MESSAGE FOR SEPTEMBER 11, 2011
ON GOD’S RELATIONSHIP TO MORAL EVIL
This past Wednesday evening a program aired on PBS on the topic of Faith and 9/11. It presented various perspectives on the events of 9/11 from New Yorkers who, for the most part had lost loved ones in the collapse of the twin towers. Although a few people interviewed testified that their faith in God was strengthened by going through this ordeal, there were, during the time I was watching, several people whose faith in God was permanently shattered. Many said that the fact that God would allow these horrific events to happen to their loved ones completely destroyed their faith in him. As we in the church are confronted with others who are processing the problem of evil like these folks, we must strive to be able to speak truth into that vacuum.
This is part of our responsibility to be the light of the world—to radiate the light of Biblical truth when seemingly endless disasters occur—whether they are examples of moral evil, as in the case of 9/11, or natural evils like hurricane Irene. Too often evangelical believers do not reflect God’s mind on this topic as expressed in the Bible. This morning, as we did after hurricane Katrina, we want to give a Biblical survey—a broad look at the problem of evil. We would need far more time than we have this morning and a far more insightful theologian to give anything approximating a Biblically comprehensive treatment of this topic.
The question “If God is good and in control of all things, then why is there evil in the world?” is exquisitely difficult to answer. Theologian Millard Erickson admits, “We should not set our expectations too high in our endeavor to deal with the problem of evil. Something less than complete resolution will have to suffice for us. It is important to recognize that this is a very severe problem, perhaps the most severe of all intellectual problems facing theism. We are dealing here with a problem that has occupied the attention of some of the greatest minds of the Christian church, intellects such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. None of them were able to put the problem to rest finally and completely.” We must know that we will never in this life get our minds fully around all this and that should not surprise trouble us as believers. If we believe that God is infinite and we are finite, that necessitates that we will not understand all that he does because the finite cannot grasp the infinite. We shouldn’t feel badly that we aren’t able to unscrew the inscrutable—to plumb the depths of this topic.
Having said that, we nonetheless have a Bible that, although not comprehensive in its expression of God’s wisdom, is an inerrant expression of his wisdom and it has much to say to this problem. So, with the goal of enabling us to speak more ably into a world that has far more questions about evil than answers, our guiding question will be, “How are we to understand and respond to God’s relationship to moral evil like that perpetrated on 9/11?” This is especially important in our day and age because unhelpful and even blasphemous responses abound in the world and even among some claiming to be evangelical Christians. Some in the world shake their fist at God, blaming him either for his alleged indifference or gross injustice. Some, claiming to be Christians believe: “God would stop disasters like this if he could, but he for such and such a reason He just isn’t able.” Those responses do not represent Biblical teaching.
As we discuss God’s relationship to evil, let’s start with two preliminary truths that must lay the foundation for our thinking. First, God created all things perfect—without moral evil. The Genesis account tells us that there was no evil in the world before the fall. God said all that he had created was “very good.” Second, God created humanity (and angels) with the capacity to choose and that made possible the entrance of evil into the world. When God commanded Adam and Eve, not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, having created them with the capacity to choose to disobey that command, the possibility of evil existed. Some like to say that God made evil possible, man made it actual.
those two truths, we can now move a bit deeper into God’s relationship to evil. Today, let’s look at two broad
truths that get us moving in the right direction as we examine this controversial topic. First,
the Bible teaches that: God has a close relationship to evil because he is sovereign over it. This
only makes sense.
If God is absolutely
sovereign over this world—in complete control of all of it and evil is a big part of this world, then God must
be in control of evil. And
if he’s in control of evil, he must have to get close to it sometimes. If
not, then this sinful world would be spinning completely out of his control. We
see God’s close relationship to evil in texts like
Those texts tend to speak of natural or physical evil, but God is also closely related to moral evil—fallen people doing evil things. For instance, Second Samuel tells us that David rebelled against God and ordered his general, Joab—who strongly objected to the order—to take a census of the Israelite army. You’ll recall God judged that sin of unbelief through a very severe plague that killed 70,000 men and David later confessed it as a sin where he had been “very foolish” [24:10]. So David’s actions here were just plain sinful--evil. Yet, chapter 24:1 introduces this account with these words, “1 Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” Was God the author of this sin—actively inciting evil?
How are we to take this text? If it is taken out of the larger context of Scripture, it would make God ordering David to sin. However, knowing the broader context of the Bible and something about Biblical interpretation helps us here. First, with respect to the census, we must also read the Chronicler’s account of the same incident. The Chronicler says in First Chronicles 21:1, He records it this way, “1 Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.” The same incident, but a different actor here—Satan. What are we to make of that? The two accounts must be taken together to get the meaning. We must know the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible and he would not directly contradict himself. The point is—by recording these two events this way—the Spirit wants us to see the intense, close sovereign control God exercises over evil. God was in complete control of that event. These two accounts are called a paradox. They are two seemingly contradictory statements that in reality express a complex truth. God’s relationship to evil is very complex. Think about it--how can God, on the one hand never be the author of evil, but at the same time be completely sovereign over it? That is a mystery—God has not revealed how that works to us and a rule of Biblical interpretation is that Biblical authors often use paradoxes to convey mystery.
We see the same paradoxical dynamic in the book of Job. When you read chapters one and two, it’s vividly clear who is attacking Job, his family, his possessions and his health. Satan has been given permission by God to try to cause Job to curse God and so Satan attacks him viciously, believing Job will respond to his enormous losses by cursing God. The rest of the book takes on the journey of how Job processed all this—along with three comforters who were anything but comforting and who later earned a stiff rebuke from God. We know all that, but did you know that in the final chapter of Job, God is concluding the narrative in chapter 42:10. The author writes, “10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends. And the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him. And each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold.” In the beginning of the book, it’s Satan under God’s sovereign hand who brings calamity to Job. In the final chapter, the author pictures God as bringing evil or disaster on Job. Again, the explanation is a paradox. These two seemingly contradict statements communicate a complex truth. That is—although God does not author sin, he nonetheless is completely sovereign over it.
Likewise, when Samuel says that it was God who incited David, but the Chronicler says it was Satan who incited David to the census, the Holy Spirit is telling us something important about God’s relationship to the sinful census through the use of that paradox. That is--that God is sovereign over the sin, but he is not the author of it, Satan is. You may ask, “Yes, but what about those verses you cited earlier about God bringing disaster and creating calamity? Is there a paradox there as well?” Yes. The paradox is seen when we see other, seemingly contradictory Biblical truths about God. The paradox is revealed when we compare those verses on God’s role in natural disasters with verses that speak of God’s utter sinlessness. Deuteronomy 32:4 says of God,4 “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” God’s role in disasters must be consistent with that truth.
Likewise, 1 John 1:5 says, “5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” God’s role in disasters must be understood in a way that preserves his utter absence of moral darkness. Finally, James 1:13 says, “13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” Those verses combine to say that God is without iniquity, has no darkness at all in him and cannot even be tempted by evil, much less perpetrate it. When you combine those verses with texts like “7 I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things” the paradox is that on the one hand, God is sinless, radiant and cannot even be tempted by sin--without even the slightest hint of evil, yet at the same time, he is absolutely sovereign—in control over all things—disasters and calamities included.
Now, let’s look at some texts that explicitly teach this truth about God without using paradox. Romans 11:36 is one of the best known. Earlier in chapter 11, Paul writes several inspiring statements on God’s matchless and unquestionable wisdom. Then he erupts in a Holy Spirit-inspired doxology—“Oh, the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God.” Then he justifies his rapturous praise to God for his transcendent wisdom by saying, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” This verse communicates a lot of truth in only a few words. The crucial word here is ALL—all things are FROM him—that is, they in some way originate with him—they are THROUGH him—that is, they are filtered and measured and limited by His sovereign hand, so that not one infinitesimal bit of pain or suffering occurs that is not absolutely necessary to his sovereign plan. Finally, all things are TO him. That is, they occur and they return back to him and, in ways we often do not now understand, they bring him praise and glory as they express the “depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God.” God’s infinite wisdom and knowledge is expressed in ALL things—even those things that are evil, and the fact that we cannot fully understand how evil can express God’s wisdom could be doesn’t change that truth.
If the events of 9/11 were not in some way (that we cannot now understand fully) part of God’s will, you can be assured they would not have occurred because all that takes place is under His control. Yet, his will in sinful events is mysteriously accomplished in a way that he never perpetrates or authors evil. That’s a paradox and we must accept it if we are to believe what the Bible says about God’s relationship to evil.
These truths should comfort us because they assure us that an infinitely wise, loving and good God is over these events. They are not the simply result of “chance” or occur outside God’s ability to control his world. There are divine purposes behind these events that are often hidden to us, but they give these disasters a larger, transcendent purpose and meaning. Now, a word of strong caution is appropriate. When we apply these truths in contexts like 9/11 or some other moral or natural evil, we must be careful to do so with the goal of either: stimulating increased worship of, or trust and comfort in God. If we don’t use these truths to encourage people toward those limited ends, we will end up bludgeoning them with what feels to them like a cruel, hard theological club. We must never do that. Neither should we go to the other end of the spectrum and do, as some in evangelicalism have done in recent years. That is--run from these difficult, politically incorrect truths with the ill-conceived and arrogant purpose of trying to defend God. God doesn’t need us to defend Him! As we sang earlier, “God is his own interpreter and he will make it plain” in His time. Some people bend over backwards trying to get God off the hook in these context—God doesn’t need that. Neither should we give out these explanations about evil to someone who has recently suffered from evil and is in deep pain. Those people don’t need “answers”; they need a hug and a person who will sit and weep with them. You don’t make these arguments to someone who yesterday watched their husband vaporize in a ball of fire on the 81st floor of the north tower!
That leads us to our second major truth that we have already introduced. That is: God has his own purposes and intentions in these expressions of evil. Again, we must be very careful here. Ultimately, the Bible does not give us all God’s purposes in these contexts. We must at some point clothe ourselves in the truth of Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” God has simply not revealed all his purposes to us. What we must never do is smugly proclaim that (for instance) 9/11 was “nothing more than the much-deserved judgment of God on that raunchy, vile city of New York it richly deserved.” Jesus had some very hard words to say about those kinds of judgments in Luke 13. Pontius Pilate’s men had recently butchered some Galileans as they were sacrificing their animals in the temple. In addition, a large structure known as the Tower of Siloam had recently fallen and killed 18 people. People had evidently been speculating about the purposes of God in the two events and they saw his divine judgment on those who were killed.
Jesus’ response to those speculations is severe. He says in 13:2”…Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." These shallow onlookers of tragedy were looking at the hapless victims and smugly assuming THEY deserved God’s judgment. Jesus instead tells them they should focus NOT on the victims, but on themselves. According to Jesus, what was remarkable about these events was NOT that the victims had been killed, but rather that in the mercy of God, the onlookers had been spared. The often overlooked truth in these discussions of victims of evil is that before a Holy God who demands perfection from humanity--ALL the people who died or suffered in 9/11 deserved much worse... And WE deserve much worse. We will never have God’s mind on these tragedies until we own that crucial truth.
R.C. Sproul is right when he says, “We are all sitting on death row awaiting execution. The greatest mass killer of all time was not Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin. The greatest mass killer of all is Mother Nature. Everyone falls to her. Mother Nature does not act independently from God. She is merely the avenger of a holy God…the mysterious aspect of the mystery of sin is NOT that the sinner deserves to die but rather that the sinner in the average situation continues to exist.” We are so inundated with the day to day mercies of God, we grow to think we DESERVE life and health and homes and comfort. We do not—those are expressions of God’s underserved grace. Jesus’ point in Luke 13 is to say that one of God’s purpose in these disasters is a call from him for all of us to repent.
In response to the 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia, John Piper gives us crucial Biblical truth to help us process evil. He says, “The point of every deadly calamity is this: Repent. Let our hearts be broken that God means so little to us. Grieve that he is a whipping boy to be blamed for pain, but not praised for pleasure. Lament that he makes headlines only when man mocks his power, but no headlines for ten thousand days of wrath withheld. Let us rend our hearts that we love life more than we love Jesus Christ. Let us cast ourselves on the mercy of our Maker. He offers it through the death and resurrection of His Son. This is the point of all pleasure and all pain. Pleasure says: “God is like this, only better; don’t make an idol out of me. I only point. Pain says, “What sin deserves is like me, only worse; don’t take offence at me. I am a merciful warning.” That truth is so important in all this.
As we reflect on the inexpressible pain on the faces of the victims of 9/11 that once again flash across our television screens and the devastation that was wrecked upon their lives, we must reflect on their pain and say to ourselves, “That is what MY sin deserves. I deserve to be in that collapsing tower—on flight 93…only I deserved worse than that.” Rather than point fingers at the sin of New York, we should instead interpret the events of a decade ago as a “merciful warning” to us to repent. From Luke 13 we see that we must first, take the pain and anguish and suffering we see and receive that as a warning to repent of making this world and its treasures our focus. The judgment in hell inflicted on idolaters, who count this life and the things in it more important than God, is infinitely worse than anything suffered by those struck down in 9/11.
More than that, we know that ultimately God’s purpose for all things is his glory. And without the presence of evil in this world, God would receive much less glory. Let’s explain. God makes evil work for good on both a large scale and on a smaller scale and no one else can do that. On a broad scale, God uses evil for his glory because without evil in this world we would know much less of him. If there were no evil in this world, then how would we come to know his grace or mercy or patience or his justice or his wrath? None of those aspects of his character would be necessary if the world was without evil. Those attributes of God are only manifest in their glorious expression in the presence of evil. God’s ultimate purpose is his glory and that should be our ultimate desire as well. If it is, then when we experience evil of some sort, we should look to God for the grace to praise him for it because the presence of evil is what allows so much of God’s glorious character to be seen. And some time in eternity, God will reveal to us even more of his purposes and we will see even more of the depths of the riches of his wisdom and knowledge.
On a smaller scale, God uses specific evil events to do good all the time—he redeems them. We see this continually in the Bible. One of them is in the case of David’s sin with Bathsheba. David commits this horrific set of sins, but in the end, who does God choose to be the mother of Solomon—David’s successor? Bathsheba. God redeems evil. In Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ, Tamar and Rahab are included in Joseph’s family line—two prostitutes—along with Bathsheba, an adulteress. God uses evil for good all the time. Romans 8:28-29 says, “8 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” God uses all things—even and especially the bad things for good because he uses them to conform us to the image of his Son. That’s redemption…but the ultimate expression of redemption—of God using evil for good--is in the cross. There has never been a greater moral evil perpetrated than the cross because in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, you have the only sinless human who ever lived—who unlike every other victim of evil deserved no harm, but he was torturously executed for sins he did not commit. Yet, that ultimate moral evil produced the ultimate, God-glorifying moral good—the purchase of countless sinners for God, who deserve eternal torment, but who instead— because of the redemptive evil of the cross, will instead know eternal bliss. Do you see how the presence of evil works to bring much glory to God?
That’s how we are to respond—first, to repent of our own sin of treasuring the things of this world, which can be destroyed by moths and rust and jets piloted by fanatics or falling buildings or hurricanes. Then we must live out of the mercy we have received from God by reaching out to others with the love of Jesus. The Great Commission is still our purpose and these contexts provide us with an enhanced opportunity to do that because we can speak the truth into people who are confused and questioning and whose lives and theological boxes have been were blown to smithereens. May God grant us the grace to see evil through a biblical lens so that we can meaningfully comfort others and worship our heavenly Father more fully because we see his glory in his goodness and his sovereign control over and purpose for, all things.
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