A Brief Reflection on the Problem of Evil

[The following post is taken from my book “Satan’s Awful Idea” which is available for free as a PDF.  See link.  It is taken from appendix B.]

Appendix B

Satan’s Awful Idea and Theodicy

If God knew that Lucifer was going to fall, why did He create him? Our answer has been that God did it for His glory. That is the ultimate reason.

This is a heavy truth, an infinitely heavy truth, in fact, and if it doesn’t cause you to reflect, your heart isn’t beating. For behind this answer lies an ocean of doctrine that not only overwhelms the human mind with wonder, but absorbs it with questions, even troubling questions. Chief among those, perhaps, is the question of suffering. Why set into motion a history that will result in so much unimaginable suffering, even eternal suffering? It’s a jolting thought. And in response, someone will no doubt ask, “How could it be worth it? How could even God’s glory justify this?”

This book, in one way or another, has touched upon the issue, seeking to provide a larger framework for understanding history. Nevertheless, much of what has been said has still been a grappling with the branches on the tree, so to speak. We are yet to drop to the ground and tunnel our way to the very root system itself, clear down to bedrock, to that place where our shovel gives way and we can dig no further; that place where the human mind stands on the very precipice of infinity, perceives the answer, and knows that it is very small. This is the place where we hear the LORD say, “‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isa 55:8-9).

When it comes to articulating an answer to this question, I know of no better voice than that of Jonathan Edwards. In a section dealing with the doctrine of God’s eternal decree, Edwards provides a direct and imminently biblical response. If asked why God created Lucifer, knowing that the creature would fall and introduce evil and all its bitter effects, Edwards would probably reply,

“It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all; for then the effulgence would not answer the reality. For the same reason it is not proper that one should be manifested exceedingly, and another but very little. It is highly proper that the effulgent glory of God should answer his real excellency; that the splendor should be answerable to the real and essential glory, for the same reason that it is proper and excellent for God to glorify himself at all. Thus it is necessary, that God’s awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all. If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God’s holiness in hatred of sin, or in showing any preference, in his providence, of godliness before it. There would be no manifestation of God’s grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. How much happiness soever he bestowed, his goodness would not be so much prized and admired, and the sense of it not so great, as we have elsewhere shown. We little consider how much the sense of good is heightened by the sense of evil, both moral and natural. And as it is necessary that there should be evil, because the display of the glory of God could not but be imperfect and incomplete without it, so evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world; because the creature’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and sense of his love. And if the knowledge of him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect; and the happiness of the creature would be imperfect upon another account also; for, as we have said, the sense of good is comparatively dull and flat, without the knowledge of evil.”1

Rather than side skirt the issue by appealing to free will, which is the response of many, but which also inevitably falls short, Edwards cuts right to the heart of the issue. The single greatest end, indeed, the greatest conceivable excellency or good in all reality, is none other than God’s glory. There is no higher ideal. There is no greater treasure to treasure. And so if God were to ultimately magnify anything else other than that which is ultimately worthy of being esteemed and prized, God would be an idolater. He wouldn’t want the best. Therefore, God’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Himself forever. This explains why the Scriptures are replete with statements detailing God’s ambition to exalt His Name (Isaiah 43:6-7, 25; 48:9-11; Jeremiah 13:11, Psalm 25:11; Ezekiel 14:4, 17-18; 36:22-23, 23; 2 Kings 19:34, 20:6; 1 Samuel 12:20-22; 2 Samuel 7:23; 106:7-8, Romans 9:17; 11:36; Eph 1:4-6; 1 Cor 10:31; 1 Peter 4:11).

Wonderfully, this same passion for the magnification of His glory directly impacts our happiness. This is to say that God’s glory does not stand in opposition to our joy. In fact, the two are essentially one. This is the point Edwards makes towards the end of the quote. Our happiness is intimately, even inextricably, bound up with knowing and experiencing God. So in order to achieve this end, which will produce the greatest conceivable joy, God ordained the introduction of evil.2

So far as our earthly pains and toils are concerned, which can be inexpressibly horrific and crushing, they are, nevertheless, when viewed from the infinite peak of eternity, but a small drop in the otherwise ocean of time. This is why Paul can say,

“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” ((2 Cor 4:17-18).

We may be able to better comprehend and endure the temporary afflictions of this present evil age, especially when weighed in the balance of God’s love and promises, but the fact of eternal suffering presents a weightier challenge. For those people who will not share in the eternal spring of God’s joy, but will be forever divorced from it, the situation is different. Here one is tempted to wonder if such means used for the magnification of God’s glory do not outweigh the goal. Nearly everyone can think of a close relative who does not know the Lord. Will their condemnation, even their just condemnation, serve to illuminate God’s glory? Yes, it will. But is that not too great a cost? Why not keep it from happening? Why not keep them from being born? Why create at all, given this outcome? Again, is the cost too great?

When all is said and done, there appears to be two fundamentally different ways of dealing with this admittedly challenging issue. One can respond in a way that smells remarkably similar to Satan’s awful idea, or not. Let’s consider both.

If someone objects to God’s plan, urging that the magnification of His glory cannot justify actualizing the world and history that has followed, this person is in effect saying, “I wouldn’t do it this way, if I were in charge. I know this isn’t the best way to run the universe. God’s intentions and purposes aren’t perfect. How could they be given such suffering?”

It should be noted that this is merely the awful idea rearing its ugly head again. It’s self-deification creeping in. Not only is the objector claiming to know the beginning from the end, the grand tapestry in all its fullness, not to mention all mysteries, but he is claiming to know what is most valuable or ultimate, apart from God. He can supposedly see the big picture, weigh out all the variables, and correctly prize that which should be most prized. No mere creature can determine this, and to suppose otherwise is pure arrogance. Moreover, this implicitly, if not explicitly, de-cherishes the Most High. The objector wants to absolutize something else, which inevitably turns out to be his own conception of things. The objector deifies himself.

Here I am reminded of an exchange in the book The Brothers Karamazov. There’s a powerful section where Ivan is questioning his pious Christian brother, Alyosha, about the problem of evil. I know of no more powerful presentation than the one leveled by Ivan. It is soul crushingly horrific. Ivan sketches out a number of heart wrenching scenarios, the most potent of which centers on a severely abused and neglected little girl, her tormentors being none other than her parents. After presenting the atrocities to Alyosha, pressing them upon him for pages in the book, Alyosha finally cries out, “Why are you trying me? Will you say what you mean at last?”

Ivan responds with a searching question, “Tell me yourself, I challenge you—answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance— and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions! Tell me, and tell the truth.”

Alyosha softly replies, “No, I wouldn’t consent.”

Ivan is acting the part of the great tempter, not only by calling God’s actions into question, but by subtly alluring Alyosha away by asking him to assume the place of God. “What would you do, if you were God?” is the tactic. But that’s just the point. We are not God! Indeed, we cannot be God. We fall hopelessly (infinitely!) short. And to think otherwise is simply to fall into the trap of the Evil One.3

There is another way to approach this issue, a more faithful and God honoring way. It is to admit that this is a difficult doctrine to comprehend, and that God will do what is perfectly right and good (Gen 18:25). Along these lines, it’s important to remember that this issue isn’t unlike the choice to eat of the forbidden fruit in the Garden; or like Job who couldn’t comprehend his tragedies; or the angels who surely wondered how God could be both just and the justifier of the wicked; or Abraham when he was told to sacrifice the child of promise; or the OT saints who wondered why the Messiah continued to tarry; or Peter when he heard that one must drink the blood and eat the flesh of Christ in order to obtain eternal life; or the initial confusion of the disciples when the Christ was crucified like a criminal. The unfolding story has long presented, and continues to present, emotionally and intellectually challenging hurdles. But God has also shown time and again that He is good and can be trusted. The cross is the supreme truth of this.4

As children of God, we must recognize that we are just that. We are children. And children do not always understand the ways of their father. We presently see in a mirror darkly. Someday the larger panorama will be opened more fully, the books will be opened, and we will see God. We will understand more later. Until then, we must walk by faith, just like those who have gone before us.

It is interesting to note that in the book of Revelation, when the culmination of God’s plan unfolds with radiant glory, there is going to be an eruption of singing from both angels and glorified saints. The lyrics are telling and prove instructive. Listen again to the song,

“Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” (Rev 15:3-4; see also 16:5-7; 19:1-2).

Notice what they say. They proclaim, “Just and true are your ways.” While this passage doesn’t directly answer our question, it clearly shows that the essence of the problem will be washed away. The consummation will reveal something that not only dispels our doubt, but elicits praise and instills certainty. God’s goodness will be perfectly vindicated. No one will fail to fear and glorify the Lord. And His holiness will shine forth in a way that we simply cannot presently comprehend.

So our choice is really twofold, given Edwards’ position. We can either walk by faith or we can shift towards the awful idea. For those Christians who might be tempted to spurn the ultimate purposes of God, I would like to remind you of the words of Job,

“Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things to wonderful for me to know… My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3-6, NIV).

1 Concerning the Divine Decrees, section 10. For a profoundly helpful exposition of this theme, I would heartily recommend listening to John Piper’s message The Echo and Insufficiency of Hell, or, The Suffering of Christ and the Sovereignty of God. Both can be found online at Desiring God. See also D.A. Carson’s work, How Long, O Lord?” for a biblically charged exposition of the theme of suffering. Lastly, John Frame in his work Apologetics to the Glory of God, provides a helpful overview and answer to the problem of evil.

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2 Here one might want to say “permitted” or “allowed,” which are certainly true and seek to preserve other important truths. But however one slices it, the end result is the same. God ordained it.

3 Where does such a question end? Would you allow 9-11 to happen? Would you allow your aunt to get cancer? Would you have confused the tongues of men at the tower of Babel? Perhaps you would forgive everyone (demons included) by divine fiat (never mind justice), hand out lollypops, and invite everyone to dance in a big circle? Where does it end? It doesn’t. Every last square inch of reality will be called into question by some person or another. Each will think they know what is best.

4 John Frame, writes, “If God could vindicate his justice and mercy in a situation where such vindication seemed impossible, if he could vindicate them in a way that went far beyond our expectations and understanding, can we not trust him to vindicate himself again? If God is able to provide an answer to the exceptionally difficult Old Testament form of the problem of evil, does it not make sense to assume that he can and will answer our remaining difficulties? Does it not make sense to trust and obey, even in the midst of suffering?” Apologetics to the Glory of God, page 184.

 

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