Biblical Reflections On The Problem of Evil, Part 1

Grace For The Journey

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31Mar  In my blogs, I normally take a verse or passage of Scripture and expound it to help us grown in the grace and knowledge of Christ.  However, since we are in the midst of dealing a worldwide pandemic, I felt led by the Lord to deal with the problem of evil in the world.  The “problem of evil” has been an issue that has been encountered by every single human being that has ever lived in this world.  Whether it is viewed as a philosophical problem or an experiential one, it is faced by us all.  Here is a summary of the basic philosophical problem, which, as I see it, is based upon at least four undeniable facts:

  1. God is supremely good and just.
  2. God is omniscient.
  3. God is omnipotent.
  4. Evil is in the world.

The problem that is proposed for Christians, who agree with each of these four assumptions, comes in pointing out the apparent inconsistency of asserting these attributes of God while facing the truth of the existence of evil in the world.  For example, since evil exists in the world, and God has the power to deal with it, then it is thought that He must not be truly good or else He would deal with it.  Or, since evil exists in the world, and God is supremely good and just, then He must lack the power to deal with it.  Or, perhaps God is supremely good and has the power to deal with evil, but He either doesn’t know about it or simply doesn’t know how to deal with it, in which case He would not be omniscient.

The eighteenth century philosopher David Hume, citing the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, set forth the problem of evil succinctly by asking three questions about God: “Is He willing to prevent evil, but not able?  Then He is impotent.  Is He able but not willing?  Then He is malevolent.  Is he both able and willing?  Whence then is evil?” (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part 10, 1779).

That, in a nutshell, is the philosophical problem of evil.  It is an age-old problem with which philosophers and theologians have struggled for millennia.  But even if many have not taken the time to think much about the philosophical problem of evil, I am certain that there has never been a person who hasn’t dealt with it as an experiential problem… at least to some extent.  After all, the experiential problem of evil stares us in the face in one way or another every day.

For many today and throughout history, the problem of evil has represented the most serious objection to the Christian faith.  Some very brilliant philosophers have thought that this problem conclusively refutes belief in the Christian God.  But not only professors of philosophy – ordinary people, too, often feel this problem deeply.  You don’t have to be a sophisticated philosopher to doubt the reality of God when a loved one is going through terrible suffering or a pandemic is threatening your health.  At such times the “problem of evil” is not so much a learned argument as it is a simple cry of the heart, “How could a loving God allow this?”

Does God give us an answer to this problem in Scripture?  That is what I would like for us to consider in today’s blog.  Although we do not have time to examine all of the pertinent passages of Scripture on the matter, I hope to focus our attention upon a number of key texts that show us something about God’s relationship to evil.  In the process I hope to show what a Biblical response to the problem of evil really is, even if it is not the kind of answer that many would like or that many might suspect.  We will look first at some key Old Testament passages and then at some key New Testament passages.

Old Testament Passages

We will look first at Joseph’s response to the evil actions of his brothers in selling him into slavery.  This event is summarized in Genesis 45:5 where David says to his brothers, “But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. [See also Psalm 105:17).  Joseph acknowledged that through the evil action of his brothers God was working His own good purposes.  He clearly saw God as in sovereign control even over their evil actions.  In fact, he later asserted the same point even more forcefully.  In Genesis 50:15-20, when Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him.” So they sent messengers to Joseph, saying, “Before your father died he commanded, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to Joseph: ‘I beg you, please forgive the trespass of your brothers and their sin; for they did evil to you.’  Now, please, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of your father.’  And Joseph wept when they spoke to him.  Then his brothers also went and fell down before his face, and they said, ‘Behold, we are your servants.”  Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God?  But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.’”

Once again Joseph acknowledged God’s sovereign control over evil as a part of His own good plan.  He also clearly distinguished between the evil intentions of his brothers and the good intentions of God, even in the very same act.  This much Joseph understood, even if he could not explain to his brothers how it could be so.  Apparently, he knew that, whatever else was true, he could not deny either God’s sovereign control or His goodness.

So, whatever our response to the problem of evil, it cannot be a denial of God’s sovereign control even over evil events.  Nor can it be to make God the author of sin in any way.

A proper response to the problem of evil

Always places the blame for sin

Upon wicked human beings

And never upon God.

We will see this approach reinforced several more times as we examine a number of other key Scripture passages.

Next, we will need to take a rather lengthy look at Job’s response to the evil against him, together with his interaction with God that followed.  After all, if there is one book in the Bible devoted to wrestling at length with the problem of evil, it is the Book of Job. The book begins with God pointing Job out to Satan and permitting Satan to do evil against him.  He permitted Satan to work both through natural disasters and through the instigation of evil acts by human beings in order to destroy Job’s family (except for his wife) and all that Job possessed, as well as to bring a terrible disease upon Job.  With this background in mind, look with me at Job’s response:

Job’s initial response in recorded in Job 1:20-22, “Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped.  And he said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there.  The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’  In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.”

Even though he had suffered many evils against himself – evils that the reader knows that Satan was ultimately behind and that had been permitted by God – Job still did not accuse God of any wrong.

He clearly recognized that God

Is sovereign even over these evil things

And that they could not have occurred

Except as a part of God’s plan,

But he also knew that this does not mean

That God is to be blamed for the evil.

So, again, we see that a response to the problem of evil must not rob God of His sovereignty over all things, but neither should it to lead us to accuse Him of any evil. Rather, in responding to the problem of evil . . .

We must acknowledge

That God is

Sovereign over it

And permits it

As a part of His plan

In such a way

That He is never

To be blamed for it.

It would be nice to have a solution to the problem of evil, but not at any price. If the price we must pay is the very sovereignty of God, the faithful Christian must say that the price is too high.  After all, it is of little importance whether any of us discovers the answer to the problem of evil. It is possible to live a long and happy and faithful life without an answer.  But it is all-important that we worship the true God, the God of Scripture. Without Him, human life is worth nothing.

Such was the attitude of Job.  However, as his suffering the effects of evil continued, he did get upset with God and challenge Him to explain Himself.  In fact, we might say that Job demanded an answer from God to his own experiential problem of evil.  Consider, for example, the following statements of Job:

Job 10:1-3, “My soul loathes my life; I will give free course to my complaint, I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.  I will say to God, “Do not condemn me; show me why You contend with me.  Does it seem good to You that You should oppress, that You should despise the work of Your hands, and smile on the counsel of the wicked?”

Job 19:6-7, “Know then that God has wronged me, and has surrounded me with His net.   If I cry out concerning wrong, I am not heard. If I cry aloud, there is no justice.”

Sadly, although he initially – and correctly – refused to blame God for the evil against him, at this point Job’s suffering, grief, and anger got the best of him.  But he will end up repenting of having spoken such things. First, however, let us notice one more brash statement by made by Job:

Job 31:35-37, Oh, that I had one to hear me!  Here is my mark. Oh, that the Almighty would answer me, that my Prosecutor had written a book!  Surely I would carry it on my shoulder, and bind it on me like a crown; I would declare to Him the number of my steps; like a prince I would approach Him.”

However, when God did manifest His presence to him, Job started singing a different tune!  God declared that it was not Job who would do the questioning, but that He Himself would question Job.  Look at God’s confrontation of Job in order to see what I mean in the following passages:

Job 38:1-5, “Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: ‘Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me.  Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding.  Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?’”

God then went on to speak of many of His great works, and He challenged Job to explain them and asked Job if he himself could do them.  In other words, God did not respond directly to Job’s demand for an answer to the problem of evil. Instead, He rebuked Job for having demanded an answer from Him in the first place! Listen to God’s challenge to Job:

Job 40:1-8, “Moreover the LORD answered Job, and said: ‘Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him?  He who rebukes God, let him answer it.’  Then Job answered the LORD and said: ‘Behold, I am vile; What shall I answer You?   I lay my hand over my mouth.  Once I have spoken, but I will not answer; yes, twice, but I will proceed no further.’  Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, ‘Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me: Would you indeed annul My judgment? Would you condemn Me that you may be justified?’”

God then challenged Job in much the same way that He had already challenged him.  But still God did not give any answer to the problem of evil.  Once again, He simply rebuked Job for his arrogance in demanding an accounting from Him in the first place.

This is hard to take.  Like Job, we usually expect something else when we ask for an explanation of the problem of evil.  This doesn’t even seem like an explanation.  But in this case, this is bitter medicine that we need to take.

When we are faced

With the problem of evil,

We need to remind ourselves

Who we are and who God is.

We are in no position to judge Him; we have no right to demand an explanation from Him.  He is Lord.  That is our first answer to the problem of evil.

But what was Job’s final response?  How did he react after God rebuked him?  We find his response in Job 42:1-6, “Then Job answered the LORD and said: ‘I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You.  You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.  Listen, please, and let me speak; You said, ‘I will question you, and you shall answer Me.’  I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You.  Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

So, in our response to the problem of evil, we must never forget . . .

  • That we are fallen creatures and that God does not owe us any explanation at all for what He does.
  • We must learn the lesson of Job’s life and of the book that bares his name.

That lesson is –

That God is aware that we struggle

With the problem of evil

And that He has chosen

Not to give us the kind of answer

That we often think we need or deserve.

Instead . . .

  • He expects us to trust Him and to worship Him on the basis of His previous works and revealed character.
  • He expects us to trust that He is good even if we can’t understand all that He does.
  • And, when we become angry and begin to think that He owes us the kind of explanation we so often think we need, then we must do as Job did and repent of our sinful attitude towards Him.

In tomorrow’s blog, we will look at New Testament passages that will help us develop a Biblical response to the problem of evil.

This is God Word … This is Grace for your Journey …

Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!

Pastor Terry

Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

2Corinthians 4:7And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always havng all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed.”

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