We are in the midst of a series of essays on the doctrine of God. We have studied God’s attributes, that is, his personal characteristics. We have looked at the mystery of the Trinity, God’s tri-unity of three persons in One God. And following that, we examined the doctrines of creation and miracles.
In this essay we are taking up a difficult, but important subject that continues our investigation of the doctrine of God; namely the problem of evil. The question of why evil exists has haunted godly men from the beginning. I don’t doubt that Adam and Eve discussed the reason for their temptation by the serpent.
Webster’s dictionary defines evil as: “Something that brings sorrow, distress, or calamity: the fact of suffering and misfortune: a cosmic evil force.” Now as definitions go, that is a good one, though it shows little awareness of moral evil.
At any rate, there are two kinds of evil. The first is moral evil, which is a consequence of free choices made in opposition to the will of God. In other words consists of sinful choices. Ray Dunning describes moral evil with language that is a little different. He says that it is “the perversion of good.” It is a “the perverting or thwarting of purpose–God’s purpose” (p. 250). But the meaning is the same.
The second type of evil is natural (or physical) evil, which is non-moral. Natural evil occurs in nature. Hurricanes, tornados, floods, earthquakes, etc. do a great deal of damage; and they bring much grief, including death, to human beings. But people who suffer from natural evil are not suffering from anyone’s sinful choices, except perhaps the original sin of Adam, which brought a curse upon the earth.
But to define evil is not to solve the problem of evil. There are several factors that make evil a serious problem for Christians. Indeed it is such a serious problem that many people have been lost to the faith, because the Church did not, in their opinion, provide an adequate answer to this problem.
The problem arises due to a clash between the orthodox doctrine of God and human experience. First, the orthodox doctrine of God says that God is omnipotent. That is, we say that God is all-powerful. On the other hand, second, we say that God is love, that he is just and good. And yet, third, evil exists. Thus the problem. If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t he do something about the evil that exists? And if God is just and good, how can he permit, on the one hand, the terrible evils that befall many fine Christian people, while on the other hand, some wicked people prosper in every way?
If we come back to the three factors that make evil a problem, we can see that denial of any one of the three will solve the problem. If God is not omnipotent, there is no problem, because he is doing the best he can; and evil is the result of God’s weakness.
If God is not just and good, again there is no problem. God is simply a capricious autocrat who creates evil because he wants to, and that explains the existence of evil.
And of course, if one denies the existence of evil, saying that it is simply a figment of our imagination, that likewise solves the problem, though only theoretically.
Now serious suggestions to explain evil have been put forward along each of these lines of thought. For example, Professor Edgar S. Brightman, an American philosopher early in the twentieth century, suggested the thesis of a “finite God,” which takes away the omnipotence of God, and in that way, solves the problem of evil.
Omar Khayyam, a twelfth century, Persian poet is a representative of the view that God is the capricious author of evil. In a poem entitled, “Rubaiyat,” he writes:
We are no other than a moving row
Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go…
Helpless Pieces of the Game He [God] plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
(Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam of Narshapur, trans. E. Fitzgerald, p. 30).
The proposal that evil doesn’t exist is advanced by Christian Science. The Christian scientists say that evil is illusory; it’s all in the mind. Unfortunately, one’s acceptance of the idea that pain is illusory doesn’t keep it from hurting, at least not for most of us.
There are other solutions, or explanations, for evil. For example, there is the view expressed by Job’s friends in the book of Job, a view which was widely held in Judaism, and which still is held to in some circles, including some Christian circles.
This is the idea that evil is a direct result of sin, and a just punishment for it. The theory holds that suffering is visited upon the sinner himself, or upon his descendants, or both. Jesus rejected this theory. For example, Luke 13:1-5 says in respect to Jesus:
There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.’
In John 9:1-3, we read of Jesus: As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the working of God might be made manifest in him.’
Of course some persons’ suffering does result from sin, but that does not mean that it all does. The idea that all suffering comes from sin and is a just punishment for it simply is not true.
Still another suggestion that has been proposed is that evil is a necessary defect in a good plan. The idea behind this suggestion is that there must be a certain degree of evil in the world, or it would not present the moral choices which lead to moral decisions, which in turn build moral character.
It is true that many times human beings rise to their greatest heights in overcoming evil. And it is true that there is a certain thrill to overcoming adversity. Thus it is difficult to imagine human society without the antagonism of evil. But it also is true that there is far too much evil, too unevenly distributed, to be explained by a theory such as this. Mainstream Christianity has rejected all of these views, although there is some truth in most of them.
So, what is the solution? Well, we must admit at the outset that an answer that completely satisfies all of our questions may not be possible. That is to say, the solution that we ultimately accept may have some similarity to Job’s. We certainly can shed light on the matter; but once we have done that, we must come to God with it, and in childlike faith leave it with him. Such was the solution for Job.
Now in order to shed light on the situation we mut look at two Old Testament scriptures. One is Amos 3:6 that says: “Does evil befall a city unless the Lord has done it?” And the second, a more important one, is Isa. 45:7, which reads in the NRSV: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I the Lord do all these things.”
The KJV translates the middle clause of Isaiah’s statement, “I make peace and createevil.” Therefore this verse has been a key one in discussions about evil.
The question is what did Isaiah mean when he said that God creates woe? And what did Amos mean by his statement? As we interpret these verses in light of the rest of scripture, we realize that they do not mean that God is the direct author of the evil you and I experience and see around us. That would be unbiblical. As John symbolically puts it, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 Jn. 1:5).
Rather Scripture considers much evil to come from Satan. Many passages mention the activity of Satan. The book of Revelation would be a prime example. But, Satan is a creature of God, one whom God created; and one to whom God gave the power to choose and do evil. Indeed in the Old Testament, Satan (where that name is used) nowhere appears as quite the demonic figure, opposed to God and responsible for all evil, that he is presented to be in the New Testament.
For example, in the first two chapters of Job, the term “Satan” basically describes a role. The word means “adversary.” The book of Job says that the adversary presented himself before God along with “the sons of God.” The context makes it clear that he is subordinate to God, and in that instance he acted only with God’s consent.
Two other Old Testament Scriptures that contain the term “Satan” are Zech. 3:1-2 and I Chron. 21:1. They offer nothing more about the role for Satan than we have learned from Job, so we will not take time to look at them.
On the other hand in the New Testament, there is no doubt about the evil intentions of Satan’s character. This development was implied in the Old Testament, since Satan enjoyed his role of adversary a great deal. But in any case, the New Testament presents Satan as a responsible agent behind humanity’s sins.
It is Satan who tempts Judas (Lk. 22:3) and Peter (Lk. 22:31); it is Satan who prompts Ananias to withhold some of the money he had promised to the Church (Acts 5:3). And the Gospel of John pronounces Satan to be “a murderer from the beginning” (8:44).
But we must never forget that God is (in a sense) responsible for Satan, for God made Satan with the capacity for evil; and he permits Satan to exercise his evil will upon the world. And there is the key.
I am convinced that this is the correct angle from which to interpret both Isa. 45:7 and Amos 3:6. God is not the direct author of evil, but he does permit it to exist. He permits Satan the exercise of free will, which has resulted in much sin and evil. Likewise, he permits mankind the exercise of free will, which results in further sin and evil. These factors, along with God’s natural laws, explain most, if not all evil.
I see five factors involved in the human experience which can bring about evil as well as good. Three of these can be described as causative factors. First is natural causation. I already have mentioned natural disasters such as earthquakes that occur due to God’s natural laws and the perversion of the natural system that may be due to original sin.
Second is human causation. God chose to give heavenly beings (including Satan) and humans few will. That means human beings can choose to do evil actions, which have consequences. It was the only way God could make relationships with these beings meaningful. And by giving us this freedom, God gave up some of his sovereignty.
Third, is divine causation. In spite of the freedom bestowed on heavenly and human beings, God still has the power to interfere with the affairs of the world, including those of humans. It is precisely at this point that many people balk. If God retains this power, why doesn’t he use it to prevent the terrible choices that result in so much evil.
As we learned from Job, this is where the element of mystery enters into the picture. Most people ask, why does God not interfere to stop evil? That is not the significant question. The significant question is, why does God occasionally choose to interfere? His standard practice is not to interfere. He normally allows the consequences of our free choices play out for good or evil. But occasionally he interferes by means of a miracle, which is the real mystery. Although we cannot know why God interferes in those cases, I firmly believe it has to do with something that transcends the individuals involved. In other words, if you are healed of cancer, and I am not, your healing is not because God loves you more than me. It involves something or someone beyond you as an individual.
Fourth, is the role of Satan in human experience. Satan represents the adversarial factor.
Some scholars believe that Satan has the ability to interfere with natural law, and thus to do miracles. The biblical evidence that Satan can do miracles is extremely scanty. The two passages sometimes mentioned are 2 Thess. 2:9 and Job 2:7.
2 Thess. 2:9-10 reads in the NRSV: “The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” Notice the emphasis in this language on lying and deception. I find it hard to believe that this proves that Satan can work miracles.
Job 2:7 is the passage in which God permitted Satan to inflict Job with boils. Again this is a weak basis for a doctrine that Satan can work miracles. Satan only did to Job what God approved. It does not indicate that Satan has independent power to do something like this to people. My conclusion is that Satan’s powers on earth are limited to deceptive persuasion.
A fifth factor in our experience is the existence of contingent events. These are events that are liable to happen, but not necessary to happen. They stem from the interaction of natural and human causation.
In summary, most evil results from human free choices interacting with natural laws. As we have seen, this interaction causes a multitude of contingent events, many of which have evil consequences. They are contingent because they do not happen apart from many interacting decisions of people and others, especially evil humans and other evil beings such as Satan and the demons under his control. However, it is my opinion that Satan’s power is severely limited. He is not a second god. His powers are mostly powers of deception and persuasion. God has the power to intervene miraculously, but his normal procedure is not to interfere in our choices or their consequences, even though those choices may do terrible damage to others.