The Problem of Evil
When dissatisfied with the service or the merchandise that we have received, many of us ask to speak to the "person in charge." When we speak of the "sovereignty" of God, we mean that he is in charge of everything.
Before he fashioned the worlds, he decreed everything that would come to pass (WCF, 3; Proverbs 16:33; Acts 15:18; Ephesians 1:11). He brought all that exists into being by the word of his power and declared it all to be "very good" (WCF, 4.1; Genesis 1; Acts 17:24; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 11:3). And our triune God does "uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least" (WCF, 5.1; Psalm 135:6; Daniel 4:34-35; Hebrews 1:3).
But a recognition of God's absolute sovereignty seemingly compels us to conclude that God is responsible for everything in his universe. Armed with such knowledge, we may well feel justified in storming heaven, demanding to see "the manager" and blaming him for the evil that is in the world.
The Author of Sin?
The simple truth is, however, that God is not the author of sin. The first chapter of James tells us that no one is permitted to blame God for temptation, "for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone" (vs. 13). In fact, God is the giver of "every good gift and every perfect gift" (vs. 17). He is not capable of sinning or of authoring sin, because:
God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.1 John 1:5
Clearly, we face several biblical truths that seem to be in conflict: God made everything, and made it good – yet evil exists, and God is not the author of it.
The natural, or unbelieving, man will not acknowledge the sovereignty of a good God and, at the same time, recognize that evil exists. Given the manifest evil in the world, many unbelievers conclude either that God must be the author of it (and thus evil himself) or that he must be powerless to stop it (and thus not ultimately in charge of this world).
One of the characters in Archibald MacLeish's play J.B. (based loosely on the book of Job) puts it this way:
If God is God, He is not good; if God is good, He is not God.
What this statement means is clear: In the face of evil, God must yield either his sovereignty or his goodness.
Men have developed a number of unbiblical solutions to the paradox of evil coinciding with a good, sovereign God. One "solution" is that offered by the process theology of Charles Hartshorne. Process theology does away with the tension by denying God's sovereignty: he is evolving along with his universe and is powerless to stop evil, but at least he suffers along with us. Such a view was popularized by Rabbi Harold Kuschner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
The mainly Persian religion Zoroastrianism posits another solution: two gods (Ahriman and Ahura Mazda) in conflict with each other, one good and the other evil. This makes evil as ultimate as good, since it finds its source in an evil deity. Most unbelievers have enough problems affirming the existence of one deity, much less two.
Many people feel that the "problem of pain" (as C.S. Lewis put it) is best resolved simply by denying the existence of God. This saves one the embarrassment of positing a God who is either powerless or tolerant of evil. But atheism has its own problem: How can there be such a thing as evil apart from some absolute standard of goodness? No one denies the existence of evil; yet, apart from the triune God of the Bible, no one can account for it. Every way of explaining evil other than by the standard that God himself has established is defective. We wrestle with the problem of evil only because we know that there is a standard of goodness. And that standard exists because there is a good God.
The Origin of Evil
Christians understand that evil originated on the earth when our first parents disobeyed God (WCF, 6; Genesis 3:6-7; Ecclesiasts 7:29). It was, of course, Satan who tempted them to sin by calling into question the truthfulness and goodness of God. In his initial approach to Eve in Genesis 3:1, Satan impugned the reasonableness of God's command not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Surely a good God would not deny his offspring that which would only enrich them (vs. 5). Satan depicted God as a bully who only needs to be stood up to. He reasoned with our parents that if they asserted their wills, they would discover themselves to be as free as God himself to make the rules. A good God would never deny them this fruit. Satan urged them to eat it and be their own god. When our first parents embraced this temptation in their hearts, evil entered Paradise.
And the tactics of Satan have not changed. He tempted Christ in essentially the same way (Matthew 4:1-11), and he tempts us in the same way still. The devil continually seeks to call into question God's veracity and goodness. Whenever pain and suffering come our way, the devil, the flesh, and the world urge us to murmur as the children of Israel did when the Lord wanted to bring them into the Promised Land:
Because the LORD hates us, He has brought us out of the land of Egypt to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us" (Deuteronomy 1:27). We are tempted in every trial to see God as hating us and to miss the fact that "It is a good land which the LORD our God is giving us (vs. 25).
Paul does not want the lesson of the Israelites to be lost on us. He tells us in 1 Corinthians 10 that God delivered Israel (vss. 1-4) just as he has delivered us, and that Israel's failure to trust the Lord during the time in the wilderness stands as a warning to us (vs. 11). Instead of despairing in our present trials, we should always understand that the Lord never puts on us more than we can bear and that every trial has a way of escape (vs. 13) – that is, that every trial provides another opportunity to trust the Lord.
God's Use of Suffering
God intends, you see, to use all the pain and suffering, indeed all the evil in our lives, to purify us and make us holy, grooming us for the inheritance we are to receive (1 Peter 4:12-19; Hebrews 12:3-11). It is in our weakness that his strength, is made perfect (2 Corinthians 12:9) and it is in earthen vessels that the excellence of God's power is made manifest (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Sometimes we wonder why God chose to do it this way. Why bring evil into the world and use the very circumstances created by it to perfect his people and bring many sons to glory? I could answer: So that his power and greatness might be all the more manifest and the full range of his attributes displayed in both the condemnation of the wicked and the glorification of the elect. But, ultimately, we say that only God is wise (1 Timothy 1:17) and that it is the height of hubris to question him (Romans 9:20-21; Job 38-41). It is enough to know that he loves us and works all things together for good for us (Romans 8:28, 31-39).
I find it more than curious that we have it so much within us to question God's wisdom. I would challenge you to spend some time pondering God's goodness instead. Think of our first parents in the Garden. They had everything that they needed: perfect communion, vertically (with God) and horizontally (with each other). Their every physical need was fully met. They were in a place of perfect beauty and harmony. They had no reason whatsoever to mistrust God and every reason to mistrust the serpent who called God's goodness into question. Yet, in the face of all this wonderful provision and love, they chose to turn to the father of lies and turn their backs on the one who had made them and cared so very much for them. Why don't we think more about the horrible incongruity of sin with such abundant goodness in full view?
How wonderful it is, then, that God made that first promise of salvation in Genesis 3:15 right after the Fall. As revelation progressed and culminated in our Lord Jesus Christ, it became clear that we have ended up gaining more in the Last Adam than we ever lost in the first.
We know that every natural disaster (earthquake, hurricane, drought, plague, etc.) and every occasion of human sin is part of the "bondage of corruption" to which the entire creation is subjected (Romans 8:20-21). Whether it's Hurricane Andrew, famine in Somalia, war in the former Yugoslavia, or President Clinton making abortion on demand easier to obtain, we rejoice to know that "the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us" (vs. 18). And we have this hope because our sovereign God has subjected the creation to suffering in hope, intending at last to bring about its final redemption (vss. 18-30). Thus we can ever sing to our Maker and Ruler those beautiful words of Paul used by Handel in his Messiah:
But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.1 Corinthians 15:57, KJV