Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Last Friday, it took just eight or nine gunmen to terrorize Paris and alarm the entire Western world, fueling debate about global terrorism and the growing refugee crisis. Though evil is ever-present in our world, and seems to grow more dramatic by the day, we have hope knowing that the day is coming when Jesus will have put down all remnants of evil. I pray that day comes soon, and I’m sure you do too. I also thank God that, as reported to me by Jean Philippe and Marie Angelique, none of our members in France were harmed. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who were injured and all who mourn the death of their loved ones.
When terrible things like the Paris attacks occur, I remind myself that the fullness of God’s kingdom is yet to come. I also remind myself that we are blessed to experience God’s kingdom now in our relationship with Christ, by the Spirit, under the grace of God. But I’m also aware that we live as aliens in a tainted world where the kingdom’s fullness is not yet seen. As the apostle Paul tells us, we live in the present evil age while we hope for the age that is yet to come (Galatians 1:4; Ephesians 1:21).
It can be perplexing, even discouraging to know that before we fully experience that new age, we must continue through this time of evil with the pain it brings. But we are encouraged knowing that events like those in Paris are not outside God’s love for us. Though we face events we don’t understand, we have faith and hope knowing God is fully present and is suffering with us. We know this because he proved his willingness to suffer from evil and bear its pain on our behalf. Yes, we grieve (and we pray), but not as those who are without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
The problem of evil
Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with the problem of evil for centuries, struggling to define its nature and character, as well as to explain why evil continues to exist. A variety of explanations have emerged. Buddhists say evil isn’t something that exists; it’s an illusion (maya). Some atheists say evil is the natural result of a universe without design or a designer. Here is what atheist Richard Dawkins wrote:
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky; and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Nothing but blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music. (Out of Eden, p. 133)
This atheistic explanation is not persuasive, especially since most of us have had enough bad things happen in our lives that we are convinced that evil is real and ought not be. Although evil is regular (and thus “ordinary”), it’s not necessary nor, in that sense, natural. The proclamation of naturalism that, “What is, is,” does not serve as an explanation of why we sense that what is, ought not be.
The Stoics taught that evil is the corruption of reason and should simply be endured. They advocated indifference to pain, pleasure, grief, and joy. This stiff “grin-and-bear-it” approach to life may sound virtuous, but it quickly becomes empty when an innocent child is kidnapped or you are falsely accused of doing evil. Ignoring evil is not a way of recognizing the evil of evil, and actually dealing with evil is no small task. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”
Evil exists because God permits and gives humanity the possibility of choice. How we choose to use our wills is horrendous at times, as some misuse their wills in striving for evil. We see this every time there is a terrorist attack, including the one last week in Paris. God gives us the power to choose, to act. We can use our wills to do some good or to do some evil. But there is a strict limit on what we can do. What we cannot do is absolute good or absolute evil. Both our good acts and our evil acts are partial, provisional and temporary. We cannot and do not act as only God can act. We do not define reality, or good and evil for that matter. We act within limits, although those limits always seem to be too unrestrictive when great evils occur. But the fact that we cannot enact absolute good or absolute evil does not mean that there isn’t an absolute good that can and will conquer all evil, which is, in the end, not absolute, but relative to the goodness and power of God. Fortunately we know God in Jesus, who is absolute good, and who conquered evil absolutely so that evil has no future.
Despite this understanding, we still ask, Why doesn’t God stop (absolutely) all evil now? A good number of theologians and philosophers have answered this way: Try to imagine a world where God intervened to prevent carelessness and irresponsible behavior from occurring. There would be no criminal activity, no accidents, and no natural disasters. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Yes, until we realize that such a world would eliminate human choice and will. Whenever God saw something bad start to occur, he would intervene and suspend or modify our wills. This would lead to a world without moral meaning, for every time an evil action began to raise its ugly head, human willing would be overcome by external force and the deliberation to discern and choose the good would become morally meaningless. In such a world there would be no practical difference between a good and an evil action. In other words, we would not be living as human persons who could mirror their creator God in choosing and willing the good. We would, in effect, become non-moral beings, like animals or robots.
So what do we do with evil? A common Christian explanation is to combat and conquer it ourselves with whatever means are at hand. But this “fight fire with fire” approach poses a major problem—it can be a stumbling block to belief in God. It both grants too much to evil (as evil as evil is) and not enough to what God has done, is doing and will do through his and our doing good. What Paul tells us (in Romans 12:21) is that as God’s children, rather than being “overcome by evil” we are to “overcome evil with good.”
It is not uncommon for those struck by tragedy to question their faith, or even abandon it when facing the pain that evil brings. In those situations it can seem that evil is as real or more real than God and his goodness. If we attempt to combat evil and conquer it simply by sheer force of our own strength, “fighting fire with fire,” we get lost in our own efforts and can quickly spiral down a path of unbelief—believing that evil has the same or greater status as good. We also can be tempted to believe that good cannot overcome evil, not even God’s good! Conversely, when we focus on God’s sovereignty as displayed in Jesus Christ during a time of evil—in the midst of pain and grief—we can experience his comfort in the truth that he is with us in the midst of our suffering, and that evil has no future.
The trust that yields hope
Of course, when we face suffering as the result of evil, it can seem to us that God is at a distance, standing back from the evil that confronts us, or otherwise is uninvolved in our situation. But the opposite is true—God is always with us. As Phillip Yancey wrote in Disappointment with God, “All feelings of disappointment with God trace back to a breakdown in that relationship.” That breakdown always occurs on the human side as we are challenged to have faith in God—to trust that he is good and can and has overcome evil. That trust in God gives us hope and in hope we can act here and now on the basis of the truth concerning the ever-present God who accompanies us in our suffering.
To show his willingness to join us in our suffering, the eternal Son of God came in the flesh as Jesus and made his dwelling with us. And though he was rejected by many, Jesus made atonement for all through his life, death, resurrection and ascension. What Jesus has done for us shows clearly that God does care for us and is with us now in our suffering, and one day, in triumph, will bring in the fullness of his kingdom where there will be no more evil and the suffering it causes. God’s desire is to be in a loving relationship with each one of us—living in us, experiencing our suffering and our joys with us, all the while changing us from the inside out. We can meet and know Jesus in suffering and in hope.
Along with his mission to change us from the inside out, Jesus works to turn the world inside out. Yes, there is evil in this present age, but we live here not in fear and despair but with hope and confidence knowing that “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Most assuredly, one article like this cannot answer everything about evil and suffering. But I hope it brings you some comfort as we are reminded that, on a day and in an hour that no human knows, Jesus will bring an end to the actual nonsense that ought not be.
As we await that blessed hope, let’s join together in praying for the time when there will be no more terrorism, no more cancer victims, no more drive-by shootings, no more tears and sorrow. Right now, life is not fair, but God is, as we clearly see in the whole life of Jesus. He does not allow anything he cannot redeem. Fair and loving, he has made just and fair provision for all through his life, death, resurrection and ascension. In Jesus we see that God takes no pleasure in our suffering and has acted decisively to bring it to an end. We may not yet see this end clearly now, but we most certainly will see it and experience it fully in eternity.
Be encouraged dear sisters and brothers, God is faithful. He will finish what he has started.
Maranatha! Come quickly, Lord Jesus,
6 thoughts on “Hope, despite evil”
For a sermon from GCI pastor Neil Earle on this topic, go to http://www.glendorachurch.org/current-sermon/11-14-15.htm
I don’t want to undermine the faith of anyone who may read this comment, but I would like, at least, to express the questioning that has started to surface within me as to whether God is the author of evil (whether partial, as mentioned in the article). I am struggling to understand this (again, as mentioned in Mr Tkach’s article), as well as other things that have come to mind recently. This comment can only skim some points.
I do know that when things are bad, my ‘attitude’, or general response goes ‘south’, as they say, into the toilet – and I then unequivocally let God ‘know’ how I feel. I would like to be one of those ‘stiff-upper-lip’ types who will resist all – like the Church ‘Father’ Origen – that I have been reading about recently, but I think all I have come to appreciate about trials is ‘aversion therapy’ – they are better avoided and not experienced, if possible. If not possible to avoid – that’s another matter.
Over the last 1 to 2 years I have started questioning my faith in God, and while Mr Tkach’s article mentions some interesting viewpoints regarding evil, pain and suffering, I can’t say it satisfies my wondering about why evil had to be part of the human equation.
When I ‘really’ realised that Satan could do nothing except what God allowed him (note in Job regarding this), this I guess, started my ‘downward spiral’, in that it seems God allows this “partial” evil to occur, but also, it seems that Satan was created with the capacity, the environment, or with certain characteristics which enabled him to sin (I guess the same for fallen angels). Where did Satan’s capacity for jealousy, greed, etc. come from? I don’t think he “decided” to have these capacities or features before he was created.
By extension, to the human condition – no one decided to have the weaknesses they have, ‘before’ they came into existence. Therefore, and in conjunction with 1 Peter 1: 20 ‘He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world … ‘[NKJV], or, ‘Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world… ‘(KJV), it seems that all these evils, disasters, suffering, etc., were foreordained (not in a ‘Calvinist’ way, might I add).
The ‘fall’ of Adam and Eve, it seems, was going to happen, no matter what the ‘configuration’. Adam and Eve (whether metaphor or not – I believe in a real couple, based on the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, and Paul), were not created ‘perfect’, and inevitably sinned.
I agree with the point that we have the ability for partial (not absolute) good, evil, choice, etc, according to our limitations. But we were given only partial ability (somewhat, though infinitely less than God) to perform. We yearn for peace, love, happiness, etc., yet it seems so much an ephemeral dream that doesn’t last. I think we need more of God’s presence and experience so as to be encouraged all the more. Paul had his ‘Damascus experience’, which he seemed to recount often afterwards – it clearly left an impression upon him. It’s no use saying, ‘Oh yes, but he was special.’ I think that doesn’t say anything. God is not a respecter of persons, and the angels sing for joy when one sinner repents – so it would be valid for God to respond – after all He called us first, while still in sin – we didn’t decide or choose when God would call.
I disagree that if everything was perfect, then we wouldn’t have free choice, or couldn’t differentiate between good and evil. If I could reference, and put in my own words (paraphrase) something I read recently that a Church ‘Father’ wrote – I think it was Augustine (from the book: ‘Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy’ – edited by Bradley G. Green), it was that God did NOT lose any of his freewill due to his perfectly perfect state of existence.
I know we are not God; and the point regarding ‘a world without moral meaning’ may have some meaning or significance in regards to the human level of existence. But in the kingdom, and when changed, surely all will be good won’t it? There will be no more tears, sorrow, crying (Rev 21: 4-5). There will be no more evil (partial or otherwise) won’t there?
So why couldn’t God have done it differently, since “all things are possible with God.” I know we can only leave it all to God since He has all power, and is the ‘big boss’, so to speak. Yet, I would like to say that in my view it would have been better if no evil was present, where no-one hurt you, and vice-versa; where every act in thought, word and deed was all for the good of everyone. I think this could have been possible – and have free choice – to do good, or even more good.
Although I appreciate that Phillip Yancey wrote what I would call a “fair dinkum” book in ‘Disappointment with God’, where he pretty much described the problems, pain and tragedy as it is, I felt it didn’t, so-to-speak “give the answer”, or explanation for what we can do to overcome one’s disappointment with God. Maybe there is no answer. In his book he mentions a friend who lost his faith, but what can be done to bring such a person back?
I disagree, and must admit that I have time and again over the decades (yes it’s been decades) heard the same refrain that “The breakdown always occurs on the human side as we are challenged to have faith in God – to trust that he is good and can and has overcome evil.” It seems it is always our fault. It is always something wrong with us. Yes, we are weak, do sin, and fall far less than perfect (even partially), but then since God chose us (John 15:16), is the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), and ‘For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure'(Philippians 2:13), provides faith as a gift and fruit of the Spirit (Gal.5:22 and 1 Cor.12:9), I think we can ask for, and expect, according to promises (Mk.11:22-24), or at least hope for, more communication, help, encouragement (1 Cor. 1), experience of/from God. At least this is my view.
This is enough from me for now. Thank you for reading this comment.
Here is a reply from Joseph Tkach to Peter Grach’s comment.
Most certainly, I identify with part of what you describe. My attitude also takes a nose dive when inexplicable evil manifests itself. The part of your comment I don’t identify with is the beginning of doubt that arises about whether God exists. Personally, I don’t believe God is the author of evil and biblically speaking, evil is not part of God’s nature—evil is the opposite of God’s nature.
Additionally, I find my attitude needs adjusting when I hear the intellectual double-talk that comes from the “angry atheist” camp. To say “everything came from nothing” then redefine what “nothing” means is simply smoke-and-mirrors that, sadly, fools many people. The atheist explanations are even more unsatisfactory, and in the long run they are self-defeating.
Quite honestly, I share a bit of your thoughts and feeling about the free-will defense because it is simply not satisfying in the long run. Nevertheless, I cannot avoid the logic that we would live a programmed existence if God intervened in every instance when evil is about to occur.
In N.T. Wright’s “Evil and the Justice of God” (IVP) his response to this question is that God’s answer to the problem of evil isn’t a verbal answer or explanation. His answer is who and what God did in Jesus Christ. And that’s who we believe in and what we believe. Other than that, there is no satisfactory “answer” to evil.
History has made it clear that humanity is incapable of eliminating evil. When it comes to the origin of evil, no explanation of any sort could ever be totally satisfactory in this life. Evil is repugnant, even to many evil-doers (who are repulsed when anyone does evil to them). Simply put, this is why we say evil is “what ought not to be.”
While the Bible does not give us details about the ultimate reason that evil is possible, it does tell us about its creaturely origin (through creatures and through human will). You are correct that freedom does not require evil. Evil is not necessary at all for any reason. If it were, it would be justified by being necessary. So any response regarding evil should not justify it—there is no justification of evil. Any attempt to explain evil can only consider how it is possible, not how it is necessary.
In the end, what we are given by revelation, in Jesus Christ, is that God by grace has taken responsibility for all evil—evil has no future and what God allows he can redeem, therefore, as unimaginable as it may seem, it all will be worth it. That’s the message we both see and hear in Jesus Christ—in him alone we put our faith and hope. Jesus is God’s response to evil.
My point in writing the letter and now this reply to your comment is that in our distress over evil (with our understanding that evil ought not to be), we, in essence, are in full agreement with God’s revelation and his active plan in Jesus to rid the world of evil. God has not given up on us, and that reality encourages me to never give up my relationship with him.
Blessings upon your understanding,
I am not very intelligent nor do I know all the ins and outs of understanding scripture. But, there is one thing I do know. As, with many things, ‘the opposite’ of a particular idea does not, necessarily, exist. For instance… Light and dark. Dark is simply the absence of light. Dark can only exist any where if light does not. Good and evil are this way. God is good. He knows that living good is the only way to live happily. He knew that, just as the absence of light would cause darkness, the absence of good, would cause something else… which we call evil. It can not exist of its own. It needs the absence of good. When He created Lucifer, He knew that if Lucifer decided against the way God lived that it would be the absence of good. This was something that God did not create. ‘Evil’ can only exist, if ‘good’ does not. Satan threw away what God is and does and so satan, alone, is the father of evil. Satan came up with a different idea apart from what God had taught him. He lead 1/3 of the angels to follow him. This ‘evil’ was Satan’s way and Satan alone, was the creator of it. God didn’t create it. Satan did. So, it’s not necessary for us to contemplate why God created evil. He did not. He was good and when ‘good’ was not followed by Satan, it left only evil. Now, God knew that man might also follow this way and so made him to be temporary and if man followed good, man would be given eternity. If man decided that he would rather throw good out the window, man could be ‘terminated’. We have a word for the opposite of good. That word is evil. But, just like darkness can not exist unless there is no light so, evil can not exist unless good is done away with.
At http://youtu.be/Bh8pm9ZI61A you will find a video with excerpts from a sermon from Peter Hiett on the topic of evil (asking, Why does God tolerate evil?, which brings up the related topic of theodicy). Perhaps the video will helpfully add to this discussion on an important, but challenging topic. For a catalog of articles at GCI.org that address this and related topics, go to http://www.gci.org/spiritual/trials.
I’d like to recommend a book that helpfully addresses the topic being addressed in this post: “Where Was God? Understanding the Holocaust in the Light of God’s Suffering.” It’s available at a low cost in both paperback and Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/Where-Was-God-Understanding-Holocaust/dp/1631740822
Comments are closed.