“Is it really a bad thing if God does something good with it?” You may have heard this kind of question before. Maybe in a discussion after your philosophy 101 class, or a Bible study, or in a coffee shop, the issue of God and evil comes up. How can God still be good and powerful given the amount of evil and suffering we see in the world? Copious amounts of ink have been spilled on the subject and numerous answers have been given. I’m not going to attempt anything so bold as to hazard a definitive answer except to clarify a couple of important points we must keep straight in our thinking about this issue.
Good Enough Reasons and the Problem of Naming Evil
One commonly made point is that it’s possible for God to still be good and powerful and allow all the evil we see in the world, if he has a morally justifiable reason to such as avoiding a greater evil or bringing about an outweighing moral good. For instance, I’m morally justified in allowing my child to suffer pain while getting vaccination shots because it will prevent some later, horrible disease. In fact, at that point, I’m just justified in purposing the pain, because it is outweighed by the good of avoiding the disease.
This is somewhat common-sensical, and leaving aside some issues related to God’s power, you could see the way that the principle could apply to God. God can still be good and powerful, yet allow for some good purpose even if it’s one that only He can understand. (The epistemological issue is an important one, but I’ll deal with that in another post on another day.)
At this point our post title becomes relevant. God is justified in allowing something we think is evil because of the good that comes from it or that evil that it avoids. But, the question actually goes a bit further and says, “Well, in fact, it seems that instance of suffering and evil wasn’t really evil because of the good result that came from it. Maybe it’s just that evil is just a good that is misunderstood?”
Is that right, though?
Natural questions like these make some worry about appealing to some higher “plan.” They fear that it impermissibly justifies evil and makes moral language ambiguous. In other words, if that crime was really part of God’s plan that he used to bring about some greater good, are we allowed to call it evil? Is suffering really bad? If that’s the case, then doesn’t that remove moral responsibility and render us unable and name evil as evil since it is “justified”? To say otherwise is “nihilism.”
In light of this, they would want to say that, in fact, all we can morally say is that there is no “good” reason for much of the evil that we see in the world. All we know is that God hates it, will end it someday, and make everything better.
But that seems troubling as well because if we can’t say that God had a good reason for allowing an evil, that leaves us back where we started with God allowing evil for no good reason at all.
Is there a way forward from this?
C.S. Lewis on Simple Good, Simple Evil, and Complex Good
There are a great many issues to consider here, but C.S. Lewis has a great little passage in his work devoted to the problem of suffering and evil, The Problem of Pain, that begins to address the issue. He’s discussing whether Christians should seek suffering because so often it is linked to spiritual growth and moral goodness. In it he says:
I answer that suffering is not good in itself. What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads. In the fallen and partially redeemed universe we may distinguish (1) The simple good descending from God, (2) The simple evil produced by rebellious creatures, and (3) the exploitation of that evil by God for His redemptive purpose, which produces (4) the complex good to which accepted; suffering and repented sin contribute. Now the fact that God can make complex good out of simple evil does not excuse – though by mercy it may save – those who do the simple evil. And this distinction is central. Offences must come, but woe to those by whom they come; sins do cause grace to abound, but we must not make that an excuse for continuing to sin. The crucifixion itself is the best, as well as the worst, of all historical events, but the role of Judas remains simply evil.
We may apply this first to the problem of other people’s suffering. A merciful man aims at his neighbour’s good and so does “God’s will”, consciously co-operating with “the simple good”. A cruel man oppresses his neighbour, and so does simple evil. But in doing such evil, he is used by God, without his own knowledge or consent, to produce the complex good – so that the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool. For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.
So we see it is possible to speak of simple good, simple evil, God’s redemptive work, and the complex good that follows from God’s redemptive work. It is possible for both God and humans to be at work in one and the same events event–to be able to speaking meaningfully of human evil while still affirming God’s goodness in that particular event. Sounds good Clive, but is it biblical?
Joseph: A Biblical Paradigm
There are a number of events in biblical history which God speaks of as evil on the part of humans, yet part of a broader, good divine plan. The story of Joseph is often used as a paradigm for this way of thinking. In the story, he is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, is wrongfully imprisoned by his Egyptian slave-master, left in jail for many years, but through a providential chain of events is elevated to a position of power in Egypt before a time of great famine. This then enables him years later to provide food for his family that had initially sold him into slavery as well as provide for the entire nation of Egypt. Eventually, from that family, comes the Messiah, the savior of the world.
In an encounter with his brothers years later he realizes that they fear for their lives from him. Even years after forgiving them and treating them well, they still worry that he might be holding a grudge against him for their evil. Joseph calms their fears by assuring them he knows that although they did what they did for evil intentions, God intended for good (Gen. 50:20):
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
So, in the one affirmation we see him affirm that being sold into slavery by your own brothers is evil. Being wrongfully imprisoned is evil. At the same time, being in the right place, at the right time to avert disaster for a nation and one’s own family is good. But the humanly-intended evil and the divinely-intended good were being accomplished side by side in the same events! Examples like this could be multiplied over and over again in Scripture, whether in the prophets or the preaching of the early church in Acts. Lewis is on firm, biblical ground here.
So let’s put this together: First, it is not that moral evil or evil events are just good not yet understood. We don’t want to deny the evil of evil, especially of sinful human actions. At the human level, we can say of those things that God condemns them as wicked and they ought not be done. Again, Judas is morally blameworthy and an evil individual for betraying Jesus. God disapproves of his actions. They are really and truly evil.
At the same time, on another level the existence of these evils is morally-justified even if we cannot see the moral justification currently, with respect to God. In the case of Judas and the Cross, God used Judas’ wickedness to accomplish his good divine intention. Judas is evil in his action. God is not because he had a good enough reason for allowing this evil to occur.
Admittedly, this is just a thumb-nail sketch of an answer to one of the many questions within a much broader issue. Still, I think can help us keep a couple of points clear that ought not be confused whenever we are trying to think about or discuss the issue of evil and suffering from a biblical perspective.
In all things Soli Deo Gloria.