The grim prophecy of Edmund Burke

It can be both thrilling and disconcerting when a thinker from an earlier time speaks to current issues in his (or her) day, and we find his (or her) words equally relevant for the problems we face today.

Edmund Burke was a member of the British Parliament in the second half of the eighteenth century (the 1700s). During his political career, he addressed many of the international situations that affected the British Empire, most of which involved the Empire directly. Burke did not want to see the thirteen colonies in North America leave the Empire, but he also did not want to go to war against those colonies; he wanted to negotiate a settlement that would address their complaints and preserve their place in the Empire. Burke opposed slavery, but he suggested a gradual reduction of slavery in place of sudden and potentially divisive and violent abolition. He sought greater rights for Irish citizens of the British Empire, and he sought to improve conditions in southern Asia (which is to say, India) and punishment for British officials who violated the human rights of Asians in the Empire.

Burke feared the excesses he saw in the French Revolution. A few British leaders were delighted to see France struggle, figuring that anything bad for France was good for Britain. Others favored the slogans of liberty and equality expressed in the French Revolution and hoped to see similar changes pursued in Britain. Burke despised the attack upon authority and tradition that he witnessed in France. He spoke against the Jacobins, the political group in France most responsible for the violent phase of the Revolution which has become known as the Reign of Terror. In 1795, Burke spoke about the Jacobins, their goals and their strategy, in a way that seems eerily relevant to political strife in the United States today. Burke wrote:

 “What is Jacobinism? It is an attempt (hitherto but too successful) to eradicate prejudice out of the minds of men, for the purpose of putting all power and authority into the hands of the persons capable of occasionally enlightening the minds of the people. For this purpose the Jacobins have resolved to destroy the whole frame and fabric of the old societies of the world, and to regenerate them after their fashion. To obtain an army for this purpose, they everywhere engage the poor by holding out to them as a bribe the spoils of the rich. This I take to be a fair description of the principles and leading maxims of the enlightened of our day who are commonly called Jacobins.”

At first glance, eradicating prejudice out of the minds of men (and women and children) seems a good thing. We hold that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. We quickly renounce prejudice and discrimination on the basis of race, culture, and other human differences. But what happens when the battle against prejudice is expanded to include tolerance of all human differences, even those differences that strike at the core of being human? What happens when the government is given power to censure and punish any statement or belief that the government defines as intolerant, as “hate speech”? Does this battle against prejudice provide greater freedom and liberty, or does it make all people slaves of the government and its managers?

Are we truly ready to destroy the whole frame and fabric of the old societies of the world—to strike down religious liberty in the name of tolerance, and to label as “science” any faddish procedure that the government favors today? Do we want a small group of elite educators, entertainers, and opinion-generators to be the guardians of truth, the authorities that undermine and displace traditional leadership in the family, the community, and the religious gatherings of the people?

And what do we say in response to those who “engage the poor by holding out to them as a bribe the spoils of the rich”? Are we truly inclined to punish the wealthy for their success, to reward the lazy for their indolence, and to invite the government to gather all national wealth and redistribute that wealth as the government chooses? Granted, the world is not fair. Some people gather wealth without deserving it; many people are poor who deserve more than they have received. Must we abandon our hope that generosity and kindness will reduce the injustice, that hard work will be rewarded, and that compassion and respect for all people can be taught as common virtues? Must we trust a few self-proclaimed experts to take into their hands our wealth, our freedom, and our self-respect, allowing them to distribute these goods as they deem appropriate and right?

By asking these questions, I may well be risking my present job and potential future employment. At the moment, I do not care. Each generation, it seems, must struggle to preserve liberty and justice, and our time has come. If we remain silent, if we allow tyranny and oppression to go unchallenged because the tyrants claim to be tolerant and beneficent, then we cast away all that our forefathers struggled to establish in this land. We remain the land of the free only so long as we also are the home of the brave. J.

Book review: The Saddler’s Legacy, by Rosslyn Elliott

For summer reading that is both pleasurable and thought-provoking, I recommend a series of books which I just finished reading: Rosslyn Elliott’s “The Saddler’s Legacy.” The three volumes are Fairer than Morning (copyright 2011), Sweeter than Birdsong (2012), and Lovelier than Daylight (2012), all published by Thomas Nelson. The titles and cover art suggest that the books are romances, and indeed Elliott uses the style of a romance novel to tell her stories. But all three are also historical fiction, carefully researched, filled with adventure, and relevant to contemporary issues. They are set in Westerville, Ohio, with occasional visits to larger American cities, and they describe events in three generations of the same family, the Hanbys.

Fairer than Morning begins in the summer of 1823. Ann Miller is being wooed by Eli Bowen, but she meets Will Hanby, a saddle-maker’s apprentice. The romance is predictable (as is the case for all three novels), but around that skeleton Elliott builds a tale of working conditions in the early nineteenth century and questions about the system of justice, both issues that still matter in the twenty-first century. Her characters are strong and complicated, not cardboard cutouts. Most of them are Christian, but Elliott is not preachy in her writing. As she tells her story, she allows readers to reach their own conclusions about what is happening.

My favorite of the three is the middle book, Sweeter than Birdsong. Kate Winter, a student at Otterbein College in 1855, is painfully shy. Ben Hanby is a musician at the college. Fate throws them together, as they become involved in the Underground Railroad, that network of safehouses that supported escaped African American slaves on their path to freedom. It seemed that I could relate to both Kate and Ben with their talents and with their challenges.

The final volume, Lovelier than Daylight, is set during the Westerville Whiskey War of 1875, a battle of prohibitionists against the saloon industry. Susanna Hanby is one of the prohibitionists; Johann Giere is the son and heir of a brewer. When Susanna’s sister Ruth disappears along with Ruth’s six children, it appears that Ruth’s alcoholic husband is somehow to blame. But Johann, an aspiring newspaper reporter, is best equipped among Susanna’s acquaintances to track down Ruth and the children. Elliott handles the questions of prohibition, social justice, and violence with clear insight into the complexity of human behavior, complexity which leads to no easy answers.

All three books are engaging. Elliott never becomes lost in the details. The research behind her writing provides everyday lifestyles as well as historic persons and events. The characters are strong enough to keep a reader’s interest. I bought my copies through J.

Why the cross?

A year ago I posted the following message about the significance of the cross. Because of an ongoing conversation (which you can find here), it seemed worth repeating. Christians sometimes differ from one another over the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. Those who reach for glory without the cross are mistaken. In this world we need the cross in our lives; only through the cross can we be carried to glory.

What did Jesus accomplish on the cross, beyond his own suffering, bleeding, and dying? The Bible provides several analogies of what Jesus accomplished, explaining it from several points of view. When Christians limit themselves to one analogy and treat it as literally true, they miss the fullness of the gospel message. Moreover, mockers are able to take the analogies literally and extend them beyond the Bible’s intended meaning, twisting the beauty of God’s Word in their mockery.

The most common analogy of the cross is financial. By his suffering and death, Jesus paid the price for sins, rescuing sinners from their debts. The beauty of this analogy is that we understand debt and payment. We understand how our sins place us in debt to God, a debt we cannot pay. Jesus paying in our place is a beautiful image of his love for us. But to whom did he pay the debt? Did he buy us from the devil, or pay his Father for our sins, or purchase redemption from a power higher even than God? Each of these explanations has problems when the analogy is treated literally and left as the only explanation of the cross.

A second common analogy of the cross is military. On the cross Jesus fought a battle against all the forces of evil. These forces include the devil, the sinful world, sins committed by people, and death itself—the ultimate result of sin. Becoming a victim of these enemies, Jesus also defeated them. His resurrection on Easter morning is a declaration of victory, and the Church continues to share that news of victory with sinners who have been enslaved by their sins and by the power of evil. We were prisoners of war in the Great War between God and evil, but the victory of Jesus rescues us from prison and puts us on the winning team.

Yet another analogy of the cross is healing. Through his time on earth, Jesus healed many people, often with just a word or a touch. He never seemed to be harmed by any of his miracles of healing. But in those physical healings, Jesus was simply treating the symptoms of evil. To fully heal the damage caused by sin and evil, Jesus had to bear that damage in his own body. What he endured on the cross gives him the power to heal every consequence of sin and evil: leprosy, blindness, paralysis, and even death. His own suffering and death provides the remedy that reverses all the damage caused in this world by sin and evil.

Still another analogy of the cross is rescuing what was lost. This is why Jesus is called a Savior and Christians describe themselves as saved. C.S. Lewis adapted this metaphor by describing Jesus as a diver who descends to the bottom of a muddy pond to unearth a treasure. The diver becomes thoroughly dirty digging in the bottom of the pond, but when he ascends to the surface he carries his treasure with him. So Jesus humbled himself, obedient to death, even death on the cross, to claim us as his treasure. Though we were buried in sin and evil, Jesus takes us out of the mud through his own suffering and death. In his resurrection, Jesus lifts us also to new life in a perfect new creation.

A similar analogy of the cross is fixing what was broken—which can also be described as reconciling or uniting. Like a shepherd going into the wilderness to find a lost sheep, Jesus comes into this sin-stained world looking for his lost people. He rescues us from the mouth of the wolves. Even in the dark valley of the shadow of death, he finds us and brings us home. We were separated from God by our own rebellion, but Jesus has restored us to the family of God through his expedition into suffering and death.

One more analogy of the cross is adoption. In modern society, the process of adoption is difficult and expensive. In our relationship with God, the process of adoption is even more difficult and expensive. We are not God’s children because he made us. Even if that was once true, it is true no longer. By breaking his commandments, we have forfeited our place in God’s family. Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, personally pays to adopt us into his family. He gives himself as the cost of our adoption so we can be children of God and can pray to the Father of the eternal Son as our Father. Baptism is the personal ceremony by which this adoption is made certain, just as in baptism each Christian dies with Christ, is buried with Christ, and rises again with Christ.

Finally, an analogy of the cross is cheating justice. We broke the rules. We rebelled against God. We declared our independence from God and said that we wanted to be separate from him. Justice would have God say yes to our rebellion. Justice would have God abandon us to our sinful choices. But God’s love is greater than his justice. He allows the world to be unfair. He allows evil people to prosper, and he allows good people to suffer. By letting evil be unfair, God makes it possible for good to be unfair. Now Jesus can suffer in our place so we can be rewarded in his place. Now his Father can abandon him instead of us so he can claim us for his kingdom.

Each of these analogies is true. All of them are supported by the writings of the apostles and prophets. All of them are enacted in the history of God’s people. When we cling to one analogy and neglect the others, we weaken the message of God’s grace and allow mockers room for their opposition. When we see all these analogies as pictures of the cross from different points of view, we begin to comprehend (albeit dimly) the true glory that Jesus revealed by his sacrifice on the cross. J.

God is jealous?! and he takes it out on the children?!


God says, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5-6).

Yes, God himself says that he is jealous. But jealousy is not always the same as envy and coveting. At root, the meaning of jealousy is wanting to keep that which is one’s own. A husband who is jealous does not want to share his wife with other men. His jealousy may tempt him into sinful behavior, but the desire that one’s wife or husband remain faithful is not sinful. In fact, a man who willingly shares his wife with others shows that he does not love her.

God loves his people. He does not want to share his people with false gods. God does not envy false gods, because he needs and wants nothing from them. But he is jealous, wanting his people not to have other gods or to worship graven images. Whether the false gods are those worshiped by ancient religions—Baal, Zeus, Thor, Osiris, and the rest—or whether they are the modern false gods of money, fame, pleasure, political causes, and the like—God does not want to share. He loves his people too much to let them be deceived and harmed by anything that looks like a god and sounds like a god but cannot accomplish what God alone can do.

For that reason, God allows us to see the price of evil, the damage that it causes. He intends that we see what is wrong with evil and prefer that which is good. Evil is unfair, but God is fair. He would not punish children for the sins of their parents. Through Moses, he forbade the government of Israel to follow that practice (Deuteronomy 24:16). Other ancient governments did that, reasoning that a man’s concern for his family might deter him from crime even more than his concern for self-protection. But God says, “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20).

Unfortunately some translations do misinterpret Exodus 20:5-6, reporting that God punishes the children for the sins of the fathers. These translations miss the sense of “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.” That visit of iniquity is not a punishment from God; it is a consequence of sin and evil. God does not work this way, but the sinful world works this way.

Children who were abused by their parents often become parents who abuse their children. It’s not fair, but it happens. Children whose parents misuse alcohol or other drugs are more likely to misuse the same drugs. It’s not fair, but it happens. It’s not fair that some children are born with defects, and others are born already addicted to drugs, because of bad decisions their mothers made during pregnancy. It happens because evil is unfair, and God wants us to see evil for what it really is.

When iniquity visits, it stays for a while. The consequences of sin do not disappear, not even when the sin is already forgiven through the sacrifice of Christ. God measures the durability of evil as lasting “to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” He contrasts that with his love. God’s love lasts for a thousand generations. (According to the Bibles account, nowhere near that number of generations has yet lived on the earth.) Rather than resenting God for the evil he permits—and he does so for good reasons—God’s people rejoice to know that the love of God and his mercy overwhelm the power of evil. All  victims are rescued because God himself became a victim, suffering unfairly on the cross so he could redeem those who trust in him. And that really isn’t fair either, but it is unfairness that is given for our benefit. J.

Sin, sacrifice, forgiveness

“If God is Almighty,” the question is raised, “why does he demand a bloody sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins? Why does he not simply forgive without any sacrifice being made?”

God is Almighty and can do whatever he chooses to do. God created the world and everything in it, and when God was finished creating, what he had made was very good. God told people how to live in his world, to take care of the world and to take care of themselves and one another. People chose to do things their way instead of God’s way. Because people rebelled against God, evil and wickedness and death entered the good world God had made. Because of sin, the world was no longer very good.

God could have created a world in which sin and rebellion were impossible. If he had done so, then love and obedience would be meaningless, because people would be forced to love and obey God. God could have created a world where forgiveness of sin was immediate and without cost. If forgiveness was cheap, then sin and wickedness would also be cheap. Rebellion against God, and damage of the good things God made, and harm to the people God made and God loves: all these things would mean nothing if the cost to repair them was nothing. Because God is good, and because the world he made is good, and because he loves the people he made, God places a high price on thoughts and words and actions that damage the world and harm people. When damage is done, a high price must be paid to fix and restore what is broken. That high price shows the value of the people and the world created by God.

God could have created a world of perfect justice, in which each sinner paid and suffered for his or her own sins. In a world of perfect justice, I could not hurt you and you could not hurt me. Each of us would suffer for his or her own sins. In such perfect justice, rescue would not be possible. No one could reconcile another person to God; even God could not provide reconciliation, because of perfect justice. Instead, God created a world in which justice is overpowered by love. Sin and evil have victims, but God Himself is able to be a victim of sin and evil in order to rescue all the victims of sin and evil.

The Almighty God entered creation and became a man, as human as any of us, except that he never sinned. That man obeyed all the commands of God, doing what all people were created to do. He then offered his life as a sacrifice, becoming a victim to rescue victims. He was abused and tortured, he bled, and he died. From the horrors of the cross, we learn how costly our rebellion truly is; but from the horrors of the cross we see the love of God, that he was willing to pay the price to restore us and to restore the world he created.

Having entered time and space to restore the world, God then moved backward in time to communicate what he had done to previous generations. He required the sacrifice of animals and the shedding of their blood as pictures of the price God would pay to rescue victims of sin and to restore creation. In the account of Adam and Eve, animals died so that Adam and Eve could be clothed in their furs. Adam and Eve had tried to hide their nakedness with fig leaves, but such clothing quickly disintegrates—it has no lasting value. All the good things people do to try to cancel their own sins are ineffective. Only God can pay the price of reconciliation, as Jesus gives his life on the cross to clothe his people in his righteousness.

The price Jesus paid is sufficient to cover all the sins of history. No sin is bigger than the payment made by Jesus. For that reason, Jesus directs his people to share forgiveness with all sinners. He teaches his people to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). His apostles instruct us, “as the Lord forgives you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13). To treat any sin as unforgiveable calls all of God’s forgiveness into question—how can you be sure that all your sins are forgiven if you regard another person’s sin to be beyond forgiveness? Jesus compares our sins, forgiven through his sacrifice, to ten thousand talents—hundreds of millions of dollars in American money. He compares the sins committed against us by others to one hundred talents—enough to buy a used car, but tiny compared to ten thousand talents (Matthew 18:23-35). When he was asked how often should a Christian forgive a brother—is seven times enough?—Jesus invented a number. Sometimes it is translated “seventy-seven” and sometimes “seventy times seven” (490), but the actual word that Jesus spoke does not exist as a number. God’s forgiveness never ends, and our forgiveness never ends.

When we forgive, though, we are not generating forgiveness from the goodness of our own hearts. We are passing along the forgiveness provided by Jesus in his sacrifice. If we had to forgive others first to earn God’s forgiveness, not one of us would be forgiven. Jesus has paid the full price for all sins. The forgiveness of Jesus runs through our lives, reconciling us to God and delivering the same reconciliation to other sinners. Therefore, when Peter had confessed his faith that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus celebrated the faith of Peter and added, “I give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you lock on earth is locked in heaven, and whatever you unlock on earth is unlocked in heaven” (Matthew 16:19, my paraphrase). He said similar words to all his followers (Matthew 18:18), and he said them again the night after his resurrection: Jesus “breathed on” the disciples “and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld’” (John 20:22-23).

The same keys lock and unlock heaven; the same power grants forgiveness and withholds forgiveness. When would a Christian withhold forgiveness from a sinner? Forgiveness is withheld from the sinner who does not want to be forgiven. A sinner who does not acknowledge his or her sin and need for forgiveness should not be told he or she is forgiven anyhow. A sinner who thinks forgiveness is earned by his or her own good works should be told that forgiveness is withheld. Offering forgiveness to a sinner who does not want to be forgiven is giving dogs what is holy and casting pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). Jesus wants his people to warn sinners of their sins and to call them to repent. Those who refuse to repent should not be told that they are forgiven.

Repenting and believing are not good things Christians do to earn God’s forgiveness. Repenting and believing are changes God makes in the lives of people. Forgiveness is available to all people—no sin is bigger than the payment Jesus made on the cross—but it does not come to anyone who refuses to repent and refuses to believe God’s promise of forgiveness. Repenting and believing are not things Christians do once and then never have to do again. Repenting and believing are part of daily life for a Christian. Each day a Christian confesses sins to the Lord and rejoices in the Lord’s forgiveness. Each day Christians share the good news of forgiveness with one another and unlock the kingdom of heaven for each other through the forgiveness of sins.

I am delighted that the opponents of Christianity are asking questions about forgiveness and sacrifice. Debates about science and archaeology and history are distractions, but the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the center of our faith. I do not have to believe in Adam or Noah or Moses to be reconciled to God, but I must believe in Jesus Christ to be reconciled to God. Believing in Jesus, I accept what he says about Moses and the prophets; but salvation is found in no one but Jesus. Noah and Moses are pictures of Jesus, but he is the fulfillment of everything they said and did. J.


More theodicy, and theocracy

While I wrote about theodicy last weekend, the original conversation was being carried forward here. This gives me more to say in response, but this time I will write in a direct essay form rather than attempting a Socratic dialogue.

The question is asked: If you had the power to prevent a terrible crime from happening, would you act to prevent that crime, or would you stand by and watch and do nothing to stop it? Of course my answer is that I would do anything to stop a crime from happening. I would assume that God had brought me to that place for that reason, and after stopping the crime, I would thank him for giving me the strength and the courage to rescue a possible victim. Moreover, I would notify the police of the attempted crime, and I would be prepared to testify about the event in court if I was asked to testify.

God is almighty, so he could stop any crime from happening. He has the power. Does this mean that I am more ethical and moral than God, since I would prevent a crime if I had the power to do so? By no means! God is working with more wisdom and more information than is available to me. His failure to prevent certain terrible crimes is not an indication of his weakness or his badness; his failure to prevent those crimes is part of a larger plan which leads to good, not to evil.

I already made the point in my previous post that God does prevent some wickedness and evil. He says, “This far you will go, and no farther.” We have no available statistics about how many tragic and terrible things God has limited. He is under no obligation to file any reports. When he chooses, God prevents evil; when he chooses, God limits evil; and when he chooses, God permits evil. In each case, God is in control. No one is overpowering him or deceiving him—that cannot be done. If God chooses to permit evil to happen, he has a reason; again, he has no obligation to tell us his reasons. In the latter part of this post, though, I will offer five reasons that I believe are among God’s reasons for permitting evil to happen.

Before I share those reasons, though, I want to address an important side issue regarding evil and vengeance. InsanityBytes pictured herself as a superhero, sweeping into the potential crime scene and destroying the criminal for the protection of others. She also noted that more bad than good could come from her playing the part of a superhero. God has chosen better options than instant wrath and destruction upon each sinner.

In his creation, God chooses to work through agents. He divided the waters of the Red Sea with a wind from the east. He sent his Son to be born of a virgin and receive his human nature through Mary. Jesus fed the crowds of thousands with a small amount of bread and fish which he then multiplied. In the same way, when God intends to bring justice and vengeance into creation, he works through government employees—police officers, judges, and all the other workers of the justice system. Paul wrote to the Romans that the government bears God’s sword of vengeance (Romans 13:1-7). On occasion a private citizen acts to prevent a crime, because the police cannot be everywhere at once. Vigilante justice should be the exception and not the rule, though, because one of the purposes of government is protect those who are good and punish those who are evil.

In the book of Deuteronomy, God (through the preaching of Moses) described the government he intended for Old Testament Israel. The Levites were to teach the people the Word of God, and all the priests had to come from the Levites. Each tribe was also to have judges to determine legal cases among the people. The Israelites were told to respect the priests and judges and to follow their decisions, not turning right or left, not adding or subtracting anything from what the priests and judges said. God also anticipated that they would one day have a king, and he gave them rules about that king—that he must be an Israelite, that he must not gather great wealth or many wives, and that he must keep the book of Deuteronomy close at hand to guide him in his decisions. God then spoke about prophets who would proclaim the Word of God and bring messages from him. The people were to respect the true prophets, but they were to reject any false prophets, any who spoke for false gods or who spoke falsehood in the Name of the Lord.

In a very important sense, these various jobs all were fulfilled in Jesus. He is the final Judge, the ultimate Priest, the King of kings, and the Prophet who always spoke God’s Word because he is God. Only Jesus could take all these jobs on himself; in fact, kings of Israel and Judah were punished by God for trying to do the job of priests.

Old Testament Israel was to be a theocracy, a nation ruled by God. All the authorities of the nation were to be under God and led by his Word. The people were to respect judges and priests as representatives of God. All these jobs, though, were fulfilled in Jesus, and the apostles did not call for a theocracy in the New Testament. Instead, they urged respect and obedience to worldly rulers accompanied by faithfulness to God in all things. Jesus himself said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.”

The great theologian Augustine wrote about this dual citizenship. He also urged obedience and respect for worldly leaders, but he reminded Christians that our greater citizenship is in the Kingdom of heaven. When we become so involved in earthly politics that we forget the Kingdom of God, our priorities are askew. Our concern for our native land on earth is commendable, but it should never overshadow our concern for God’s reign both now and forever.

Protestant reformers took different positions on dual citizenship. Calvin sought to create a government on earth that was controlled by faithful Christians. Those who follow Calvin’s way still seek to evaluate candidates for public office as much by their statements of faith as by their actual abilities to lead. Luther said he would prefer to live in a land governed by a competent Muslim rather than in a land governed by an incompetent Christian. Luther did not go so far as to speak of a separation of church and state—that language belongs more to John Locke and Thomas Jefferson—but he did speak of the two authorities God uses in this world. One authority is secular rulers. They protect good citizens and punish people who are bad, whether they are criminal citizens or enemies from outside the country. Therefore, as Jesus and Paul both said, secular rulers merit the respect and obedience of Christians even if those rulers are not Christians. Only when their laws conflict with God’s law should Christians oppose the government, and even then the opposition should be to the bad laws and not to the government as a whole. The second authority is the Church, in which God takes away sins, rescues from evil, and promises eternal life to all who trust in him.

The point of these last five paragraphs is that God does work through secular government to protect those people who do what is right and to punish those people who do what is wrong. This is why I wrote at the beginning of this post that, in preventing a crime, I would make use of the local system of justice rather than relying on my own power and ability. I have no desire to be a superhero striking down the wrongdoers; that job is taken by ordinary people, people who have received special training, and those people deserve my support as they do their jobs. Meanwhile, God works through the Church to bring comfort to victims of evil and to bring forgiveness to sinners. This is the greater and more important work, because it has eternal benefits. As a police officer once told a pastors’ meeting in one neighborhood of a large city, “My job is to arrest criminals; I don’t expect you to do that. Your job is to preach the gospel; don’t expect me to do that.” Again, both the police officer and the preacher are doing God’s work, one by enforcing the law and the other by sharing Christ’s forgiveness.

As we well know, police officers and judges and other government officials sometimes make mistakes. Preachers and church leaders sometimes make mistakes. God has given his authority to sinners, working through less-than-perfect people to accomplish his plan in the world. Because God entrusts such authority to sinners, bad things sometimes happen, both in secular government and in the Church. Crimes happen because not every criminal can be stopped. Sometimes criminals escape punishment entirely. Likewise, the Church sometimes fails to comfort the victims of evil and to share with them the hope that we have in Jesus Christ, a hope that far transcends all the problems of this sinful world.

And now I am out of the forest and into the home stretch of this theodicy. Why does God entrust such authority to sinners, knowing they sometimes will fail? Why does God permit terrible crimes and other great wickedness in his creation? I cannot go through the newspaper and tell you God’s reason for each tragic event described there, but I can share some general principles, found in the Bible, that help believers to understand why an almighty, loving, and holy God allows evil things to happen.

First, as I indicated in my previous post on theodicy, God does limit evil. We do not know how often and how powerfully we have been protected from evil and from suffering, but it does happen. God is still in control of the world, and all the evil powers that afflict creation cannot do even one thing that God has not permitted.

Second, God permits some evil things to happen so people see the difference between good and evil. If God stepped into the world and stopped bullets in midair or froze would-be criminals in their tracks, he would prevent some suffering, but he would not make people better. When people see the consequences of evil in tragedy and suffering, they can be moved to reject evil and to prefer the good. When people suffer, they can turn to the God who has defeated evil and who wants to include those suffering people on his winning team rather than abandon them to the enemy.

Third, God permits some evil and suffering to strengthen his people. As the body grows stronger with physical challenges and exercise, so Christian faith grows stronger with spiritual challenges and exercise. Not all problems are intended for the good of the sufferer, but in many cases it is so. Likewise, without bad things happening in the world, there would be no opportunity for people to do good things. When we witness suffering, the godly response is not to seek someone to blame. The godly response is to help the victim. Many times great holy acts are done by God’s people in response to evil. If the evil had been prohibited, the great holy acts could never have happened.

Fourth, God does not idly watch creation while terrible things happen. God entered creation to oppose evil and to rescue the victims of evil. The almighty God chose to be limited as all human beings are limited so he could claim all of us for his Kingdom. He experienced hunger, thirst, loneliness, and the abandonment of family and friends. He suffered under unjust governments of Caiaphas and the High Council and then under Pontius Pilate. He was mocked, beaten, tortured, and finally killed. The suffering and death of Jesus were a terrible crime—theocide, I believe it is called—but God allowed this tragedy to happen to himself so he could defeat all evil and rescue all the victims of evil.

Bad things still happen in the world with God’s permission because God is waiting for more people to learn about his victory, turn from evil, and be his people forever. Jesus, before he went to the cross, healed some blind people and deaf people and paralytics and lepers. He raised to life three people who were dead. At that time, though, Jesus did not heal all the sick or raise all the dead. When he is seen coming in glory, Jesus will raise all the dead. Every eye will see him, and every ear will hear his voice.

On that Day, all those who are found guilty of evil will be punished for their sins, but all who belong to Jesus will be welcomed into his new creation. The new creation is like a wedding reception, except that it will never end. The punishment for sin is like being locked out of the party, spending eternity in the dark parking lot. Yet the people who remain in the parking lot do not want to be at the party. To join the party, they would have to join Jesus and his Kingdom. They don’t want to do this.Therefore, God is just; they are punished for all their sins, but chiefly for resisting the rescue mission of Jesus and remaining stubbornly outside of his kingdom.

Few topics challenge believers and unbelievers as like as much as this problem of suffering and tragedy. Because God does not give us detailed reports on his working, we cannot know many times why a certain terrible thing has been permitted to happen. God directs our gaze beyond all other tragedies to the tragedy of the cross, where horrible injustice, pain, and abandonment were experienced by God and defeated. There is our hope; there is our victory.