These questions are complex and difficult ones that carry with them an enormous burden for both theology and faith. So I will try to deal with them in a serious way, hopefully answering them better this time than I did the last. I hope not to trivialize in any way the validity of the questions but rather to answer them in a substantial and significant way. Part of the difficulty in answering these questions is that one question really opens up a gateway to a series of extraordinarily complex theological questions.
The questions and answers found here are my best understanding both for myself and the understanding that I’d offer to others.
So here goes:
The first question was essentially, Is God to blame for evil?
In order to answer this question there are at least a couple of problems that must be answered before we can really answer this particular question.
Firstly, we must hold that God is benevolent. God is good. The church I ‘grew up’ in had this call and response that we used every Sunday for most of my young adult life. “God is good all the time,” the pastor would say. The people would respond, “And all the time, God is good.” This call and response is remarkably simplistic and yet it carries with it an assumption that God’s existence is as loving, caring, and compassionate God. This belief is so foundational to the Christian understanding of God that we can’t even begin to have a discussion about evil in the world apart from that central understanding. 1 John reminds us “God is love.” (4:8)
It has been pointed out by many that there are many creation myths in the ancient world and even in modern times. However, the creation story related to us in Genesis is unique. It’s very opening lines place us in a world where there was nothing apart from chaos, darkness, and lifelessness. It is out of that darkness and chaos that God brings forth both order, light and life. It is the belief of Christians and Jews for millennia that God creates the world in an act of gracious love. That the whole of creation springs forth from the love of God. I said a moment ago that the creation narrative in Genesis 1 is unique it is so because there is no violence, no anger, no evil, only the generous act of a loving God who grants existence to humanity, the world, and the whole of the cosmos.
When God creates humanity God creates us for relationship with God’s self. God creates humanity in God’s own image. The record of Genesis tells us that it doesn’t take long, however, before humanity messes things up by choosing waywardness and sin over faithfulness to God’s command. There is something in the creation of humanity that is also of consequence to this discussion.
When God creates humanity, God creates humanity as free moral agent. That is to say, that humanity is created with the ability to freely choose good or evil for itself. That freedom is something that God doesn’t take lightly. It is true God could have created a world in which people didn’t have the freedom to choose but it forces us to ask the question, of what value is love that is coerced? The same question might be asked of good as well, of what value is good that is not done with the consent of human free will?
The third concept that must be addressed is the source of evil in the world. Is evil the fault of the devil? Is evil the fault of human sin? How did evil come into the world? The story of Genesis 3 tells us that sin enters into the world through human choice. The temptation to ascend to positions of power and abuse the good gifts of God is a part of the human consciousness. In Genesis 6:5, “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.”
I am always hesitant when people are quick to blame the devil for evil in the world. There’s that old saying, “the devil made me do it.” My initial response to that is doubt. I think that phrase has often been used by folks to escape the consequences of their own free choices. I am not astonished at the capabilities of human beings to accomplish evil.
As we stand at the beginning of the twenty first century, we stand in a unique time. Humanity is slowly and steadily destroying the world in which we live by overpopulation, overconsumption and misuse of creation. However, if we look at the whole picture, humanity possesses the ability to take what is a slow death and make it into a remarkably quick death. Human beings posses the ability to destroy the whole of the world. We have enough nuclear weapons to wipe ourselves from the face of this planet along with much of creation itself. (According to wikipedia, there are approximately 30,000 nuclear warheads available for use in the world.)
Yet we are surprised by human evil?
These concepts play strongly in the answer to the question of whether God is responsible for evil in the world.
In Genesis, we see the first recorded human on human violence. In the story of Cain and Able, Cain is jealous of Able because God accepts Able’s sacrifice and rejects Cain’s. The scriptures seem to indicate that Cain’s sacrifice is rejected because he doesn’t offer his best to God. In Genesis 4:7 God says to Cain “If you do well, will you not be accepted? If you don not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” In his anger and jealousy, Cain rises up and strikes down his brother Able. Cain still chooses evil in spite of God’s warning to him. We see the foundation of human evil. Human evil arises from a rejection of God’s word and a choice to give in to sin. The first act of human violence is fratricide, that is to say brother killing brother. This first act of violence is a portent for the violence to come.
Some have wondered, why in this first act of human violence God did not intervene? What we find in this story is that God did speak a warning to Cain, yet Cain still choose to do that which was evil. It is true that God didn’t stop Cain from murdering Able. However, that doesn’t imply that God is incompetent or impotent. God in the very creation of humanity chooses to limit himself in order to create a people who are free to make the choices for good and evil.
C.S. Lewis once said, “God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.”
If God were to intervene to prevent human beings from choosing evil, then human beings would be unable to choose good either, thus limiting their ability to act as a free moral agent in the world. The consequence of limited evil is limited freedom or no freedom at all. Evil entered the world through human disobedience by an act of free choice. So too, evil is perpetuated in the world by human disobedience.
Human evil has led to the murder of millions of people throughout our history. When I look at the horrible examples of human violence, I am grieved to my core. I cannot imagine the pain that humanity has inflicted upon itself across the generations. When we look at the holocaust, genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda, or in Darfur, we cannot help but wonder how people could do such horrid things to other people. I have to confess that I too in those places have to wonder as the faithful have in generations past, “How long O Lord.” How long will you allow evil to persist? How long will people demonize and dehumanize the others in order to nullify the value of their lives?
I’m not sure how we can look at those situations and not wonder if God was absent. I am convinced that God is not absent in those places. The Psalmist tells us that it doesn’t matter where he might go he couldn’t flee from God’s presence. In those places where humans do terrible things to other human beings, God is present. God is concerned about the plight of the poor, the oppressed, the dehumanized, the fatherless, and all who suffer in any way.
The message of our culture is one that says, “God helps those who help themselves.” Nothing could be farther from the truth, God stands on the side of those who are helpless. We, as human beings, have regularly rejected justice and social responsibility for our sisters and brothers who are in need and hurting. Our hearts have seen so much violence in the world that we are numb to the sensation. We are numb to the costs of war, numb to the excruciating suffering of other human beings. Those moments where we are truly aware of the plight of the suffering are fleeting moments.
Whether we talk about the Japanese earthquake, the tsunami, hurricane Katrina, all of these share one thing in common. For a moment, they captured our attention but now that we are years removed from them they are a distant memory. However, the suffering of these people have not ended. We have a responsibility, as God’s people in the world, to act on behalf of those who are in need and suffering.
I think my answer to this question will likely shock some.
I come once again to the question:
Is God to blame for evil? Yes (at least in part)
Inasmuch as God gives human beings the freedom to choose good or evil, the answer is yes. God limits God’s self to afford us the ability to choose good. It is true that God shares some responsibility for the existence of evil. Let me make clear what I am saying here. It is only that God permits the existence of evil in the world because to refuse the existence of evil is to negate the power of humanity to choose good. I am not saying God is not the agent of evil in the world. Evil is ultimately a consequence of human agency.
If you enjoy this article please continue to follow the blog… I’ll be answering at least two other questions soon.