All sin is evil ─ But not all evil is sin.
The most vexing question for believers and nonbelievers alike to reconcile with a presumably good God is how he can allow so much evil to infect our world. The question of evil cuts to the very heart of all human existence because, at some point in time, it impacts every human being in a profoundly personal way. Even someone who appears to live a charmed life; positive, happy, successful, and possessing good looks and personality must eventually confront evil in the form of death. But for most of us, life entails a substantial amount of suffering, anguish, and disappointment even before death calls our name. So, are the cynics right in assuming that we are little more than puppets being manipulated by some sadistic deity up in the heavens? Are Christians who insist that suffering has some intrinsic redemptive value just a bunch of misguided Polyannas, naively pinning their hopes on some fanciful “pie in the sky” resolution to the problem of evil?
Evil seems to play a recurring part in God’s plan for mankind, and therefore one might reasonably assume that God is somehow actively willing it. But how can a Being who is supposed to be infinitely good simply will so much evil? Nor am I only talking about his permissive will. One can argue that God permits certain kinds of evil to occur, sin for example, even though he does not actually condone it. While God may not directly will a man to sin he nonetheless permits it so that man’s freedom is not compromised.
Fine, but consider the 17 year old patient who is suddenly diagnosed with a terminal cancer or the parents whose child is killed or maimed in a freak accident. Such evils have no apparent connection with the free will or sin. Instead, they are actively imposed by God in a very direct way on a particular individual without that person’s consent. In other words, God has willed the evil of cancer on this or that particular person for no discernible reason, has he not? Therefore it seems that God can, and frequently does, ordain evil, not merely in the sense of permitting it, but by actively willing it.
Shall we then indict God because he frequently imposes these various evils on mankind? In the Book of Job, Job clearly points to God as the cause of his many sufferings:
“God has given me over to the impious; into the clutches of the wicked he has cast me.
He has set me up for a target; his arrows strike me in all directions,
He pierces my side without mercy, he pours out my gall upon the ground.” (Jb. 16:11,13)
The temptation to hold God accountable for every evil afflicting mankind may be strong, at least until we stop and think about the absurdity of our position. First, consider what the whole body of humanity might weigh in the balance when placed against God himself? No scale would even budge because we are as finite as God is infinite. As the Almighty reminds Job,
“Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” The Lord then said to Job: “Will we have arguing with the Almighty by the critic? Let him who would correct God give answer!” (Jb. 38:4; 40:2)
Job, of course, has little choice but to humbly acknowledge man’s impotence before the irresistible will and power of God. What may appear to be prejudicial and arbitrary in our eyes makes perfect sense in the over-arching plans of a God who sees all things eternally yet remains incomprehensible to his creatures. But of course we can only realize and accept such a truth in humility and faith. Tragically, those who do not share in the gift of faith are left without any real answers. That is why so many people sink into a fatalistic mentality and give up on virtue altogether. Even worse off are those who turn into the sort of implacable, angry tyrants that they so wrongly imagine God to be.
The impious, vain, or arrogant man demands that God justify his actions, just as the Jewish scribes and chief priests demanded of Christ, “by what authority are you doing these things?” (Lk. 20:2) While Jesus gave their impertinent questioning no direct response then and there, he did answer them shortly thereafter by submitting meekly to the most ghastly evil ever perpetrated in human history: the condemnation and crucifixion of God’s only begotten Son. And yet it was God himself who positively willed this greatest of all evils on his own Son! It is on the Cross that we see clearly how God himself actively wills great evil so that a far greater good might flow from it.
If the apparent triumph of evil and death on the cross over the perfect innocence of Christ were the end of the story, then the cynic would be justified in dismissing God as a cruel and malevolent deity. The important thing is that evil did not have the last word and therein lays the hope that animates our own Christian’s faith. Out of the horror of the cross came the hope of the Resurrection. The power of the Resurrection illustrates a divine economy which is at work even in those evils which God permits and even wills at times. That is why having faith in Christ’s Resurrection makes all the difference in the world. Without it we too are condemned to a negative, hopeless, and fatal cynicism. But with that faith our entire worldview is transformed into something of beauty and hope.
Our own death ─ and the bodily resurrection which will surely follow ─ are intended to complete the perfection of our human nature. In God’s hands evil is a sharp tool, like a chisel in the hands of a master sculptor, which is used to form the exquisite masterpiece which he intends for each of us to become. It is Christ then who gives a positive conclusive answer to the question that Job necessarily left hanging. Evil prepares us to meet that ultimate good we will experience throughout eternity, which is God himself.
But even in this temporal life we ought to weigh those periodic evils which may confront us against the many countless joys that we have been freely given for our happiness. The greatest of these good things is life itself, created and constantly sustained by God. How easily we take for granted those goods and freedoms we receive so liberally: the food and material goods we consume, the song of birds and warmth of the sun, the refreshing palliative of sleep at night and the joys of spouse, children, and friends. How easy it is to complain bitterly when some little thing goes wrong, and yet forget to count all the innumerable blessings we receive each day of our life and yet barely notice their presence.
Certainly, God has caused us to experience evil for whatever transitory purpose it is meant to serve. It would be base ingratitude meanwhile to forget that the countless goods He provides in overwhelming abundance far outweigh the bad things in life when we honestly assess the situation. Gratitude alone can transform an unhappy sinner into a joyful saint. The cynic knows no joy because he feels no debt of gratitude towards the One who so cleverly uses evil in order to abolish evil. And what remains (of evil) represents but a tiny droplet cast into the vast ocean of God’s healing and eternally comforting mercy. Thanks be to God, Deo Gratias!
Francis J. Pierson