There are few questions that everyone ventures to answer. Physicians have their problems to solve, scientists have their respective sphere of investigation, and philosophers have their select subjects for musing. However, the “problem of evil” is something every man reckons with.
Evil is a universal experience. We have all tasted its bitterness. We see evil manifested in every injustice and tragedy. Yet not every universal experience is a problem demanding an answer. Neither do all experiences entice the same response. But there is something to the nature of evil that goes against our nature and beckons us to ask “why?”
Any comprehensive worldview attempts to explain the phenomenon of evil. However, most “answers” to the problem of evil fail to satisfy. Even the so-called “Christian” answers compromise on either the common human experience or the biblical data. In this post, I provide what I believe is the biblical explanation to the reality of evil in this world.
Good and Evil
With everyone throwing their opinions into the ring, the very concept of evil (and its antithesis of good) is obscure. There is a good place to begin, though – the classic philosopher Plato and the Euthyphro Dilemma regarding the nature of goodness:
In Plato’s Euthyphro (a conversation he records between Socrates and Euthyphro), Plato reveals a dilemma regarding the nature of goodness. It goes something like this:
- Is something good because God wills it, or
- Does God will something because it is good?
Option 1 suggests a concept of goodness known as the Divine Command Theory. This theory states that God’s will obligates us to moral action and that something is good for no other reason than the fact that God willed it.
Option 2 says that goodness is intrinsic to the object or decision itself. God does something because it is already good (contrary to what we see in the divine pronouncements of Genesis 1). This theory implies that there is a standard of goodness beyond God, and that He lives up to that standard (by necessity or choice).
Both views are deficient. The first one doesn’t sufficiently explain the nature of God or goodness. But the second theory misses the mark entirely. By making goodness a standard above God, goodness, as an abstraction, supplants God as a functioning god. So we must see this second theory as a form of idolatry if left unqualified.
Although it initially seems hopeless, there is a way to navigate these waters and actually modify these two options to make them acceptable.
Lewis on Good & Evil
In his radio broadcast special that later became a published work entitled Mere Christianity, the great scholar C.S. Lewis makes a case for the Christian worldview that has become an apologist’s go-to response to the problem of evil.
The point that Lewis is making is that evil is a deviation from the standard of goodness. Just like we only recognize a line to be crooked because we know what a straight line is, we only recognize evil because we know what good is.
Lewis argues that God is the objective standard of goodness. Instead of being able to lob the reality of evil against the existence of God, we only recognize evil because we know of good (i.e. God). This concept of goodness, that it finds its source and standard in God Himself, is the concept which we will now begin working with.
The two options of the Euthyphro Dilemma are pitched as though they are mutually exclusive. However, if we listen to Lewis, we can see that there is a via media (middle way) to understanding the nature of good, a way which incorporates both options.
First, we must stand with Lewis and proclaim that God is the objective standard of goodness, that nothing stands above God by which He must measure up to.
Secondly, and as a result, we are able to affirm the first option of the Euthyphro Dilemma. Because God is the objective standard and source of goodness, actions are good precisely because God does them. Not only is God good, He is immutable, unchangeable.
Because the Lord is good and does not change, everything that comes from Him is good. Therefore, we boldly affirm the first option that something is good because God wills it.
Finally, God always acts consistent with Who He is. That is why we can also affirm the second option of the Dilemma, but only as it follows from the first. God wills that which is good (option 2) because that which is good is good because God wills it (option 1). This is always the case because God Himself is the objective standard and source of good, and He does not change.
The Concepts of Good and Evil
Let’s summarize our findings concerning the concepts of good and evil thus far:
- Goodness finds its source and standard in the nature of God
- Therefore, something is good because it comes from God (option 1)
- And as it is, God always acts consistent with His nature (option 2)
- Evil is a deviation of the character and will of God
Now that we understand the concepts of good and evil as abstractions, we must now consider what the ultimate good (i.e. moral pursuit) is.
Another way to approach this is by asking, what is the good end/purpose to which our good God works? What is His goal or purpose in this world?
God’s Purpose for the World
God is at work in this world to glorify Himself. That might sound odd or off-putting to those who do not know God, but to those of us who have been redeemed, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
If God is a morally perfect Being, and is the source and standard of goodness, what end should the Lord labor towards? What should be His highest pursuit? I submit that a morally perfect Being ought to pursue that which is morally perfect. It follows then that – for God to pursue that which is morally perfect – He must pursue Himself. There is no higher good than God Himself because He Himself is the standard and source of goodness. And that is what we find our perfectly good God doing in His creation – glorifying His Name.
Glorifying God is the highest moral pursuit for God and man. If we seek after anything else, we are settling for something less than perfect, something that will not satisfy the deepest longings of the soul.
We were created for God and His glory:
An object is never being fulfilled unless it is being used for its intended purpose. Likewise, we will never be satisfied unless we are pursuing that which we were created for – God’s glory, to the worship, adoration, and praise of His Name. As the Westminster Catechism says:
God is the source and objective standard of good, and is therefore our highest moral pursuit. Worshiping God is not only a moral imperative, it is also what we were made for and where we find true human fulfillment.
In order for us to glorify God as He is and according to His will, we need Him to reveal Himself to us.
We gather information through our senses (empiricism) and our reasoning capacities (rationalism). Both serve to calibrate our mind’s perception of the world. When it comes to acquiring knowledge about God, we run into a problem. God transcends this universe while we are confined to it. We cannot elevate our minds beyond the physical to comprehend God as we would an object of study.
This reality places us in a state of dependence – dependence upon the Lord to reveal Himself to us.
We only know what we know because God has revealed truth to us. The Lord could have made this universe such that He were incognito, but He didn’t. He revealed Himself to us (in creation, His Word, and most fully in His Son) so that we can know and glorify Him.
For our highest moral good to be achieved (glorifying God), we must first know Him. How can we worship God rightly if we do not comprehend Him as He is?
The great theologian, Augustine, made this point in his Confessions:
To the Praise of His Glorious Grace
We are depended upon God to reveal Himself (in all His attributes) to us so that we may truly know Him and worship Him as He is. The Scriptures tell us, of all the attributes of God that are praiseworthy, there is one that brings us to our knees in adoration of the One Who has redeemed us – the grace of God.
God is a God of grace. For us to praise His glorious grace – to glorify Him as the gracious God that He is – we need to see His grace on display.
The Grace of God
The thing about grace is that it comes to those who are deserving judgement. In other words, grace presupposes wrath. There is no occasion for God’s Grace to be on display if His wrath were not first stirred against us. Neither would God’s wrath be stirred against us if we had not sinned.
So, for us to know God’s Grace, we must first know of His wrath. And we are under His wrath because we have rebelled against Him.
This relationship is seen in Romans 11:
Most responses to the problem of evil and suffering can be divided into two camps: (1) those who accept God’s Sovereignty and say God is at fault for allowing evil into the world, and (2) those who undermine God’s Sovereignty in order to distance Him from the unfolding of the events of the Fall. Both are in error. For a response to the problem of evil to be biblical, it must not charge God with injustice. Neither can it sacrifice God’s Sovereignty on the altar of “free will.”
We have already shown the failure of the first camp from our discussion on the nature of good and evil at the beginning of this post. The second camp of “solutions,” on the other hand, cannot account for the Romans 11 Passage above. Many have already committed themselves to the notion that God was helplessly sitting by while the Fall took place. This comes from a preconception that, if God were Sovereign in that moment, then God is to blame for sin. And so the second camp developed the “free-will defense” to the problem of evil. This response claims that God surrendered His Sovereignty to make room for human freedom. I will critique this in a later post, but it suffices to say that advocates of this defense find it distasteful and horrifying to learn that God is in control of the disobedient state that man finds himself in.
Why would God “imprison all in disobedience?” Why would He permit sin to enter the world and corrupt His Image-bearers? Why would He allow the human race to Fall and come under His judgement?
The answer that Paul gives is so that He may have mercy on all.
God permitted the Fall to be part of His eternal Plan. He permitted the Fall of man so that we would find ourselves in a state of disobedience and awaiting judgement. The Fall set the stage for God’s grace to be put on display. He did this so that He might then demonstrate His grace towards His rebellious Image-bearers. He did this so that we might know His true character and praise His glorious Grace. He did all of this to make it possible for us to pursue the highest moral good – the worship of our good God.
This is what I believe to be the testimony of the whole Counsel of God. However, two questions linger to which I must now turn in order to preemptively respond to possible rebuttals:
A World with Sin & Knowledge of God’s Grace is Greater Than a World That Never Knew Sin
Some may ask whether this Plan of God was worth it, if permitting the Fall so that we might then know of and praise His glorious grace really benefited anything. I say it did because a world with sin plus the knowledge and praise of God’s grace is greater than a world that never knew sin and had no need to experience God’s grace.
After reminding his readers of the beauty and worth of God’s grace in salvation, Peter writes:
The angels long to catch a glimpse of “these things.” What are “these things?” Peter is speaking of the grace that the redeemed have received in Christ.
Have you ever thought about the fact that the angels have never experienced God’s grace the way that we, the redeemed, have? They have never needed the grace of God’s redemption in Christ because they are not fallen. Yet, though the angels around God’s throne live in glorious state, they nevertheless long to catch a glimpse of what it is like to experience the grace of God in redemption.
Redeemed man knows something of God the angels never will. We know what it is like to have been lost in our rebellion, imprisoned in our own disobedience, deserving the just wrath of God. We know what it is like to be awakened to the reality that we have committed cosmic treason against an infinitely holy God, only then to find out that He has decided to show mercy. We, who once were enemies, are now His children. We are heirs of God who can now boldly come before our heavenly Father (Rom. 8:17; Eph. 3:12). Unlike the angels, we have experienced the immeasurable grace of God in Christ Jesus.
If you were an angel, you too would long to look into the gospel of Jesus Christ and experience what we have. So, a world with sin plus the knowledge and praise of God’s grace is greater than a world that never knew sin and had no need to experience God’s grace.
Sovereign Over but Not the Source of Evil
There are finally those who have committed themselves so firmly to the free-will defense, and have consistently read Scripture through that lens, that they have completely missed the Texts which describe God’s Sovereignty over evil.
How do we make sense of this, that God is Sovereign over evil but not the Author or Source of it? As the theologian Bruce Ware contends, we must conceive of God’s relation to good and evil in asymmetric terms. God is Sovereign over both good and evil, but He doesn’t stand behind evil the same way that He stands behind good.
Ware describes God’s Sovereignty over good as “direct-causative” divine agency; whereas His Sovereignty over evil is “indirect-permissive.”
Goodness itself, as we have demonstrated, is sourced in God and directly caused by Him. Evil, on the other hand, is a deviation or privation of the good. It does not find its source or standard in God, but is a deviation or privation of what comes from Him.
God’s permitting of the Fall was not due to Him surrendering His Sovereignty. It was part of the Plan, the eternal Plan to redeem a people for Himself to the praise of His glorious grace (Job 42:2; Ps. 19:21; Isa. 46:10; Eph. 1:9-12).
In this post, I have sought to provide a brief description of good and evil, to justify God’s goodness and Sovereignty, and demonstrate how His eternal Plan is worth it. History is unfolding according to the Plan in which God is most glorified.
In the next post, I will attempt to show how this gets worked out in the divine sovereignty/human responsibility relationship by presenting a doctrine known as concurrence. There, we will consider the nature of the human will and the asymmetric Sovereignty of God in both the Fall and in all human actions.