Authority and Power (Luke 4:31-44)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on February 25, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Recently, we’ve had another mass shooting.[1] This time, seventeen people died. The alleged shooter is a very troubled young man, Nikolaus Cruz. This shooting is an evil act, to say the very least. The consequences are horrific. And in the wake of this shooting, there have been many reactions. Some demand action, often talking about gun control. Some who support the Second Amendment push back, talking about the need to balance safety and freedom, security and constitutional rights. Others said that local law enforcement knew that this young man was dangerous and should have acted in some way. If the authorities had acted responsibly, this young man should never have had access to guns. Not only do we have to deal with the horror of the seventeen lives lost too soon, but we have to deal with the confusing and controversial debates that follow this event.

Now, my point in bringing up this issue isn’t to get into specifics about gun laws. I’m certainly no expert in public policy. But my point is this: This shooting is another reminder that we live a broken, fallen world that contains evil. And when evil is on display, we often cry out for authorities to do something. We long for someone to have the power to stop such a tragic event. We want someone who can fix this broken world.

Today, we’re going to see that Jesus has the authority and power to fix what is broken in this world. We’ve been studying the book of Luke together over the last three months and today we’ll look at Luke 4:31–44.

Before we start to read this passage, I want to say one thing about it up front. Most of us don’t have a problem accepting that there are supernatural elements to the Bible. Obviously, God is supernatural—he is beyond the world of nature, the world that we can see, hear, and touch. But there are other elements of the Christian worldview that are beyond nature, things like the devil and demons and the possibility of miracles. And some people have a hard time believing such things are real. If you’re one of those people, I want to ask you to suspend your disbelief for a while. And then, later, I’ll address some objections that you may have. We suspend our disbelief when we watch superhero movies in order to enter into a different world. We don’t say, “Wait, there’s no planet called Krypton! Radioactive spiders can’t make a person climb walls! There’s no such metal called vibranium!” For now, I want you to enter into a world of spirits and miracles. This may seem like a fantasy, but I believe it’s true, and I’ll try to convince you of that, too.

Before I read today’s passage, let me explain the context briefly. Jesus has recently begun his ministry. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus began his public activity by reading Scripture and teaching in a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. Here, he is in another town in Galilee, Capernaum. Capernaum was one of the larger villages in Galilee. It had anywhere from 600 to 1,500 people and it was known for its fishing industry, since it was on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was teaching in this place on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest and worship. It seems that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, the place where Jewish people gathered to pray, read Scripture, and hear teaching.

While teaching in the synagogue, Jesus encounters a man who was possessed by a demon. That same day, Jesus also heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law as well as other people as well.

So, let’s now read the whole passage together. Here is Luke 4:31–44:

31 And he went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee. And he was teaching them on the Sabbath, 32 and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority. 33 And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, 34 “Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” 35 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent and come out of him!” And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm. 36 And they were all amazed and said to one another, “What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” 37 And reports about him went out into every place in the surrounding region.

38 And he arose and left the synagogue and entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was ill with a high fever, and they appealed to him on her behalf. 39 And he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her, and immediately she rose and began to serve them.

40 Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them. 41 And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.

42 And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them, 43 but he said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” 44 And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea.[2]

I want to make four basic points about this passage. The first is that Jesus’ word possesses authority and power. If you’ve ever read the Gospels, the four biographies of Jesus in the Bible, you will see that Jesus does some amazing things with words. Obviously, Jesus is an amazing teacher. There is simply no one who taught like him. He speaks with complete authority. He is self-assured, never doubting who he is or what he teaches. Jesus not only explains the true meaning of passages from the Hebrew Bible—our Old Testament—but he adds powerful new teachings, too. It would be impossible to mention all of his astonishing teachings in one sermon, so I would encourage you to read through one of the Gospels. Perhaps start with Matthew and read chapters 5–7, the famous “Sermon on the Mount.” If you want to learn more about Jesus and his teachings, you could go to our website and listen to sermons from two sermon series I have presented here: “Who Is Jesus?”[3] and “Conversations with Jesus.”[4]

We’re not told about the content of Jesus’ teaching. We’re only told that his teaching was astonishing. In the Gospels, we see that Jesus preached the message of the kingdom of God. Here, it’s called “good news” (verse 43). That’s what the word “gospel” means. Jesus often taught the good news that the kingdom of God had arrived. The kingdom of God is God’s rule over God’s people in God’s place. Jesus is the true King, not just of Israel, but of the world. People who respond to his message are his people; they belong to God and his kingdom. And the true place of God is wherever Jesus is. Jesus often told people about their sin, how they had ignored God and done what is wrong. But he also told them how they could respond rightly to God and be forgiven of their sin. I’ll talk more about that later.

What we see here is that Jesus’ words have power to do things. He’s not just a great teacher. But he can also rule over the spiritual realm and heal people with his words. Jesus drives out a demon from a man in the synagogue and then later he casts out several demons. Then he heals Peter’s mother-in-law of a dangerous fever and heals others.

What are we to make of demons? The Bible says two important things regarding the presence of evil in the world. One thing the Bible acknowledges is that behind all evil lies a mysterious figure, Satan, and that he has many demons. We assume that these are angels who became evil. The Bible doesn’t explicitly teach us the origins of Satan and his minions, though there are some hints as to where they come from. The Bible is more concerned about reporting that these beings are real.

I can’t spend too much time this morning on this issue, but I do want to address it because I know some people have a hard time believing it’s true. So, let me make a few quick points. One, the realm of the demonic is real. Many people have attested to the reality of demons or evil spirits. Craig Keener, a biblical scholar, has written a large book on miracles.[5] Toward the end of this book he has a long section on demons and exorcisms and he reports this: “[A] psychiatrist warns against viewing most sorts of emotional problems as demonic but notes that he has seen a few clear cases of possession by a genuine spirit ‘even in my own psychiatric practice.’” This was a psychiatrist writing for the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation.[6] (I assume this was an American psychiatrist.) Specifically, this psychiatrist offers three examples of people who were involved in occult practices.

Craig Keener also writes, “Still another psychiatrist notes that 70 percent of his work deals with psychosomatic cases, but in 4 percent of the cases he has treated, he has needed to undertake exorcism. He notes roughly 280 cases that required exorcism, especially resulting from the occult practices of the person or their family (such as Ouija boards, witchcraft, horoscopes, etc.).”[7]

Now, if you paid attention to those quotes, you’ll see that demon possessions are rare. A lot of unusual behavior in people can be traced to physical or psychological problems. But there are some cases that cause people to act in strange and evil ways, and these cases can’t be treated with therapy and medicine. In these cases, people often speak in strange voices or do things that are destructive. I can’t say that the shooter in Parkland, Florida was demon-possessed, but I also can’t rule out that he was influenced by demonic forces. Committing such evil acts is an irrational act that cannot be easily explained by pointing to chemical imbalances or a bad upbringing. There are a lot of people with chemical imbalances and bad childhoods who don’t shoot dozens of innocent people.

So, demon possession may be rare. Also, demonic forces don’t seem to be evenly distributed in space or time. It seems like there are times and places where the forces of evil are more active. A number of reports of demonic activity come from places where the gospel, the message of Jesus, is breaking new ground. It seems that during Jesus’ time, demonic activity was heightened. And that shouldn’t surprise us, because Satan opposed Jesus and tried to thwart his plans. We saw that a few weeks ago.[8]

I don’t know that demon possession is common in America. But that doesn’t mean Satan isn’t at work. Whenever people lie and kill and reject God, they are under Satan’s influence. And it seems we do a great job of doing these things without demon possession. In fact, Satan’s greatest trick seems to be getting people to doubt that he and his preternatural powers are real. Whether we see the reality of spirits and miracles is a matter of what we presuppose to be real. In short, whether we believe nature is all there is or whether we believe there is more to reality than meets the eye, our position rests on faith.

To get back to the point of this passage, Jesus is able to exercise authority over the demonic realm through his word. All he has to do is rebuke demons and tell them to leave and they do.

The other thing that the Bible says about evil is that all bad things like illness and even death entered into the world because of our sin, our rebellion against God. When the first human beings failed to trust, love, and obey God the way that we were made to, the world came under a curse. Part of that curse includes illness and death. We see here that Jesus has the authority and power to heal people who are sick. Jesus heals by his word. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with a high fever. This was probably a very serious condition, particularly in an era before modern medicine. Jesus simply rebukes the fever and it’s gone. Later, he heals all kinds of sick people. He lays his hands on them not because he has to, but to show that he cares. Often, sick people wouldn’t be touched. They were considered unclean. But Jesus wasn’t afraid to touch them and heal them.

Now, you may wonder why Jesus doesn’t heal all diseases today. You may wonder, “If Jesus could rebuke that fever, why doesn’t he rebuke fever itself?” You may think, “If Jesus could make a blind person see, why doesn’t he remove blindness from the world?” I’ll address that in a little while. But now, let’s move on to the second main point of this passage.

The second point is that Jesus has authority and power because of who he is. Jesus isn’t just a great teacher or even some kind of faith healer. He is “the Holy One of God” and “the Son of God” (verses 34 and 41, respectively). This passage reveals Jesus’ identity. He isn’t just a man, he is the God-man. He is the divine Son of God, equal in divinity and power to God the Father. As the Son of God, he knows no beginning; he is eternal. Yet over two thousand years ago he entered into this world by being conceived in a virgin’s womb and being born in humble circumstances.

What’s interesting is that it’s the demons who recognize who Jesus really is. The Bible says that even the demons know that God exists, and they shudder at the thought (James 2:19). Being a Christian is a lot more than believing in the existence of God. Satan and his forces believe that much. Being a Christian means loving and trusting God. Yet these demons don’t love Jesus. No, they’re afraid. They ask, “Have you come to destroy us?” Yes. Jesus comes to take back God’s world from the forces of evil.

Yet Jesus also commands the demons to be silent. Why is that? There may be several reasons. One is that he may not want this testimony coming from demons. After all, they are probably not the most reliable sources. But I think the better reason is that it was not time for this to be revealed. Verse 41 says that Jesus “would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.” “Christ” and “Messiah” both mean “anointed one.” In the Old Testament, there are passages that talk of a king who was a descendant of King David, a king who would come and crush his enemies and rule with righteousness and justice. If people heard that Jesus was the Christ, they might have thought he would come to overthrow the Roman Empire, which was the superpower of the day and which ruled over Israel. But Jesus didn’t come to be a military ruler or a political revolutionary. He is the true King who will one day remove all evil from the world, but he didn’t come to build a geo-political nation when he came the first time.

Jesus surely also knew that if everyone went around claiming he was the Christ and the Son of God, he would be killed. Of course, Jesus is ultimately killed for claiming to be equal to God. Those who didn’t believe Jesus was telling the truth thought he was committing blasphemy. They were also threatened by him, and they eliminated that threat. Jesus knew he would die, but he knew that his time hadn’t come yet. He first had to teach more. He had to perform more signs and wonders. When the time was right, he would be crucified, treated as an enemy of the state even though he had done nothing wrong. But that time hadn’t come yet.

Still, I think Luke wants us to know that Jesus is God. Because Jesus is God, he has the power to deal with evil in this world. In fact, only God can decisively and finally remove all the evil of this world, and he will do that one day.

The third point of this passage is that salvation leads to service. Deliverance should lead to devotion. Healing should lead to helping. We see this with Simon’s mother. Simon is better known as Peter, generally thought to be the leader of Jesus’ disciples. We’ll learn more about him next week. But for now, we see that Simon’s mother-in-law was sick, that Jesus healed her, and that she then started to serve them.

As a side note, we should see that Peter was married (see also 1 Cor. 9:5). The Catholic Church believes that Peter was the first pope. But they also believe that the pope and all priests shouldn’t marry. Yet Peter was married and later tradition says that he had a daughter.[9] There’s nothing wrong with being married and having children, and Scripture expects that church leaders will be married and have children (1 Tim. 3:2, 4). So, we must conclude that the Catholic Church is wrong.

Back to the point at hand, it would be easy to miss this brief description of Simon’s mother-in-law. The focus is on Jesus’ healing. But once she’s healed, she serves. This is often how things work in the Bible. God saves his people and they serve him. He rescued the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt so that they would serve him (Exod. 3:12; 4:23; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3). And God rescues us from our own sin and the condemnation that we deserve not just so we can live lives of comfort and ease. No, he rescues us so that we will worship him and serve him. That is always the pattern. So, when people claim to be Christians and don’t actually worship Jesus and serve in a church, I have to wonder if they’ve been saved in the first place. At the least, they’re not acting like it.

Here’s the fourth point of this passage: Jesus destroys evil without destroying us. Look back at verse 35. After Jesus rebukes the demon, we’re told, “And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm.” The demon looked like he would harm this man. Yet Jesus is able to remove the demon and the man was left unharmed.

Now, here’s the importance of Jesus dying on the cross. He didn’t just die because people thought he was wrong and people thought he was a threat. Ultimately, he died to pay for the sins of everyone who is united to him by faith. If you trust Jesus, your sins were destroyed on the cross. As the apostle Paul puts it, God has canceled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14).

We can think of sin in two ways. Sins are wrong actions. They are actions that violate God’s design for our lives and transgress God’s commands. But sin is also a power, a force of evil that we can’t control. Sin distorts our desires so that we don’t want to love and serve God. Sin corrupts God’s world, a world that was initially good. Because God is a perfect, holy judge, he must punish evil. He must punish it and remove it from his world. If it were not for Jesus, every one of us would be condemned. We would be punished for our own sin by being removed from God’s world, cast out into hell. God would be just to do that. But God is also merciful and loving and kind. So, he provided a way for our sin to be destroyed. He sent his Son to take our punishment for us. That’s what Jesus did on the cross. He died so that we can live. He was bound to the cross so that we might go free. He was possessed by evil so that we might be healed.

As I said, Jesus’ death pays for the sins of his people. Only those who put their faith in Jesus, who trust that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and that Jesus did what the Bible said he did, will have their sins forgiven. Only those people will be reconciled to God. Only those people will escape God’s judgment and will live with God forever in a perfect world.

Earlier, I raised the question of why Jesus hasn’t removed all evil in the world. Why does God allow things like mass shootings and cancer? The answer is that God will put an end to those things. We don’t exactly when that will happen, but when Jesus returns from heaven to earth, he will make all things right. But when that happens, God will remove all evil from the world. That includes evil people. Those people who don’t have their sins punished on the cross will pay that punishment themselves. In other words, God will punish all sin. Those who trust Jesus already have had their sin punished. Those who reject Jesus will pay the price themselves. When Jesus comes again, it will be too late to turn away from sin and turn to him in faith.

When Jesus comes again, he will purge the world of all evil. Satan and his minions will be cast out into hell. But so will all who reject Jesus. And God will transform the character of his people so that they will not sin. They will receive perfect, immortal bodies and they will live with God in a perfect world.

So, why doesn’t Jesus remove all evil in the world? The answer is that he can’t do that without removing all people who now reject him. He is giving them more time to turn to him in faith.

It may be hard to understand why God would allow evil to happen in the world that he made, particularly since God is all-powerful, perfectly good, loving, and in control. But we can never say that God doesn’t care. We know he cares because he sent his Son into an evil world. His Son performed miracles, which are signs that demonstrate his power and also what he came to do—to rescue us from the forces of evil. And Jesus subjected himself to evil. He let people mock him and arrest him and torture him and kill him, all to save us from our sins. And we’re given the promise that one day he will return to make all things right.

But before he returns, he has given us the opportunity to respond to him. How do we do that? How should we respond to today’s passage?

If you’re not a Christian yet, I would recommend that you learn more about Jesus. Again, read through one of the Gospels. We’re studying the Gospel of Luke, but I would recommend also reading Matthew or John. (There’s nothing wrong with Mark, but he doesn’t spend as much time reporting Jesus’ teachings.) If you read either of those Gospels, you will encounter Jesus’ amazing teachings. I think you’ll find that his words are unequalled in terms of authority and power. There is simply no one who speaks like Jesus.

When we see that, we have a choice to make. We can believe what the Gospel writers tell us. That is, we can believe they reported the truth. Or we can believe that some fairly ordinary Jewish men just so happened to create the greatest fictional character ever. We have evidence outside the Bible that shows that Jesus actually lived and died on a cross, and that Jesus’ followers claimed to have seen him alive again.[10] And I don’t think the writers of the Gospels ever could have created such a powerful fictional character. Jesus is real and his words are real—and really powerful.

Once you are exposed to the real Jesus, you have to choose whether you must put your faith in him or not. I would urge you to trust him. There will be no other answer to the world’s problems. Yes, we can restrain evil and make improvements. But evil has a way of escaping our best restraints. Even the best nations with the best laws experience evil. We are foolish and naïve if we think that we have the power to remove pride, greed, lust, hate, and even murder from the world. No amount of law, military might, money, education, medicine, or technology will be able to do that. Only Jesus can, and only Jesus will.

If you claim to be a Christian today, are you serving Jesus? Has Jesus really saved you? One mark of a Christian is service. We can serve people in our everyday lives, and we ought to do that. But we should be serving in a local church. We always have a need for people to serve. If you feel God moving you to serve in this church, please talk to me about it. We’ll talk about your desires, your talents, and your spiritual gifts, and we’ll see if there’s a way those things can line up with needs that we have in the church.

We should also consider how we pray for those who are hurting. We often pray as if the end goal were healing. But it’s not. The end goal of everything is God’s glory. And God is glorified when we love, worship, and serve him. So, when you pray for those who are hurting, yes, pray for healing. But pray that they would be healed so that they would then be able to serve. We should pray that God would comfort the hurting so that they can comfort others who are hurting. We should pray for good health so that we can serve God well and for a long time. I don’t think it’s a sin to ask God for money, but you should pray that God would give you more money so that you can give more to the church, to other gospel ministries, and to the poor.

Finally, we should think about whether Jesus’ words have authority in all of our lives. What would it look like for Jesus to be Lord of your money, our marriages, our work, our time, and our possessions? Are we inviting the word of God to speak into those areas of our lives? For Jesus’ words to carry weight in our lives, we must first know those words. Jesus can’t speak through a closed Bible. And we must not only read or hear God’s words, but we must put them into practice. When we do, we’ll find that Jesus’ words carry authority and power, and it is then that we will experience God’s power in our lives.

Notes

  1. This shooting occurred in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. https://wbcommunity.org/jesus.
  4. https://wbcommunity.org/conversations-with-jesus.
  5. Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011).
  6. Walter C. Johnson, “Possession,” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 34.3 (1982): 149–154. The quotation appears on p. 839 of Keener, quoting p. 152 of Johnson.
  7. Keener, Miracles, 839. Keener refers to Kenneth R. McAll, “The Ministry of Deliverance,” Expository Times 86.10 (July 1975): 296–298.
  8. See the sermon, “Tempted,” that I preached on January 28, 2018: https://wbcommunity.org/tempted.
  9. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.30.1. Eusebius only says that Peter had a child. An editor’s footnote mentions a tradition that states that Peter had a daughter. See Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Church History of Eusebius,” in Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890): 1:162fn2.
  10. For evidence that supports the Gospel accounts, see the sermon, “How Can We Know Jesus?” at https://wbcommunity.org/jesus.

 

Is the Devil Real?

This sermon was preached on October 15, 2017 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance (see also below).

When a mass shooting occurs, like the recent one in Las Vegas, people scramble for answers to the question of why the shooting occurred, and they suggest solutions. It’s common for people to assume that mass shootings occur because the shooters are mentally ill. It’s common for people to go to their prophets and priests, to psychiatrists and psychologists, for explanations of what happened to the mental health of these shooters. It’s common for people to open their Bible, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, better known as the DSM, to find out what labels apply to these shooters. The problem is that most of these shooters did not have serious mental illness. And only about 4% of violence is caused by mental illness.[1] Furthermore, psychiatrists who actually study criminals realize that mental health is not really the root issue. Michael Stone, a forensic psychologist who has studied at least 300 killers, says, “It would be ridiculous to hope that doing something about the mental-health system will stop these mass murders. . . . It’s really folly.”[2]

Why do people insist that mental health is the root cause? Perhaps it’s because we can’t accept the fact that human beings are by nature capable of committing horrific evil. Perhaps it’s also because we don’t want to consider any issues beyond the natural realm. We tend to think of mental health in terms of chemical imbalances, or other physical issues in the brain. That fits a naturalistic worldview perfectly well. That worldview says the only reality is physical, the stuff that we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, the stuff that we can weigh and measure.

But what if evil comes from beyond the natural realm? What if reality includes things like God and immaterial beings? What if reality includes unseen angels, both good and fallen ones? What if there is a devil and his demons, who try to commit evil and disrupt God’s plans?

Recently, we’ve been answering questions that we have received, and today I want to answer one question: “Is the devil real?”

More people believe in God and heaven than they believe in the devil. In a 2016 Gallup poll, 79 percent of those surveyed said they definitely believe in God (another 10 percent weren’t sure); 72 percent said they believed in angels (12 percent weren’t sure); 71 percent said they believed in heaven (14 percent weren’t sure); 64 percent said they believed in hell (13 percent weren’t sure); and 61 percent said they believed in the devil (12 percent weren’t sure).[3]

It’s interesting that people who believe in supernatural realities like God and heaven are less likely to believe that the devil exists. I suppose some people think he’s a silly myth. Perhaps one famous line in a movie, The Usual Suspects, is true: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” That’s what C. S. Lewis thought. In his preface to The Screwtape Letters, he writes, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”[4] If we don’t believe in the devil and demons, we can’t acknowledge the full reality of evil. If we are too interested in—or too frightened by—the devil, then we’ll take our focus off God.

The Bible quite clearly says that the devil, or Satan, exists. So, that is the answer to today’s question. The devil is real. And I think, since he is a preternatural being—that means he is beyond the natural world, and we can’t see him—we need to have his existence revealed to us. I think his existence explains the personal nature of evil. We get upset when a hurricane or an earthquake kills people. But truly evil acts are personal. Examples of personal evil acts include genocide, mass murder, rape, child abuse, and also betrayal and infidelity. Obviously, humans do these things. But what causes a person to do these things? What is the root of evil, the source of such evil?

While the Bible doesn’t tell us everything we might want to know about Satan, it tells us enough to know that he is the enemy of God and God’s people, he is someone we should be wary of, and we must resist him. We must be aware that he is the source of lies and murder, that he wants to create division in the world and in the church, that he accuses God’s people, and that he has great power. But we should also know that his power is limited and his doom is sure. In fact, there is a sense that he is already defeated, though he is now doing all he can to thwart God’s plans.

Today, I want to focus on three things. First, I want to explore Satan’s identity. Second, I want to talk about what Satan does. In other words, I want to explore his tactics. And, third, I want to talk about some good news regarding Satan, which is his defeat.

So, who is the devil? We’re going to have to do a bit of ground clearing here, because the popular conception of the devil is quite wrong. He’s far from a figure in red, with a tail, horns, and a pitchfork. In fact, the Bible says he can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14).

Honestly, we don’t know a lot about his origins. The first clear reference to “Satan” in the Bible is in the book of Job, which I preached through earlier this year. In that book, there are two scenes in heaven in which God is with the “sons of God,” which we assume are angels. We’re told that Satan was among then, which suggests that he, too, is angel. Actually, Satan seems to be his title and not his proper name, because in the original Hebrew text, he’s called the Satan. Satan means “adversary,” which gives us an indication of who he is. He is God’s adversary, his enemy.[5]

This is what we read of Satan in Job 1:6–12:

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? 10 Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.[6]

In Job, we see that Satan roams the earth, but he also—at least at this point—had access to heaven. He also accuses Job of serving God only because God has given Job a prosperous life. He claims that if God removes all the good things that Job has, Job will curse God to his face. So, God allows him to do some terribly things to Job, including kill all his children, take away all his possessions, and then, later, harm Job’s health.

We must admit that it’s difficult to understand why God would provoke Satan by bringing up Job’s name, or why he would allow Satan to hurt Job and his family. I don’t have time to explain all of this, but I did earlier this year, and you can find all of those sermons online.[7] But the story of Job shows that the whole event actually strengthens Job’s trust in God and Job’s blessings return. It seems that God wanted to show Satan and Job that someone could worship him even if his life was shattered.

From this, we see that Satan wants to drive a wedge between God and his people. He doesn’t want people to worship God. He doesn’t want people to trust him. We also see that Satan doesn’t fit our preconceived notions of him. Many people think that Satan is a fallen angel who was banished from heaven sometime before the world was created, or at least before human beings were created. That’s how it is envisioned in John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. But in the Old Testament, Satan is actually in heaven, with the power to “walk” on the earth.

That reality is pictured in another scene in the Old Testament. This time, it’s a vision that the prophet Zechariah sees. We find this at the beginning of Zechariah 3:

1 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord was standing by.

Commentators believe this scene takes place in heaven.[8] If it’s in heaven, it shows that Satan still had access to that realm in the Old Testament. Joshua was the priest of Israel after they returned from exile in Babylon. The high priest represented God to the Israelites and the Israelites to God. We don’t know exactly what sins he had committed, but Satan was there accusing him. Perhaps he was accusing the entire priesthood, saying that any Israelite would be unworthy to serve as priest because every Israelite had sinned. And that’s true. We all have sinned. But Satan seems to take delight in pointing out the unworthiness of sinners. Yet even here, we see that Satan’s accusations are met by God’s grace. God rebukes Satan and an angel takes off Joshua’s filthy garments, representing his sin, and clothes him in clean ones, which shows that he has been cleansed of his sins.

Of course, the most famous appearance of Satan in the Old Testament is at the very beginning of the Bible. He appears in the form of a serpent in Genesis 3. (However, we don’t find out that this is Satan until the last book of the Bible, Revelation.) In this famous story, the serpent tempts Eve, the first woman, to doubt God’s goodness. He asks her, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1). When Eve says, “God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’” (Gen. 3:3), the serpent lies to her and says, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4–5). This was not true. God didn’t want them to eat from that tree because he wanted them to trust him, to trust that what he revealed about good and evil is true. The consequences were cosmically tragic; because Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they were banished from Paradise and from the special presence of God. We’re not presented with the serpent’s reaction to this sad affair, but I bet he was pleased with his work.

So, from what we can gather from the Old Testament, Satan, the devil, is a rebellious angel who had access to heaven, who doubted God’s goodness, who encouraged humans to rebel against him, and who accused God’s people of sin. Beyond that, we really don’t know a lot more. There’s a lot of mystery here. Why would God create an angel who would rebel against him? Why would he be in heaven (as in the books of Job and Zechariah)? Why would he be in the garden of Eden in the form of a serpent? It really doesn’t solve the mystery if we say God gave him the choice to rebel. That just raises more questions. Why did God, who knows all things, create a being who would rebel against him? Why would God allow Satan to tempt Adam and Eve? We can speculate all we want, but we would just be guessing in the dark. Perhaps what makes Satan more sinister is the fact that he is so mysterious.

We do get more information about Satan as we turn to the New Testament. It seems that when the Son of God became man, that is, when Jesus was born, there was heightened demonic activity on the earth. When God came to earth, Satan really got to work. Perhaps the clearest scene regarding this is found in chapter 12 in the book of Revelation. Let’s read the first six verses:

1 And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.

The book of Revelation is very different because it’s full of strange, fantastic images, which are full of very meaningful symbols. Here, we have the picture of a woman about to give birth. The woman appears to represent Israel, the people of God. (The twelve stars representing the twelve tribes of Israel, and possibly also the twelve apostles after the child is born.) She is about to give birth to a very special male child, who will rule the nations. That is the Messiah, Jesus. Right before Jesus is born, “a great red dragon” takes down a third of the stars of heaven and casts them to the earth. These may very well be angels, who became demons. And the dragon wanted to kill the male child when he was born. We know from Matthew’s Gospel that King Herod wanted to kill Jesus, because he was threatened by the birth of the true King (Matt. 2). The child, however, was not devoured by the dragon. Instead, he was caught up to God. This vision doesn’t tell us why Jesus came, which was to save his people by living the perfect life that they don’t live because of their sin and dying in their place, taking the wrath that they deserve. Instead, this image skips to Jesus’ ascension, which happened after he died on the cross and after he rose from the grave. And when that happened, the woman, who represents God’s people, went into the wilderness, where she was sustained by God. Now let’s read verses 7–12 to see what happens next:

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. 12 Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”

Roughly at the time of Jesus’ ascension to heaven, the dragon fought against the archangel Michael, and it was then that the dragon was thrown down from heaven. Verse 9 makes it clear that this dragon is also the serpent of Genesis 3 and Satan, “the deceiver of the whole world.” He and his fallen angels were thrown down when Jesus rose victorious from the grave. He was not thrown down from heaven before the creation of the world.[9] He is called “the accuser of our brothers,” because he accuses God’s people. In fact, the word “devil” comes from the Greek word diabolos, which means “slanderer.”[10] The good news, which we’ll talk about in a moment, is that Satan is conquered “by the blood of the Lamb.” That’s a reference to Jesus’ death. And Satan is also conquered by those who testify to Jesus, who “love not their lives even unto death.” Those who follow Jesus and love him more than life—in other words, Christians—are conquerors of the devil because they are united to the conqueror of the devil, and that is Jesus.[11]

However, though Satan is thrown down and defeated, in one sense, he is still very active. He has come down to the earth and sea—the visible creation—in great wrath, because his time is short. The devil can’t win and he knows it, and he’s quite angry. Again, from what we see of Satan, he hates God and wants to thwart God’s plans, even though no one can actually destroy them. He tries to attack God’s people, even though he can’t ultimately do that. He accuses and slanders and lies. Jesus himself says this about Satan: “He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). He would rather fight a losing fight than come under God’s authority. John Milton has Satan say, “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.”[12]

So, that is who Satan is. We have already seen some of his tactics, which is the second thing we’ll talk about. His main tactic is deception. This can come through clear lies, or, more often, half-truths. He told Eve she wouldn’t die when she ate the forbidden fruit. Eve didn’t die immediately, nor did Adam. But they did die in a spiritual sense, which guaranteed that they would have physical deaths in the future. The reason anyone dies is because of the presence of sin in the world. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).

Satan’s deception can be quite subtle. People who teach false doctrine often can seem very godly. The apostle Paul, one of Jesus’ messengers, warned one church (in Corinth) that false teachers would teach “another Jesus.” These teachers were teaching a “different gospel,” a different message about Jesus (2 Cor. 11:4). Paul then says he will work to undermine these false teachers. He says:

13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds (2 Cor. 11:13–15).

Satan doesn’t come in a red suit, with a tail, horns, and a pitchfork. He works through his servants, who may very well wear nice suits and have big smiles. They talk smoothly and sweetly and say things you want to hear.

Satan can use different kinds of false teachings to lure different kind of people. Satan can tempt people with things like sexual immorality (1 Cor. 7:5; 1 Tim. 5:14–15). False teachers often excuse sexual immorality (see 2 Pet. 2). He can also tempt people to believe false doctrines, like that we can’t enjoy the good things God has made (1 Tim. 4:1–5). He will use whatever keeps people from trusting God. After all Scripture says that he is “the god of this world [who] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).

Another tactic that Satan uses is distraction. He wants to keep us from God’s Word. Jesus once told a parable, an instructive story, about a sower sowing seeds that fall on different types of ground. When Jesus explains the parable, he says, “The sower sows the word [of God]. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them” (Mark 4:14–15). In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis creatively imagines one senior devil writing to a junior devil, instructing him on the trade of fighting against “the Enemy,” God. In the first letter, Screwtape tells Wormwood about how he once almost lost a “patient, a sound atheist,” because this man was reading books in the British Museum and he started to think about things that would lead him to faith. The devil was able to distract him through hunger, telling him he would be better off coming back to these ideas after lunch. When the man left the museum and reentered the busy world of “real life,” he quickly forgot about those ideas that would lead him to think about God.[13]

I think Satan would be pleased to have us all so entertained and distracted and busy that we never stop and think about what matters. When we are constantly distracted by television, the news stories that then become passionate debates which are rather quickly forgotten, and the digital world of computers, tablets, and phones, we have no time to think about eternal matters.

Satan also uses division, particularly in the church. He delights in our accusing each other, and slandering each other. Paul warns churches that anger (Eph. 4:26–27) and an unwillingness to forgive (2 Cor. 2:5–11) give the devil an “opportunity” and are part of his “designs.” If you know the story of Job, think about Job’s friends. They falsely accused him of sin, which means they were carrying out Satan’s work. The Jewish religious leaders who didn’t believe Jesus did the same thing to him.

As we’ve already seen, Satan points out our sin. He wants us to feel ashamed and unworthy. He wants us to feel condemned, beyond God’s reach and love. There’s a place in Christianity for feeling guilty. When it is used positively, guilt can be experienced as conviction. If you’ve been doing something wrong, and you become aware of it and know that you must change, that is conviction. When you confess your sin to God and ask for his help to stop doing it, that is repentance. It’s a positive thing. But Satan wants us to wallow in our guilt and feel condemned. He wants us to feel like it’s too late to change, like we’re too bad to forgive.

Satan certainly wants to harm us spiritually. If you are united to Jesus, he cannot tear you away from him. But Satan will do everything he can to render you ineffective, to deceive you, and to make you feel miserable. Jesus told Peter that Satan wanted to “sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:31). Peter, in his first letter, warned his readers:

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world (1 Pet. 5:8–9).

Satan can also harm us physically. I don’t think this means that all injuries and diseases are the direct result of Satan’s work. After all, part of God’s judgment against sin in the world is that life is hard and that we die (Gen. 3:16–19). Yet there are accounts in Scripture of Satan giving people physical ailments in order to oppress us and tear us away from God (Job 2:7; Luke 13:11, 16; Acts 10:38; possibly 2 Cor. 12:7 if Paul’s “thorn” was a physical ailment).

Another tactic that Satan uses is to get us to believe we can get back to Paradise without pain and suffering. When Jesus told his disciples that he must die (Matt. 16:21), Peter said, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). Peter knew that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed King and the Son of God (Matt. 16:16). It made no sense that he would have to die. Peter thought that Jesus would triumph through power. But Jesus corrected Peter by saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matt. 16:23). Peter didn’t understand that it was God’s plan for Jesus to die to pay the penalty for the sins of his people.

Anyone who comes to Jesus and trusts that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done have their sins paid for. But that doesn’t mean we will live easy lives. In fact, if we follow Jesus, we will face tribulation (John 16:33; Acts 14:22) and persecution (2 Tim. 3:12). Satan wants to tempt people to reject such a life (1 Thess. 3:1–5). Those who take the easy path in this life, however, will not have eternal life with God. They may enjoy a life of comfort and ease now, but they will miss out on what is best, which is God. I suppose Satan is pleased with all the false preachers who teach that if you really have faith, God will give you an easy life filled with riches and a wonderful family.

Those are Satan’s tactics. Most of them involve lies.

Though Satan is powerful, there is good news. Though Satan is terrifying, he is a dog on God’s leash. He cannot act without God allowing him to act.[14] The good news is that he is already defeated. Even though he is active right now, he is bound by God (Matt. 12:29; Rev. 20:1–3). We have seen that with Jesus’ death and resurrection, Satan has been “cast out” (John 12:31) and “thrown down” (Rev. 12:9). He has been conquered by the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ (Rev. 12:11). John tells us that “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). The author of Hebrews says that Jesus suffered and died to bring “many sons to Glory” (Heb. 2:10). Then he says this of Jesus:

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Heb. 2:14–15).

God’s people have no reason to fear death. The fear of death is a form of lifelong slavery. But those who are united to Jesus know that though they die in this life, they will be resurrected to eternal life, which will far outweigh any suffering they experience.

The good news is that Jesus has already triumphed over Satan. Satan tried to stop Jesus. He tempted Jesus, but he couldn’t distract Jesus from his mission (Matt. 4:1–11). He accused Jesus through the Pharisees, the Scribes, and the other Jewish leaders who wanted to stop him. And Satan tried to destroy Jesus by having him killed (Luke 22:3–6; John 13:1–2, 21–30). But Jesus rose on the third day after he died, showing that Satan can’t stop him and even death can’t stop him. It was promised that a son of Eve would crush the serpent (Gen. 3:15), and we find that Jesus has done, is doing (Rom. 16:20), and will finally do this.

The good news is that Satan cannot remove us from the love of God (Luke 22:31–32; John 10:28; Romans 8). Satan cannot break the bonds of the Holy Spirit, who keeps us united to Jesus. He cannot, in the end, touch us (1 John 5:18).

The good news is that Satan will one be destroyed. He and his demons will be removed from God’s world forever (Matt. 25:41; Rev. 20:7–10).

Now, the question is, how do we battle against Satan? How do we equip ourselves to deal with his attacks?

The first step is to fear God, not Satan. We are never told to fear Satan. The worst he can do is cause confusion and death. But we are told to fear God. Jesus once said,

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Luke 12:4–5)

Fearing God means having a proper respect for him. It means knowing that he, not Satan, is the true King, the ultimate authority. And if we fear God, we’ll trust his Son. We will trust that if we have a right relationship with Jesus, his righteous life is credited to us, and his death paid for our sins. That means that our sin cannot keep us from the love of God. If you belong to Jesus, you are forgiven. Your guilt is removed. You have been set free from that slavery.

The second step is to stand firm. James 4:7 says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” The reality is we don’t have to attack Satan. We don’t have to defeat him. He is already defeated. We just have to stand firm in our faith.[15] If you feel like you’re being attacked by forces of evil, don’t do anything but stand firm. Keep trusting Jesus. Call out to him for help.

The best way to not be influenced by Satan is to know the truth. Almost all his tactics involve lies and deception. If we know the truth and really believe it, we won’t be swayed by Satan. That doesn’t mean life will be easy. There will be difficulties. We may feel as if we’re being attacked. We may feel guilty and unworthy. People may even slander us and persecute us. But this is somewhat normal. What you need to do in these situations is keep trusting in the truth of the gospel. Yes, we are guilty of sin. But the reason Jesus came was to save guilty sinners. Remember that though you are sinful, Jesus isn’t, and he gives us his perfect righteousness. He also died to pay for your sins. If you trust that—if you trust Jesus and follow him—you have no reason to fear.

So, is the devil real? The answer is yes. We know this from the Bible, which is God’s revelation to us. And our experience in this life is that there are great evils, such as the Holocaust and other genocides, such as mass murders, that are hard to explain otherwise. Why would people do such things? We can’t simply blame poor mental health. And there are certain evils that seem to go beyond our fallen, sinful nature. The only explanation I can give is that Satan is real, and he does his best to kill and destroy (John 10:10). But God is greater than Satan, and he has already won the decisive battle against Satan. One day, the war will be over and all of God’s people will live in Paradise. I hope to see you all there.

If you doubt whether you’ll be there, if you don’t know Jesus, I would love to talk to you about him. Please, don’t get distracted by things like your hunger for lunch, or football, or by whatever is waiting for you on your phone. This is too important. If you know the truth, it will set you free (John 8:31–32). It will set you free from the devil, the evil of this world, and slavery to sin and the fear of death. Knowing Jesus will give you freedom to experience the best, most beautiful reality, which is God.

Notes

  1. Jeffrey W. Swanson, E. Elizabeth McGinty, Seena Fazel, and Vickie M. Mays, “Mental Illness and Reduction of Gun Violence and Suicide: Bringing Epidemiologic Research to Policy,” Annals of Epidemiology May 2015, 25 (5): 366–377, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4211925, , accessed October 14, 2017.
  2. Michael S. Rosenwald, “Most Mass Shooters Aren’t Mentally Ill. So Why Push Better Treatment as the Answer?” The Washington Post, May 18, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/most-mass-shooters-arent-mentally-ill-so-why-push-better-treatment-as-the-answer/2016/05/17/70034918-1308-11e6-8967-7ac733c56f12_story.html?utm_term=.3eced556e593, accessed October 14, 2017.
  3. Frank Newport, “Most Americans Still Believe in God,” Gallup News, June 29, 2016, http://news.gallup.com/poll/193271/americans-believe-god.aspx, accessed October 14, 2017.
  4. C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperOne, 2001), ix.
  5. The Hebrew word is שָׂטָן.
  6. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  7. At https://wbcommunity.org/job.
  8. Joyce G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zecharia and Malachi: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1972), 120; George Klein, Zechariah, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2008), 133.
  9. This fact lines up with what Jesus says in John 12:31, on the eve of his sacrifice: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.” I believe this is also what Jesus foresaw when he says, in Luke 10:18, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” It also seems to fit what Revelation 20:1–6 says, that Satan is bound and placed in a bottomless pit “so that he might not deceive the nations any longer.” If my reading of that passage is correct, the “thousand years” of this period symbolizes the current era, the one between Jesus’ first and second comings. Satan is bound in the sense that he cannot deceive the elect that come from the nations to Jesus. But, in another sense, he is very much active and free to wreak havoc.
  10. The Greek word is διάβολος.
  11. See 1 John 5:1–5 and the sermon that I preached on this passage (on July 16, 2017), titled “Who Is It That Overcomes the World?” https://wbcommunity.org/letters-of-john.
  12. John Milton, Paradise Lost i.263, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University, 2004), 11.
  13. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 2–4.
  14. Again, see my sermons on Job, particularly those on Job 1–2 and 38–41, at https://wbcommunity.org/job.
  15. See also Eph. 6:10–20 and 1 Peter 5:8–9.

 

Is the Devil Real?

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message answering the question, “Is the devil real?” He provides an overview of what the Bible says about Satan, focusing on who he is and what he does. He also tells us the good news of how Jesus conquers Satan and evil and how Christians can guard themselves against the devil.

Why Do Bad Things Happen?

Brian Watson preached this message on October 8, 2017.
MP3 recording of sermon.
PDF typescript of the sermon that was written in advance.

Last week, I started to answer the question of the problem of evil. I said that many people asked questions along the lines of, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or, “Why is there so much suffering in the world?” I had already planned to spend two weeks on this issue. And then, on Monday morning, I woke to the news that there had been a massacre in Las Vegas. One man managed to murder 58 people and injure hundreds more.

As I had already planned to talk about evil, I don’t have much to say about that one event. I will say this: a lot of people think that if we would just do something about guns, we could stop these things from happening. I’m sure there are some things that could be done. People from across the political spectrum are saying we should ban bump stocks, the device that can be put on the end of semiautomatic rifles to make them shoot at rates that are close to automatic rifles. But even if we did that and had increased scrutiny over who bought how many guns and when, we won’t fully eliminate evil. We can restrain it, but we can’t kill it. Only God can do that. And evil is a supernatural force. It can’t be destroyed through better laws, better education, better security, or a better government. As long as evil lurks in the shadows of the supernatural realm and as long as evil resides in our hearts, bad things will occur. I’ll talk more about the supernatural side of evil next week.

But today, I want to address the issue of why bad things happen. Why does God allow bad things, even evil things, to occur?

I don’t know that we’ll ever know exactly why any one particular event occurred. Perhaps we will. But I think there’s a story about Jesus that gives us an indication of why at least certain evils—and perhaps, in the end, why all evils—are allowed by God. That story is the famous story about Jesus raising Lazarus back to life, found in John 11.

Today, we’re going to look at this story and then we’ll draw some conclusions as to why Jesus allowed a tragedy to occur, and perhaps also why God allows all evil to occur. Without further ado, let’s turn to John 11 and start reading. I’ll read the first four verses:

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”[1]

I’ll give us a bit of context. John, the author of this biography of Jesus, has told us that Jesus is God (John 1:1) and the Son of God (John 1:14, 34, 49). In the previous chapter, Jesus had been in Jerusalem talking to the Jewish religious leaders. When he said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), they picked up stones to hurl at him. They thought he was committing blasphemy, claiming to be one with God (verse 33). Of course, Jesus was saying that, but he wasn’t blaspheming. He was correct. Still, in order to avoid being killed, he left Jerusalem and crossed the Jordan River and went north. He might have been close to one hundred miles away from Jerusalem.

Jesus had friends named Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, a brother and two sisters, and they lived in the village of Bethany, less than two miles from Jerusalem. Lazarus became seriously ill, and so Lazarus’s sisters sent a message to Jesus, probably so he could heal Lazarus. What’s important to see is that Jesus loved Lazarus (“he whom you love”) and he also says that his event will not end in death, but in God being glorified.

“Glory” is a very Christian word. It has a meaning of “brilliance,” or “fame,” or “weight.” When we say that God is glorified, we mean he appears to us as more brilliant, he becomes more famous among us, or he takes on more weight in our lives. God never changes. He is always brilliant. But when we see how great he is, he becomes more glorious to us. Somehow, this whole event will reveal how great God the Father is, and also how great God the Son is.

Now, let’s look at the next two verses, verses 5 and 6:

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

We’re told that Jesus loved not only Lazarus, but also Martha and Mary, his sisters. And then we have a very odd statement. Because Jesus loved them, when he heard Lazarus was sick, he deliberately waited two days. Jesus didn’t run to Lazarus and heal him. Actually, Jesus didn’t even have to be in the same place as someone in order to heal them (see Matt. 8:5–13/Luke 7:1–10). We would think that if Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, he would heal Lazarus instantly. But he doesn’t. He waits.

Let’s find out what happens next. We’ll read verses 7–16:

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

After two days, Jesus tells his disciples that they must go back to Judea again. This is the region of Jerusalem, where people were just trying to kill Jesus. Jesus’ followers think he’s a bit crazy to think of going back there. But Jesus says that there are twelve hours in a day. On average, there are twelve hours of daylight in any given day. In a world before electricity, that is the time when work was done. So, Jesus means he still has work to do. He must do the work that God the Father gave him to do, and while he does God’s work, he is walking in the light. The safest place for him is in the will of God. So, even if it looks like a suicide mission, Jesus knows he must do the Father’s will.

Then he tells his disciples that Lazarus had “fallen asleep.” Of course, he means that Lazarus has died. Jesus must have known that supernaturally. Yet his disciples don’t get it. They take his words literally. (This happens a few times in John. See John 3:3–4; 4:10–11). So, Jesus had to be abundantly clear. Jesus tells them Lazarus has died. And, surprisingly, he says, “for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.” If Jesus was there, he would have healed Lazarus. But he intentionally waited for Lazarus to die. Why? Earlier, he said this event would lead to God—the Father and the Son—being glorified. Here, he says Lazarus’s death, and what will happen soon, will lead to people’s faith.

Now, let’s continue with the story. We’ll read verses 17–27:

17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

When Jesus arrived in Bethany, where Lazarus and his sisters lived, Lazarus had been dead for four days. It seems that Jesus was probably a four days’ journey on foot away, so that if he left right when he knew Lazarus died, he would arrive at this time. We’re told that many Jews from Jerusalem had come to comfort Marth and Mary, and this reminds us that Jesus was in trouble with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. As we’ll see, by returning to the Jerusalem area, Jesus was risking his safety.

The first to greet Jesus is Martha. If you’re familiar with the Gospels, you might remember another time when Jesus was with Martha and Mary. Martha was busy with all kinds of activity while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to his teaching (Luke 10:38–42). What we see here fits with that story. When Martha talks to Jesus, she says that if he had arrived sooner, her brother wouldn’t have died. But she still has faith that Jesus can do whatever he asks of God the Father. Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again. She says, “Oh, I know he will, because at the end of the age there will be a resurrection of everyone.” That’s true. Whenever Jesus returns, everyone will be raised back to life, some for eternal salvation and some for eternal condemnation (Dan. 12:2; John 5:25–29). But, as we’ll see, Jesus means more than that.

Yet first Jesus says that he is the resurrection and the life. The dead are able to be raised back to life because of Jesus. He is the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He is the only way to live forever. He says, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” In this world, everyone will die. Only those who are alive when Jesus returns won’t die. But everyone else will. Yet Jesus says that those who trust in him, though they experience that death, will live. The one who experiences a spiritual rebirth and believes in Jesus will live forever.

Then Jesus says to Martha, “Do you believe this?” Martha makes a great confession of faith. She says that she believes, and she knows that Jesus is the Christ. That’s a word based on a Greek word that means “anointed one.”[2] Jesus is God’s anointed King. He’s also the Son of God, who comes into the world to rescue his people. As the most famous verse in the Bible says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Now, let’s see what happens when Jesus sees Mary. We’ll read verses 28–37:

28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”

Martha goes to Mary to tell her that Jesus is here and wants to speak to her. So, Mary comes to him, outside of the village. When Mary comes to Jesus, she falls at her feet and calls him “Lord.” This is clearly a sign of respect. Yet she says the same thing that her sister said: “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It seems John really wants to know that Jesus could have spared Lazarus from this death, but decided not to.

That might leave us thinking that Jesus is cold. But he’s not. We’re already told that he loves Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. And now we see something stunning. When Jesus sees Mary weeping, and then also sees others weeping, we’re told he “was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” This is really a deceptive translation. And it’s not just the English Standard Version. Almost every other English translation tones down the meaning of the original Greek. The King James Version says that Jesus “groaned in the spirit,” which is closer. The New Revised Standard Version says Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit.” I’m surprised that the New Living Translation comes much closer. It says, “a deep anger welled up within him.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible says that Jesus “was angry in His spirit.” The Greek word isn’t used much in the New Testament, but it generally refers to anger.[3] Outside of the Bible, it was used to refer to the snorting of horses.[4] You might think of Jesus having his nostrils flared, indignant and furious.[5] Many translations tone down Jesus’ reaction, perhaps for fear of embarrassment, as if the Son of God couldn’t have such a passionate response.

Why was Jesus so angry, and so troubled? He knew Lazarus had already died. He had already seen Martha upset. He knows what he is about to do. But now he sees Mary and others weeping. It’s one thing to know all facts. As God, Jesus could access divine omniscience at any time he wanted. He knew Lazarus had died before anyone had told him. But it’s one thing to know a fact. It’s another thing to experience it. I believe that Jesus was angry that there was death and sorrow in the world. And it’s not because Jesus was like us, powerless and out of control. Remember, Jesus chose not to heal Lazarus. Still, he was so bothered and moved by what he saw that he also wept. And then he asked to see the tomb. (It seems he asked where Lazarus was laid because he “turned off” that divine omniscience. Jesus chose to live fundamentally as a human being.[6])

John wants us to see, again, that Jesus could have healed Lazarus before he died. That’s why he reports that some whispered, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” They’re referring to something that happened in chapter 9, when Jesus healed a man who had been born blind.

Let’s move ahead to see how the story ends. We’ll read verses 38–44:

38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Jesus became angry again, apparently when he saw the tomb. Perhaps he was angry at this visual symbol of death. Perhaps he was angry because it was necessary for Lazarus to die, because he couldn’t heal him the way he healed the blind man. At any rate, Jesus is once again disturbed, and he asks for the stone that closed the tomb to be moved. Martha warned him, quite grimly, that Lazarus’s body was starting to decompose. But Jesus says, “I told you would see the glory of God, didn’t I?”

When the stone was removed from the tomb, Jesus prayed. In a sense, he didn’t have to pray to the Father. He knew what the Father was going to do, and the Father did, too. The prayer was more for the sake of the crowd. He wanted them to know that he was sent by the Father. In this instance, the Father would respond to Jesus’ prayer and his alone. What was about to happen was a sign of divine favor. Once he prayed, he told Lazarus in a commanding voice, “Come out!” And Lazarus did. This is one of the more astonishing miracles that Jesus performs.[7]

Now that we’ve worked our way through this story, I want to think more carefully about what it says about why bad things happen. The way that John reports this story, he makes it clear that it was necessary for Lazarus to die. Jesus could have healed him before he died, but he chose not to. Twice, we’re told that Lazarus’ death led to God being glorified (vv. 4, 40). It also led to people believing in God, specifically believing in Jesus (vv. 15, 42).

Now, when people think about evil in the world, they often think about why God would allow evil to occur. Sometimes, people act as if God is not in control, or they act as if God is not good. I reject both of those ideas because God has revealed himself to be in control and good. I reject any unbiblical picture of God as a nice grandfather who gets really sad when bad things happen, and who wishes he could just do something about all the evil in the world but just can’t. I also reject an unbiblical picture of God as an unloving, uncaring, distant, silent tyrant.

The Bible teaches that God is eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly wise, and good, among other attributes. That means that God has always existed, he can do anything that he desires, and he never learns a new fact. So, before God created the universe, he knew that evil would enter into it. Yet he chose to create it, even though he didn’t have to. God isn’t required to create a universe, or to create human beings. But he chose to do so, and he chose to create this particular world and all that is in it.

Now, God had a choice. He could have created a world with no evil or he could have created a world in which evil emerged and led to some good things that are not possible without such evil. God could have created angels that never rebelled, so that there would be no Satan, the devil. He could have created human beings who were glorified, who were incapable of sinning and incapable of dying. The mystery is why God did not choose to do that. But think about what would be missing if there were no evil, no suffering, no pain, and nothing bad in the world.

It’s really hard to imagine that, if we stop and think. If there were never any bad, we wouldn’t know how good good things can be. There would never be any evil to defeat. That means there would never be a concept of victory. If there no evil in the world, there would be no Yankees, which means we would never know the joy of the Red Sox defeating them. Seriously, there would be no concept of bravery or courage, for there would be no dangers, no risky situations. There would be no concept of heroism.

If Adam and Eve, the first human beings, never sinned, they would have remained in Paradise with God. Imagine if they had children who never sinned, and they had children who never sinned, and so on. It’s very hard to imagine it fully. But if that happened, there would be no need for the Son of God to become a human being. Jesus, the Son of God, came to live the perfect life that we don’t live. Adam and Eve sinned, and so did all other human beings, except Jesus. We have all failed to live life the way that God made us to. Since we fail to live according to God’s design for humanity, Jesus came to fulfill humanity’s purpose. And he also came to die as a sacrifice for our sins. It’s not clear why Jesus would come if there were never any sin in the world.

If Jesus never came, we would never know to what great lengths God would go to rescue us. We would never see the full glory of God. Or, so it seems.

If Jesus healed Lazarus immediately, people wouldn’t have seen Lazarus raised from the grave. They wouldn’t see God’s power over death. They wouldn’t see that victory, and Jesus’ compassion and bravery, being willing to risk his safety to go back to Jerusalem in order to rescue his friend.

So, this story shows that though Jesus is in perfect control, he deliberately chose for his friends to suffer for a short time so that they would later rejoice, truly know God, and truly believe.

God could have made a world without sin, or he could have made a world in which evil would emerge. The world that God made, in which there is now evil, somehow gives him more glory and, if we know Jesus, it gives us more gratitude. It’s a world that has a richer, more complex story. After all, think of any truly great story you’ve read, heard, or seen, whether in the form of a book, a play, a television show, or a movie. All the greatest stories have evil that must be defeated. They have adventure, bravery, and sacrifice. We are in the midst of the greatest story ever told, and it would seem that evil is necessary to make this story richer.

We can also think of every great piece of art. Great pieces of music, like symphonies, often have dissonance that resolves into harmony. If you were to stop those pieces of music during a moment of dissonance, it would sound ugly, but when these bits of cacophony resolve into euphony, when what sounds ugly for a moment turns into harmony, there is a great sense of fulfillment.

If we were to look at life in light of eternity, we would see that our moments of suffering are short. If we know Jesus, if we trust in him, our suffering can only last throughout this life, and this life is but a blink of an eye compared to a never-ending life with God in the new creation. And so, whatever pain we may experience now is nothing but a small moment in time, like a bit of dissonance that resolves to a beautiful, lush chord.

To take another metaphor from the world of art, imagine that you saw the most beautiful painting imaginable. I happen to find Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings to be marvelous. Imagine we took an extremely high-quality picture of one of his paintings, and then looked at that picture on a computer screen. Then imagine we zoomed in on individual pixels. When looking at individual pixels, they probably look ugly. If we zoomed out just a bit, some groups of pixels might look nice, but I bet groups of them would still look ugly. Yet if we zoom all the way out so we can see the whole picture, everything is harmonious. Everything has its place. Our suffering is like those ugly, small pixelated bits of a larger, beautiful painting. They are the dark bits that make the light stand out.

In light of eternity, our moments of suffering are quite small. The apostle Paul said, “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). If we know Jesus, we’ll experience that “weight of glory.” We’ll live in a glorious world forever, and all the pain will be wiped away. There will be no famine, no fighting, no wars, no diseases, no sin, and no death. Every tear that has ever been shed will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4).

But we don’t live in that world now. The reality is that we live in a world corrupted by sin, by the sin of others, and by our own sin. And that is why bad things happen. That doesn’t mean that all bad things happen to us because of our own individual sin. That’s not how things always work. The book of Job is an example of how bad things can occur for other reasons.[8] Even earlier in John, when Jesus healed a blind man, people wondered if the man had been born blind because of his parents’ sin or his own. Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). But bad things happen, generally, because of the presence of sin, because of our sin, someone else’s sin, or because something is happening in the unseen spiritual realm. The presence of sin in in the world separates all humanity from God and his partial punishment against sin is life in a world that has natural disasters, pain, suffering, and death.

That may sound harsh, but think about this: Imagine if tonight, at the stroke of midnight, God removed all evil from the world. Sounds good, right? But what if God removed all evil from the world, not just the big evils like mass shootings and devastating hurricanes, but also the smaller-sized, more mundane evils like hate, greed, envy, pride, covetousness, gossip, selfishness, and so forth? What if God removed all liars, all gossipers, all haters, all people who lust and who envy? The big question is, if God removed all evil at the stroke of midnight, where would you and I be? If we judge evil by God’s standards, we would be removed from the world. So, God is patient and gracious with us. He hasn’t stopped the world yet and made it perfect because he is allowing more time for people to turn to Jesus.[9] If God had stopped the world a hundred years ago, none of us would have been born. We would never have existed.[10] So, even though the world is evil, God is gracious to allow it to go on.

And God uses pain and suffering to get our attention. When we see bad things occur, whether they are natural evils like hurricanes, or moral evils like mass murders, we have another opportunity to think about how fragile life is. We have another opportunity to wonder where we can turn for safety and refuge. We have an opportunity to think about what really matters in this life.[11]

We think that what matters is safety, convenience, comfort, ease, and entertainment. That’s why we might be shocked to hear that Jesus lets his friend suffer and die, and he lets that friend’s sisters experience the great pain of mourning. But God doesn’t want our happiness so much as our perfection. This reminds me of some of the words of C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. First, he addresses our problem with God. Because of our evil nature, we don’t really want to know God as he truly is. He writes, “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.’”[12]

Then, Lewis says that God isn’t that way. God is love, and real love doesn’t coddle. Real love isn’t afraid to let someone suffer, if that is necessary. If your child needs a painful shot to be immunized, you don’t without hold that treatment because she doesn’t like needles. Lewis writes, “Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; . . . the mere ‘kindness’ which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love.”[13] God wants us to experience the very best in life, which is him. But, in our natural state, we don’t seek him. That is particularly true when things are going well, when we seem to be in control of our lives. To know that God is God and we are not, we must come to the end of our illusion that we are at the center of the universe. We must come to the end of thinking that we’re God, that we’re in control. God uses pain and suffering to bring us into that position. As Lewis famously writes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[14]

That might sound cruel if God were distant and aloof and uncaring. But he’s not. And the chief evidence of that is Jesus. As the Son of God, he lived in heaven for eternity with the Father. He had no pain. But he became a man and entered into an evil world. As we saw in this passage, he wept. And he risked his life. If you keep reading, you see that the news of Lazarus being raised back to life angered the Jewish leaders so much that they decided to kill Jesus and they wanted to kill Lazarus, too (John 11:45–53; 12:9–11).

Lazarus’ death and his coming out of the tomb foreshadow Jesus’ death. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins, not his, because he never sinned. He is the only person who has never done anything wrong, the only one in whom there is no trace of evil. And he rose from the grave. And one day, when he returns, he will call out with a loud cry and his people will leave their tombs. The brief pain of this life will be far, far outweighed and overshadowed by the unending brilliance of eternal life with Jesus.

Jesus told Martha that those who believe in him will live forever. He asked her, “Do you believe this?” That is my question for you. Do you trust that God has a purpose for every pain, even if it doesn’t make sense? Do you trust that he’s good, even when life doesn’t feel good? Do you understand that Jesus is the only God who would enter into evil and endure it to save you from this evil world? Do you realize that he is our only hope, and that no set of laws, no government leaders, no amount of money or power or anything will fix evil? If you trust Jesus, you will live in a Paradise with him forever.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Χριστός.
  3. ἐμβριμάομαι.
  4. D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 415.
  5. Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990–), 1:442.
  6. See my sermon, “Jesus Was a Man,” preached on January 4, 2015, available at https://wbcommunity.org/Jesus.
  7. Though he did raise two other people back to life (Matt. 9:18–19, 23–26; Luke 7:11–17).
  8. See https://wbcommunity.org/job.
  9. This is the essence of 2 Peter 3:9.
  10. In the new creation, there will be no more marriage and no more children born.
  11. See Luke 13:1–5. In that passage, some people tell Jesus about some Galileans that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, killed. Jesus says, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” He doesn’t say that the Galileans died for their sins, but he doesn’t rule that possibility out. He simply instructs those present to turn from their sin to God. We don’t have to speculate as to why those people in Las Vegas were murdered, or why people in Houston or Puerto Rico died as a result of hurricanes. When we see evil, we should turn to Jesus.
  12. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 35–36.
  13. Ibid., 36.
  14. Ibid., 83.

 

Why Do Bad Things Happen? (John 11:1-44)

Pastor Brian Watson answers the question, “Why do bad things happen?” by preaching a message on John 11:1-44, the famous story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus deliberately lets Lazarus die in order to heal him. He does this so that God would be glorified and people would believe. Perhaps this is why God allows any evil to occur at all.

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.

The Image of God

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on the importance of the image of God. Genesis 1:26-28 says that God made human beings in his image and likeness. Brian explains the meaning and significance of this idea, why it gives us purpose in our lives, how we fail to live according to God’s design, and how we can find hope and renewal in Jesus Christ.

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.