The Problem of Evil and Pascha (Easter)

Icon of the Resurrection

(Apologies on the long post, but the Resurrection warrants it. Feel free to bookmark this post and come back to it if time is needed to read it. This is also partially an excerpt from a yet-to-be-published manuscript I’ve written [if anyone is interested, let me know], so I hope you enjoy)

It may seem an odd time to write about Easter, considering it’s nearly midnight (EST United States) and that Easter was a week ago. However, for those who don’t follow the Western calendar, Easter, or better known as Pascha in the East, will begin tonight at midnight. The Pascha service is always celebrated a week after Passover for the very simple reason that this is how it occurred in the Bible.

That being said, as some may note I recently wrote about the failure of Greater Good Theodicies. As for a workable solution for the problem of evil, tonight’s celebration serves as both the explanation and the solution for the problem of evil. While philosophers have debated as to how an all-powerful, all-benevolent God could allow evil to exist for centuries, that all-powerful, all-benevolent God answered these philosophical inquiries by dying on a cross and raising from the dead.

How is it that evil exists within this world? Sadly, it exists because we allow it to exist. When we talk of “good” and “evil,” we must remember that we are talking about substance vs. non-substance, that is to say that “good” actually exists whereas evil is simply the privation of that good. What is good? Goodness is an attribute of God, thus God is good; God is present and active in all the acts of goodness that we see. Thus, when we choose evil, we are choosing to work against God. Since we were endowed with free will (which deserves another post on why free will creatures who can sin are better than determined beings who cannot sin), we can actively choose to limit God’s interactions with this world. While this doesn’t limit His presence and while His sovereignty is not infringed (as He can act against our actions, though not in an overbearing way as to negate free will), it does mean that God allows us autonomy. In fact, that is the root of all sin, that we desire autonomy from God. God grants us this autonomy, and the consequences of our desires is what we call evil. We are the cause of evil.

But what of natural evil? What of tsunamis and tornadoes? What of animal suffering? The answer to this goes back to creation; as we were created in the image of God to hold dominion over the earth, our actions were tied to the outcome of creation. In our sin, we negatively impacted creation and subjected it to sin. While we in the West love individualism, we must understand that individualism is not an accurate picture of life. We are tied to each other and creation. While we are each individuals, we are not autonomous individuals. Tomorrow when I eat carrots and green beans, my choice in that impacts those who canned the food, picked the food, grew the food, and even impacts the land itself. Thus, in our choice to sin and choose autonomy from God, it only follows that nature would also be impacted. (All of this deserves an academic approach, and one is coming within the next months; suffice it to say, however, that this post is not meant to be academic).

The new atheists have taken this argument of evil up as their rallying cry. “God is not great,” they explain. “He’s evil because He allows evil, therefore He doesn’t exist.” All of this, however, only shows unwillingness on the part of the atheists (and other critics) to explore the Biblical reason for evil. The Bible is clear that God is very aware of the evil in the world, but He uses it to display His love. Sometimes He takes what was meant for evil and turns it into good (Romans 8:28). While this doesn’t deny gratuitous evil, nor am I saying that every instance of evil is allowed because it will cause a greater good, I am saying that the ultimate reason for allowing evil is because He created us with free wills, wills that are free to choose Him or deny Him.

In His perfect knowledge, God allowed evil to occur so that we might experience His love in a fuller way.[1] While the Fall wasn’t necessary for us to feel God’s love perfectly, it does allow us to see that God loves us via sacrifice. The Fall opened the doors for God to sacrifice by sending His only begotten Son to live, suffer, and die on our behalf. While the Fall was not necessary, our sinful action(s) necessitated a loving response from God.

Thus, God allowed evil so He could experience evil and in so doing we could experience His love. We all endure evil, but how quickly we forget that God has experienced evil greater than any of us could fathom. He has been the victim of His creation. Furthermore, when He took on human flesh He participated in our sufferings. The same flesh that is destroyed in genocide is the flesh that Christ took on. It is not as though God allowed evil and then removed Himself from the experience; rather, He allowed evil and then put Himself at the center of its suffering.

We look into the Garden of Eden and see God allowing humanity to fall and ask “Why?” God points to the Garden of Gethsemane and says, “This is why.” The Son took on all the sins of the world and was separated from the Father. What greater evil is there than for an innocent to suffer for the sake of the guilty? Yet Christ did this out of His love and His own willingness. Though we experience evil, evil that we think others could never fathom, God has suffered much more. This is not so He can brag or say, “Tough it out, I’ve had it worse,” but instead so we know that He can truly sympathize with us and that we can trust Him to get us through an experience of evil.

It wasn’t just the physicality of the cross that was the greatest evil – because others have suffered more – but the spiritual nature of the cross and what was occurring on the cross that none of us have ever experienced that makes it the greatest evil to have ever happened on this earth.

Imagine a child walking with her father while eating her ice cream. She trips a little and the ice cream falls off her cone. To her this is a great evil, but the father, being older, has experienced much worse. She can sit there and wonder, “Why would my father allow me to trip and lose my ice cream?” or she can trust him. She can turn to her father, she can cry to him, she can reach out to him and beg for him to hold her since he too has experienced evil. And being a loving father who has experienced far greater evil, he can sympathize with her and help her through it.

Or we can think of when we lose our parents to a disease. For many, the loss of a parent comes after we’ve become adults and experienced some life with them. But the evil that befalls us pales in comparison to those who lose their parents at a young age or to those who have their parents abandon them. We all experience personal evils on a different level. We all react to those evils differently, so it’s hard to say that one evil is worse than another. But we can look to the cross and say that, without a doubt, the greatest evil to ever occur on earth occurred on the cross when the creation murdered the Creator, the guilty crucified the innocent, the perpetrators of evil destroyed the Good.

Yet, while the cross is the greatest act of evil, it is also the cure to the problem of evil. On the cross we see evil try to reign triumphal, but it had been defeated without knowing it. The empty grave of Christ stands as a testament to the defeat of evil.[2]

While we experience actual evil and suffering from it, we must remember that the love of God can overcome any evil. When we come before the Lord on our knees and cry out, “Dear Lord, why has this befallen upon me,” He doesn’t chastise us, He doesn’t turn His back to us, He responds, “My child, I love you and I have endured it as well; come and lay your weary head upon my chest.” Rather than questioning God’s very existence because of evil, we should humbly and lovingly turn to Him for comfort, for He has already endured our pain and so much more.

Christ wasn’t bashful concerning the problem of evil, rather than attempting to explain it away by some complex theodicy He offered Himself as a theodicy. In Matthew 11:28-30, He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Thus, God does not shy away from the problem of evil, but instead He answers it by telling us to come to Him. Only within the Christian faith does the problem of evil have a real solution; in some other faiths (or lack of faiths) the solution is to explain that evil doesn’t really exist, or that we must appease some totalitarian god. In Christ we learn that we are the cause of evil, but that He is the solution, not through appeasement, but through rest.

The answer to the problem of evil isn’t found in a clever syllogism or in a preacher’s aphorism, rather the answer is a Man; the ultimate answer to the question of evil, the best theodicy one can give, is a bloody cross and an empty tomb.

He is a God who can be trusted. We know why He allows evil to exist on a grand scale, but why specific evils? Why does He allow pain and misery to come upon our individual lives? Job asked this same question and only God could provide an answer. His answer was, “Trust Me.” After all, who are we to find fault in God (Job 40:2)? He is perfect and we are imperfect. His ways are not our ways and His knowledge is infinitely more than our own (Isaiah 55:8-9). God is good because God is love, so in times of evil He is all we have to rely on.[3]

The critics of God would have a point about evil if God allowed evil and left us there. If God allowed evil to enter the world and offered no way out of this world, then truly He would be cruel. He would be no better than a child burning the antennas off ants. But that is not the God we worship. God has offered a way out of this evil world; He has offered a way that defeats evil. The ultimate answer to the problem of evil is Jesus Christ; He faced evil on the cross and defeated it when He rose from the grave. Evil has already been defeated, we are merely waiting for the fulfillment of this defeat (Revelation 20:10, 14).

God is Love

The explanation to the problem of evil – God’s love – might seem a bit weird, but we cannot forget that love is behind everything God does. While He does do everything for His glory, it is equally true to say that He does everything out of His love. We cannot separate the attributes of God, thus everything He does displays both His glory and His love.

God created everything out of love. He created because He loved the Son and wished to honor the Son, but the Son wasn’t sitting on the sidelines. The Father spoke everything into existence through His Word (Jesus Christ) in the power of the Holy Spirit. God accomplished this out of love for Himself, with the Persons of the Trinity working in perfect harmony. But He also created simply for the love of creation. He is an artist. We look at certain things in nature and wonder, “Why would God do this?” But when we look at a painting, very rarely do we go, “I wonder why the artist did this.” We simply sit back and enjoy the art. It is the same with creation. We don’t have to ascribe a pragmatic purpose to everything; we can simply sit back and enjoy the artistic display of our Lord. Creation is art painted by the love of God.

God then created humans out of love. He didn’t have to create intelligent beings who were capable of having a relationship with Him, but He chose to. He did this out of love for us. He created us as a display of His perfect love; we are to love His creation, love each other, love ourselves, and love Him.

In all of this, He allowed us to fall. It is His love that allowed us to fall, for how loving would God be if He forced us to follow Him? Contrary to recent claims, God is no tyrant. When Adam and Eve rebelled, He didn’t kill them and start over. God didn’t create little robots that would follow His every command. Some people post the question, “Couldn’t God have created free beings who just didn’t have the capacity to rebel?” Common sense would dictate that if we never had the capacity to rebel then we wouldn’t truly be free, at least not if that was our starting point.[4] No, God gave us the freedom to rebel because He would rather have a willful servant than a mindless slave (Isaiah 1:18).

He allowed us to rebel because He knew it would allow Him to display His love. He knew that in our rebellion He could display the ultimate sacrifice – the giving of His only begotten Son. He wanted to display His love for us that even while we rebelled against Him, He would die for us (Romans 5:8). Even while we spat in His face, even while we hurled insults, even while we mocked Him, even while we questioned who He was, He loved us so much that He would sooner remain on the cross than come down and destroy us.

He took on the form of a man out of love. The Son emptied Himself of His divine attributes so that He might experience life with us. He is not some transcendent God without immanence, some unloving God who refuses to experience life as we do. Rather, God “got His hands dirty” by taking on flesh, but He did this out of love. He experienced our pain. He blistered under the heat. All that it is to be human, He did so, but without sin.

He became human so that He could ultimately die for us. Once again, love is the motivating factor. Out of love, Christ stood before Pilate falsely accused. Out of love, Christ bore a crown of thorns and was whipped. Out of love He marched up to Golgotha to hang on a cross. Out of love He let the soldiers put nails through His hands. Out of love He bore our transgressions. Out of love He was forsaken on our behalf. Out of love God came down to this earth and died for His rebellious creation. Out of love He rose from the grave. And out of love He bestows the effects of His actions onto us.

The Father’s love for the Son is what moved the stone away from the tomb. It was their love for each other that Christ raised physically from the dead to sit at the right hand of the Father. It is out of love that Christ’s resurrection is our way to salvation, the way to perfect reconciliation with the Father. God didn’t have to offer this to us, but He chose to because He loves us.

Because God loves us, we too are supposed to love others. He calls us to be representatives of His love this side of eternity. We are to love everyone. It is easy to love the lovable, but we are called to love the unlovable. We are a parent to the orphans. We are a liberator to the oppressed. We are a friend to the lonely. We are a comforter to the criminal. But we are also to love the corrupt CEO who fires employees so he can make a profit. We are to display love to our oppressors. While we must fight against the corruption of this world, we must never forget that we are still called to love our enemies. We are a lover to all, from the highest of society to the lowest, from the most virtuous among us to the darkest criminals in the deepest cells. To all, we are an example of God’s love on this earth.

It is love that compels God to bring us into eternal fellowship with Him, into the Divine community of the Trinity. How kind it would be of Him to merely destroy our souls once this life is over. How justified He would be in such an action. But he invites us into a perfect eternal fellowship with Him where we will forever love Him. Love is the focal point of every action of God. Everything He does, from His justice to His creation, from His revelation to His transcendent nature; every action of God is tied up to His love. If love is the focal point of God’s actions, then it should be the focal point for our actions as well. Though we will fail at this – because who can love like God? – we are to strive toward loving others as Christ has loved us.

An Eternal Love

God is the purpose of life. When we wander around, wondering what our purpose on this earth is, we can realize that He is everything. He is our end and everything else is a means. He fulfills us, He gives us rest from this weary life. Christ calls out to us, to us sinners, and says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” It is a comforting thought that God would care for us so much that He would make such an invitation. It is easy to feel overwhelmed in this world. All of us have our hearts clouded by sin and by pain; to this Christ makes the invitation to come and rest in Him.

The invitation of Christ isn’t an invitation into a bunch of “do’s” and “do not’s,” but rather an invitation into a relationship. We enter into a relationship with Him and with His body, the Church. In so doing, we begin to live as though the Kingdom has come. This relationship is more than the following a moral code or saying a prayer for the forgiveness of our sins and then hoping for Heaven; certainly these are a part of the relationship, but they do not summarize the entire relationship. A honeymoon is only part of the married life; it is an important part, but not the entire thing. Likewise, asking Christ to forgive us our sins and walking the “straight and narrow” is a part of being a Christian, but not the entire thing. We obey Christ out of love, not out of obligation.

God’s love for us transcends time. He loved us before He created us (1 Peter 1:18-20). What sinner would dare dream of a God who would love us before we even existed? God is what sinners dare not dream. Everything in Scripture points to God’s working toward the fulfillment of His love in Christ on the cross. His plan is what we could never fathom. His love is eternal and we can never be separated from it. What better way to conclude with a passage from Paul (Romans 8:18-39):

 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.  Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

May it be so as we pursue the Eternal and seek to be with Him unto ages of ages. Amen.

[1] One could make the argument that God could display His love in a perfect fashion even without the Fall. This is a view that I agree with, that is to say, the Fall was not necessary in order for God to perfectly display His love. Rather, God allowed the Fall so as to not inhibit our free will, and in so doing found a way to perfectly display His love in a fallen world.

[2] When I refer to evil as an actual substance, I am merely doing so for the effect of writing. Evil is really the lack of good and has no substance of its own; philosophically speaking it is an accident, lacking a property or substance.

[3] For those curious in a philosophic answer to this problem, I would encourage two books. The first is God, Freedom, and Evil by Alvin Plantinga and the second is God, Why This Evil? by Bruce Little. Both explore the philosophic reasons and explanations for the problem of evil within the Christian tradition. While I am emphatic that Christ is the ultimate answer to the problem of evil, I do not say this to the exclusion of the philosophical attempts to explain evil. These are important, but it must be recognized that these will always point back to Christ.

[4] In Heaven we will lack the capacity to rebel, but that is because we have chosen such a life. If God created us without that capacity then we would lack free will. But if we willingly choose to become like God through theosis, then we are willfully giving up our sin nature, thus indicating that in Heaven though we lack the capacity to sin, we are still free.