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.