The Problem of Evil

The following is adapted from an online debate that I had elsewhere that degenerated into unhelpfulness before any of this got discussed. So here is my attempt at theodicy.

As a prologue, I will be defending the goodness of God by pointing out the Biblical view of man, the unique theocracy of Israel, and balancing statements about God’s character. You will no doubt be tempted to object that I am using myths and fictions to defend God. I will remind you that you can’t have your cake and eat it. If the mitigating factors (such as the Bible’s witness that Canaan deserved the ‘holy genocide’ that they got) can be dismissed as myths and fictions, then so must the original complaint that God commissioned holy war and is therefore evil. If you can believe the ‘bad’ things said about God, then what reason do you have to reject the good?

That being said, let me give it a go.

Among the central ideas in the creation story is that God created the world good and delegated it to the care of one of His creatures, i.e. man. We were given only one restriction: we were not to rebel against God’s ultimate rulership, expressed in the ‘Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil’, which I take it symbolises God’s right to command and to determine what is right and wrong.

What is right and wrong under God therefore depends on the nature of created order (i.e. the way God made it), and its purpose from His vantage point (i.e. the reason for which God made it). The central act in God’s purposes is the incarnation and resurrection, which makes Christian ethics slightly different, but I won’t get in to that. Without the ability to perceive creation as a whole, human moral reasoning is limited, and unable to foresee its own consequences. I presume this is one of the reasons why God reserved moral definition for Himself.

God’s command also defines the limits of human rulership of creation. We are dependent creatures, not autonomous agents. So, the ‘fall’ (man’s disobedience) is not a minor slip up (eating the wrong fruit), it is a declaration of independence from God, and a rebellion against His headship. This is the source of ‘evil’: It is the human will engaged in autonomous moral reasoning in rebellion against God, and without the benefit of a grasp of the whole. Why God decided it is better to create beings with the ability to rebel is a question I can’t answer. Perhaps it is a pre-requisite for genuine relationship, but even that begs all sorts of deeper questions.

The next essential idea for this question is that of God’s rights as judge. If God is our creator, and if we are creatures, then that automatically defines a hierarchical relationship. If creation is dependent upon Him for its genesis and its continued existence, then the life and death of anything is always a matter of His will, and in many respects a gift to His creation, rather than a right inherent to it. Whether anything exists depends on God willing it to be. Whether He continues to animate a certain rebelling being or not (i.e. continuing to extend the gift of life) is up to Him. So if creatures rebel against God, then God rightfully stands as ‘judge’ of our actions. And if you consider what people actually do to one another (even from our limited vantage point), we deserve to be called to account.

Perhaps it’s helpful to look at God’s work in the world as one would view an oncologist’s work with his patient. In one respect, and without the grasp of the whole and its purpose, we might see the oncologist as killing parts of the body, which, if the work were being done on healthy limbs, would be cruel and immoral. However, with the benefit of the big picture, what is being removed from the body is painful but ultimately a mercy that is necessary for the survival of the healthy parts. In general, while death is bad, it can also be seen as merciful, because it guarantees that the power and activity of evil men is limited, just as the death of Robert Mugabe might well be relief for Zimbabwe (but what do I know about that?). So, ‘clear evils’ from the too-small, too-close perspective that we occupy might not be that clear at all if we could only see the whole. The benefit of hindsight often reminds us of that.

So, the idea that God ‘kills’ and yet commands us not to is not some kind of double standard. Killing cannot be a moral question for a being that necessarily is responsible for the life of everything. However, when you kill, you are usurping one of the responsibilities that belongs to God, and you are doing it for selfish purposes. Murder reflects exactly what was done at the fall (man taking God’s role).So, God does kill people directly, just as He has done with every single person that ever lived. He sometimes does it as a particular act of judgment, as in the case of Sodom, where human wickedness became so great that it met with an unmediated ‘Day of the Lord’, i.e. unequivocal divine judgment.

But to dwell only on God’s rights as judge is hopelessly imbalanced. The point is that we deserve judgment. It is justice. Yet, the defining characteristic that God gives of Himself is that of mercy, giving us what we don’t deserve (which raises the critical problem of how God can be both merciful and just). For example, Abraham is given unconditional promises; the nation that descends from him is rescued from slavery by an act of God’s judgment on Egypt (even Pharaoh is given 10 chances to surrender his view, ‘Who is this God that I should listen to Him?’), and Israel is given a land that they didn’t deserve, filled with crops that they didn’t cultivate and cities they didn’t build, despite their continued grumbling and rebellion. Within the ‘Promised Land’ the nation continues to prefer the booze and prostitution cults (Baal etc.) over Him, and yet He persists with them, forgiving and delivering them every time they return to Him… And so it goes on. Even the giving of the law through Moses is seen as a gift of grace, and the whole law, we are told, is summarised as being an expression of love. When it was given, the people recognised that the nation it would have produced would have been a beacon of goodness among the surrounding countries so that the watching Gentile nations would desire to join. So, whatever we say about it now that we’re 3000 years removed, in the culture in which it was implanted, those laws expressed love, and this continues to be the driving force behind our own applications of law (at their best) to our own culture (some of which might also appear draconian when robbed of their context). Finally, in the incarnation, God Himself descends to die at the hands of His own chosen nation, in order to secure the price to drag creation up with Him, which itself will involve giving to some a ‘heaven’ that they don’t deserve. So, God’s judgment is not evil, it is a necessary corollary of His justice. It is God’s mercy that is surprising, and that is only possible because of the cross, and is most clearly demonstrated there.


A particular problem in this issue is human agency in judgment, and it is one that troubles me most. Why did God ask Israel to wipe out the previous inhabitants of Canaan? I would have been more comfortable if God had simply done what He did to Sodom (except, I suppose, that that would not have left much other than scorched earth for Israel to inherit). The first thing is to recognise that the inhabitants were exceptionally morally bad. God’s reason given for not granting the ‘Promised Land’ earlier was that the ‘full measure of the sins’ of the Canaanites had not been fulfilled, i.e. they were not yet deserving of the kind of judgment that was eventually levelled. Furthermore, God was asking people to do on a large scale what magistrates do daily: pass judgment on the lives of other people, even when that judgment leads to the death of the criminal (whether life in prison is a death penalty or not is a not-very-important distinction for these purposes). So for most things, God uses human agency in His regular dealings with the world.

Secondly, holy war was prescribed within very clear limits of time, place, purpose and target. It was not God’s usual way of dealing with non-Israelites, and Israel was commanded to refrain from conquest outside the prescribed borders. In fact ‘the alien’ in scripture is always to be treated like a brother when within an Israelite’s sphere. The story of Jonah (whether it is true or parabolic) is a clear demonstration of God’s attitude. The Ninevites, who were fond of keeping enemies’ heads on sticks and various other revolting practices, were shown God’s mercy when they repented. Jonah fled in the first place, not because he was scared, but because he didn’t want God to show mercy to people who Jonah wanted to see judged. When God does forgive them, Jonah is annoyed.

Thirdly, holy war was made Israel’s task because it was a graphic demonstration of God’s attitude towards wickedness within the borders of the land that represented His Kingdom. Israel was supposed to be God’s People in His land and under His rule – a unique, unrepeatable theocracy. There was no room for immorality or idolatry. The command to destroy the ultimate immoral idolatrous nation (Canaan) was a stark reminder of the seriousness of such behaviour, and of the purity that governs God’s Kingdom (even in an earthly expression of it). As Barry Webb says:

Closely related to this is the biblical message that not all religion is good, and that religion does not guarantee protection from divine judgment. Everyone in Judges is religious, Canaanites and Israelites alike. Even at their most reprobate, the Israelites are religious, but their religion does not secure God’s favour or make them proof against his judgment. They are warned in both the Law of Moses and the Prophets that if they do as the Canaanites do they will suffer the same fate as them. The Bible’s view is that religion, like everything else, is capable of being true or false, good or bad.

[His good article on holy war in Judges can be found in pdf here.]

It’s noteworthy that Israel did in fact resort to precisely the kind of behaviour that saw the Canaanites condemned [see my blogs here and here on the end of Judges if you’re bored], and they eventually came to the same end, this time at the hands of Assyria and Babylon.

I still don’t like the idea that God required men to kill women and children very much from where I sit, but given what else I know about God, I feel comfortable in subordinating my squeamishness to His better judgment. It’s not quite the same issue, but I like what Miroslav Volf said about pacifism:

It takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human non-violence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked with the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

So, in conclusion, God is necessarily judge, and His judgment is deserved. However, more surprisingly, God is merciful, and the recipients of His mercy do not deserve it. God also judges morality from the only vantage point that is capable of perceiving it flawlessly. Finally, God is good but not tame. We may wish for a big cosmic teddy bear, but He isn’t.


So what about Epicurus’ famous articulation of 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 mistake, in my opinion, is mostly in step 2. It assumes that we deserve good times and happiness (heaven, if you like). It assumes that evil befalls us, and that it is something that God can simply intercept before it reaches us. If the Biblical view of God and man is true, then man’s limited and distorted moral will acting in rebellion against Him is what brings about evil. It keeps doing things whether by accident or design that are opposed to the principle of love for others. So, for God to put an end to evil, He would have to put an end to evil agents; He should have squashed Adam on Day 1. Or Day 7. Whatever.

The point is that evil persists because God is patient with evil men, not because He is malevolent. Instead of giving people what they deserve as soon as they step out of line, He extends time for them to return to Him. When people are snatched before their threescore and ten, it reminds us that He is not messing around. What we do is serious as far as He’s concerned, and He holds us responsible. The ‘evil’, i.e. disaster, that He sometimes sends is His ‘megaphone to a deaf world’ (Lewis again) reminding us that His mercy is vast but not limitless.

Finally, a God of justice necessarily must see that justice is done. Epicurus wants a God who can prevent evil, but, for justice to persist, this would either see humanity destroyed, or humanity stripped of will and responsibility. Instead, God works at overturning evil by an act of incarnation and mercy, that lets mercy and justice meet on the cross of Christ, and which offers us a way of repudiating the evil within us, and having it legitimately forgiven.


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