In the wake of the massive crisis in Haiti, we have seen some true horrors and some true evidence of grace. Also, we have seen some people take an opportunity to use the earthquake and the death of many to raise some questions about the nature of God. I am specifically referring to David Bain, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Glasgow; however, many have raised these same questions many different times in history. Bain quotes David Hume, 18th century philosopher, to frame the issue: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” In other words, if the God of the Bible exists, the One revealed as omnibenevolent (all-good) and omnipotent (all-powerful), then why does evil exist? Many have used this very question as a foundation to deny the very existence of God.
Bain distinguishes between two different kinds of evil. One: “the awful things people do, such as murder,” and Two: “the awful things that just happen, such as earthquakes.” He then attempts to cite various theologians who suggest possible answers to the first point revolving around human free will, and then he cites other theologians who suggest possible answers to the second problem revolving around an “ends justifies the means” tactic called soul-making. To get a clear understanding of Bain’s position, read his article. I will not take the space to summarize it here.
In coming to his conclusion, Bain quotes Immanuel Kant saying that we shouldn’t exploit people; “we mustn’t use them as mere means to our ends.” According to Bain, “[God] inflicts horrible deaths on innocent earthquake victims so that the rest of us can be morally benefitted.” Bain closes out his article stating that traditional believers in God, as revealed in Scripture, cannot answer these questions and, therefore, should question the existence of their God.
How do we respond to these issues? First, we must be very careful in the wake of tragedies like the earthquake in Haiti that we do not purport to speak for God when God has not specifically spoken. Scripture is the only written special revelation of God’s will. Therefore, when tragedies like this occur, we cannot claim to know details of God’s secret will. He simply has not told us the answer to these questions. Yet, that does not mean that God has not told us anything. Scripture does reveal to us many things that we can say regarding tragedies like these in general. And, more importantly, Scripture reveals to us the character of God through His Gospel.
Regarding specific evil that results from human actions, what does Scripture say about this? Genesis 3 presents to us a theological framework that shows all human beings are sinful by nature. Because of the choice of our first parents, humanity fell into sin. This is called original sin. We all are, therefore, born into sin. This means that, apart from any special work of grace by the Holy Spirit conforming us to the image of Christ, every action any human ever commits will be sinful. We act according to our natures, and our natures are sinful. This is why the Gospel proclaims that we need a new nature (described as a new heart, or being born again).
So, Bain asks, why couldn’t God create people who would only freely choose to do good? Before I respond, we can strengthen Bain’s question in one of two ways. One: why didn’t God only create people who would be saved by Christ and then completely sanctified such that they only choose to do morally good things? Two: why didn’t God create a world in which the Fall never occurred? Essentially, the result of both of these scenarios would be the same; the problem of human caused evil would be solved.
To respond, we need to look at Romans 9. In a very closely argued discussion regarding the sovereignty of God over the salvation or damnation of people, Paul comes to verses 21-24. “Has the potter no right over the clay to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory – even us who he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Rom. 9:21-24 ESV) The Apostle Paul is saying something that should humble us and terrify us and cause us to rejoice greatly in the grace of God. God has the right to save some people and not save other people. And it has absolutely only to do with the exercise of His free mercy and grace by His own sovereign will. Some are vessels of wrath for the purpose of displaying God’s glory in His wrath. Some are vessels of mercy for the purpose of displaying God’s glory in His grace. For a full discussion of this passage, see John Piper’s The Justification of God.
The important thing to recognize in Paul’s discussion here is the radically God-centered reasoning that is presented. Ultimately, the salvation and judgment of mankind is for the purpose of displaying the glory of God. We will return to this idea below.
Regarding evil events that occur in nature, like earthquakes and tsunamis, how does Scripture call us to think about these things? Here, let us turn one chapter back in Romans to Romans 8. Paul is reveling in the implications of the truth of the Gospel: no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (v 1), and how all believers are sons of God and heirs with Christ (vv 14-17). Then, in verse 18 Paul begins to discuss the present sufferings of this age. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” (Rom. 8:19-22 ESV) Here, Paul is specifically talking about things like earthquakes and tsunamis. This is natural evil, natural suffering, the suffering of creation itself. Where does this suffering come from? Creation has been groaning because it was subjected to decay under the curse of sin. When will creation stop groaning? Verse 23: And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” We and creation itself are waiting for redemption in Christ.
Again, notice the radically God-centered argument here. The curse of sin subjects human beings and all creation to decay and death because the wages of sin is death. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Sin is only defined in terms of falling short of God’s glory. Also, notice the remedy. It is redemption, salvation by grace, restoration and ultimately consummation of not only our human bodies, but all creation. And this is all done by God’s grace and for His glory.
This is quite different than the position Bain sets forth, and then quickly pulls down as insufficient: soul-making – allowing evil to happen so that people will be able to fully realize their potential to be morally good, or brave, or whatever. This is ultimately a man-centered approach to reality. It is no wonder that Bain rejects it quickly. One wonders though, why does Bain stop here and not move on to the more robust biblical position of a God-centered reality that exists for His glory?
Does the existence of evil require us to abandon our belief in God? Does the Bible fail to give a sufficient explanation for these things, even if the Lord does stop short of providing us every, or even most, details? I hope that this brief look at two passages in Romans will at least give us a starting point when these kinds of questions arise in our churches, families, and work places.
Yes, evil exists. And we weep in the face of such tragedies. But, that must never allow us to minimize sin. The Bible does not do this, and we must not either. However, this must not lead us to despair in the face of evil, for the Bible proclaims the Gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ as our only hope. Jesus died for our sins and rose again. By faith in Him, we are saved. And, Jesus has promised that He is going to make all things new. So, we are not only looking forward to the redemption of our bodies, we are looking forward to the redemption of the entire cosmos on the Day when Christ returns. And if we can learn anything from the Apostle Paul, it is that the glory of God in Christ Jesus is the ultimate goal of history and God will not fail to accomplish that goal. God is all-powerful and all-good. God has allowed evil to exist in His creation for a specific amount of time. And God has revealed to us in Scripture that His glory is the end goal of all things. Why should we believe all these things and not turn away from the faith handed down once and for all? We should believe because Jesus is alive, and the resurrection of Christ guarantees the accomplishment of salvation for all who believe and the redemption of the entire cosmos.