Illustration of Dante’s Inferno, Stradanus, 1587
One of the greatest obstacles to belief in God is the problem of human evil. It is often asked: If God is so good, how can He permit so much evil in the world?
The daily news is a constant reminder of mankind’s capacity for evil. The evil done by humans far exceeds the misbehavior of any other species. Even so, the Bible tells us we were created in the image of a holy and righteous God.
The Bible also tells us that Jesus Christ gave His life to reconcile mankind with God. However, nearly two millennia since the death and resurrection of Christ, the world is still quite evil. That includes the more two billion people who claim to believe in Jesus, yet who aren’t loving people the way Jesus taught us.
When questioning why evil exists, we should each begin by confessing our own guilt. We all suffer in some ways because of other people’s sins, but people also suffer because of what we’ve done. While this doesn’t answer the problem of evil, it should at least keep us humble.
Before I continue, I should clarify that this is written for people who already accept the Bible’s teachings, or who are interested in learning. If you’re not a Christian, please don’t judge Christianity without considering the Bible’s own testimony.
The Two Sources of Human Authority
You’ve probably heard the short explanation of the problem of evil. That is, people are evil because Adam and Eve sinned. This mattered because God had delegated authority over the earth to them (Gen. 1:28). Adam was the representative head of mankind. People have retained this authority ever since, but haven’t properly exercised it because we’re sinners.
That’s not the end of the story—not by a long shot…
God could have intervened to judge mankind at any given point in history. Instead, He chose to first prepare the way through ancient Israel, then send His Son to give His life for our salvation.
God isn’t the source of evil but He is the source of all authority. The Bible tells us that God delegated authority to mankind on two occasions. I’ve already mentioned the first time, in which He assigned authority to Adam.
The second time God delegated authority to mankind was in a scripture passage known as the Great Commission. After Jesus rose from the dead, He appeared to His disciples in Galilee and announced:
All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matt. 28:18-20)
Since Jesus said He possesses all authority, this should leave no doubt that He defeated Satan and reversed Adam’s curse.
Jesus doesn’t tightly hold His authority on a distant throne. Instead, He makes it available to all who believe through the Holy Spirit Who dwells in us.
Each Authority’s Legacy and Reward
We have seen that according to the Bible, mankind received authority both through Adam and through Christ. These sources of authority are evident in the apostle Paul’s description of two broad categories of people, including those who are in Adam and those who are in Christ.
The problem of evil results from the fact that the children of Adam continue his legacy by sinning, thereby perpetuating the problem.
But there’s a flip side because God is counteracting the sin of Adam’s children through the children of Christ. All who are in Christ have access to every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realm (Eph. 1:3). We are clothed in God’s righteousness, not our own filthy rags. We even have access to the throne of God (Heb. 4:16). God gave us the ability to progressively reverse the effects of the curse by preaching the gospel and discipling people in the ways of Christ, as He commanded us.
An objection will be raised here because, as we all know, the children of Adam also do good, and the children of God also sin. Sin is so ingrained in us that even Christians must struggle with temptations throughout our lives. How then can anyone rationally affirm that God is defeating evil in the world through Christ and the Church?
The reason this doesn’t appear to make sense is that we naturally focus on people instead of on Christ. We look at how good many non-Christians are, and at how bad many Christians are, while forgetting that one group doesn’t know Jesus and the other does. Another reason is that we look at wonderful things done by individual unbelievers while either forgetting or not realizing that secular society as a whole is under God’s judgment.
We all like to selectively point out good deeds that we’ve done. It’s true that unbelievers often do good things because after all, God created them in His image. However, even their best works are evil because of impurity, and of not being sanctified (made holy) through faith in Jesus Christ. Moreover, the standard for getting into heaven without Christ is to be without sin in every thought and action.
This becomes more understandable when we consider some commonalities and essential differences among the children of Adam and the children of God, as outlined in this table:
|Nature From the Creation*||Nature After the Fall||Primary Ethical Standard||Spirit||Works|
Image of God
|Sinful||Conscience||Still in Adam.||Judged as Inadequate|
Image of God
|Sinful||Scripture||Reborn through the Spirit.||Accepted and Blessed|
*Nature, or natural law, provides moral guidance for both, but is inadequate by itself.
Normally, evangelicals present the gospel with a focus on the individual, and on eternity. The gospel is incorporated in this table, but the emphasis is on the effect on believers, and ultimately on all mankind.
The table hints at an array of truths that are foundational to the Christian faith. Christian apologists have defended the following, related questions on countless occasions:
- How we can know about God’s existence from the natural world
- Why sin is the basic problem with humanity
- How we can know that the Bible is the inspired Word of God
- Why we need the objective moral standards presented in the Bible
- How we can know that Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophecies and rose from the dead.
- How the Church has been a blessing to the world. (See this recent article as an example).
When we view these truths in this framework, we can see how each of them contributes to the argument that even now, God is responding to evil through the Church. He isn’t working primarily through law (even though governments are divinely ordained institutions), but through grace. Christians are to be examples of God’s grace, not of His judgment.
This response to evil challenges all people to stop being part of the problem by repenting of sin, accepting God’s salvation through Christ’s sacrifice, and living by faith in the Son of God.
We can’t always see it, but God judges human works in this world, including those of both Christians and unbelievers. The Lord ultimately determines which human endeavors will fail, and which will prosper. The Bible tells us that God actively blesses believers and our works, but judges unbelievers and their works. Nowhere does the Bible teach that God is inactive, and only waiting for eternity to begin before He will do anything.
This brings up another apparent problem since we all know that unbelievers often prosper and Christians often fail. More specifically, unbelievers often succeed in wrongdoing, and Christians often fail while trying to do serve God.
God’s judgments in this world are not comprehensive. The Lord won’t judge all thoughts and actions until the Final Judgment, at the end of time. That’s why we don’t consistently see good deeds rewarded or evil deeds punished in our lifetimes. This doesn’t mean, however, that God doesn’t execute judgment in this world. The Bible assures us that judgment does occur in God’s timing (Ps. 73). God is more patient than ourselves.
As bad as this world is, it would be a much worse place if God were not on the side of the righteous. Overall, God has, and continues to bless the work of Christians, especially as we spread the gospel and disciple people in response to the Great Commission.
How Christians Can Overcome Evil
The Temptation of Christ by Ary Scheffer (1854)
Speaking of the Great Commission, let’s review the state of the world before that epic turning point in human history.
As Jesus fasted in the wilderness before beginning His earthly ministry, Satan tempted Him by offering the kingdoms of the world. Satan had even boasted, “All this authority I will give You, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish” (Lk. 4:6). Since Jesus didn’t call Satan a liar, we should assume that he was telling the truth.
Sadly, some Christian teachers cite this passage as “evidence” that Satan rules the world. They should continue reading their Bibles because Satan later lost that authority. As Jesus told His disciples (and us) in the Great Commission, He now possesses all authority in heaven and earth.
Christians shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Jesus’ death and resurrection made a difference in the world.
Even though Jesus has held all authority for nearly two thousand years, He hasn’t forcibly taken over the world. Neither does He want Christians to forcibly seize the reigns of power. Consequently, Satan and anyone he helps put in power still have substantial authority for the time being.
God wants Christians to advance Christ’s kingdom by overcoming evil. We should begin in our own lives and in the spiritual realm, but we should also consider how we can best make a difference in the “real” world (Mt. 7:5, Eph. 6:12). We’re here to glorify God and preach the gospel, with good works being an essential part of that ministry (Eph. 2:10).
Christians who deny that God intends to effectively defeat evil on this earth find it hard to explain the prophecies related to an earthly kingdom of God. The only thing they can come up with is that God will destroy this earth and create a new one in its place. In fact, the new heavens and earth result from the renewal that is taking place under Christ’s authority and dominion. They also find it difficult to defend against the charge that God is either unwilling or unable to overcome evil in this world.
Christians who say God will let evil forces prevail on this earth (as depicted in the Left Behind novels) but banish evil for eternity have, understandably, lost the attention of most unbelievers. Even if someone takes such a preposterous scenario seriously, this world matters to them. If we expect Jesus Christ and His heavenly Father to lose out to Satan and the Antichrist to the point that Jesus is forced to return with His heavenly army, God’s response to evil appears no more merciful or gracious than that of any human military leader.
Most Christian teachers and lay people today don’t think it’s possible to establish God’s kingdom on the earth apart from Jesus’ return in the clouds. Again, however, Jesus could have already conquered the world long ago.
What, then, is God’s plan? He wants to win people over through love. That’s something that we Christians are capable of doing.
The idea that we can’t build the kingdom of God is ironic since much of the work has already been done. If we understand the Kingdom of God as the extension of Christ’s life and influence on the earth, this has been happening ever since the Great Commission.
Let’s not hunker down out of fear and allow this work to either slow down or go astray. Instead, let’s not only live the gospel but take it to the ends of the earth.
Before we do so, we need to understand the precise nature of the gospel message that Jesus expects us to proclaim. Thus far, most Christians have been preaching only a gospel of personal salvation. I’m not against that, but one thing must be added if we are to be faithful to the whole counsel of God…
Jesus proclaimed, and commanded us to preach what He called the “gospel of the kingdom” (Mt. 24:14). Unfortunately, most Christians today have only a vague idea of what is meant by the word “kingdom.” In fact, “kingdom” has become another Christian buzzword that often has little more value than to help identify certain programs or ministries.
The gospel of the kingdom is the message that God is willing and able to renew the world, including not only individuals but communities and institutions. God desires to save all people, and commands everyone to repent and trust in Jesus for salvation (Acts 17:30, 1 Tim. 2:3-4, 2 Pet. 3:9).
How We Can Influence Authorities
Recently, a Christian who doesn’t believe in this idea of the kingdom advised me to consider the example of the early martyrs.
“I’m all for doing that,” I said.
He told me those martyrs didn’t die for a kingdom, nor for any political reason.
He was mistaken because Rome did feel threatened by the proclamation of Jesus as Lord. Those Christians didn’t think of Jesus as merely a “personal” Lord and Savior. As Herod had feared the baby Jesus, the Caesars understood that, if allowed to spread, the radical concept of Jesus’ universal Lordship could soon threaten their reign.
The small sect of first century Christians has now grown to over two billion, and yet most political rulers today have no fear of God. That can only be because we have reduced the original gospel to one that is almost entirely about personal salvation.
The idea is not that Christians should threaten governments or seek to overthrow them, but that we should proclaim Christ as Lord of all. Our rulers are as duty-bound to obey God as we are to obey them for the Lord’s sake.
While it’s true that such proclamations could fall on deaf ears, what’s important is that we trust in Christ to rule over us, not only from heaven but from earthly seats of authority.
Yes, by “earthly seats of authority,” I’m talking about the same politicians that you may be bitterly and incessantly complaining about. There’s a point at which this kind of reaction displays a lack of faith in God’s sovereignty.
How would you behave if your father had all the authority in the world? Our Father in heaven does. If we would honor and pray for our rulers, God would begin holding them to a higher standard.
Even though evil people often rule over us, God has each of them on a leash and will only let them go so far. Jesus didn’t die to gain His authority in vain.
The Old Covenant was characterized by Law, failure, and judgment. On the whole, this is not what we should expect to see under the New Covenant. God still demands repentance, so obviously He still has moral standards. The difference is that people now have a fuller revelation through Christ, and we have greater access to God through the Holy Spirit. The increasing failure of Israel under the Old Covenant can already be contrasted with the record of the Church’s increasing victory under the New Covenant.
In this article, I’ve examined the problem of evil in the light of the Scriptures. I explained that God has called each of us to be part of the answer. If you aren’t a Christian already, please ask Him to cleanse you from your sins and accept you. God is ready to forgive you and be gracious to you, but you must rest your faith in Jesus Christ.
If you know anyone who is wondering how God can allow so much evil in the world, please help them by sharing this post with them.