The question "Why is there suffering and evil in the world" is one of the ultimate mystery questions of life. Scientific answers, although increasingly explanatory, are not final because science answers the questions "What?" and "How?". Faith answers "Why?". However, increasingly the scientific world which deals with observable and measurable facts may be becoming less confident that ultimately science will solve all mysteries. Faith means being able to accept solutions offered by belief proved by experience. Nonetheless, scientific "proof" and religious "proof" could be thought of as complementary rather than mutually exclusive.
For people in biblical times the world was full of evil spirits which had to be kept at bay by special rituals and incantations. Hebrews believed suffering was a punishment from God. The writer of the story of Job was revolutionary in his thinking when he refused to blame God for the disasters which befell him. By the time of Jesus the Jews had the added problem of understanding why they had been oppressed by Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans if they were God's special people chosen to demonstrate his will for mankind to the other nations of the world.
Some of the Pharisees provided an answer. The people as a whole had not kept God's Law. They had sinned and the Roman occupation was a sign of God's wrath. It would continue until they repented. A similar explanation was given for individual suffering. Illness was a punishment for sin. "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2). We still hear people say today "What did I do wrong to deserve this?" According to the Pharisees men and women sinned because of an evil influence but that this could be checked by keeping the Law.
Alongside this explanation there existed the thinking, and in some ways seems still to exist, that the world and mankind are in the power of Satan, the prince of evil and a host of lesser demons. The word "satan" in Hebrew simply means an adversary and in the Old Testament is so used of human adversaries. Then it came to mean one who pleads a case against someone. It is in this way that the word is used in the Book of Job. Satan became known as the accuser of men before God. He is still a son of God although his task was to say everything he could about a man before God. He is against man.
During their captivity in Babylon the Jews assimilated something of the Babylonian belief which held that there are two powers in the universe, a power of light and dark, of good and evil and that the whole universe is a battle-ground, and men and women must choose which side they are on in this cosmic conflict. We find examples of this concept in the New Testament. In the account of the temptation of Jesus the devil, or Satan, says that all the kingdoms of the world are in his power (Luke 4:13).
The writer of the first epistle of John says that the whole world lies under the sway of the evil one (1John 5:19). Jesus is accused of curing the demon possessed by means of the demonic power of the prince of demons. Jesus replies that if this were the case Satan could be driving out himself. By exorcising demons Satan would be causing civil war in his own kingdom (Matt 9:34).
Demons were numerous and could eat, drink and beget children. They could settle on anything and live in unclean places like tombs where there was no cleansing water and in the desert, and were dangerous to travellers. They were thought to be involved in certain animals like the serpents and donkeys. Children had guardian angels to protect them. Some contemporary ideas can be identified in these first century beliefs. There were also demons of illnesses like leprosy, madness and heart disease
Whichever explanation of evil and suffering Jews accepted, the remedy they believed was in God's hands. He only could change the nation's fortunes and the world at large and so they looked for a saviour, a Messiah. Those who were believed to be demon-possessed cried out when they saw Jesus because they believed that when the Messiah came, the reign of the demons would be ended and they knew some people believed Jesus to be the Messiah.
There were people in the Jewish world who claimed to be exorcists and who used elaborate rituals, spells and incantations. Mark shows us Jesus as a destroyer of evil spirits. The congregation in the synagogue were astonished at his quiet authority. His authority to heal men's minds and bodies came from a greater power than the power of evil - the power of the Holy Spirit, still present to uphold men and women of faith in times when body, mind and soul are grieving or in pain.
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