In Christ We Have Hope

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on April 21, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

On a weekend in April, millions of people around the world will gather together in congregations to consider a story. It’s the story of how evil, an enemy, death itself, will be defeated by good in an unlikely way. It’s a story that has captivated millions, a story that has led millions to pour out their passion, their time, and their money. I’m not talking about Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ; I’m talking about Avengers: End Game. Yes, the latest Marvel superhero movie is opening next weekend, and it is expected to take in about $300 million in the United States in that first weekend alone.

In case you’ve been living in a cave in Afghanistan, the Avengers are the Marvel Comics superheroes, including Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk. Spider-Man has also joined the group. And in the last Avengers movie, which was released a year ago, the Avengers were up against the most powerful enemy they’ve faced, an otherworldly villain named Thanos. Thanos is the Greek word for death, which is fitting, because Thanos wanted to kill a lot of people in the universe. I don’t want to spoil too much of the movie in case you’ve missed it. Suffice it to say, Thanos succeeded in killing a lot of people, including some people whom the Avengers love. In this new movie, they will try to reverse the effects of death and even destroy the enemy named death.

Now, it may be silly to reference action movies on a day like this, but these movies are extremely popular. The last Avengers movie, Avengers: Infinity War, made $2 billion worldwide. That’s the fourth highest-grossing movie of all time (if you don’t adjust for inflation). The first Avengers movie made $1.5 billion and the second made $1.4 billion. Black Panther, another movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, made $1.36 million. Three other Marvel movies have made over $1 billion worldwide. So, people do pour out their money to watch these movies. And they pour out their time. I saw on Facebook a meme that suggested that fans should watch all of the twenty-one Marvel movies in their chronological order (according to time line) to gear up to watch this next movie. That would take over forty hours! And I’m sure there are more than a few people who are doing that.

It’s amazing that millions of people will spend all that time and money to watch fictional tales of superheroes defeating evil—and hopefully defeating death—and yet most people will not take the time and effort to consider what, if anything, they can do in the face of the real enemy, the real death that awaits us all. Is there any hope of life after death? Can we really rest in peace? If so, do we all rest in peace, or only some of us? How can we know such things?

I find that most people don’t spend much time asking these types of questions. They don’t think about why we’re here, where we’ve come from, and what the meaning of life is. Most people have some idea about what is wrong with the world, but I don’t think many people have correctly identified the root cause of evil. And few people seem to look ahead and think carefully about death and what comes after. Yet anyone with a well-thought-out worldview should think about these questions and should have answers that are coherent and true.

This morning, we’re going to hear about some of the most important parts of the Christian worldview. We’re going to consider what the Bible says is good news, and we’re going to think about the core events of that message. We’re going to look at some of 1 Corinthians, a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth in the year 54 or 55, a little over twenty years after Jesus died and rose from the grave. Specifically, we’re going to look at parts of chapter 15.

We’ll begin by looking at the first two verses:

1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.[1]

Paul wants to remind his readers of the gospel, which means “good news.” It’s the central message of Christianity. It’s a word that’s found in the book of Isaiah, from the Old Testament (Isa. 40:9; 41:27; 52:7; 61:1). Roughly seven hundred years before Jesus came to the world, God promised that he would comfort his people, that he would provide a way for them to be forgiven of their sin, and that he would even remake the world into a paradise, where there is no more evil and death. The problem with our world is that we sin, which is a rebellion against God, a failure to love him and obey him. God made us to love him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. He made us to live under his rule, which is good because God is a good King and a loving Father. He made us to worship him and obey him, and to relate to him as children. He made us to love one another. The problem is that we don’t do those things, certainly not perfectly. And as a result, our sin separates us from God (Isa. 59:2). Because of sin, the first human beings were kicked out of a garden paradise and put into a wilderness where there is evil, fighting, wars, diseases, and death. All the bad things we experience in this world can be traced to our sin—the sin of the first human beings and our own sins. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that God has provided everything we need to be reconciled to him, to have that separation between him and us eliminated. And he has promised that one day in the future, he will restore the world so that it once again is a paradise, where God and his people dwell in peace, harmony, and happiness.

Paul says that it is by this gospel message that people are being saved—if they hold fast to it. Salvation isn’t a one-time experience. It is an ongoing experience, an ongoing relationship with Jesus. If you don’t have a deep, abiding faith that has changed your life, you really haven’t believed in Jesus.

Now let’s look at the content of the gospel. Let’s read verses 3–8:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Here is the heart of the Christian message: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” and “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” The Bible states that Jesus died on a cross, an instrument of torture, shame, and death reserved for enemies of the Roman Empire, and that he died while Pontius Pilate was governor. This squares with all the early historical knowledge of Jesus that we have outside of the Bible. But only the Bible, God’s written word, tells us why he died—to take the penalty for our sins that we deserve. Though Jesus is the only perfect person who has lived, though he never sinned, he died because our sin deserves the death penalty. He also rose from the grave on the third day, to show that he paid for the sins of his people in full, to demonstrate that he has power over sin and death, and to show what will happen to all who trust in him—they, too, will rise from the dead in bodies that are immortal and imperishable. All of this was in line with Old Testament prophecy. (Jesus’ death was prophesied in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, particularly Isa. 53:5, 12. His resurrection was prophesied in Ps. 16:10; Isa. 53:10–12.[2]) In short, God promised this would happen, and it did.

Not only that, it was witnessed by hundreds of people. Paul here is probably quoting some early type of creedal statement about Jesus’ death and resurrection. The parallel clauses that begin with “that” indicate it was structured in a way that made it easy to be memorized and recited. The language of “delivering” and “receiving” suggests this was a statement that he received from the apostles within the first few years after Jesus died and rose from the grave. And that’s important, because that means that this was the message about Jesus from the beginning. This isn’t some myth that was created many years after Jesus lived.

Also, Paul is writing an open letter to people in a very cosmopolitan city. If Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross and rise up from the grave, and if all these people didn’t see him, someone could easily refute Paul. In fact, Paul would have to be the boldest liar to say such things if they weren’t true. If there were people who knew that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, or that he was killed and his corpse was still in a tomb, they would have challenged Paul. But we don’t have any documents from the first century that contradict the Christian message. Paul is stating that these key events of Christianity are not just religious beliefs—these are historical facts, and hundreds of people could bear witness to these facts, though some of the witnesses had already died. (“Fallen asleep” is a euphemism for “died.”)

Paul is stating in the strongest way that Jesus’ resurrection is true. He goes on to say that if it’s not true, Christianity is false. Let’s skip ahead to read verses 12–19:

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Here’s what Paul is saying: Consider what would be the case if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. If there’s no resurrection of Jesus, Paul says, our preaching and your faith is in vain. It’s all a lie. It means that we’ve been misrepresenting God, which is a great sin. And it means that we’re all still in our sins. If Jesus didn’t rise from the grave, there’s no salvation, there’s no future resurrection for Christians. If Jesus didn’t rise from the grave, Christianity’s all a sham. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, Christians are fools, because they give up so much to follow someone who clearly wasn’t the Messiah and the Son of God.

Paul was saying that because apparently some people didn’t believe in the resurrection. The idea that a dead man could come back to life in a body that can never die again was just as unbelievable then as it is now. People in the Greco-Roman world who believed in life after death didn’t believe that the afterlife would be physical. Today, it seems scientifically impossible that the dead could come back to life. But Paul swears that Jesus did rise from the grave.

Before we move on, I must stress how important it is to know that Christianity is based on historical truths. Some people tend to think religious beliefs aren’t real. They tend to think that if those beliefs make you feel better, well, that’s nice. But if Christianity isn’t true, it doesn’t matter if it makes you feel better. If it’s not true, you will still die, and there will be no rescue for you. That would make Christian preachers evil, for they are giving false promises. It would be like telling cancer patients that everything will be alright as long as they take this pill, which is nothing more than a placebo. If Christianity isn’t true, it’s useless. If any religion isn’t true, it’s useless. But Paul states that Christianity is true, that it’s the only way to be right with God. And I stand here telling you that same message.

Now, let’s move on and read verses 20–26:

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Paul says some amazing things here. First, he says that Jesus’ resurrection is proof that everyone who trusts in him will rise from the dead. The “firstfruits” was the first portion of the crop. It was the promise that the rest of the crop was coming. Jesus’ resurrected body was the first installment of a new creation. It was the deposit, the down payment, the first installment of a new creation that God promises is coming. One day, God will remove all evil, decay, and death from the world.

Paul then says that death came into the world through Adam. Adam and Eve, the first human beings sinned. But Adam was the head, the representative of humanity, and he sinned. And because he sinned, God put a partial punishment on the world, including death. Now, you might not think it’s fair that someone else would represent us the way Adam did. But we are represented by others, often by people we didn’t choose. Many people didn’t vote for our president, but he’s still their president. I’m represented in Congress by people for whom I did not vote. And all of us inherit things, specifically our genes, from people we didn’t choose to be our ancestors. Our first ancestor failed in the greatest way when he thought that he could be like God, and therefore didn’t obey God’s commandments. If we were in his place, we would have done the same, and we willingly sin against God. As a result, we all die.

So, Christianity tells us where we came from: God made people in his image, beginning with Adam and Eve. Christianity tells us what the purpose of life is, to know, love, worship, and obey God. Christianity also tells us what’s wrong with the world: our sin, which introduced all the evil we see in the world. And Christianity tells us the solution to that problem.

Jesus came to undo death, to defeat thanos. The first part of that defeat was when Jesus rose from the grave. But the victory over death won’t be completed until Jesus comes again. At that time, all who are united to Jesus by faith will be resurrected from the dead. Jesus will destroy every authority, every power that is opposed to God. Jesus is the King, and he will prevail. He will even destroy the last enemy—death itself. Death will die.

Now, many think that that’s just wishful thinking. Atheists don’t believe in a life after death. In fact, they don’t believe that life has any meaning or purpose. Here’s what Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most famous living atheist, once said:

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.[3]

Another atheist, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, believed that the world is “purposeless” and “void of meaning.”[4] He says that we are “the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms,” that nothing “can preserve an individual life beyond the grave,” that “all the labors of the ages” and “the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”[5] In an equally cheery passage, Russell writes, “The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain . . . . One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death.”[6]

Now, you have to give credit to these atheists. At these moments, they have the courage to embrace the less pleasant aspects of a consistently-held atheistic worldview. If there is no God, you can’t say there’s any meaning to life, any prescribed purpose. In fact, as Dawkins admits, you can’t say that anything is good or evil. We’re here today and gone tomorrow, and all our achievements—in fact, all of humanity’s achievements—will be swallowed up in death.

However, there is a problem. One, the atheistic worldview can’t account for things that are very important to us, things like rationality and intelligence, purpose and meaning, love and human rights.[7] Two, the atheistic worldview isn’t livable. Elsewhere in their writings, both Dawkins and Russell say that there is good and evil, and they assume that there are purposes in life. They’re cheating on their own worldview, and borrowing from a Christian worldview, or least a theistic worldview, to fill in the gaps of their own belief system.

So, atheism can’t give us hope. What other worldviews are there? Well, there are many. And some do give us the promise of eternal life. Other religions like Islam or Mormonism promise eternal life. But eternal life in these religions is based on your works. You earn salvation in those religions. And these religions say very different things about God and Jesus. Islam talks about Jesus, but it regards him only as a prophet, certainly not the Son of God. And according to the Qur’an, Jesus didn’t die on the cross. That means there’s no atonement, no one who paid the price for your sins. And it means there’s no resurrection, so how can we be sure that we will rise from the grave in the future if Jesus didn’t rise from the grave in the past? Mormonism has its own unique beliefs, but it’s basically a religion of works. And both have historical problems. There is no historical evidence to support that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, and there is no historical evidence supporting the alleged ancient history that the Book of Mormon tells us about. And both religions were supposedly revealed to two men, who had private experiences of meeting an angel, or so they say. Christianity wasn’t revealed to just one man. As Paul says, many people saw Jesus, both before and after his death and resurrection. The truth of Christianity is supported by public historical events witnessed by many people, and we have different streams of testimony by people who bore witness to what they had seen, heard, and even touched (1 John 1:1–4).

I think most people aren’t atheists or Muslims or Mormons. I think most Americans are basically deists. A deist is someone who believes in a god who isn’t too involved with the world and who doesn’t place many demands on people. Over a decade ago, a couple of sociologists studied the religious beliefs of teenagers, and they concluded that most teens had a worldview that could be called “moralistic therapeutic deism.” These sociologists, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, summarized the beliefs of these teenagers in the following way:

1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.[8]

I think most Americans have that view of God and the world. But we must ask this question: who created that system of beliefs? Who says God is like that? That God places few demands on his creation. He’s like a doting grandfather who gives his grandchildren a little money and says, “Now go and play, and be nice to each other.”

The God described in that view is not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible expects holiness and righteousness. Because he loves us, he wants the best for us, and because sin destroys us and the rest of his creation, God hates sin. It takes away from his glory and it ruins his creation. The Bible says that we can’t fix the problem of sin or earn a right standing with God. But God is merciful and gracious, and he has given us a way to be forgiven of our sin, to come back into a right relationship with him. That way is Jesus. Jesus is the only road that leads back to God and heaven. And we must follow that road, or we will remain in our sins, separated from God.

Salvation is offered freely. But once it is received, it changes one’s life. As I said earlier, salvation is a process, and real faith is one that perseveres and lasts. Real faith leads people to do hard things in the name of Jesus. Paul certainly did that. He was beaten, imprisoned, and shipwrecked, among other things. About a decade or so after he wrote this letter, he would be executed in Rome. He knew that if Christianity is true, then we can suffer a little while now, because in eternity we will be in glory. But if Christianity is false, then live it up now, for then your life will be extinguished forever.

Let’s look at verses 32–34

32 What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” 34 Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.

Paul wrote this letter in Ephesus, a significant city in the Roman Empire. And when he says he fought with beasts there, he’s using a metaphor to say he suffered persecution there. Now, why would a person suffer for something unless he thought it was true? Clearly, Paul knew that he was suffering for the risen Christ, the one whom he had seen. If Christianity wasn’t true, Paul would “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” In other words, if there’s no afterlife, just live it up now. Be selfish. Grab as much pleasure as you can. You only live once, so live large. Your best life is now. In fact, your only life is now.

But Paul knew that was false. He knew eternity was at stake. He knew there are two types of people: those who are associated with Adam, the first sinful man, the man of death, and those who are associated with Jesus, the God-man who gives life. Paul didn’t want to see people condemned, cut off from God and all that is good. That’s why he issues a warning here. He quotes a proverb of sorts, “Bad company ruins good morals.” Be careful who you’re hanging out with and what you do. If you’re truly a Christian, now is the time to wake up and stop sinning. Some people who are in churches, some people who have been baptized and confirmed and all the rest, have no knowledge of God. Their faith is in vain. It’s empty. It’s not real. And they’re not going to be with Jesus forever. Now is the time to wake up, before it is too late.

And I say that to all who are here. Do you know what will happen to you after death? How certain are you? Most people avoid thinking about death, which is a shame, because death will come. Perhaps death is too much to bear, so people avoid thinking about it. I think most people truly want to live forever. Last week, the news of a fire at Notre-Dame in Paris shocked and dismayed many people. Part of that is because the building is a priceless, historical treasure. But I think part of that response is because we assume that some things will be around forever. But the reality is that death will swallow up everything.

However, the good news is that God will destroy death. Christianity gives us amazing promises. Look at verse 53–57:

53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55  “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

These great truths inspired John Donne to write the following lines:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so . . . .
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Don’t you get a sense of how amazing this is? Don’t you want this to be true? Don’t you ache for a day when death has no power? Don’t you want your lives to have meaning and purpose? Don’t you long for death to be destroyed? Don’t you long for a perfect peace that never ends? God himself is that peace, and he has made a way for us to be at peace. That way is Jesus.

Now is the time to wake from our slumbers, to think about the meaning of life and death. Don’t hear this message and shrug your shoulders. Spend some time looking at the evidence for Christianity. I would love to help you learn more about the Bible and why we should trust that its contents are true. I urge you to turn to Jesus, the God-man, the conqueror of death, and live.

And Christian, know for certain that you will experience that glory. You will receive a body that will never die. But in the meantime, work hard for Jesus. Don’t be like everyone else who says, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Say, “Let us work hard now, for in eternity we will rest.” Look at the last verse of 1 Corinthians:

58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. “New Testament writers may have seen a pattern in God delivering or manifesting himself to his people on the third day (cf. Gen. 22:4; Exod. 19:11, 15, 16; Josh. 1:11; Judg. 20:30; Hos. 6:2; Jon. 1:17).” Thomas R. Schreiner, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 303.
  3. Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273 (Nov. 1995): 85.
  4. Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Touchstone, 1957), 106.
  5. Ibid., 107.
  6. Ibid., 115.
  7. For more on that subject, see Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016).
  8. Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religions and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 162–63.

 

In Christ We Have Hope (1 Corinthians 15)

In this Easter message, Brian Watson shows from 1 Corinthians 15 what the good news of Christianity is and why it gives us hope. Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and all who are united to him by faith will rise from the dead when Jesus returns to destroy the last enemy: death.

How Long, O Lord?

Brian Watson preached this sermon on October 1, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF typescript of the sermon written in advance. 

One of the biggest questions that people have about God, and one of the main reasons why people have a hard time trusting God or believing that he exists, is the presence of evil in the world. A few weeks ago, we collected questions that people would like to ask God, and many of them involved pain and suffering. Here were some of the questions:

“Why do bad things happen to good people?” [This was asked twice.]

“Why is there so much suffering in foreign countries?”

“Why are you letting so many people suffer in this world?”

“Why are young children diagnosed with cancer?”

“Why do the people we love die when they are not old?

“Why do bad things continue to happen to me in my life?”

These questions often cause people to doubt God. In fact, the so-called problem of evil has been called “the rock of atheism,”[1] because the very existence of bad things in the world is supposed to challenge the existence of God.

There are various problems of evil. One is called the logical problem of evil. This states that the very existence of evil is incompatible with a God who is omnipotent and good. Those who believe God and evil can’t coexist assume that God would never allow evil to exist in the first place, or that he would remove as quickly as possible. David Hume (1711–1776) captured this problem of evil rather famously: “Why is there any misery at all in the world? Not by chance, surely. From some cause then. Is it from the intention of the Deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty. Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive.”[2] In other words, if God is good and loving, he would not allow misery, and if he is all-powerful, he would be able to end misery.[3] So, either he is one or the other, but not both.

However, if a good and all-powerful God has good reasons for allowing evil to occur, there is no reason why this God and evil cannot coexist. Perhaps God allows evil in order to realize some greater good. Even if we don’t know what exactly this greater good is, this idea shows that there is no logical contradiction involved in God’s existence and evil’s existence.

A second problem of evil is called the evidential problem of evil. In this argument, people accept that God may very well have a good reason for allowing evil to occur, but they believe that a good, all-powerful God wouldn’t allow so much evil to occur in the world. In other words, some people say there simply is too much evil in the world for there to be a God, particularly the God of the Bible. But how could we possibly know how much evil there should be? What is the right amount of evil necessary to produce greater goods?

Then there is a third problem of evil, which we might call the existential problem of evil. This isn’t a philosophical argument regarding the existence of God. This is a problem that we all face, whether we’re Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, or atheists. This is the question of how we cope in a world full of pain, misery, suffering, heartbreak, and, yes, evil.

Today, I want to begin to explore this issue of evil. Because it’s such a big question, I’ll continue thinking about it next week. Here’s what I want to claim today: any system of belief or worldview that doesn’t acknowledge the reality of evil is false; but Christianity does acknowledge that evil is real; the existence of evil is evidence that God exists, because to acknowledge evil is to acknowledge that a standard of good and evil exists; and while the Bible doesn’t tell us everything about why evil exists, it tells us that God will fix the problem of evil forever.

Before we get into this discussion, I want to define evil. Today when I use the word “evil,” I don’t just mean evil people like Hitler, or evil acts like murder or rape. I’m using the word in a very broad sense. When I say “evil,” I mean everything that isn’t the way things out to be. We all sense the world isn’t the way it ought to be. We feel out of sorts. We witness natural evils, like hurricanes and earthquakes, and also diseases and death. We witness human evils, like theft, rape, and murder. And then there are all kinds of smaller-scale suffering that we endure, like loneliness and depression. So, what is evil? Evil is anything that keeps us from being truly happy. We all want to be happy. Augustine once wrote, “It is the decided opinion of all who use their brains that all men desire to be happy.”[4] Anything that disrupts true happiness is evil. I would define “true happiness” as “the way God intended the world to be,” or “the way things ought to be.” I’ll come back to that idea.

Obviously, you don’t need me to tell you that there’s evil in the world. A lot of people aren’t happy. There are many times when we aren’t happy. What worldview, religion, or system of thought can make sense of this state of affairs?

There are some religions or beliefs that maintain that evil is just an illusion, or that suffering can be eliminated through eliminating our desires. These concepts are found in eastern religions and in New Age spirituality. My understanding of Buddhism is that Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha, taught that life is an illusion. Our problem is getting wrapped up in this illusion. Or, as one writer puts it, “The problem with existence, Gautama decided, lies in becoming attached to physical life, which is by nature impermanent. The key to salvation is to let go of everything. . . . It is sometimes said that self-extinction is the goal of Buddha’s philosophy; it would be better to put it as realizing one’s self-extinctedness. Nonexistence is the reality; one simply has to become aware of it.”[5] All our suffering comes from thinking that we actually exist as persons, and through cravings that come with such thinking. The key to removing suffering is to realize that all is an illusion. If that is true, then evil itself is an illusion. It’s not real. Can we really say that life is an illusion? That death isn’t real?

Some forms of Hinduism are pantheistic. They hold that the individual soul (Atman) is equal to the soul of the world (Brahman). In other words, all things are one. Enlightenment consists of realizing this truth. New Age spirituality is very similar. Several years ago, a New Age teacher named Eckhard Tolle was very popular, in large part because he was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey. His two famous books are The Power of Now and A New Earth.[6] In the first book, he writes, “[Y]ou are one with all that is.”[7] Tolle believes we are all connected to the Source. For him, the only evil is not to realize this.[8] So, you and death are one. You and a malignant tumor are one. Why fear anything then? All is one. You and Hitler and HIV are one. Does anyone really buy this? Does anyone really live that way?

Buddhists, pantheists, and New Age gurus aren’t the only ones to deny the reality of evil. Some atheists do, too. I’ve recently mentioned that Richard Dawkins, a famous atheist and neo-Darwinist, has said that in a world that is the product of chance, where there is no god, there is no such thing as good and evil.[9] Michael Ruse, another atheist and Darwinist, says,

Unlike Christians, Darwinians do not see that natural evil is a problem. Obviously they do not like it and may feel one has a moral obligation to reduce it, but it is just something that happens. No one causes it, no one is to blame. Moral evil is something fairly readily explicable given Darwinism. We have a natural inclination to selfishness. That is to be expected given that selection works for the individual.[10]

If the world isn’t guided by God, why should we expect it would be good? How can we say it’s good or bad? It just is. And what we call evil, such as death, is part of the way large-scale, Darwinian evolution works. A rather unorthodox Jesuit priest named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), who advocated the theory of evolution, said, “Evil appears necessarily . . . not by accident (which would not much matter) but through the very structure of the system.”[11] Without the winnowing fork of death and extinction, natural selection wouldn’t work. Species with new and superior traits wouldn’t emerge from old ones.[12] So, given what these atheists believe, what we call evil really isn’t evil. It’s just the way things are. We may not like it, but that’s life.

These religions and worldviews want us to believe that evil is an illusion, or doesn’t exist, or isn’t so bad. But we know better. Evil is real and it’s really evil. Death is an outrage. So is murder and rape, and theft. Hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis that kill thousands of people aren’t the way things ought to be. So, if a religion or philosophy says evil isn’t evil, they’re asking you to deny reality. Really, they’re asking you not to take them seriously. So, don’t.

But Christianity is different. It affirms that evil is a reality. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to deliver us from evil (Matt. 6:13), not from an illusion or something that we simply don’t like. Evil is something that intruded into God’s good creation when the power of sin entered into the world. That is, when human beings started to ignore and reject God and disobey him, evil came into the world. In fact, we might say the presence of evil started with the existence of the devil, Satan. This is somewhat mysterious, but it’s very much a part of reality. It is not an illusion.

And the Bible not only describes the reality of evil, it even has many protests against evil. Throughout the Bible, God’s people cry out to God and say, “This isn’t right! This isn’t fair! How long before you remove evil from this world?” Consider some of these verses:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Ps. 13:1–2)

O Lord, how long shall the wicked,
how long shall the wicked exult? (Ps. 94:3)

They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10)

These are but a few of the many passages in the Bible that show how evil is something to be mourned, something to be outraged by. In fact, there are whole books of the Bible that take up the theme of evil and injustice. And that is quite interesting because we believe that the Bible is the word of God. Yes, human beings wrote the Bible, but it was God working through these human authors to write what he wanted. So, God himself acknowledges the problem of evil and suffering, and he gives voice to our protests against evil.

This alone, I believe, is actually evidence that Christianity is true. These complaints against evil and injustice match our experience of life. They resonate in our soul in a way that the claims that evil is an illusion don’t.

And, strangely, though evil is a problem for Christians, it is also proof that God exists. To know that something is evil, we must have some kind of standard to indicate what is good and what is evil. According to Christian thought, God is the standard of goodness. He is completely and truly good. And everything contrary to God is evil. Atheists have to cope with evil, but they not only have the problem of evil; they also have the problem of good. Why should an atheist expect goodness in a world of chance and chaos? How can an atheist say something is evil? How can they say genocide is evil? Isn’t that just evolution at work, the fit competing against the unfit, the strong preying on the weak? I don’t think we can discover good and evil. I believe the reality of good and evil need to be revealed to us. The first human beings got into trouble by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They wanted to determine what was good and evil on their own, instead of letting God interpret that reality for them. To know what is good and evil, we need a trustworthy, objective, transcendent standard to measure such realities. In other words, we need God.

With the rest of the time we have this morning, I want us to consider two stories from the Bible that shows how God’s people complain about evil, and how God responds. The first is in the Old Testament.[13] It is the story of a prophet named Habakkuk. We don’t know much about this prophet other than he was in Judah shortly before the Babylonians came in and attack Jerusalem. If you don’t know much about the Bible, this is what is important to know: In the Old Testament, God called a people to himself, Israel. He rescued them out of slavery and Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land. He had given them his law and told them how to worship him and how to live. But they often rebelled against God and worshiped the false gods of the surrounding nations. Because of their sin, God judged them in various ways, eventually bringing in foreign armies to conquer them.

Habakkuk begins with this complaint. This is Habakkuk 1:1–4:

1  The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.

Habakkuk, like the Psalmists and like Job, ask God, “How long?” He was complaining against the injustice of the Jews in his day. The law, God’s commands, had no power to restrain their evil. They were doing wicked things, and Habakkuk thought that justice would never come. He was wondering why God didn’t respond to his cries.

Then God spoke. Look at verses 5–11:

“Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more fierce than the evening wolves;
their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
They all come for violence,
all their faces forward.
They gather captives like sand.
10  At kings they scoff,
and at rulers they laugh.
They laugh at every fortress,
for they pile up earth and take it.
11  Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
guilty men, whose own might is their god!”

God tells Habakkuk that he was going to do something that would astound him. In fact, he was already at work doing thing. God was raising up the Chaldeans, better known as the Babylonians, to punish the idolatrous and rebellious Jews, the very people God had called to himself. Babylon was becoming the superpower of the world and their warriors were fierce. God was telling Habakkuk that justice was coming soon.

But this news caused Habakkuk to complain about something else. We see that in the next section, Habakkuk 1:12–2:1:

12  Are you not from everlasting,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
13  You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
the man more righteous than he?
14  You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.
15  He brings all of them up with a hook;
he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
so he rejoices and is glad.
16  Therefore he sacrifices to his net
and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
and his food is rich.
17  Is he then to keep on emptying his net
and mercilessly killing nations forever?

1 I will take my stand at my watchpost
and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,|
and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

Habbakuk’s complaint is found in verse 13. He basically says to God, “You are too pure to even look upon evil. How can you then use the wicked Babylonians to judge those who are less wicked? This isn’t fair! These Babylonians capture people like a fisherman captures fish. They continue to kill and kill your people! Where’s the justice in that?”

God answers again. We’ll just look at the first three verses of his response, verses 2–4 of chapter 2:

And the Lord answered me:
“Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,so he may run who reads it.

For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay.
“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.

Then God delivers a series of “woes” to the Babylonians, saying that they will be put to shame, made to drink the cup of God’s wrath, and put to destruction (verses 15–17). He also says,

For the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea (verse 14).

The point is that though God was using wicked people to judge Israel, he would judge those wicked people, too. Justice would be done. And, in the end, the whole earth will be filled with God’s glory. Everyone will one day know the true God and one day all things will be made right.

In the meantime, God’s people must trust that God will make things right. That is why God says, “the righteous will live by his faith.” The one who is in a right relationship with God must trust that God will make all things right, even when everything now seems wrong. For Habakkuk, things seemed very wrong. Most of the world didn’t acknowledge the true God. Even the people who were supposed to be God’s people, the Israelites, weren’t acknowledging God. They were doing what was wrong. And Habakkuk complained to God. But God told him, “Son, just wait. I have this under control. I know what I’m doing. Trust me. I will judge everyone and all things will be well. Just trust me and you will live.”

In the third chapter of Habakkuk, the prophet responds with a psalm, a song or prayer. He says that he will wait for that day. He trusts God. He ends with these words, in verses 17–19:

17  Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
18  yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19  God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.

Habakkuk says, “Even though things look bleak now, even if there’s famine now, I will rejoice in God. I look forward to the day of salvation. I will take joy in God, for he is my strength, and he will take care of me.” That is faith.

You see, Christianity is not really an explanation of every single thing that happens in the world. The Bible isn’t an encyclopedia that gives us all the answers. What it is a story about God and his world, and about his people. While it doesn’t give us all the answers, it tells us a very important story. God made a good world, and sin corrupted it. Somehow, all the evil in the world is related to the power of sin at work in the world. When the first human beings disobeyed God, the relationship between God and people was fractured. Sin separates us from God. Sin separates us from one another. Sin separates us from the creation, in the sense that there are now natural disasters and life is difficult. And sin even separates us from the people we ought to be. All the bad things in this life are a result of sin. That doesn’t mean all the bad things that happen to us are a result of our sins. Christianity is not karma. Sometimes, we suffer for reasons we don’t understand. Sometimes, other things are happening, things that we couldn’t possibly understand. I think the book of Job illustrates that quite well.

But God doesn’t leave us with the story of a broken world. If that were the end of the story—things are bad because people sinned instead of trusting God, and then you die—it would be a bad, bad story. But that’s not the end of the story.

No, God had a plan to make things right, to remove the evil in the world. And that story centers on Jesus. As I said last week, God himself entered into the world. The author of life entered into his own creation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Son of God became a human being. He did this in order to live the perfect life that we don’t live. God’s design for humanity was for people to represent him, rule the world under his authority, reflect his character, worship him, and love him. But we don’t do those things. We tend to act as if we are the center of reality. We try to be our own little gods. This is rebellion. But Jesus always represented and reflected God the Father perfectly. He always came under the Father’s authority and worshiped and loved him. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s purposes for humanity. But Jesus did something else. Jesus also took the punishment that we deserve for that rebellion. Jesus took the penalty for our crimes against God. To put it more precisely, Jesus took the sins of everyone who trusts him, so that they can have their evil removed and their sins forgiven.

During Jesus’ life, he experienced pain, suffering, loss, and evil. The very people who should have known who he was rejected him and mocked him. They called him names. Then they arrested him on false charges, they tortured him, and they killed him. Jesus, the Son of God, very God and very man, knows evil firsthand. And he suffered willingly, even though he was innocent, in order to rescue us from pain, suffering, and evil.

And when Jesus was approaching the time when he would voluntarily take on God’s wrath against sin—as he was approaching the time when he would experience hell on earth—he protested. The night before his death, he told his disciples that his soul was “very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). Then he cried out to God the Father, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39). In Luke’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus’ “sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Then, after being arrested and beaten, Jesus was crucified, which was an agonizing way to die. His suffering was beyond the physical pain of being nailed to a cross and left to suffer until he could no longer breathe. His true pain came from feeling as though he were separated and abandoned by God the Father. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Yet though Jesus protested his suffering, he trusted God. When he asked whether it were possible for the cup of God’s wrath to pass him, he said, “not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:38). And when he died on the cross, he said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). He trusted God, though his pain was great.

Jesus was able to trust God because he knew that all things would be well. He knew his story didn’t end in death. He knew he would rise from the grave victorious, to show that he paid the penalty for sin and to show that one day God will restore his creation. All who trust in Jesus, though they may die, will rise from the grave in bodies that can never die again, and they will live in a renewed world, one without sin and suffering, one without murder and war, one without death. And then, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. There will no longer be evil, but only peace and love.

I’m going to say more about Jesus next week, because I think the story of Jesus lets us peer into the mystery of evil. If we can say why God would allow evil to emerge in this world, we are only able to do so because of Jesus. But for now, I want us to understand the following truths.

First, the Bible says that God is good. He is the very definition of goodness and love. And he made a good world.

Second, though the origin of evil is a bit of a mystery, evil in the world is connected to the presence of sin in the world. But evil is not eternal. If the world were always evil, then I think that would pose a significant and possibly insurmountable challenge to Christianity. But evil is not the perfect match to God’s goodness. In the end, evil has a limited lifespan. And evil has limited power.

Third, Christianity views evil as an outrage. Death is described as an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), one that will be destroyed. Injustice of all kinds is an outrage. The cries against evil in the Bible resonate with the cries against evil that rise up in our own throats and that pour out in our own tears.

Fourth, though the Bible doesn’t answer every question about Evil, it says that God is not aloof. He’s not distant and uncaring. He does care about evil. He cares so much that he sent his own Son to experience evil. And the Son, the co-creator of the universe, entered into his own creation and subjected himself to human evil. The Bible also says that God is all-powerful and good. He is able to remove evil from the world and desires to do so. In fact, we’re promised that he will do that in the end. But the way that God removes evil from his people is by experiencing that evil himself. We may not understand everything about evil—in fact, that’s what makes evil so evil, because it’s irrational and confusing—but we can understand that Jesus experienced evil to save us. This is a God you can trust, even if we can’t understand everything about him.

Fifth, the Bible also says that one day God will finally and conclusively remove all evil from the world. For those who trust Jesus, who are united to him by faith, their evil has already been paid for. When Jesus returns, he will utterly transform us so that we won’t sin anymore. And we will live forever. Indeed, those who have faith in Jesus will live because they have been declared righteous and they will be righteous. But those who don’t trust Jesus will be removed from God’s good creation. Those who don’t trust God and his Son, who complain without faith, who claim that, if God exists, he’s evil, or who don’t claim that he exists at all, will be condemned. So, evil has an expiration date, but love, goodness, and justice don’t. God invites us to trust his promises and have eternal life. He asks us to trust his Son and his work on our behalf.

In the end, Jesus is the answer to the problem of evil. He is the only answer. And we must put our trust in him, even when things look bleak. We trust that things will not always be that way.

I can affirm that there simply is no other satisfying response to the problem of evil. If God doesn’t exist, there’s no evil—and there’s no good! If everything is an illusion, or if death is simply part of the engine of evolution, there’s no hope. This is how things are and this is how things will always be. But if goodness triumphs over evil, and Goodness himself took the worst evil, absorbed it, and then rose from the grave, and if he’ll come again to crush evil finally and ultimately, then there’s hope. If you’re not a Christian, I would love to tell you more about Jesus.[14] He is the only key that will unlock the riddle of evil. Put your faith in him and live.

Notes

  1. The German playwright Georg Büchner (1813–1837) so described the problem of evil, according to Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross, trans. David G. Preston (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 9.
  2. David Hume, “Evil Makes a Strong Case against God’s Existence,” from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions, Part X, in Philosophy or Religion: Selected Readings, ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, David Basinger, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 262.”
  3. We might add that if God is perfectly wise, he would know how to end all misery, pain, suffering, and evil.
  4. Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library, 1993), 10.1, quoted in Stewart Goetz, “The Argument from Evil,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, ed. William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 467.
  5. Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1998), 223.
  6. Eckhard Tolle, The Power of Now (Novata, CA New World Library, 1999); Idem., A New Earth (New York: Plume, 2006).
  7. Tolle, The Power of Now, 15, quoted in Richard Abanes, A New Earth, an Old Deception (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2008), 51.
  8. “If evil has any reality—and it has a relative, not an absolute, reality—this is also its definition: a complete identification with form—physical forms, thought forms, emotional forms. This results in a total unawareness of my connectedness with the whole, my intrinsic oneness with every ‘other’ as well as with the Source.” Tolle, A New Earth, 22, quoted in Abanes, A New Earth, an Old Deception, 146.
  9. “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273 (Nov. 1995): 85.
  10. Michael Ruse, Darwinism as Religion: What Literature Tells Us about Evolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 192–193.
  11. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (London: Collins, 1959), 313, quoted in Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 23.
  12. “Evil becomes a kind of auxiliary motor of the progress that has given rise to it. It acts as a goad to prevent us from getting stuck at the present stage of Evolution, to detach us from a world that is still imperfect, and to project us and throw us out of our own centre into God.” Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 24.
  13. If we had more time, I would discuss the story of Job. To understand that powerful story from the Old Testament, visit https://wbcommunity.org/job.
  14. To learn much more about Jesus, visit https://wbcommunity.org/jesus.

 

How Long, O Lord?

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on the so-called problem of evil. He examines the issue of how there can be pain, suffering, and evil if God is good and is omnipotent. Some people think this is an argument against the existence of God. But perhaps evil is actually evidence for the existence of God and the truth of the Bible. After all, some religions and worldviews tell us that evil isn’t real or so evil. However, all experience tells us that evil is real and is an outrage. Christianity says evil is real, it’s a problem, and that Jesus is the solution.

Who Is God?

The following presentation was given by Pastor Brian Watson to students involved with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Bridgwater State University on October 4, 2016.

Who Is God?

I saw something interesting this past week. 25 percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation. Among 18–29-year-olds, that number is 39 percent.[1] That means that about four out of ten people in your age range don’t claim any particular religion. Some people see that a dismaying figure. I see that as an opportunity. I think it’s an opportunity to reintroduce people to who God is.

Here’s what I’m convinced of: despite all the churches in America, despite the billions of Bibles we have in this country, and despite all the God-talk in our society, we don’t really understand who God is. That’s because the vast majority of those Bibles collect dust. And a lot of churches don’t even bother much with the Bible these days. When they do, it’s not uncommon for churches to misinterpret the Bible. And despite all the references to God in America, most of it is vague. Our money says, “In God We Trust.” The Pledge of Allegiance mentions “one nation under God.” But who is that God? People talk vaguely about prayer or faith, but they usually don’t talk with any specificity. If we’re going to know who God is, we have to move past sound bites, clichés, and memes.

Tonight, I’m going to try to lay some groundwork for us to understand who God is. That’s really hard to do, because there is so much to say about God. Often, when people are talking about theology (which simply means “God words”), they focus on his attributes. That is, they talk about how God is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, holy, righteous, wise, good, loving, and so forth. We could talk about God that way. Or we could look at a particular story in the Bible that shows something of God’s character. Both would be good places to start.

But tonight, I want to take a little bit of a different tactic.

To understand who God is, I want to compare the story that the Bible tells with two or three other stories about God. And I’ll say this up front: I think all stories outside of the Bible that concern God tend to reduce him to something less than he actually is. The word for this is reductionism. And the problem with all other God-stories is that they end up ignoring very real and important things that we all care about.

The Story of Atheism

So let’s start with one very prominent story. This is the story of atheism, which says there is no God. This worldview is sometimes called naturalism, which means that nothing supernatural exists. Sometimes it’s called materialistic naturalism, which means the only reality is matter. In this story, the universe is either eternal and has been continually expanding and contracting (each “Big Bang” is followed by a “Big Crunch”) or it somehow emerged out of nowhere. And everything in the universe has evolved with no overarching plan behind it. It isn’t designed; it only appears that way. It’s not the product of a superintelligence such as God. And everything in the universe, including us, is the result of a blind, unintelligent, purposeless process of evolution. In essence, we’re a cosmic accident. Our lives have no inherent meaning. We’re simply here right now. Many people who believe in this story say that we don’t even have free will. No, all our thoughts are simply the byproducts of chemical reactions in our brains. We don’t actually choose anything; it just appears as if we do so. And after we die, that’s it. There is no God and no afterlife.

That story reduces reality to one in which God doesn’t exist. And if we take God away, we end up taking away any objective meaning to life, any objective moral law, and any hope for an afterlife. Without God, there is no purpose to life. Don’t take my word for it. Here is what Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist and atheist says: “Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of life, has no purpose in mind.”[2] If there is no creation of the universe for a certain purpose, there simply is no purpose. And, worse than that, there’s no justice in such a universe. This is what Dawkins says elsewhere:

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.[3]

I hope you see that such a view of reality is problematic. We are conscious, intelligent beings who act with purpose. How can we arise from an unconscious, unintelligent, and purposeless process? We long for justice, yet in a world without a moral law and a judge who will make sure that all crimes are paid for, there is none. We think that certain things are good and other things are evil, but according to Dawkins, that really isn’t the case.[4] There are many philosophical and scientific problems with this view.[5]

The Story of Pantheism

So, that’s one view of the world, where the only thing that exists is “not God.” Another view of the world is pantheism, where everything is God, or God is in everything. This is the view of the world that some eastern religions possess. It’s also the view held by New Age spirituality. In this view of reality, God is reduced to a spiritual force or energy. At its worst, it says that we are gods. I didn’t think that many people believe in this sort of thing, until I met a young man on an airplane earlier this year. He and I sat next to each other and he started a conversation that lasted nearly four hours. He asked me what I was reading, which was a book that dealt with God. We then talked about God, the meaning of life, and other things. He said he thought he was God. About a month ago, I met up with him again and had lunch. Again, he wondered if maybe he is God. I don’t think he was joking, either. He had been exposed to a long strange, New Age views.

People who hold this view think that they can create their own reality. They think that if they think something and really believe it will come true, it will happen.

There are a number of problems with this view. The most basic problem is that it doesn’t line up with reality. We can’t create reality. It exists. Period. We can work hard and do good things, of course, but there are limits to what we can do. And we’re not in control of life. Any one of us could die tonight in an accident. Any one of us who contract a disease and die at a young age. What is certain is that all of us will die. It’s foolish for finite, mortal creatures to believe they are God.

A Third Story

We’ve briefly considered the story in which everything is “not God” and also the story in which everything is God. Here’s a third story: there is a God who made the universe. God is not the universe and the universe is not God. God has always existed. He has no beginning and no end. The universe, however, came into existence at a certain point in time. It is a created thing. And the universe is sustained at every moment by God. He is the reason for why the universe is well-ordered. He is the reason for why there is beauty. He is the reason why there is an objective, transcendent moral law, one that we can discover but not one that we can create. He is the reason why we love and value relationships. He is the reason why we are intelligent beings who can make choices. He is the reason why we long for justice and why we long for a better world.

This is the story of God that is told in the Bible. But before I continue, I want to say this: our tendency is to think that God must be like us, or that God must always agree with us. In other words, our tendency is to make God in our image and likeness. But that’s not reality. The truth is that God has made us. We have no right to tell God how his universe should go. What we can do, however, is learn about God, have a relationship with him, and live according to his design. When we do that, we have meaning in our lives. We have peace. We can have real freedom. And we can have hope.

In order to know God, we need to let him speak. After all, I couldn’t really know any one of you just by looking at you. I could know some things about you by observing you or digging up information on you. But if I were to really know any of you, I would need for you to talk to me. You would need to reveal yourself to me. How much more is this true of God? After all, God is immaterial. He doesn’t have a body. He is the not the proper study of science. Science can’t observe or experiment on God. And even if it could, we would still need to have God speak to us to tell us what he’s really like. So, we must let God speak. And God speaks to us through his word, the Bible.

It may seem odd that God speaks to us through a book. Why doesn’t he just speak to us individually? Well, think about the advantages of a book. It’s objective. We can study it together. I didn’t make it up and neither did you. Now imagine if God spoke to us individually. What if we thought that God was telling us different things? Imagine that one of the men here said to one of the women here, “God told me that I should ask you out.” Now imagine the woman saying, “That’s funny, because God told me to reject you, because you’re creepy.” Who would be right? We need something objective, something outside of me and you, to tell us.

God Is “I AM”

I want to touch on just a few passages in the Bible to show what God is like. The first passage is from the book of Exodus. About four thousand years ago, God had spoken to a man named Abraham, and he promised to make a great nation out of Abraham’s descendants. Fast forward a few hundred years later and Israel had become a large nation. But there was a problem: the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. When they were oppressed, they cried out to God and God responded with a plan to rescue the Israelites. He did that through a man named Moses.

When God first appeared to Moses, he told him that he would send him to the king of Egypt, the Pharaoh, and say, “Let my people go.” Then Moses says, “Who am I that I should be able to do such a thing?” And God says, “I will be with you” (this is a paraphrase of Exod. 3:10–12).

Then Moses asks this question, which is followed by God’s response. I’ll read Exodus 3:13–15:

13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”

I want to focus on what God says about his name. He says it is, “I am who I am.” What does that mean? This could be translated, “I cause to be because I cause to be.”[6] What God seems to be saying is, “I exist. Period. I don’t need any explanation. I have always existed. And I cause everything else to exist.” No one made God. He didn’t make himself. He has always existed. And he is the Creator of everything else. So, there’s God and there’s “not God.” Unlike the story of atheism, where everything is “not God,” and the story of pantheism, where everything is God, the story of the Bible says that there are two basic types of things that exist: God and everything else.[7] Those two things shouldn’t be confused.

In all of this, we see that God is personal. He is a God who speaks and who reveals himself. He is powerful. He is ultimately the Creator of everything else that exists. And he’s one of a kind. Only God exists without any other cause.

There’s No One Like Him

The reason I draw that out is because we need to know this if we’re going to know who God is. God created us in his image. That means that we reflect something of what he is like. In fact, God made us to reflect him and represent him in this world that he has made. But that doesn’t mean that God is entirely like us. The fact is, God is incomparable. There is simply no one like him (Isa. 40:18; 46:5). One of our major problems is to confuse God with something in creation. We end up making a false god who is like us or who is the way we think he should be.

Some of the clearest expressions of God’s incomparable nature come in another Old Testament book, the book of Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet who lived roughly seven hundred years before Jesus. His job was to call Israel back to God. Israel had been worshiping false gods, or idols. This is what is said of Israel right at the beginning of the book:

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand” (Isa. 1:2–3).

Israel, like all human beings, rebelled against God. They were worse than animals, because they forget their owner. And when they did, they started doing some very unjust things. This is what God says about the city of Jerusalem later in Isaiah 1:

21  How the faithful city
has become a whore,
she who was full of justice!
Righteousness lodged in her,
but now murderers.
22  Your silver has become dross,
your best wine mixed with water.
23  Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not bring justice to the fatherless,
and the widow’s cause does not come to them (Isa. 1:21–23).

If you find that language a bit shocking, you should read the other prophetic books in the Bible. Generally, they say things like, “Stop your whoring, you whores!” They say that because worshiping idols is like cheating on God. The relationship between God and his people is often likened to a marriage. It’s a relationship that is supposed to be exclusive. And when you ignore God and live life on your terms, you’re being a whore.[8]

God cannot tolerate this situation. Later in the book of Isaiah, God makes it clear that he won’t share his praise with false gods. In Isaiah 42:8, he says,

I am the Lord; that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to carved idols.

There simply is no other God. We were made to worship God, but we give our time, our attention, our money, and our emotions to other things instead of God. We fall short of God’s standard for right living.

God’s standard for righteousness is rather high. And that is because God himself is the standard of righteousness. The reason that certain things are right and certain things are wrong is because God is the measure of what is right, and what is contrary to God’s character and God’s commandments is wrong. We cry out for justice because we realize that a lot of things in this world are not the way that God had originally designed them to be. A lot of things in this world are out of step with God.

The “I Am” Is a Savior

Notice that in Isaiah, God uses the “I am” language often. For example, here’s Isaiah 43:11–13:

11  I, I am the Lord,
and besides me there is no savior.
12  I declared and saved and proclaimed,
when there was no strange god among you;
and you are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and I am God.
13  Also henceforth I am he;
there is none who can deliver from my hand;
I work, and who can turn it back?”

And a few verses later, God says,

“I, I am he
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins” (v. 25).[9]

Here, we see that there is only one God, but we also get a hint that he is a savior. He is the one who can reconcile us to himself. He is the one who can make all things right. We live in a broken world because from the beginning, human beings have rebelled against God. That’s when evil entered into the world. It is like a cancer that metastasizes, working its way through all the world and through our bodies and through our hearts and minds. But God promises to fix this broken world one day.

The story of Christianity is that God does that through Jesus. Jesus is God, yet he also becomes man without ceasing to be God. He entered into human history when Mary miraculously conceived him. But he has always existed as the Son of God. Jesus came to live the perfect life that we don’t live. He perfectly images God the Father and represents him. He always does what the Father wants. He is the ultimate human being.

God Is Triune

Now, at this point I’ve introduced something that may seem strange and mysterious. The God of the Bible is one God, yet he exists in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is a Trinity. How can one God be three Persons? It’s hard to understand this, and I don’t think we can understand it completely. That’s because there is no proper analogy for the Trinity. We can’t really compare God to something in creation. As I said, God is incomparable.

Even though it’s hard to understand the Trinity, here’s what is great about it: God has always existed as a community of Persons who love each other. The Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, and they love the Spirit, and so on. The Bible says that “God is love” (1 John 4: 8, 16) because God has always been both lover and beloved. If God were one God who has always existed as one Person—and that’s what Islam says about Allah—then before creating the universe and before creating human beings, he would have nothing and no one to love. That would mean that God has not always been love. But the God of the Bible has always been love, and that is why we long for love. That is why we want deep relationships. We are reflecting the image of God when we search for love.

Jesus Is “I Am”

Here’s one more thing specifically about Jesus. Jesus, too, is the “I am” God of the Bible. In the Gospel of John, which is one of the four biographies of Jesus in the Bible, Jesus has seven “I am” statements. He is the bread of life (6:35, 48, 51), which means he sustains our lives in a way that literal bread cannot. He is the light of the world (8:12; 9:5), revealing truth. He is the good shepherd (10:11, 14), who cares for his sheep. He is the resurrection and the life (11:25), because after he died on the cross, bearing the punishment that we deserve for our rebellion against God, he rose from the grave in a body that can never die. That’s the end of the story of the Bible, by the way. When God makes all things new, he will restore the world and all his people will become alive again in bodies that can never die. And Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (14:6), the only way to be reconciled to God, and the only hope for having life beyond this life.

Jesus even says challenging things like this: “unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). He means that unless you believe that he is God—and trust him, not just accept this as a fact—you will not have eternal life in a perfect world. Jesus makes it clear that he will evaluate everyone’s life. He is a savior, but he’s also a judge (John 5:25–29; 12:48).

Now, I realize that last bit may not sit well with a lot of you. The worst sin in the world, our culture tells us, is to be judgmental. Let me say this: first of all, everyone is judgmental. Look at social media. Look at the comments section of any article online or underneath just about every YouTube video. Think about all the times you have said, “He should do this,” or “She shouldn’t have done that.” Now, ask yourself, what would happen if you were judged by your own standards? How would you come out?

I think the reason we’re judgmental is because we are reflecting the image of God. He is the true Judge, and we are little judges. But our judgments tend to be off. They need to be corrected.

God Corrects Us

It seems like a lot of people want a God who won’t correct them. They want a God who says, “You’re amazing just the way you are.” That might make a nice pop song, but it’s not reality. Which one of you would bother to go to school here if every professor said, “You guys don’t need to learn anything. I won’t give you any exams, because you don’t have to prove anything to me. You’re amazing just the way you are.” If that’s how each class went, you wouldn’t spend four years of your time and thousands of dollars on tuition and fees.

And, honestly, any real relationship can’t work that way. Earlier, I said that the relationship between God and his people is like a marriage. If you honestly think your future spouse is never going to correct you, you don’t understand marriage. Just last night, my wife corrected me. She brought something to my attention that I need to work on. If my wife does that, how much more does God do that? My wife is an equal partner, another human being, but we’re not equal to God. So, if the human beings who love us correct us, the God who is love should correct us, too.

Now, there’s a lot more to say about God, but I think that is a start. God is the I am. He exists. Period. Without him, there would be nothing. He is the reason why we exist. I would encourage you to learn all you can about him.

Notes

  1. Robert P. Jones, Daniel Cox, Betsy Cooper, and Rachel Lienesch, “Exodus: Why Americans Are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back,” a survey conducted by the Pubic Religion Research Institute, September 22, 2016, http://www.prri.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/PRRI-RNS-Unaffiliated-Report.pdf, accessed October 3, 2016.
  2. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: North, 1987), 5, quoted in Richard Weikart, The Death of Humanity and the Case for Life (Washington, D.C., Regnery, 2016), 68–69.
  3. Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273 (Nov. 1995): 85.
  4. Interestingly, Dawkins knows that there are evils, even if he is wrong about what is evil. Elsewhere, he writes, “Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion [New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006], 308). This shows that his worldview is false. Any worldview that excludes something that we know to be real is false. The person who must “cheat” on his own worldview by borrowing from another possesses a false worldview.
  5. There are many books that address the problems of any form of Darwinism. I can personally recommend Stephen Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (New York: Harper One, 2013); Nancy Pearcey, Finding Truth: Five Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2015); Benjamin Wiker, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2002).
  6. Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 121.
  7. This is called “Two-ism” by the theologian Peter Jones, who calls other worldviews “One-ism.” See Peter Jones, One or Two: Seeing a World of Difference (Escondido, CA: Main Entry Editions, 2010).
  8. I realize this is shocking, and perhaps offensive, language. But it’s the language of the Bible: Jer. 2:20; 3:1–3, 6, 8, 9; Ezek. 16:15–17, 26, 28, 34, 41; 23:3, 5, 19, 30, 43; Hos. 1:2; 2:4–5; 3:3; 4:10–15; 5:3–4; 6:10; 9:1.
  9. The “I am” sayings in Isaiah include Isa. 41:4; 43:10–11, 13, 25; 44:6; 48:12.

 

Favor, Providence, and Kindness (Ruth 2)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Ruth 2. He focuses on three words that sum up what God is doing in this chapter: favor, providence, and kindness. He also shows how Christianity accounts for why we should be generous and kind to one another, and how a competing worldview (naturalism) does not.

The Problem of Evil

By Brian Watson

Introduction

Evil is a problem for everyone. No matter which religion one believes or which worldview one holds, the presence of evil in the world creates a logical and existential quandary for all. For Christians, the very existence of evil can produce doubt and, in the realm of apologetics, can be something of an embarrassment. When Christians share and defend their faith, it is quite common for non-Christians to raise the so-called “problem of evil,” either as a real hindrance to belief in God, or as a smoke-screen employed to avoid a conversation concerning matters of faith. As John Feinberg has observed, “Probe an atheist or agnostic deeply enough about why they doubt God’s existence, and he or she will likely recount for you the problem of evil.”[1] Atheists often allege that the existence of evil in the world disproves the existence of God, which is why the problem of evil is sometimes known as the “rock of atheism.”[2]

David Hume (1711-1776) captured the problem of evil rather famously: “Why is there any misery at all in the world? Not by chance, surely. From some cause then. Is it from the intention of the Deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty. Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive.”[3] Hume’s clear implication is an almighty and benevolent God and evil cannot coexist. There are many different versions of the problem of evil, including the logical problem of evil, the evidential problem of evil, and the existential or religious problem of evil. These versions of the problem of evil state, respectively, that the existence of any evil, the existence of a great amount of evil, or the existence of seemingly gratuitous evils are not compatible with the existence of the God of the Bible, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. The problem of evil, in all its iterations, presents a significant intellectual and existential problem to the Christian theist. But it also presents an opportunity to share one’s faith, and to show that the problem of evil, instead of defeating the Christian worldview, actually supports it.

The problem of evil is an extensive topic that cannot be examined in full in this paper, given its limited space. While others have probed, for example, J. L. Mackie’s logical problem and William Rowe’s evidential problem of evil,[4] my goal is more modest. I intend to show that (1) the problem of evil is a greater problem for atheists and agnostics than it is for Christians, and (2) the Christian faith, while it does not answer all of our questions regarding evil, provides the solution to the problem of evil, a reason to trust God, and a hope that makes life worth living.

A Problem for Everyone—Particularly for Atheists

As stated above, the presence of evil in the world is a problem for everyone. Death awaits us all and claims our loved ones. Some die through natural evils, such as earthquakes and floods. Others are murdered, their lives claimed by human evil. Each one of us experiences evil on some level, and this experience produces within us a sense of indignation. According to Henri Blocher, evil is “an unjustifiable reality,” a “disorder” that “oppresses and is oppressive.”[5] Though it is difficult to define evil, we all know it when we see it. We might say that evil is a distortion of the way things ought to be.

This last statement brings us to a very significant thought, one often ignored by atheists. In order to call something evil, we must first have a sense of how things ought to be. Evil has been called a parasite on an antecedent good, much like rust on a car, rot in a tree, or a hole in a garment.[6] To know that an earthquake is evil, or that murder is evil, would require living in a world where no earthquakes or murder exist. Yet none of us have lived in such a world. There must, then, be some other way of detecting evil. Of course, the Bible tells us that God has implanted within each of us a conscience that can detect such things (Rom. 2:15). As “the Preacher” of Ecclesiastes writes, God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Eccl. 3:11). Christians can state confidently that God has given everyone a sense of how things ought to be, and things such as earthquakes and murder run contrary to that sense. Furthermore, the Bible stands as a witness to the evil in the world. Protests against evil are found throughout Scripture, particularly in the Psalms, Job, Lamentations, and Habakkuk.

While the Christian can easily justify his or her knowledge of evil, the atheist has a much harder time, for to detect evil, one has to have a sense of the antecedent good that evil has distorted.[7] Those who use the problem of evil in an attempt to disprove Christianity often possess a naturalistic worldview, which denies God. Yet those who deny God have trouble establishing the basis for an objective moral standard, one which is necessary to determine what is good and what is evil. As James Sire observes, “Naturalists who deny the existence of any transcendent, personal God cannot successfully solve the problem of good. They cannot explain why there is a difference between right and wrong.”[8]

One of the key features of naturalism is evolution, which supposedly explains the development of all life forms, which have descended from a common ancestor. One of the key things for a Christian to recognize is that the theory of evolution requires evil, specifically death and even violence. Consider the following summary of evolution:

Nature is extremely prolific. It produces many more offspring of any given species than can possibly survive. Because of a shortage of the necessities of life, there is competition. The best, the strongest, the most adaptive survive; the others do not. As a result, there is a gradual upgrading of the species. In addition, mutations occur. These are sudden variations, novel features that did not appear in the earlier generations of a species. Of the many mutations that occur, most are useless, even detrimental, but a few are truly helpful in the competitive struggle. At the end of a long process of natural selection and useful mutations humans arrived on the scene. They are organisms of great complexity and superior abilities, not because someone planned and made them that way, but because these features enabled them to survive.[9]

Notice the emphasis placed on competition. According to Charles Darwin, the evolutionary mechanism requires the reality of death, of predation. Without such things, there would be no need for adaption and the survival of the fittest. In fact, if there were no such thing as death or violence, evolution would not have generated human beings, and we would not be here to debate the issue of evil.

Tim Keller makes a similar observation. First, he acknowledges the problem of evil. “Horrendous, inexplicable suffering, though it cannot disprove God, is nonetheless a problem for the believer in the Bible. However, it is perhaps an even greater problem for nonbelievers.”[10] So evil is a problem for everyone, because all of us realize evil is not the way things should be, but this is a problem for all worldviews, particularly naturalism. Then Keller arrives at this observation: “But the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection depends on death, destruction, and violence of the strong against the weak—these things are all perfectly natural. On what basis, then, does the atheist judge the natural world to be horribly wrong, unfair, and unjust?”[11]

The atheist may respond by saying that our survival instincts produce a negative reaction to an evil such as death. However, this response is inadequate. Natural selection would require us to view only our death as evil, not the deaths of others. And, as Keller suggests, the naturalist has no grounds to protest the oppression of the weak by the strong. The atheist might claim that knowledge of good and evil is simply a brute fact, but that is like saying knowledge of the length of a foot or the weight of a pound is innate. One needs a ruler or a scale, some type of standard, to measure things. So, too, the measurement of good and evil requires some type of standard.[12] C. S. Lewis, when reflecting on his previous rejection of Christianity, stated, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”[13]

When evil befalls a person, whether Christian or atheist, a common question emerges upon the lips or, at least, in the mind: “Why me?” If, to quote Carl Sagan, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be,”[14] why ask such a question? It would make no sense to ask the impersonal universe why such evil has occurred. Such a question requires the existence of a personal Being who has the power to stop such evil and the loving character to desire to stop it. In other words, such a question demand God. As Blocher writes, “Without this God who is sovereign and good, what is the rationale of our complaints? Can we even tell what is evil? Perhaps the late John Lennon understood: ‘God is a concept by which we measure our pain,’ he sang. Might we be coming to the point where the sense of evil is a proof of the existence of God?”[15]

The Christian may use the atheist’s “problem of good and evil” defensively to defuse unbelievers’ attacks or positively to share his or her faith. Defensively, one might answer in this way: “When an unbeliever questions the consistency of God’s sovereignty with his goodness in the face of evil, the apologist replies that the unbeliever has no right even to raise the question, for he cannot, on his basis, even distinguish good from evil.”[16] Positively, one might first show that the atheist has a greater problem regarding evil than the Christian.[17] Then one could present the moral argument for the existence of God and proceed to share the Christian worldview and the gospel in their entirety.[18] The problem of evil also gives the Christian an opportunity to show how other worldviews do not adequately address this issue.[19]

Humility

When the atheist tries to adduce evil as a proof against God, he or she is assuming that there could be no reason why an all-powerful and all-loving God would ordain or allow such evil. The atheist is therefore not realizing the limits of human knowledge. It is rather absurd that someone who has a limited lifespan, a limited capacity to learn, and a limited perspective on life could assume to know everything about evil. Stephen Evans boldly writes, “The skeptic’s challenge is really presumptuous and arrogant. It is a claim by a finite creature to know how the world should have been created. How could a skeptic know such a thing?”[20] Science cannot measure evil, tell us that God does not exist, or tell us the purpose of life. Without divine revelation, we would be groping the in the dark, searching for an answer to the question of evil and a solution for how to defeat it.

The Christian, however, realizes that the Bible is God’s inerrant and authoritative word, one that tells us things that science, logic, and observation could never reveal. Yet the Christian must also be humble. The Bible tells us certain things about evil. For example, the Bible makes it quite clear that evil exists, that it is not merely an illusion, and that it is a problem to be overcome. However, the Bible does not tell us the exact origin of evil. Scripture tells us that God does not sin, that he is perfect, that he made human beings to be good, and that he does not tempt people to sin.[21] We also know that the responsibility for sin falls upon the shoulders of God’s creatures, whether they be fallen angels such as Satan or human beings, and not on God.[22] Beyond that, the Christian should be careful not to speculate.[23]

Part of what makes evil so frustrating is that it makes little sense. According to Gerald Bray, “There is something about the nature of evil that flies in the face of the facts and that refuses to yield to rational argument.”[24] If we could understand evil, it would still be painful, but it would be something less than evil.[25] The mysteries of evil cannot be unlocked, no matter how much speculating and philosophizing humans do.

We would do well to remember, at this point, the book of Job. Job, a righteous man, suffered terrible loss because God allowed Satan to test him (Job 1-2). Of course, neither Job nor his friends had access to this information. (For the reader who, unlike Job, has access to that information, many unanswered questions are raised, such as why God would allow Satan to test Job, why Satan was in heaven, and why Satan exists in the first place.) Job bemoans his condition, wishing he had never been born (chapter 3). He even demands an audience with God (13:3). After over thirty chapters of speculation, God himself arrives on the scene, appearing in a whirlwind (chapter 38). Instead of answering Job’s questions, God asks a series of rhetorical questions designed to put Job in his place. God asks, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (38:4). God even employs sarcasm: “You know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!” (38:21). Duly humbled, Job is silenced (40:4-5), he admits that he spoke out of ignorance (42:3) and he repents (42:6). In his suffering, Job did not need answers. God did not owe Job answers then and he does not owe us answers today.[26] Instead of answers, Job needed God’s presence. He needed to see God (42:5). The same is true of all people, and for those of us who believe in Jesus, we also will behold his face (1 John 3:2; Rev. 22:4).

Many of us struggle with evil because we falsely assume that we are the center of the universe. We falsely assume that the purpose of life is human happiness apart from God. We falsely assume that the kindness that would prevent all suffering is superior to a tough love that would rather us suffer than remain selfish and immature. As C. S. Lewis put it, “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they said, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’”[27]

However, the true God, the God of the Bible, is not a “senile benevolence,” nor is he one desperate to please us. He is far greater than that. He does all that he pleases and everything—including all humans—exists by him and for him. [28] Lewis was right to claim, “Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake.”[29] Rather, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”[30]

Our Problem and the Solution to Evil

If the purpose of life is to glorify God, we must all admit that we have failed. When the problem of evil is discussed, a significant omission is often made. The real problem of evil is that we are evil, and we have rejected a God who is completely good. Even those who do not believe in God must admit that human beings are the source of most of the evil in the world.[31] But the Bible tells us that we have rejected God, who is love and the only one who is good.[32] The greatest evil is to reject this God, and at the heart of sin is a desire to be God, a promise that Satan makes but cannot deliver (see Gen. 3:5).

Our sin puts us in quite a predicament. The wages of our sin is death (Rom. 6:23), and God would be just to condemn us all. In fact, because God is a perfect and holy judge, he must punish sin. How can God be, as Exodus 34:6-7 says, “merciful and gracious . . . forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” while also being one who “by no means clear[s] the guilty”?

The answer, of course, is that in the fullness of time, God sent his only Son to take on flesh, becoming a perfectly obedient human being, thereby fulfilling the Law.[33] Jesus was the only human being who did not commit evil. Paradoxically, the only righteous person who ever lived was put to death in the manner of a criminal by dying a shameful death on a Roman cross. Somehow, in ways that are hard to grasp, this was the result of Satan’s actions, evil men’s plotting, and God’s eternal plan.[34] The one who did not sin bore our sins on the cross so that “we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:22-24). “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

This is the paradox of the cross, something both profoundly mysterious and also beautifully logical: crimes demand punishment and forgiveness incurs great cost. The only way for God to make us right with him, to deliver us from evil, was to become a human being, to suffer what we deserve. “Evil is conquered as evil because God turns it back upon itself. He makes the supreme crime, the murder of the only righteous person, the very operation that abolishes sin.”[35] Though evil has continued after the cross, Jesus’ death and resurrection announced the certain future defeat of Satan and evil. This defeat will be brought to a triumphant, cosmic conclusion when Jesus returns, as the book of Revelation proclaims.

The cross of Christ is a fitting way for God to solve the problem of evil. If Satan and sinful men are the truly evil things in the universe, then one way for God to solve the problem would be to destroy us all. However, God is loving and gracious to his creatures, so he devised a way that would destroy evil but not us. As Keller writes, “The Bible says that Jesus came on a rescue mission for creation. He had to pay for our sins so that someday he can end evil and suffering without ending us.”[36] The Creator God also came that he might recreate us through his Spirit and make us into the kind of people who are not evil, the kind of people we were meant to be. All of this was done for our good and his glory.[37] Whatever suffering Christians may now face is a temporary affliction that prepares them for eternal glory (2 Cor. 4:17).

The Christian doctrines of the incarnation and the atonement teach us some important things about evil. While we may not understand evil, we know that God is not indifferent to our suffering. He is not a distant, dictatorial God. Rather, he is one willing to subject himself to pain and suffering. The atonement is something completely unique among religions and worldviews; no other religion says that God became man and endured evil for us.[38] This news gives us a greater reason to trust the Christian God in the face of the evil that we see and experience. It gives us confidence that evil will be destroyed. The testimony of the Bible also tells us that while we do not understand the significance of every evil act, we can trust that nothing is an accident, but that all things work together for our good (Rom. 8:28).[39]

In the end, all evil will be destroyed and all wrongs will be righted. It is nearly impossible to imagine a world that never contained any evil, for such a world is so foreign to our experience. Yet we can suppose that God could have made such a world initially. But in his infinite wisdom, he made a world into which sin mysteriously crept in, a world that needed to be saved in such a way that only God could do it. Eternity will somehow be better with the memory of God’s victory over evil, with a reigning Lord who is also the Lamb slain for our sins. God’s salvation of his people makes them eternally grateful for their rescue, which brings God more glory and which makes his people happier than if they had never known sin and evil. Indeed, man’s chief end is to glorify God, and in the new heavens and earth, they will enjoy him forever in a world purged of all evil.

Notes

  1. John S. Feinberg, “Why I Still Believe in Christ, in Spite of Evil and Suffering,” in Why I Am a Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe, ed. Norman L. Geisler and Paul K. Hoffman (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 237.
  2. The German playwright Georg Büchner coined this phrase, according to Henri Blocher, in Evil and the Cross, trans. David G. Preston (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 9.
  3. David Hume, “Evil Makes a Strong Case against God’s Existence,” from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions, Part X, in Philosophy or Religion: Selected Readings, ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, David Basinger, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 262.
  4. See Ronald N. Nash’s discussion of both in Reason and Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 177-221.
  5. Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 11.
  6. Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 220.
  7. Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 618.
  8. James W. Sire, Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 181.
  9. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 502. Here, Erickson is summarizing Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as set forth in The Origin of the Species, 6th London ed. (Chicago: Thompson & Thomas, n.d.), 473.
  10. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 25-26.
  11. Ibid., 26.
  12. Keller states that the naturalist, when declaring the reality of evil, assumes “the reality of some extra-natural (or supernatural) standard” in order to make such a judgment, in The Reason for God, 26.
  13. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, rev. ed. (1952; repr. New York: Touchstone, 1996), 45.
  14. Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), 4.
  15. Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 102-03. The John Lennon song he references is “God”.
  16. John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 168.
  17. “If the believer faces the problem of how there can be evil in a theistic world, the unbeliever faces the problem of how there can be either good or evil in a nontheistic world.” Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 169.
  18. Many apologists have presented this theistic proof quite well, including Douglas Groothuis in Christian Apologetics, 330-63. Lewis rather famously makes much of this argument in Mere Christianity.
  19. For a brief examination of what other worldviews have to say about evil, see Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 617-625.
  20. C. Stephen Evans, Why Believe? Reason and Mystery as Pointers to God(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 101.
  21. 1 John 1:5; Matt. 5:48; Gen. 1:31; Eccl. 7:29; James 1:13.
  22. Sire, Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All? 182; Gerald Bray, God Is Love (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 345.
  23. I reject such speculation as the Free Will Defense because the Bible does not teach that we have libertarian free will or that this free will would be of such a great value as to make moral evil permissible. Ronald Nash says that, philosophically, one need only prove that the Free Will Defense is logically possible, not necessarily true, in order to defeat the atheist’s problem of evil argument. See Nash, Faith and Reason, 188. The rules of philosophy might allow such a maneuver, but Christians are called to speak truth. Therefore, advancing a speculative argument that is not biblical and could very well be wrong is not in the Christian’s best interests.
  24. Bray, God Is Love, 358.
  25. Blocher writes, “To understand evil would be to understand that evil is not ultimately evil,” in Evil and the Cross, 103.
  26. Similarly, Paul writes, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Rom. 9:20).
  27. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (1940; repr. New York: Touchstone, 1996), 35-36.
  28. Ps. 115:3; Rom. 11:36; Col. 1:16.
  29. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 43.
  30. This is the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. See also Rev. 4:11.
  31. “It is men, not God, who have produced racks, whips, prisons, slavery, guns, bayonets, and bombs; it is by human avarice or human stupidity, not by the churlishness of nature, that we have poverty and overwork.” Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 79.
  32. 1 John 4:8; Mark 10:18.
  33. Gal. 4:4; John 1:14; Rom. 5:18; Matt. 5:17.
  34. Luke 22:3; John 13:2, 27; Matt. 26:14-16; John 11:47-53; Acts 2:23; 3:13-15.
  35. Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 132.
  36. Keller, The Reason for God, 30.
  37. Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:3-14; Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 2:13-15. Notice how our redemption, God’s sovereignty, Jesus’ sacrifice, and God’s own glory mingle in these verses.
  38. Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 644.
  39. When speaking of the cross, the Christian would be wise to adduce all the historical evidence for the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. The historical evidence greatly bolsters the argument being made here, though we cannot examine it as this time.