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Evil in a Good God's World:
Biblical Explanations for the Problem of Evil
For all who have asked "Why?"
By Carmen C. DiCello
The question of how to reconcile divine sovereignty with human freedom has challenged the minds of Christian (and non-Christian) thinkers for millennia. Can God control every event without reducing His creatures to mere automatons? Likewise, is it possible for the creature
to possess genuine freedom if the Creator is truly sovereign? Of course the questions along these lines are usually more numerous than the answers. Such is the nature of the subject.
Within this larger framework, one area of particular concern is the so-called problem of evil. How can (why would) a good and sovereign God allow evil in His universe? While the subject is as vast as it is puzzling, please allow me to offer a few suggestions.
Evil is a messy project, defying simplistic solutions. There is no single, universally satisfying answer to this dark reality. Therefore the approach taken here will be multifaceted. The goal is to provide a broad framework for constructing a Christian theodicy. By supplying a number of pieces to this great theological and emotional puzzle, it is hoped that the reader will be fortified in his faith, and enabled to cope with the difficulties of life. What follows are some explanations for the problem of evil.
1. Often the evil we observe is the result of sinful choices.
Paul tells us that those who insist on living evil lives can be "given over" to their sin (Romans 1:24, 26, 28). Sin, of course, is evil. Yet here we see this evil as the penalty for human corruption. Man chooses to perform evil and receives it back on himself. Amazingly, in context this evil is seen as the wrath of God. That is, God judges sinners for their sin by giving them over to ita frightening thought indeed, and one explanation for the evil we see. As Anselm wrote: "[We] have not yet duly estimated the gravity of sin."
2. Sometimes evil's occurrence is the means to a greater good.
In Hebrews we are told that God disciplines us for our good. Part of this discipline includes rubbing shoulders with that which is evil; God uses evil to sanctify us. For instance there is the case of Joseph (Genesis 45:1; 50:15-20). He was left for dead and abandoned by his family. All looked bad until years later when Joseph could turn to his brothers and say, "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good."
There you have it: God brought about good by means of evil. Even more astounding is the fact that Christ Himself "learned obedience through sufferings," much of which involved contact with corrupt people and their evil schemes.
3. Evil is answered in the cross of Jesus Christ.
We might say that Jesus was immersed in (though not infected by) evil. Of course the supreme example of this is Jesus' death. Has anything ever been so contrary to the way it ought to have been? Was there ever such a display of wickedness? But God used this evil to conquer evil! Our rebellion was, as it were, laid on Him. As Jesus swallowed sin and its penalty, the salvation of billions was procured. And what is the result? His condescending grace is displayed; His marvelous plan is manifested; His goodness is experienced; His Son is glorified.
Along these lines, Henri Blocher writes:
We have no other position than at the foot of the cross. After we have been there we are given the answer of the wisdom of God, which incenses the advocates of optimistic heodicies or of tragic philosophies. God's answer is evil turned back on itself, conquered by the ultimate degree of love in the fulfillment of justice.
4. Evil is an avenue through which God's attributes are displayed.
Romans 9 tells us that God permits evil in order to put His wrath and power on display (v. 22) and to make known the riches of His glory (v. 23). To put it bluntly, the existence of evil gives God the opportunity to show forth an aspect of His being (a fearful aspect!) that might otherwise be hidden. On top of this, He accomplishes a depth of mercy, a height of grace, and a measure of glory that stand in stark contrast to what sinners deserve.
God thus allows evil to be the dark backdrop against which He paints His wonderful portraits of grace. In fact Ephesians 3:9-10 presents human history (including all the evil therein) as a stage upon which God vindicates Himself before the angelic hosts. "[E]vil ultimately serves a good purpose. Its existence makes it possible for God to demonstrate to all the universe what He is like."
5. In response to those who, in the presence of evil, rebel against divine sovereignty, it is important to remember that God is not ultimately answerable to His creatures.
Doesn't the potter have the right to do what he chooses with his own clay (Romans 9:21)? Of course! God can do what He wants with that which is Hisand everything is His! This is the answer to the skeptic or rebel who objects to the sovereignty of God. God is God, period! Though hurt and mystified by the presence of evil, we must ultimately bow with Job who said, "I have declared that which I do not understand, things too wonderful which I do not know . . . Therefore, I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:3, 6).
As Frame points out:
In His decisions, [God] will not submit to man's judgment. He reserves the right to behave in a way that may offend human values, that may even appear, from a human viewpoint, to contradict His own values. And when that happens, He is not under man's judgment. He is not obligated to explain.
6. Part of the difficulty in understanding evil is due to the fact that we are limited, both by our humanity and our sin.
All of us are bound by our own nature, unable to escape what we are. For instance we can't choose to fly like a bird, however much we might admire the bird's abilities. Whatever efforts we make, there are certain limitations we cannot avoid. Likewise, we are limited when it comes to understanding God. His ways are above our own (Isaiah 55:8-9). What's worse, sin blinds and deceives us. Thus our human faculties are marred and unable to function properly.
While Christians have been released from sin's penalty and enslaving influence, no believer is able to fully grasp the divine mind. These factorsour humanity and sinfulnessmight partly explain our inability to comprehend the evil of this world. Perhaps our limitations and flaws render us incapable of completely solving these dilemmas.
7. The problem of evil is, at least at some level, a mystery.
The Christian church does little service to itself or those on the outside when it simply rejects the problem of evil out of hand. What I mean is this: We shouldn't minimize the fact that evil really does exist, and that it deeply affects our lives and the lives of those we love. On top of this, there do appear to be legitimate questions concerning God's involvement in these things. Of course some of the objections of skeptics are not intellectual at all, but moral and
spiritual. The problem, in these cases, is not one of understanding but of rebellion. Still, it remains that we aren't given all of the pieces to this puzzle.
Why, for instance, does God allow evil to touch His children? Could He not accomplish His goals apart from such awful circumstances? There are, no doubt, good answers to these questionssome which are available now, others which may not be discovered until the eschaton. My point, though, is that we as believers in divine sovereignty must never minimize the reality of evil, nor exaggerate our comprehension of how God relates to it.
Since we serve a God who makes sense out of life and whose character and record are coherent and self-consistent, we needn't fret at the prospect of evil. Though we feel the pangs from living in a fallen world and have questions we would ask God, we can approach these difficulties from the perspective of faith, for surely "the judge of the whole earth will do right" (Genesis 18:25).
The Proper Response to Mystery
God has built mystery into the fiber of the universe. On the one hand, the divine handiwork is evident for all who will see (Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:19-20). On the other hand, even what we know is sometimes shrouded in mystery. Take, for example, the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity. The Bible clearly teaches that God is both three and one (Isaiah 48:16 and Deuteronomy 6:4). Yet who really comprehends all that this means? Then there is the person of Jesus; He is both God and man (Colossians 2:9). But no one can fathom this truth! What is plain is this: God is both a revealer and a concealer, and these often go hand in hand.
If what we have stated is true, God has intentionally hidden certain things from His creatures. But why? It is at this point that many Christians are tripped up and led to believe that our partial knowledge (and so partial ignorance) somehow detracts from a Biblical worldview.
But this is not necessarily the case. Though God has revealed Himself sufficiently, it is quite evident that He has also concealed a number of matters from us.
To put it another way, there are lessons to be learned not only from what we understand, but from what we don't! What are these lessons? Among other things, genuine mystery can lead to a deepened faith and a heightened sense of worship.
Biblical faith has substance, in that it rests on a reliable word from God, a word that is sensible and consistent. At the same time, faith involves mystery, for God can sometimes appear as if He is not being consistent. It is not that He is whimsical or untrustworthy; the Lord is the very epitome of reliability. There are times, however, when He seems to be contradicting Himself. At these times, believers must recall what they know about God, both from Scripture and personal experience, and then trust Him despite the circumstances.
But why is God baffling to us? A number of suggestions have already been given. Whatever else is true, though, part of the reason for our bewilderment is the simple fact that God is God. His ways are far above our own (Isaiah 46:5). Thus we shouldn't expect to be able to grasp all that He is and does. There are times, I believe, when God goes out of His way to highlight this fact for His creatures.
The situation we are left with is this: God is good and fair. But sometimes He doesn't seem to be good and fair. As a result, we are left scratching our heads, wondering how this can be. The trick here is to truly believe (as just noted) that all of God's ways do make sense, and to allow our ignorance to promote worship, not doubt. At the end of the day, we are left dumfounded before a God who is perfectly consistent, even though we are unable to tie together every loose end.
A realization of our ignorance forces us to trust in God. Not only is He reliable when life makes sense. He can, and must, be trusted when nothing makes sense. Likewise, our inability to master deity is an indication of His transcendent greatness. A God who surpasses creaturely categories inspires worship.
In the end, therefore, mystery needn't lead us away from God in horror and doubt. Instead it can (and ought to) reinforce what believers already know about the great King of the universe. We are left to rest in His worthy arms.
Is it Ever Right to Complain?
Often when tragedy strikes, when evil rears its ugly head, people are found complaining. Why would God allow such and such to happen? How can this be fair? But are such questions even allowable for the Christian? Well, yes and no.
To complain is to express frustration, to acknowledge ignorance, to announce hurt. Are these verbalizations (or thoughts) wrong? It depends on the attitude of the person who makes them. In one sense, of course, complaining can be a very arrogant and ungodly thing to do. When a person desires to sit in judgment over God, seeking, in essence, to dethrone Him, he/she is displaying nothing but pride and ignorance.
This self-centered attitude is condemned by Paul in Romans 9. There, as mentioned earlier, the apostle informs the rebel that he/she has no right to answer God in such a fashion. God can do what He likes with His creation! This means that all complaining that attacks the character and denies the prerogatives of the living Lord is to be avoided.
Then again, there is> a type of complaining that is a part of the human fabric. Many of the Psalms are instances of such legitimate complaints (e.g., 5; 55; 83; 88; 94). What makes the cries of the Psalmist valid? That's easy: faith. Those who come to God in honest and humble trust are certainly free to shower heaven with their questions, for these aren't ultimately grounded in rebellion or self-centeredness. Rather they grow out of a heart convinced that God really is good and His ways right.
People in such a condition are free to express their uneasiness and confusion. When this occurs, the "complainer" isn't led astray, but closer to the Lord who alone can provide comfort for an aching heart. Therefore while it is improper to demand perfect understanding before one believes, it is equally proper to stretch one's faith through the process of asking why.
The above listed suggestions are by no means the only answers to the dilemma of evil. Others have and will be suggested. But it is important to understand that there is a proper Christian response to pain and suffering. In light of the character of God and the testimony of
Scripture, we can approach the problem of evil with an attitude of worship and faith. Our worship is perhaps in the midst of mystery.
Like Job we close our mouths as God takes center stage (Job 38:1ff). With him we recognize that while evil is "big," God is much, much "BIGGER." Likewise, ignorant though we may be, we trust Him. The God who has been good and faithful is surely worthy of our allegiance (Psalm 13; 94). If we believe Him in the daylight, we can trust Him in the dark. He has, after all, given us His dear Son (Romans 8:32). Can we doubt His immense goodness and love?
May God enable us to look through evil to Him who is the author and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 12:2). And in our looking, may we be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, who has already conquered evil in principle and will eventually put it down forever at His coming.
With a view to the end, we look forward to the day when "not only will justice be done, but it will be seen to be done." Maranatha!
The links below are direct links to where the book can be purchased from Books-A-Million.
1. Evil is often categorized as being either moral or natural. The former concerns the actual evil intentions of created beings, the willful activities of humans and angels. The latter involves disasters of various kinds, those awful tragedies that do not result directly from the premeditated acts of God's creatures.
2. A theodicy is an attempt to explain the presence of evil in a good and sovereign God's world. Feinberg states it this way: "The ways of God are defensible, and they are defensible in such a way that no theist should have to give in to the charge of irrationality due to a problem of evil." J. S. Feinberg in Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology , ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1984), 1086.
3. Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994). 133.
4. Jay Adams, The Grand Demonstration: A Biblical Study of the So-Called Problem of Evil (Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers, 1991), 51.
5. John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company, 1994), 172.
6. Concerning the matter of the eschaton, it is interesting to observe the response of the apostle Paul to the difficulties he encountered. He viewed them as temporary afflictions which produce "an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison" (2 Corinthians 4:17), and considered the evil of this world as "not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18). In a practical sense, then, one important way of dealing with evil (however bewildering it may appear) is by looking forward to that day when all is finally made well. Evil is great, yet temporary. Future glory is infinitely greater, and eternal!
7. Though God is sovereign in all affairs, He apparently relates to good and evil in different ways. As Carson says: "The manner in which God stands behind evil and the manner in which he stands behind good are not precisely identical; for he is to be praised for the good, but not blamed for the evil." D.A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1981), 212.
8.It is important to note the difference between ignorance and mystery. Where there is mystery there is necessarily a measure of ignorance; however, not every instance of ignorance is due to genuine mystery. Sometimes our ignorance is avoidable and our questions answerable. The mystery intended here is that which (apparently, at least) defies our comprehension.
We should also point out that the concept of mystery is often used in Scripture as signifying something that was once hidden, but is now revealed (e.g, Ephesians 1:9; 3:3; Colossians 1:26-27; 2:1). Even here, though, some of the previously undisclosed truths are quite mysterious, in the modern sense. See 1Corinthians 15:51ff where the mystery concerns the believer's transformation at Christ's coming. That this will happen is a revealed fact. But how it will actually occur is beyond us, i.e., mystifying!
9. D. A. Carson, How Long O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1990), 147.
Evil in a Good God's World: Biblical Explanations for the Problem of Evil Copyright 1997, 1999 by Carmen C. DiCello. All rights reserved.
About the author: Carmen C. DiCello is one of the pastors of a local independent Baptist church (Word of Life), and also a school teacher in a public school district.
Note: All Scripture references from: The New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.
The above article was posted on this Web site
March 23, 1999
and updated September 3, 1999.
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