Evil Will Have Nothing to Say
Two of my projects this week have been working on an article on suffering and the sovereignty of God, and preparing a class for this Sunday on the varieties of approaches to the problem of evil. Consequently, I’ve been raiding the bookshelf over the last few weeks in order to reacquaint myself with some of the authors and ideas that I leaned on more heavily during my university and grad school days.
One of these books is N.T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God. There are at least two things that I like about this quote (and the book in general): 1) It acknowledges that the classically-formulated problem of evil is insoluble; and 2) It reminds us that the classically-formulated problem of evil isn’t our most pressing problem. Even if we could figure out the logical puzzle of how to reconcile the existence of evil with a God who is all-good and all-powerful, the existential problem of evil would remain. And that problem requires not a solution in the sense of creative logical gymnastics (interesting as these may be), but a diagnosis and a cure:
We are not told—or not in any way that satisfies our puzzled questioning—how and why there is radical evil within God’s wonderful, beautiful, and essentially good creation. One day I think we shall find out, but I believe we are incapable of understanding it at the moment….
What we are promised, however, is that God will make a world in which all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well, a world in which forgiveness is one of the foundation stones and reconciliation is the cement which holds everything together. And we are given this promise not as a matter of whistling in the dark, not as something to believe even though there is no evidence, but in and through Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection, and in and through the Spirit through whom the achievement of Jesus becomes a reality in our world and in our lives.
When we understand forgiveness, flowing from the work of Jesus and the Spirit, as the strange and powerful thing it really is, we begin to realize that God’s forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness of others, is the knife that cuts the rope by which sin, anger, fear, recrimination and death are still attached to us. Evil will have nothing to say at the last, because the victory of the cross will be fully implemented.
“What we are promised, however, is that God will make a world in which all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well, a world in which forgiveness is one of the foundation stones and reconciliation is the cement which holds everything together.
Why not just do this in the first place? If the end is the same, surely the best means is an appropriate expectation. A means where reconciliation and forgiveness are not required to achieve the end.
It’s a question I’ve often wondered about, too… Perhaps a world that has experienced sin and evil, and has been renewed and redeemed is somehow “better” than a world without these elements. Perhaps forgiveness and reconciliation, and the genuine freedom that makes them necessary are qualitatively different than a world where all is well by fiat… I don’t know. I can certainly see holes in the argument.
At any rate, I don’t think that the Christian is obliged to say that the way God has set things up represents the “best of all possible worlds,” as if the precise amount and variety of evil our world has seen is somehow necessary to produce the end result God has in mind. I think the Christian is only obliged to say that it is what God has seemed pleased to do.
For some reason Noam Chomsky’s viewpoint on power to the anarchist comes in mind here, “the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met.”
Where is the conviction of proof? Without it seems very hard to believe that Justice and Good stem from such a God.
A term I have been borrowing from one of your previous posts is ‘comfortably abstract.’ Does this sentence escape that: ” I think the Christian is only obliged to say that it is what God has seemed pleased to do.”
I don’t this mean these as attacks, I genuinely value the viewpoints here and this is one of the largest barriers for me of accepting a christian world view.
I don’t think the statement you isolated falls into the “comfortably abstract” category if only because I am not entirely comfortable with it :). My convictions about how God has dealt/is dealing/will deal with evil do not offer the kind of purely rational satisfaction I might prefer, but then when it comes to the problem of evil, I don’t think any worldview does.
Having said that, it’s worth asking about the kind of proof we are willing to consider. If purely logical proof isn’t available, where else might we go? Christianity has always been uncomfortably historical (especially for the philosophically-inclined :)) and when we look at how history has unfolded, I think a decent case could be (and has been) made that what Wright calls “the victory of the cross” has been a growing reality over the last two millennia. Haltingly, unpredictably, and inconsistently, certainly, but I think it is undeniable that the world is a profoundly different place as a result of what Christians believe to be God’s response to evil.
Hey Tyler, like you have articulated elsewhere on this page, I intend no attack. But I am curious. How would you suggest God impose a world of absolute goodness( heaven on earth) without suppressing man’s free will?
I think Wright is maintaining the classical position here. God is good and powerful, in spite of the evil in the world, and Jesus and his ways are the path to victory over evil.
As we follow the path of Jesus, we cannot help but ask who he is. As we shift our focus to the promise, the question of God’s goodness and power in spite of evil comes back in the question, “How long, O Lord?”
Without maintaining the goodness and power of God, in spite of the evil in the world, our conception of God reduces to chance and necessity, our faith to love of faith, our trust in the promises of God to a hopeful wager, the Christian way to ethics.
I don’t agree with Wright’s premise here, at least insofar as us not being told, “In any way that satisfies” as to why evil exists.
Evil is a consequence of sin. In fully exercising a freedom apart from God’s love, man corrupts justice and holiness. This is made clear to us through Adam. Consequently, human nature, having been deprived of it’s original state, a “wounded” man emerges. Capable of both great good and heinous evil.
If the notion that one mans sin cannot have universal implications how can we affirm that one mans sacrifice offers universal redemption?
There are still many unanswered questions… What was the potential for evil doing there in the first place? Why does the sin of one lead to the sin of many (however one thinks of “original” sin)? How does imputed guilt and “inherited” sin work, if at all? If God is powerful enough to accomplish anything God wants, why can he not make a world where human beings always freely choose the good—especially if, presumably, this is a state of affairs that will one day be a reality in the new creation? The list could go on..
Don’t get me wrong—I think that some version of a free will theodicy is the best option available, rationally speaking. I just don’t think that we will ever arrive at a conception of how evil fits within the providence of a good and powerful God that is 100% rationally satisfying.
Lots to consider here, Ryan. Truthfully, a response that is useful to you might be beyond my grasp. I need to think and pray about the subject some more. Tomorrow, (Sunday) seems like it would be a good day to respond. 🙂
100% rationally satisfied..meh. Where there is reason for love, let there be optimism. Where there is none, let there be faith.
With regards to your concerns I say this;
1. ”Why the potential for evil in the first place?”
For love’s sake.To become perfect as our Father is perfect. To help facilitate redemption in ourselves and others, with the choices available to us, in the face of sin and suffering. If we are sincerely engaged in prayer, seeking God’s mediation, discerning reasonably and giving our best efforts, grace is the inevitable outcome. God has given us the perfect response, where human beings can and sometimes do “freely choose the good”.
2.”Why does the sin of one lead to the sin of many?”
Love is interdependence. For good or for bad what happens to the one, happens to the many. If we desire the best outcomes for ourselves our only constructive response is to seek the best outcomes for others.
I certainly have no quarrel with your responses here, Paul. I think there is much to be said for each of them. I also know that those seeking rational certainty can and do find logical holes in each of these. I have no particular desire to reproduce any of these arguments here because we’re on the same team :).
For my part, I have found that honestly acknowledging the logical limits of how best to think about God and evil (limitations which are not, incidentally, unique to people of faith) has been useful in building bridges to those who find it hard to believe in God because of evil.
Paul, I think Wright agrees with you about original sin but just did not mention it here. Ryan too.
Thanks, Ken. It’s never wrong to check in on me and make sure I’m up to speed. 🙂
We are on the same team aren’t we. 🙂
Can’t argue with the “holes in the logic perspective”. You can pretty much drive a bus through most of mine.
I don’t understand though why free and thinking people would hold God accountable for evil. Evil is made manifest through the conscious choices people make. It is not the will of God, it is in no way pleasing to Him. For Him it means crucifixion.
Why? Sometimes it is a way of justifying disbelief in a way that allows one to assert one’s moral superiority over others.
The belief that God is the author of evil is rare in Christian theology. Sometimes it may seem like this is a necessary conclusion of monotheism, but it is not. Ryan and you have explained it as well as anyone can.
We maintain the goodness and power of God, in spite of the evil in the world. When we believe in God, we know in hearts that this is justified. We see it in the love of God for humanity. When someone does not believe, what can we ultimately say but may you someday know this blessing too. It is a blessing.
Yes Ken, I believe you sentiment here. May our friends some day know this blessing too. This is our context. Thank you.