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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Two Questions about God and Evil

Jun 10, 2017

God, and evil, are two of the biggest issues one can possibly discuss. And when they are brought together this is not something any short article can do proper justice to – not when entire libraries are filled with books seeking to deal with such mega-themes. And even they only scratch the surface. So this may be a rather foolish endeavour, but let me proceed anyway.

satan 1Attempts to deal with the long-standing issue of suffering and evil, and why a loving God would allow all this, is what we refer to as a theodicy. I have nothing new to offer here, but will just share some of the old received wisdom on this. And I do it with two particular questions in mind.

Both were asked of me just recently: the first by a militant atheist; the second by a questioning Christian. The first was not actually a question but an accusation: “God is very Evil himself for creating Evil in the first place.” How might one reply to such an accusation?

There are various ways one can seek to answer this. One might say that while God temporarily allows evil, he of course will fully deal with it. Indeed, it has been dealt with at Calvary, and will finally be dealt with when he comes again. Another way to grapple with this question is to ask if God indeed did create evil.

Thus one could challenge the premise of this atheist. If the premise can be found to be false, then the conclusion can be much more readily dealt with. The premise here is that God created evil. Theologians have long discussed this issue, and the short version of a very long discussion is to say that God indeed created everything – but only everything that is good, just as the Genesis account states.

So we can say that this atheist is twisting the biblical teaching. To use a logical syllogism, this atheist was seeking to argue as follows:

1. God created all things.
2. Evil exists.
3. Therefore, God created evil.

This argument happens to be valid (that is, the conclusion logically follows from the premises), but it is not necessarily sound (e.g., Christians would qualify premise 1: God did not create evil, because evil is not a thing or substance, but a privation). This take on the problem of evil goes back at least as far as Augustine.

He taught that evil is not any “thing” that God created. Rather, evil is a privation, or a parasite, or an absence of good. It is not a real thing, or substance. Just as rust cannot exist of itself, but must exist in another entity, so too with evil. Thus there is no such “thing” as evil.

Apologists have long been following this line of thought. Let me offer just three quick quotes from some recent Christian thinkers on this. Norman Geisler, in The Roots of Evil, says this:

Evil does not exist in itself but only in another as a corruption of it. Evil is therefore an ontological parasite. . . . Sickness is a real physical lack of good health. A rusty car, a moth-eaten garment, and a wounded body are physical examples of real corruptions in otherwise good things. In each case, there is a real lack or corruption that leaves what remains in a state of incapacitation.

Geisler and Feinberg in their Introduction to Philosophy put it this way:

When the theist says evil is no “thing” (substance) he is not saying evil is “nothing” (that is, unreal). Evil is a real privation. Blindness is real – it is the real privation of sight. Likewise it is real to be maimed—it is a genuine lack of limb or sense organ.
Evil is not mere absence, however. Arms and eyes are absent in stones, but we would not say that stones are deprived of arms and eyes. A privation is more than an absence; it is an absence of some form or perfection that should be there (by its very nature)….
Evil is measured by good and not the reverse. . . . Good therefore, is the positive and evil is the privation, or lack of good.

In Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis said:

In other words, badness cannot succeed even in being bad in the same way in which goodness is good. Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled. We called sadism a sexual perversion; but you must first have the idea of a normal sexuality before you can talk of its being perverted; and you can see which is the perversion, because you can explain the perverted from the normal, and cannot explain the normal from the perverted. . . . Evil is a parasite, not an original thing. The powers which enable evil to carry on are powers given by goodness.

So good can exist without evil, but evil cannot exist without good. Evil is a perversion or corruption of good. As Geisler puts it in another syllogism:

1. God is the author of everything in the created universe.
2. Evil is not a thing or substance; it is a privation or lack in things.
3. Therefore, it does not follow that God created evil.

While much more can be said about this, let me move on to the second question. It went something like this: ‘Why didn’t God destroy Satan right from the beginning?’

The short answer is we do not know for sure since the Bible does not specifically tell us! But many Christian thinkers and theologians have answered this query with something like this: God thought it was worth it in the greater scheme of things to allow evil in general and the devil in particular to do their thing for a limited period of time.

In part this is due to God’s grace and patience with us. Thankfully God does not wipe all of us sinners out at once, but patiently works with us, and redemptively interacts with us, seeking to win us over. And God gets greater glory that way. Moreover, we know that Satan will soon enough get his due, as will all unrepentant sinners.

But let me examine this further by utilising one contemporary pastor and theologian, John Piper. He has dealt with this issue in several places. In his 2008 book Spectacular Sins he discusses this. There he reminds us that the glory of God is the chief aim of history, and that while God would have been glorified to wipe out Satan immediately after his fall, it seems he gets greater glory in allowing him to temporarily exist.

In an interview on this topic he speaks about temptations believers face, and if it would not have been better to take out the tempter right away. Piper answers:

And he doesn’t do it. Why?
The Bible doesn’t answer why directly, so we have to go on inferences. But here is my best shot:
God has ordained that Satan have a long leash—with God holding onto it—because he knows that when we walk in and out of those temptations, struggling both with the physical and moral effects that they bring, more of God’s glory will shine in that battle than if he took Satan out yesterday.
There will be evidences of God’s patience with us and of his mercy towards us as we struggle with sin. And there will be evidences of his sustaining grace as we go through horrific physical suffering that Satan was the immediate cause of (as it says in the Bible: “This woman . . . whom Satan bound for eighteen years” [Luke 13:16]. She had this bent-over back, and Satan was doing it, and God was ordaining that he be allowed to do it). God ordains all of these things so that his glory—his mercy, justice, grace, wisdom—would shine more brightly.
Now we can argue with that and say, “I don’t agree. I don’t think God should run the world this way.” And if we ultimately disagree then we will reject God, we will reject the biblical testimony, and we will perish forever in hell. But I choose to trust him that his way of managing the devil and managing evil that comes at me is wiser than the way I might choose to manage it.
Perhaps the other thing I should say is that he sent his Son right into the middle of this satanic warfare. It was Satan that put it into the heart of Judas to betray him. So Jesus exposes himself to the horrors of Satan’s deceit and lies and murder—”He was a murderer from the beginning . . . [and] a liar” (John 8:44)—and dies, in order to make a public display of the principalities and powers in his defeat of them (Colossians 2:15).
There is more glory that will come to Jesus Christ by his suffering to destroy Satan than by powerfully shooting Satan in the head. And there is more glory that will come to Jesus Christ by our sharing in the sufferings of Christ—holding onto his supreme value—than if we had been able to say, “Satan, Depart!” and never have another problem.
And I think the reason for that—this is my ultimate final answer—is that the glory of God and Christ shines more brightly when we are seen to be supremely satisfied in Christ in spite of Satan’s torments, rather than if we had his torments removed and liked Jesus because of it.
It’s when you love Jesus in spite of Satan’s torments and through them that his glory shines most brightly, rather than when we have life made easier for us by Satan’s removal and we like Jesus because of it.

Both of these particular issues are ultimately shrouded in some mystery. The Bible does not directly answer all of our questions here. We are not told why some of the angelic and/or spiritual beings that he created turned on him and rebelled. We are not told directly why Satan was not dealt with immediately.

But we do know much about God and his ways and his promises to us. We do know that God is too wise to make a mistake, and too loving to be unkind. We do know about passages such as Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Satan and all unrepentant sinners are both living on borrowed time. They will not go on as they are forever. Both will soon enough be judged by their Creator. In the meantime we know that Jesus has overcome Satan by his work on the cross.

We know that Jesus is victorious over Satan, sin, suffering and evil, as his resurrection from the dead demonstrates. And those who are united with Christ through faith and repentance can know that same victory in part now, and fully when we too join him with our new resurrection bodies.

So press on saints. Sin, Satan and even death itself have been conquered by Christ. Soon enough all evil and suffering will be fully and finally dealt with, and our eternal rest will await us – a rest where all tears will be wiped away and all sorrows forgotten.

www.desiringgod.org/interviews/why-does-god-allow-satan-to-live

[1909 words]

7 Responses to Two Questions about God and Evil

  • Such a timely article, given my current reading. I recently finished reading ‘Why Suffering?’ Ravi Zacharias) and am currently halfway through Randy Alcorn’s ‘If God is Good – Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil,’ which I laid aside for a moment on coming across this article. I can recommend both books – especially the latter for a thorough and easy to read treatment of this topic.
    I like Piper’s reference to Satan being on God’s leash. It reminds me of Job 1:6-12, which is my ‘go to’ passage when struggling with evil and suffering in my own life – verse 12 in particular – The LORD said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he (Job) has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”
    I take much comfort from this, in that I believe God deals with all believers in this way – giving Satan permission to act in our lives but still very much under the sovereignty of God. God may very well at some stage allow Satan to ‘lay a finger’ on our lives, as is obvious by the testimony of the martyrs, but this passage is quite clear as to where the ultimate sovereignty lies.

  • Thanks Kerry. Yes both books are excellent and both are on my list of best books on theodicy. My 2011 version was posted before Ravi’s book came on the scene:

    billmuehlenberg.com/2011/09/21/readings-in-theodicy/

  • Well put Bill. When witnessing on the issues of God, good and evil, especially with children not old enough to understand the deeper theology, I use the example of God being the light and satan the dark – in a room with the lights on, I turn on a torch representing God, the light of the torch is dim compared to the ambient light – I then turn off the room lights to show how much brighter the torch, representing God’s love, is. Same torch, same light intensity, different background. The lesson, when the evil of the world darkens your life, Gods light shines that much brighter. Works every time.

  • Apparently in the Middle Ages there was debate over the question “Could God create a stone so big He couldn’t lift it?” And some Christians in Communist Russia in Richard Wurmbrand’s day would have to fill out a form, as part of interrogation, on which was the question “Have you stopped beating your wife? Answer yes or no.” Trick questions from those with too much time on their hands or evil intent.

  • Here is a you tube video from RC Sproul snr which he contemplates beautifully the question where does evil come from… it is very comforting. www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Ir6pKEV0RQ

  • Great article. Could one postulate the following based on your article?:

    1. Cold is not a temperature – it is the absence of heat
    2. Darkness is not a colour (as in light is white and dark is black) – it is the absence of light
    3. Evil is not a thing – it is the absence of Good

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