The Problem of Evil
Genesis 1:31, 3:1, 14-15
Last week we saw the introduction of the serpent into the creation story; and as I mentioned, in the text he simply appears, without origin or explanation; but, though the text (and really the whole bible) doesn’t give us detailed explanation as to his origins, we’re not left totally in the dark:
3:1 tells us that the serpent was part of what God had made.
And, previously (1:31), right before God has explicitly finished all of his work of creating, all that God made was declared by him to be very good.
So, Serpent was made good by God; but when he shows up on the scene, he is evil – opposed to God.
And, Scripture isn’t terribly clear in my opinion on how that happened, but since scripture identifies the serpent as Satan, I think it’s reasonable to infer from what scripture does say that the serpent’s turn from good to bad, was similar to humanity’s, but at an angelic level: an angel led a heavenly rebellion against God, and so turned from good to evil.
And, in that way, and in the human rebellion against God, God’s good creation became fallen, corrupt, not good, bad. And, as a result, God began his gracious work of redemption.
But, since we’re considering God’s relationship to evil, we need to consider what Genesis 3:1 says – that the serpent was among the animals that God had created. Important:
Satan, is not eternal. He is not divine. He is not all-powerful, all-knowing, or present everywhere as God is.
Though he is a spiritual being, he is a creature; he is not divine. Important:
Good and evil are not equal, opposing forces, eternally battling it out each making progress and seeing defeat but neither with the upper hand or final victory.
Certainly, v14 tells us of an ongoing battle, but v15 assures us of a definitive victory.
God and Satan are not like the good and bad side of the force, coexisting from eternity to eternity; Satan had a beginning and he will have an end.
That he is a creature, means that God has power over him. But it also means that God could have not created him, or by his power and plan opposed his rebellion.
Certainly, God doesn’t lack the foresight to see something coming, such that Satan’s rebellion took God by surprise or caught him off-guard; nor does he lack the power to prevent anything, such that in Satan’s rebellion he exercised a power which successfully opposed God’s power and plan.
And, so, what is God’s relationship to evil?
This will be our last sermon in the Genesis series. In fact, the original plan was to have this sermon earlier in the series, but due to my hesitancy about tackling so difficult a topic, I first delayed it and then nearly skipped it altogether, but Amy advised me to not leave it out of the series, so, here we are. So if it’s helpful you can thank her, but if it’s not I take all the blame.
Today we are dealing with what is frequently called “the problem of evil”: I’ll state it more formally later, but generally speaking: If God exists, then how do we explain the origin and existence of evil?
And, there’s a reason that questions like these in Christian theology and philosophy are referred to as the “problem of evil”: It’s because, 1) there is such a thing as evil; and 2) it is a problem.
1) there is such a thing as evil;
Christianity acknowledges the real presence of evil in our world.
And, let me just say off the bat, that any world-view, or religion, or philosophy which acknowledges evil as a real thing, and as a really evil thing, present in our world is a thousand times more plausible and livable than a religion or world-view or philosophy that denies the reality, or the evilness, of evil.
One of the most undeniable facts of our existence, is that evil is real, and evil is evil. To try to deny this is to live with your head in the sand and try to deny reality; but, trying to deny reality – whether related to evil or any other aspect of reality, doesn’t work – reality is like gravity – sooner or later, it catches up to you, and the longer you pretend it isn’t there or try to deny it, the harder and more forcefully it crashes in to you.
For example, some religions tells us that suffering (a type of evil) is mere illusion, and you can escape this illusion by achieving a certain frame of mind. This denies the reality of evil; but when the evilness of suffering, sickness, death, strikes you, you find that any “truth” that tells you that suffering is merely a state of mind and that you should be unbothered by it is an offensive and unlivable lie.
Other examples: atheism – doesn’t fit with the unavoidably moral universe in which we undeniably find ourselves; “privation” theory – doesn’t do justice to the fact that evil is an objective real entity – evil is not merely the “lack of good”, it is positively evil.
1) there is such a thing as evil; and 2) it is a problem.
If God exists, the type of God the bible presents, the type of God who can create the world with a word – all that exists, by simply speaking forth his power; then the real presence of evil is a problem.
And, any religion or world-view or philosophy that recognizes the problem of evil and gives easy answers to solve it is a thousand times less plausible than a religion or world-view or philosophy that recognizes that the problem of evil is a problem, and that there are no easy answers for it.
And, though it is a problem; and there’s no easy answer, I believe that Christianity gives a satisfying answer – a more satisfying answer than any other world-view gives.
And, this is going to be a difficult sermon: because, there are no easy answers to the problem of evil. And, of course, I’m going to have to be brief. You will still have questions about the problem of evil after this sermon; in fact, you might have more questions than answers. Because, there are no easy answers to many questions we have when it comes to God.
And, part of the reason there are no easy answers, is that we, remember, are creature, not creator. His thoughts are above our thoughts, his ways are above our ways. He is the potter, we are the clay and so w have no right to tell him how to shape us, nor ought we to try because he can see the end goal and know the reasons of his shaping us which we can’t see or know.
I’ve heard it said: “If we were God; if we knew what it was like to be God, and if we knew what God knows and saw things as God sees things, we would do nothing differently than he has done.”
And, I think that’s true. As we look at things now, from our limited perspective, we think, “Why would God let things get like this? Why would God allow this? Why would God decree or allow or not prevent this? Why wouldn’t God ensure that the world be different than it is?
“If we were God; if we knew what it was like to be God, and if we knew what God knows and saw things as God sees things, we would do nothing differently than he has done.”
And, so what that means, is that there will be things we don’t understand, don’t have answers for, and even, things that don’t seem to make sense so long as we are dealing with things of God – how could it be any different?
3 things that help us understand, even if it doesn’t answer all our questions, perhaps doesn’t satisfy our demands it is enough to nurture our faith, when the logical problem of evil, becomes an existential problem.
logical/emotional problems of evil.
Logical Problem: Christians believe that the bible teaches: 1) that God is all-powerful (and so he could prevent evil); that 2) God is Good (so he would want to prevent evil); But, 3) evil exists; so 4) God either does not exist, or is not all-powerful, or is not good.
Emotional Problem: asks, in the words of Psalm 13: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”
It asks: “Why me, God?” “Are you even there? Do you even care?” “Why don’t you deliver me from this evil? Why don’t you put an end to it?
Though we I believe can’t fully resolve the question to the problem of evil, we’re going to consider it in 3 points which I believe help us navigate it:
- God decrees evil;
- God does not delight in evil;
- God defeats evil
- God decrees evil
Theologians call God’s eternal plan his will of decree. And, the bible teaches that everything is part of God’s eternal plan. Everything that comes to pass is according to God’s sovereign decree.
This is, no doubt, a difficult thing for many of us to consider and hear.
The Bible unapologetically affirms that God decrees all things: everything which comes to pass, is part of God’s eternal plan – his “will of decree”.
Everything that happens, is God’s eternal plan, which he has written based on his own will, not what he foresaw would happen; which he has written for his own glory.
Nothing thwarts, hinders, opposes, or changes God’s eternal plan.
Nothing takes God off-guard, catches him by surprise, frustrates his purposes, or causes him to have to change course from his eternal plan, and to have to scramble from plan A to plan B.
Q: What are the decrees of God?
A: The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.
Ephesians 1:11 – “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will”.
Whatsoever comes to pass, is foreordained by God; according to his own good and sovereign purposes.
We love to say, that God is sovereign, right? We pray about it, we sing about it; we find hope but do we really mean it? Do we really mean all things? Somehow, when we consider evil, we put a pause on this idea of God’s sovereignty.
In fact – common attempt of solving the problem of evil is to deny God’s sovereignty and power over all things – God simply couldn’t prevent evil.
And, to do so – to deny that God is sovereign over all things – even evil – might solve the logical problem of evil but the cost is enormous, because you are left with an impotent god, a weak God, a god incapable of helping us and unable to promise victory over the evil he was powerless to prevent in the first place.
Carson: “[this type of god – a god who is not all-powerful sovereign] may be able to give us quite a bit of sympathy, and even groan along with us; but he clearly cannot help us – now now, and not in the future. There is no point praying to such a god and asking for his help. He is already doing the best he can, poor chap, but he has reached the end of his resources. Belief in an all-powerful God brings with is all sorts of hard questions about how such a God, if he is good, can permit evil and suffering, but it also brings with it the promise of help, relief, an answer, victory.”
Absolute sovereignty means absolute control over all things. And, that means that God is sovereign over evil – which means that he sovereignly permitted it to come about – which means, that it was part of his eternal decree.
The Bible affirms that God’s sovereignty extends to everything: historical occurrences, what we call natural forces or processes such as gravity or wind or rain, human lives, human salvation, human thoughts and actions. All things. Even evil.
Two Examples: Pharaoh – God hardened his heart; he hardened his heart. Common attempts to explain it are some kind of sequence, but I think that’s not correct, and that what the text and other scripture affirm is that God hardened pharoah’s heart as part of his eternal plan to redeem his people for his glory; but at the same time, Pharaoh made a real choice to rebel against God, and harden his own heart in disobedience instead of repenting, for which he was responsible.
Jesus’ crucifixion. Acts 2: – Jesus crucifixion – certainly the most evil action in all history – two causes: the hands of sinful men; and God’s plan.
2 biblical truths both upheld fully, though difficult in our minds to resolve:
- God is absolutely sovereign
- Humans beings are morally responsible
Both fully true, while neither compromising one another. God is absolutely and freely sovereign; but his sovereignty never minimizes or removes human responsibility
Human beings are morally responsible – they make real choices to rebel, obey, believe, disbelieve; and they are rightly held accountable for such actions; God’s free sovereignty is never minimized or removed by human choices.
mystery; but part of our identity as created persons.
- God decrees evil (part of his sovereign plan – his will of decree)
- God does not delight in evil
We talked about God’s will of decree earlier; but the bible teaches another sense of the will of God – God’s will of desire.
Decree: The way things are, vs Desire: the way things ought to be. God’s desire for his creatures. His moral law, reflecting his moral goodness/character.
Decree unchanging, can’t be opposed.
Desire: Can be obeyed or opposed.
God decrees some things that he doesn’t delight in.
Reminds us that:
- God is not the author of, nor to blame for, evil – but rather it proceeds from the creature who alone is blameworthy.
- though God decrees evil, unlike some of his other decreeing – such as his decreeing into existence the original, very good creation, he does not delight in evil. He doesn’t stand behind evil in the same way he stands behind good (language of “permission”).
The bible insists over and over again on God’s pure and holy goodness. God is never the author of evil, never an accomplice of evil, never standing behind evil in the same way he stands behind good.
in his sovereignty, God stands behind both evil and good; but he delights in good, he is the author of good and the praise for good belongs to him; whereas he does not delight in evil, and though he is sovereign over it, the blame and guilt lies not with him but with the creature.
“God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all”. 1 John 1:15
James 1:13 “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.”
As you read Genesis chapter 1, you see a God who delights in creating a good world, and who delights in creating his good creatures, and we shouldn’t get the wrong idea that God takes delights in that same way all things which proceed from his eternal plan.
Because, the bible is clear, that God does not delight in some things.
As we saw last week in Genesis 3, he does not delight in human sin: he is pure in holiness; he is absolute in his goodness; and so cannot tolerate evil, and brings his wrath and curse in response to it. Proverbs 6:16 tells us that God hates sin – “There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him”, and then he goes on to list specific sins which God hates. ANd, in fact, he expresses his desire for human conduct not in his “will of decree”, but in his “will of command” – such that, though he is sovereign over human sin, nevertheless he commands against human sin because he does not desire that humans choose moral evil.
We see that God does not delight in human suffering: he is near to the broken-hearted, he hears our cries and has compassion on the sufferer; and Jesus – God incarnate – wept with his friends who were grieving and mourning the death of their brother.
And, we are told that God does not delight in death, even the death of his enemies, those who are lost and not upon their death entering into eternal life with God but eternal wrath: Ezekiel 18:23: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”
Ezekiel 18:23 “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!”
Clearly, though God is sovereign over all things, nevertheless there are some things which God decrees but does not delight in them.
He, in fact, hates them. But, though this again, is mystery to us, we can at least imagine that in God’s eternal plan, there are some things which he might allow even though he doesn’t delight in them, because of other commitments or purposes in that eternal plan.
The Bible gives us two main commitments that God has: 1) His own glory. 2) The Good of his people.
- God decrees evil; 2) God does not delight in evil;
3) God defeats evil
We must affirm that God decrees evil; otherwise there is no hope that he is able to defeat evil.
We must affirm that God does not delight in evil; otherwise there is no hope that he wants to defeat evil.
If God doesn’t decree in some way – permit, allow, if he isn’t sovereign over it – if he couldn’t prevent it, if it slipped past him – then how can we have the confidence that he has the power/ability, or wisdom, to defeat it?
It’s only because we believe he is sovereign over it – over its entrance into the world and over its raging in the world – that we can be confident that he is sovereign over the defeat and end of evil in the world.
If he couldn’t prevent it, we can’t be confident that he can defeat it. If he isn’t in control over it, then why would we ever think he could use it for his good purposes? We can’t!
To deal with the problem of evil by denying the sovereignty of God only destroys hope. It doesn’t help, we don’t gain anything by it, but only lose.
But, if we believe that evil entered the world and exists in the world only by his sovereign decree of permission, then we know he is powerful over it, he can use it for his redemptive purposes, and he will in the last day defeat it forever.
God defeats evil – in two ways:
- In the end, he overcomes and puts an end to it. He defeats it forever.
Genesis 3:14-15 – about the humiliation and eventual defeat of the serpent
The book of Revelation gives the Christian the end of the story, while they’re still living in the midst of the story, and the end of the story is a message of unwavering Hope which sustains us in the wavering difficulties of this life.
And that message is: “God Wins”.
In fact, my seminary professor told us that if in our ordination exams we forget the outline of the book of Revelation, we could just list the outline as 1 point: Revelation chapters 1-22: God Wins. And that might not be detailed enough for the examination but it would be correct.
And, that gives us greatest confidence.
No valley of the shadow of death you go through in this life can destroy your hope, if you know that God defeats evil in the end.
- overcomes and puts a final end to it. But, even before the final end, he defeats evil’s intentions in this life, but turning it to good.
That God uses evil for his redemptive purposes. That God uses evil to bring about a greater good.
This doesn’t mean, and never means, that what is evil is good; it doesn’t mean we should call evil good or that we need to be glad for evil in our lives rather than mourn it; no, it means, what is evil remains evil, but is used to accomplish a greater good.
He thwarts the intention of evil and makes it impotent – weak and powerless to accomplish its evil intentions by turning it around for the good.
Joseph story’ Jesus’ story; Our story
Joseph’s Story: Joseph, who was sold into slavery into Egypt by his brothers out of their jealousy and envy of him; spent time in a dungeon and endured much hardship but was brought by God to a position of promised – certainly God was sovereign over that – in fact, they were going to murder him, but his going into slavery was certainly a mercy of God for a good purpose of God; at the same time it was an evil; but God redeems it, so much so that Joseph can say with confidence in Genesis 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
Joseph does not say that his brother’s selling him was outside of God’s plan, and God turned it around after the fact to make a bad story have a happy ending.
No, he says, that God’s intent in his brother’s selling him was to bring good.
God was working sovereignly in the event of his being sold into Egypt, God was sovereign, yet he had only good intentions in allowing the evil. The guilt belonged solely to his brother’s, for their evil intentions and actions.
What they did out of evil hearts, God was sovereign over, allowed, decreed in his eternal plan to bring about his glory, his salvation, and the good of many.
Look at the cross. The God we know, trust, love, and serve, suffered for us.
And, on the cross, he worked the greatest evil for good; & so we can have confidence that he can work any & all evil that we experience or see for good.
If God is God – all-knowing and all-wise and all-powerful, then certainly we should grant the possibility, that he knows what he’s doing; that he’s able to give good gifts to his children and work all things for the good of those who love him; that he is able to do good beyond our own conception or imagination – and even if we ourselves can’t see any earthly good, certainly he is; but beyond that we always know that he is preparing spiritual, heavenly, eternal good for us –
even if the only good, that comes out of our suffering is what 1 Peter promises will happen: the purifying of our faith – even if that is the only good: remember, in that same passage, he says our faith is of greater worth than gold. Even if that’s the only good that comes out of our suffering – that has a value which is incomparable – of greater worth than any earthly good – and so we can find hope that our God can, and will, turn evil’s purposes to good for us.
Driving through tunnel – we told them there is a light at the end of the tunnel – and even while they couldn’t see it, it helped.
“It does help to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel, even if you cannot yet see it; to know that God is in control and is committed to his people’s good, even though it still does not look that way to you. The suffering is no less real, but perhaps it is less debilitating when the larger perspective is kept in mind.”