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Musings on the Problem of Evil

In response to John’s comments on the post “Plantinga’s Version of the Ontological Argument” I have begun to formulate a more formal post on the problem of evil. This is a sermon I wrote back in 2004 in response to the Tsunami in the Indian Ocean, killing approximately 250,000 people.

The physics of a Tsunami are not a mystery; the displacement of water by a large seismic event resulting in a massive movement of water on a collision course with land.

The disastrous effects of the Tsunami are also no mystery. Humans caught in the path of rushing water are no match in strength, the resultant deaths are not a surprise.

The response to such a tragedy is no mystery. Can we do less than help? The world has responded in an overwhelming way, and rightly so.

In a purely mechanistic universe, the events in the Indian Ocean are classified as “natural.” Techtonic plates slipping and the universe in movement are natural processes. Man got in the way, his warning system not up to snuff, certainly not as good as the animal warning system – as animal advocates are noting, apparently animals are smarter than humans, they know when to seek higher ground (a spiritual allegory????).

From a Christian standpoint and from the Biblical world view, WHY?

Why did this happen? Is that a question we can answer? What is the appropriate Biblical response to the disaster in the Indian Ocean region of the world, Christmas time 2004?

One of the best passages, one well suited to our question is found in the words of Jesus as recorded by Luke in chapter 13 of his gospel. It reads as follows:

Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? 3 “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 “Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? 5 “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Jesus addresses two kinds of events: The first, human killing by the hands of humans; Second, human death by the hands of, to use a “popular” term, fate.

The first event has to do with Pilate killing some Galilean worshippers who apparently came to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices. The details are not given, only the descriptive phrase: “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.” Everything we say beyond that is interpretive and speculative. We have no elucidation of this event either in this context, in the rest of the Gospels or in any other historical record. We know that Pilate was cruel. So the description fits the culprit. But beyond that we know no details. Suffice it to say that Pilate killed people indiscriminately to suit his political and popular purposes.

In Jesus fashion, Jesus asks a question to get to his point: “Were these people singled out by God for punishment because they were more sinful than other Galileans?” Jesus is not concerned with Pilate’s judgment of these people but of God’s judgment of them. Note carefully that Jesus does not call them innocent, he simply asks if they were sinners (a`martwloi.) above all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? Jesus answers his own question, he says they were not.

He asks the same question using the natural disaster/accident scenario: “Were the people who were killed when the tower fell on them culprits, sinners, debtors (ovfeile,tai) above all other people living in Jerusalem at the time? Again Jesus answers no. They were not punished for being sinners “above all” others.

They were not worse; they were sinners just like the rest. The point is that they were just like us – theologically – we all deserve their fate!!! The question turns the issue on itself – the question isn’t “why did they die?” the question is, why am I still alive? I am no better than they are, so why am I still here?

The Jews of Jesus time were very much like us in this regard. They firmly believed in the principle of reaping and sowing: “They must have brought this upon themselves by indulgence in sin” and “They are being punished for their sin.” This principle is accurate. I don’t challenge the principle of reaping and sowing, nor do I question it. But it is not a question of comparison, it is a universal principle – Paul put it this way: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It is not a matter of doing better than the next guy. It is a matter of getting right with God.

We use comparison to justify ourselves.

  • God will accept me; I am not a murderer like Scott Peterson.
  • God will accept me; I am not an Adolph Hitler, I am not a …
  • God will accept me; I am not as bad as my neighbor

The problem is that the premise is false, and Jesus challenges this idea – you are no better than those who have just perished. He goes on to warn his listeners, twice with this statement: “…unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

This fate awaits all sinners, the only escape is repentance. The only escape is to appeal to the mercy and grace of God.

Jesus gives no answer beyond this. He simply says two things: They weren’t any worse than you and you had better take note and repent, or else the same fate awaits you.

The question we must answer before we move on to application to the tsunami is this: Was Jesus speaking of the generalities of sin, salvation and the problem of evil, or did he have a more specific issue in mind.

Some have said that Jesus here is specifically referring to the need for Jews to repent and follow Jesus so that they would heed his warnings to flee the things to come and escape a fate similar to the two scenarios listed here, i.e. Roman oppression and the destruction of the temple. I think that is likely. But does that hinder us from expanding the application to the generalities of sin, salvation and the problem of evil. No, it does not, because it harmonizes with the Biblical teaching on these issues.

The Sovereignty & Providence of God

We believe that God is sovereign. That means he rules everything. He is the only God, therefore He is the ultimate authority over all things, including evil and calamity.

This absolute sovereignty of God has posed a philosophical problem for us. What distinguishes God from being the ruler of everything including evil and being responsible for everything including evil? Before I make a meager attempt at explaining how God can be over evil but not responsible as evil, let me make this one cogent point. The Bible never attempts to make this distinction, or to explain God’s proximity to evil. It simply declares that God is good and not evil.

Look carefully at Isaiah 45:5-7:

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.

What seems more important to God is not to distance Himself from evil or “calamity” as this verse calls it, but to express His absolute sovereignty. He simply says “Where else did it come from?? I am the only God.”

The Providence of God can be defined as His sovereignty in action.

Here is how Louis Berkhof defines Providence:

“…that continued exercise of the divine energy whereby the Creator preserves all His creatures, is operative in all that comes to pass in the world, and directs all things to their appointed end. This definition indicates that there are three elements in providence, namely preservation, concurrence or cooperation, and government.”

The parts of Providence:

Preservation: “…that continuous work of God by which He maintains the things which He created, together with the properties and powers with which He endowed them.”

Concurrence: “…the cooperation of the divine power with all subordinate powers, according to the pre-established laws of their operation, causing them to act and to act precisely as they do.”

Government: “…that continued activity of God whereby He rules all things teleologically so as to secure the accomplishment of the divine purpose.”

(L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, pp. 166-175)

According to this definition nothing occurs outside the providence of God. He is purposefully navigating the course of the world and all that is in it. The erroneous picture of God and human events that arises out of a bad theology of providence is that God only controls good things or good outcomes. If there is an avoidance of disaster, we thank God (rightly so), but if there is a disaster we attempt to insulate God. We say “he allowed it to happen.” But the doctrine of providence says more than that – there was a purpose in it happening.

So, what could possibly be God’s purpose in a Tsunami and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people?

Wrong question. That is simply a question of magnitude. Why ask that question when every human that has ever lived has come to a tragic end. Today’s population is 6.5 many billion. Within 70 years they will mostly be dead!!!! Why does it matter that the deaths took place in one day or in many days? They still die!! Life is still removed from them. The providence of God tells us that God has ordained the length of my days (Psalm 139:16). My death is part of the decree and providence of God. To put it bluntly, He kills me.

The appropriate question is: Why does any man die?

But the other question, “why the Tsunami?”, still deserves an answer. It is found in understanding the holiness and wrath of God.

The Holiness & Wrath of God

Just as God is completely sovereign, absolutely sovereign if you will, He is just as completely holy. He is righteous, good and pure. Part of the definition of holiness is that He has abhorrence for sin.

In order to understand God’s holiness, we must understand evil. What is evil? Mostly we define evil as the loss or diminishing of human life. Therefore, the Tsunami can be classified as evil (although our culture has a hard time calling natural calamity evil). Someone killing someone else though would be considered evil. A god who used natural disaster to kill people is questioned, his goodness is doubted. But Biblically evil is more appropriately defined as rebellion against a sovereign and holy creator. This would include in most cases the killing of human life, but not in every case. Hence we can postulate a just war or capital punishment.

God has abhorrence for rebellion against himself. That is Biblical evil. When God’s creation rebels, mocks, blasphemes the God who created it, God punishes with a wrath that is holy and justified.

The Book of Romans explains it most clearly. God has shown himself to be God, man has rebelled against Him. There is not one righteous person. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The wages of sin is death. That is our straightforward Biblical explanation of death. One at a time, 400,000 all at once, it makes no difference. It is the righteous activity of a sovereign and providential God.

The Noah story demonstrates this principle. God was justified killing those who rebelled against Him. Noah’s salvation is shown not simply in the salvation of his physical existence, that is simply a down payment on the true salvation of God, eternal life. So, the Bible tells us that God is still actively responding in wrath against ungodliness. He uses whatever means at His disposal.

Biblically, natural disaster can easily be classified as an expression of the wrath of God in response to the rebellion of man, just as every man’s death is an expression of punishment for sin. Salvation by no means cancels human responsibility.

List of disasters in 20th century here

Yangtze River Flood, 1931.The summer flood along the Yangtze during July- August 1931 was the most severe, with over 51 million people affected (1/4 of China’’s population). 3.7 million people perished from this greatest disaster of the century due to disease, starvation or drowning. This flood was preceded by a prolonged drought in Chinaduring the 1928- 1930 period.

Bangladesh Cyclone, November 1970. The greatest tropical system disaster this century occurred in Bangladesh in November 1970. Winds coupled with a storm surge killed between 300,000- 500,000people. These cyclones usually cause the most misery, loss of life, and suffering in low lying areas in Bangladesh and coastal India.

BangladeshCyclone 02B, April 1991. Another cyclone struck the Chittagong region in Bangladesh in 1991 killing over 138,000 people and causing damage in excess of 1.5 billion dollars. The tropical cyclone devastated the coastal area southeast of Dacca with winds in excess of 130kts and a 20 foot storm surge.

Asian Droughts.

Numerous drought related disasters have occurred over the Asian mainland this century. The most notable include:

Indian Drought of 1900-1/4 to 3 1/4 million die due to drought, starvation and disease

Chinese Famine of 1907-Over 24 million perish from starvation

Chinese Famine of 1928-1930-Over 3 million perish in northwest China

Chinese Famine of 1936-5 million Chinese die in what is called the ““New Famine””

Chinese Drought 1941-1942-Over 3 million perish from starvation

Indian Drought of 1965-1967-Over 1.5 million perish in

Soviet Union(Ukraine and Volga regions) 1921-1922-¼¼ to 5 million perish from drought

The study, which categorizes by cause and demographics the over 50 million deaths which occurred worldwide in the year 1990

The study authors determined the top 10 global killers to be: heart attack (6.3 million deaths); stroke (4.4 million); pneumonia (4.3 million); diarrhea (2.9 million); birth-related illnesses (2.4 million); bronchitis/emphysema (2.2 million); tuberculosis (2 million); measles (1.1 million); road accidents (1 million); and cancers of the lung, bronchus, and trachea (900,000).

Almost 200,000 murders worldwide in 2000…

Let’s rewrite Luke 13:4:

“Or do you suppose that those 400,000 on whom the Tsunami and earthquake fell in the Indian Ocean region were worse sinners than all the men who lived in America?? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Ecclesiastes tells us: 7:2 It is better to go to a house of mourning Than to go to a house of feasting, Because that is the end of every man, And the living takes it to heart.

Why is that true?? These sort of things remind us of our frailty. That life is a gift, not a right. That we die because we are sinners deserving of death. That salvation comes only by the mercy and grace of God – not my choices, my righteousness, my goodness. The end of every man is a certainty, the living takes that to heart while he is living.

Last week we looked at Psalm 90 – it would be good to read it again this morning. Remember the prayer: teach us to number our days so that we may present to you a heart of wisdom. The radical disaster of last week should point us to the Lord and cause us to bend our knee to Him who created us and rules by His word.

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6 Responses

  1. About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].
    Peace Be With You

  2. Hey Michael,

    Thanks for sharing your story. It reminds me of the verse in Colossians 1:13: He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son.


  3. “… God will accept me; I am not a murderer like Scott Peterson …”

    Scott Peterson is innocent – the evidence proved it. What will god do about those who chose to hate Peterson without reason instead of learning the facts? And with the jury? And the prosecutors and police?

  4. I have never been exposed to any idea that has affected me so deeply as this one, the ultimate sovreignty of God. I have never been comfortable with a doctrine that skirts the topic and speaks of God “allowing” evil; it just never quite rang true with me. I think those who stood in the shadow of Mount Sinai and who later could not even bring themselves to utter the Name above all Names or even to write It, had the correct reverentual fear of a God who is in control of ALL things. Thank you Steve. I’ve printed and posted in my office Berkhof’s definition of Providence and it brings me great comfort in this chaotic world. That you for continuing to stretch us. I love it!

  5. Nice post!
    I have enjoyed it. I think that from a christian view it is quite persuasive. Thank you for that post.
    Ps. If you or anyone would like to read more about the problem of evil then please come to my web page there is a new post under “the benefits of natural evil”
    thank you

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The TempleBlog started as my personal blog in October of 2006 with my first post: John Stott – it was a listing of John Stott quotes.

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