I believe that the quadrilemma of Epicurus relies heavily upon assumptions about God and his purpose for the Creation, and for man. The church has often upheld a theology which, in my view, contains misconceptions which inadvertently give rise to the rational objections of skepticism. The PoE is a “problem” in part because of these widely held assumptions, assumptions which are common both to believers and nonbelievers. I will, in this series, challenge a number of these assumptions, among them:
1) Man is central to Creation. Christians typically believe that man is the raison d'être of the cosmos; that is, we are the primary reason for all Creation. In this view, evil is a sidebar story, one that intersects God’s central purpose in various ways. It is not the main story. The main story is man. Not only is this assumption self-aggrandizing, but it becomes a major building block in the development of the PoE. I will challenge this view.
2) The Chief Purpose of Man. Related to the first assumption is the commonly held view that God created man for fellowship. The chief purpose of man is “to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever” ... or so the Westminster Confession famously declares. With respect to the PoE, this assumption typically leads to the “free will” defense which argues the following: in order for God to have the quality of fellowship he desired, it was necessary to give his created beings the freedom to choose him or not, thus leaving the door open to rebellion and consequent evil. While fully endorsing free will, I will nevertheless challenge parts of this view, and suggest an entirely different “chief purpose of man.”
3) Evil invaded a previously pristine Creation. The assumption is that God’s original Creation was idyllic, a Garden of Eden without flaw. It is assumed that God would not create a broken universe, one with a component of evil at its very outset. According to this assumption, evil enters this unspoiled Creation as an unwanted guest, through the rebellion of Satan and his angelic followers, and/or through the rebellion of man as illustrated in the first three chapters of Genesis. I will challenge this view.
4) Pain and suffering can have no ultimate meaning. The PoE is only a problem if we neglect the many promises of Scripture to those who suffer unjustly. While not answering all our “why” questions, or specifically detailing exactly how suffering plays into God’s purposes, the Bible does make it clear that suffering has very high value for this age and the next. The materialist who only sees a temporal existence may never grasp the eternal value of suffering. Moreover, many believers have failed to fit suffering into its eternal context, a context in which suffering is redeemed, and glory is bestowed commensurately to suffering.
5) God would not battle evil the same way he instructs us to. Jesus instructs his followers not to resist evil. Paul, quoting the Hebrew Scriptures, teaches us to overcome evil with good. Yet it is typically assumed by both sides in the PoE debates that an omnipotent God could and would merely annihilate evil through the use of his superior power, if he chose to do so. It is this assumption that I wish to challenge in today’s post.
Let’s first set the stage. The Bible clearly teaches that we live in the midst of a battle of cosmic proportions between good and evil. The battle is, at times, territorial. There are places and times when the forces of evil clearly have the upper hand. Jesus identifies Satan, the archenemy of God and ruler of the forces of evil, as the ruler of this world (John 12:31; John 14:30; John 16:11). Many other Scriptures could be cited which demonstrate that evil often has the upper hand in this cosmic war. It is clear that we do not live in a world in which God does whatever he pleases whenever he pleases. Jesus taught his followers to pray that the will of God would be done on the earth, a clear indication that God’s will is not being done here. The Scriptures make it clear the there are rules of engagement in the battle of the ages. This is not a matter of God lacking omnipotence. It is a matter of legal rights, rules of engagement with the adversary, legalities which God honors. Much could be said about this cosmic battle. It provides the backdrop which we must understand if we are to make any sense of the evils, both natural and moral, that we observe in our world. But in this post, I limit my discussion to these questions: what is God’s modus operandi in this battle? what are his tactics? and how does he intend to destroy evil?
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents a radical approach to dealing with evil. In Matthew 5:38-45 he says
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.This teaching of Jesus has been variously dubbed as “nonresistance”, “the way of peace”, and “pacifism”. It has been the subject of many heated debates (and I do not wish to start a new debate here!). Whatever your views about political pacifism, Augustine’s “Just War Theory”, civil police action, etc., it is clear that on some personal level, at least, Jesus is teaching that a great strategy for overcoming evil, perhaps the best strategy, is to lay down our resistance to evil. To love those who hate us. To turn the other cheek. To go the extra mile. To pray for our oppressors. To freely give.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (NIV)
The standard approach of dealing with evil (and most of the Old Testament presents this approach) is to overpower it, to subdue it. Moses offered a system of holding evil in check through a carefully defined system of measured retribution: “an eye for an eye”. Jesus offers a new approach, an approach that is radically counterintuitive: Destroy evil ... rob it of its power to procreate ... by offering up NO RESISTANCE.
Many confuse the teachings of Jesus on pacifism with “passivity”. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the following slide illustrates:
￼Rather than being a passive, door-mat response to evil, the approach taught by Jesus is the most effective way to deal with evil in the long run. This is the secret of many great leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who once said “We will wear you down by our ability to suffer.” What did he mean? He meant that the power of the oppressor would be more effectively broken by nonresistance than by open battle. And he understood that this approach would necessarily entail much suffering.
The anabaptist theologian, Myron Augsburger, puts it this way: “Turning the other cheek is not a surrender, but a strategy for operation.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, explains:
"The only way to overcome evil is to let it run itself to a standstill because it does not find the resistance it is looking for. Resistance merely creates further evil and adds fuel to the flames. But when evil meets no opposition and encounters no obstacle but only patient endurance, its sting is drawn, and at last it meets an opponent which is more than its match. Of course this can only happen when the last ounce of resistance is abandoned, and the renunciation of revenge is complete. Then evil cannot find its mark, it can breed no further evil, and is left barren."Jesus not only taught this approach, he lived and died by it. His friend Simon Peter recalled the manner in which Jesus suffered and died: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23 NIV). The Cross of Jesus Christ, that central feature of Christianity, is our iconic reminder that Jesus overcame evil not by his superior might, but through yielding his very life to its torments.
While many believers understand how the principle of peace operates in disarming and overcoming evil, we typically confine this modus operandi to our finite, human sphere. But if God teaches us to deal with evil through the greater powers of love and non-resistance, why do we expect that his own methods would instead involve his omnipotent power and domination? What of the possibility that God, in this cosmic warfare with evil, is using the very methods he gives to us. In fact, he is! At the close of those radical teachings on the power of peace and love, Jesus declares that when we practice his teachings we show ourselves to be “sons (and daughters!) of [our] Father in heaven.” That is, we are acting just like God!
If this be true, it changes many of our presuppositions about evil, suffering, and God’s response or his perceived lack of response. It would suggest that every bit of suffering at the hands of evil (in which God himself leads the way!) is just one more piece of the battle that ultimately destroys evil. It would suggest that the suffering of every man, women, and child is another nail in the coffin of evil. No wonder the Scriptures make such a point of connecting our temporal sufferings with ultimate glory!
Scripture suggests that the sufferings of all creation play a role in evil’s undoing (Romans 8:18-25). So even the suffering of animals may, in some way, contribute to the ultimate judgment and annihilation of all evil.
The Old Testament story of Job teaches us that, in our sufferings, there are “behind the scenes” realities that we do not always see or understand. Job’s perspective was limited. He suffered greatly, and tried, along with his friends, to piece together some kind of rational explanation for his pain and perceived injustice. In this respect, Job tried to sort out the PoE, just as we are doing today. But the reader of Job is given a cosmic perspective. The sufferings of Job were not the result of some isolated randomness, void of meaning. Rather, they were played out in the context of a much larger, ages-old battle between a good God and an evil Adversary. His sufferings had an eternal significance that Job perhaps never fully understood until his death gave him a retrospective eternal view. I believe that this will be true of all suffering endured in this cosmos.