The Problem of Evil

By Tom Ellsworth

Abigail Van Buren, better remembered as “Dear Abby,” received thousands of letters weekly seeking her guidance. Through the years her advice influenced untold millions of people. At times she was right on target, but very often her guidance missed the mark, providing counsel that contradicted biblical truth.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an advice columnist whose wise answers never failed? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could write to the Lord with our toughest questions and he would answer via a syndicated column in the Celestial Herald—a “Dear Abba” column, so to speak?

And what do you suppose would be the most frequently asked question? I’m guessing it might be this: “Dear Abba, how can you allow evil to exist?” Part of the Father’s answer is found in this parable:

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

The owner’s servants came to him and said, “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?”

“An enemy did this,” he replied.

The servants asked him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?”

“No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn” (Matthew 13:24-30).

In the parable, two laborers worked in the field, but they worked at cross-purposes. One was a farmer, the other an agricultural terrorist. One acted responsibly, the other recklessly. We are not told whether this was an act of revenge, hatred, or random violence. We could say it was an act of evil designed to destroy all that was good. Though the word evil does not appear in this text, its presence is unmistakable.

The parable also seems to suggest this evil behavior is not unexpected; the farmer isn’t puzzled at the appearance of the noxious weeds. When the servants question the quality of the seed, the farmer doesn’t scratch his head and say, “I can’t figure this out—I used the same seed as always. I have no clue how so many weeds could be growing in my field.” To the contrary, the farmer’s response is simple, “This is the work of an enemy.”

The farmer apparently knows more than we do, for we are left to ponder the origin of this cruel enemy. The creation story makes it clear what God created was very good. No hint of evil is suggested in the creation event, but sometime afterwards evil makes its debut in Eden’s garden paradise. The enemy came to sow seeds of doubt, discord, and denial in the minds of the two caretakers of that glorious piece of real estate. His spiel perverted the truth with more twists than a snake in the grass. Times have changed, generations have come and gone, but the enemy still lurks enticingly and shrewdly where we live.

Who Is the Enemy?

It’s difficult to win battles when you can see the enemy, but what happens when the foe is unseen, a master of subtlety, and dishonest? Victory then seems impossible. Who is this enemy who sows injurious seeds in the field of faith and seeks to destroy the Lord’s harvest?

In Hebrew he is called Abaddon; in Greek, Apollyon—the Destroyer who is bent on obliterating the relationship between God and his creation. Other aliases include: evil one, devil, Satan, Lucifer, adversary, dragon, serpent, snake, father of lies, and accuser of believers. His point of origin appears to be Heaven itself, beginning life as the most beautiful and exalted of the angelic creation. Self-centered pride, however, was his undoing; his foolish and vain attempt to seize control of the celestial city was easily squelched by God and the enemy was cast out (Luke 10:18; Isaiah 14:12-15; Ezekiel 28:11-19). Having failed in his overthrow attempt, Satan exerts his power to destroy everything God loves; his evil nature is felt in every part of the world. He continually terrorizes the fields of faith by sowing seeds of hatred, war, anger, bitterness, rebellion, terrorism, deceit, antagonism, murder, discord, resentment, fury, gossip, and rage, to name a few.

Many deny his existence, but if he is only symbolic, how do we account for the presence of evil in a perfect creation? Could God have honestly declared it “very good” while knowing that evil lurked behind every garden shrub? If there is no tempter, how does a man learn to beat his wife, and how does an innocent child learn to deceive? If there is no source of evil intention, how does one become angry and murder?

Jesus warned of the enemy’s sinister presence, and Paul encouraged the Ephesian Christians to clothe themselves with “the full armor of God” so they would be able to survive the enemy’s scheming attacks. Paul said this is not a physical battle but a spiritual war waged against the forces of evil (Ephesians 6:11, 12). The enemy is real—real scary and real dangerous.

The parable also reminds us evil is here to stay. The weed in question looked so much like wheat in the early stages it was nearly impossible to spot. Since bread was a staple of the first-century diet, the wheat crop was critical, but by the time the imposters were identifiable it was too risky to weed them out. One could only wait and hope; nothing could be done until the harvest when the grain was kept and the weeds were burned.

Evidence Against God?

In our frustration we ask, “God, are you oblivious to the evil in this world? Are you powerless to affect it? Why do you allow it to continue?” One could conclude that the presence of evil stands as evidence against the goodness and power of God.

But Scripture is clear God is not the originator of evil (see Job 34:10-12; James 1:13; 1 John 1:5). It is not possible within his nature or character to be so dastardly. “But,” you ask, “didn’t God create the devil?” Yes, but not as a proponent of evil. He was created good and purposeful, just like everything else from God’s creative genius. Unfortunately, Satan exercised his choice to rebel. Here then is the rub—our spiritual and intellectual freedom demands that we also have a capacity to make the wrong choice.

Sin dominates this world. Adam and Eve had a choice; they chose poorly. We descendents of Adam have made similar choices ever since; we may not be evil, but we certainly have the capacity to be so.

In the 1960s Adolph Eichmann, the brains behind the Holocaust, was captured and brought to trial. Yehiel Dinur, an aging gentleman who had survived Auschwitz, was brought in to testify. When he entered the courtroom and saw Eichmann, he broke down in tears. Later he explained to Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes that he wasn’t overcome by hatred or harsh memories. He was brought to his knees by what he saw—an ordinary man seated in the courtroom. And in that one instant, Dinur came to the stunning realization that sin and evil are the human condition. He said, “I was afraid about myself. I saw that I am capable to do this . . . exactly like he. Eichmann is in all of us.”1

Options From the Beginning

I suspect he is closer to the truth than we like to admit. The only way to remove the Eichmanns from us is to remove our choices. If you have no capacity for hatred, can you truly love? If you cannot be sorrowful, can you truly be joyful? What virtue is there for God to seek a relationship with us if we are mere robots?

From the beginning, there has been the option to choose evil over good, hatred over love, wickedness over goodness. How else can we explain the insidious actions of Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Kim Jong Il, or any other global despot? The weeds continue to grow among the wheat. So, how do we stay the course when the harvest looks bleak?

Choose God. Our current, sometimes agonizing existence is temporary; God is not. He will be there when the battle is over; he alone can erase the hurt.

Serve God. Despite the enemy’s attacks, serving God will sustain and give you purpose greater than the pain.

Trust God. Focus on what you believe God can do and not on what you see the enemy doing.

I have met Christians from around the world who suffer indescribably just because they are disciples of Jesus Christ. How do they remain faithful in the presence of such wickedness? More than anything they know the Farmer in the parable.

God is in control, and the harvest will eventually separate the grain from the weeds. The enemy is here to stay, but so is the gospel of Christ, and that good news shines brightest in the presence of evil.

________

1Charles Colson, A Dangerous Grace (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994), 62.


 

 

Tom Ellsworth is senior minister with Sherwood Oaks Christian Church, Bloomington, Indiana, and editor of Standard Publishing’s online sermon resource, Preaching Standard (www.preachingstandard.com).

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