The Problem of Evil

5 “I am the LORD, and there is no other; Besides Me there is no God. I will gird you, though you have not known Me;
6 That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun That there is no one besides Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other,
7 The One forming light and creating darkness, Causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these.

Isaiah 45:5-7 is a tremendous passage of Scripture which affirms the sovereignty of God.

I once heard a prominent church leader call this passage of Scripture “obscure”. That floored me. I found that observation to be shocking, naively ignorant of the breadth of the Scripture and the foundational nature of this passage to the understanding of the whole of Scripture. The truth expressed in this passage forms the background to Romans 9-11 and to the whole of the book of Job. It is impossible to frame theodicy (the problem of evil) biblically without engaging this passage of Scripture. In fact, the church’s anemic position on theodicy stems precisely from considering this passage obscure or from ignoring this passage.

Let me start with my conclusions:

  • Isaiah could care less about the modern discussion of the problem of evil.
  • Isaiah was focused on the exclusivity of God’s sovereignty: he is declaring God to be the only God.
  • Isaiah doesn’t deem to give an answer to the problem of evil, he simply says “woe to the one who quarrels with his maker.”

The modern expression of the problem of evil is a challenging problem to believers, and a common reason for claims to atheism. Historically, Epicurus (371-270 BC) was the first to grapple formally with the problem. Since then every philosopher and theologian has had to deal with this issue. Here is his expression of the problem:

“Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?” — Epicurus

Augustine (354-430) stated it this way: “Either God cannot abolish evil, or he will not; if he cannot then he is not all-powerful; if he will not then he is not all good.”

The existence of evil challenges the character and nature of God by questioning his goodness and/or his power. It exists either because he doesn’t want it to go away, or because he cannot make it go away. Rabbi Harold Kushner claimed the latter in his book “When Bad things Happen to Good People.” Written out of the grief of losing a child to a horrible disease, Rabbi Kushner could not find it in his mind to make sense of the existence of all these “truths” so he discarded the one he was most comfortable losing: omnipotence. His conclusion is that God is still good, He just is not powerful enough to dispense with evil. This explanation fits in with the modern process thought which claims that there are some things God cannot deal with as He himself is still in the process of development.

Christianity has dealt with the problem in a number of ways. Augustine posed that evil exists to maintain man’s free will. Alvin Plantinga is a modern proponent of the Augustinian solution and essentially says that it would be logically impossible for God to create a being who was only able to perform good acts.

Another solution to the problem of evil is categorized as the Irenaen theodicy. This position has been recently proposed by John Hick building on the ideas of Ireneus (130-202). Hick rejects the free will approach and says that man was not created perfect, rather he was created imperfectly and required to grow spiritually. We are required to grow spiritually and this growth occurs in a hostile environment. This view is not accepted by most conservative Christians and is more akin to the process theology answer to the problem of evil.

Is there a solution to the problem of evil? I have found the philosophical answers given by Irenaus, Augustine and their modern proponents to be inadequate.  Their answers are different than the Biblical response to the problem of evil. We have been given a Biblical answer to the problem of evil, we just don’t like it. In fact, what we don’t like is the sovereignty of God, His essential centrality to the universe and to our understanding of the universe.

The Bible gives an answer directly four times.

The first time is in the book of Job. Job holds these two truths up as indisputable:  First, God does no wickedness nor does he do any wrong (Job 34:10); Second, God is the ultimate source and authority and man has no business questioning His ways (Job 38-41).   Man is seen as sinful and responsible for his sinfulness.  God is seen as righteous.

The second time is in the book of Isaiah 45:5-7 (along with passages that are similar like Amos 3:6 and Lamentations 3:37, 38) claim that the sovereign God is ultimately sovereign over all things and nothing that we see exists apart from Him.  These passages also marvel at the arrogance of sinful man in questioning a holy God.  Amos mockingly says:  “Surely God does nothing unless He reveals His secret counsel to His servants the prophets.”  Isaiah says “Woe to the one who quarrels with his maker”.  Lamentations likewise asks the warning question:  “Why should any living mortal, or any man, offer complaint in view of his sins?”  The prophets are aghast at the presumption of man in the face of God’s great patient mercy in challenging God’s holiness in light of the existence of evil.

Jesus addresses this problem twice: the story of the falling of the tower in Siloam/the killing of the Galileans by Pilate (Luke 13) and the story of the man born blind (John 9).  Jesus gives an explicit reason for the evil of blindness upon this man:  it had nothing to do with the sin of his parents or his own sin, rather “it was that the works of God might be displayed in Him.”  God’s sovereignty in both stories is the key to understanding.  The seemingly random evil in Luke 13 is not explained by Jesus, he simply uses it as a warning to repent; essentially the same as the prophets who called people to repentance when they asked those questions.  The blindness in the man in John 8 serves the sole purpose of bringing glory to God.

The fourth time an answer is given is by the apostle Paul in the book of Romans.  Paul simply states:  “who are you, O man, who answers back to God?” (Romans 9:20).

There is the Bible’s answer.  It acknowledges the apparent problem:  How can God be the source of all things when evil is such a prevalent part of our experience?  How does God maintain His goodness in light of the ongoing existence of evil?  In response to this problem the Bible is not silent but gives a consistent answer:  God is the source of all things as the only God and creator (who creates out of nothing) of the universe; God is totally righteous and has no wickedness in Himself;  Man is sinful and responsible for his sin;  Who are you to question God?  WE STILL DON’T LIKE THIS ANSWER!  So we search for a “satisfactory” answer.  I have a feeling the Bible’s answer is the best ones.

For Isaiah, sovereignty was foundational. He didn’t attempt to explain or understand anything apart from the sovereignty of God. This lesson is essential to understanding the Bible, and to viewing the world correctly. When we step out of this theocentric foundation, this theocentric structure for thinking, we come up with a problem associated with evil. Sovereignty is the full expression of God’s character through the exertion of His power and will. God is an independent being and self-deteremined.  God is absolute and the ultimate authority.  As such it is God that determines goodness, truth, justice and righteousness. If it is God’s will, then it is good.  This theocentric view of the universe is what is missing in the philosophical attempt to vindicate God from the “problem of evil”.  The opposite approach says that good exists outside of God and then we measure God against the standard of good, which is outside of and hence ultimately, greater than God. If God is the highest and supreme being who is self-determinative and with out causation, nothing stands above Him as judge of his character, nature or actions.

This is what Isaiah understood without any questioning. And so for him the statements he makes in Isaiah 45:7 pose no philosophical or theological or logical or moral problems whatsoever.

Isaiah teaches that God is the first or primary cause of all things. And that is not a problem. God is the creator of light/darkness and good/evil. He is not evil. He is not sinful. Isaiah has no problem with those statements and as much as any intelligent philosopher may rant and rave that there are inherent contradictions in those statements, Isaiah’s response is: “Woe to you who quarrels with his maker.”

This is the essential first building block of the Christian mind: God is sovereign. There is no God beside Him. In fact, apart from God there is nothing! When we drift from this anchor, our minds are by definition twisted and distorted. God is beyond judgment is what Isaiah is expressing. Who are you to question Him? The answer is that you are nothing to question Him. You have not platform upon which to judge Him. In fact, judging God becomes a logical contradiction. How do you question an ultimate authority? What do you appeal to?

In order to judge anything we must appeal to a higher law. Since God is higher than the higher law, that is, he authored the highest law, by definition, you cannot judge Him. What he does is by definition good, right, just. All things then are measured by that standard.

This feels wrong to you because you are committing a category error. You are putting God into a category in which he does not belong and in which he does not fit. If I were to say that I am the highest authority and whatever I do is right, because I do it, we would all recognize how arrogant and preposterous I was being. But when God says it, it is perfectly appropriate, because He is God and not man. We object to this being true for God not because it isn’t right, but because we bring God down to our level, our category. He is other than us, he is greater than us, we comprehend in light of Him, not apart from Him. We cannot stand in judgment of God, it is not allowed. That is not a moral statement, it is a rational and logical statement.

In the USA we have the right to challenge and question the law and the lawmakers. We vote and write and petition because we can make a difference, right wrongs, make things better. So we feel we have the right to do the same with God, challenging Him about the nature of His creation, blinded to the ridiculous nature of our assumption. Will we seriously challenge the creator of the universe? Woe to you.

The problem of evil is our biggest problem with God not because we cannot figure out the conundrum of evil versus omnipotence and goodness and omniscience, rather it is our biggest problem because it pits us against His sovereignty, and we demand an answer from him. TELL US why you did that? It is our rational grumbling against God. It is academically appropriate to question God, it makes us feel better about our rebellion against Him. It is our biggest problem because it pits our sovereignty against His SOVEREIGNTY.

The Augustinian answer I find to be unsatisfactory and inadequate. Essentially this position seeks to extricate God from culpability with regard to the problem of evil by blaming it on the free will of man. God didn’t want to create robots so he created man with a free will and the ability to choose. I find that this answer does not satisfy. It really does not achieve the desired result. Just because I can explain the process of evil, the how it occurs, does not change the fact that God initially created the context for it to occur, knew it would occur and continues to allow it to occur. So the challenge yet remains.  Essentially, the only thing the Augustinian answer does for us is emphasize our culpability for sin, it doesn’t answer for God’s “culpability” (He has none), it cannot answer the question of natural evil (earthquakes and Tsunami’s).

The answer also fails biblically in this essential manner. It shifts the focus off of God’s sovereignty and places it onto man. Essentially, what we are saying here is that God is not responsible, man is. Man is the source of something, that is, evil. It is in a twisted way, an affirmation of man’s sovereignty, his significance. It drives us away from having to submit to the sovereignty of God, and we confront the sovereignty of God most expressly at the point of the existence and fight with evil. It alleviates the necessary tension that highlights our lot. We are servants, we are creatures, we are subject to God. This is the one acceptable Christian rebellion, because here we help God. We take Him off the hook of the problem of evil. I have news for you: He neither needs or wants our help in this area.

The Christian answer to the problem of evil is clearly expressed by Isaiah:

  • He is the only God
  • There is none beside Him
  • He says I am Yahweh
  • I am Yahweh
  • I am Yahweh.
  • I created light
  • I created darkness
  • I created peace
  • I created evil
  • Who else is there?
  • Who are you to argue with the creator?

Job liked this answer and used it.

Paul liked this answer and used it.

Jesus liked this answer and used it.

So should you.

Let’s revisit Epicurus statement once more:

“Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?”

The way that Epicurus posits the problem poses a false dichotomy. These are not the only options available to God.  God does not have simply two options before Him.  God may have a purpose in not abolishing evil that we are not aware of, and that is not subject to our judgment.  God chooses not to reveal that purpose to us.  Simply because we are bothered by that does not make God impotent or wicked.  God is both omnipotent and good, therefore as he is the ultimate authority, what he does, what he sovereignly chooses to do, is good and powerful.  That includes his indulgence to evil.

The exact phrasing of the response to this objection by Isaiah is this: Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker– An earthenware vessel among the vessels of earth! Will the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you doing?’ Or the thing you are making say, ‘He has no hands ‘? ….It is I who made the earth, and created man upon it. I stretched out the heavens with My hands And I ordained all their host. (Isa 45:9, 12).  The Bible’s answer is the same in Job and Romans.  When confronted with this longstanding problem of our understanding, God says:  Are you really going to question me about good and evil?  Really?

We can try to fill in the blanks to answer our skeptical friends, or our skeptical self, but God seems to want us to rest in the arena of the trust in His sovereignty.

The answer is clear. I recall my days with my children. When they challenged my authority in the younger years, I simply said to them: “Because I said so.”

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  • stevebag

    This is one of the posts that I lost, so I had the hard copy of the post itself, but lost all comments….there were some good ones too. Apologies.