R. Page Fulgham was born in Alabama but grew up in a suburb of Atlanta. He received a BA in religion from Baylor University. Graduate study at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas culminated in master of divinity and doctor of theology degrees with an emphasis in philosophy of religion. Fulgham has served as senior minister in churches in Texas and Georgia and as an adjunct professor of religion at Mercer University of Atlanta. This is his first book.
How did you come to write a book on evil and suffering? What were you hoping to achieve with your new book, Evil & the Garden of Good: Exploring the Mystery of Suffering?
I have been thinking about, studying, and collecting resources for over 50 years on the subject of evil and suffering. In my high school days, a fellow student beat his mother to death with a baseball bat! I could not understand the senselessness of either that evil deed or the Holocaust. Suffering has always been on my mind and heart, especially in the years I spent as pastor, watching many parishioners tramp through horrible moments of agony for themselves or family members. The unexplainable and often meaningless myriad of health issues, physical and mental, weighed heavily on me. The question most often asked was, “Why doesn’t God do something?” I wrote this book for myself in hopes of finding some answers and then putting them in words people in the pew or street could appreciate. This is not primarily an academic work, but I hope I wrote with theological integrity. I confess, there is not much new in the book that has not been said before in over 12,000 books written on the subject, many of which only complicate the issue for most people. Using biblical resources as well as current literature on the subject, my purpose is to enable readers to clarify for themselves a path toward understanding the mystery of suffering. I attempt to challenge traditional and simplistic answers like, “It must be God’s will.”
What are some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the concept of evil and suffering? Can suffering exist without evil? What is it about suffering that creates such mystery for humanity?
I think one of the biggest misconceptions about the concept of evil and suffering is that God is a kind of heavenly butler to serve our personal needs and wishes. If God does not answer my prayers for healing or help, does that mean that God does not care or cannot grant my wishes? The purpose of prayer is to change us, not God. We sometimes hide behind the approach that there must be a purpose for our suffering but we may not know in this life. I do think there is truth in the belief that our struggles in this life can make us better people and help us to conform to the likeness of God, as Irenaeus suggests, which is not completed until we hear the rest of the story. Another misconception is that nature is evil. Actually, nature is just nature and is neutral from the moral perspective. We cannot pray away tornadoes or typhoons; we can only prepare as best we can for the events of nature.
I think that suffering does exist without evil intent. As difficult as cancer or pandemics are, there is no evil intent per se. All natural events occur from natural causes, not because God initiates them to punish, redeem, or get our attention. Sometimes certain events shock us to change our direction or attitude, which from the faith view is interpreted as divine intention. And, through the struggles, we often discover answers. Moral evil, on the other hand, is caused by the evil or bad choices people make. This is true for the great despots of history as well as the crimes of desperation or passion. Moral evil is the result of misuse of human freedom.
Suffering is such a mystery for the human race because we have the desire to live perfect lives without the challenges of suffering. However, this world with all its challenges and difficulties is the best possible world for human growth and development. If there were no evil, humans would not exit. And through suffering we can become stronger as we are forced to rise above it. There is a Chinese proverb which says, “Suffering can bitter or better us.” Because we do not understand, we are mystified by much of the suffering in the world. Our faith journey leads us to understanding.
Can you talk a little about the structure of your book? Why did you put it together the way you did and how did you decide which elements to focus upon in your discussion?
The book structure is a product of my academic studies, starting with the great questions about suffering and how those questions have been approached historically. I did not want to write a survey of the many theodicies or justification for evil, but found that most theodicies can be grouped under the Augustinian or Irenaean types. I chose to compare the two and analyze their similarities and differences. One question I was compelled to try to answer was, “What is the origin of evil?” I started with the Hebrew scriptures and expanded to other resources, but acknowledged that I could not do more than a mere mention. In my book I choose to follow Irenaeus, who gives us the most plausible answer and approach to the problem. Irenaeus says that God created the world just as we know it today, with the freedom to make choices. Augustine attempts to absolve God from the responsibility of evil by placing it on the misuse of human freedom, labeled as the “free will defense.” The latter half of the book is more practical. I cite questions that people ask about the subject, give some examples of how people of faith responded to great suffering, how suffering can change our theology, and how our understanding of suffering can affect our care of those who suffer. I also include a chapter on the suffering of God. I wrote and designed the book for individual and group study and included a section of questions as a guide.
As a people of faith, how can we be open to challenging and/or refocusing rhetoric
surrounding the origin of sin stories and arguably, evil as a concept in of itself?
Although the book might be interesting to people of non-faith, I wrote primarily for the Judeo-Christian community and attempt to reframe the questions we ask about evil and suffering, and possibly how we answer them. As I outline in the book, we cannot achieve adequate understanding of evil and suffering by relying on the Genesis narrative about origins. There was no original righteousness or perfection destroyed by human error. We are today as we were in the beginning, with all our problems and potentials. In one sense, evil is a construct to explain that which we abhor. There is just one reality which consists of good and bad. Humans can go either way, toward good or evil. It is our choice.
One of the points that stuck out to me was the deconstruction of a worldview versus world picture. What is the difference between these and how can deconstructing such themes aid in our understanding of the Bible and our relationship with God?
Let me start with world picture, which I conceptualize as the physical reality of the mechanics of nature. Science informs us about world picture. For example, we once thought of the world as geocentric because the science of the day dictated such. Now, our world picture is heliocentric because current science dictates such. World picture is always subject to change, based on scientific discovery. Worldview is our understanding of the purpose and meaning behind world picture. In the day when the dominate view of the world was geocentric, our religion (Judeo-Christian) supported this approach. Today, an informed faith view supports a heliocentric world picture. What I say about the Genesis story is that the writers used their current world picture, primarily a Babylonian world picture or science, but they said God was the author of the process. The biblical account is contextual. If Genesis were to be written today, it might reflect our current science. I affirm that God is the author of the evolutionary process of creation, which is not in conflict with my faith.
Did anything surprise you while you were writing Evil & the Garden of Good? What does writing and its process mean to you?
I was surprised by the encouragement I received from those who read the early manuscripts. The affirmations, suggestions, questions, and corrections helped make the book what it is. I started writing during the Covid pandemic—which seemed like a good time to write about evil and suffering—but the process gathered traction and I thought, “I might make a book out of this!” I was able to achieve a personal goal by putting in writing what I believe is a viable approach to understanding the issues surrounding the problem of evil and suffering. It has been satisfying to receive early responses from those who have read the book and appreciate my efforts.
Outside of the daunting of topics as evil and suffering, how do you enjoy spending your time?
I am on staff at my church, Smoke Rise Baptist, in St. Mountain, GA, as part-time minister of missions. I have in the last 20 years participated in dozens and dozens of mission trips, rebuilding houses that have been destroyed by floods and tornadoes, and helping to improve the living conditions of people in Central America as well as North America. It is incumbent that we do what we can to help those who are the victims of circumstances often beyond their control. My hobbies include fishing and tinkering with my antique cars. I teach a Bible class at church as well as sing in the sanctuary choir.