Encountering Evil: The Problem of Pain and Suffering – Part 3

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

When the reality of pain and suffering is minimized, not only is the witness of Scripture distorted, but also the outcome is a profound disservice to oneself. God admonishes the believer to acknowledge times of being “greatly afflicted,” and yet still to call upon Him in faith (Ps 116:10). To some degree, simply asserting “the problem of evil” is unsuccessful for beginning discussion of this issue. A better approach would be to consider the problem of sin. Fallen humanity is often quick to respond to sin with self-righteousness, while still engaging in behavior condemned by God. “Yet, you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not right.’ Hear now, O house of Israel! Is My way not right? Is it not your ways that are not right?” (Ezek 18:25).

The Consequences of Sin
Pain and suffering are components of the world (as a consequence of sin), and should be understood as the just recompense for humanity’s rebellion. The Old Testament does indicate that God will judge the wickedness of both individuals and nations, and that suffering occurs when sinners disregard God’s laws (cf. Exod 23:21-22; Lev. 26; Deut 28; Ps 1:6; Jer 7:3-7; 17:5-8; Mal 3:8-11). The New Testament also reveals the consequences of unbelief (Rom 1:18-32; 2 Thess 2:11-12).

Important to remember is that the conquests of Jericho, Ai, and others were fought in wartime; it was seven years of bloody conflict, prior to the twelve tribes completing military campaigns in their individual territory allotments. God repeatedly told the Israelites that He would use them—which emphasized the lack of any merit on the part of Israel—to execute judgment upon the Canaanites, who had become an exceedingly cruel and wicked society, both culturally and socially. God’s determination to use Israel as His agent of judgment against the wickedness of the Canaanites was revealed hundreds of years previous, and God brought judgment upon them for their sin in the times of Joshua (cf. Gen 15:16; 17:7-8; Exod 33:1-3; Deut 4:5-8; 7:1-11; 12:2-4).

God judged people and nations in Old Testament times, and He continues to judge them today. For instance, in just a few decades and even centuries later, God used the Philistines, the Syrians, the Babylonians, and others to judge Israel’s wickedness. Of course, great abuse of God’s Word is made today when people casually seek to determine whose cause God supports and who is being used in judgment. In the particular circumstances of Israel and the Canaanites, God did reveal that judgment of the latter’s wickedness was certainly a fundamental aspect of what He wanted to be accomplished in the times of Joshua.

When nations and people heed God’s statutes and commandments, then the Lord’s blessings will be outpoured upon them (cf. Lev 26:13; Deut 28:1-13; Ps 1:2-3; Prov 3:9-12; Mal 3:10). Throughout the Old Testament, the promise to bless individuals and nations is predicated upon obeying the Lord God (by carefulness to observe all His commandments), and wickedness would certainly result in divine judgment. For instance, when the land of Israel was characterized by abundance, it was an indication that the relationship between God and the nation was spiritually healthy. Drought and famine signaled brokenness of the spiritual relationship between God and the nation.

Certain individuals in the Old Testament are exceptions to the principle that God blessed those obedient to His revealed will and that He brought judgment upon the disobedient. Throughout the Old Testament, individuals such as Job, Naboth (1 Kgs 21), and Asaph (Ps 73) appear to invalidate the principle of blessing for obedience and judgment for disobedience. The eleven Apostles (of the Twelve) who died as martyrs would be New Testament examples, and even John was exiled to the island of Patmos. The ability to explain all the circumstances is not possible, because God does not always reveal all the pertinent details. The intention for the few exceptions seems to be in regard to how God used these individual lives for His purposes, and how their examples inspire personal devotion to the Lord.

The Biblical Explanation
Having created Adam and Eve as free moral agents, God placed Adam and Eve in Eden. He commanded them to eat freely from any tree of the Garden, except “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” because eating from it would certainly result in death (Gen 2:15-17). Adam and Eve disobeyed, and in partaking of the fruit, “death” was the immediate result (both spiritual, in terms of separation from fellowship with God; and, physical, as evident in decline resulting from the aging process—which is actually a demonstration of God’s mercy, for He withheld immediate physical death to allow the opportunity for Adam and all his descendants to repent). Adam and Eve did not have a corrupted moral nature until they disobeyed; consequently, their decision to ignore God’s command was not influenced by a sin nature (and was truly “free,” as opposed to choices made by their descendants).

God did restore Adam and Eve, yet their sin nature was transmitted to their descendants (i.e. all humanity). An observable precedent became apparent with the Fall of humanity, which is that man has tremendous potential for achieving good as a believer, yet also has the capability for damaging and destructive circumstances. Satan told Adam and Eve “that in the day you eat from it [the forbidden tree] your eyes will be opened,” and having sinned they were able to “be like God, knowing good and evil’” (Gen 3:5). Adam and Eve were created as moral creatures, knowing the goodness of God’s creation and the consequences for eating from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (2:17). Subsequent to eating fruit of the forbidden tree, Adam and Eve experienced (“knew”) evil. Therefore, in one sense, Adam and Eve knew the difference between good and evil (right and wrong), because they were mindful concerning what God permitted and prohibited, and thus understood moral distinctions.

God’s desire for Adam and Eve was for them to exercise their capability for discernment by determining rightly to not eat “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” When tempted by Satan, the original parents decided contrary to the Lord’s purpose and will, and since then all humanity needs to be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:20). The only reconciliation possible (not only for Adam and Eve, but also for any of their descendants) is through the removal of God’s wrath or the satisfaction of justice (when sinners are justified). This is by grace through faith in Christ alone, who effected redemption through His death. Because the righteous wrath of God was propitiated, and guilt (in the objective sense) against Him was expiated on behalf of those for whom Jesus died, reconciliation and redemption were made actual. Humanity has the capability of being reconciled to God (thereby restoring fellowship with the Creator); yet, all the religious self-dedication to accomplish good deeds and live sacrificially is without advantage, because no amount of self-effort will ever make it possible for anyone to be reconciled to God.

The rebellion of Adam and Eve was not a surprise to God, nor is the Lord challenged, or His omnipotence (or providential control) of the universe overwhelmed by evil in the world. Certainly, it is wrong to say that God Himself sinned or that He is culpable for sin; yet, the Bible does affirm that God “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11). Why did God ever place Adam and Eve under the test of a prohibition? The question is similar to inquiries as to why God permitted evil. The only reason the Bible reveals for the prohibition is that everything that resulted is “to the praise of His glory” (v. 12). God ordained that sin would enter into the world (albeit He takes no pleasure in it) through the voluntary decisions of moral creatures.

God predestines all that occurs in the world (Eph 1:11), yet humanity is responsible for choices that are made (Ezek 18:20; Matt 12:37; John 9:41). God is sovereign and humanity is accountable. God’s predestination and His providential control are compatible with human responsibility and voluntary choice. Human choices are not coerced, which means no person ever makes a decision contrary to what is desired; yet, those choices are never contrary to God’s sovereign decree, for He “predestined according to His purpose,” working “all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11).

Scripture reveals that human choices are exercised voluntarily, yet the circumstances and desires that result in those decisions occur by God’s decree. For example, by His own “predetermined plan and foreknowledge,” God delivered His own Son to crucifixion; yet, “godless men” voluntarily and willfully “put Him to death” (Acts 2:23; cf. 4:27-28). The death of God’s Son was decreed, yet the evil actions that led to Jesus’ crucifixion were voluntary and willful, and godless individuals are held responsible for such wickedness. Similarly, the brothers of Joseph “meant evil” when they sold him into slavery, “but God meant it for good” in order to accomplish His chosen outcome (Gen 50:20). God ordained that Joseph would be sold into slavery, yet his brothers intentionally and willingly made the choices that resulted in that occurring. This means sin was imputed to Joseph’s brothers for their wickedness, and God, who is holy and sinless (and in no manner the Author of sin), is blameless. God is not the cause of sin, yet it does occur by His ordination. The true cause of sin is the evident will of humanity, not God’s hidden counsel, yet sin does not occur without God’s knowledge and ordination.

God can engage the sequence of human relationships whenever He so desires; and, through any number of means, the Lord can judge nations and people, and thereby restrain evil. God also is able to predetermine circumstances, so that a person will ultimately trust in Him for salvation, even prior to that individual’s awareness. Sovereignly ordaining all that occurs (Eph 1:11), God has absolute freedom for His actions; yet, the free (voluntary) choices of humanity are compatible with the Lord’s sovereign decree. In a coming day, God will remove the curse from the earth (Rom 8:21). Subsequent to the messianic kingdom of peace and righteousness, evil will no longer exist in the new heaven and earth (Rev 21—22), whereupon God will have reconciled “all things to Himself” (Col 1:20). In that day, pain and suffering (the just recompense of sin) will cease, because the wills of humanity and God will be reconciled, and will never again be separated.

Midnight Call - 02/2018

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