For most, it is the experience of evil that presents the greatest struggle in reconciling evil with God’s existence. “A ‘good God’ would never allow ‘_______’ to happen”; and since ‘_______’ happened God gets reasoned away. And why not, since it is nonsensical to assert a ‘good’ God who is at the same time responsible for evil…isn’t it?
So the thinking goes, until you read the Biblical account that is. In it, God brings everything into existence in perfect goodness according to his nature and will. He is a God, we may say then, who is responsible for everything, and yet the moral guilt of evil cannot be laid at his feet since it was not God but man who chose evil.
Evil Came by Man’s Choice:
Genesis 3 depicts the event in which man is given the choice to know good only, or evil also. (cf. Gen. 2:15-17; 3ff) And his decision is not in the abstract, but specifically choosing to put himself in the place of God. (see 3:5) The created in effect rejects the Creator, and in so doing man himself becomes the morally guilty party for bringing evil into the world.
This has been the historic Christian doctrine of the Fall of humanity into sin. Similarly, humanity’s sin is seen as the cause for natural evil as well, for as man (‘adam’) goes, so goes the earth (‘adamah’) which was created as his dominion, leading God to declare: “Cursed is the ground because of you;” (Gen 3:17).
One might argue: “But what was so horrible about man’s choice? He ate a little piece of fruit and broke a little rule. Why all the fuss?” The answer comes not from dissecting the physical actions but the motives behind them. The enticement was gaining knowledge about good and evil in order to “be like God”. Forget for a moment the sheer effrontery in making such a move and consider what is actually being done.
In seeking to “be like God” man in effect rejected the very reality he lived in. He was ascribing ultimacy to that which is not. Transcendence to the immanent. Supreme worth to what only has proximate value. Such a move in the light of God is nothing short of madness, but it is a willful madness. We cannot acquit man for stumbling into an error, the significance of which he knew nothing about. His was a moral choice. Maximus the Confessor put it this way:
“If all things have been made by God and for his sake, then God is better than what has been made by him. The one who forsakes the better and is engrossed in the inferior things shows that he prefers the things made by God to God himself.”1
The Apostle Paul is even more direct:
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged to glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptile.” (Romans 1:21-23)
The result according to St. Paul is God giving us over to the very thing we chose: a “depraved heart” that seeks fulness by pursuing any and every avenue except God to find it, and a “depraved mind” that will never consider extending its gaze beyond the earthy and temporary in order to quench the longings of the sinful heart that enslaves it. (cf. Rom. 1:24-32)
And so the Christian worldview places the problem of evil not on God’s shoulders, but on our own. And if we leave out natural evils for the moment, does this not square with our experience in the world? What evils do we see around us that we cannot directly trace to the consequences of human decisions and acts? And if we are honest, we will not only admit how horrible people can be to each other, but we will also admit how we are often our own worst enemies, bringing ill even upon ourselves.
This is a pill that man is reluctant to swallow, and yet our experiences bear this out. The popular attempt at evading this in our culture is to put the blame on ‘society’ and its “structures of oppression” that make everyone “victims” and therefore not responsible, but this only moves the problem back one step. Society is after all simply a word we use to identify groups of people who share normative living patterns, values and behaviours. Bad societies don’t make bad people, rather bad people make bad societies, and so we’re back to where we began: the problem is us.
Natural Evil Caused by Human Sin:
The Biblical picture then lays the blame for evil on man. But what about natural evil? Can man be blamed for every deadly earthquake, tornado or tsunami? The Biblical answer is “Yes”.
The Creation account of Genesis 1 is not thrown together willy-nilly. It is a carefully crafted narrative of God’s creative work intended to convey theological truth. Included in the message of the text then is the fact of God creating man last as the crowing achievement of his Creation. He invests man with that which nothing else in the universe possesses, (i.e. the qualities of His own being) in order that man may play a role that nothing else in Creation could play (i.e. having dominion).
“Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule…” (Gen. 1:26)
And so God blessed man thus: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28)
All Creation was made for God’s glory then, but in a very specific way God made the earth for man. When man sinned against God he was exiled from God’s presence. Death is separation from life; man is dead spiritually therefore (if not yet fully realized due to God’s grace) because he lives in separation from the One who is life. But man did not go into exile alone. God sent not only man, but all of Creation into exile with him. One might see this as an act of grace by God in letting man retain the created sphere and to some extent function that he was made for despite his sinful rebellion, but if you personified the perspective of the rest of Creation it might be accurate to say that nature “got stuck” with man. Charles Cranfield puts it this way:
“…all the varied chorus of sub-human life, created for God’s glory, is cheated of its true fulfillment so long as man, the chief actor in the great drama of God’s praise, fails to contribute his rational part.”2
And so, just as man was exiled into death so too was Creation. As such, both man and nature suffer the existential disfunction of living in the place that man’s sin has put them; apart from God. Likewise, both are frustrated from fulfilling their created purpose; man because of his ongoing willful rebellion, and nature because of its involuntary but necessary association with man. But similarly, both are awaiting the deliverance that has been achieved by Jesus Christ. Paul therefore described it this way:
“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:20-21)
The Biblical explanation for evil traces the guilt of evil to man’s sin, both for moral and natural evil. It may be difficult for some to receive this message, but apart from it the Christian gospel story cannot get off the ground. What is more, it prevents our attempts at constructing adequate theodicies from trying to somehow make evil look like “good” in disguise. Yes, the logical arguments we have talked about may show how evil’s existence is a logical necessity, given the kind of world God chose to create, but the biblical answer to evil’s actuality will never present it as anything other than a horrible tragedy whose only solution is the gracious salvation and ultimate victory of Jesus Christ.