Thursday, November 01, 2007

Did God Create Evil?

Another Email Q&A

Got this question in an email earlier this week. Here's my answer:

Well, it’s not a simple yes/no answer. On the one hand, you have the logic of God’s role as Creator and Designer of all things which almost requires us to say that, yes, in some sense, God created/planned the existence of evil in our world. Verses like Isaiah 45:7 put Scriptural foundation underneath that logic: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.” Pretty hard to make that go away.

But then you have the truth on the other side that God is not evil, all He does is good, and He couldn’t possibly be the direct cause of something He Himself forbids. You have verses like James 1:13 to support that idea: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.”

So my answer is a good, solid “No.” And “Yes.” No, in the sense that He cannot be charged with wrongdoing or held responsible as the direct cause for sinful, evil things in our world. But yes in the sense that all that happens is part of His pre-ordained plan; His plan works in perfect harmony with the personal choices of His free creatures; and ultimately He must be seen as the ultimate reason for all things that have happened, are happening, and ever will happen.

In attempting to say “No, God doesn’t cause evil in any sense whatsoever,” some people suggest that He simply knows what is going to happen and He allows some evil things. I have two questions for these folks.

1) (related to “God knows it”) How is God’s “knowing” that something is going to happen all that different from His “causing” it to happen? To explain what I mean, here’s an example… this morning I had a bowl of grapefruit with my breakfast instead of a banana. God certainly knew I was going to have the grapefruit rather than the banana; and if you think about it, just by KNOWING what I was going to choose, He guaranteed it was going to happen that way. Even though I felt free to choose banana or grapefruit, there was never really any option because the future was already all mapped out in His mind before it ever happened. So the problem isn’t solved by saying “God knew about it, but He didn’t cause it,” because the mere fact that He knew it was coming guaranteed that it would come. Of course, some people object, “Yeah, He knew it, but He didn’t cause it. He just allowed it.” Next question…

2) (related to “God allows it”) If the all-powerful God knows something bad is going to happen and He allows it anyway instead of stopping it, isn’t He guilty of at least negligence, like a police officer who stands passively by while a civilian gets mugged? In other words, saying “He allows it” doesn’t really get Him off the hook in any truly meaningful way. For anyone who disagrees, I would suggest they talk with a skeptic of Christianity and see if the skeptic is really satisfied by an all-powerful God who COULD step in and stop evil but chooses not to. That God sounds like a cold-hearted jerk who acts like it’s not his problem. It’s obviously not a truly helpful answer.

This is still true even when it comes to the “free will” answer that says, “God preserves our free will; that’s why He doesn’t prevent evil things that we choose to do.” That answer doesn’t help, because not all evil is caused by human free will – e.g., the 2004 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, etc. Some really bad things happen without any people involved whatsoever, and so we still have to answer the question, “What did God have to do with this?” Saying “He just allowed it; He didn’t cause it” makes me wonder what kind of God He must be, if He could have stopped it and simply chose not to.

My brother-in-law's cancer is a very personal and very real example here. If God simply “allowed” it when He could have stopped or prevented it all along, I have to ask why He doesn’t love my neice and nephew enough to prevent the horrible pain of losing their daddy. But if in some sense He actually brought it about deliberately as part of His great but mysterious plan to bless and increase their sense of His love in the long run, that’s a God I think I’ve seen reflected in my own experience as a child – suffering short-term pain and loss from my father in order to experience greater joy and blessing in the long run.

If all this seems very troubling and confusing, take heart, because your question deals with probably the largest and most perplexing issue that has faced Christianity for its entire existence—the classic “problem of evil.” We are hardly the first ones to ask the question, and we won’t be the last. And men and women far brighter than we are have struggled and argued and written books by the score trying to answer it.

The ultimate answer is, I think, that He is God and we are not, and we just plain can’t figure out everything about Him or the universe He has created.


Unknown said...

As much as I really dislike the movie "Pleasantville," I think it may help demonstrate the answer to this question. In the movie, all people are good & all things are good. They don't know evil. That scenario can represent heaven, before the fall of man, before satan fell from his status as angel.

The movie takes the stance that "discovering something new within yourself" begins to color your world, make you a complete person. "Find yourself," as everyone likes to say. Oddly enough & really quite bewildering, this coloring seems to happen primarily along a theme of sex. There is no sex in Pleasantville. There is no fire -- fireman only rescue cats. Women serve their husbands & families, kids adore their parents, & husbands bring home the bacon faithfully. Everything is pristine.

Enter two kids from the 21st century. They bring the awareness of having a "will." Suddenly, as people discover they can think for themselves, they see what they are "missing" & they begin to make choices. No longer is everything just so & perfect. Evil arrives b/c choices & discovery arrived.

God created perfection. Like Pleasantville. He also created & gave us each the ability to make decisions & choices. Contrary to the twisted idea of "Pleasantville," when we make choices that give way to temptation & inner struggles, it does not color our world with beauty. It colors our world with sin.

God didn't create evil. He created us & chose to give us our own wills. As demonstrated in the movie, we choose evil when we do not choose His perfection.

That's how I see it.

BNick said...

In discussions such as these, it is helpful to define "evil" vs. "calamity," as I believe you do to some degree in this post. Indeed, people often call natural disasters "evil" in the general sense. Using that definition, yes, God creates evil. He admitted it, as noted in Isaiah. To me, it seems rather easy to believe that God's omniscience and omnipotence enable him to use calamities for the ultimate good--which we believe to be His glorification. It's anthropocentric to believe that a large-scale human disaster cannot be eclipsed by a greater purpose. Of couse I do not say that with the intent of downplaying human loss to the point of irrelevance; a tragedy remains a tragedy. But the point is that "tragedy" and "calamity" are relative terms, and in order to understand how such a devestating event can be a positive thing as well, we need only to adjust our perspective to account for the fact that men's happiness and survival are not the ultimate good. And that can be difficult to do.