The problem of evil

by Malcolm Ferries

The Problem of Evil,
by Malcolm Ferries.

A talk given at Patcham, 10th of September, 2014.

Soon after I began preparing this talk, something occurred which was very pertinent to its subject-matter. It serves to point up, not so much "The Problem Of Evil", but the "so-called Problem of Evil".

I was listening to the podcast of a talk given at a meeting of Sussex University's Christian Union. The title was: "Why IS There Evil In The World? What About Suffering?" The speaker was a man named Rich Speare. He appears regularly at The Sussex CU, and he has a leadership role in a local church and contributes to its blog.

A few sentences into this talk, Speare asserted, in precisely these words, that "God does not create evil".

Inevitably, this unqualified declaration left him flailing in theological quicksand at the question time session afterwards: a member of the audience asked the panel what we should make of Isa. 45:7. Here, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God refers to himself as:

"Former of light and creator of darkness, maker of good and creator of evil."

Speare and his two assistants, who are also regular speakers at these functions, were reduced to several seconds of stunned silence, before asking for the text to be read again. Hard to credit though it is, they gave the impression that they had never encountered, let alone considered, the text before.

The team eventually stirred themselves, groping their way to a shambolic response.

Now, the Sussex CU is a branch of the Universities And Colleges Christian Fellowship. As such, it exists to do outreach among unbelieving students, and Bible study for those who have faith. It's a reasonable assumption that the Sussex student population - which back in the day included one of my brothers! - are a fairly intelligent bunch, so it's a pity they were given such a sloppy, painful response to this question when it could have been used to get to the nub of the issue of the problem of evil.

I felt that God was leading me to respond to this talk, so, after praying over it, I emailed the Sussex CU, making the point that evil was created by God and is a fundamental aspect of his purpose. It won't surprise anyone that the ensuing months have not brought a response. God, though, will do what he wants with all of that.

Now, the title of this talk: "The problem of evil", presupposes an acceptance that there is a theological nut to crack. As believers, though, if we focus exclusively on God's Word, it does become clear that there is no problem. We find, in fact, that God's Word provides the only perspective from which we can make sense of the reality of evil. Only God, through his Word, can provide us with the reassurance we need to cope with its existence as we lead our lives.

It's perhaps worth noting, at this point, that something we don't have to do, as we set about solving this "problem", is define our terms. Outside the ecclesia, there are a variety of understandings on the existence and nature of evil. For instance, you have to be pretty left field to want to argue that there is no such thing as evil, or that good and evil cannot be distinguished from each other, but such schools of thought have existed. As believers though, we can take it as a certainty, given to us in scripture, that evil exists. There is narrative concerning it, and reference to it, throughout the bible. beyond this fundamental fact, there may be interesting questions around the definition of evil, its characterisation and its occurrence. As believers though, we don't need to concern ourselves with them, and I shall not be discussing them in this paper.

The currently burgeoning number of evangelical Christian apologists, like those addressing the meeting I discussed at the outset, find themselves having to solve the problem of evil in order to argue for God's existence at all. Of course, they would find it much easier to do this if they used scripture, rather than a mixture of human reason and inaccurately translated scripture.

In any event though, I am arguing from a believer's perspective; from the position that God's Word is without error. As such, again, the existence of God is assumed.

Now, insofaras there is a "problem" of, or with, evil for believers, it starts with the question of who is, ultimately, responsible for it. Generally speaking, Christendom claims that, whatever the nature of evil, it is us who are responsible for its occurrence, or Satan, or Satan operating through us. With or without Satan's involvement though, it is usually taken to follow that we are culpable to a considerable degree.

Christendom finds justification, or at least support, for this argument by claiming that God has given us free will. Counter-arguments are rebutted, supposedly, because Christendom claims that if we didn't have free will, God would necessarily be responsible for evil; he would therefore have to be evil; which cannot be the case because he is a loving God. Of course, if this argument were correct, it still wouldn't get God off the accusation that he does at least countenance evil. He allows it to happen, when he is capable of preventing it before, or during, its occurrence. The only alternative, as far as this arguement is concerned, is that God cannot prevent the evil which man chooses to commit. The result is against scripture and logic: a comparatively weak God who does not have sovereignty over his creation, and therefore cannot guarantee the fulfilment of his purpose.

One gets the impression, sometimes, that a guilty conscience is behind this refusal to give God more of a stake in the responsibility for evil. Christendom cannot bring itself to attribute something to God which, supposedly, demeans God and allows us more goodness than is due to us.

Whatever the psychology involved here though, the arguement can only be maintained at all because human reason is mixed with biblical truth. The inevitable result is that error sets in ad truth gets lost. Beyond this, of course, as we can see with other tradition-based fallacies, like hell and the trinity, applying unbiblical argumentation to scripture forces us to indulge in feats of mental gymnastics which are not necessary if we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to God's Word. If we do commit ourselves entirely to scripture, there are clear-cut, simple propositions to guide our understanding.

As we noted a minute ago when examining Christendom's outlook on evil, it is a fact that God is a loving God. In fact, he IS love. Love is not just an aspect of God's being: a property, a capacity, or an attribute. It isn't just a quality which he displays when the mood takes him, or when he feels sufficiently pleased with us. God IS love. It follows that divine love is transcendent; we are told in proverbs, that it covers all sins. God's grace, which scripture tells us exceeds everything which could possibly be set against it, emanates in that love. His entire creation originates in his love. Once we accept all this, it follows, necessarily, that God's purpose originates in his love.

Now, twice in the fourth chapter of I. John, We are told that God is love. Those precise words are used on both occasions. In fact, that entire chapter is concerned with the teaching that God is love, and that love is of him.

What we are never told, through the entirety of scripture, is that God is evil. Nor is this implied, and we are not given any grounds for its inference or deduction. Everything that exists, everything which happens, is the product of God's love. It's a ralisation which cannot be imbibed through any other philosophy or faith: without the faith which comes from God's revelation, this understanding is swept away by so much apparent evidence to the contrary. What a wonderful realisation it is for us as believers; what a comfort as we live the lives which God has chosen for us.

But we can go further than this. We know that God is love, and that love is of God. Having, then, accepted that everything originates in God's love, it must follow that everything is of God. Now, this fact stacks up, as a matter of logic, from what we have already seen, but we have it given to us explicitly in scripture.

We are given the definitive formulation of this momentous truth in Paul's second letter to the Corinthians at Ch. 2 verse 5 he writes:

"Yet all is of God, who conciliates us to himself through Christ."

Now, that statement could not be any clearer, or any more absolute. And Paul gives us this truth, as well, in Romans atCh. 11: 33 and 36. Here we read:

"O, the depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God! how inscrutable are his judgments, and untraceable his ways! For, who knew the mind of The Lord? or who became his adviser? Or who gives to him first, and it will be repaid him? Seeing that out of him, and through him,and for him is all: to him be the glory for the eons! Amen!"

Obviously, this teaching is from the apostle Paul, Who God inspired to give the revelation meant for us, as believers, today. The truth that all is of God, though, is a biblical constant: it runs throughout the old and new testaments implicitly and explicitly. Without it, the Bible does not make sense,and that can be said of the matter of evil, as firmly as it can of anything else.

We should never lose sight of the fact of God's supremacy. Outside Paul's revelation, but still within the New Testament, John lays it out at the very beginning of his gospel:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was toward God, and God was the Word. This was in the beginning, toward God. All came into being through it, and apart from it not even one thing came into being which has come into being."

And long before God began to unfold the phase of his purpose which began with his son's life on earth, he declared his absolute sovereignty over his entire creation. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, he says this at Chapter. 46:9 of his book:

"Remember the first things from the eon, for I am the Al, and there is no further alueim, and the limit is as me. telling the beginning, the hereafter, and from aforetime, what has not yet been done. Saying, "All my counsel shall be confirmed, and all my desire will I do"."

It's clear, from what we've seen so far, that evil is a divine creation. There is, though, one other fact, expressed, again, through unambiguous and unqualified teaching in scripture, which is relevant to this study. Like the other truths we have been looking at, it constitutes a proof, in itself, that God creates evil. It also, though, follows by implication from the fact that "All is of God".

This truth is that as "All is of God", all is God's will. Christendom's understanding that man possesses free will, and that it is a gift from God, is another falsification of God's Word. If we claim that man has a will, in any sense at all, the most this can mean is that we are vessels of God's will. It is true to say that most of us, most of the time, feel that our conscious thoughts and actions, even if they apparently lack pre-meditation, are of our making. This is not the case: Look at what Paul says in Ephesians 1:11. he writes of the place of believers in God's purpose. He declares that we are:

"Designated beforehand according to the purpose of the one who is operating all in accord with the counsel of his will".

There are believers who put the argument that, though God does have a purpose, and a plan by which to achieve it, we can frustrate it because, through his generosity, we have free will. The claim is that God's purpose will triumph, but we can, so to speak, throw spanners in the works while it is in process. This is a fleshly attempt to have things both ways. The result is a God who is neither all-knowing, nor all-powerful. This is not the God of scripture, and the argument dishonours him and vastly inflates the capacities of man. It also contradicts what scripture tells us of a God who does not change his mind. Make no mistake about it: everything, whether we think of creation in its vast panorama, or its minutiae, is foreordained by our God.

Now, when we try to distinguish truth from fallacy, we do have to be careful not to become preoccupied with counter-argumentation. The result could be clarification about false propositions, but lingering confusion about what is true. We are trying to establish definitive truth, and the examination of counter-arguments may leave several candidates for acceptance as true.

However, sometimes it can be instructive to examine counter-arguements to understand what would necessarily follow if they were true. The problem of evil is a case in point. We obviously agree with Christendom that God is love. Let's also run with their understanding that he has given us free will.

If we accept that man has any responsibility at all, in an ultimate sense, for the occurrence of evil, where does that leave us?

It leaves us with a God who is subject to the whims of man. We can't even credit him, as those putting the argument just discussed try to do, with the certainty that he can bring his purpose to fruition. If he is not powerful enough to maintain control over his creation from moment to moment, it is illogical to suppose that he can guarantee the fulfilment of his purpose. If we have a God like this, Then we have one who cannot afford certainty. If he thinks he can be certain, then he is wrong to think so, and he cannot then be all-knowing.

To quote a modern idiom though: "Do the maths!" "All is of God", and "God is love", so his sovereignty, his constancy and his purpose are undeniable. This being the case, it's clear that we can trust him as far as the fact of evil is concerned.

Now, inevitably, and understandably, given their lack of a divine revelation, non-believers who are aware of the understanding that there is no such thing as free will, go on to suggest that we have a let-out for any unsavoury dispositions we may have.

Supposedly, because we have given God responsibility for every aspect of our lives, we are to be, and to do, good or evil, according to our inclinations. even orthodox Christians make this charge, because as they believe that man has free will, the same gap pertains between their understanding and what God's Word teaches.

The point is, though, that we are not fatalists, automatons, or puppets being jerked hither and thither on celestial strings.

The fact is that we live in the here and now,in this life. God has given us a conscience, a mind, the capacity to reason, judge and decide, and a moral framework. These elements of human mentality exist even in those who are apparently among the most depraved members of our species. as believers, we should always be conscious of the need to seek God's will and to act in accordance with it. We have the instruction of God's Word to give us this awareness. We cultivate this through study and prayer, as well as through fellowship with other believers. For the genuinely convicted believer of course - particularly as, with time and maturity we deepen our faith - this will not simply be an obligation or a duty. We want to live a Godly life.

Lest we fall short of this realisation and this disposition though, scripture offers us teaching to get us back on the rails. Look, for instance, at what Paul says in chapters five and six of Romans. They are relevant to our subject in their entirety, but I shall pick out a couple of quotes from chapter six here. In answer to rhetorical questions about whether, as believers aware of divine grace, we should continue to sin, Paul twice responds: "May it not be coming to that!" On the second of these occasions, at verse sixteen, Paul writes:

"Are you not aware that to whom you are presenting yourselves as slaves for obedience, his slaves you are, whom you are obeying, whether of sin for death, or of obedience for righteousness? Now thanks be to God that you were slaves of sin, yet you obey from the heart the type of teaching to which you were given over. Now, being free from sin, you are unslaved to righteousness. As a man am I saying this, because of the infirmity of your flesh. For even as you present your members as slaves to uncleanness and to lawlessness for lawlessness, thus now present your members as slaves to righteousness for holiness."

Now, it's clear that we shouldn't discuss the problem of evil, as believers, without giving due consideration to the role of the adversary. That's not to say that there aren't apologists who do try to avoid doing so, for one reason or another.

If we accept the Bible as being, literally, the Word of God, and therefore as being the true and inerrant Word of God, then we must accept that Satan exists as an individual, physical being. He is not a metaphor; he is not a superstition; he is not a fictional character dreamed up to explain human nature, or to set the merits of the straight and narrow against the perils of waywardness and hedonism.

The fact is that the Adversary is a divinely-created being. This means, as we have seen, that he must be part of god's purpose. Logic tells us this, but it only really matters that scripture does. He is not a fallen angel. Christendom tells us he is, but this runs totally counter to scripture. Look at John 8:44, Where Christ himself says that Satan "Was a man-killer from the beginning". And in I. John 3:8, we find the role of the Adversary set out in terms which make it clear that he is not merely bent on thwarting God's purpose through his own self-generated malevolence, he is part of God's grand purpose:

"Yet, he who is doing sin is of the Adversary, for from the beginning is the Adversary sinning. For this was the son of God manifested, that he should be annulling the acts of the Adversary."

In this connection, we can think of the misfortunes which befell Job. Before and during his catastrophic decline, God and Satan discussed how they would handle him. The biblical record of the dialogue makes it clear that this was not an angry slanging match, or a matter of subjugation and pleading, but a genuine discussion - though, of course, as God is omnipotent and omniscient, he foreordained and foreknew all the particulars of this situation.

God brought Job down, using Satan to do so, for the instruction of us all. Amidst his misfortunes, Job's wife told him to: "Curse God and die". Job remained resolute, completing a template which constitutes a reference point for us all. God used Satan as the agent for the evil which befell Job, and Job to show us what it is to remain constant in faith. None of this says that God is evil. God is always love.

And this consideration of the Adversary can take us to teaching on the cross itself. We have just seen that:

"For this was the son of God manifested, that he should be annulling the acts of the adversary".

Now, the betrayal of the son of God, by Judas Iscariot, can in simple terms be seen as the worst atrocity ever committed. Christendom considers that Judas was entirely to blame for it. Most believers fail to address themselves to what God's original intentions must have been if Judas's act of betrayal was not meant to happen. They also conveniently forget that what he did was foretold elsewhere in scripture.

The reality is that God planned that Christ would take upon himself the burden of sin through his death on the crosse. God planned that he would resurrect his son, and that we will all, ultimately, be saved through his resurrection. The Adversary was created as one of the instruments through which God's purpose will be achieved in all its glorious certainty.

It is clear that the Adversary is the most evil being ever created. It is also clear that such was God's purpose in creating him. Yet, wonderfully, this most evil of all beings is instrumental in God's purpose of universal reconciliation. Look at Lk. 22:3, where we are told:

"Yet satan entered into Judas, called Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve."

Christendom claims that Judas acted entirely from choice. That argument then runs, necessarily, that this was directly against the will and intention of God. this argument is of course false, for all the reasons we have been examining. But scripture gives us explicit narrative to refute Christendom's argument here; it shows, furthermore, the inadequacy of Christendom's theology in understanding God's purpose, and what the cross really means.

The fact is that God planned that his son would be made sin, so that the sins of us all would not be permanently held against us.

God ordained that the Jews, his own people, so fundamental to his overall purpose and so cherished by him, would kill his son. The most evil being ever created was the agent through which a disciple - one of the dozen least likely people in worldly terms - would conceive the desire to bring about this awful event. But God did all this out of love: God is love, he is not evil. Scripture had to be fulfilled.

We can see this throughout God's Word, but it's pertinent to look at what Peter says in the Book Of Acts, at 2:22. Peter is explaining the descent of the Holy Spirit to those witnessing it. During his bold declaration, he says:

"Men! Israelites! hear these words: Jesus, the Nazarene, a man demonstrated to be from God for you by powerful deeds and miracles and signs, which God does through him in the midst of you, according as you yourselves are aware - this one, given up in the specific counsel and foreknowledge of God, you, gibbeting by the hand of the lawless, assassinate, whom God raises, loosing the pangs of death, forasmuch as it was not possible for him to be held by it."

If all of this was not within God's plan, part of his purpose, what does Christendom suggest were his original intentions? God intended that his son would be killed, in order for his purpose to be fulfilled. there was no other way.

And one more testimony, before we close, to the place of evil in God's purpose. The apostle paul appears as Saul in acts 8. At verse 3 we are told that he:

"... devastated the Ecclesia; going into the homes, dragging out both men and women, he gave them over to jail."

At the beginning of the next chapter, we find him "Still breathing out threatening and murder against the disciples of The Lord". But we are sitting here, now, because we are recipients of the glorious revelation God has given us through this man.

In conclusion, then, we can simply say that there is no such thing as a problem of, or with, evil. If we say anything short of that, we are not being biblical. Evil is of divine creation, within a divine purpose. God's Word tells us so. Thank God that we have that assurance! Thank God that he is love!

If you found this talk helpful, please tell others.
You may use this copyrighted material for unlimited personal use.
Any other uses require written permission.
© Malcolm Ferries

[Return to main indexpage]