First things first, if you struggle with the idea that God is good and yet we live in world plagued by both natural and moral evils, you are NOT a dummy. I was just having fun with the title here–you have seen those books right? Personal Finance for Dummies or Building a Website for Dummies and many other such helpful topics. The idea behind the dummy books is that they break down a difficult topic in a very simple way. They cut out all the jargon and write in such a way that just about anyone can understand. The problem of evil is a problem for many, but not for God–He has it figured out, but that doesn’t mean that many Christians don’t struggle with it and that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to think Biblically about it. So this post is dedicated to breaking the problem of evil down to simple terms without the typical theological jargon that so often keeps people from understanding the real issues behind it.
There are three basic options for Christians in answering the question, “How can God be good and yet there is evil in the world?” I will give you the three options and point out the inherent problem with each. These three options are as follows:
1. God is just as surprised about evil and sin in the world as we are. Why is that? Because in this position, God does not know the future. God has given man such profound freedom that man can and often does thwart God’s purposes. In this view God created the world good but man decided of his own freewill not to follow after God and so sin came into the world and God had to respond to it just like we do–he did not know before hand that man would choose to sin. So God responds to sin in real-time just like we do.
There are two big problems with this view. First is that it denies God’s holiness. God has no special knowledge, He is perhaps a little bigger than us, but if He didn’t know evil was coming, can we really trust Him? Is such a limited God worth serving? How can we trust that He will keep any of His promises if He does not know the future? The second big problem with this view is that it makes little sense of Scripture. Think of all the thousands of prophecies in Scripture that have been fulfilled–how could this be possible if God doesn’t know the future and we are so free as to be able to thwart God’s purposes?
Ephesians 1:11 says that God “works all things according to the counsel of His will” and Romans 8:28 says God “works all things together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” How could those two verses be true if God doesn’t know the future? Futhermore, Psalm 139 tells us that “before a word is on my tongue, behold O LORD, you know it altogether.” So in short this view makes little sense of Scripture and gives us no reason to trust that God will keep His promises.
2. Position #2: God knew that evil would come into the world but He did not will for it to happen. Because God knew beforehand that evil was going to enter into the world, He planned to fight it and overcome it through the cross of Christ. This view is convenient because it gets God off the hook–He didn’t will evil in any way and praise Him, He has determined to overcome it! Well let’s think this position out a little more. If God knows that something is going to happen and has the ability to stop it and doesn’t, how is He not in some sense willing that thing to happen? Those who hold this position, if they will be consistent, must admit that there is some defect in God’s power at some level. Position #1 is actually more consistent, because God cannot know that something is going to happen and have the power to stop it and be said NOT to have willed the thing to happen. So position #1 is more consistent because they just say God doesn’t have the power to stop it because He doesn’t know the future and has given us such potent freewill.
The two big problems with position #2 are similar to position #1’s problems. First, this position fails to uphold God’s perfect holiness. As I have said position #2 must admit some defect in God’s power or else how could we say God did not will something that He could stop but didn’t (and He knew it was coming beforehand)? Secondly, this position doesn’t compute with Scripture, which testifies that God is all powerful–“if one wished to contend with [God], one could not answer Him once in a thousand times” (Job 9:3; c.f. Romans 9:19-21 and Job 38:1-5). Simply put there are many evil things that happen in the Bible which God speaks to having in some sense willed. Take Job for example. God gave Satan permission to test Job with all sorts of nasty afflictions and set boundaries around what Satan could and couldn’t do (Satan could not take Job’s life). So who is ultimately in control of what is going on with Job? God or Satan? I think the answer is obvious.
3. Position #3: God knew that evil would infiltrate our world and yet He is good and not the author of it, but is sovereignly in control of it. God sovereignly permits sin to occur though He is not the author of it. He could have prevented it, therefore God in some sense wills that sin occur. The common objection to this view is that God is made out to be in some round about way, responsible for evil. But why are we willing to sacrfice God’s holiness (i.e. His perfect knowledge and power) for the sake of letting God off the hook for evil? Simply put, God is bigger than you and I, He is holy, meaning He is set apart from us. He operates on a completely different level than we do. Things that are evil for us are perfectly legitimate for God. Like the taking of a life–God created all things, including us and has rights over us. If God wants to take one of His creatures lives, He can, He is God. In addition we are all rebels against Him in our sin (Romans 3:23, 5:10; 6:23) and our just punishment is spiritual and physical death.
We must come to grips with this simple fact, that God is holy. There is mystery in God–how is it that He is good (Psalm 119:68; James 1:17; Luke 18:19) and yet, over and over in Scripture we see Him soveriegnly controlling evil events for His good purposes? We can’t fully answer that question because we are not God. We are limited in our perspective where God is not.
Bottom line is that God soveriegnly controls evil. We have already discussed Job, but what about Joseph? His brothers did a wicked thing and cast him into a pit then sold him into slavery (they wanted to kill them but Reuben convinced them otherwise). Joseph went through many trials but eventually ended up basically running the country for Pharoah and through his wisdom, ended up saving the nation from starvation. When Joseph’s brothers show up begging for food, Joseph says to them, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
God can and does work good out of evil, He even has purposes for it. In short He controls it–think about the cross. Was the cross not an evil event? The cross was the greatest sin ever committed because the sinless one was crucified at the hands of sinful men!
Acts 4:27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
Acts 2:23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.
1 Samuel 2:6 The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. 7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts.