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. Winter bemoaned the fact that Americans were world leaders in Bibles in homes and people in church, but also world leaders in divorce rate, illegitimate births, prison population, hand-gun killings, teen suicide rate, and pornography export.
“Is this the future of the most promising mission fields of today?” Winter wondered. “Does the gospel we are exporting around the world also contain, within itself, seeds of its own destruction?”
The Problem of Evil
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 author, biblical scholar, professor, and former pastor Bart Ehrman.
[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 Ehrman—that either there is no God at all or there is a God of questionable power or character.
Blossoming Today, Fading Tomorrow
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 the Winters grappled with this sudden, saddening news, many sincere Christian friends came to their side in comfort. “We don't 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.
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?”
Winter became convinced 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” (ESV) 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.
Where is Satan in the Picture?
Winter had a hunch that a solution might be found by posing a very simple question: Where is Satan in the picture?
He was disturbed 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?
A Demon on Every Doorknob?
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, attempting to breathe underwater, etc. Instead he pondered carefully and seriously how Satan might be behind the violent predation in the animal kingdom or the microbiological causes of virulent diseases. In his mind he was trying to unmask the works of Satan.
The Eradication of Disease Pathogens
But Winter was never one to stay in an ivory tower. In addition to unmasking and exposing Satan's deeds and deadly delusions, he felt that the body of Christ should also be proposing and implementing new ways to deliberately attack evil at its roots. He wanted believers to destroy all of the works of the devil, but especially disease. He saw that macro-level problems like poverty, injustice, and human trafficking had already significantly caught the attention of the body of Christ. And, while he knew that medical activity was a hallmark of Christian mission for two millennia, he could not find even one theologically driven interest working specifically to address the roots of disease, the eradication of disease pathogens.
Winter was certain that if believers could summon the necessary resources and resolve to mount an offensive counter attack against the works of the devil in general and eradicable disease in particular, it would be marvelously helpful in alleviating suffering. Not only that, it could also, in his words, “radically add power and beauty to the very concept of the God we preach, and thus become a new and vital means of glorifying God among the nations."
Thus the Roberta Winter Institute
Winter officially established the Roberta Winter Institute in 2001 and today it remains as a testament to his determination and vision. The institute seeks to address two key 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?