100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Monday, August 29, 2011

From Whence Cometh Evil?

It has been said that the Problem of Evil is the biggest problem for Christianity, and I think that statement is something a majority of people tend to agree with. In fact, one schools-based ministry said that this was the number one question asked by high school students. So it's certainly worthwhile spending a disproportionate amount of time discussing it. I've certainly written on it before, but let's try to put it all together and maybe dig a little deeper into it.

To begin with, I think we need to recognize at least two different kinds of evil. There is “human sin”, or deliberate acts of evil on our part, and there is suffering as a result of natural causes; from disease to natural disasters to just plain growing old. This is "natural evil." God is responsible for both kinds of evil; but how can God be responsible for evil at all if He is supposedly "all good"?

Now, to be responsible for evil does not make God evil if He has a sufficiently good reason for allowing evil. So we must conclude that God does have a good reason for allowing the various evils in the world. Other options exist, but I don't think they work... we cannot, for example, say that God is not, in fact, responsible for the evil in the world, because being all powerful He is surely able to both stop all evil in an instant, but also to prevent evil occurring in the first place. So I think that God, who is also wiser than us all, must have a good reason for the evil in the world. The question is, what is His reason? Does a satisfactory reason even exist?

In a sense we really don't know God's reasons for allowing evil, especially when it comes to specific cases of evil. But I do think the Bible gives us information as to why God allows evil generally. And with regard to the two kinds of evil, I think God has different reasons for each. So let's deal with human sin, firstly. Why did God allow Adam and Eve to disobey Him in the first place, thus consigning all of mankind to hell? Here, I have already put forward what I consider to be my strongest case, when I wrote #34: If God is good, why did He create anything evil in the first place? So I'll repeat the key point here. I think that God created a world with sin so that He might demonstrate His love for us in sacrificing Himself as an atonement for our sins. This is God's “good reason” for allowing human sin. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). And “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us...” (1 John 3:16). In other words, God wanted to show just how deep His love is by sacrificing Himself for us, even though we are sinners. If we were not sinners saved by His grace, what little would we know of His grace and love?

Now, we would want to try to “compare equations” here. In a world without sin we have no need for the atonement, which means we have a lesser understanding of the depths of God’s love, though we would at least have partial knowledge. We also have no people at all going to hell. So we ask ourselves, is it all worth it? After all, Christ needn’t have suffered in that scenario, either; so it’s better for Him too! But trying to pin relative values on each of these things is a human exercise, subject to a human perspective. We can trust that God did consider the atonement; the revelation of His love and character, “worth it all.” And I certainly think that we won’t fully appreciate God’s plan of redemption this side of death.

But let’s move on to “natural evil”. Why the earthquakes, and why the floods, and why even old age and death? These things are a result, or judgement, of human sin, so the Bible declares. They are indiscriminate because we are all sinners alike. And like any punishment, it ought to have the effect of making us regret our sins. In just about every culture and religion this is recognized; that whenever there is a natural disaster, it is said... “The gods must be angry!” In fact, the motivation for worship in most pagan religions was to satisfy the gods lest they be angry and bring droughts or some such natural disaster. I think that this is an idea that God has “programmed” into our minds. In Christianity, as we read the Old Testament, God told Israel that their disobedience would lead to poor crops and various other “natural evils”. Knowing this, what was their reaction supposed to be? Obedience. And when these things came upon them, what was their reaction supposed to be? Repentance.

Probably the best example of this is the story of Pharaoh when the ten plagues came upon Egypt, at the hand of Moses. As you read that story, you’re just dumbfounded! How after each plague, Pharaoh still won’t obey God and let Israel go free. You just can’t believe how anyone could be so defiant. If Pharaoh had let the people go after the first plague there would have been no further damage. But God even hardened Pharaoh’s heart, for this reason... that “The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.” (Exodus 7:5). That is “Egyptians” (plural). God prolonged the demonstration of His power so that all of Egypt might recognize Him as God, and perhaps they might forsake their own gods and turn to Yahweh. And not for Egypt only, but word of these events reached the whole of Canaan, as we see later on. Any who did not turn to God would have been as stubborn and defiant as Pharaoh.

Now, those plagues were miraculous in nature, so we might argue that it’s not the same thing when we’re unrepentant in the face of natural disasters. I’m not saying, however, that we can necessarily be saved apart from Biblical revelation. Pharaoh essentially had, or was part of, Biblical revelation. And when Israel experienced natural disasters, they had the Word of God which explained to them what was happening, though there was nothing necessarily miraculous about their droughts and so forth. It is sufficient, however, that natural disasters and even death itself, does at least suggest there is a God who judges; just as those pagan cultures, without knowledge of the Bible, associated disasters with the “anger of the gods”. In recognizing there is a God, it is then up to each individual to seek knowledge of Him, and mercy from Him. Of course, an atheist might say that they simply don’t see evidence for God in natural disasters. Yet to call one’s self an atheist presupposes some notion of God. And to discuss the Problem of Evil in the first place presupposes an understanding that there is a God who is responsible for natural evil. It doesn’t make a difference whether this knowledge was innate or learned; God’s purpose is accomplished in anyone who understands this so-called “Problem of Evil” at all.

But we also want to ask ourselves; isn’t there a better way to get people to turn from their sins and to turn to God? Are natural disasters and death at all effective in doing this? Well, if you’re looking for a more gentle approach from God towards mankind, then you have it... it’s the Bible. God has given us His Word, freely available to us these days on the Internet, but always quite accessible to many. It’s there for you to read and give your full attention, or for you to completely ignore. But I suppose that, due to the same hardness of heart that caused Pharaoh to ignore the continual evidences of God’s wrath and power, we are more inclined to ignore the “gentle approach” as well. But death of loved ones, and especially when our own death is nigh, most definitely causes a person to think seriously about the reality of God.

In these short paragraphs, we have barely explored this issue, really. Just consider, as well, that when Christians find opportunity to care for the victims of natural disasters, or even the elderly amongst us, God’s love is made known. This is just a hint of at least one more reason why God’s ways are wiser than we imagine. We may not know the reasons why God allows evil in this world, but I don’t think we have to. I think it suffices to know that He has a reason, and to believe that He is trustworthy. Some will say that God owes us a reason, but I don’t think that’s true. It’s not like we’re equals with God. But I don’t think we could even know God’s reasons, because I think it would take the mental capacity to see all of space and time before us, all at once. To see the true nature of every man’s heart, and to see every consequence of every action and to see and understand the very nature of God fully... I think that’s just the beginning of what it would take to understand God’s good reasons for allowing evil. And I think that this is a topic that could fill many books, but that this is precisely part of the whole “big picture” - that in contemplating the “why’s” of theology, we see more and more of God’s wisdom and power and glory.

Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. (Ecclesiastes 3:16-17)

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