People get so turned off at religion, and specifically Christianity, because of all the bad in the world. This is understandable since, over the last couple hundred years, many western Christians have emphasized the improvement of the here and now, and have sold the Gospel under the pretense that it will make your life better. This has left many people with false hope. When they “accept Jesus” but then realize none of these superficial promises are coming true, they conclude they’ve believed a lie.
Now, the Gospel does make people’s lives better, don’t get me wrong. But many churches have defined better as the repair or immediate reversal of tough times and unfortunate circumstances. But this is simply not the function of the Gospel as seen in the New Testament. In fact, there are harrowing promises given by the New Testament authors that, in this life, trials will come. In 2 Timothy 3:12, Paul says, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” James, the Lord’s brother, seems to assume tough times will come when he writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.”
Much of evangelicalism preaches a hidden prosperity gospel where the main aim of the Gospel, it is often thought, is to fix broken lives. If broken means trials, tough times, poverty, illness, etc., the Gospel does not promise to banish these things in this lifetime. If, however, by broken it is meant that we are sinners and rebels against God, then the Gospel certainly is God’s means of fixing broken people.
Why Do Bad Things Happen?
Now that we have discussed a proper understanding of God’s promises in the Gospel, that the Gospel is not some magic wand to produce income, heal disease, or simply make people happy, we can now look at “the bad” with a clear lens. What is bad? What is evil?
Let’s here define badness (or evil) as a privation of God’s grace. The bad is not some substance created by God to wreak havoc on creation; the bad is, rather, what God has chosen not to do. We could think of this in terms of darkness being the absence of light. Light is something, and darkness is the absence of that something. Badness is an absence of God’s common grace. Without God’s grace, we’d all be like Hitler because of our sin. But God has determined to lavish creation with His undeserved common grace. Common grace is not to be mistaken for saving grace, either. Common grace, unlike saving grace, is that grace which is common to all creation in greater or lesser degrees. The 2nd London Confession states:
The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in His providence, that His determinate counsel extends itself even to the first fall, and all other sinful actions both of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, which also He most wisely and powerfully binds, and otherwise orders and governs, in a manifold dispensation to His most holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness of their acts proceeds only from the creatures, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin (1689, 5.4).
God governs all things, yet is not the author of evil. The only way this appears to be possible is if evil is not a positive force or substance, but a lack of something, namely—God’s grace.
It may be objected that there are evil forces, by which one often means Satan and his demons. But these are angelic persons who were originally created good but have since suffered the privation of God’s grace for one reason or another. In other words, they do what they do (evil acts) because of a lack of God’s grace in their lives. It’s not what God is doing in their lives, it’s what He’s not doing.
The Origin of Evil
After the above discussion takes place, the next usual question is, “How did evil get here?” But, this would ignore what we’ve just said. Evil is the lack of something. It didn’t get here because it doesn’t exist as some positive force or substance. Evil pervades the world (negatively) because of a lack of God’s grace in those instances of evil thoughts and deeds.
The better question, therefore, is: Why the privation of grace?
The Roman Church would answer that man was created as a body/soul composite, and that the body and the soul were at chaos with one another until God superadded grace (donum superadditum) which caused the body and soul to harmonize. The entrance of sin into the world through the Fall flung body and soul back into disharmony. This is suspicious to me simply because the Bible tells us all that which God created was created good (Gen. 1:31).
So, then, what caused this privation of God’s grace in the lives of Adam and Eve?
There is only one answer. In accordance with the 2nd London Confession above, God withdrew His common grace in the instance of the Fall of man. God is the cause. Now, before we get arrogant and decide to indict God based on our finite understanding of His redemptive plan, we should ask: Does the Bible say anything about why God might do this?
The answer, it turns out, is yes.
In Genesis 50:20, Joseph sees his brothers for the first time in years. These are the same brothers who selfishly sold Joseph into slavery. Yet, because of this wicked act—because God withheld His grace in Joseph’s brothers—Joseph entered an unfortunate circumstance which then led to a very positive position. This eventually allowed him to successfully mediate the political relationship between Egypt’s Pharaoh and his exiled countrymen, the Hebrews. These events led Joseph to conclude: “As for you (speaking to his brothers), you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
What those who do evil intend for evil God actually intends for good.
This can also be seen in the life of Job. Job was God’s obedient servant who lost everything because God withheld His grace (allowing Satan to tamper with his life). However, in the end, God humiliates the enemy, vindicates and redeems His servant, and glorifies Himself.
So, then, why was the first instance of evil allowed to occur?
There is a pattern in Scripture where God allows evil (withholds His grace) so that His purposes will be brought to fruition in the most glorious of ways. What, then, is the glory God is bringing through the wickedness which began in the Garden of Eden?
The answer to this is nothing less than God’s plan of redemption, which culminates in the finished work of Christ. If this does not sound like a good enough reason for suffering or evil, we have grossly underestimated what our union with Christ entails. In union with Christ we receive Christ Himself and all the benefits He procured for us during His work here on earth. He was perfectly obedient to the Father, which was something we could not be; and He was obedient even unto death, taking upon Himself the fullness of the Father’s wrath (something we deserved, but Christ substitutionally suffered).
In Christ, we receive Christ.
Our need for redemption makes this even more glorious. What are one of the reasons the Gospel is so glorious? God became Man that He should redeem those who do not deserve redemption.
Without a Fall, there is no redemption. Without a Fall, what is there to be redeemed from? To ask, therefore, “Why the Fall?” is to undermine the glorious redemptive plan God has enacted. We miss the point if we ask, “Why the privation of grace, God?”
You may be scratching your head thinking: “Yeah, but I’ve watched people die, I’ve suffered illnesses, and there are so many bad things that happen in this world… Forget the Gospel! It’s not worth it! God can keep it!”
If these are your thoughts, I’d encourage you to look through the trials and sufferings to a precious Lord and Savior with whom we have the opportunity to be united eternally—heirs with Him to the throne. These may seem like vain words. We don’t see this throne now. We do not even experience the fullness of the Gospel in the here and now.
Why should we care?
Since when do the best things come right now? There is truth to the saying patience is a virtue. And who are we to complain? We live in a world in which the greatest possible set of circumstances has been offered, that is—union with Christ for eternity. There is nothing greater than this. Christian, non-Christian, let this be a reminder that our problems are deep, and some are deeper than others; but the Christ, in His glory, is still yet deeper. What if we were to view the world in such terms? Seeing our suffering, our afflictions, as those means by which God does something unimaginably greater. He reverses trials by means of those same trials because in the end, we end up with Him. Christ suffered that He may kill suffering; He died that death may die.
What a Savior.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. — 1 Corinthians 13:12, 13