is fine and good, when the world reflects the supposedly awesome and fundamentally good character of the One that created it, these claims make sense. But they shatter into incoherence the moment the wolf enters the pasture.
The sheep are going to have to admit something about me, and they’re not going to like it. Did I not care that the wolf approached? Was I present, yet doing nothing? Am I truly able to stop such horrors? Do I really love my flock? Did I make everything in the world just the way it is, including the sheep and the wolf, knowing the exact time and date of Alex’s eventual demise? Or am I really there at all?
These thorny questions come around again and again and demand answers that have never, and I suspect, will never come. I saw a sheep die this week. Madison Baird*, of Walla Walla University, a Seventh-Day Adventist school, died after a collision with a truck while on her bicycle. I was devastated when I heard, and I did not even know her. It’s hard to understand how you could care that much about a person you don’t know, but that’s who I am. And I know that she brought life to those around her. My only question is: Where was the Shepherd?
Admitting to the falsity of even one of these claims infuses the situation with much more clarity and sense. None of them being false is highly unlikely, and accepting all of them as true seems to do nothing towards answering this all-important question. I’ve heard many parables and promises, and 99 of us made it back to the fold, but one sheep never did, and no one can tell us why.
*I couldn’t possibly express my condolences more sincerely to anyone who knew Madison. I have no trouble believing that she was light, art, beauty, and whatever you knew her to be. I hope you find comfort. I hope you find rest. Personally, I always find this helpful. Or to see what love looks like, you should check out this Facebook page. And coming from someone with some experience, just know that you will carry on. #MaddyStrong