A Theodicy of Evil – Lenten Season 2023
“But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?”
He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
The man said, “The woman youput here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Genesis 3:8-13 NIV).
Revelations – Day 16 “The Dangers of the Divine Ethic”
No one can deny that one of the greatest blockbuster film trilogies of all time is The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves (as Neo), Carrie-Anne Moss (as Trinity), and Laurence Fishburn (as Morpheus). I didn’t say it was a “Christian” movie but that isn’t the point. There is still something important to learn.
Like Neo in the movie, when confronted by Morpheus who offers him a choice between the red pill or the blue pill, we also have to make a decision. For Neo, one pill would allow him to remain in stasis and experience life like everyone else in a “fantasy” of sorts. The other pill would wake him up to the reality of life in a world dominated by machines in which there is a war going on and he would have to play a significant part.
The parallels are interesting for us as well.
We either have to continue to live in our “fantasy world” like everyone else and just ignore the eternal questions of heaven and hell and take our chances that one day our “battery life” will expire and our genetic and biological matter will be recycled, or we can accept the biblical interpretation of the “real world” in which there is a war going on and, in which, we play a significant part.
The choice is up to us. The red pill or the blue pill.
The point is that we will simply not understand eternal truths without accepting the biblical interpretation of our existence first. Then we can begin to get a handle on real life no matter how horrible it may seem to us at first in comparison to our “fantasy world.”
Neo from the Matrix would agree with you. It is a difficult choice. It is always easier to stick your head in the sand and ignore the great tragedy that we have inflicted on ourselves, and that God has worked so hard to save us from.
One of those key “eternal” perspectives is the concept of the justice and wrath of God. We do not have a real grasp on what true justice is or why God is so angry with evildoers. Let’s explore the concept in more detail.
We are in the process of developing a “theodicy” of evil, which is to say, a theology or explanation of evil from a biblical point of view. And it is necessary for our discussions on the Book of Revelations.
We are here in the two introductory chapters to the rest of the revelation of God’s plan of redemption. We saw the worship of heaven, the weeping of the prophet, and the introduction of the Lamb who was worthy to open the scroll and usher in the plan of redemption based on his ministry, death, and resurrection on earth. But there is an enormous gap between this revelation and our normal experience of life (at least for most of us).
We seem to find a clash of cultures between how the Bible interprets our human existence and how we interpret our own existence.
We seem to think that everything is more or less normal. There may be a difficulty or two in our lives and we all will face some suffering and pain at some point and, ultimately, we will die. But other than that, life goes on for the most part as it always has. We go about our business, we get married, we have children, we grow old, and we die. We hope to get through this life mostly unscathed but that is by no means guaranteed. Truth be told, at least from a biblical point of view, we are living in a fantasy world of our own making.
The Bible considers this life to be “absurd” and “abnormal” especially if we assume the biblical facts that we are created by God and destined for eternity. Apparently, God has allowed this “uneasy truce” to exist so that he would have the opportunity to put his plan of redemption into action and try to save as many of us as possible.
But the danger is that we would take this life for granted. A life where evil is not always punished and good is not always rewarded. A life where God’s providence supports both the wicked and the righteous and sometimes the wicked flourish and the righteous are downtrodden. The sun shines on everyone the same. What do we make of all that?
For some people that is an opportunity to believe that God is not there and that we do not live in a just universe. Therefore, anything goes. This was the position of Nietzsche who was a nihilist. He would say things like, “Why should he command, and I serve?” He was referring, of course, to God. If God doesn’t exist, then there is no meaning in life and therefore morality has no foundation, and anything goes. We must take life into our own hands and make it into whatever we want. And since God seems to be absent for the most part, there is no one to stop you from recreating the world to your own liking.
But, of course, God’s patience with evil is meant to give us time to repent and be saved. It is meant to give God time to implement his plan of redemption through the work of Jesus Christ and the church. But that, obviously, is a perspective on our existence that takes faith. We will talk more about the providence and protection of God (and about the context of prayer) in a future post.
For now, what we are saying is that you cannot understand the biblical message about hell and eternal punishment apart from an understanding of the justice and wrath of God (even before we begin to talk about the plan of redemption). That is why we have to go back to the basics and to the beginning to understand this “absurdity of an abnormal existence.”
We cannot rely on our “fantasy” interpretation of reality to be the context for what happens in eternity both for those who are saved and for those who are not.
One of my favorite TV characters of all time is Dr. House. Do you remember him? He is arrogant and brilliant to a fault but, at least, he is consistent (if not always honest with himself). I remember one episode where he admits himself to the care of a psychiatrist because he finally admits that he is addicted to the painkillers he is taking for his leg.
He meets another young man in the psychiatric ward who is suffering from the delusion that he is a superhero and can actually fly like a bird (if given the chance). In typical Dr. House fashion, he thinks he knows better than his psychiatrist and sneaks out at night with this young man to take him “flying.” They go to a circus and find a “flying” machine that blows air upward to keep them afloat and gives them the impression that they are flying through the air.
The young man loves it, of course, and Dr. House is pleased with himself for fulfilling the dreams of this young man. On the way back to the psychiatric hospital, on the third floor of the parking structure, as Dr. House is about to get into his car, he loses sight of the young man for a moment. He frantically searches for him in and around the cars but then decides to look over the wall with the sickening realization that he has made a fatal error. The young man has thrown himself off the parking structure in an attempt to fly for real. Of course, he doesn’t really understand the difference between reality and fantasy, which is why Dr. House should have minded his own business in the first place.
The young man broke almost every bone in his body but somehow was still alive. Dr. House is riddled with guilt and realizes how stupid and arrogant he has been. All of his assumptions about what this young man needed were simply wrong.
We see Dr. House talking with his psychiatrist who is trying to get him to accept the fact that he makes mistakes and needs to forgive himself and move forward in his life. But Dr. House is nothing if not honest with himself. He considers the psychiatrist’s attempts to help him as letting him off the hook too easily. Just “forgive yourself and move on” doesn’t seem fair, much less just.
But then the psychiatrist says something very interesting. He challenges Dr. House by asking him whether or not he should also be thrown off the third floor of the parking structure so that he can somehow capture that personal sense of justice and assuage his guilt. Dr. House surprises the psychiatrist by seriously considering this solution.
The “eye for an eye” and a “tooth for a tooth” argument is often dismissed as a surefire way to end up with a world filled with one-eyed, toothless people. And that is true, but it does give you, at least, a sense of fairness in an impossible situation (or perhaps it is just a cheap trick to make you think that your guilt is now assuaged, and you are off the hook).
In my opinion, the psychiatrist did not go far enough.
Of course, he wasn’t a Christian and wasn’t operating from a biblical interpretation of reality and humankind. But God would say that even doing “to yourself” (or the State doing to you) what you did to someone else is also not enough. Call it “revenge” if you like or “punitive punishment” to keep others from committing similar acts, in either case, it simply doesn’t work and is not enough. Let me explain.
How many shows have you seen where someone is raped and killed by some low-life and the father wants revenge by murdering the scumbag. The detective always argues that revenge will not bring back the loved one that was lost, which is true. But in one case, I heard a father say something to the effect that even if you catch the guy and you put him in jail, that also won’t bring his daughter back, which is also true. And all the detective could say was that at least a bad person would not be allowed to do it to someone else’s daughter. And the father had to be content with that.
And maybe that’s the best we can do in this world full of evil and sin.
Justice simply gets the bad person off the street. Prison probably would make them even worse but perhaps it would have a sobering and redeeming effect on them so that, when they are freed, they would not go back to their life of crime, rape, and murder. Maybe.
Many (if not all) fathers would probably prefer “revenge” which would also permanently keep the scumbag off the streets. Revenge may seem to be a fair exchange, but our society would be in chaos if we allowed that to happen. Emotions would take over and people would likely overdo things.
That’s what happened in the Old Testament when someone from another tribe fought with someone from your tribe and perhaps knocked a tooth out or damaged their eye in the fight. The rest of the family would “overreact” and practically go to war with that other tribe and kill as many of them as possible. That is the context of the biblical adage that even revenge must be equitable and requires “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and nothing more (Exodus 21:23-27, Matt. 5:38 NIV).
But the truth is that neither human justice nor revenge is really enough. Divine justice goes far beyond those partial solutions to human sin and evil. And divine justice, as we will see, is the only “fair and equitable” justice that exists.
You might think this is strange, but for God, true justice is based on the “humpty dumpty principle.” You know what I’m talking about. “Humpty dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty dumpty had a great fall. All of the King’s horses and all of the King´s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again.” We all know that Humpty Dumpty was an egg and there is nothing more difficult than “unbreaking” an egg.
So, what if Humpty Dumpty was pushed?
He didn’t just have an “accidental” fall, but rather someone was responsible for what happened to him. In other words, the story of Humpty Dumpty is a great analogy for the effects of sin and evil on relationships and people in this broken world. How do you put Humpty Dumpty back together again?
The point is that divine justice expects you to do so.
It expects you to fix what you broke. It expects you to clean up after yourself, to be responsible, to make it like it never happened in the first place. It expects you to restore the daughter to her father without any harm, without any trauma, without any memory of what happened.
After all, if you are going to act like God and make decisions in life about what is good and evil and you decide to take the route of evil and hurt someone else (on purpose or by accident), then you need to take the “divine” responsibility for cleaning up your mess, for putting it right again and restoring what was taken away.
Impossible, you say, and you are right.
That is generally the case when you try to act like God but without his power, knowledge, or goodness. This is an element of the problem that we have not yet dealt with. We said, in an earlier post, that humans are not capable of deciding for themselves what is good or evil since they don’t know the future consequences of a particular action or have the knowledge of every contingent element related to the decision or the goodness to make sure whatever decision you make about good and evil is rooted in the good and not corrupted by the evil.
We also pointed out that, in the process of taking over this responsibility for our lives from God, instead of maintaining neutrality when we make our decisions, we have actually been corrupted by evil and are prone to make evil a true option to getting what we want. God would never choose evil. He decides from a place of goodness.
Here we are taking it one step further. Not only is God going to hold us responsible for the broken relationship with him but also for every moral decision that we make in relationship to others. So far, so good. And it is always preferred and expected that we do not decide in favor of “evil” in order to get what we want in a world that now leaves us without providence or protection. But that didn’t happen. Evil has become an option for us in our efforts to survive our own rebellion.
But take it one more step and realize that God is also going to hold us responsible for “restoring” whatever hurt we cause another by making it like it never happened in the first place. The love of God will allow him to do nothing less.
We often want to separate the justice of God from the love of God as if the two were not rooted in the same character of God. We say that God is “good” because he is both loving and just. There is no justice without love and there is no love without justice.
The second truth, “no love without justice,” we barely can grasp when we see that Jesus had to die on the cross for our sins. Justice is not simply set aside but rather “fulfilled.” Someone would have to endure the justice of God and the only one who was able to do so was God himself, in human form.
But what about the other side of the coin?
How can we understand the divine justice of God as a demonstration of his love? It really isn’t that hard. Every single one of us wishes that good would triumph over evil, that justice would finally be done, and that death would not be the end. These are the eternal hopes of all mankind in one form or another.
We may forget for the moment that we, too, are the evil doers and also deserve the justice of God but, for now, let’s focus on what most people desire in their hearts of hearts. The despair of the father who only wants his daughter back, the frustration of the son who finds himself in a war he doesn’t even understand, the anger of a family robbed while on vacation. We all want what we can’t have, which is true justice, and the restoration of what was taken from us. We all have to deal with the grief and anger that comes from the injustices in life.
If God is able to make things right, restore what has been taken from us, bring justice to our cause, and reverse the effects of evil done against us or the ones we love, then we are happy with God’s sense of justice. We agree that that is true justice. Let’s call it “restoration” for now and it is the only justice that is rooted in love for the victim.
But what about the person who committed this evil toward us? What happens to them? And don’t forget, that after God gets done with all the injustices that have been perpetrated against you, he will start to look at all of the injustices, big and small, that you have perpetrated against others. And if you think that you are free of that, it’s time to get honest with yourself. No one can stand when God’s divine justice is unleashed.
So, God may “restore” what has been taken but what about the evildoer? What happens to them? What would be the proper “punishment” for what they have done? Can they be forgiven? What would be the basis of that forgiveness outside of the “justice” of Christ?
Now remember that whatever the evil is, big or small, they did it not out of love, of course, but out of either hate or selfishness (or a lot of other things in between). The point is that they were willing to do this evil against someone regardless of the consequences to that person. Their lack of love towards you is the real problem. It is relational. The problem is always relational.
Now, you might say that you prefer that they weren’t punished at all and that God simply “restores” them as well and changes their hearts of stone into hearts full of love. And God would agree. How exactly is he supposed to do that? Are you under the impression that God can just wave a magic wand to change the human heart? Not so, otherwise, the cross would not have been necessary.
Are you under the impression that since Jesus died on the cross, everyone would become a Christian and follow him automatically? Also, not true. The majority of people are not even interested in God’s solution to the problem of sin and evil. Humans are incredibly committed to keeping the authority to make decisions about good and evil in their own hands.
You could say the same thing about criminals in general. They aren’t interested in government programs to find them proper work, to help them with their addictions, or to solve the problems of poverty. If that were true, sin and evil could have been eradicated centuries ago.
No, the truth is that sin and evil are “addictions” that people don’t even want to get rid of. Evil is rooted in our hearts, in our deepest desires, corrupting our very character. We are comfortable with this serpent in our bosom, and we aren’t interested in any of God’s solutions. And if you don’t want to, God certainly won’t obligate you to change either.
Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be.
If God could scare people into heaven, or obligate them to accept Christ as their Savior, he would have done so by now. Predestination aside (which is mostly misunderstood), the truth is that love is a choice and each one of us needs to make that choice. God can help and he certainly does so, but he does not obligate anyone to change or become saved.
The long-standing debate between the Calvinists and the Arminians over predestination is not something that we want to get mired in at this point, but a few basics may be helpful.
First of all, nowadays the Arminians (Pentecostals, most Baptists, and most of the Evangelical world) far outnumber the Calvinists (Reformed, Presbyterian, and the like). Not that it makes them right, but most people accept that the difference between the two views is minimal (or simply isn’t important any longer).
Secondly, in general terms, Calvinists believe that God is the one who saves us (with or without our “choice”) based on his predestination of certain people before the earth began. Arminians, again in general terms, believe that God is still the one who saves us but that we have a choice in the matter. Essentially, God gives us the gift of faith, that restores us to a state similar to that of Adam and Eve before they rebelled, and therefore gives us the “ability” to decide whether or not we want to respond to this gift of faith by following Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.
Perhaps a more accurate position would be to accept that there is a bit of mystery here that we cannot fathom. On the one hand, the Calvinist position seems to be clearly the biblical position of Paul who taught predestination. On the other hand, the Bible consistently calls us to respond to the gift of faith that God has given us by following Jesus Christ as his disciple. Without God’s help, we are simply not interested in a restored relationship with him since that means we would have to give up the self-authority we are so addicted to. But, with or without God’s help, it is clear that we need to respond, or “decide” what we will do with this gift of faith. Somewhere between the two is the truth that eludes us.
One thing seems certain in any event. The position of the Calvinists seems to be the perspective of heaven while the position of the Arminians seems to be the perspective of people on earth. And both are necessary.
When the focus is on the perspective of heaven, we tend to leave things in God’s hands (and our attempts at evangelism suffer). That is a mistake.
When the focus is on the perspective of people on earth, we tend to take everything into our own hands and even try to manipulate, cajole, or push people into the kingdom of heaven.
A pox on both your houses. The truth is that we are significant in this process of bringing people to salvation, but we are not the ones who will persuade or change the human heart. Prayer is key and our testimony is necessary.
Therefore, we can still confidently say that without God’s help, we are not able to be saved but, even with God’s help, we are expected to respond in faith and follow him. In either case, love cannot be coerced but only enticed from the flames of faith and hope. If it were not so, God would save every living soul on earth whether they liked it or not.
That is a truth of our reality that must be accepted.
There are some things that are simply outside of God’s direct control. He cannot “create” love, but he can “entice” it, or “encourage” it as a lover seduces his beloved. We all know that is true in human relationships as well.
In the movie, Bruce Almighty, actor Jim Carrey plays God and has to deal with hundreds of thousands of prayers, natural disasters, and all the rest of the responsibilities of God. He had been complaining that God was not managing his life, much less the world, in an acceptable way so God appears in the form of Morgan Freeman and gives him the opportunity to take his place for a day.
It makes for a great comedy, but the idea actually strikes pretty close to home since we try to play God every day of our lives. In any event, at one point, he tries to use the power of God to obligate his girlfriend to love him. Using his usual “overacting” bravado, he orders her to “love him” with his deep “God-like” voice but nothing happens. Love doesn’t work that way. We all know that.
But let’s get back to the question at hand.
What do we do with this broken human being that insists on trying to be God and failing miserably at it? God can’t “restore” him or her without their consent and they are insisting on being left alone. For now, God’s providence keeps them alive and even allows them quite a bit of latitude in living out their lives as “demi-gods” and leaving the dead bodies of destroyed and broken relationships in their wake. God puts a limit of eighty to a hundred years or so on our lives, and there is no doubt that he sometimes intervenes to keep things more or less in check, at least usually, or bring lives to a premature end (for his own reasons). But there isn’t always a rhyme or reason to it that we can tell.
But if the perpetrator of the sin and evil refuses to be helped and ends up dying, stubborn to the end, what is to be done? They will be given what they have fought so hard to maintain. Their separation from God and from all others. We call that “hell.” In our next post, we will explore the relational nature of hell, but right now we will establish the fact of hell. Hell, by necessity, must exist as a place of separation from God. It is the only possible solution to divine justice.
It is easy to say that the punishment outweighs the crime, but I don’t agree. We only say that because we don’t see the crime for what it is. We think that it is normal and right that we are the ones to decide our own fates. We think that it is our destiny to live our lives without God. Sorry, but you are living in a fantasy world that doesn’t exist.
Yes, but if we knew that our punishment was eternal hell, we would certainly change our ways. Would we? Do you remember the story of the rich man and the beggar called Lazarus that Jesus told his disciples (Luke 16:19-22 NIV)?
The rich man asks Father Abraham to send Lazarus to him with some water to cool his thirst, but Abraham points out that he is getting what he deserves and, besides, there is a great chasm between them that no one can cross.
Then the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back to his family to warn them of the terrors of the abyss. Abraham points out that they have Moses and the Prophets to warn them. The rich man disagrees and claims that “if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”
Abraham points out that if they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, “they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” The story stops there, and we all assume that Jesus was talking about himself. Which is true. But he was also talking about his good friend, Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha who lived just outside of Jerusalem.
Do you remember the story? Someone comes with the news that Lazarus was dying but Jesus doesn’t rush off to help him. He takes his time. When he finally arrives, Martha is furious with his tardiness and Mary is confused. He tells them both to have faith and be patient. He then goes to the tomb after Lazarus has been dead for three days and he brings him back to life. Word goes out everywhere and people are amazed and flock to hear him preach. So far, so good. But that isn’t the most interesting part of the story. Listen to what happens next.
John 12:9-11 tells us about the plot to kill Lazarus by the Sanhedrin. Really? You’ve got to be kidding! Not at all. People were coming from everywhere to hear Jesus preach and see Lazarus alive after he had died as witnessed by many people. And what did the Sanhedrin decide to do?
“So, the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him” (John 12: 10,11 NIV).
Can you imagine the unbelief in the hearts of the leaders of God’s people? It really should be no surprise. Even at the time of Moses, the same people who saw the ten plagues, the pillar of fire, and the parting of the Dead Sea were many of the same people who rebelled against God over and over again until they were left to die in the desert and never saw the Promised Land.
So, let’s get back to our question. If people knew that their eternal punishment was to be the torment of hell, wouldn’t they all repent and come to God? Not at all. This is another “uncomfortable” truth of real life. We are addicted to our self-authority, and we will not allow anyone to take it from us without a fight.
The first two objections are dealt with, aren’t they? Knowing the eternal punishment of hell, which the Bible is abundantly clear about, will not change the human heart. Seeing signs and wonders, such as people raised from the dead, sent to warn us of what is to come, will not change the human heart. So be it.
Does the punishment outweigh the crime? In no way. If the “crime” is a broken relationship with God and with others, and the “punishment” is continued separation from those very people, then the infinite nature of the punishment fits the infinite nature of the crime since all sin is relational. But more to come on that topic in a future post.
For now, it is important to realize that divine justice is rooted in his love for the victims of sin and evil. He also loves the “criminal”, and we know that we are all part of that group as well. That is why he was willing to die on the cross for the “criminals” and enemies of God.
In fact, Paul tells us that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8-9 NIV). So, there is “perfect love” for the victims of sin and evil in the divine justice but there is also “perfect love” for the perpetrators of sin and evil in the divine love of God on the cross.
Still, there is one more topic closely related to divine justice that we cannot ignore although we have touched on it already and that is the wrath of God and of the lamb. Before we can talk about the Plan of Redemption in any kind of detail, we need to understand why God is so angry with sin and evil.
Let me tell you a secret.
That “wrath” may (and should) scare us but it comes from a depth of love that we barely can understand. Without an appreciation for the wrath of God, we cannot truly embrace his grace and love much less understand why he would make such a radical decision to become human for all eternity and be tortured and killed on a cross outside of Jerusalem by the very creatures he had made. It boggles the mind and only an understanding of the incredible depth of love that God has for us will allow us to grasp it.
The surprise is that we will see that love most clearly in his wrath against sin and evil. .
The Desert Warrior