How could a good God allow evil?
November 19, 2015 § Leave a comment
As we approach the first full week since the Paris attacks, it is apparent that far too much has become all too familiar. There is the initial news of the attack, followed by conflicting information about deaths and injuries, then the ubiquitous and continual television coverage for the next 12-24 hours, and, simultaneously, the flooding of social media with messages of anger, shock, condemnation and, for the victims and for Paris, of solidarity and prayer. It all has a numbing, regular rhythm because we have been here too many times before. Soon afterwards comes the expected question: “How could a good God allow such evil to happen?”
There are two ways this question is usually framed. The first is as a genuine inquiry looking for a real answer to a hard question. In such cases it is almost always asked by someone who professes to be a believer in God. The questioner may be experiencing a crisis of his or her faith and is trying to reconcile their understanding of a “good God” with the fact of unspeakably evil realities.
The second way this question is framed is as an attack on belief in God; in this case it is not really a question at all because the “questioner” isn’t looking for an answer. Rather, the question is cynically posed in such a way that its answer is self-evident: If God was really good he wouldn’t allow such evil to happen; it in fact does happen—therefore no such good God exists.
Setting aside, for the present discussion, the illogic of the this proposition, what is important to note is what these two ways of asking tells us about the questioner. In the first case there is angst but teachability, a true desire to learn what may be known about God and how he acts in our world; in the second case there is contempt and narrow-mindedness, an arrogant assurance that the case is closed and any consideration of the contrary is idiocy.
Though the words of the question are the exactly the same, I treat these as two different questions, distilling each into the basic question that is really intended by the two questioners, respectively: Where is God in these kinds tragedies? and How can you be so stupid as to maintain there is a God in the face such tragedies?
Tragedies like the Paris terrorist attacks are shocking to us on several fronts, but I believe the primary reason they strike us so hard is because, if only temporarily, they shake us from the view that people are basically good. Why do we never hear Bill Maher bitterly demand, “How can you maintain faith in humanity after a tragedy such as this?” God is always the whipping boy at times like these, and close behind him are those foolish enough to believe in him.
Whenever I am asked this question by the first type of person—and it is never difficult to tell the difference—I am able to speak directly to the question at hand by explaining what the Bible tells us is true about the world God created and how evil entered into it through human rebellion. Ultimately, those willing to accept the moral nature of humanity must also be willing to accept its moral deficits: if evil is real then sin is real—and I, as a part of humanity, share in its reality. The only ones who can truly say, “Je suis Paris!” are those who know they are sinners who are themselves capable of unspeakable evil. These are hard things to wrestle with, to be sure, but they are neither illogical to think through or impossible to embrace.
But, most importantly, to such questioners, I am from the same Bible able to address that evil is not only real but also that, under the hand of a perfectly wise, all powerful—and yes, loving—God, evil is not without purpose; it is, in fact, woven into the very fabric of redemption.
In the minds of most unbelievers, this is not just a foreign concept—it is offensive. For such people evil is always pointless and without purpose; indeed, what makes evil “evil” is its apparent insanity. In the minds of some, the very presence of evil is presented as proof that a “good God” cannot possibly exist because we cannot fathom what possible purpose evil could serve.
There has never been a more evil and unjust chain of crimes in all of history than the betrayal, sham trial and murder of Jesus Christ—yet Peter makes this stunning statement as he preaches on the south steps of the Temple to a throng of Jews celebrating the day of Pentecost:
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:22-24)
Though the “men of Israel” are guilty of crucifying and killing Jesus, Peter says that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” Peter clarifies this in a later prayer following his and John’s release from prison:
[“Sovereign Lord]…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, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place….” (Acts 4:27)
Note well that the perpetrators of these heinous crime were united in their intention “to do whatever [God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place.”
The point of both passages is that these evil actions were neither random nor pointless but, in fact, God’s purpose. Using the language of Genesis 50:20, where Joseph speaks to his brothers regarding their long-past sin of selling him into slavery and telling their father that Joseph had been killed by wild animals, Jesus’ murderers meant evil against him, but God meant it for good.
What is important about this is that Joseph didn’t say that God was able to wrangle good out of their evil actions; he didn’t “MacGyver” his way out of an evil set of circumstances, doing his best with minimal resources. It is, in fact, just the opposite: God meant their evil actions for good—in the case of Jesus, God meant for the betrayal and murder of Jesus to be the material means by which he became the sin-offering for the sins of all who trust in him for salvation.
Said simply, the good God who exists—who is also perfectly wise, perfectly just and perfectly loving—uses evil for his ultimate purpose. As finite, sinful creatures we cannot fully understand how he in fact does this; the limits of our understanding make this impossible to fully comprehend. But the limits of our understanding do not limit the power and purpose of God, and just because we cannot see an immediate or even long-term purpose to present evil realties does not mean that God is not powerful enough, wise enough or good enough to know what he is doing.
The real question is this: Is it wise to trust a God who, in his sovereign power not merely intends to use but actually does use human evil for his purpose? After all, such a God clearly has power and knowledge far beyond all human boundaries of understanding. All we have to go on is God’s track record—what we in fact know God has already done to demonstrate his trustworthiness:
…while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
…we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy… (Titus 3:3-5).
That God has shown such mercy to those who deserve judgment is ample proof that he can be trusted—and that he is good.
Ultimately, though, those who trust God with their life through faith in Christ have the assurance that God’s purpose for all things will one day be gloriously clear, if not fully comprehended:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. (Romans 8:18-21)
The evil that has been suffered in this world has no comparable value to the glory that will be revealed to those who belong to God through Jesus Christ. How this will be so remains to be seen, even as we await God’s promised final judgment of all evil; but we may be assured that it will indeed be seen, because Jesus has made the down payment.
This, then, is the perspective from which we must look at not only the Paris tragedy but also all evil that we see and experience. It is a perspective that we cannot expect unbelievers to have or even seek, but we must articulate it, calling people to repent and believe the Good news that God is at work even in evil. And that is not merely good—it is amazing.