I have been blogging on the problem of pain. (See the Introduction, Part 1 and Part 2). This is “the” problem, with a capital “P” for the Christian who maintains, based on biblical revelation, that God is all-powerful and all-good. If God is so powerful, why can’t He stop the evil? If God is so good, why doesn’t He stop the evil? Either God isn’t all-powerful, or He isn’t good, or (ultimately) the God of the Bible doesn’t exist.
I am working my way through the puzzle, putting the pieces in place. You will have to read through the previous posts to catch up (if you want to). The piece of the puzzle I want to explore next is the cosmic drama that is evident in the Scripture.
Jesus refers to Satan as the ruler of this world. So Satan most have some authority and jurisdiction over the world. If God is really God, the authority of the Devil to do what he does must have give by God.
But why?! If the question isn’t simply rhetorical, there must be a purpose? Why would an all-powerful God allow restraints on His power to allow opposition from a being He created?
Before I try to answer that question, I want to dive into the evidence of this conflict that we see in the Scripture. then I will look for clues as to why that conflict would be allowed by an all-powerful God.
An example of the unseen world of devils and angles is seen in Daniel 10 where Daniel is praying for understanding for 3 weeks. An angel comes, saying he was sent from God, but he was delayed by the prince of the kingdom of Persia, a celestial ruler behind he physical ruler of Persia. Paul says in the New Testament,
“[W]e do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12)
Examples like these suggest that God is exercising self-restraint. Neither God nor God’s agents are exercising God’s power all of the time. If God really is all-powerful, and He has a purpose, He must be operating within some rules of engagement – some parameters in which those opposed to God may operate – that is intended in furtherance of that purpose.
We see the self-restraint and rules of engagement in the oldest book of the Bible. In Job, Satan raises allegations against Job. Satan complains that God has protected Job. Satan lobbies God to give him more room to bring calamity on Job, and God extends that authority and freedom to Satan, with some limitations.
This interplay seems to relate to those “rules of engagement”, the parameters God has established in which His ultimate purposes play out. It reveals there are boundaries to the conflict, and the rules are not arbitrary.
Other places where we see cosmic conflict include Matthew 4:1-11. Satan tempts Jesus at his point of weakness, having fasted in the desert for many days. Satan tempts him to turn the stones into bread to meet his temporary needs. Satan tempts him to exercise his power to save himself. Satan tempts Jesus with power over the world if he would bow down to Satan.
Even Jesus was fair game for Satan’s temptation. Jesus, though weakened by the fasting, heat, hunger and thirst, refuses to be swayed.
In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus tells a parable the suggests the cosmic conflict. The owner of a field sowed good seed in the field, but “the enemy” sowed weeds among the wheat. Both the wheat and the weeds (tares) grew up. The owner’s servants offered to pull up the weeds, but the owner declined to allow them to pull up the weeds for fear that the wheat would be uprooted with the weeds. Instead, the owner said, “Let both grow together until the harvest”, at which time the wheat would be gathered, and the weeds would be burned.
Passages like Psalm 82, Revelations 4 and Revelations 5 suggest a heavenly council has some jurisdiction over the world under God’s sovereignty. Prior to the cross, Satan may have had some license as ruler of the world to go to the heavenly council, but then he was banished. This suggests that evil is defeated at the cross, but evil is not yet destroyed.
We read in 1 John and Hebrews that Jesus came to destroy the power of Satan. Jesus has defeated Satan in the heavenly council, but the conflict continues for a finite time. The reason is that God is still allowing choice, allowing people to enter into relationship with Him by their own choice, which is love. (See 2 Peter 3:1-9)
We are told this is because of God’s patience. He is not putting an end to the current state of affairs because He is allowing room for more people to come to know Him and to be saved from the ultimate consequence of rejecting God.
If God is all-powerful, how can anyone sustain the conflict with Him? The conflict is with finite creatures; so there is a beginning and an end to the conflict. The nature of the conflict can’t be one of pure power. If God is all-powerful, there could be no conflict. There is no power that could overcome God.
As was suggested in Part 2 of this series, the cosmic conflict is not about power, but character; it’s an epistemic conflict; a conflict over belief. The question is: who do you trust? Satan opposes God, slanders God’s character, and raises charges against God’s character that can’t be met by sheer force. Honor and character can’t be countered by using power/force.
The overarching sweep of the Bible reveals that God keeps His word, His promises. God maintains His character. Because God remains true, He won’t contravene His promises or the terms and conditions He has established. He won’t act contrary to His character or contrary to His purpose.
God made us in His image. He made us to know and to reflect His love. Love doesn’t coerce. Love requires freedom to choose. Love isn’t established by displays of power, but by relationship, trust and character. I believe this is why an all-powerful God puts up with evil in the world.
In order to allow the type of freedom that leaves room for love, God must allow a framework in which a creature with free will can raise the issues of character and honor against God, in which God can demonstrate that character and love to free beings who have the ability to choose Him, to trust Him and to love Him – not because they must, but because they find Him supremely worthy of love.
Free will (and the ability to reject God) is necessary for love. It is a framework that allows for raising issues against God, and it is necessary to allow creatures with free will to come to know Him and to love Him for who He is.
God is still sovereign. Though His desires are not met in all circumstances, He ultimately gets what He wants. He creates a universe in which His creatures can get to know Him and love Him because they want to.
Peckham points out the difference between God’s ideal will and His remedial will. Ideally, God wants everyone to know and love Him, but love requires freedom of will, so He must work His remedial will to allow people to get to know Him and love Him in spite of our ability to reject Him and oppose him.
For love to exist, be fostered and grow, there are certain factors that are necessary in the universe that will make love possible, and those factors can’t be controlled be God.
It’s like the old adage: if you love something, set it free. If it returns to you, it is yours.
God could only control the world and prohibit the evil that arises when moral agents have the power to reject God by destroying the very moral agency of those beings. But then, they would not be really free, and the universe would not be a place in which love might exist as a two-way street between God and His creation.
God can’t intervene with His power without frustrating His purpose. God can’t eliminate evil without negating our freedom, and that would frustrate and hinder His purpose of creating a universe in which love might be established that flows reciprocally between God and His creation.
The explanation so far has been an intellectual, philosophical and theological one. “Pat answers” don’t usually provide comfort, though, at the emotional level. Someone might be able to agree with an intellectual answer, but it still may not sit well at a personal level, especially when the experience of evil is personal. In the last piece in this very short summary of the problem of evil, I will get into a resolution of the problem of evil on a more emotional level in Part 4 to follow.