For nearly 40 years, preeminent mission strategist, Ralph D. Winter gradually perceived what, to him, was a disturbing picture. While he saw that the modern mission movement had achieved some startling successes, he also saw that, in some respects, these were paper gains and concrete losses.
Much of our carefully, patiently, and proudly built up global church was clearly coming apart at the seams. Nowhere was this catastrophe more obvious than in the United States, where estimates were that 70% of teenagers in Christian homes were losing their faith after high school. Post-Christian France is another prime example of this troubling disconnect. France is the most churched nation in history. Numerous surveys reveal that half the population describe themselves as Christian, but only a fraction believe in God.
“Is this the future of the most promising mission fields today?” Winter wondered. “Does the gospel we are exporting around the world also contain, within itself, seeds of its own destruction?”
What exactly is the problem?
While there are many reasons people lose their faith such as hypocrisy in the church or apparent contradictions or historical inaccuracies in the Bible, consider the sad testimony of famous biblical scholar and professor of religious studies Bart Ehrman, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College, as well as a former pastor.
[The different ways the problem of evil is answered throughout the Bible] made me think more deeply about my own understanding of why there is suffering in the world. Finally, because I became dissatisfied with all of the conventional answers I decided that I could not believe in a God who was in any way intervening in this world given the state of things. So that’s how I ended up losing my faith.
Anyone who is bothered by the amount, the harshness, and the unpredictability of evil in our world could conclude––like Professor Ehrman––that either there is no God at all or there is a God of questionable power or character.
In the Fall of 1996, this problem invaded Winter’s life when Roberta, his wife of nearly 50 years, was diagnosed with a rare form of terminal bone cancer called multiple myeloma. As Ralph and Roberta grappled with this sudden, saddening news, many sincere Christian friends came to their side in comfort. “We do not know all of God’s purposes,” they’d advise, “but we need to be able to say, ‘Thank you God for this disease.’ The challenge is to believe without knowing all the answers.” Others urged them to recognize that “God knows what he is doing,” as if Roberta’s cancer was God’s mysterious initiative. Yet others suggested that suffering is deserved, either as punishment, or to improve us, or both. A few implied that God does not do things like that to people unless he has seen unconfessed sin in their lives.
The principal concern in all of this for Winter was the distortion in many people’s ideas of God. He was convinced that God was deeply concerned about disease and suffering, and was not in the business—perish the thought—of inflicting people with pain to deepen their spiritual lives. “If that is God's initiative,” he asked, “why did his Son go around relieving people of pain and suffering?”
What troubled Winter so intensely was the assumption that God was the source of Roberta’s disease. He felt that if we continued to explain that a mysterious good hides behind all suffering, if we continued to take the Biblical phrase “all things work together for good” to mean that God—who does in fact work good out of evil—is somehow the author of the evil itself, we would continue to see the Christian faith blossom around the world today only to watch it fade tomorrow.
Is there a solution?
Winter had a hunch that a solution might be found by posing a very simple question: Where is Satan in the picture?
He was somewhat dismayed by the fact that, in general, our theological inheritance does not illuminate for us exactly what the “works of the devil” really are. He wondered, “When Satan turned against God, precisely what kind of destruction and perversion did he set out to achieve?”
Any serious believer is familiar with the numerous New Testament references to Satan. Yet for many Christians, Satan really isn’t a major factor. There are countless recent books and articles with titles like, Where is God When Things Go Wrong?, or When God Doesn’t Make Sense. But you’ll scarcely find any of them attributing all or even some of the disorder and evil in the world to the intentions of a created, rebellious opponent to God.
Perhaps this is precisely the way Satan wants things. If he can, as Winter put it, “blind us to his efforts, deceive us as to his activities, conceal from us his strategies, even leave us relatively oblivious to his existence,” we will continue to blame the devil’s exploits on God. Does that not play right into Satan’s hand?
Not that Winter was looking for a demon on every doorknob. He was aware that Satan couldn’t be directly responsible for every harm. In many cases, you don’t have to look very far to see where human error or human sin has caused a given tragedy. Nor was he assigning too much power to Satan. He understood the deadly consequences of breaking the natural laws of the universe, e.g., jumping from a plane without a parachute. Instead he pondered carefully and seriously where Satan might be at work in the systemic causation of natural disasters, violent predation in the animal kingdom, or virulent diseases.
Consider passages where Jesus repeatedly calls Satan "the ruler of this world" (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), Luke suggests that Satan owns all the authority of all the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4:5-7), Paul calls Satan "the god of this world" (2 Corinthians 4:4) and "the prince of the power of the air" (Ephesians 2:2), and John says that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one." (1 John 5:19). Or consider the Early Church fathers prior to Augustine, who had no problem with the concept of a rampant and powerful enemy who actively works to mar God’s creation and tarnish his reputation (see endnote). Or, most significantly, consider Christ’s approach. Jesus is called the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being (Hebrews 1:3), and, rather than instigating, authoring, or even allowing evil, he came to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). If a house divided cannot stand, can we thus entertain the idea that evil is not from God, but instead due to the fact that we are surrounded on all sides by rampaging warfare against God and indeed against all of creation?
Once we acknowledge this cosmic war, no amount of harsh or heartless evil should be a surprise. “In a war, suffering is a given,” Winter would often say.
When we’re in the trenches and our comrade gets gunned down, do we raise our fist to the sky and ask, “Why General? Why?” No. We don’t blame the general. We blame the enemy. The general’s will is not for us to suffer or die. The general’s will is to win the war.
Thus, the Roberta Winter Institute
In addition to exploring these questions about evil, and because of Roberta’s ongoing struggle with cancer, Winter read and researched broadly about cancer, disease in general, and the entire medical/pharmaceutical industry. Unexpectedly, all this research and theological reflection converged to spark some serious new thinking in the areas of missiology and disease eradication. Soon he was speaking around the country and publishing articles with a splendid array of curious titles like, “Theologizing the Microbiological World“, and “Beyond Unreached Peoples.”
Thanks to books like God at War by Greg Boyd, Epic by John Eldridge, and numerous other resources, plus his own growing convictions and insight, Winter determined that unmasking and exposing Satan’s work wasn’t enough. He felt that the Body of Christ should also be proposing and implementing new ways to attack evil at its roots. He saw that macro-level problems like poverty, injustice, and human trafficking had already significantly caught the attention of the body of Christ. But what he didn’t see was even one theologically driven interest combating disease at its origins. There were many organizations focused on disease treatment. But not a single avowedly Christian institution on the face of the earth was working specifically for the eradication of disease pathogens. He saw this as a unique and powerful new way to restore God’s reputation, give credibility to our gospel message, and, perhaps selfishly, set something in motion that could materially help his wife.
Despite his best efforts and the continuous prayers and concern of hundreds of friends, on Sunday, October 28, 2001— five years after her diagnosis—Roberta passed away. In her honor, Winter officially established the Roberta Winter Institute (RWI) in December 2001, with the primary focus of a new theological sensitivity for destroying the works of the devil.
The Roberta Winter Institute remains as a testament to Winter’s determination and vision. Today we are an organization of people driven by two questions:
- Within Christianity, current thinking blames God for much of the disease and suffering in our world. Who will rectify this?
- Within Christianity, current efforts do very little to address the roots of disease. Who will inspire new action?
Through our resources, events and partnerships we intend to answer this call.
Boyd, Gregory A., Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy. 2001, Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press. (416 pages)
See page 294 - Satan and Nature in the Early Church
- Origen argued that famines, scorching winds and pestilence were not “natural” in God’s creation; they were rather the result of fallen angels bringing misery whenever and however they were able. These perverted guardians were also “the cause of plagues, barrenness, tempests and similar calamities."
- Tertullian: “Diseases and other grievous calamities” were the result of demons, whose “great business is the ruin of mankind.”
- Athenagoras: Satan was the spirit originally entrusted with the control of matter and the forms of matter. He rebelled against God and now exercised his tremendous authority against God.
- Athenagoras concluded that everything in nature that obviously looks contrary to God’s character appears that way because it IS contrary to God.
Photo credit: ahp_ibanez