New Year, Good Intentions, and Pavlovian Problems of Evil…

A new year, a new decade and good intentions as ever. This blog was a little neglected in 2010 – a year of great change for the author with the arrival of his first child. However, I aim to make use of the blog a little more this year, if time and discipline allow. So to kick start the year a brief observation on one aspect of ‘the problem of evil’…

The ‘problem of evil’ – if put in simplistic terms – could be reduced to the question of how a good and all-powerful God can allow suffering in a world consisting of people He loves. Volumes have been written on the subject and I do not believe there are any ‘simple’ answers to the problem. However, I do believe the Bible as a whole does address and answer the question on many different levels.

As a preliminary observation I note that the ‘problem’ as framed above provides an inadequate description of the world the Bible describes (and we inhabit). It seems to assume that a human observer has both an ‘objective position’ and a reliable understanding from which to assess ‘the good’ in any given situation. It is only from such a position that the ‘problem’ can even be raised! This is a profoundly un-Biblical view of the abilities of human beings which are limited both by our finitude and our fallenness.

The book of Job provides one of the most sustained opportunities to reflect on the issue. In it we see a “blameless and upright man” who suffers an extraordinary amount of suffering as a result of the machinations of the devil. It raises searching questions about causality – what is the difference between ‘causing’ and ‘allowing’ a course of events? It raises challenging questions about the ‘good’ which God is working for in Job’s life – though I would be reluctant to presume that I had a better understanding of ‘the good’ in this situation than the Almighty God who “laid the foundations of the earth”.

But there is one single angle I wish to mention today. Job and some of his ‘comforters’ both raise questions about why God doesn’t intervene when the wicked do wicked things. Surely it would be better if there were instant judgement? Why does the ‘temporal’ relationship between evil and judgement seem to be broken? Where is the comfort in only a future judgement?

Instant feedback for the wicked does indeed sound a much better idea… providing you are not one of the wicked. And there is the rub for anyone holding a Biblical view of the world. If we have a true understanding of God’s glory and God’s holiness, then it turns out that we are all committing a million offences against Him every day. Because whenever we fail to acknoweldge God for who He is then we are worthy of judgement. That is the nature of sin. We make ourselves Gods and reject/ignore/forget the real God.

Don Carson makes the point with typical clarity and brevity:

…at the very least we should acknowledge that instant judgement on every sin would have most of us in pretty constant pain, yelping like Pavlovian dogs to avoid hurt, but without inner transformation.”

(from For the Love of God:Volume 2, Feb 24)

Carson’s point about the absence of “inner transformation” is a crucial one here. But if anything the situation would be worse than he describes – because “most of us” should be “all of us” and rather than yelping in Pavlovian pain our lives would surely be ended?

When we have a correct view of ourselves and our own position in this world, then we won’t be demanding instantaneous judgement but we will be crying out for constant mercy. That is why the Gospel of Jesus Christ is such good news – one has stood in our place and taken God’s judgement on Himself so that we don’t have to – either now or on the last day.

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