Battling Unbelief & The Problem of Evil

Battling Unbelief & The Problem of Evil

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

(John 3:16 ESV)

Do you trust God?

That, really, is the heart of the gospel. Can we, knowing our failure, move past and accept his forgiveness, allowing him to free us from slavery to our sin? He is not the source of our failure to change. We are. We fight against him, not wanting to relinquish the identity that our sin grants, not trusting God to -really- forgive. We look for the catch, wait for the other shoe to drop. So very many people, Christians and seekers alike, suffer from an inability to trust, and it isn’t hard to understand why. Our world, and our lives have conditioned us to be suspicious. “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” Robert Heinlein is famous for writing.[1] People troubled by the problem of evil have a different angle on this question, though, that must be addressed: “Can I trust God?”

The problem of evil, at its core, consists of and is driven by this question. It is not some moot philosophical musing meant for erudite minds who converse via elevated, scholarly prose pregnant with references to the ideas of much smarter men. It is a question we all must ask ourselves, and a question I have been asked, via the vehicle of the problem of evil, on countless occasions by tortured seekers trying to understand the mind of God. Before delving into the answers my research has uncovered, I believe it prudent that we first define some terms, particularly the broad assumptions of the problem of evil itself.

The problem of pain can be boiled down to a non-sequitur in syllogistic form:

· God is Good

· God is all-knowing and all-powerful

· Evil Exists

It is a non-sequitur because the conclusion, that “evil exists,” does not follow from the premises. This is the simplest form of the problem of evil, and on its surface there certainly does seem to be a problem! Each of these statements can be, and generally are, accepted as axiomatic, with very little investigation into what each statement really means. So let’s explore each of these statements in reverse order, starting with the conclusion, “evil exists.”

The Nature of Evil in the World

Perhaps the easiest part of this problem for which to find evidence, the existence of evil is what most of humanity sees as the source of the problem. The other two statements are generally taken as axiomatic and understood in whatever cultural vernacular may shape their form in the mind of the thinker. But, it is useful to examine and define evil in the sense I wish to address it. Evil, for the purposes of this work, is sin. The reason I wish to define evil thus lies in the fact that the events, acts and impulses we would define as evil, such as murder, divorce, child abuse, and even larger events such as the Holocaust or the ongoing tragedy of human trafficking in Africa as well as southeast Asia, all find their impetus in sin.

Now, it is important here that I note I am discussing sin as a corrupting force in creation, and not in any specific sense. In other words, I cannot, nor can anyone, point to any sin or set of sins by any person or subset of people that is the cause of the aforementioned disasters, other than to point all the way back to Adam and the original, inherited sin. That sin corrupted the very fabric of creation, to the point that God destroyed, not just man, but all living things at the flood:

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. (Genesis 6:5-8 ESV)[2]

That sin was, as are all sins both then and today, an irrational deviation from the “will of desire” of God, whose penalty before God is eternal death. Now, there are a lot of claims there, so let me pause for a moment to break these down a bit further. First, sin is always irrational. Rebellion from perfection and comfort in the glory of God to imperfection and pain in the absence thereof cannot be the result of a rationally weighed and measured decision. Since it cannot be rational, it must then be irrational and rely on some other motivation than logical thought. That motivation is often an expression of pride, or of desire or greed. All sin, however, has at its core some form of idolatry; that is, placing something, someone or some idea in the place of God, and giving that something your worship. None of these explanations serves to make sin any more rational, however.

God’s will is popularly understood in two contexts, his “will of decree” and his “will of desire.” The former is expressed in God’s perfect and ultimately unobstructable plan for creation. His will of decree will come to pass no matter the machinations of man or angel. We see this will best expressed in the Bible when Paul talks about predestination in Ephesians chapter 1.[3] The other part of God’s will, the “will of desire” is where He lays out His plan for us and then gives us the limited ability to choose whether to honor those desires or not. This is where the idea of “free will” comes in, a term which, as John Calvin noted, brings to mind the image of man as the master of his mind and will such that he “can incline himself to either good or evil.”[4] This is of course an unbiblical and wrongheaded view of human will. Jesus says in Mark 10:18, “No one is good except God alone.”[5] We are creatures of continual sin, and even the subjective moral good we accomplish in life is corrupted by sinful motives and desires (and therefore not objectively good). We are incorrigibly sinful by nature, or as a Calvinist might put it, totally depraved. John Piper says it this way:

In his total rebellion everything man does is sin.

In Romans 14:23 Paul says, “Whatever is not from faith is sin.” Therefore, if all men are in total rebellion, everything they do is the product of rebellion and cannot be an honor to God, but only part of their sinful rebellion. If a king teaches his subjects how to fight well and then those subjects rebel against their king and use the very skill he taught them to resist him, then even those skills become evil.

Thus man does many things which he can only do because he is created in the image of God and which in the service of God could be praised. But in the service of man’s self-justifying rebellion, these very things are sinful.[6]

Evil, then, is a direct result of sin, and sin is the constant state of rebellion of mankind which has corrupted creation root and branch, hoof and feather. Thus far, evil is not a result to be laid at the feet of God, but of mankind. But perhaps moving on to one of the other statements in the non-sequitur that is the problem of evil will shed some light on why so many philosophers have assigned the guilt for evil at the foot of the throne of heaven.

Job – A Story of Sovereignty

God’s omniscience and omnipotence, that is, that he is all-knowing and all-powerful respectively, is nowhere better displayed than in the book of Job. In the story, God gives Satan permission to torment his faithful servant Job to prove a point, that Job will remain faithful regardless of the torture levied against him. After losing his home, his family (except his harpy of a wife), and his dignity, Job finally questions God, shakes his fist at heaven. God’s answer to Job is incredibly instructive on the subject of the problem of evil, and will show up in other places in this paper:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

Dress for action like a man;

I will question you, and you make it known to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk,

or who laid its cornerstone,

when the morning stars sang together

and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

“Or who shut in the sea with doors

when it burst out from the womb,

when I made clouds its garment

and thick darkness its swaddling band,

and prescribed limits for it

and set bars and doors,

and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,

and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?”

(Job 38:1-11 ESV)[7]

The point, of course, is that Job is questioning the all-powerful creator. The questions are rhetorical. God is driving home a point, here: that he alone is sovereign over creation, being the hand (and voice) that shaped it from nothing in the first place. This concept of sovereignty will be of utmost importance later in the paper. But God isn’t finished:

“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?

Do you observe the calving of the does?

Can you number the months that they fulfill,

and do you know the time when they give birth,

when they crouch, bring forth their offspring,

and are delivered of their young?

Their young ones become strong; they grow up in the open;

they go out and do not return to them.

(Job 39:1-4 ESV)[8]

Again, God questions Job, but this time his questions are not about might, but about knowledge. God is again driving home a point that he alone is knowledgeable of all that occurs in creation; he alone is all-knowing. These concepts are simple enough to understand in our culture, as time and cultural mores have not significantly changed them from the absolutes they deserve to be. When we speak of God as being all-knowing and all-powerful, the concept as it forms in the minds of most in our culture is essentially accurate. The last (or rather, first) part of the problem of pain, then, remains: that God is good.

Goodness is Glory is Grace & Wrath

“I put it thus—could God be beheld by the mind of man and His perfections unfolded to our creature apprehensions, we would perceive that the chief splendor of His Majesty lay in His Infinite Benevolence!”[9] says Charles Spurgeon in a sermon on Exodus chapter 33. God’s glory, then, is expressed in creation as his goodness. The source scripture for this quote is Exodus 33:18-23, wherein Moses asks God to reveal his glory. God’s reply was: “And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.“ (Exodus 33:19 ESV)[10] Again, we see this theme of sovereignty at the end of the passage, where God declares that it is his decision how, where and when to mete out wrath or grace. But that’s not what I want to point out, here. When Moses asks God to show him his (God’s) glory, God responds that he will reveal his goodness. So, when Spurgeon says that were we able to see God’s glory, it would look like benevolence, he’s inferring from this passage. But, then we have to consider what comes after when God talks in the same breath about goodness and grace. Spurgeon continues, “The full display of the goodness of God, however, is reserved for the working of His Grace in the redemption of man.”[11] Keep in mind that this working of grace is only a “display” or an expression of God’s goodness, not the sum and total thereof. Coming back to the idea of sovereignty I noted previously, Spurgeon finishes the thought:

It would appear, however, that in the manifestation of this Grace, the goodness of God shines in a peculiar light. Another attribute is blended with it. Permit me to read the verse to you—“I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you, and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.” You observe here, that while God’s goodness is His Glory, the very glory of His goodness lies in His Sovereignty.[12]

So, according to Spurgeon, and I think this is an accurate and faithful exegesis of the passage in Exodus, the goodness of God is expressed in creation through the sovereign exercise of grace and wrath in response to sin. Why is wrath included? Because implied in God’s statement that he would choose to whom to grant mercy and grace is that he will choose likewise NOT to do so for others. This idea is reinforced multiple places throughout the bible, but none so clearly as in Romans 9 where Paul quotes this passage and comes to the same conclusion as Spurgeon:

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:14-18 ESV)[13]

I think it is of equal importance in this discussion of God’s goodness to keep in mind while studying the issue that we human beings, God’s creation, are not the stars of the story. We’re not the point of the parable, and we’re not the most important characters in the show. God’s glory is. We are merely a vehicle by which God’s glory is being expressed. Certainly He loves us, but never lose sight of the fact that He does not NEED us. D.A. Carson, in “The God Who Is There”, says:

In eternity past, before there was anything else, God was, and he was entirely full of joy and contentment. Even then he was a loving God because in the complexity of God’s oneness, the Father loved the Son. There was an otherness right within God himself. He did not create human beings because he was lonely…[14]

And then Wayne Grudem picks up the thought in his “Systematic Theology”:

Nevertheless, God created us for his own glory. [Earlier in the book] we noted that God speaks of his sons and daughters from the ends of the earth as those, “whom I created for my glory.” (Isa 43:7, Eph 1:11-12) [15]

This truth is important because we human beings like to feel important, and without a reminder otherwise, it is easy in talking about God’s goodness, glory and grace to imagine ourselves somehow equal participants with God in the expression of his glory. Again, we’re back to sovereignty. God is sovereign because he does NOT share this decision-making power with the Hebrew people. The laws he’s handed down to Moses are not, then, meant to save, to be the measuring stick by which one “achieves” grace. God, we see from the passage in Exodus, is clear about this from the start. He in fact seems quite bent on making sure that Moses (and by extension the Hebrew people) know that sovereign power resides solely at the throne of heaven.

One other point about God’s goodness is worth noting, looking back at the section on evil, where we redefined evil as sin. God’s goodness, we can see from the language of Genesis chapters 1-2, was self-evident in creation. God looked on his creation and at each stage declared it, “good,” [16] with man & woman being “very good.”[17] When God assigns these values to creation in the beginning, he is looking out at this expression of his glory and, in effect, declaring them to be a part of himself. Remember that “only God is good” according to Jesus in Mark 10:18 [18], and yet creation at this point is considered by God to be “good.” Creation, then, as a whole (and not just the aspects of grace and wrath) is an expression of God’s glory and thus goodness, perfect in the beginning and later corrupted by sin.

What, then, is the problem?


If the problem of evil (or sin) is, as we’ve seen, simply part of the plan for God to express his glory via grace and wrath at sin, and that far from contradicting the existence of evil, God’s goodness makes use of it to this end, where does that leave us? What are the causes of the discomfort? What is the source of the problem of evil/sin? In my mind, having resolved the definitions above, there can be only two causes, and these do not exist by themselves. Most often these two causes exist side by side in the questioner. The first is a lack of understanding or respect for the absolute sovereignty of God. Put simply, we don’t know who we are before the holy throne. And how could we? With God made out in so very many Christian churches to be some sort of cosmic vending machine, where prayer is a currency exchanged for blessings; or perhaps the popular view of God as a permissive father figure styled after our mostly-absent baby boomer parents, who could blame the seekers and younger Christians of today for not understanding who God is, and by extension who they are? But it runs deeper than that.

America is a country founded on the idea of self-determinism, of self-reliance. We’re taught from a tender age to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and “succeed,” whatever that word is supposed to mean, and do it by our own volition. Never once is there heard mention of the idea that our fate might not be in our own hands, that all our attempts at control in our lives might be so much smoke and mirrors. As Americans, the idea of defiantly standing up to whatever may come, even to the point of death, and making of it what we can, is a core part of our cultural DNA. A favorite American poem by William Ernest Henley entitled “Invictus” ends:

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.[19]

How sad, then, that it is humanist nonsense.

The truth of the idea of “free will” is not the object of this discussion, though the idea itself is at the very heart thereof. John Calvin said in his masterpiece, “I abominate mere verbal disputes, by which the Church is harassed to no purpose; but I think we ought religiously to eschew terms which imply some absurdity, especially in subjects where error is of pernicious consequence. How few are there who, when they hear free will attributed to man, do not immediately imagine that he is the master of his mind and will in such a sense, that he can of himself incline himself either to good or evil?”[20] If only his fears had been unfounded. The idea of free will has poisoned the attitudes of mankind towards God, just as Calvin anticipated. Semi-Pelagianism, that is, the idea that man can better himself, change his nature, without the intervention of God, is pervasive both in the church and in our media. The snare of this trap lies in the idea that we can do objective good. Why is this a snare? Well, ask yourself, if you can do good, that is a work that God can deem worthy, what need have you of Christ? Paul says in Ephesians 2:10 “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”[21] Without Christ, those good works are as far beyond our reach as the stars. Also, as we have discovered in the section defining and discussing evil (or sin, rather), man is, to use the Calvinist term, totally depraved, meaning utterly incapable of objective good, among other things.

Renouncing the illusion of control, and acknowledging our inability to save ourselves, these are the first steps towards the Cross. They carry with them an inherent admission that God is sovereign, because if he is not, then he is as powerless to save us as we are. So what does that mean, that God is sovereign? I’ve touched on the subject briefly in a couple of places above, but what does it really mean? A.W. Pink treats the subject thusly in the introduction to his book on the same:

The Sovereignty of God. What do we mean by this expression? We mean the supremacy of God, the kingship of God, the god-hood of God. To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that God is God. To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is the Most High, doing according to His will in the army of Heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth, so that none can stay His hand or say unto Him what doest Thou? (Dan. 4:35). To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is the Almighty, the Possessor of all power in Heaven and earth, so that none can defeat His counsels, thwart His purpose, or resist His will (Psa. 115:3). To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is “The Governor among the nations” (Psa. 22:28), setting up kingdoms, overthrowing empires, and determining the course of dynasties as pleaseth Him best. To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is the “Only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15). Such is the God of the Bible.”[22]

That God is sovereign, then, means that there is no event, no thought, no intention, and no decision about which he is not eternally informed and which does not lie within his permissive or declarative will. When we acknowledge this fact, side by side with the assertion that God’s goodness is expressed in his glory through the vehicle of grace and justice, we come to a place where we see that all that is, exists for his glory, and that it is his sovereign prerogative to make use of it to that end. It would be an understatement to say that this fact has been a source of near-endless controversy in the Christian world since the time of the apostles.

But an ignorance of who we are before God is not the only source of or perhaps reinforcement of our problematic American self-reliance. The postmodern movement has attacked the very idea of absolute truth, and along with it, absolute morality. We’re taught through television and movies, even in our literature classes, that truth is relative to the observer, and this attitude has in a great many circles translated into moral relativism.

Looking at the varied forms of depravity of people groups and individuals worldwide, the postmodern thinker says, “these people obviously do not hold to the same moral code, else their society would have stamped out their behavior as undesirable. That their moral code is different does not mean it is wrong, just that it is not ours.” Curious, as Genesis 6:6 says that, “every intention of the thoughts of [mankind’s] heart was only evil continually,”[23] and Paul says in Romans 3, quoting various psalms,

“None is righteous, no, not one;

no one understands;

no one seeks for God.

All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;

no one does good,

not even one.”

“Their throat is an open grave;

they use their tongues to deceive.”

“The venom of asps is under their lips.”

“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

“Their feet are swift to shed blood;

in their paths are ruin and misery,

and the way of peace they have not known.”

“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

(Romans 3:10-18 ESV)[24]

The depravity of man is unambiguous in scripture. All have sinned, as Paul says, and fallen short.[25] Furthermore, scripture seems to indicate, and I believe truthfully, that we are not only incapable of doing objective good, but of judging objective good from evil reliably. Corrupted as we are by sin, our moral compass is compromised by our idolatry, by the animal appetites such as greed and lust that infest our subconscious. Again, referring to the voice of Christ to the Gentiles, the apostle Paul, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” (Romans 7:18)[26] Paul is clear that while he knows the moral law laid down by scripture, his internal moral compass, his “flesh,” doesn’t point that way. It seems clear to me, then, that we as human beings are untrustworthy judges of right from wrong outside the guidance of scripture and the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Could this corruption by sin be the cause of the variance in moral codes from culture to culture across the globe? Absolutely. In Paul’s day he dealt with churches across the northeastern Mediterranean coast whose cultural variance in morals were a constant source of contention. His letters to the churches at Thessalonica and Galatia are of particular note, as these deal with these issues of cultural mores. In these letters, Paul does not understandingly acknowledge the cultural differences and afford them a voice on equal ground as a postmodern missionary might. No, Paul asserts the truth of scripture and of Christ with zero apologies. Were there any truth to the idea of moral relativism, Paul would not have bashed aside the cultural mores of these Grecian churches with such forceful language, I should think.

But regardless of the truth of the idea, moral relativism encourages people in our culture to value no opinion higher than their own, and leads in its own way to a strengthening of that American self-reliant spirit all on its own. After all, if your opinion on morality is as valid as anyone else’s, why should you submit to another’s? For that matter, why would you submit to the authority of an objective morality in God? Like the lack of knowledge or understanding of God’s sovereignty, the self-centered idea of moral relativism leads people to the place where they can believe themselves qualified and free to question and judge the decisions of God, based on their own internal read of what is right and wrong. It’s hard to conceive of something more absurd.

The twin truths of the total depravity of man and the sovereignty of God, then, contradict the very premises of our objections even from a humanist point of view. Sin and its effects are ours to own, and not his. In his wisdom, however, he has allowed us to fail so that he might show mercy on some and exercise justice on others as an expression of his glory. There is nothing immoral about God’s choice to do so, as the purpose of creation, his creation, is to display and share his glory. Explaining these truths to the seeker or Christian struggling with the idea of the problem of evil will be a delicate affair, but in the end the truth is the only answer that will suffice. Simply, the problem of evil is a failure of humanity to grasp the mind of God. In some ways this lapse can be forgiven, as the mind of God is unknowable in its entirety. Isaiah 40:13 is quite clear on this, “Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel?”[27] But, there are many things God revealed specifically for us to know of him through scripture. This, I think, is one of those things.

[1] Heinlein, Robert A. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. New York: Galaxy Publishing Corp., 1966., 354

[2] Crossway. Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001, Genesis 6:5-8

[3] Crossway. Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001, Ephesians 1:3-14

[4] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1845. 2.2.7 (Book.Chapter.Section)

[5] Crossway. Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001, Mark 10:18

[6] Piper, John. Total Depravity by John Piper. 1998. (accessed 04 2011). Section 2, 1st 3 paragraphs.

[7] Crossway. Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001, Job 38:1-11

[8] Crossway. Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001, Job 39:1-4

[9] Spurgeon, Charles H. “Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit.” God’s Glory and His Goodness. March 4, 1915. (accessed April 2011). (1st page, 3rd paragraph)

[10] Crossway. Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001, Exodus 33:19

[11] Spurgeon, Charles H. “Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit.” God’s Glory and His Goodness. March 4, 1915. (accessed April 2011). (2nd page, 2nd paragraph)

[12] Spurgeon, Charles H. “Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit.” God’s Glory and His Goodness. March 4, 1915. (accessed April 2011). (2nd page, 3rd paragraph)

[13] Crossway. Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001, Romans 9:14-18

[14] Carson, D.A. The God Who Is There. Baker Books, 2010.

[15] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Zondervan, 1994.

[16] Crossway. Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001, Genesis 1:4,10,12,18,21,25

[17] Crossway. Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001, Genesis 1:31

[18] Crossway. Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001, Mark 10:18

[19] Henley, William Ernest. Poem Hunter. 1875. (accessed April 2011).

[20] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1845. 2.2.7 (Book.Chapter.Section)

[21] Crossway. Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001, Genesis Ephesians 2:10

[22] Pink, Arthur Walkington. The Sovereignty of God. Baker Books, 1984. Introduction

[23] Crossway. Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001, Genesis 6:6

[24] Crossway. Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001, Romans 3:10-18

[25] Crossway. Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001, Romans 3:23

[26] Crossway. Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001, Romans 7:18

[27] Crossway. Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001, Isaiah 40:13

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