The Problem of Evil; Coping vs. Solutions
Genesis Lesson #035
November 25, 2003
Three different world views that deal with evil
The first of these is the atheist position:
Proposition # 1: If God is all-powerful He could destroy evil.
Proposition # 2: If God is all good He will destroy evil.
Proposition # 3: But evil is not destroyed.
Proposition # 4: Therefore there is no all-good and all-powerful God.
So the atheist concludes that either God is all-powerful but He is evil. Or he may conclude that He is good but not all-powerful. But ultimately the atheist will conclude that there just isn't any God and evil exists but God doesn't. This is the position that evil is eternal. But he doesn't even have the right to make those propositions. For example, if evil is eternal then it is normal, and if evil is eternal and normal then what that means is you can't really distinguish between good and evil. All human viewpoint concepts go back to the chain of being where everything is within one circle. That means you don't go outside the circle to get some absolute value of what is good or bad, it is determined by what is inside that circle. So their concept of good and evil is generated by the creature. In Christian terminology we would say the circle really describes the creation. In divine viewpoint we have the creator who is distinct from the creation. So atheists are generating their values from within their own experience, from within the framework of creation itself. Ultimately, if evil is eternal then that means that any distinction between good and evil breaks down and their position destroys and real substantive meaning for good and evil because they are determined on a relative basis. How do you know this is good and this is evil? It doesn't work for us. That is what our society has determined. That is what our group has determined isn't right for now but it may be right or wrong for another culture or another group. So that it becomes fluid. Well once it becomes fluid then the meanings of something being good and something being evil are completely destroyed. You can't even communicate any more. You don't have the right to say this is good and this is bad because, Oh, in the 1920s homosexuality was bad and marriage and fidelity was good; but now that has changed. So what gives you the right to even use terms that imply absolutes? What we see is that in their very discussion they are borrowing the meaning of good and evil as absolutes from Christianity. You can't let an unbeliever do that. Where do you get the concept of good and evil? How can you say that? That is one approach. You have to ask the basis for their definition of good and evil.
What we see happening here is something we can be very guilty of ourselves, and we have to be careful of this. Don't develop abstract concepts and then make God conform to those abstract concepts. For example, don't come along and say, I have an absolute concept out here of power. This is what the atheist does. He says, Okay I've got a definition of what omnipotence is. But what is embedded in their definition of omnipotence is that omnipotence means you will restrict evil in a certain time period. They don't bring that out; that's in the closet. Then they'll also talk about goodness, but embedded in their definition of goodness is the concept that if you are really good there is no reason that you would allow this kind of suffering to take place. So they develop an abstract category, and abstract value, and they say, God, if you are God you have to conform to omnipotence and goodness. In other words, they are approaching God is if out there somewhere there are ideals, some sort of yardstick or measuring device that God has to measure up to. That is an intellectual form of idolatry.
There is a passage where Isaiah deals with this in Isaiah 40. Isaiah is writing about 200 years before the Babylonian captivity but from chapter forty on he is writing as if he is in the captivity to comfort the people while they re living in a pagan environment. So God is speaking to them, and in verse 12 He begins to challenge them: "Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?" He is challenging their concept of knowledge, that man empirically may be able to estimate certain things but he doesn't have comprehensive knowledge. He can't give you an exact precise measurement because that would mean he would have to have an infinite data base that could handle all that information. The point of His questions is to show that man's empirical knowledge is finite and limited. Verse 13, "Who hath directed the Spirit of the LORD, or being his counsellor hath taught him?" That brings out the idea that God is not taught by anyone. His knowledge is not our knowledge. We learn everything; God never learned anything. God's knowledge does not increase or diminish; no one teaches Him. Verse 14, "With whom took he counsel, and who instructed him, and taught him in the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed to him the way of understanding?" Who taught God justice? No one did. If you taught God justice there would be this external ideal of justice that God would conform to. What Isaiah is saying is that God doesn't conform to some external category of justice; what He does is just. That is the measuring rod. When we go through the essence box and talk about the fact that Gold is sovereign and righteous and just, etc, these are not abstract categories that God measures up to and because this being measures up to these categories we then say, Okay, He is God. God is who He is He radiates these categories. So God is the measuring device, He doesn't meet up to some measuring device. Verse 18 is the point of Isaiah's confrontation here, "To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?" There is nothing external to which you can compare God or to liken God. He is the standard. If you set something up as a comparison that you are going to use to understand God, then what you are doing is setting that intellectually above God and that then becomes an intellectual idol. This is a very sophisticated concept of idolatry. It is mental idolatry. What it is, is man in his independence wants to define God on the basis of values and categories that are generated by the creature. It is a complete breakdown of that creator-creature distinction where the creature wants to define the creator and the creature is going to generate his own categories, his own values, his own definitions, and then say, God, if you are just and righteous then you have to do this. In other words, You have to dance to this, and I'm not under your sovereignty and control. The thing that we have to recognize is, how do we know what God is? How can we even define what omnipotence is? How can an unbeliever define what goodness is? Isaiah brings this out a second time in verse 25, "To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One." There is no point of analogy. God is incomprehensible and He is above us that we could understand Him. We can know Him to some degree but we can't have comprehensive knowledge.
So the atheist concludes that if God exists He is not all-powerful. So therefore if evil exists God must not exist. Or in some case the atheist would conclude that if God exists He is not all-powerful.
The other hidden assumption which undergirds almost all human viewpoint reasoning on this topic is that if God wanted to destroy evil it would have been destroyed by now. How do you know? How do you know that there is not some higher purpose? Well, I can't conceive of one. So in your limited empirical knowledge you know enough to know that there can't exist anywhere at any time a higher good that is being accomplished by God's extension of evil and allowing evil to run its course in the universe. There are hidden assumptions in each of these points and we need to be sure that they are understood. The assumption there is that God would destroy evil if He could. That presupposes an omniscience about evil and the purposes of the unive4se on the part of the creature that is cannot be derived from either empiricism or rationalism. He is just assuming this.
Now the Christian has an answer to this that has been formulated:
1) If God is all good, and He is, then He will destroy evil.
2) If God is all-powerful then He can destroy evil. He has the ability to destroy evil at any point in time.
3) Evil is not yet destroyed, therefore evil will be destroyed eventually. Evil in the biblical world view is limited, it will be destroyed. Because the Christian position recognizes that there is a plan and a purpose to history and there is a reason. We don't have to understand it fully for there to be a reason. Just because it is incomprehensible doesn't mean it is unknowable or irrational. God is rational, He has a plan and a purpose, but as we saw with Job He is not required to let the creature know all the information. That is the arrogance of the human viewpoint position.
In pantheism there is the view that God exists but evil doesn't, it is just illusion. This is the Hindu position. In America this came up in Christian Science. To accept that position they have to deny the data of empiricism. In other words, whatever we know or learn from our senses it is not really true. Well if evil is an illusion, good is an illusion. You can't have it both ways. You have to ask the question, how do you determine that good isn't an illusion? Or maybe it isn't that good is the reality and evil is the illusion but that good is the illusion and evil is the reality. So in pantheism they not only have to ultimately deny that empiricism can provide any factual, reliable data whatsoever.
Second, it would deny all scientific data in relation to disease and historical disaster. It denies, of course, the biblical data about the reality of sin and evil. This is one way the unbeliever copes with evil. In the first position the atheist has to cope with evil by ultimately reducing its significance by making it normal because he can't handle evil in all of its biblical reality. The escapist, the pantheist, can't deal with evil either so it doesn't really exist. He is just living in a state of psychological denial. This again shows that all unbelieving positions either trivialize evil or act as if it doesn't exist. Those are the only options.
A third position that has been popularized over the last few years is that God has lost control. So what we see again is the same basic fallacies that are in the other positions, a creaturely imposed definition on the Creator. This is what good is and, God, you have to meet my idea of good. It is once again the creature trying to dictate to the Creator.
What we have to realize as Christians is we must always start with God and not with human reason or experience. Revelation always precedes experience. You go to the Scripture to find out who God is and you start with God's revelation of Himself, and that is what sets the standards. Then you come along and utilize those standards. But God Himself is the standard. One of the classic examples that you run into with people is that four-letter word, fair. God is fair. What do you mean by fair? Where do you get your definition of fairness? What is the content of that word fair? So God is fair, and God is isolated into an abstract category and God has to meet that category. Well God wouldn't let that happen because God is fair. Well who sets the standard? This is a radically different way of thinking about God. We've all fallen into that trap, it is a heritage from our Aristotilian, Platonic Greek heritage in western civilization to think in terms of these categorical values as autonomous, abstract ideas.
Illustration: If you saw someone down and out and suffering in the street, you would help them, wouldn't you? I would say, yes. I don't want them to think that somehow they on their own power can change their circumstances. They are in the gutter because they have rejected God, they are reaping the consequences of their own bad decisions. So leave them there in the gutter. I don't want to come up with some sort of solution for their sin, making them think that somehow they can live in unhappiness and meaning and value in life apart from God. I'll give them the gospel, talk to them, and things of that nature, which was the foundation of true, genuine Christian compassion—soup kitchens, missions that operated in the slum areas. But they always gave the gospel with the food. But the illustration is that if you saw someone down in the street, you'd help them, wouldn't you? Well how can God sit back and look at the whole human race and all kinds of wars and everything and not help us? He must not care. But see, once again what happens? They are exporting to God their own value systems. Furthermore, they don't understand the nature of freedom—freedom of choice means freedom to succeed and freedom to fail. For there to be true freedom you have to have freedom to fail. To have love, and God creates man to love Him, to have genuine love that is marked by obedience. We see that again and again in the New Testament: "If you love me you will keep my commandments." So obedience is linked to love. So for there to be genuine love there has to be genuine freedom, and to have genuine freedom there will be freedom to fail and freedom to succeed. Real freedom in choice means that the more significant the choice the more radical the consequences. If you have a choice between worshipping God and not, and obeying God or not, then the consequences are radical. This is what we saw in Genesis 3 where the consequences of man's negative volition are quite radical. Therefore we have to come to grips with the true dimensions of suffering, disease and evil, and that all of that came into the whole cosmic system as a result of disobedience to the creator.
Another approach that people will raise is, What about the innocents? What about the little babies? What about birth defects, natural disasters? Once again, the question betrays a shallow and superficial view of evil. What we see in Scripture is that evil is something that was like a poison that penetrated every dimension of the universe, and that is the way God constructed reality. Not that God is the cause of that but because reality couldn't be any other way. He is demonstrating that the creature cannot survive at all independently of the creator because his negative decisions affect everything, not just the immediate situation.
Sometimes people will ask why God had to visit that curse on the animals and the natural world. Actually, what we see here is more of a consequence. The word "curse" is only used two times in Genesis 3 in verse 14 and verse 17, and both times it is used in the passive. The serpent is cursed. He received the action of cursing, but who performs the action? In verse 17 the ground is cursed, but who performs the action? The judgment on sin was spiritual death, separation of the creature, and there are really two options. Either God causes the negative consequences, which would make Him the direct author of evil and calamity, or evil itself is constitutionally structured in such a way that the simple act of eating a piece of fruit in disobedience to God would change the structure of the universe. That is what the bible is saying. It is not that God caused the earth to be different. What caused the earth to be different was Adam's choice. Evil changed reality. It permeated everything. That means the believer has a profound understanding of what evil is, much more profound, much more real than what the unbeliever has. But that allows us, then, to also deal with it in its reality.
When the unbeliever comes to evil he has three options in terms of coping. First of all, to deny the reality of the evil. This is done a couple of different ways. One is the irrational approach: it just doesn't exist, it is an illusion, there is no real evil. Another way is one that plays out in personal life. Apparently Mary Baker Eddy had a lot of unhappiness in her early life and she was trying to escape personal suffering. Such people try to cope by denying that it is real. Or, the second option is to come up with saying good and evil are only conventions of language and culture. I can't really deal with the fact that I have certain proclivities in my nature and temptation, it is so much easier to just say this is really okay. I'm really miserable if what I am doing is a sin and it is wrong. I have a struggle and a fight. But if I can say it is not really wrong then I can do away with that struggle and fight. So good and evil, then, in human viewpoint become merely conventions of language and culture. That makes it fluid and good becomes evil and evil, good. That is pure relativism.
The second major solution that you see in modern thought is the existential leap into the absurd. They know evil exists but they can't explain it. There is no God so somehow the only way I can really survive suffering and misery is I have to give it some meaning. If you read the existentialist, they can't get meaning from God, they can't get meaning from some external absolute, they can only assign it from their own thinking. They generate the meaning. In real existentialism it is no real ultimate moral difference between pushing a woman in front of a car and helping her across the street. As long as you do something to validate your existence. It is the absurd. If I'm going to survive I'm just going to give it my own meaning. So I assign meaning, I define everything.
The third coping strategy is the one we find so dominant today: escapism, or let's just anaesthetize the pain. They know there is evil there but they have no solution to it whatsoever. That is why all the unbeliever can do is cope. The believer has a solution; all the unbeliever can do is escape. That is why drugs are on the rise. Leave God out of the equation and you are left living a really miserable life. You can't deal with the pain. Or, you get involved with just pleasure, sex, pornography, music and entertainment. Just immerse myself in this so that I don't have to face reality as it is. There are all kinds of escapism, like immerse yourself in work so that you don't have time to think about reality. Many things aren't necessarily wrong but they are used to avoid reality.
The believer can handle problems. He can solve them. The Christian answer is not just coping. The basic problem-solving devices handle evil in his own life.