Understanding Evil

Philosophical, and Emotional Reflections on a Perpetual Question by Joe Rigney (original source here)

Joe Rigney (@joe_rigney) is assistant professor of theology and Christian worldview at Bethlehem College & Seminary and author of The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts. He is a pastor at Cities Church.

Introduction

Where was God?

The question is always the same.

After the initial shock and horror subsides, after the news crews go home, we’re always left with the same question: Where was God?

Did he know it was going to happen? Was he aware of the shooter’s plans? Does he have foreknowledge, foresight, the ability to peer into what for us is the unknown future? Christians can’t help but say yes. God knows the end from the beginning. Indeed, he declares the end from the beginning (Isa 46:9-10), and this exhaustive foreknowledge is one of the distinguishing marks of his deity.

Was he able to prevent it? Was his arm too short to make a gun misfire, to cause an evil young man to have a car wreck on the way to his crime, to give an off-duty police officer a funny feeling in his gut that would cause him to drive by an elementary school? If God can’t prevent something like this, then what good is he? Why pray for God’s help if he can’t actually keep murderers from executing children?

But, of course, the Bible says more than that God could have prevented it; it says that it occurs “according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11). Indeed, he works all things according to the counsel of his will. And when the Bible says ‘all things,’ it means all things:

This ‘all things’ includes the fall of sparrows (Matt 10:29), the rolling of dice (Prov 16:33), the slaughter of his people (Ps 44:11), the decisions of kings (Prov 21:1), the failing of sight (Exod 4:11), the sickness of children (2 Sam 12:15), the loss and gain of money (1 Sam 2:7), the suffering of saints (1 Pet 4:19), the completion of travel plans (Jas 4:15), the persecution of Christians (Heb 12:4–7), the repentance of souls (2 Tim 2:25), the gift of faith (Phil 1:29), the pursuit of holiness (Phil 3:12–13), the growth of believers (Heb 6:3), the giving of life and the taking in death (1 Sam 2:6), and the crucifixion of his Son (Acts 4:27–28). (John Piper, “Why I Do Not Say ‘God Did Not Cause This Calamity, But He Can Use It For Good’”)

All things — good, bad, ugly, and horrific — are ordained, guided, and governed by the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.

Does disaster befall a city unless the Lord has done it (Amos 3:6)? What about a school? I don’t say that lightly. I realize what I’m saying. Or rather, I know what the Scriptures are saying. I’ve wept with parents as they watched their child die slowly of an incurable disease. I’ve watched dementia rob me of my father, taunting me and my family with his slow death. I realize that confessing God’s absolute sovereignty over all things, including the pain in my lower back and the cruel disease stalking my dad and the horrific actions of a wicked man in Connecticut, is hard to fathom. But I’m not helped at all by removing God from the equation, by making him a spectator watching the tragedy unfold on CNN like the rest of us. If he can’t keep evil from happening on the front end, then how can he possibly bring us comfort on the back end?

It’s questions like these that have driven me again and again to the Scriptures. And what I’ve found there is a wealth of help in navigating the problem(s) of evil (there’s not just one, you know).

There’s the biblical-theological problem: What does the Bible teach on God’s goodness and the reality of evil, and how can we coherently put the pieces together? Continue reading

Explaining the First Sin

questionmarkredstandingFrom the Rob writes in to ask: “Pastor John (Piper), as someone who is reformed/Calvinist, I highly appreciate Jonathan Edwards who claims that (1) free will is doing what we desire but that (2) God gives us the desire to do good. With that being said, and keeping James 1:13 in mind, I’m having trouble understanding where Lucifer received his first desire to sin. Norman Geisler says ‘the unmistakable logical conclusion for the extreme Calvinist [is that] both Lucifer and Adam sinned because God gave them the desire to sin’ [Chosen But Free, page 36]. I would imagine that Adam received his desire to sin from Eve who received it from the serpent/Satan, but if God is sovereign over all things — including our desires — would that make him the initial author of the first desire to sin?” How do you answer this mystery?

For as many years as I can remember, I have said that among the mysteries in my theology for which I do not have an adequate answer, one of them is the question how — “how” is a key word here — how did the first sin come about?

And by the first sin, I don’t mean Adam’s first sin, I mean Satan’s first sin, the very first sin in the universe. The Bible opens not with the beginning of evil, but with the presence of unexplained evil. Man is created innocent and the serpent is already there, deceitful, manifestly opposed to the God of creation, and that is where the Bible begins. And as far as I can see, no explanation is offered in the Bible for how Satan became evil. I know there are hints that he was a perfect angel created by God.

Jude refers to angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, whom God has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day (Jude 6). And I don’t doubt that Satan was created good and fell from his proper place like Jude says, because I don’t think that evil and God are both eternal and ultimate realities. I am not a dualist. God and his goodness and wisdom and power are the only ultimate eternal realities. And evil is somehow derivative, secondary without God being a sinner. And all of that virtually all Christians agree on.

How did Satan become evil? I do not know. And it is plain to me that those who believe in ultimate self-determination of God’s creatures, like angels and humans, don’t know either. To say that Satan had free will — that is ultimate self determination — to say that Satan had free will is not an explanation for why he committed his first sin. It is a label. It is not an explanation. It is a label of a mystery. How could a perfectly good being with a perfectly good will and a perfectly good heart ever experience any imperfect impulse that would cause the will to move in the direction of sin? And the answer is, nobody knows, including those who say: Oh, it is free will. That is not an explanation. It is a name for a mystery.

john-piperSo we don’t know. The Bible doesn’t explain the how of it. So Rob quotes Norman Geisler who says, “The unmistakable, logical conclusion for the extreme Calvinist for both Lucifer and Adam that they sinned is because God gave them the desire to sin.” Now I am not sure whether I qualify for Geisler’s extreme Calvinist, but I strongly suspect that I do. But just at this point I am disagreeing with that description of me and I am saying: No, I am not driven to say God gave Lucifer his first desire to sin. That is an oversimplification of virtually everybody’s viewpoint. I do not know how Lucifer came to feel his first inclination to rebel against God.

But here is what I do know. God is sovereign. Nothing comes to pass apart from his plan, which includes things he more or less causes directly, and things he more or less permits indirectly, and there is no doubt in my mind that Satan’s fall and all of the redemptive plan of God for the glory of his grace afterwards was according to God’s eternal plan. But it is precisely at this point that the how of the causality of Satan’s first sin worked we do not know.

I have a category in my thinking, in other words, for the fact that God can see to it that something come to pass which he hates. This is what he did, for example, when he planned the crucifixion of Jesus according to Acts 4:27–28. The murder of Jesus was sinful and it was planned down to the detail by God. You can read it in the Psalms and you can read it in the New Testament. Precisely how God does that, maintaining his sinlessness and the sin of the things that comes about and the moral accountability of those who do those sins, the how of that, I do not know. But I think the Bible leads us to believe that he is sovereign over all sin and that he never sins. That is what I believe the Bible teaches. Continue reading

Confronting Evil

Here’s an article well worth reading by Joe Rigney entitled ” and Emotional Reflections on a Perpetual Question.”

Where was God?

The question is always the same.

After the initial shock and horror subsides, after the news crews go home, we’re always left with the same question: Where was God?

Did he know it was going to happen? Was he aware of the shooter’s plans? Does he have foreknowledge, foresight, the ability to peer into what for us is the unknown future? Christians can’t help but say yes. God knows the end from the beginning. Indeed, he declares the end from the beginning (Isa 46:9-10), and this exhaustive foreknowledge is one of the distinguishing marks of his deity.

Was he able to prevent it? Was his arm too short to make a gun misfire, to cause an evil young man to have a car wreck on the way to his crime, to give an off-duty police officer a funny feeling in his gut that would cause him to drive by an elementary school? If God can’t prevent something like this, then what good is he? Why pray for God’s help if he can’t actually keep murderers from executing children?

But, of course, the Bible says more than that God could have prevented it; it says that it occurs “according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11). Indeed, he works all things according to the counsel of his will. And when the Bible says ‘all things,’ it means all things:

This ‘all things’ includes the fall of sparrows (Matt 10:29), the rolling of dice (Prov 16:33), the slaughter of his people (Ps 44:11), the decisions of kings (Prov 21:1), the failing of sight (Exod 4:11), the sickness of children (2 Sam 12:15), the loss and gain of money (1 Sam 2:7), the suffering of saints (1 Pet 4:19), the completion of travel plans (Jas 4:15), the persecution of Christians (Heb 12:4–7), the repentance of souls (2 Tim 2:25), the gift of faith (Phil 1:29), the pursuit of holiness (Phil 3:12–13), the growth of believers (Heb 6:3), the giving of life and the taking in death (1 Sam 2:6), and the crucifixion of his Son (Acts 4:27–28). (John Piper, “Why I Do Not Say ‘God Did Not Cause This Calamity, But He Can Use It For Good’”)

All things — good, bad, ugly, and horrific — are ordained, guided, and governed by the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Continue reading

Thoughts about Evil

In a short article entitled, “Cautious Observations on the Existence of Evil” Sam Storms shares a few thoughts of his own before drawing from those of Jonathan Edwards:

In the endless dialogue on why a good and powerful God would permit the existence of evil, no one has provided a more cogent and biblical explanation than Jonathan Edwards. It may not answer all our questions; in fact, it even raises a few new ones. But my sense is that this is as close as we’ll ever come to understanding in small measure a mystery that is ultimately beyond our grasp.

That being said, let me set forth a few cautious observations about the existence of evil before we look at Edwards’s proposal.

First, God is good in all he does, even when we explore the relationship of his will to the existence of evil. In him there is no darkness. Although he willed that evil exist, he is not evil or unrighteous in his essential being or in any of his acts or decrees. Regardless of where one lands in this discussion, on this point there can be no equivocation: God is eternally and infinitely good. The existence of evil is no threat to the goodness or greatness of God.

Second, in terms of what evil is, in and of itself, God hates it. This isn’t to say he doesn’t permit or ordain it or that he cannot use it for our good and his glory. It is simply to say that at the heart of this mystery is that God governs evil at the same time he is grieved by it. Evil is not in the slightest degree less evil nor is God in the slightest degree less good simply because God wills that evil exist. This will only make sense if we understand that whereas God hates evil for what it is, in itself (absolutely and simply), he nevertheless wills that evil be for the sake of what he can accomplish through it for the glory of his name and the ultimate good of his people. Thus, with a view to the greater glory of God, he is pleased to ordain his own displeasure. What displeases him because of its intrinsic wickedness, he either decrees or permits because of its place in the universal scheme of his purposes in Christ.

Third, since God hates evil, so should we. No explanation or account for the existence of evil can ever be used to justify our sin or be allowed to diminish our opposition to evil in all its many manifestations. The bottom line is this: if you find yourself increasingly content with evil, if you find yourself less offended with evil as time passes, if you find yourself less inclined to come to the aid of those who are its victims, you have not properly understood the Scriptures and your theory of the reason or cause for the existence of evil is fatally flawed. Any account for the existence of evil that does not energize Christians to work against it or does not elicit compassion for those who are suffering from its effects is seriously, if not fatally, flawed.

Fourth, God is sovereign over evil. It is never outside his control. Although this raises the question of why, if he is sovereign over it, he does not eliminate it, there can be no doubt that evil is subject to his power and purposes. God could have prevented the existence of evil from the beginning and could at any moment eradicate all evil from the universe. He is not limited by evil or frustrated by its presence. Having said that, we must be careful never to suggest that evil is intrinsically anything less than evil simply because we know it somehow, mysteriously, serves a purpose in God’s plan for human history.

Fifth, God will judge and punish evil. If nothing else makes sense when it comes to the existence of evil, rest assured that one day God will put the world to rights. One day God will expose every lie and vindicate every truth. One day evil and its unrepentant perpetrators will be brought to account. Justice is inevitable. Hell is real.

We are now ready to take note of how Edwards explained the existence of sin and evil. [I have taken the liberty of smoothing out Edwards’ prose in order to bring greater clarity to his theological argument. The full entry in his Miscellanies from which this has been taken can be found in Jonathan Edwards, The “Miscellanies,” edited by Thomas A. Schafer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), no.348, pp. 419-20.]

“It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all, for then the effulgence would not answer the reality.”

Edwards argues elsewhere that it is more than “proper” and “excellent” that God’s glory shine forth in its fullness, it is essential. This isn’t because something other than and outside God requires it of him. Rather, it is the very nature of divine glory that it tends toward self-expression and expansion, not in the sense of growth or quantitative increase, but manifestation and display for the sake of the joy of God’s creatures in it. Not only that, but it is “proper” that all of God’s glory be seen that we may know God as he truly is and not simply in part. If one or several divine attributes were disproportionately dominant in their display (and others barely noted at all), an imbalanced and inaccurate view of God would emerge (this is what Edwards meant when he said that otherwise “the effulgence would not answer the reality”). He continues:

“Thus it is necessary that God’s awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all.”

In using the word “necessary” he is not suggesting that sin, considered in and of itself, has a right or inherent claim on existence. Rather, sin was “necessary” in the sense that in its absence there would be no occasion for the display of his righteous wrath, justice, and holiness as that in God which requires punishment (or at least no display sufficient for a “complete” or true knowledge of what God is like and why he is glorious). And without a revelation (or “shining forth”) of the wrath that sin deserves there would scarcely be a revelation of the true and majestic depths of goodness, love, and grace that deliver us from it. Thus he concludes:

“If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God’s justice in hatred of sin or in punishing it, . . . or in showing any preference, in his providence, of godliness before it. There would be no manifestation of God’s grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. No matter how much happiness he might bestow, his goodness would not be nearly as highly prized and admired. . . . and the sense of his goodness heightened.

So evil is necessary if the glory of God is to be perfectly and completely displayed. It is also necessary for the highest happiness of humanity, because our happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and the sense of his love. And if the knowledge of God is imperfect (because of a disproportionate display of his attributes), the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect.”

Is God the Author of Sin? Jonathan Edwards’ Answer

John Piper:

Edwards answers, “If by ‘the author of sin,’ be meant the sinner, the agent, or the actor of sin, or the doer of a wicked thing . . . it would be a reproach and blasphemy, to suppose God to be the author of sin. In this sense, I utterly deny God to be the author of sin.”

But, he argues, willing that sin exist in the world is not the same as sinning. God does not commit sin in willing that there be sin. God has established a world in which sin will indeed necessarily come to pass by God’s permission, but not by his “positive agency.”

God is, Edwards says, “the permitter . . . of sin; and at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted . . . will most certainly and infallibly follow.”

He uses the analogy of the way the sun brings about light and warmth by its essential nature, but brings about dark and cold by dropping below the horizon. “If the sun were the proper cause of cold and darkness,” he says, “it would be the fountain of these things, as it is the fountain of light and heat: and then something might be argued from the nature of cold and darkness, to a likeness of nature in the sun.” In other words, “sin is not the fruit of any positive agency or influence of the most High, but on the contrary, arises from the withholding of his action and energy, and under certain circumstances, necessarily follows on the want of his influence.”

Thus in one sense God wills that what he hates come to pass, as well as what he loves. Edwards says,

God may hate a thing as it is in itself, and considered simply as evil, and yet . . . it may be his will it should come to pass, considering all consequences. . . . God doesn’t will sin as sin or for the sake of anything evil; though it be his pleasure so to order things, that he permitting, sin will come to pass; for the sake of the great good that by his disposal shall be the consequence. His willing to order things so that evil should come to pass, for the sake of the contrary good, is no argument that he doesn’t hate evil, as evil: and if so, then it is no reason why he may not reasonably forbid evil as evil, and punish it as such.

This is a fundamental truth that helps explain some perplexing things in the Bible, namely, that God often expresses his will to be one way, and then acts to bring about another state of affairs.

God opposes hatred toward his people, yet ordained that his people be hated in Egypt (Genesis 12:3; Psalm 105:25—”He turned their hearts to hate his people”).

He hardens Pharaoh’s heart, but commands him to let his people go (Exodus 4:21; 5:1; 8:1).

He makes plain that it is sin for David to take a military census of his people, but he ordains that he do it (2 Samuel 24:1; 24:10).

He opposes adultery, but ordains that Absalom should lie with his father’s wives (Exodus 20:14; 2 Samuel 12:11).

He forbids rebellion and insubordination against the king, but ordained that Jeroboam and the ten tribes should rebel against Rehoboam (Romans 13:1; 1 Samuel 15:23; 1 Kings 12:15-16).

He opposes murder, but ordains the murder of his Son (Exodus 20:13; Acts 4:28).

He desires all men to be saved, but effectually calls only some (1 Timothy 2:4; 1 Corinthians 1:26-30; 2 Timothy 2:26).

What this means is that we must learn that God wills things in two different senses. The Bible demands this by the way it speaks of God’s will in different ways. Edwards uses the terms “will of decree” and “will of command.” Edwards explains:

[God’s] will of decree [or sovereign will] is not his will in the same sense as his will of command [or moral will] is. Therefore it is not difficult at all to suppose that the one may be otherwise than the other: his will in both senses is his inclination. But when we say he wills virtue, or loves virtue or the happiness of his creature; thereby is intended that virtue or the creature’s happiness, absolutely and simply considered, is agreeable to the inclination of his nature. His will of decree is his inclination to a thing not as to that thing absolutely and simply, but with reference to the universality of things. So God, though he hates a things as it is simply, may incline to it with reference to the universality of things.

HT: JT