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?
You have not been in many arguments about the nature of God and the reality of suffering and evil in this world if you have not come across this quote in some form. It was one of the most significant “stumbling blocks” that is employed as an argument against God’s existence, or, more specifically, the existence of the Biblical God. All good questions deserve a good answer. And I would say that this is one of the best questions that has been asked of Christianity in 2,000 years.
So how does one begin to justify the seemingly contradictory existence of a self-proclaimed Good God and the existence of evil and suffering. This is an inevitable challenge for us to wrestle with due to our core beings. We naturally gravitate towards wanting to do good things for people we love and want to help them avoid bad things happening to them. In Matthew 7:11 Jesus even observes that even evil people will give good things to their children. If we are to believe that we are Children of God, it is natural for our first response to our lack of good things, or, the perceived lack of good things for others, seems to be painting a picture of God not being half as loving as even an imperfect parent!
As I mentioned in my preview post for this blog, this week I am assisting in the officiating for the funeral of a 22 year old man. His death came as a shock to everyone in his family. Especially his young mother and 14 year old brother. They are currently embroiled in the soul scorching pain of losing someone immeasurably close and valuable without warning. It is understandable in the midst of their grief to be questioning how God could allow something so tragic to occur. For them, it is not a philosophical exercise to contemplate the Goodness of God in the midst of this time, it is the most challenging moment in their lives. They are not able to find solace in the intellectualism of the class room philosophical lecture or the spoon fed spiritualism often spouted from a pulpit. Their needs are much more practical and immediate.
Where does God enter into this story? How do I, in the role of Pastoral counselor, speak to them in a way to help lead towards peace? Before I can answer the details of God’s Goodness existing in tandem with the worlds evil, we first must deal with hope. And where is hope to be found? It is found in the end of the story.
When people complain about an uncaring Deity who turns his head away while we struggle here alone they are doing so by only focusing on one aspect of the character of God and God’s plan in the bible. It is an incomplete process to proof text scripture, pull out quotes about God being good, turn and compare it to the “reality” we perceive, and trumpet that as proof of the bible being untrustworthy and God untrue. If we are going to glam onto statements of God’s goodness we also have to look at what he promises us in the context of his goodness.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.
We become so transfixed on the “now” that we miss that God has an ultimate plan that he is working towards through ourselves and through this world. He does not promise that this life will be without pain and suffering, but he does promise that he will make all things right. The reality of sin has transformed God’s perfect design into a perversion of itself. But, He is working all things towards a day when “every tear will be wiped away”! If I am to have any hope in the goodness of God it is found not in whether or not “now” is good, but it is found in the hope I have in what my forever will be.
Our currently limited perspectives cause us to often become short sighted and consumed by what is happening to us right now. Now, I do not mean in any way to diminish anyone’s suffering, but we on a simpler level recognize that we have to have the end goal in mind when we confront any difficult circumstance. When a marathon runner is in the middle of a difficult training run, they cannot be consumed with the now, they have to focus on first, the limited nature of the training run and second, that a greater joy will be theirs if they can simply hold on and complete the race that is before them.
In much the same way we have to realize that where we are now is a finite and transient time. We are made for something much greater and eternal. While suffering is suffering, and evil is evil, having the reliability of hope in God’s ultimate promise can help us to continue on even while the now seems bleak and desperate.
All of this does in no way mean that God does not care what is happening to you in the now. We see in Scripture that God is heartbroken over the rebellion of this world. Not only is he heartbroken, but he is impassioned with just anger over evil perpetrated upon His children. Matthew 23:37 paints a beautiful picture for us of Jesus’s heartbreak over our condition. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” The wording and imagery that is utilized in the passage here would indicate that Jesus is speaking with great emotion, and that the word longing could be better translated from the Greek as a sort of groaning. As if from his innermost being he is aching to take care of his lost people.
What we often miss as we read over this passage showing Jesus’ passion for taking care of us is that it is dependent upon US! Jesus says that he has longed(groaned) to gather up his children and take care of them, but, they are unwilling. The very first line of the quote I started this with asked, if God is willing is he unable? I would answer that to Epicurus in the affirmative! I am not sure where this silly notion of God being able to do all things comes from, but it is inaccurate, logically, AND Biblically!
Before the Christians reading this jump down my throat let me explain. God by his very nature is limited in a number of ways. One example that I will draw your attention to is I John 1:5. It tells us that God is light, in him there can be no darkness at all. What does this mean? God, by his very definition of himself, is limited by his inability to be less then what he is. It is not just that he chooses to be without darkness(the context in I John would indicate darkness as sin), but that by his very nature He is unable to be in communion with darkness!
You may have heard that famous philosophical question: Could Jesus heat a burrito so hot he couldn’t pick it up? While circular reasoning can be “funny”, it is a question based on a false assumption, that God’s definition of being all powerful means that he can do or be anything. A short list of things God cannot be: Less then perfectly loving, less then perfectly just, petty, sinful, in darkness, etc.
So what is it about God’s very nature keeps him from intervening to prevent or correct evil and sin that we observe on a daily basis? To begin to open up our understanding of that let me direct you to a quote by CS Lewis in his book, The Problem of Pain.
We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of this abuse of free will by His creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void; nay, if the principle were carried out to its logical conclusion, evil thoughts would be impossible, for the cerebral matter which we use in thinking would refuse its task when we attempted to frame them.
We can argue all day about why God chose to give us free will, but the bottom line is, he did make us to be creatures of free will. As desperately as he desires to “gather you under his wings” he will not compromise his creation, or, ultimately, Himself. He has chosen to give us the ability and intellect to choose Him, or, to not choose Him. Therefore, the evil we observe, AND EXPERIENCE, in this life is in direct correlation to the abuses of this free will by mankind, as individuals, and as a communal whole.
So where does hope fit into this picture? If we are creatures of free will who will inevitably abuse it and cause ourselves, and often others, pain, what is the big idea God has? Let me direct you back to the passage from Revelation that I quoted earlier. God has an ultimate, and eternal, destination in mind for His creation. What we experience now is the results of a broken and sinful world that has perverted God’s intentions. So what is He waiting for? Why doesn’t he just make things better right now? Why is he waiting to “wipe away” my tears?
Revelation 20:15 records, “ All whose names were not found written in the book of life were thrown into the lake of fire” As I mentioned God cannot force himself over our will and will also not be able to diminish himself by dwelling in sin. If we are not able to come before him cleansed of our sin, we will be cast into hell for eternity. This of course would necessitate a completely new blog to deal with the issues of salvation and why salvation is found only through Christ, but for now accept the premise of eternal damnation for the context of understanding the existence of evil that you observe.
God has given us free will, which has led to evil, which he is currently “not” stopping. So why has he chosen to ignore and allow evil to continually be perpetuated? Because of you! 100% without question, he is allowing evil to continue because he passionately and desperately desires to gather YOU under his wings, and you are not letting him…..yet. The greatest message of love that has ever been conceived is that he is willing to allow evil to continue to persist because he has not yet given up on you.
Here is what I mean. When we look at evil and sin, we most often look at evil and sin outside of ourselves. It is quite natural to see something like genocide in Darfur, or children born with AIDS because their young mother was raped and wonder where God is in all of this. We cry out to God to stop this evil, to punish those responsible, to heal the brokenness that we ourselves are broken over. But we do so with an incomplete understanding of the nature and heart of God.
How I like to put it is this: God is not the tv show “Trading Spaces” he is the tv show “Extreme Home Makeover”. We ask God to come and sanitize and deal with the sins that bother us. The things that make us sad. We say, God I really hate my living room, can you come spruce it up and make it a more comfortable place for me to live? But that is not who God is, that is not how He operates. He is Ty Pennington, he is going to come in, take one look at the rotten floor boards, the crumbling foundations, the leaking roof, and he is going to take dynamite to it and bring it to the ground so he can build something brand new and wonderful.
We say, God come stop genocide, and he says, “Alright, but if I deal with that now, I am going to deal with the fact that you are sleeping with someone you are not married to, I am going to deal with your gossip and slander, your hard heart towards your parents, your spiteful words to your neighbor, your foul language, your internal sexual sin of the heart and mind, your drug addictions, your __________ fill in the blank…..” And we respond, “hold on one minute there buddy! I am just talking about REAL bad stuff, you don’t need to get too personal about this”
God will not ever do anything part way. Once he begins the process of making all things new, your sin will be dealt with same as the man raping a child after he has killed their family in a village in Africa. You cannot expect God to just come along and make YOUR life more palatable while ignoring your own crumbling foundations and leaking roofs. And what has stayed God’s hand on the dynamite plunger so far? You.
Jesus showed us God’s heart, that it is groaning passionately to gather you home. And because of that he is going to give you every last chance he can, he will keep the door open for you until the last possible second. As you watch the news and hear terrible things happening in the world, as you hold tightly loved ones as you struggle with the pain of a terrible and unforeseen disease or loss, be comforted in knowing that God is broken and weeping with you. But he knows the end of the story, that this death destruction is not the end of the story. And because of that, he is keeping the light on, just a few hours more, just a few moments extra to give everyone every possible chance that there can be to come home.
So how do we answer Epicurus? As long as there is still hope for some, God will stay the execution of Justice because he loves us too much to give up just yet. He is willing to stop evil, but he is not able to give up on his children. He is not able to give up on you yet. There will come a day when all things will be made right, and he will answer to the evil that has gone on under his ever attentive gaze, but for your sake, I pray that it doesn’t come too soon.