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Three schools of thought on evil

Unsplash/Kasper Rasmussen
Unsplash/Kasper Rasmussen

“'Reprehensible' Homeless man charged for slaughtering 3 family members in NJ, Pa. after nailbiting police standoff.”

“Suspect accused of murdering cop, who stopped to help repair tire, caught.”

“Florida mom offers $500 for her 18-month-old baby outside an H&R Block — finds no takers and leaves kid.”

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“Haitian immigrant charged with raping 15-year-old girl in migrant hotel.”

And that was just a 5-minute perusal of the news a few days back. Things have gotten so bad on this front and people are so scared and lonely that they’re now turning to pet rocks for comfort, hoping it will relax them.

No, it really won’t. I mean, it’s a rock.   

You’re going to need something else to come to grips with all the foulness in the world. Wrapping your head around it isn’t easy as evidenced by all the heavyweight thinkers who have done their best to explain it. Their efforts generally roll up into three schools of thought.

First is the Humanistic model. This is the no-God paradigm that says things are just messy because of time + matter + chance and most likely are going to stay that way. Tough cookies.   

In my opinion, no one does a better job of articulating this line of thinking than atheist Richard Dawkins who wrote, “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

If you’re a Christian, pretend you aren’t for a moment and ask yourself if that fits what we oftentimes see. The good being mistreated, the rotten getting ahead, catastrophes that come out of nowhere, swallowing up seemingly innocent people, with all of it just not making sense. If God doesn’t exist, what else have you got?

Of course, the rub with that is you can’t call anything good or evil; things just are.

The reason for that is, if there’s such a thing as evil, you must assume there’s such a thing as good. If you assume there’s such a thing as good, you assume there’s such a thing as an absolute and unchanging moral law based on which to differentiate good and evil. If you assume there’s such a thing as an absolute moral law, you must posit an absolute moral lawgiver, but that would be God — the one who doesn’t exist. So now rewind: if there’s no moral lawgiver, there’s no moral law. If there’s no moral law, there’s no good. If there’s no good, there’s no evil.

That’s why Dawkins says there is “no evil, no good” in his naturalistic model.

The next two common schools of thought on evil include God. The second is much like the first, but it has God authoring evil vs. a naturalistic-only universe. It’s the Fatalistic model with a pretty bad, mostly deistic God at the helm and no final purpose behind it all. Your job is again to take the stoic approach of grinning and bearing it.

The Bible and the men who penned the Westminster Confession disagreed with this God-authoring-evil approach, with them writing: “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”

More on this in a moment.

The third model is the Moralistic one which says if you’re hurting, well, it must be something you’ve done. Remember Job’s friends? How did they start with him? By saying: “Remember now, whoever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright destroyed? According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity and those who sow trouble harvest it” (Job 4:7–8).

The same thinking was prevalent in Jesus’ day; for example, when trying to explain a man who was born blind, the disciples asked Christ: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” (John 9:2).  

Of course, the Moralistic model is a sham — there is an endless list of wonderful people who have endured great trials, including that Nazarene Carpenter and most other major personalities found in Scripture.

So, if you’ve been taking notes, you’ve seen that while the Humanistic, Fatalistic, and Moralistic approaches are the most referenced schools of thought on evil, they all fall short from a biblical and reality standpoint of explaining it. Now what do we do?

Let's begin by understanding that the Bible tells us in no uncertain terms that an all-powerful, all-good God exists. It also isn’t shy about saying evil exists. Therefore, you’re left with only one conclusion: God has ordained that evil exists.

Sounds kind of bad at first, I know, but keep reading.  

Because this fact makes many squirm, to get God off the hook for evil a lot of Christians propose the free-will argument: God allows us to have free will but the kicker is we’ve misused that freedom and thus we now have the evil that we do. Some heavy hitters take up this position (e.g., Augustine) with perhaps the best contemporary scholastic defender being Alvin Plantinga (still alive at 91!). His free-will defense arguments can be found in his book God, Freedom, and Evil.

What you find in Plantinga’s book and others like it is a strong philosophical defense of the free-will argument, but little to no explicit biblical support for it being highlighted. And that’s always bothered me.

So now let’s return to what the fellows of the Westminster Confession wrote about God and evil. Their thinking runs along the same lines as Jonathan Edwards who wrote the following in his book The Freedom of the Will: “If by the author of sin, be meant the sinner, the agent, or actor of sin, or the doer of a wicked thing, so it would be a reproach and blasphemy, to suppose God to be the author of sin … But if, by the author of sin, is meant the permitter, or not a hinderer of sin; and, as the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy, and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted or not hindered, will most certainly and infallibly follow … I do not deny that God is the author of sin.”

Don’t bristle at Edward’s statement — he isn’t accusing God of sin and evil, but rather saying God uses it in His sovereign purpose, primarily for two things.

First, to accomplish “most excellent ends.” Remember Joseph who was sold into slavery? Joseph told his brothers: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen. 50:20).

Remember the crucifixion of Christ? Peter said to the crowd before him in Acts: “... this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23).

Yes, “free” will is involved, but one that melds with the good purpose of God, which stakes the heart of the Fatalistic evil model.

Second, God uses evil to demonstrate His righteousness to His creation. Remember Pharaoh of Egypt? Paul says, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth’” (Rom. 9:17).

Paul also asks plainly, “But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say?” (Rom. 3:5). In other words, we wouldn’t understand God’s righteousness without unrighteousness being alive in the world. This turns the Moralistic model upside down to show how the bad acts of humanity showcase the good morals of the Creator.

John MacArthur puts it like this: “The reason for God ordaining evil is for the praise of His glory. Let me ask you a simple question to help you answer the question — the bigger question: is God more glorious because of sin existing or less glorious? Pretty easy question to answer, isn’t it? That really is the ultimate question. Throughout all the eons of eternity, will God receive more glory from His creatures because sin existed or less? And, friends, that’s really all that matters, is the eternal glory of God.”

In the end, N. T. Wright is correct when he says, “It [the Bible] is written to tell the story of what God has done, is doing and will do about evil.” Scripture says that God will destroy evil one day, and the good news for those who put their trust in Christ is He’s able to destroy our evil without destroying us because of the cross.

Pretty amazing, huh?

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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