What is the biggest natural evil you can think of? Is it Katrina? Is it the devastating Tsunami in Japan, or the earthquakes of Haiti? Close to home for me is Mt. St. Helens, which blew on May 18, 1980. Praise God there was enough warning to evacuate the majority of people living in the surrounding area, or that natural disaster would have claimed more than the handful of lives it did.
There is absolutely no doubt that our world is sick. Even as I type this, thousands and thousands of people are starving. A young man, brainwashed into Jihad, is preparing to give his life in the bloodiest, cruelest attack he can conjure up. Another baby was just torn apart in the womb. What is more, evil has affected each of us personally. Cancer, a drunk driver, a stillborn baby, a soldier never coming home—how has it affected you? Our world is ripe with evil. There is no other conclusion we can come to.
So where does that leave us as Christians? What place does evil have in regards to our belief in an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God? It would seem that both can't be true, right? The God we believe in . . . how could He possibly be reconciled to what we have observed and experienced in tragedy after tragedy on this earth?
This post is devoted to grappling with the problem of evil and passing on the conclusions I have come to. Five questions will both flesh out the problem and bring the worthwhile answers I am confident we can come to. The questions are: 1) Is evil a thing?, 2) Doesn't God care enough to stop evil?, 3) What is our purpose in life?, 4) What other worldview can we run to?, and 5) Has God experienced evil like we do?
So buckle up. Here we go.
Is Evil a Thing?
This skeptic's question would be difficult to answer if we believed evil was a thing that needed to be created. But is it? Is evil a thing? Of course, I don't mean is it a material thing, for our premise that God created good might stretch beyond the physical to abstract things too, like love, joy, and peace (though since these are a part of God's nature, and God is eternal, even these abstract emotions weren't created I would say. That would be an interesting topic to study more on, sometime! ). Closer study of evil, however, reveals that it is not a thing in and of itself, but the failing of the created. It is the lack or absence of good!
Let me attempt to explain it this way. Is your shadow a thing? Yes, you might say, because you can see and observe it. But what really is a shadow? It's only there because there is light, and that light happens to be at least partially blocked--partially made absent--by your body. A shadow can't exist by itself. It depends on both the light and your body. Thus it is not an independent thing, but the result of two created things coming in conflict with each other. It couldn't have been created because, thank goodness, we don't have a bunch of shadows running around on their own.
The same with Evil. God couldn't have created it, and we don't even have to point to His Holy Nature to say that, though that is a great argument in and of itself. Evil is not an independent entity, but the failing of God's perfect creation. All of God's creation was "very good" Genesis 1:31, which means evil wasn't around for creation. It was only introduced later as a failing of what was very good, when Adam rebelled.
Our last task in this section, then, is to respond to Isaiah 45:7. In light of what we have discovered, how do we reconcile this verse? Well, context as always is key to understanding a verse! If you read further in Isaiah 45 you will find that God is warning punishment against Israel for their quarrels with their Maker (verse 9). He causes peace for the righteous, and brings evil (more accurately translated "calamity" in the NASB) on those who turn against Him. He does not create the evil Himself, but He is sovereignly using it to punish the wicked.
Now that we have defined evil and its origins, our next question naturally follows.
Doesn't God care enough to stop evil?
So why did God allow His universe to become less than "very good"? Christians believe in a God who is actively involved with His creation. It follows, then, that He's not aloof of the terrible rot of evil in our world. So why doesn't He stop it?
Is He somehow indifferent? That can't be. We can be absolutely sure of that. God Is holy: "For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness; no evil dwells with You". Psalm 5:4. Evil and sin are against His nature, and therefore abhorrent to Him. Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus (John 11:35). We grieve the Holy Spirit when we sin. (Eph. 4:30)
So if evil grieves God so much and yet hasn't been stopped, are we to believe that God is not powerful enough to stop it? There are a few who have capitulated to this certain heresy, but read any of the lists of God's attributes and you will learn that He is indeed all-powerful. God is omnipotent. "Even from eternity I am He, And there is none who can deliver out of My hand; I act and who can reverse it?" Isaiah 43:13.
Further study reveals that God will indeed destroy evil one day (See Revelation 20 and 21). He is more than powerful enough to do so! In the meantime, He has provided a way to escape evil's power through believing in and accepting Jesus as Lord. We will still suffer during our lives on earth, but we can be comforted in Christ. We will still die, but death will not conquer us. Through the Helper Christ has sent us, the Holy Spirit, we have the power to overcome evil!
God is holy. He hates evil and will one day destroy it. His plan for the world is good. So we can trust that for whatever reason God temporarily allows evil in the world and our lives, it is for a good reason. A best reason. Exploring our purpose in life might help us discover this reason.
What is our Purpose in Life?
“To glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.” That’s the rote Christian response. It’s a good one, but do we take the time to actually investigate what it means, as we good little Sunday school grads repeat it verbatim?
What brings God the most glory? Isn’t it through the amazing demonstration of His mercy in that He would choose to save some of us fallen, willingly-rebellious people from the just penalty we deserve? (Romans 9:14-24) Think about it though. What if there was no contrast of God’s great mercy and lovingkindness. What if there was no evil to save us from. Would we even know His attributes? Would we even be thankful for them?
What’s more, what would our relationship with the Lord look like if we didn’t daily need Him to “deliver us from evil”, as Christ so famously taught us to pray in Mathew 6:13? Would we rely on Him in any meaningful way? Also, could we even call it a relationship if all we could ever do was glorify God, and never had a free will that could turn from Him? If I acquired a girlfriend by forcing her to love me, because she had no other choice, that wouldn’t be real love. It would feel really lame for both of us. It would be wrong.
What if we need the contrast of evil, then, to truly know what is “very good”? So often we American Christians tend to believe that God’s main purpose in life is for us to be abundantly happy and to have our whole lives go on without a hitch. We rage at Him if anything bad is thrown into our lives. We question His goodness. But what if we couldn’t be drawn closer to the Lord without experiencing the hard times for a season? What if we couldn’t truly choose to surrender our lives to Christ without having the chance to choose that which is in opposition to Him, evil?
You see, maybe the greatest good isn’t living a life without hardship. God is our heavenly Father, and He knows what is best for us. Take my little Brother Wyatt. He thought I was terrible for forcing him to eat his coconut squash curry before he could eat his warm, buttery slice of bread. The best good he could think of would be to ditch ALL coconut squash curry in favor of all-you-can-eat bread and butter, and though I may have been tempted to agree with his sentiments as a mortal human being myself, was I wrong for having him eat what I knew would ultimately be healthier for him? Of course not!
God’s purpose for our lives is to draw us to Himself and for us to glorify Him through our lives. Like a good father, He knows what is healthiest for us, and He will lovingly put us through it whether we think it is best or not in our limited, human perspectives. Evil is a temporary consequence of this best way, and we can trust God through it. Perhaps, realizing this, we can even rejoice in the trials that come our way as a result of evil! (James 1:2-4)
What Other Worldview Could We Run To?
Every worldview has to answer the question. It’s not just the Christian Theists who need to be ready to make sense of the problem of evil. So, let’s look at how other common worldviews handle evil.
Worldviews are commonly grouped into four overarching categories: Naturalism, Transcendentalism, Post-Modernism, and Theism. Naturalism is the belief that all there ever was, ever is, and ever will be is naturalistic. There is no supernatural. No God that created us. No spirits that intervene in our lives. It is the religion of Atheists, Nihilists, Existentialists, Humanists, and the like. Their response to evil?
Literally. There is no meaning or any purpose behind it. It’s a natural world doing what it does. It’s “biological, highly-evolved machines” (that’s us!) breaking down or attacking each other. Make the most of the life you’re given—play the cards you’ve been dealt—because that’s all there is for you.
Just makes you happy to be alive, doesn't it?
The Transcendental worldview believes that everything is spiritual. There is nothing that is material (what we think of as material is really an illusion or illustration of the supernatural). Transcendentalists are Buddhists, Hinduists, New Agers, Pantheists, Tom Cruise, Obi Won Kenobi, Oprah, Shirley MacLaine, and the likes. Their response to evil?
It is an illusion.
There’s no such thing as evil. There’s maybe two sides of the same—the black and white of the yin yang, or the dark and light sides of the force—but there’s no ultimate evil. Maybe, if you believe in Karma, the "evil" you experience is what you deserve for your past life. If you are a leper or have cancer, then you must have really messed things up in your past life. Or, alternatively, suffering is a consequence of your desires if you’re a Buddhist. You must learn to stop desiring anything if you want to escape evil. You see, in both these cases, what we think of as evil is really just, well, what we deserve. It’s not evil, we just think it is because it hurts. Badly.
Alternatively, we could forget about Karma or stopping our desires and just go with Shirley MacLaine:
“Until mankind realizes that there is, in truth, no good, and there is, in truth, no evil-there will be no peace.”
Yay peace, right?
Or you could go Post-modern. Post-Modernists believe that no one can know ultimate truth. Our truth is shaped by our experiences. So to them, evil is kind of hard to explain. What may be true for you about evil might not be true for me, but don’t worry, we are both right! There is no grand metanarrative—no “big story”—to give any kind of explanation or reason for evil. Make of it what you will. What’s more, if I believe my god caused you to suffer, I am just as right as you are in thinking it is an illusion. And what about the terrorist who kills as many as he can because of his beliefs? You may look at it as evil, but you have to let him live out his own truth, right? Talk about a convoluted mess. And it doesn't sound very peaceful to me, Shirley.
Lastly, there is Theism--the religions that have God central to them. Islam believes that everything comes directly from God’s (Allah’s) hands. He created everything, so He created evil too and uses it for His purposes. He creates it to make us aware of our devious ways, or to test us to see if our faith is really genuine. As I have already pointed out above, this differs from a proper Biblical Theist’s view of evil. Evil isn’t something God directly created, and though He may use it to test our faith, it’s to grow us deeper in our relationship with Him, not to see if we can take it or not.
Your last option other than Christianity is Judaism. The God of Judaism is the same as the Christian God, except that it is fuzzy just how you are supposed to overcome evil or escape it as an Orthodox Jew, because you deny Jesus Christ as the Messiah. You are still under the law, and the common understanding of evil is that it is a punishment for your breaking of the law. As the disciples asked Jesus in John 9:2:
And His disciples asked Him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?"
Jesus’s response? John 9:3:
Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.
Has God experienced evil like we do?
Jesus’s answer to evil there in John 9:3 may seem rather harsh if you think about it. Maybe even more harsh than the disciples’ conclusion about evil. God let this guy be blind for all his life just so He could show His good works by healing him? That’s crazy! It almost seems . . . wrong, one might say.
We have to remember, though, who is the Lord of this earth and what our duties are as His creations. We are to bring Him glory. We need to stop feeling entitled to the idea that God owes us an abundantly happy, carefree life here on earth. Clay, meet Potter. God has the privilege to do anything He likes with us little lumps of clay. If He chooses to use even the evil—the evil that mankind has brought upon ourselves by our rebellion against Him—to bring glory to Himself, then that is His choice.
It might seem a little callous of God still, though, if it weren’t for the fact that He stepped into this world and experienced evil to the greatest extent so that we might live. He took upon Himself intense suffering and evil! He is not aloof in any way to the evil in this world. He is not indifferent towards it. He experienced it to the deepest extent, taking it all upon Himself in that moment on the cross. He offered His perfect self for rebellious, corrupted lumps of clay! He was willing to demonstrate the Father's glory in that way.
And He defeated evil.
Death has no sting for those who trust in Him. Sin can be broken free of. Evil can be overcome with good! One day evil will be completely done away with, after all peoples have had a choice whether to accept God or not, but until then, God knows our suffering in the here and now and can comfort us like only someone who has gone through our same pain can. He empathizes with us and intercedes for us with groans too deep for words!
As I have wrestled with these questions, evil has become much less of a problem for my Christian Worldview. In fact, I couldn’t imagine trying to make sense of evil without a Christian Worldview. As one of our favorite hymns go, “Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus/just to take Him at His Word/just to rest upon His promise/just to know, thus sayeth the Lord.”
I sincerely hope this post helps you as you process the question of evil and come to your own conclusions. It may not have fleshed out all the different arguments and defenses, but I assure you, many an hour was spent researching and thinking through what I have written! It is my prayer that you will be able to sing the chorus to this favorite hymn with me, more clearly and assuredly than ever:
“Jesus, Jesus how I love you, how I proved you o’er and o’er. “Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus, oh for grace to know you more”