Is this really the best that God can do?
Why Does God Permit Evil?
Because we don't understand how profound sin is, we don't realize how desperately we need a Savior.
It’s not a new question, of course. Those believing in God want an answer that supports rather than dissolves their faith. Atheists offer this conundrum as an evidence that the ‘god’ their philosophical opponents postulate cannot exist. In their minds, an all-powerful God who is good would hate evil, and would use His power to eradicate it. Of course, this position has some theological problems for the theist, but apparently not for the atheist.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I received an invitation to download an ebook that dealt with this question. It was offered by a group calling itself the Orlando Bible Students (formerly the Dawn Bible Students Association) and I think it fairly reflects the position that many ‘conservative Christian’ people take on the question. I thought it lacked depth, but I think many church-goers are enamored of rock music and fellowship, and likewise lack depth. Still, after this effort, I felt a cogent answer was not offered. And I wrote to suggest a dialog. They have not yet written back.
This being the case, I will post this article and send them the link, and we shall see what happens.
Their approach started by discussing natural disasters. “If God hated evil, why would He allow volcanos and tsunamis and earthquakes?” I think this question misses the point entirely. Because natural disasters aren’t evil.
Unpleasant, certainly. But there is nothing in God’s moral law against hurricanes and tornadoes, even if property is destroyed or people get killed. It is simply not a moral issue. God owns the property and God owns the people. Our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3). And He is not accountable to us.
Suppose there is a major baseball game. It’s the bottom of the sixth, and the pitcher on the mound is having the best game of his life. A mile away, a farmer is watching his parched crops wither away. Suddenly, a rainstorm blows in, ending the game but bringing the rain the farmer so desperately needed.
Was this evil? Obviously not. It simply didn’t suit the preferences of one person subject to it. Now, let’s add a tornado to the mix. It tears through the ballpark and kills the pitcher and 19 people in the stands, including a 1-year-old child. Is this evil? Can we lay this monstrous sin at the feet of Adam and Eve? Or God?
Who sinned? Whose fault was it?
I have maintained, and I think the Bible supports, the idea that there is a connection between the moral universe and the physical universe. But it would be an unwarranted leap to suggest that our specific transgressions trigger earthquakes or tornadoes or anything else. God only knows whether that one-year-old would have grown up to be a brilliant doctor or a mass-murderer. In this case, God sovereignly decided otherwise. In any event, it is God’s prerogative to decide who lives where and for how long, and how their time on earth will be ended.
God has given us this world to live in. It may not suit all of our preferences, but He is not required to accommodate us with gentle breezes, balmy weather, and geologic stability. This is where we live, and we’re allowed by His grace to live here.
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This leads to the next part of the issue. Suppose this one-year-old had not been brought to the game, but had been left with a care-giver who turned out to be a psychopathic child-killer. Since I have taken the position that it’s God’s prerogative to decide, is the psychopath innocent because he was just doing what God obviously ordained? That is, if God wanted the child to grow up, it would have been impossible for anyone to kill him. Either that, or God really has no sovereignty, just some strongly held preferences.
I think this gets closer to the real issue, and this is where I wish to clarify. To do so, we must begin by clarifying how profound and pervasive sin is in the human heart. And these thoughts are not pleasant.
I begin with an indictment against the consumer-driven mentality and theology of the modern American evangelical churches. I believe they have seriously trivialized sin and, as a result, have necessarily trivialized salvation. Nowhere in the scriptures do you see someone getting saved by opening the door of their heart and inviting Jesus to come in and be their personal savior. People are never described as being ‘basically good’ or as well-intentioned but imperfect. We are consistently described as deceitful, desperately wicked, undeserving, self-centered, brutish, vile, loathsome, having a lust for evil. We are not even a teensy-weensy bit good. We are totally depraved.
Now, is this ‘total depravity’ something that we just inherited from Adam, over which we had no control? I mean, a pig can’t help being a pig: both its parents were pigs. And pigs by nature will roll in the mud. Can you blame them? And if our parents were both sinners, and their parents before them, can we be blamed for just being what we are?
That’s a fair question, and it deserves a straight answer. But the straight answer is a little more metaphysical than most people are used to considering. Let me start with a question. If God ceased His creative activity 6,000 years ago, then where have you been?
There is an interesting clue in the 7th chapter of Hebrews. In this passage, the argument is presented that Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek while he was still in the loins of Abraham. This is presented as part of a substantive argument for the superiority of Christ the High Priest over the Levitical priesthood. The point is that Levi had personhood, and moral capacity, before his grandfather was even born. This wasn’t a theoretical, imaginary, or metaphorical construct. The author (Paul, I believe, but we can discuss that later) was laying out a concrete theological argument. Levi paid a tithe.
Levi was credited with an act of subservience. Let’s look at another example. God stated His love for Jacob and his contempt for Esau before either was born (they were fraternal twins) according to Romans 9:11. Other suggestions of pre-embrionic existence and moral culpability is in Exodus 20:5, Exodus 34:7, Numbers 14:18, Deuteronomy 5:9, 2 Kings 10:30 and 2 Kings 15:12. In each of these passages, the reach of God’s judgment or blessing reaches to the fourth generation.
Saul of Tarsus was consenting in the matter of the death of Stephen, and even though he threw no stones, he had Stephen’s blood on his hands from that day forward, and he knew it. Similarly, though I did not actively cause or even actively participate in the sins of my great-grandfather, it appears that I was consenting or in some other way involved. And with that comes a measure of culpability. God would be unjust to judge an innocent person, or to visit the consequences of sin on someone who had no sin.
The disciples apparently understood this. In John chapter 9 they asked if a man’s sin had caused him to be born blind. Reincarnationists like to mis-apply this verse, but it is fairly clear that Jewish theology never had much support for reincarnation. But they were familiar with the verses previously cited. Was the man who was born blind simply receiving judgment for pre-embrionic transgression?
Jesus said ‘no’ but did not discount their question.
God limits His judgment to four generations, but we read in Romans 5 that “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” In other words, I was a sinner when Christ died for me. I was a sinner before I was even born. And where was I? In the loins of my forebear. I was in Adam when he transgressed and, because of that, I became subject to death. I was, by nature a child of wrath. In some sense, I was involved.
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Besides the sci-fi flavor of an argument like this is the question of implications. Certainly we can’t put newborns on trial for the sins of their fathers. And my intention is not to deal with ‘sins’ but with sin. The point is that we are not innocent, and haven’t been for 6,000 years. Similarly, we can’t properly argue that a child just needs a little bit of Jesus because his sins are few and minor, whereas a 40-year-old man might need ‘a whole lotta Jesus’ because he’s been screwing up so much more seriously. And we certainly can’t reason (though some do) that we just need Christ to supplement our righteousness, or to make up a shortfall or pay the part of our debt that we can’t manage.
We wonder how a just God could send that dear little old lady who did so many nice things to the same place of torments He sends Hitler. But this simply betrays our ignorance of both sin and God’s holiness. So let’s consider for a moment the case of a homeowner who owns two dogs.
One is a rather large dog, perhaps a German Shepherd. Fido the Shepherd is not housebroken. The other is a Chihuahua named Spot. Spot is not housebroken either. Both dogs will, by nature, relieve themselves whenever and where ever they have the urge.
Both unload on the living room carpet. Clearly, Fido makes a bigger mess. Is he, therefore, less housebroken than Spot?
Both are placed in the kitchen, where there is a linoleum floor. The mess this time is easier to clean up. Would you conclude that, because the transgression is less serious in the kitchen, that they are more housebroken there than in the rest of the house?
There is a folding gate between the kitchen and the living room which Fido can jump over, but Spot can’t. So Fido makes another mess in the living room. Or – the homeowner sees both dogs sniffing and circling and rightly guesses that the time is coming. He is able to hustle Spot out into the back yard, but Fido makes his mess on the floor. Was Spot a ‘good dog’ for going outside?
All we bring to our relationship with God is rebelliousness, recalcitrance, wickedness and iniquity. That’s it. We are, as noted in Ephesians 2, natural children of wrath. We are, therefore, totally culpable for not only the sins we consummate, but the sin in our hearts. Read your Bible: the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life. Jesus’ judgment falls on the one who has committed adultery with her already in his heart by just a lustful gaze. We’re a lot worse than we like to think, and a lot worse than most pastors are willing to tell us.
We don’t know what awful thoughts the little old lady had. However, we can affirm with some confidence that the only difference between her and Hitler was opportunity.
And where is God in all this? He shapes our lives, limits our opportunities, constrains our evil. Paul says this in 2 Corinthians 5 when he writes the love of Christ constrains us. “Constrain” means ‘to force by imposed stricture, restriction, or limitation.’ What is in us that requires imposed stricture, restriction, or limitation? Is it our natural tendency to love one another? I would suggest that it is our inherent wickedness.
Joseph’s brothers wanted to kill him. God constrained their evil and preserved Joseph alive and, as Joseph told his brothers later, You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. Even the finest ‘good’ deeds are tainted unless they are done completely out of love for God. Half-hearted love for God or luke-warm ‘commitment’ to Him is abominable.
We need a SAVIOR, not self-improvement classes, self-esteem enhancement, or a good example.
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My indictment continues, because the ‘churches’ that dot the landscape have given us a soft and gentle, meek and mild “Jesus” who comes to us oh so humbly and asks … no, BEGS us to please please open the door and let him come in. I find it nauseating, as should any true Christian. We’re not doing God any favors and, as a matter of fact, we need to be dragged by the Holy Spirit to the feet of Christ and saved as an act of His sovereign grace. The only ‘free will’ responses we have toward God or the Gospel of His Kingdom is resistance and contempt.
In the grand scheme, it appears to me that ‘free will’ is a singularity rather than an ongoing series of choices. Rather like a mortgage (or a marriage), in that one makes a singular decision at a point in time and then lives out the consequences. At a point in time, I decide as a matter of free will to sign a mortgage. The lender then prescribed the outworking of my decision. The outworking may run for 30 years and my performance is mandated.
Another example may be someone who makes a ‘free will’ decision to take a part in a play. His participation is then scripted by the director. For us, our ‘free will’ decision was to set ourselves in rebellion against God. Subsequently, God in his sovereign mercy, has mapped out the consequences of our decision.
Psalm 139 points this out. “In Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them” (verse 16). The King James language is rather obscure but fortunately, some modern versions are clearer. This is consistent with both the scriptures and the sovereignty of God. Just consider: the Word of God is eternal. The scripture cannot be broken. Judas Iscariot (like the rest of us) had sin and rebellion in his heart. In His sovereignty, and to accomplish His purpose, God allowed Judas the opportunity to manifest his character at a point in history. In love, God constrained most of the evil in Judas’ life, as He does in ours. But not all. This particular transgression was not only allowed, but it was scripted. This day appointed for Judas was written in God’s book before it had come to pass.
David’s sin with Bathsheba was written in God’s eternal word. David committed the act as a divinely-allowed outworking of his sinful nature and expression of his ‘free will.’ But God was not sitting in heaven with His stylus poised, waiting to see what David would do so He would know what to include in His eternal Word. God scripted the naming of Cyrus and the events in Daniel.
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Here, for the time being, my indictment ends. Our good God takes our iniquity, which is all we bring into this experience, and shapes it for His ends. We are living in a world of restrained evil. Our contribution is the evil, and God’s is the restraint. He allows transgressions of His moral law because He is sovereign. He allows the consequences of others’ sin to fall on us because He is gracious. Were He to allow us unrestrained free will, we would quickly realize that the wrath of man is much more unpleasant than the mercy and grace that God daily visits upon us.
Why does God permit evil? Because He loves us. We are so essentially evil that, were He to destroy evil, he would have to destroy us. Our sin is not superficial, but is at the very core of who we are. The presence of evil is not inconsistent with the existence or omnipotence of God. Rather, it is evidence of His compassion and grace. It simply needs to be seen in the light of our desperate and unreformable wickedness.
Thoughtful responses to this article will be considered for posting.