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FIRST-PERSON: How is evil compatible with the Gospel?

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) — “There are man-eating sharks in every ocean. But we still swim. Every second somewhere in the world lightning strikes. But we still play in the rain. Poisonous snakes can be found in 49 of the 50 states. But we still go looking for adventure. A car can crash. A house can crumble. But we still drive. And love coming home.

“Because I think deep down we know all the bad things that can happen in life they can’t stop us from making our lives good.”

The preceding words are from an All State Insurance commercial. The line “People live for good” appears on the screen at the end.

Believers and unbelievers face the fatal force of a cruel and uncaring cosmos every day. Atheist author Alex Rosenberg makes this point: “Reality is rough. But it could have been worse. We could have been faced with reality in all its roughness plus a God who made it that way.”

He’s right. It could have been worse, especially if God really did make it this way. For Rosenberg, the universe was born from chance headed toward certain doom that doesn’t care about what happens on the frail surface of one of its planets.

Rosenberg admits that from a naturalistic perspective there is no objective category of evil. But a critique often leveled against the Christian faith is that the existence of evil is incompatible with belief in a loving and all-powerful God.

I believe God is sovereign. I totally get it when we say that God does all things for His glory. But how does this jive with our day to day encounters with evil?

I’m not sure that I will ever be able to exhaust all of what that means and how all it all works out. I believe God is all-loving and all-powerful. I believe He could stop evil. And everyday reality reminds me that He hasn’t. Yet. I believe there is a timeline, that the Father alone knows, when evil will be extinguished.

But there are some foundational truths that frame the way I think about evil in our world that keep me from despair and actually enable human suffering to point to the goodness of God.

I know that God created the universe as good (Genesis 1). I believe what the psalmist said that to be near to God is our good (Psalm 73:28). And I also know that from the very beginning of time humanity has chosen to go the opposite direction.

We have to see Adam’s fall (and ours) against the backdrop of God’s providence. An all-wise Creator made a creature who possessed the ability to make meaningful decisions. Adam chose unwisely, and so do we.

As John Lennox has pointed out, parents take the same risk when they choose to have children. Kids can choose to reject their parents or to love them. God reveals Himself as Father, and even when Jesus told a story of God’s great love He packed it in a parable about a rebellious son who received astounding grace from his father upon returning home.

So here we are in a fallen and cursed world facing natural and moral evil as we serve a Heavenly Father we can’t see. God never promised it would be easy. But we can experience His goodness even in the midst of the bitterness of this life.

God has promised to bring an end to evil and to reverse the curse. God promised Adam and Eve that one of their descendants would crush the head of the serpent. This was inaugurated by Jesus’ life and ministry but it will not be fully realized until His return.

So we live in the “already — not yet” of this reality.

We should be careful not to too quickly appropriate certain promises that belong to the “not yet” of the Christian faith. A passage we often quote at funerals is that Jesus has removed the sting from death (1 Corinthians 15). In context, this is part of the culmination of history when Jesus destroys all of His enemies, including His final enemy, which is death.

So for now death does sting. For now the grave feels victorious. Consequently, we grieve. But we don’t grieve as those without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). This is the power of the Gospel at work in the life of the Christian.

Dark times may tempt us to doubt the reality of God’s power and goodness. But God expressed His love for us by entering our suffering. In the incarnation Christ took on the form of a servant to be mocked, whipped and nailed to a tree.

And Christ’s resurrection was God’s validation stamp on the expiration date of the grave. Death is not final. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57).

I’m not sure how the problem of evil could be considered incompatible with Christian faith if it is viewed through a biblical framework of creation, separation, incarnation and regeneration.

We rebelled against our Creator, He responded in love when He entered our despair, died in our place and defeated the grave so that we might have new life. This is the Gospel.

Like the commercial, I believe people live for good. I believe this is the image of God stamped on every individual, and I believe it is, in part, a result of the common grace bestowed upon all of humanity.

But I don’t think we can muster the kind of confidence we need to face a shark and snake infested world by placing ourselves in the good hands of an insurance company. I believe our good will be found in the hands of a loving God who will one day crush the snake and kill death itself.
Dan DeWitt is dean of Boyce College, the undergraduate school of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Dan DeWitt