(This is the second part of Rob Slane’s response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s expression of doubt about his Christian faith. The first part appeared on Saturday)
Walking down the road which says “There is no God” doesn’t actually answer any of our questions (see Part 1). In fact, it throws up more intractable problems for us. Yet those questions still remain – “How does a God whom Christians claim is both good and omnipotent God appear to be utterly impotent or apathetic when it comes to dealing with evil?” These are the sorts of issues that Archbishop Welby brought up in his interview, only to leave them hanging in the air without offering a coherent attempt to provide answers. What does he propose? Are we meant to just jump blindly back into the circle of faith, hoping that the unbelievers will follow? Just like Dawkins says we do? Or can we offer a more reasoned view of things?
We can be very loose in our definitions, but here is a place that we really can’t afford to be. We complain that God does nothing about evil, but what do we actually mean by evil? We might point to the Paris atrocities as examples of evil that God isn’t dealing with, along with murders and rapes and genocide etc. But since we are apparently putting God in the dock, we need to ask the following question: If he does judge evil, whose ethical standard will he use to judge it – his or ours?”
The problem with asking why God doesn’t deal with evil is that whereas our idea of evil may include a few things, God’s definition is much broader. As well as the usual suspects mentioned above, it also includes some of the following: denying the true God, lying, theft, covetousness, hatred, idolatry, adultery, dishonouring parents, deceitfulness, ingratitude, homosexuality, bitterness, unfaithfulness, strife, anger against another without a cause, blasphemy, drunkenness, withholding good from others, fornication, pride, gossiping, lust, envy, etc. If God were to “come and deal with evil in the world”, isn’t it obvious that he would do so according to his definition of evil, not ours? And if that is the case, won’t the evil that he comes to deal with include yours and mine, as well as the jihadists? Be careful what you wish for!
I anticipate an objection. Isn’t this putting us all in the same category as those that carried out the atrocities in Paris, Sinai, Beirut and Nigeria? The Biblical answer is both No and Yes. No, of course all sins are not of the same magnitude. There is a hierarchy of sins – or should that be a lowerarchy – and so in that sense no, we are not all in the same boat. But on the other hand, the Apostle Paul says that the problem of humanity is not that some have sinned, or that they have sinned, but rather that “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). In that sense all of us are – as Jesus said in John 3:18 – under the same condemnation.
Here’s an illustration: Imagine a schoolroom where the teacher tells the class that he has to leave the room for twenty minutes or so. Before leaving the room, he tells the children to remain seated and to continue working their way through the work he has set them. While he is gone, a third of the class starts throwing paper around the room; another third stand on their desks ripping their exercise books up; and the final third go over to the windows, and start squirting lighter fluid on the curtains before setting them on fire.
Of course the behaviour of the third group was by far the worst and deserving of the greatest punishment. Yet at the same time, isn’t it clear that all three groups disobeyed their teacher and so were deserving of punishment, albeit to differing degrees? However, rather than admitting that they had indeed disobeyed their teacher’s instructions, what if the children in the first group all start pointing their fingers at the behaviour of the third group, telling their teacher that they’re not like them, and asking why he didn’t stop them setting fire to the curtains? We are all naturally like the first group, looking at the behaviour of others and asking why God doesn’t come and deal with them.
I anticipate another objection. In the illustration above, presumably the teacher does actually deal with the situation when he comes back. Whereas in our world, murderers, thieves, rapists, jihadists etc get away with it. Nothing is done about these things. No justice there. What is more, in the illustration, presumably the third group were dealt with far more severely than the first group. Whereas in our world, the fact is that the worst offenders—the dictators and the tyrants—seem to be able to do what they want while the poor people they rule over are punished.
However, this objection is built on a foundation of entirely naturalistic presuppositions, which are then used to castigate God for not doing anything about evil. But Biblical presuppositions are not naturalistic. The Bible doesn’t presuppose that when a person dies that is the end of the matter. Rather, it presupposes a God who is eternal, who hates evil and who promises to judge it with perfect equity. It also presupposes that all individuals do not end in annihilation and will be called to account for their lives. In other words, thinking that Hitler “got away with it” and blaming it on God is having your cake and eat it. He would have “got away with it” under the Universe of Randomness or Fate, but under a God who is eternal and who vows to deal with all evil? Not a chance.
Yet the question still remains why he doesn’t act to prevent these things happening in the first place. One part of the answer is that he undoubtedly does. However, we don’t necessarily know about his every deliverance, and even if we did, we would still tend to credit it solely to human effort as if God had nothing to do with it. We’re very quick to castigate God when things go wrong; not so quick to credit him when things go well.
But what of those things he does permit? If he is good, he ought not to allow evil in the first place, right? And if he is omniscient and omnipotent, then it ought to be a doddle for him to stop it, right? Or as Epicurus put:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
The riddle is undoubtedly clever, but it turns out to be loaded with a flawed presupposition. This is the idea that to deal with evil, God must do so in exactly the way we think he ought. And if he doesn’t, we’re going to get all uppity and tell him that he doesn’t exist. In our wisdom, we know that he ought to deal with evil, and we also know just how he ought to do it. Yet the problem is that any of the ways we can come up with to deal with evil end up destroying not just evil, but humanity itself. Let me explain.
Take the simplest example of evil: Cain and Abel. If God is good, willing and omnipotent, why didn’t he prevent the murder? There appear to be three options: he could have simply prevented Cain from doing it either by natural or miraculous means; he could have destroyed Cain either before or after he did his deed; or he could have “reprogrammed” Cain so that he never again had such a thought in his head.
But with each of these “solutions” there is an insurmountable difficulty. The problem with the first option – preventing Cain doing the deed – is that Cain’s heart remains unchanged, and he will simply look for another opportunity to carry out his crime. The problem with the second – destroying Cain – is that not only must Cain be destroyed but Abel too, along with all other humans, because he is also guilty before God. And the problem with the third – reprogramming Cain – is that Cain loses his humanity and becomes one of the beasts.
Now in his riddle, Epicurus effectively castigates God for taking a fourth option, which is to do nothing. Here is exactly where the presupposition is flawed. Epicurus assumes that God must deal with Cain in one of the first three ways, and if he doesn’t, this is evidence of his inability, unwillingness, malevolence or non-existence. Yet God does choose another way, but rather than it being “do nothing”, it is something that not only deals with the evil, but which does so in a way that overcomes all the other problems as well. How?
God’s method, which sounds like foolishness to the natural man, is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It not only deals with the problem of evil, but does so by overcoming the three problems mentioned above. It deals with evil in generally by God taking evil upon himself. It deals with the heart problem by drawing men to God through the Cross, changing their hearts and bringing them into a right relationship with God. It deals with the problem of destroying all of guilty humanity by offering hope of salvation to all. And it deals with the reprogramming problem by restoring men to righteousness, so that through God’s grace they gradually learn to choose the good and forsake evil.
But what about Paris? That’s what caused the Archbishop to doubt, wasn’t it? Can we answer that? Well of course we don’t have the answer to the “why Paris”, “why at that time”, “why those people” questions, but we do have Jesus’s answer to something very similar:
“There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13: 1-5).
These sound like harsh words, and they are also somewhat perplexing to us moderns. We tend to assume that those who die in atrocities are sinless, whereas the people of Jesus’s day seemed to assume that such incidents were more likely retribution for some wickedness they had committed. Jesus actually corrects both notions in this passage.
Essentially, he refuses to answer the questions “why at Siloam” “why at that time” “why this people”, and instead tells his hearers to take it as a warning and to repent. No doubt if we could ask Jesus the same questions today – “why Paris”, “why at that time”, “why this people” – he would give us the same answer: unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. The implication of his words is therefore that such atrocities should serve as a warning to us all. For Paris, for France, for Britain and for the whole world. We have, by and large, stuck our fingers up at God, mocked him and derided him, and then like a rebellious teenager who despises his father and mother, and blames them when he crashes his car when drunk, we turn around to castigate him for not dealing with evil.
Yet God promises to deal with evil. All evil – yours, mine and the jihadists who took the lives of Parisians. With the unrepentant, he will judge them after their deaths. But with the repentant, he offers full and free forgiveness, adoption into his family, and the promise of a life free from sin, pain, tears and death in the New Heavens and New Earth.
Jesus’s answer might sound harsh upon first hearing, but remember when listening to his call to repent, this is the one who then went on to willingly take torture, nails, thorns and then death upon himself in order to save those who do repent. It is finished. The grave is empty and the throne is filled. So will you continue on the road which says, “There is no God”, where there is no reason and no hope? Or will you come and join the road which offers answers, hope and life: “Emmanuel: God with us?”