Pastoral Perspectives

The Problem of Evil

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?

Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing?

Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing?

Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing?

Then why call him God?

The classic ‘problem of evil’ is usually attributed to Epicurus, a 3rd century BC Greek philosopher. Whether he was truly an atheist or merely used the paradox to argue for the apathy of Grecian gods to human behaviour is unclear, but atheists have regularly brought up this Epicurean Paradox as a challenge to theists on the existence of God. The problem can be restated as a syllogism: 1) if an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God exists, then evil does not; 2) evil exists in the world; 3) therefore an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God does not exist. This problem has been the bugbear of many theologians and theistic philosophers throughout the ages, and various theodicies have been put forth as defence for God’s existence in spite of evil in the world, to varying degrees of satisfaction.

While theodicies may be necessary as part of theistic witness to the world, they are of little use to people who are experiencing, or have experienced much evil. Explaining to someone that the God-given free will, while good, is also the cause of his suffering (free will defence theodicy) does little to alleviate it. I am still suffering and even if I know it is reasonable that God exists in spite of my suffering, what good is that to me?

Even the individual who suffers may be the cause of evil himself. The sinfulness in everyone opens them up to great potential for evil. One should not think that evil is to be found only in those who commit great sin. Evil is found in everyone. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, ‘The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.’ Given the right situation, the potential for evil in the human heart may actualise terrible atrocities even in the meekest person.

God is not the God of the philosophers, but a God who has revealed Himself in both the Old and the New Testaments of the Holy Scriptures, so any ‘problem of evil’, as far as it pertains to humanity, has to stem from God’s self-revelation to humanity. However, many will find the Scriptures unsatisfying as far as the intellectual ‘problem of evil’ is concerned: the origin of evil in the world and God’s permission of it are issues not addressed by any biblical writer. The book of Genesis assumes the presence of evil in the character of the serpent, and if Ezekiel 28 is indeed a reference to Satan, it merely tells us that one fine day evil was found in him. There is silence on the hows and whys. If the Scriptures are God’s self-revelation, then it seems that God is not concerned for man to know about these facts, as much as man may yearn for these deep secrets of God.

But what if this lack of disclosure by God is meant to point us towards what is important? That even if man knows about the details surrounding the genesis of evil, it adds nothing to him. Evil is all around him and in him, and throughout the tens of thousands of years of man’s existence, evil has yet to be overcome by him. This is what we have to be cognisant of. Does this impugn God’s character, that He has permitted evil in the world, allowed man to suffer, and has not given him a satisfactory answer to it? Certainly not! A satisfactory answer is never one in the abstract but one in the concrete, for the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. If God’s character is in any way marred by the existence of evil (and I say this in a human way), He had redeemed His character through His actions in the world in history. The ‘problem of evil’ is meant to point us to Him, and not away from Him.

Talk is cheap, but action is costly and speaks volumes about the actor. The Scriptures direct us to the interactions of God with man, which describe His deep concern for the sufferings of man. The ultimate self-revelation of God in His Son Jesus Christ is the ultimate act of love and also the solution to the ‘problem of evil’. God clears His name through this ultimate act and shows the world that He is the only one worthy of all glory, praise and honour. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God, took on the being of a man to suffer alongside man and experience the death of man. If there be any accusation of God being malevolent and deistic, this act is a solemn refutation. He is not a king dispensing decrees from an ivory tower. He is a King who came down to walk with His people, sullying His hands and feet along with them.

The Son of God then died a horrific death on the cross as a man who had experienced the evils of the world and yet committed no evil; He remained a sinless man in His earthly life, impervious to the overwhelming coercion of evil, remained wholly obedient to the good and perfect will of God, and suffered and died as a truly innocent man. Evil was finally defeated and put to open shame on the cross. In accordance with Scriptures, He died for our sins as a propitiation. The power of sin is death, so He took up our sins, and thus death, upon the cross so that we may be forgiven of our sins and be released from death to eternal life. In a way He took up our sufferings in Himself too, as a God who is not too apathetic to bear the consequence of evil which He had permitted in His good creation.

Thus whoever the Spirit of Christ rests upon is in Jesus Christ and has joined Him in the victory over sin and death. Evil has no hold over him as in Christ he has been transferred from the domain of darkness to the domain of light. By free obedience to God’s will, enabled by the Spirit, He is able to resist evil and flee from doing the works of evil. Whatever evil he suffers, he knows that God too suffered, and in Him he has comfort and hope. At the end of time, those in Christ will be resurrected to eternal life with Him and released from evil forevermore, both as agents and recipients.

As people in Christ, we are thus called – quoting Jurgen Moltmann – to ‘proclaim the human, the suffering, the crucified God, and learn to live in his situation’. Because God is not apathetic to the human condition, neither should His people be apathetic to it. Rather, they are to reach out to the world with ‘the spirit of compassion, sympathy, and love’. In his book Evil and the Justice of God, N.T. Wright suggests that we should advance Jesus’ victory over evil by forgiving when we suffer because of evil, in that when Jesus suffered under his tormentors, he did not threaten or revile in return, but implored His Father for their forgiveness. ‘Only so can we live out the proper Christian answer to the problem of evil, which is not a theory but a life, a life which will be vindicated or validated in the age to come when evil is finally abolished altogether’.

Mr Png Eng Keat

December 20, 2015