The Eastern religions and pantheism, on the other hand, tend to dismiss evil as a figment of our imaginations, or misguided ignorance - opposing our very strong intuitive notions of evil as malicious injustice that needs righted. Rather than making up a subjective fiction, like atheists, they acknowledge evil for what it logically is - nonexistent. In a world where everything is god, and everything is nature, what can possibly be "wrong?" Evil, then, is simply just a word used to describe a lack of understanding. Polytheists (if they exist anymore), like the ancient Greeks, end up clinging to a pantheon of gods that are just as tainted with evil as mortal man - leaving out any hope of resolution. Evil is just a natural truth that is a byproduct of an agent's choices and desires. And really, it's just a massive power struggle for the pantheon to fulfill their own desires, so evil ends up simply being fated inconvenience for those who are in the way of the more powerful. Evil is just the collateral damage of another's pursuit of fulfillment. We exist at the whims of gods, and maintain our existence by being of use to them or staying out of their way.
Christianity, however, provides the most realistic and full view of evil. It is one that allows us to weep in agony over injustice, acknowledging as objective truth that evil should not be, while at the same time, recognizing the depth of evil's roots into our own lives, and the lives of all mankind. It throws off atheist and pantheistic notions of evil as fiction. It throws off polytheistic notions that we are collateral pawns, fated to existing in a fickle, random world. And very importantly, it throws off sister religions of monotheism and misguided Christian sects that view outsiders alone as that which is broken. Unlike atheism and other forms of monotheism, on Christianity, evil is not the result of improper methodology to which everyone else should adhere, but rather a flaw in our nature that is only fixed by grace and right relationship that begins inside oneself. On Christianity, all mankind and all of creation has fallen. We are tainted with sin. Selfishness and pride bleed into every action we perform - even the most altruistic of actions. So to hope for resolution and justice, Christianity recognizes our own culpability and the truth that destroying what is evil would mean the destruction of self. To overcome such depths of depravity, only the Son of God could fix us by living a perfect life, paying the price for our evil, and transferring his works of goodness and eventually, bestowing his sinless nature onto us. Christianity has the strongest view of evil possible, and therefore also the strongest view of what needs to be done to resolve such evil. Like one of the great hymns says, “Ye who think of sin but lightly, nor suppose the evil great, here may view its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate. Mark the sacrifice appointed! See who bears the awful load! ‘Tis the Word, the Lord’s anointed, Son of Man, and Son of God.”
Beyond our own culpability and need of a savior, Christianity also has every part of creation in need of God's grace and mercy. All that is fixed or will be fixed is done so by God's hand, not by our diligence and devotion. The Christians who have embraced the truth of this gospel not only have the fullest view of good and evil, then, they also have the only grounds for selfless love of others. Though many conservative Christians have fallen into the legalistic judgmentalism of many other forms of monotheism, and some liberal Christians have lost the depths of evil and holiness by trying to minimize judgment and wrath, orthodox Christianity is the only game in town that grounds good, evil, and love in a way which fits most people's intuitions, and most people's strongest desires.
But despite the fact that on paper, Christianity blows every other worldview out of the water, life isn't lived out on paper. Life is experienced by real people, living in the real world, with their own wickedness, the wickedness of others, and a nature that's broken. While we may know that God created the world good, and we may know that God will make everything right in the end, we're living in the middle. So when we hear about a tsunami that kills hundreds of thousands of people, when we see ISIS terrorizing families and nations, when we hear about children kidnapped and placed into sex slavery, or we experience disease and death within our own close circle of friends and family - logic doesn't take away the pain.
The inadequacy of logic and hope to negate pain, however, doesn't make them illegitimate. While logic and hope may not negate pain, they can certainly cause it to be abated. And more importantly than the dissolution of pain, as good as that may be, logic helps one hold on to the seeds of hope, which when eventually watered, will bloom into a bountiful, refreshing oasis that springs out of the scorching desert of trials. Many dismiss theology as trivial, or as a nit picky endeavor. But the individuals who say such things either have no discipline, or fail to apply the importance of discipline into the spiritual realm. Practice and drills - the fundamentals of sports, music, etc - are dwelt on and reinforced perpetually, at all levels of performance. The reason being that when the real test comes, when the crowd cheers, and when the game is on the line, the ability to think, reason, and perform are wholly dependent on reflex and familiarity, as one's rational faculties tend to fade away amidst great pressure. The same is true of the spiritual life. One who dismisses away the familiarization of theology and right thinking outside of pressure will likely be confused and destroyed when the pressure comes. Building up one's logic of theology and relationship with God prior to hardship is vital to one's survival.
So what do Christians need to know most about evil? We need to know that every evil that enters our lives has been ordained by God. To answer any other way would be to minimize both God and our hope. If God did not ordain all things, including evil, the cross was either a mistake or a lucky fluke. God certainly couldn't have intended it. But Acts 4 seems to indicate otherwise. God intended it, though evil men enacted it. What would become of the cross if God's intention were taken out of it? Were God to not intend for every single one of our circumstances, evil or otherwise, Joseph couldn't have acknowledged God's provision of his enslavement as a means to saving his family. If God does not intend, plan, and purpose every single event in our lives, then Romans 8 lies when it says that God works all things together for the good of those who love him. At best, a God who does not intend for all of our circumstances simply does his best to react to situations he can't control. But if God didn't control the circumstance of evil that arose to devour me, what hope do I have that he can fulfill his promise to work that situation out for my good? There is none.
This is a very hard truth of Christianity that I have been struggling with recently. The Westminster Confession and other sources talk about proximate causes and efficient causes in an effort to ease the difficulty of the truth - but it's still very hard. I understand that God doesn't "cause" evil in the sense that he enacts it, but his bringing into existence a world that he knew would bear evil seems to imply some level of culpability. I can't believe that a just, holy, and loving God could ordain such horrendous circumstances. And it's hard to believe that an omnipotent and omniscient God would ordain a world like ours. But at the same time, believing that God ordains all things is my only hope for purpose in my suffering, and God's intention to give of himself in suffering for my sake the only thing that forces back my accusatory finger. But how can I reconcile God's love and his purpose in evil? And if God does in some sense "cause" evil, then how can anyone stand guilty before him? How can a God who intends the actions of evil men be fair in his judgment of that evil?
As I have been dwelling on this topic for the past few weeks, dialoguing with a few individuals, I came across what I thought was a pretty good analogy. Hopefully it doesn't break down too much, and hopefully it's not sacrilegious in any way - but I think it works. Hopefully it helps you as well.
Those who have been around us in the past few months know that our second child, Atticus, has a crying issue. When he gets upset, he cries so hard and lets out his breath so long, that he literally turns blue and passes out. Within a few seconds, he comes back, and is just fine. Doctor after doctor kept telling us that this was normal, but it seemed extreme to us. They just had to see it, because it wasn't normal. Unfortunately, every time he went into his freak out mode, we were unprepared with a video camera, or were scampering around in an attempt to make a bottle to feed him, discipline Elin for hurting him, etc. We just couldn't get the video. But then, it hit us...
One evening, we saw Elin inching over to Atticus. Early on, Elin had a tendency to seek out biting or pinching Atticus. She was a jealous defender of her territory, and he was an intruder. It was then that I realized that if I gave Elin a minute or two, she would inevitably inflict pain on Atticus, sending him into his crying fit. But, knowing that this was about to come, I was able to plan the event out. I grabbed the iPad to record the event, and Catalina was ready and waiting to discipline Elin once she made the choice to hurt Atticus. I think this is a great example for exploring God's purposing of evil in the world. I want you to notice a number of ideas that can be pulled from the example:
1) Atticus's ultimate good came about - One way that this analogy will break down, is that our human lack of omniscience and omnipotence will mean that we cannot say most things for certain. For instance, I can't say with 100% certainty that Atticus's ultimate good came about, and I can't say that I knew with 100% certainty that such a goal would be obtained through my decisions. However, having the knowledge and power that I did, it seemed like Atticus's immediate well-being was in very little danger, and his ultimate good, as I defined it in this situation (the preservation of his life) was being served. By allowing Elin to make the decisions that she did, and by her eliciting the desired response from Atticus, we were able to record Atticus's response so the doctors could see and advise accordingly. Despite there being pain present, and unjustly so at the hands of Elin, the situation was one that was crafted for Atticus's ultimate good. Likewise, with Joseph, we see that though his brothers sold him into slavery and committed great evil, the situation as a whole was one that God crafted for ultimate good. Joseph’s brothers intended it for evil, but God intended it for good, as Joseph himself declares in Genesis.
2) Atticus's pain was trivial compared to the good achieved - Atticus's perception of the pain he had to endure at the hands of Elin was tremendous - on par with worst pain he knew from his short little life (being hungry, being frightened by loud noises, wanting to be held). These pains are perceived as being so tremendous, that they elicit very strong reactions of torment in Atticus - so strong that he stops breathing and passes out. From Atticus's perspective (if he could verbalize it), I'm sure there is great confusion as to his suffering on all these accounts, and there is a lack of context for how severe his pain actually is because he knows no other pains. It may also be that his perception of his pain is accurate, and it is our pain receptors that have been dulled and calloused by our constant exposure to it throughout our lives. I don't know. But regardless of Atticus's perception of his pain's severity,or his frustration in not understanding the purpose of his pain, his endurance of that temporary pain and dissonance was trivial compared to the good of sustaining his life. Likewise, the Bible is clear that though pain and suffering are very real, and our perception of evil's horrendous nature is true, our understanding of our hope for the ultimate good promised to us is extremely watered down. The Bible is also clear that our ultimate good - which Romans 8 defines as being conformed to the image of Christ - often comes through suffering. God's ultimate goal for us is not momentary happiness, but rather the knowledge of him.
3) Elin was rightfully judged, though she was an instrument for Atticus's good - In this situation, Atticus's good was directly brought about by Elin's evil action. But almost nobody would be willing to argue that Elin should escape discipline just because what she did helped Atticus in some way. Her intent was to hurt him or to assert dominance over him, not to help him. The free choice that Elin made was sinful, so she should be judged and disciplined accordingly. This is exactly what we see in Isaiah 10, where Assyria rises up to defeat Israel, and God intends for them to do so because Israel needs to be judged. But the Assyrians perform God's purpose with malicious intent and in spite of God, not as willing instruments for his judgment. God rightfully judges Assyria for their evil against Israel, though he used their evil for his purposes. It's also why Joseph can call his brothers' actions evil, while at the same time saying that the very same circumstance ordained by the hand of God was good.
4) Elin's good came about - This situation allowed for us to give Elin personal freedom to make decisions. That is a good thing in and of itself. On top of that, our intervening hand was ever ready, not only to provide aid and comfort to Atticus, but to discipline and train Elin. Allowing Elin to experience her feelings and express them through her choices is something important for her as she grows. It will allow for self-reflection, for experience, and for knowing one's own heart as it is actually expressed in the moment. Were we to always prevent Elin from expressing her true heart's intent rather than providing opportunities to expose and solve the problem of evil within her, we would be encouraging the harboring of the evil and preventing it from exposure to the light. Elin's good was served in this situation, as she was able to learn about herself, learn about how her actions affect others, and learn about the consequences of her actions. Though the discipline we enacted did bring pain to Elin, it was a contribution to her ultimate good. Likewise, when God allows evil to come out in our choices, he is allowing us to expose our hearts to the light of day. Hopefully that causes us to realize our need for grace and mercy - a sinner's ultimate good. The absence of pain and expressed evil in a fallen world would not contribute to our ultimate good, but rather to our damnation - as we moved through the world never recognizing our need to be saved. God's saving of an individual from pain would be a temporary salvation, not an everlasting one.
5) I purposed the event and weighed the consequences, but was not guilty of evil against Atticus or Elin - When we make choices, we must do so based on our best understanding of all the circumstances. In a similar situation to the movie "The Bridge," if I see a child playing on a draw bridge, and see the draw bridge lowering towards his imminent demise, I will stop the lowering of that draw bridge. However, if I add the information that a trolley full of people is coming along that draw bridge and will certainly crash if the bridge is not lowered, then it seems most right that I allow the bridge to close. My choice to abstain from saving the child is not wrong or evil in this situation, though were the greater good of the trolley not present, my abstention would be wrong.
So when we allowed the situation with Elin and Atticus to play out, with the limited amount of knowledge we had, I do not believe we wronged either. Elin has to learn to play nice. She must learn to live in peace with her brother. For Atticus's health, we must figure out if his crying fits are dangerous. All of those are goods that we desire to come about. When we allowed the situation to play out, then, it wasn't an evil of abstention where we should have intervened for some greater good. I believe that a greater good was served by allowing Elin's free choice to be made, and for Atticus to experience his crying fit in a relatively safe and controlled environment. Elin wronged Atticus, not us. Though we could have prevented it, that prevention could have lead to a greater evil down the road (e.g. Elin not learning a lesson and causing a harmful crying fit in a less controlled environment).
How much more is this true of an omniscient and omnipotent God? The evil that we experience is horrendous. But only God knows all the inter-workings of his creation and how to bring the greatest good about (Ravi has a great video about this). How are we to blame God for the evil that others commit against us, or the evils and pains that are the only indicator to most that something is wrong with them and the world, and confronts them with their need of a savior?
Evil and pain are almost impossible to deal with, especially when we are in the midst of experiencing them. That is exactly why we have to think logically about our worldview beforehand. When we do, it becomes clear that Christianity provides the best basis on which to take evil as seriously as it should be taken. Christianity also discourages our attempts to eradicate the "specks" of evil we find in others, as we have our own "logs" to worry about. Orthodox, accurate Christianity undercuts self-righteousness and vindictiveness against others who are "out there", and proclaims that the true need for redemption begins from the inside out. Beyond catering to our emotional intuitions about evil, and beyond providing us with the strongest possible basis for love, respect, and humility, what I believe is the appropriate view of God and evil gives us the greatest hope through our trials. We can be comforted in knowing that while the world is not as it should be, and we are greatly wronged by others, that somehow, God in his inconceivable omniscience and omnipotence, is purposefully working through those actions for our greatest good. Hope, love, and purpose - three things you won't find as a coherent trinity in any other worldview. As you find yourself working in a fallen world, with fallen people, be comforted in knowing that all things will be made right, and God is even now ensuring that ultimate good is being worked on through and in your very circumstances.