A Good God in a Wicked World: Considering the Problem of Evil, Part 3

By Jonathan Moreno. From DBSJ 22 (2017): 75-90. Republished with permission. Read the series.

An Answer

The purpose of this section is to present a viable theodicy.36 However, before embarking upon this endeavor, it will be helpful to temper expectations by briefly considering the parameters and limitations of any conclusions that are drawn.

The Parameters of the Answer

A complete and acceptable answer to the problem need only demonstrate that the presence of evil in the universe creates no internal contradictions within a given theological system. A satisfactory solution is not required to alleviate every tension caused by evil or to provide the specific reasons for every instance of evil. The Christian’s answer need only prove that all his theological beliefs are sufficiently harmonized.

The Limitations of the Answer

An additional consideration preliminary to formulating a theodicy is the recognition of its limitations. The answer to the problem is limited by mankind’s finiteness and inferiority.

Mankind’s Finiteness: Is This a Problem that Can Be Solved?

Due to mankind’s physical and cognitive limitations, he is incapable of fully comprehending an infinite God (Ps 139:6). For this reason, many see the quest for theodicy as a futile and foolish endeavor. It is beyond the scope of man’s ability, it is argued, to understand an incomprehensible God whose judgments are unsearchable, and whose ways inscrutable (Rom 11:33). Humanity’s responsibility is simply to hold all antinomies in faith, without attempting to resolve the contradictions. Due to man’s limitations, the presence of evil is a problem that cannot be solved in the mind of man.

While it is crucial that man come to terms with his finite qualities in theodicy building, his limitations do not disqualify him from the task entirely: though God is incomprehensible, he is not inapprehensible. Although God cannot be known exhaustively, he can be known truly by finite creatures (Jer 9:23–24). Additionally, it is man’s responsibility to pursue a deeper understanding of the mind, ways, and judgments of God that have been revealed in the Scriptures (Deut 29:29).

Mankind’s Inferiority: Is This a Problem that Should Be Solved?

A second limitation to consider is man’s positional subordination to an autonomous and sovereign God. Even if the problem of evil is a question that can be answered, it is needful to consider if it is one that should be answered. When Job demanded an explanation from God for the evils in his life, instead of providing an answer, God responded with a barrage of questions of his own (Job 38–41). In the face of God’s overwhelming glory, Job humbly cried, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3, 6).37

Is it ever man’s place to question the attributes of God even if those attributes seem to contradict the experience of pain, suffering and evil? Does man have the authority to investigate the veracity of God’s love, power, and wisdom in the face of evil? Does God really need man to rush to his defense in order to appease his critics? For these reasons, many believe that man has no right to pose questions like these, and would do well to stop asking questions and simply trust that the Judge of all the earth will do right (Gen 18:24).

The warning is valid. When dealing with a topic that seeks to defend God to man, it is vital that it be placed in a proper perspective. Concerning man’s subordination to God, there are a number of implications that must be considered. First, God does not need man to defend him like a defendant needs an attorney. Second, God is not obligated to justify his deeds to his creation. Whenever antinomies arise in theology that the finite mind cannot resolve, it must be affirmed that a resolution is possible even if solely in the mind of God. The presence of evil is a problem for man, but not a problem for God. Finally, mankind never has the authority to accuse God or level any complaint against him. As Frame warns, “When we put ourselves in the proud position of demanding an answer then we can expect a rebuke from God like the [rebuke] he gave to Job.38

In spite of these limitations and pitfalls, formulating a biblical defense for the problem of evil is necessary not only so that the believer can contend for the faith (Jude 1:3) and make a defense for the hope that is in him (1 Peter 3:15), but also so that the orthodox Christian can identify and “protest against those solutions of this great problem which destroy either the nature of sin or the nature of God.39 It is with this in mind that we now turn to the most viable answer to the problem of evil.

A Viable Answer

This section will present the defense that the author believes to be the most viable solution to the problem of evil. It is accepted as the best option for three primary reasons. First, it provides a coherent explanation for the problem of evil within a biblical worldview. Second, it does not compromise any biblical doctrines or soften any of God’s attributes in order to retain its logical coherence, and third, it contains clear biblical support. Since this solution is a modification of the greater-good defense, it will be helpful to briefly examine the greater-good defense before the position affirmed by the author is considered.

The Greater-Good Defense

At the heart of the greater-good defense is the premise that God is justified in permitting evil because it results in the greater good of his people. Not only does good often come out of evil, but many goods are dependent upon evil for their expression. For example, man would never experience courage without conflict, compassion without distress, mercy without offense, or perseverance without hardship. In light of this, God remains good in permitting evil because he uses it for good.40 As R. C. Sproul concludes, “God’s sovereignty stands over evil, and he is able to bring good out of evil and to use evil for his holy purposes.”41

Although this defense does not relieve all tensions, it is not without biblical support. The life of Joseph is a fitting example. He was mistreated by his brothers, torn from his family, sold into slavery, falsely accused, and thrown into prison. Yet at the end of his story, Joseph sees that God, in his infinite goodness, used the evils in his life to bring about the salvation of thousands from famine (Gen 50:20). Perhaps the clearest example of good coming through evil is demonstrated in the greatest atrocity in history, viz., the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This wicked act of sinful men was not gratuitous, but was the means by which God would bring about the salvation of his elect (Acts 2:23).

The greater-good defense provides a theodicy that is both internally coherent and biblically based; however, it is not without its issues. First, this defense appears to rely upon the erroneous ethic of consequentialism.42 For if God is justified in causing evil solely on the basis of its positive results, then the necessary implication is that the ends can justify the means. This, however, is an ethic that cannot comport with the teachings in Scripture (e.g., Rom 6:1–2). Second, the greater-good defense tends to build its case on an anthropocentric focus for God’s eternal plans and purposes. Although man’s greatest pleasure is found in God (Ps 16:11), and he benefits from God’s plans, it is arrogant and fallacious to hold that the center of God’s activity in the universe is the welfare and happiness of man. Robert Reymond aptly notes:

We have not penetrated God’s purpose sufficiently if we conclude that we are the center of God’s purpose or that his purpose terminates finally upon us by accomplishing our glorification. Rather, our glorification is only the means to a higher, indeed, the highest end conceivable—“that God’s Son might be the Firstborn among many brothers” (Rom 8:29), and all to the praise of God’s glorious grace (Eph 1:6, 10, 12, 14; 2:7).43

In spite of these issues, the greater-good defense should not be rejected completely. It is possible to salvage this position by altering the result of evil from the anthropocentric good of man to the theocentric glory of God.44 This revised defense, identified as The Greatest-Glory Defense,45 will be the focus of the following section.

The Greatest-Glory Defense

The solution proposed by the author is best understood as a modified greater-good defense. Although both responses contain a similar line of reasoning, the point of divergence is the content of the good that is produced from evil. Instead of focusing the positive results of evil solely upon the happiness and welfare of mankind, this defense sees a greater purpose at work, namely, the glory of God. Thus God uses evil to communicate the fullest manifestation of himself to his image-bearers. Hodge observes that “there could be no manifestation of [God’s] mercy without misery or of his grace and justice if there were no sin. As the heavens declare the glory of God, so he has devised the plan of redemption ‘to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God’ (Eph 3:10).”46 Thus evil is a necessary means by which God reveals aspects of himself to his creation. Without evil, mankind would know nothing of God’s patience, forgiveness, mercy, and grace.47

A fitting biblical example is seen in the eleventh chapter of John’s gospel. In this narrative, Jesus is informed that his friend Lazarus is fatally ill. Upon receiving the report, Jesus makes it clear that Lazarus’s illness is neither an accident nor a tragedy. Instead, “it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God might be glorified through it” (John 11:4). In this passage, Jesus uses the death of his beloved friend to display his glory to grieving sisters, doubting Jews, and ignorant apostles.48 Throughout biblical history, God glorifies himself though his victory over evil, and his punishment of it (either at the cross or in the lake of fire).49

Although it is difficult to comprehend how a world with evil could be God’s greatest means of receiving glory, it is not hard to imagine how a world without evil would diminish his glory. For example, if Adam as humanity’s representative would have passed the test in the garden then his confirmed holiness, being imputed to all his progeny, would guarantee a world for humanity that is free from sin and death. In a world like this, Adam’s obedience and imputed righteousness would be man’s hope and assurance. He would be the Savior of mankind. Consequently, man’s praise would go to the first Adam instead of the second Adam. Reymond argues that had Adam been confirmed in holiness through his obedience, “God would then have been required eternally to share his glory with the creature, and his own beloved Son would have been denied the mediatorial role which led to his messianic lordship over men and to his Father’s glory which followed.”50 With this in view, the conclusion is clear: God decreed the fall and all of its ensuing evils for the glory of his name.

Notes

36 Theodicy is defined as “a response to the problem of evil in the world that attempts logically, relevantly and consistently to defend God as simultaneously omnipotent, all-loving and just despite the reality of evil” (Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999], 112–13).

37 All Scripture quotations are taken from the 2011 edition of ESV.

38 Apologetics, 176.

39 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (repr., Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1997), 158.

40 Frame notes, “It is essential to realize that even though God does bring evil into the world, he does it for a good reason. Therefore, he does not do evil in bringing evil to pass” (Apologetics, 154).

41 The Invisible Hand: Do All Things Really Work for Good? (Dallas: Word, 1996), 167.

42 Consequentialism is the ethic that holds the position that “what makes an action morally right is its consequences”(None Like Him, 783). It is for this reason that Feinberg rejects the greater-good defense.

43 A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Nelson, 1998), 377.

44 Acknowledging the man-centered tendency of the greater-good defense, Frame notes that the response is a viable one “if instead of rejecting the greater-good defense we simply understand it theocentrically. That is, one good is greater than another when it is more conducive to the glory of God” (Apologetics, 184).

45 45This label coined by the author is used to distinguish it from the greater-good defense. The reason for the superlative “greatest” (contra “greater”) is based on the author’s understanding of God’s omnisapience. Since God only uses the best means to accomplish his highest ends, it necessarily follows that everything that happens is not merely for God’s greater glory, but for his greatest glory.

46 Systematic Theology, 161.

47 That is not to say that without evil God would not possess these attributes and characteristics, but rather that without evil there would be no avenue through which they could be expressed.

48 Another fitting example is found just two chapters earlier in John 9. In this passage Jesus reveals that the blindness of a beggar, with all its ensuing evils, was decreed by God so that “the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).

49 Hodge rightly concludes that sin “is permitted so that the justice of God may be known in its punishment, and his grace in its forgiveness. And the universe, without the knowledge of these attributes, would be like the earth without the light of the sun” (Systematic Theology, 161).

50 New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 377.

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