The Problem of Evil and the Advent

“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
–Genesis 18:25

“I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed–with no one to conform them! On the side of their oppressors there was power . . . . I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.”
–Ecclesiastes 4:1-3

“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
–Luke 2:9-12

“The Spirit of the Lord . . . . has sent me . . . to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
–Luke 4:18-19

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There is a story in the first book of the Hebrew Bible about two wicked cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, whose sins of pride and disregard for the needy were so great that God planned to destroy them. See Genesis 18:20-21; Ezekiel 16:48-50. Before God did so, however, He chose to disclose His plans to the Jewish patriarch Abraham, “seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation,” so that Abraham “may charge his children . . . to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice . . . .” This news was concerning to Abraham: after all, Abraham’s nephew Lot lived near Sodom, and Abraham feared for him, who had been like a son to Abraham. Genesis 12:5; Genesis 13:12-13. Abraham thus asks God, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Then, in a stunning stroke, Abraham calls God out:

Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked. Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?

What audacity, indeed, what chutzpah–and yet, Abraham was right. What proceeds in this passage is a bartering session, where Abraham keeps moving the goalposts on God, getting Him to concede that He would not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if God found as few as ten righteous individuals residing in them. Of course, as the story goes, Sodom and Gomorrah were so wicked that there weren’t even ten righteous individuals living in them, but “God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow,” keeping him alive amidst the conflagration. Per Abraham’s rebuke, God could not justly slay the righteous with the wicked. “[T]he Judge of all the earth” had to “do what is just[.]”

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And yet, for so many, so often, life is full of injustice. Consider Job, who “was blameless and upright,” who “feared God and turned away from evil.” Job was blessed with great wealth, but he did not forget God, going so far as to perform righteous acts vicariously on behalf of his children whenever he feared that they might have sinned against God. Despite all this, God decided to let “the Accuser”–a proto-satan figure appearing in the book as an angel who plays the part of “devil’s advocate” before God–wreak havoc in Job’s life. First, Job’s children were killed and Job lost all of his possessions. Then, Job’s own life was put in jeopardy, as he was afflicted with a horrendous skin disease. His own wife then mocked him: “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die!” Yet, despite all this, Job did not turn his back on God.

What kind of “justice” is this? God decides to let one of His own servants upend Job’s life and inflict him with horrific pain and suffering–all for some sort of sick divine test? Bad things to such good people–it is hard to believe there is any sense of “justice” in the divine in the face of such pointless suffering. As the author of Ecclesiastes recognized, in life, all too often, the oppressed suffer while the oppressors succeed. Such injustice understandably might lead one to conclude, along with that author: “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Ecclesiastes 1:2. Indeed, witnessing “the prosperity of the wicked” was a stumblingblock for the Psalmist, who came to doubt that God is just given all the injustice he witnessed around him. The Psalmist nevertheless kept his faith, but lesser people may understandably fail to follow suit.

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Lesser folks such as yours truly. Raised evangelical, I wanted to learn as much as I could about my faith, with the hope of becoming a theologian or minister of some kind. Accordingly, as an undergrad, I majored in Biblical Studies, with essentially a double minor in more Biblical Studies (“Biblical Languages” and “Jewish Studies”).  Regrettably, in my case, familiarity bred contempt. The Psalmist was able to keep the faith despite the paradox of a just God allowing pervasive injustice in the world, but I was unable to do the same. Coupled with a growing skepticism about some of the historical truth claims in the Bible (which, as anyone who grew up within fundamentalist or quasi-fundamentalist circles understands, is the kiss of death for faith, given how doctrine is like dominoes in those circles), I slowly drifted, from belief, to agnosticism, to atheism. “Life happened,” and I fell into unbelief:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him . . . .

Yet, the “Hound of Heaven” was “unperturbed” by my skepticism. Life kept happening–a  story for another time–which ultimately compelled me to “crawl back . . . humbled by the realities of life and better able to appreciate God’s gift of faith.” Call it irresistible grace, if you’d like, but regardless–my head took me away from faith, and my heart brought me back.

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Which brings me to the Advent. See, my own journey into the wilderness of unbelief was precipitated by unsatisfying intellectual answers to the problem of evil. I couldn’t rationalize how a good God could allow pointless suffering, so I simply abandoned the notion that a good God existed at all. “My ways are higher than your ways” might work for some, but to me it was nothing more than motivated reasoning and wishful thinking. It certainly wasn’t a coherent framework by which to make sense of things. After all this reading and thinking about best possible worlds, theodicy, free will, etc., to try to make heads or tails of something, the exact opposite happened. My morally and spiritually bankrupt state of nature took hold once more, as my understanding darkened.

Where I had gone wrong all along was in thinking that an intellectual answer to the problem of evil could satisfy at all. It can’t, really. Evil doesn’t exist only in theory–evil is a bitter reality of which we’re constantly reminded. What good are academic solutions to such pressing, real-world problems? At the end of the day, it’d be of little use or help to have some platonic-sounding resolution to the paradox of omnipotence and omnibenevolence on the one hand versus the ubiquity of evil on the other. The evil would still prosper while the good would still suffer, and intellectual rationalizations would be cold comfort indeed.

Of course, in his infinite wisdom, God already knew this. That’s why God didn’t come in the form of a Greek philosopher, to explain to us once and for all how everything makes sense intellectually. Instead, God entered humanity as a poor, Jewish baby, the seemingly illegitimate child of a young woman and her carpenter fiance, in a far-flung and downcast colony of the Roman Empire. He “emptied himself,” as that early Christian hymn recognized, to experience the worst that the world had to offer in order to defeat it. With Adam’s race doomed to die, God willingly chose the same fate so that we could find comfort and hope in the midst of evil, holding on to the good news that God is actively working to snuff out evil once and for all. An arid, academic response would never suffice. Only incarnation could.

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Those with ears to hear will find this good news littered throughout that incarnational tale, the Christmas story. The gospel writers left no room for doubt–the birth of Jesus amounted to God’s beachhead in the world, signaling the start of the final campaign in the war to defeat evil.

For instance, when an angel tells Joseph that Mary “will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins,” that message heralded far more than we might hear in it today. Matthew 1:18-25. The people of Israel, after all, were still in exile, under the thumb of the Romans, long after the time of the promised restoration had come and gone. “Comfort, O comfort my people,” said the prophet, “cry to hear that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.” Isaiah 40:1-3. Mary’s child was to be named “Jesus”–“Deliverer”–because his birth signaled the end of that exile. The people’s sins would finally be fully paid, and God’s long-awaited restoration would finally take hold.

The author of Matthew then reminds the reader: Jesus came into the world “to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.'” That promise, of course, had been made long ago, in a very different time, when there was a king in Judah who was under siege from the Ephraimites and the Arameans. Isaiah 7. To the king of Judah, the Lord offered a sign, so that he might be assured that the siege would fail and the people would be delivered. That sign was the birth of “Immanuel,” and before that child was old enough to know right from wrong, the siege would be broken. The author of Matthew wants the reader to hear this old story, this time played out on the cosmic stage. Deliverance had come, but this time it wouldn’t be merely from one siege at one time, but rather from all oppression for all time.

Likewise, the author of Luke weaves into his retelling of the Christmas story some not-so-subtle hints that the birth of Jesus was less about some sort of private salvation and more about ending the rule of evil in the world forever. Luke 2:1-20. The Emperor Augustus, the author tells the reader, had ordered a census. While obeying the census order–which obedience the Emperor secured through occupation, the Jews’ ever-present reminder of their oppression–Joseph and Mary came to Bethlehem, where she gave birth to her firstborn son. Upon the birth of that child, the author says that “the army of heaven” (στρατιᾶς οὐρανίου, in the Greek) appeared, heralding “peace on earth.” Along with that came a specific message to some shepherds in the area–“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day . . . a Savior, who is the Christ, the Lord.”

For a contemporary reader, the radical tenor and meaning of this message could not be missed. An army is appearing, on Roman turf no less, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, to bring the message of good news that a Savior had been born, who was Christ, the Lord, and who would bring about peace on earth. All this was imperial propaganda, language reserved for the Emperor, not some Jewish peasant! When Augustus was born, he had been heralded as “savior,” sent to “end war,” whose birth “was the beginning of the good news for the world that came by reason of him.” Caesar was lord of the world, whose reign would bring peace on earth. The name “Augustus” itself was a title for Caesar, meaning “revered or venerated one,” comparable to the title “Christ” given here to this new child, which means “anointed one.” Reading all this with the right frame of reference, the message being heralded is unmistakable: the reign of the fraudulent and oppressive “emperor” is over because the true Lord, Savior, and Anointed One has come.

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Two millennia on, the story of Jesus’ birth has been retold countless times, and it is easy to miss the message of this gospel amidst the general warmth and sentimentality of this season. Of course, that warmth and sentimentality is a wonderful thing, and those of us privileged to be among family and friends in the comfort of home during the season are blessed to experience its joys.

As one whose faith once foundered on the problem of evil, however, I cannot help but come to the Christmas story with a slightly different perspective. There is evil in the world–that reality is inescapable. Sometimes, it seems God is indifferent to all this, allowing evil to flourish and good to fail. As that beloved Christmas carol reminds us, however, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.” God came into the world not just to offer private salvation from personal peccadilloes, but to establish, once and for all, peace on earth and victory over evil. Despite its seeming temporal gains, evil is ultimately finished, and the Advent marks the beginning of its end.

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Don’t forget, though, that we’ve got our part to play in the fight!

As those shepherds were told so long ago, Jesus’ birth truly is “goods news of great joy for all.”

Merry Christmas, indeed.

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