The Problem of Evil and the Cross of Christ

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Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent.

Is he both able and willing: whence then is evil?"

(David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Evil, part 10)

In order for a theodicy (a justification of God's ways) to stand it must be able to harmonize at least three truths presented in Biblical revelation: (1) God is all-powerful; (2) God is good; and (3) Evil is real. Although all elements are affirmed by Scripture, the third element -- evil is real -- is the one most directly observable by all. This evil is of two general types: natural evil (catastrophic weather, disease, decay, etc.) and moral evil (evil acts that stem from human choice).

The most common way to reconcile the three truths is by weakening one of the propositions. Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, writes, “I believe in God. But I do not believe the same things about Him that I did years ago when I was growing up, or when I was a theological student. I recognize His limitations.”[1] It was the untimely death of Kushner's son that drove him to question his traditional Jewish faith and abandon a belief in God's omnipotence.[2] According to Kushner, God would like to eliminate evil, but He can't -- He is not powerful enough. He writes, “God does not want you to be sick or crippled. He didn’t make you have this problem, and He doesn’t want you to go on having it, but He can’t make it go away. That is something which is too hard even for God.”[3] Although Kushner's desire is to comfort hurting people with this knowledge of God's limitations, the negative implications of his teaching are immense. The problem of evil is explained, not by removing the problem of evil, but by stating that evil is an inevitable problem because God is unable to do anything about it. In short, evil is as powerful, or perhaps, even more powerful than God.

Others, like Mary Baker Eddy, modify the proposition "evil is real" or weaken the concept of God's goodness. Regardless of the specifics, the outcome is the same: one of the three truths is weakened or modified to minimize the tension between the statements. In Christian Theology, Millard Erickson ends his treatment by attempting to "present several themes that in combination will help us deal with the problem."[4] These themes are presented in no clear logical order. He considers freedom to be an essential capacity of human beings. He teaches that God has created the world in such a way that good things can be misused for evil purposes. He challenges us to expand our view of good beyond what is merely pleasurable at the moment. He points out that human sin (moral evil) is the reason for evil in creation (natural evil). He presents God as a knowing and willing recipient of the evil effects of mankind's sin. Finally, he calls us to consider the importance of hope in a life hereafter as the realization of God's final triumph over evil -- bringing ultimate justice and eternal righteousness. Erickson hopes the cumulative weight of these diverse themes will shed some light upon the problem of evil.

Although many of Erickson's themes are helpful and illuminating, I find it interesting that he makes no attempt to directly harmonize the three propositions in tension: God is all-powerful, God is good, evil is real. The chief task in attempting to shed light on the problem of evil must be to prove that all three truths in tension can co-exist without weakening or modifying any one truth.

Without attempting to defend a full theodicy (like Erickson, I also hold that this task is humanly impossible because of our limited knowledge and experience), I do think that the three truths can be shown to co-exist in a number of instances in biblical revelation. Joseph -- sold into slavery, put in prison, and then raised to a position of power second-to-one -- admitted to his brothers that God's sovereignty and goodness were concurrently at work alongside his brothers evil actions and motives (Gen. 45:5-8; 50:20). Job, a righteous man in God's sight and thus an innocent sufferer under the powers of evil (both natural and moral evil), learned of God's sovereign power because of His painful afflictions.

But the best example of the co-existence of God's omnipotence, goodness, and the reality of evil is found at the cross of Christ. There, the sheer and utter evilness of evil is demonstrated. At the cross of Christ, we view the height of suffering and the greatest evil -- for when the greatest innocent being encounters the greatest injustice, we have the greatest evil. Jesus is betrayed by his close friend, abandoned by His disciples, rejected by His own people, unjustly tried by the Roman government, and cruelly treated by Jews and Romans alike. In the midst of this utter display of evil, God's complete sovereignty is demonstrated (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). God both purposed and willed the cross -- even sovereignly using the evil motives and acts of men to accomplish His saving work. It is at this predetermined scene of utter evil that God's goodness is demonstrated most fully and clearly. God willed and ordained the weakness of the cross of Christ from all eternity as a demonstration of His goodness, love, and mercy. Indeed, there is no greater demonstration of God's love! (1 John 4:9-10)

God, in the Person of Christ, has suffered and continues to share our sufferings (Acts 9:4-5; Heb. 2:18; 4:15). This is amazing in itself, but one's sense of wonder and gratitude increases when one realizes that God sovereignly ordained the introduction of sin into His creation with full knowledge of the ramifications upon Himself. Included in God's purpose in creation was the foreknowledge that He would enter human history in the Person of the Son and personally bear the evil effects of sin. In other words, God is not aloof or uncaring in allowing sin to enter human history, but has actually taken an active role in participating in, suffering under, and, ultimately, conquering sin. God entered human history and suffered under a curse that He had decreed! Whether or not we have a full solution to the problem of evil, we can know one thing for sure -- God cares! And He has taken bold steps to destroy and remove evil. At the cross of Christ, the greatest evil -- the betrayal and crucifixion of the Son of God -- becomes the greatest good.

The implications of this act extend not only to moral evil, but also to natural evil. The world is cursed because of the sin of Adam. Christ, as the new Adam, during His earthly ministry began to reverse the evil effects of sin. On the cross He conquered the powers of evil (Col 2:15). Because of His work on the cross, all things in heaven and earth are being summed up under His authority (Eph. 1:10; 1 Cor. 15:20-28; Col. 1:20; Rom. 8:20-22). One day, Christ will usher in a new heavens and earth, where righteousness dwells! (2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21 - 22)

In short, at the cross of Christ, God's greatness, God's goodness, and the reality of evil co-exist without diminishing or modifying any one of these truths. God sovereignly ordains and overrules all events surrounding the cross; God reveals His love, mercy and goodness through the cross; all the while, Christ's crucifixion remains a result of real human evil and injustice.

[1] Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schocken, 1981).

[2] This is a good example of how "the religious form" of the problem of evil can inform and shape "the theological form" of the problem of evil -- a helpful distinction Erickson makes on page 438 of Christian Theology.

[3] Harold Kushner.

[4] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998), 448.

© Richard J. Vincent, September 1, 2000

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