The following is the outline used in a 20 minute radio interview on the subject of evil and suffering. The interview was given on July 16, 2010 on Radio Luz: XHTE in Tehuacan, Puebla in Mexico. The program is a favorite of the listeners called, “Un Cafecito Con Jose Angel”. The questions were asked in Spanish through an interpreter, Michel Lagunes, and I replied in English through the same interpreter.
I was in Tehuacan as part of our bi-annual term teaching more than 100 Christian leaders the subject of Apologetics. Jose Angel, one of the station owners, was part of the class and invited me for the interview.
Question: What is Evil?
- Evil is the absence of the good, which comes from God; the exception to the normal that God created. Evil entered the Cosmos through the fall of Lucifer (Ezekiel 28:15)
- Sin is a choice to step away from truth righteousness and goodness; it is choosing something partial, twisted, negative or improper. Sin entered the human race through Adam (Romans 5:12)
- Suffering is a direct or indirect result of evil entering the Cosmos and gaining a foothold. In Genesis 3, the curses followed the disobedience.
If God is good, why does he allow evil and suffering in the world?
God’s reasons are above and beyond our understanding (Isaiah 40:13). We do know certain things about God:
- He is good (Deuteronomy 13:4)
- He is wise (Job 12:13)
- He is all-powerful (Isaiah 44:6)
Maybe the best way to capture the essence of at least part of God’s reasons for allowing evil and suffering into the Cosmos is because he desired that people have real choice. Only with real choice can we truly choose him. Maybe we can over-simplify this and juts say that God, who loves us, wants us to really love him in return.
That choice to love God cannot happen if he pre-programmed us to love him. Only when we may choose to love or not love; obey or not obey, is there the possibility of love and obedience freely given. Sadly, some of his angels chose not to love him and evil entered the Cosmos. Then the human race chose its own way in the Garden, bringing the infection of sin into the human race.
The good news is that we may still freely choose him by faith. Hebrews 2:10 refers to Jesus Christ bringing many sons into God’s presence. We become God’s children through this choice we call faith.
How can the problem of evil and suffering be dealt with?
- God has decisively dealt with sin and evil. He did this through his son Jesus on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21). This means:
- He personally knows the horrors of evil as well as the mental stress and agony of suffering (Philippians 2:8).
- He has dealt a decisive blow to evil, sin and suffering (Colossians 1:20).
- Someday God will put an end to suffering (Revelation 21:3-4).
- In the meantime God is so wise and powerful that he can use all things (including the evil and suffering he didn’t cause) to work for the ultimate good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).
Knowing that various Christian traditions understand the interaction of sin and grace in a believer from different perspectives, here is how I piece together the biblical evidence (by the way that’s what theology is: a piecing together, weighing and organizing of what the Bible teaches):
Our Natural State: Total Depravity. As we are naturally born, our human nature is thoroughly infected with sin (Psalm 139, Jeremiah 17:9, etc). This does not mean that we are born totally evil. Obviously unbelievers are capable of doing good things. It does mean, however, that we are affected by sin in every component of who we are (body, emotions, mind, will, etc). The collective term in the scriptures for these components affected by sin is flesh. This concept that our flesh is thoroughly corrupted by sin is described theologically as total depravity.
Therefore, our natural situation is somewhat like having a virus living in our entire body, but which especially attacks certain parts (such as a sinus cold or the intestinal flu). The symptoms manifest themselves most strongly in places of special weakness. In a similar way sin, which affects every part of us, may manifest itself in a particular besetting sin, such as gossip, lust, theft, indifference to people’s needs, refusal to believe what God has said, etc. The manifestations of sin will vary from person to person in terms of where it is most evident and how intense it is (Romans 7:5).
The New Nature: Child of God. When a person puts faith in Christ, they are born of the spirit (John 3:4-6). At the moment of regeneration, something comes into existence which had not been there before. That is, a component of the human makeup (the spirit), which was previously dead, is now brought to life. This spirit is born of God and, therefore, is not affected by sin. This is the part of our makeup that loves the Lord, responds to his word and wants to please him.
Sin and the Believer: a Constant Struggle. So why may believers still sin? The answer is simple: because the flesh is not yet dead. In fact, it has not changed in the slightest. It is entirely possible, if they choose, for believers to commit sins that would be typical of the most unrestrained unbelievers, because the dynamic of the flesh is unchanged. That is, the tendencies of the flesh still pull in the same directions they always did (Romans 7:14-18).
That is why the scriptures admonish us to mortify (or kill) the flesh by walking in the spirit (Galatians 5:16, Romans 8:1-4). In other words, moment by moment we choose which nature we will live under. Unbelievers have no choice but to live in the flesh because it is the only nature they have to work with. At times it operates out of the remnants of God’s image and good training, in which case the person may do kind things, good things, noble things, etc. At other times, the flesh may be in a more actively rebellious mode, in which case it may do desperately wicked things. Either way, it can never truly please God because it has no desire or ability to do so (Romans 8:7).
Believers, however, have a choice. Since we now have a new, godly nature within us, we do not have to live in the flesh. As we choose to live under the new nature (walk in the power and wisdom of God’s Spirit) a pattern of godly living is formed in us that grows deeper day by day. The Christian life is one that necessarily involves struggle, and yet it is also one of eventual victory because it depends on God, not primarily on us.
Grace: the Key. One final thing to keep in mind is that the key idea in the gospel is grace. While we grow in faith and godliness, God understands our situation and is patient with our failings. Of course, some people could take this as an excuse for disobedience and immaturity, and so we must guard against this. But it is also reassuring because all of us fail and feel like losers at times. When we do, we simply confess sin, deal with it, and begin to walk in the spirit again in the faith that, as we persevere, God will transform us into the image of Christ.
The following discussion of the progressive nature of scriptural revelation is an excerpt from an email exchange between myself and a former parishioner, named Melissa. I hope it is a source of insight to any who care to read it. Michael Bogart
Melissa’s Question: Hi Pastor Mike,
I hope you don’t mind being my sounding board, but I have a very interesting question I would like your opinion on…if you have time
Okay…so Abraham gets with Hagar and Ishmael is born. I know God was upset with the fact that he didn’t wait for Sarah…but, was it still considered
adultery? In fact, many of the “godly” men spoken of in the Old Testament
seem to have committed what modern day Christians would deem adultery. I don’t get it.
Is this a case of “God blinking” at the sin…or was it something acceptable
for the time period. Especially, when reading about David and
Bathsheba…God talks about giving David the wives of Saul (2 Samuel
12:8)…how does this fit with the New Testament command to not even look at a woman in lust because you have committed adultery?
Confused enough for now? I hope you have time to give me your take on this. Thanks in advance, Melissa
My Reply: Melissa– You raise a good question. I think I would answer this way: Many Bible scholars (myself included) follow a principle called “progressive revelation” which says, in effect, that after the profound turning away from God following the Flood (Rom 1:18ff), he began to reveal himself again, starting with Abraham (Genesis 12).
As someone who is familiar with education, you know that you must begin teaching simple ideas and build from there–concept on concept, skill upon skill. I think that is what God did with Abraham. That means he didn’t “sweat” every issue that came along, because Abraham was learning the fundamentals of faith–simple obedience in the face of what seemed to be impossible. Later, Moses is used by God to set up a much more specific code, which the New Testament book of Galatians tells us was meant to be a schoolmaster, training us in the particulars of what holiness and godly living might look like.
However, the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) must be understood as primarily applying to a scenario in the second millenium BC. Applying its teachings and precepts to other venues must be made carefully and with lots of New Testament grace. Some things like the prohibitions against idolatry, murder and adultery are clearly universal principles. Other things like the kosher laws for food and the whole priestly ceremonial code seem to have been intended as specific for Israel. The New Testament itself sees it more or less in this light.
So, did Abraham do wrong in taking Hagar? Was David out of God’s will in polygamy? In light of the New Testament I would have to say that, yes, they were out of God’s perfect will in the sense that they did not live up to his perfect righteousness, nor did they model his original plan. Take for example Jesus’ teaching in reference to the Jews’ questions on the permissibility of divorce in Matthew 19. His words might be summarized like this:
“Yes. Moses did permit divorce –as a concession because of Israel’s immaturity and hardness of heart. But this in no way reflects God’s best plan for marriage. Go back to Creation: didn’t he create them male and female and pair them for life? Therefore to be true children of God, we should seek to live as much like him and follow his plan as closely as possible.”
In other words, Israel should have moved beyond Moses and the temporary covenant to the bigger picture. Certainly Hagar was a mistake. Although the practice of surrogate wives may have been common in that time and place, that was no excuse for Abraham. He violated God’s plan for marriage and showed a very disturbing (though understandable) lack of faith. But I see a greater truth here: God isn’t nearly as worried about some kinds of mistakes as his people often seem to be. Even David’s horrible sin with Bathsheba and the causing of her husband’s death didn’t result in God’s total rejection of David.
In both cases, God set a plan in motion that was contingent upon the choices and actions Abraham and David had made. This plan involved continuing to use them and bless them because of his grace while requiring repentance. His grace both foreknew and incorporated the new factors they had caused (Ishmael / Solomon, etc).
I think we evangelicals are a bit too “all or nothing” sometimes. God is committed to the redemption of those who will cooperate. Apparently he will put up with a lot to accomplish this. Of course Galatians speaks to the issue of taking advantage of God’s graciousness. Far be it from us to think we can do what we want and God will work it all out. Better to say–”Wow! What a great God. Look at how gracious he is and how much of my foolishness he has overlooked (and forgiven). I want to know him and his ways better and serve him more faithfully.” I think this approaches a truer understanding of grace than most of us who have been trained in modern biblical Christianity would dare hope for (or allow others to hope for).
I hope this helps. Pastor Mike