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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dealing with the Problem of Evil, Pt 4

(Previous posts in this series: part 1, part 2, part 3)
In the past few weeks we have been looking at the problem of evil.  The problem of evil refers to a common objection to belief in God.  To some, there seems to be a logical contradiction between the existence of a good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God and the existence of evil.  If God is good and knows how to prevent evil and has the power to prevent evil, why does evil exist?  For some, the existence of evil represents an impassible barrier to belief in God.
Our first task in dealing with this problem was to determine whether or not the Bible teaches that God is good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, and if so, whether or not these truths are essential to the Christian faith.  If any one of these three attributes are not true of God, the problem of evil goes away.  But we found that not only does the Bible clearly teach that God is all three of these things, but also that without any one of the three, the Christian faith is destroyed.  It is the teaching of the Bible that the goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence of God are essential truths of our faith.  We cannot deal with the problem of evil by sacrificing one of these attributes.
So what next?  A very simple method is to just show that the problem does not actually exist.  This post and the next will focus on the fact that both the Bible and logic tell us that there is no such problem, that is, that there is no contradiction between the existence of the God of the Bible and the existence of evil.  Of course, that doesn’t make the emotional tension go away all together, and future posts in this series will deal with popular but biblically faulty approaches to dealing with the problem of evil, as well as how to understand the providence of God as it relates to the existence of evil in the world. 
First of all, the most simple way to deal with the problem of evil is to note that the Bible does not recognize the co-existence of a good, omniscient, and omnipotent God and evil as a problem.  Perhaps that statement should be qualified somewhat.  The Bible does recognize that man has a problem it, but also affirms that God has no such problem.  In other words, the Bible notes that man may not understand how and why God allows evil, but the Bible also notes that God does not feel obligated to explain himself on the issue.
The story of Job is a prime example of this tension.  As you may know, the book of Job begins with an assessment of Job’s righteousness: “that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1).  The Lord then called Satan’s attention to Job: “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (1:8) Satan replies that the only reason Job is upright is because God has blessed him.  “But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face” (1:11).  So God gives Satan permission to take away everything dear to Job, and eventually gives him permission to take Job’s health as well (1:12; 2:4-6).  Satan does so.
Most of the rest of the book details Job and his friends trying to make sense of the suffering that has befallen him.  Job’s friends insist that if evil has come upon Job, it must be because of some evil found in him – it must be God’s punishment.  Job denies this possibility, arguing that he has lived a morally upright life.  Job’s “final argument” is in chs29-31, in which he makes a case for his own righteousness, laments the suffering he has experienced, and appeals to God for an explanation.
In the next section (chs32-37), a young man named Elihu comes and chastises both Job and his friends for their approach to the question.  Finally, the Lord Himself addresses Job in chs38-41.  His response could be summed up in one question: “who do you think you are to question the Almighty?” 
The book ends with Job repenting of his presumptuousness and God blessing him beyond his original state.  In the end, Job does not get his question answered.  He does not learn why a good and just God allowed such intense evil to befall him.  The message seems to be that God is sovereign and all-knowing and good…and owes no explanation to man for the things that He does and allows.
It is fine to ask God questions.  It is quite another thing to demand answers and to act as if God is bound to give them.  There are areas of mystery that we cannot understand, but we must trust that the Bible is true and that God is who He says He is.  What we do know is clear: Scripture consistently denies that God is in any way responsible for evil.  1 John 1:5 tells us that “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.”  We have already noted in this series that James 1:13 affirms that “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.”  Nevertheless, evil exists.  The Bible teaches both truths side by side and we are bound to believe them both.  In our finite human minds, we may not be able to reconcile the two, but the Bible does not recognize the problem of evil as a true problem. 
It is important to understand this as we begin to look at how to understand these issues.  We must start where Job ended – humbly acknowledging that our understanding is limited, our God is inscrutable, and no matter how far we progress in making sense of the issue at hand, God is worthy of our worship and love.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!  For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?  Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?  For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.  (Rom 11:33-36) 
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dealing with the Problem of Evil, Pt 3

(To read the first two posts in this series, click here and here.)
A couple of weeks ago, we started to look at how to deal with one of the most common and most serious objections to the Christian faith, the problem of evil.  The objection proposes that the existence of evil in the world is incompatible with the existence of a good, omniscient, omnipotent God.  The problem of evil could be formally stated as follows:
“If God is good and loves all people, it is reasonable to believe that he wants to deliver the creatures he loves from evil and suffering.
If God is all-knowing, it is reasonable to believe that he knows how to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering.
If God is all-powerful, it is reasonable to believe to he is able to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering. 
…But evil exists.”[1]
Some then conclude that since evil exists, the God of the Bible – a good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God – cannot exist.
In past posts, we have discovered that the first two of those attributes of God – goodness and omniscience – are essential to the Christian faith.  Not only does the Bible teach that God is good and all-knowing, but also that if we lose those attributes, Christianity is gone.  Today, we will look at the last of the three attributes, omnipotence.  Does the Bible teaching that God is all-powerful?  If so, is that attribute essential to the Christian faith?
It is the consistent testimony of Scripture that God is all-powerful.  Twice in Scripture the rhetorical question is asked, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?”, implying, of course, a negative answer (Gen 18:14; Jer 32:27).  In one of those contexts, Jeremiah makes the explicit statement, “nothing is too difficult for You” (Jer 32:17). 
In Luke 1:37, when the angel tells Mary that she will conceive a Son by the Holy Spirit and that her elderly and formerly barren relative, Elizabeth, will also bear a son, the angel concludes by saying, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”  In Job 42:2, Job says to the Lord, "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”  Paul writes in Eph 3:20 that God is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think. 
God’s power is also demonstrated in His acts of creating and sustaining the universe.  Men hold the power to destroy, but only God has the power to create something out of nothing.  And He did so with nothing more than the sound of His voice (Gen 1).  Further, He maintains the existence of all things by the word of His power (Heb 1:3). 
So God is all-powerful but we have to be careful how we define omnipotence.  We cannot say that omnipotence means that God is able to do absolutely anything.  There are a couple of categories of things that God cannot do.  First, God cannot do logically impossible actions.  For example, can God make two mountains without a valley in between?  Of course, not – it is not logically possible.  Thomas Aquinas called such acts “pseudotasks.”  A logically impossible task is not an task.[2] That God cannot do such things does not count against His omnipotence.
(While we’re here, I’d like to address another popular objection to God’s omnipotence: “Can God make a rock so big that He cannot lift it?”  This ends up being a pseudotask, too.  God’s power to create is infinite.  His power to lift is also infinite.  It is logically impossible for one infinite power to be greater than another infinite power.  So it is nonsense to ask if God can make a rock so big that He can’t lift it.  Such a question could be asked of a human, though.  Man’s power to build is finite, as is his power to lift.  Two finite powers can be compared to determine which is greater.  But such a question cannot be asked of an infinite being.)
The Bible also teaches that God cannot commit immoral actions.  He cannot tempt or be tempted (Jas 1:13).  He cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Heb 6:18).  He cannot deny Himself (2 Tim 2:13).  So it is clear that it is not accurate to say that God can do anything.  A better definition of omnipotence then is that God is able to do anything that is consistent with His will and character.
With this definition in mind, we can say that the Bible does teach that God is omnipotent.  The next question is, is this attribute of God essential to the Christian faith?  We can answer this by considering all of the things (some of which have already been mentioned) that Scripture attributes to the power of God.
God spoke the world into existence (Gen 1).  God sustains the existence of the world with the word of His power (Heb 1:3).  God gave power to Christ, by which He fulfilled His earthly ministry (Acts 10:38).  It is by God’s power that the gospel saves sinful men (Rom 1:16; 1Cor 1:18).  By God’s power He raised Christ from the dead (2Cor 13:4; Eph 1:20).  By God’s power we will be raised from the dead (1Cor 6:14).  God’s power enables us to suffer for the gospel (2Tim 1:8).  By God’s power we are being kept in the faith (1Pet 1:5).  His divine power has granted to us all things pertaining to salvation and sanctification (2Pet 1:3). 
To limit God’s power is to put all of salvation history in jeopardy.  Christianity cannot exist without an omnipotent God.  This attribute is essential to our faith. 
Now we know that the three attributes of God detailed in the problem of evil – goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence – are clearly taught in the Bible and are essential doctrines of the Christian faith.  So we cannot deal with the problem of evil by denying any one of the three.  We will have to address the issue from another angle.
Until next time, I encourage you to take a few minutes to meditate on the blessings that are ours in Christ by God’s power, as described in 1 Pet 1:3-5.

[1]Ronald Nash, Faith & Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988) p178.
[2]Ibid., 185.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Couple of Caveats on Peacemaking

Last Sunday, as we studied the seventh beatitude, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.  An important question to consider is this: In our roles as peacemakers, should we pursue peace at all costs?  I think the biblical answer is 'no.'  There are at least two caveats to our mandate to pursue peace.  
The first caveat is demonstrated by what could appear to be a contradiction in the book of Matthew.  On Sunday, we noted that God is our model for peacemaking.  He is the quintessential peacemaker.  Through Christ, He has reconciled us to Himself, and He calls us to be peacemakers by taking His gospel to the lost and by making peace in interpersonal conflicts.
However, in Matthew 10:34-36, Jesus says, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  And a person's enemies will be those of his own household…”
Wow.  It sounds like Jesus is doing the exact opposite of what he says a true disciple should do.  It sounds like He believes He came to bring conflict rather than reconciliation.  How do we explain this apparent contradiction? 
As always, context is king.  In Matthew 10, Jesus is preparing to send his disciples out on their own for the first time.  He is warning them about the persecution that awaits them, encouraging them to have no fear.  And in vv32-33, He says, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”  Jesus’ desire is for the disciples to maintain their devotion to Him in the face of certain persecution.  If they deny Him, He will deny them. 
Keeping that in mind, now let’s read again vv34-36, but this time continuing through v39:
  34 "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
 36 And a person's enemies will be those of his own household.
 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Now that we have framed Jesus’ statement, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” we can see clearly that Jesus does not mean that He came to just cause random strife and familial disharmony.  The context shows that the subject at hand is the decision that everyone must make – "how serious is my devotion to Christ?"  Jesus explains that for the true disciple that devotion must be ultimate.  vv37-39 can be used to interpret vv34-36.  When Jesus says, “I have come to set a man against his father,” v37 indicates we should understand Him to mean that the true disciple must love Christ more than father or mother.  Discipleship is a line in the sand.  It has been the experience of many throughout the history of the church that the decision to follow Christ has meant being disowned by loved ones.  If put in a situation to have to choose between one’s family or following Christ, the true disciple will choose Christ.  And that decision will mean alienation from family and a lack of peace in one’s closest earthly relationships.
So if we were to try to reconcile the seventh beatitude with this passage in Matthew 10, we could say that the true disciple will pursue peace with all men, but not at the expense of his devotion to Christ.  Christ came to reconcile men to God, but only those who surrender completely to Him.
Another caveat that we should note is that the true disciple will pursue peace with all men, but not at the expense of sound doctrine.  Church history is replete with examples of those who with grand intentions downplayed doctrinal distinctives for the sake of unity, but always with disastrous results. 
It may seem counterintuitive to many, but the Bible teaches that commitment to sound doctrine is not a barrier to peace and unity in the church, but rather is vital to it.  On Sunday, we read a few verses from Ephesians 4:
  1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,
 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,
 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
 4 There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call--
 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
This is a clear call to peace and unity in the church.  Based on what we see in many mainline denominations today, we might expect Paul to then go on to write, “and the way to achieve this unity is to not get bent out of shape over doctrine. Doctrine divides.”
But this is nothing like what we actually find in Ephesians 4.  Rather, Paul immediately writes about the function of spiritual gifts in the church, particularly those gifts that major on doctrinal teaching:
  11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,
 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,
 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,
 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 
Notice that those tasked with teaching in the body do so for equipping the saints for ministry so that body will become mature in Christ, with the result that they will not be carried about by false doctrine.  In other words, the peace and unity to which we have been called in the church is not accomplished in spite of sound doctrine, but because of it.
We are called to be peacemakers, but we must do so without compromising those things that are essential to our faith, which include total devotion to Christ and sound doctrine.
Posted by Greg Birdwell