Can God Stop Evil?

By Rick Shrader

 

rhaps the most frequently asked question by skeptics today is why God allows evil to exist.  From the holocaust to Columbine to 9-11, it has become more common and even acceptable to question why a good God allows human beings to suffer.  In 1965 Stewart Zabriskie wrote, “At no time in the history of theology has the doctrine of the imago Dei had a more challenging pastoral relevance or more provocative theological implications than it does within the current of contemporary theology.”1 Forty six years later, we can only wish that society’s questions of God’s image were still as easy.

Just this week I heard a well-known TV commentator ask a popular Christian women’s speaker how she can believe in a God who would allow 9-11 to happen.  “Could He have stopped it?” he asked, thus implying that God is either not powerful or not loving.  I concur with Zabriskie’s comment about this having challenging pastoral relevance.  Only a few weeks ago I visited the home of a man dying of cancer who had always questioned God’s existence (or at least His relevance).  The only question he had for me was, “If God is good, why does He allow suffering in the world?”  Upon the answer to that question hung the only possibility of giving the gospel at such a critical time.

In his popular book, The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis described the agnostic’s dilemma,  “If God were good, he would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished.  But the creatures are not happy.  Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power or both.”2 That is exactly how a lost man thinks.  Why would he want to believe in a God who either does not love us enough to care about evil and pain in our lives, or else He is not able to do anything about them anyway?  As tragedies are known and felt around the world with such rapidity, people are confronted with these questions to a greater degree than ever before.

 

The classical answer to the problem of evil.

The classic atheistic argument looks something like this:3

  • If God existed, He would eliminate evil.

  • Evil exists.

  • Therefore, God does not exist.

 

The classic theistic answer would look something like this:

  • Evil does indeed exist.

  • Since evil exists, good also exists.

  • Good is not incompatible with evil.

  • Good is actually greater than evil.

  • God both exists and is good.

 

The breakdown for the skeptic comes in a) thinking that good and evil cannot coexist even for a while, and b) that a good God would have to destroy evil immediately.  The fact is that earth’s history since the Garden of Eden proves that good and evil can exist in the same world, and God’s revelation shows that God allows this as a probationary time for sinners to freely repent, believe the good news of Christ’s deliverance, and secure an everlasting home in heaven which will fulfill all of his expectations and more.  Far from God being unloving or unable, He is rather longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance 2 Peter 3:9).  The problem is man’s selfishness in insisting on some ill-deserved ease, not God’s patience in applying the right medicine over the needed time.

 

A practical answer to the problem of evil.

While reading in the book of Revelation I was struck with the progression of thought in chapter six.  The four horsemen (“of the apocalypse”) are unleashed on the world, bringing terrible destruction, while the souls of the faithful martyrs must wait under the altar to be vindicated by God.  The scenario offers a few biblical and yet practical answers to our question.

A coming storm.  As John watches the Lamb open the first seal he hears as it were the noise of thunder (vs. 1).  A storm is coming upon the earth such as never was seen in all of history.  John Walvoord writes, “On a warm summer day one can hear thunder in the distance even though the sun is still shining where he is.  The approaching dark clouds and the roar of the thunder presage the beginning of the storm.”4 The coming Tribulation period will bring catastrophes, tragedies, plagues and destruction which can be called “evil” and yet are directed by the hand of God.

Though this period of earth’s history will be worse than any, all of history has been filled with violence and suffering.  We know that it came from the “Pandora’s Box” of Genesis chapter three when men and angels chose to disobey God and bring sin into the world.  The storm of consequences began there and will culminate in the end times.

Four horsemen by permission.  The Tribulation scene opens with the opening of the seven-sealed book.  The first four seals release the four horses and their riders.  They bring war and conquering, death and the sword, famine and starvation, and finally the sword, hunger and death by wild beasts.  This all comes in a relatively short time span causing the unbelieving earth dwellers to hide themselves in out-of-the-way places in the earth.  In three of the four cases John records that this “power” was “given” to each rider.  (The third rider on the black horse representing famine needs no permission since the famine is already in progress).  The same wording appears throughout the book, especially in chapter thirteen where the beast is “given” a mouth speaking great things (13:5) and “given” ability to make war with the saints (13:7).  None of it happens without God’s permission.  Satan could not touch Job without God’s permission (Job 1:12, 2:6)

Some would object that if God has to give His permission for evil to happen then evil is ultimately His fault anyway.  Or some might say that a good God would only allow good things to happen.  But, as we have seen, if evil originated in the choice of angels and men, then a good God has allowed their bad choice in order to bring about a better good.  Geisler writes,

 

Because God does control and order evil, evil itself is part of a total picture of good in the universe.  Failure to see this ultimate harmony in the universe with evil in it is like charging an artist for lack of harmony in his mosaic by concentrating on only one piece of it.  One must step back and view the overall picture in order to get the proper perspective of evil.5

 

The believers’ questions.  Even in the first half of the Tribulation, many will come to saving faith and yet suffer martyrdom for that belief.  Chapter six and verses nine through eleven give a glimpse of the souls of such saints who were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held (vs. 9).  They suffered unjustly for something which they believed in their hearts.  Their question to God is two-fold.  1) How long will their wait be?  2) Will He judge and avenge their blood on those who dwell on the earth?  These questions are identical to the questions today:  Can evil exist in God’s world without judgment?  And how long will it be before the judgment comes?

What we know from reading the whole Book is that yes, God will completely purge His floor and tread the winepress of His wrath, and He will do it in exactly the time allotted by the prophecies of this Book.  But interestingly, God doesn’t answer these faithful saints with exactly that answer.  Neither are His ways always clear to us.  But any saint in any age may affirm with Abraham, Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? (Gen. 18:25).

God’s response to saints who suffer.  The divine response that was given is found in verse eleven and it is three-fold.  1) They were to rest yet for a little season.  Since their own personal suffering was over, they were to rest in their resting.  For those who are presently enduring trials, it is enough to know that God is in control and that even this trial will somehow work out for the best in God’s plan (Rom. 8:28).  Peter could write, But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you (1 Pet. 5:10).

2) They were to wait until their fellow servants also and their brethren, . . . should be killed as they were.  They were to endure until evil had run its course.  Sometimes in history sin has brought evil on everyone whether in the form of disease, war or general decadence.  Sometimes evil is directed at believers specifically because their righteousness is an indictment upon the unrighteous.  Cain slew Abel because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous (1 John 3:12).  Jesus did not pray that we would escape the suffering of this world but that we would be kept from the evil one (John 17:15).

3) They were to rest and wait until these things that God was allowing and directing should be fulfilled.  Evil will cease one day, but only when God’s benevolent purpose is complete.  There are many things we know from Scripture that are yet to be fulfilled and it would be useless of us to ask God to by-pass what He has already written.  Such will be the case in the Tribulation when the prophetic clock has begun to move again.  Without being fatalistic, in the age of grace, where we do not see every time and purpose indicator as clearly, we must trust God that  He is fulfilling His purpose in the best possible way, dealing with sin on His own righteous schedule.

 

And so . . .

God is bringing a stop to evil in the world!  But He is doing it in the best way and with the best timing.  His faithful believers know with the Apostle Paul that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God! (Acts 14:22).  We may add two concluding thoughts for those who are in the midst of suffering.

First, prayer is a God-given avenue for relief, comfort and change! The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much (James 5:16).  By the eighth chapter of Revelation we observe the prayers of the persecuted saints coming up before the throne of God as incense (8:3-5).  The effect of these prayers shakes the earth even in the midst of the Tribulation! (see also Psalm 18:6-9 and 2 Sam. 22:5-10).  Our prayers are always answered!  Even if that answer is to endure suffering without fully understanding why.  This brings us to the second thought.

Second, history is God’s will!  Once events go from the future to the past, we do not need to pray about them or to worry and grieve over them.  Rather, Paul says, In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (1 Thes. 5:18).  Once God has allowed even evil to happen, we must realize He did that for reasons perhaps known only unto Him.  Someday in heaven we will see how every prayer of ours affected that outcome, and how our patient endurance was used of God for His own glory and the advancement of His will.

There is a good reason why many of the hymns in our hymn book end with a verse speaking of heaven.  “Don’t think me poor or deserted or lonely, I’m not discouraged, I’m heaven bound” or “I heard about a mansion He has built for me in glory, and I heard about the streets of gold beyond the crystal sea.”  Maybe it’s because that’s the way the Bible ends!  And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away (Rev. 21:4).

 

Notes:

1. Quoted by Charles Feinberg, “The Image of God,” Vital Theological Issues, Roy Zuck, ed. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1994) 52.

2. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962) 26.

3. See Norman Geisler, The Philosophy of Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974) chapters 14-17.

4. John Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago:  Moody Press, 1974) 124.

5. Geisler, 340.