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Jesus’ difficult teaching on evil

Robin Schumacher
(Courtesy of Robin Schumacher)

The first paper I wrote in seminary was on the problem of evil. It was, and still is, a very personal subject for me.

The content of that paper contained familiar defenses for reconciling God and evil put forward by many Christian thinkers including the contemporary philosopher Alvin Plantinga in his book God, Freedom, and Evil. His is just one helpful book on the subject of theodicy, which is the #1 issue non-Christians bring up from an emotional standpoint when it comes to denying God’s existence.  

While most skeptics and atheists continue to rely on the problem of evil and suffering as their number one argument against the presence of an all-good and powerful God, there is a growing trend in unbelievers acknowledging the argument’s intellectual bankruptcy. As philosopher Peter Van Inwagen notes, "It used to be widely held that evil was incompatible with the existence of God: that no possible world contained both God and evil. So far as I am able tell, this thesis is no longer defended."[1]

When you look at the subject biblically, you find that we work harder at reconciling God and evil than our Creator does. Explicitly speaking, defenses like the free will argument put forward by Plantinga are conspicuously absent in the Bible’s pages. For example, instead of a black-and-white answer for evil, the book of Job provides a series of sixty-plus questions from God to Job as the book concludes the topic. Moreover, in the pages of the Old Testament, you find God clearly stating things like, “There is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Is. 45:6-7).

It gets especially interesting in the one New Testament portion of Scripture where Jesus addresses the subject of God and evil. His teaching on the topic is likely not what many expect.

The Passage

Let’s read through the portion of Scripture where Jesus addresses the subject of evil:

Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

And He began telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down’” (Luke 13:1-9)

Jesus’ style in this passage is familiar – instruction followed by a parable to illustrate and further ground His teaching.

The Teaching

In this short passage on the subject of evil, notice that Jesus references both types of evil that we encounter in life: moral and natural.[2]

He first gets news about a human atrocity perpetrated by Pilate where the governor directed the Roman authorities to murder non-Jewish worshippers in the temple. It’s hard to get a better example of moral evil (human wickedness) than this.

He then moves on to reference something that insurance companies today still call “Acts of God”. Evidently one of the towers of the Siloam aqueduct (built inside the southeast portion of Jerusalem’s wall) collapsed and killed some bystanders. It’s an event along with others like weather disasters, illnesses, etc., that exemplify natural evil.    

In referring to both situations, what we get from Jesus is somewhat surprising. People today would expect Him to provide an apologetic explanation for why God allowed those things to occur, but instead, Christ makes no effort to reconcile the events in question with a good and all-powerful Creator.  

Jesus also completely trashes the concept of karma, where what goes around comes around. The idea of personal disaster being the result of individual sin was deeply rooted in the Jewish consciousness (e.g. Job 4:7; 8:20; 11:6; 22:5–10; John 9:20), but Christ tosses that concept aside.

Jesus gives us no answers as to why God allows evil, but instead He provides a sobering warning about turning from sin to God before some similar form of tragedy falls on us.  

The Parable

To emphasize His warning, He delivers a parable about a fig tree that is producing no fruit. Often in Scripture, the fig tree represents Israel and while there’s no doubt that it depicts the nation of Israel in this story, there’s good reason to believe the parable expands to include everyone else.

The illustration of a tree bearing no fruit is referenced many times in both the Old and New Testaments. It represents lives that show no evidence of repentance and change; no transformational proof where spiritual life is concerned.  

It typically took a fig tree three years to bear fruit. The fact that Jesus’ public ministry was three years and drawing to a close is likely no coincidence. Israel has run out of time and judgement is coming, both for them and eventually everyone else.  

The Lesson

During a time of a nationwide illness, theologian Warren Wiersbe asked a friend in a neighboring town about his city’s death rate. His friend replied, “One apiece”, then added, “People are dying who never died before.”

Jesus’ repeated warnings in both His teaching and parable echo what Ecc. 9:12 says – “Man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil time when it suddenly falls on them.”

If the central lesson of verses 1-5 is ‘Repent and be saved’ then that of the parable found in verses 6-9 is ‘Repent and be saved now!’

While we aren’t given weighty explanations for the problem of theodicy in this passage, we are given good news. When He delivered this teaching, Christ was headed up to Jerusalem to be delivered into the hands of Pilate, and to have his blood not mingled with His sacrifice as in the case of the murdered Gentiles but made the sacrifice itself.

Like the pleading vineyard-keeper in the parable, Christ is our great Intercessor who intervenes on our behalf where judgment is concerned. However, while God is very patient, His patience does not last forever. Notice that Jesus asks for a reprieve for the tree not bearing fruit, not for its continued barren existence.

What about you? If you’re a Christian, does your life bear fruit and demonstrate true saving faith (cf. James 2)? If not, why not?   

If you’re reading this and not a Christian, I’d like to respectfully ask that you don’t use the problem of evil as a nonchalant way of stiff-arming God. If the subject is a genuine concern, then know that plenty of excellent material is available, which is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying.[3]

But don’t procrastinate any longer; yours and my tower of Siloam could be waiting for us today. Call out to God now.  

[1] Peter Van Inwagen, "The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence, Philosophical Perspectives, vol. 5: Philosophy of Religion, ed. James E. Tomberlin (Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview Publishing, 1991), pg. 135.

[2] Some add “supernatural evil” to the list, which references Satan and his activities.

[3] Excellent works such as Plantiga’s book as well as William Lane Craig’s Tough Questions, Real Answers and similar writings are available. Also see my recent post on the subject here.  

Robin Schumacher is a software executive and Christian apologist who has written many apologetic articles, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at various apologetic events. He holds a Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament.

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