Whether it’s framed by heated personal anecdotes or cool-headed syllogisms, the problem of evil has always posed the thorniest challenge to belief in the Christian God. It runs something like this:
- The Bible says God is omnipotent, omniscient, and good.
- Yet there is evil in the world.
- So the Bible must be wrong about God: he either didn’t/doesn’t account for evil somehow (isn’t omniscient), can’t do anything to remove it (isn’t omnipotent), or refuses to do anything (isn’t good).
- So the God of the Bible can’t exist. [Drops microphone.]
That’s at least the crux of the matter logically. But cool-headed logic hardly enters into it for most unbelievers. Because the real problem of evil is that everyone has suffered through it personally. You might say to a grieving unbeliever, “You just have to trust God. He has a plan, even if you don’t see it right now.” They reply, “Really? The fact that I was sexually molested by my priest is part of God’s plan? That’s disgusting. And offensive. Get out of my face.”
I’ll be honest. That kind of personal pain requires far more care and attention than any article could ever offer, even if this article is, I hope, a little more nuanced than merely an easy call to “trust God.” But I also understand that the better part of the visit from Job’s friends was when they sat there with their mouths shut.
Job’s concern was far from rational and syllogistic. He had been deeply wounded by God, and he demanded a divine face-to-face for redress. He wanted an explanation for why his righteousness had been repaid with suffering. This was not an unholy sentiment. But lest we forget, God didn’t actually give Job an explanation.
The reader of the book of Job is narratively transported into the heavenly court to hear Satan’s challenges and God’s response. So we may know that Job’s suffering was, at its heart, an opportunity for Job to establish even for himself that his faith was not mercenary. And it was also for our edification. But Job, as far as the book tells us, never got the answer to his question: “Why?” Job’s only answer from God was, in so many words, “I am God.” And Job’s final stance was, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” If that’s not at all troubling to you, you might want to lower the dosage on your meds.
So, that brings us to the question of the hour: Is God evil? The immediate gut reaction of most Christians would be to say, “No. God is not responsible for evil at all. Evil originated with humans.” But, as I hope to establish in the remainder of this article, that’s not really biblical. God himself claims responsibility for evil:
I am the LORD, and there is no other,
the One forming light and creating darkness,
causing well-being [good] and creating calamity [evil];
I am the LORD who does all these. (Isa. 45:7)
Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass,
unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that both good and ill [evil] go forth? (Lam. 3:37–38)
In these cases, the words “calamity” and “ill” should be translated “evil,” and probably would have been if not for the timidity of most modern Bible translators (the KJV has “evil” in both places, for instance).
Before you get all bent out of shape, I am not fixing to make a case that we serve a multi-moral God. God is not capricious or fickle. He has “no shadow of turning.” But when we say that God is not evil in order to “protect” his reputation, we are capitulating to a materialist dualism that is simply not biblical.
In other words, who says God can’t do evil and be righteous? Bear with me on this because it requires a lot of explanation. In fact, the very words we use to talk about this need to be carefully explained, if not redefined.
The problem with the problem of evil has always been a fundamentally incorrect and simplistic understanding of “evil.” And for that matter, of “good.” And to be fair, this has been cultivated in no small part by Christians and Bible translators.
Christians can all agree that God is the author of good. But we often use the word to mean both that which is pleasing and that which is right. This isn’t helpful. “Good” is, by a biblical definition, anything which supports life or pleases people. Delicious food, sex, stimulating conversation, comfortable slippers, etc. These are all good. But they are not always right. For instance, I could have “good” sex with my neighbor’s wife. But it would still be wicked.
In the same way that we conflate goodness and moral uprightness, we use “evil” and “wicked” interchangeably today. Again, we shouldn’t. In the contemporary mind, all these words have to do with morality and ethics. In our society, it is always immoral to be evil, and it is always moral to be good. But there’s a major problem with the conflation of evil and wickedness or good and righteousness: good and evil are not intrinsically moral. Biblically speaking, that is.
“Evil” in the Bible always refers to calamity, ill, death, destruction, suffering, injury, displeasure, and related things. And those things actually have no intrinsic moral or ethical quantity. A tornado is not sinful, in other words. Neither is cancer or a broken arm. Or the death of an animal. Or your tears. Certainly none of those things would exist in an unfallen world, but that is a far different thing than to say these things are actually or intrinsically wicked. Tornadoes, cancer, and a non-vegetarian diet are evil, then, in that they destroy life or property or peace. But not necessarily wicked.
Evil, by a biblical definition, is anything that harms or destroys. It is an evil act to prune a bush or pull a weed. You do evil (to bacteria) when you take antibiotics. You do evil when you slaughter an animal for food or clothing or when you crush a roach. Waging war is evil. Taking a life is always evil, no matter what life it is or how you take it. Making someone cry is evil. Evil is nothing more or less than destruction. God is certainly the author of destruction (and evil, in those terms).
In fact, God brought forth evil as the natural consequence of and cure for wickedness. And what is wickedness in biblical terms? It’s receiving a good or delivering an evil which God hasn’t made permissible to you. It is anything in you that contradicts God’s character.
Since God has never contradicted his own character, wickedness is wholly and peculiarly human (it might actually be our only true possession). But in response to our wickedness, according to his immutable nature, God brought forth evil. Evil is the logical consequence of wickedness. You would never have evil without wickedness, but once you have wickedness, evil is inevitable.
This is because evil is not just the consequence of wickedness. It is also its cure. When Adam and Eve tried to cure their shame and self-consciousness without death (by taking a fig leaf for a covering), God killed an animal and clothed them with its skin instead (Gen. 3:21). So we can see that the evil that follows after wickedness is not always itself necessarily or intrinsically wicked.
Sometimes evil is righteous. And sometimes good is wicked. That’s confusing I’m sure, but only because we have collapsed so many of our terms.
Let me explain.
According to the Bible, the death penalty is a necessary evil (Gen. 9:6, etc.). When a man takes another man’s life, he should be executed after a fair and just biblical trial has established his criminal guilt. But let’s not beat around the bush: A just execution is still evil. But at the same time, a just execution is not wicked! Execution takes a life, yes, so it is calamity, destruction, etc. But it accords with God’s Law and character. So it is also righteous. A just execution, a just divorce, a just restitution: all of these are righteous evil. None of these would exist in a perfect world. But we don’t live in a perfect world do we?
Now, think about the converse: When is good wicked? The Bible says, “The plowing of the wicked is sin” (Prov. 21:4). That seems very unfair if you conflate goodness with righteousness. Plowing is certainly a good act. It cultivates the earth to make food for the support of life. What could be more good than that which is necessary and beneficial for life? Lots of people say things like, “It feels so good, it just must be right.” No.
The wisdom of the proverb is that even a good act is not necessarily a righteous act. You can save a life, help a friend, cultivate a garden, have a baby, or feed the poor, and God calls all of those things good. All of those things are the opposite of evil, in that they give and support life. They are the opposite of harm and destruction. Yet, according to the Scriptures, God does not necessarily count them as righteous.
In the same way that a person can do an evil act and it be counted as righteousness, a person can do a good act and it be counted to him as wickedness.
Who is the one who decides then? In the Bible, it is only God who decides because only God contains in himself an immutable picture of the absolute good. What we call good is temporal good or material good, and it is nearly always woefully short-sighted. But what God calls good is eternal good. And short-term evil is very often necessary even for mid-term benefit. When? How? We don’t know. That’s why we wait on God. And do what he says in the meantime.
And that is also why the conflation of wickedness and evil is actually a subtle and effective ploy to drag all moral concerns out of the courtroom of heaven and into the courtroom of men. “Do what you want, as long as you don’t hurt anybody” is the highest moral framework a materialist ethic can achieve with a simple moral dualism. Worded another way, the materialist ethic is: “Do good. Do no harm.” Or, as Google famously adopted as its first mission statement: “Don’t be evil.”
And honestly, that would be enough if we lived in a perfect world. But what happens when someone commits an act of evil for the first time in such an environment? Then what? How do you respond? What about conflicting claims on the same resources? Or mutually exclusive pathways to happiness? What about when your land is invaded by another country? Who decides what goods and what evils are permitted to you?
And if you are committed to never doing any evil ever, you actually will be defenseless against evil when it is pointed at you. Who will defend you? Or will you and all your goodness and all the good and defenseless people just die off the earth and leave it to evil men?
The thing is, it’s just not possible to run a society without a theory on permissible evils and a hierarchy of good. It is a daily concern, in fact. When and for whom is it okay to take, to kill, or to hurt? Whose good is the highest good? This absolutely requires a higher moral structure. Good vs. evil just doesn’t cut it. Someone has to play judge and mediator.
One of the more pop-sensible systems of simple material dualism comes from Star Wars. You know, the Light Side versus the Dark Side. Good vs. Evil. Star Wars never explicitly appeals to a higher morality than that (especially after the materialistic inclusion of midichlorians). Whatever tends to life and building up is good and of the Light Side. Whatever tends to death and destruction is evil and of the Dark Side. So far so good.
Well, kind of. Except when the “good guys” are blowing up the Death Star twice (or three times if you count The Force Awakens, which you should) and all the people in it. Or when Vader throws the Emperor down a ventilation shaft. Or if you’re fighting at all, really. Or showing any passion or sense of possession whatsoever. In reality, Vader channeled the Dark Side to kill Emperor Palpatine just as much as he channeled the Dark Side to kill Obi-Wan Kenobi (or all of those poor children). The point is that the material dualism of “Light vs. Dark” or “Good vs. Evil” is not enough to account for why Vader is a “good guy” in the end. Vader is an instrument of evil to the very end. The question is not whether Vader is evil. It’s whether his evil is permitted or just.
So in order to deliver higher moral judgments on whether an (evil) Dark Side action is permissible or not, given the context, Star Wars is forced to appeal to a higher moral standard that it refuses to openly acknowledge. The merely materialist model of Light vs. Dark cannot account for why some evil (Dark) acts in Star Wars are called righteous in one context while the same evil (Dark) acts are called unrighteous in another context. Who decides which is which?
When I was explaining this whole thing to my eight-year-old daughter, she immediately came to Vader’s defense. She said, “No. Darth Vader was protecting his son! That was good.” I explained to her, “No. Killing is never good. But sometimes it is righteous when God tells us to do it. God says we can kill to protect a life that is being threatened in front of us. So Vader did what was righteous. But we should never call killing good. There will come a time when it is no longer necessary, and we should take no pleasure in it while it is.”
I’m sure you’ve heard arguments about how hypocritical it is that pro-lifers support the execution of capital criminals and yet oppose abortion. Pro-life should be about all and any lives all the time, right? No. There is at least one thing which needs to be of more vital concern to a moral society than life—namely, the character (Law) of God.
It’s interesting, in light of our newly reformed distinction between good and righteousness, that we can say unequivocally that sparing a capital criminal is actually good. It at least benefits that one person’s life. I have no problem saying it: executing a capital criminal is an act of evil. But letting capital criminals live is an act of unrighteousness.
Sparing capital criminals is a good wickedness. Executing capital criminals is an evil righteousness. I understand those terms sound quite perverse in our ears, but I am convinced that the problem of evil holds up or fails on these very distinctions.
See, there is a reason why God responded to Job with a biography rather than an explanation. God’s identity actually is the explanation. Simply because of who he is, only God is able to declare when it is permissible—yes, even necessary—to kill, to take, to break, to destroy, and to undo. Simply because of who he is, only God knows what are the best goods for each of his creatures in their time. His judgment seat is enthroned above (beyond?) good and evil. Notice what God says in that thorny Isaiah passage: “I am the LORD and there is no other.” No one but the Creator is qualified to tell his creation what goods and what evils are permissible and when. There is no other.
By posing the problem of evil, the unbeliever is really saying, “I want to decide for myself what evil is permissible and when. What good is permissible and when. I don’t trust God to make these decisions for me. Especially not a God who would be willing to do what I think is wrong.” So the unbeliever tries to unseat God as Judge and tries to fill the seat himself, usually apotheosized in the State.
To be fair, unbelieving dualists are often more concerned than Christians to pursue the short-term good: good for animals, for the earth, for the poor, for the disenfranchised. But they are also just as eager to utilize evil to accomplish their “good” designs. Take from the rich (evil) to give to the poor (good). Cut off the life of an unborn child (evil) to better the life of the mother (good). Make war on this country or religion over there (evil) to produce a safer, happier society over here (good).
In all of the dualist attempts to rid the world of “evil,” they have only ever produced more evil because they are incapable of ending the wickedness of society, especially with their immoral laws. One regime topples another which topples another. War begets war. Death begets death. They rail against God for the barbarism of the Flood, and then sign off without even a second thought on the lives of many millions of innocent unborn children. It is not that they have a problem with evil. They just have a problem feeling like it’s pointing right at them.
They fell for Satan’s original temptation. The problem of evil is merely a restatement of Satan’s original temptation: “Why trust God? You will determine for yourself good and evil.”
Did you just wonder what I hope you wondered when you read “good and evil”? Of great importance to our discussion, the tree in the Garden of Eden was actually, if I were to translate for modern ears, the tree of the knowledge of good and calamity, not the tree of righteousness and wickedness. (The word “evil” there is the same word that the KJV translates evil in the verses I quoted above.)
As soon as Adam and Eve sinned, their sin necessitated the revelation of a quality that before had been hidden in God before the advent of human wickedness: divine evil. Adam and Eve had only ever known good until Eve took for herself the forbidden good and then Adam delivered the forbidden evil to all mankind. Creation before the Fall was only good. God called it all good. Only ever good. And that was God to us before the Fall, too—only ever good.
The only words Adam and Eve had ever heard from God’s lips were good and blessing. Never evil. Never wrath. Never curses. And if Adam and Eve had not sinned, they never would have known the darkness as well as the light of God. Without the sin that brought the evil, there would never have been a need for a higher law than nature—for a Judge to mediate. Consider this: if Adam and Eve had never sinned, they never would have known God as righteous! They would have known him only as good.
I think that modern Christians are far too concerned with God’s exclusive goodness, because, unlike Job, our faith is often mercenary. We want to revert to loving that pre-Fall God. We want to revert to a time when God was only ever good to us. We want him to be only good to us again. We’re willing to be chastised, perhaps, but only when it’s directly related to our own sins, and never as a way to get to know him more deeply in his passion and in his suffering. We’re always just trying to get through it to the better part.
God’s wrath embarrasses us. We just want his goodness. We think goodness can cover our sin, so we sit there with our fig leaves hovering over our nudity. We’re like Job’s friends. We want a simple dualistic God. We are basically just good people, right? If we do good, we’ll get good from God, right? And then it’ll all be good.
But God doesn’t want us to see him as simply good. Because he’s not simply good. He’s not satisfied that his most beloved creations would have only half the truth about him, no matter how good and pleasing that truth might be.
He wants us to put our fingers in his wounds. He wants our teeth to rattle in his thunder. He wants us to see him in his wrath as well as in his whisper. He wants us to scrutinize his atoms and range about in all the stars he’s numbered. He wants us to know all of him.
Only Jesus has ever fully known God that way—as the creator of both light and darkness whose mouth alone delivers both good and evil. Jesus is the only man who has ever been fully indwelled with both God’s infinite blessing and God’s infinite curse. And as we know Jesus more fully and become more like him, we too will learn how to call God righteous even when the weight of his passion burns and crushes us until we can’t take it anymore. Because that is who he is too. And we love him.
It’s sometimes hard to remember this when we’re suffering, but it is only in our pain that we can call God righteous. Don’t miss that opportunity waiting for the next time you can call him good.
That was a really long article. If you got all the way to the end, you have my deepest gratitude. This was the fourth and final post on the sublime and the infinite. If you’d like to read the first three, they are here: Training Wheels for the Infinite and Reading to the End and Jesus is Dead, Long Live Jesus.