How Easter relates to suffering: five reflections on living in light of sin and evil – Part 1
First, as an important apologetic point, it is not only Christian theology which must wrestle with the problem of evil; every worldview, Christian and non-Christian alike, must also wrestled with it, albeit for different reasons depending upon the specific view in question. For example, naturalistic/atheistic viewpoints must first explain, given their overall view, how they can even account for the distinction between good and evil. What is the basis for objective, universal moral standards if, for sake of argument, naturalism is true? Naturalists will often raise the problem of evil against Christians, but in so doing, they assume a clear distinction between good and evil and that objective evil exists, which their own view cannot explain. Thus, in order to get their argument off the ground, naturalists, ironically, have to borrow parasitically from Christianity which can account for the distinction between good and evil tied to God as the standard. In this way, as a number of Christian thinkers have pointed out, many non-Christian worldviews, including naturalism, have a “problem of the good” since without the God of the Bible there is neither good nor evil in an objective and universal sense. The same could be said about other non-Christian views but my point is simply this: everyone must wrestle with the problem of evil in light of their own worldview claims. For Christians, our problem is not accounting for the distinction between good and evil. We can make sense of our moral revulsion and condemnation of wicked actions. Our challenge is to make sense of why God plans and allows sin and evil, pain and misery. In answering these questions, we are driven back to Scripture and its entire storyline which unfolds God’s plan of redemption in Christ.
Second, the Bible’s storyline takes seriously the distinction between “creation” and the “fall” and thus the present abnormality of this world. A helpful and common way of thinking through the storyline of Scripture is by the grid: creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. When thinking about the problem of evil, and specifically the thorny question of the origin of evil and its relationship to God’s plan, the distinction between “creation” and the “fall” is utterly essential to maintain. Scripture is clear that God created the universe “good” (Gen 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31) and that everything from his creative hand was good. No doubt, Scripture teaches that sin and evil are part of God’s plan, but Scripture never concludes that God is responsible for evil, nor does it conclude that a strong view of God’s sovereign rule entails this conclusion.
Instead, Scripture distinguishes “creation” and “fall” and it roots this distinction in history. Sin entered the world by our creaturely act of rebellion, first in the angelic realm and then in the human world. Sin is not here because it is a metaphysical necessity tied to our finitude, nor is it here because that is just the way things are. Instead, sin and evil are a reality due to our moral rebellion against God in space-time history, and Scripture nowhere minimizes this fact. In fact, Scripture takes sin and evil so seriously that the entire plan of redemption is to destroy it and to remove it from God’s universe! And, thankfully, because sin and evil are not metaphysically necessary, in removing sin and evil, he does not have to scrap us and start all over again. Instead, God must remove our sin by paying for it in full in Christ’s cross, and then transform us by the power of the Spirit, thus restoring us to our state of goodness even in a greater way in Christ. All of this is to say that the God of the Bible stands absolutely opposed to sin and evil. The same Scripture which teaches that God foreordains all things, including sin and evil, also teaches that sin and evil are an abnormality, an intrusion and a distortion of his good world, which God alone can remedy by the incarnate Son, his cross work on our behalf, and the power of the Spirit to transform us. Furthermore, even though it is true that God makes use of evil in order to bring about his good purposes, Scripture never concludes that evil and sin are less than what Scripture says they are. Evil remains evil: totally, radically, and absolutely, and God stands completely against it as the entire storyline of Scripture makes abundantly clear.
Many application points could be drawn from this point, especially when we confront the reality of evil and suffering in this world. However, the main point is that since Eden and this side of the consummation, all of us live in an abnormal and fallen world, and none of us escape this abnormality. Ultimately, when we suffer it is due to the present condition of this world. This is why all suffering is not related to a specific sin, as the book of Job makes abundantly clear. Yes, it is true that some suffering may be due to our sin (e.g., Acts 5; 1 Cor 11; cf. Heb 12), but it is not always the case. Suffering first is part of the present condition of this world, now awaiting the consummation, which requires that we have realistic expectations when we face suffering. No doubt, we do not often know why specific suffering comes our way; that is tied to the sovereign plan of God. Yet we do know that we will face sin and evil, and when we do, God is not to blame; all blame is first placed back in Genesis 3, and thereafter with every creature who chooses to act contrary to the good commands and purposes of God.
Stephen J. Wellum is a professor of christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and editor of Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.
He received his Ph.D. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and he is the author of numerous essays and articles and the co-author of Kingdom through Covenant (Crossway, 2012).
*This article was originally published in the winter 2013 issue of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.