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Perhaps no book of the Bible captures the current cultural mood of the world as painfully and perfectly as the ancient book of Habakkuk. Rarely preached on, often overlooked, and brief in length, it is the painful plea from a broken man to God. He opens his dialogue by asking “why” there is evil and “how long” it will last.
Anytime you turn on talk radio, the same thing happens call after call and day after day. People call in to vent their frustration with politics, economics, and pop culture. They rant about how unjust the world is since the bad guys are winning while the good guys are weeping. Philosophically, this pain is often referred to as the problem of evil.
The Problem of Evil
The Bible reveals that God created this world in a good state. Upon the creation of the man and woman, God declared his entire creation “very good”( Gen. 1:31). This intended state of beauty and harmony in all things is described in the Old Testament as “shalom” (Isa. 2:2–4; 11:1–9; 32:14–20; 43:1–12; 60:1–22; 65:17–25; Joel 2:24–29; 3:17–18). Even those who do not believe in the Bible long for shalom on the earth, because in all God’s image bearers there is a faint echo of Eden and how things are supposed to be. Something has gone terribly wrong. And everyone knows it.
Yet, no matter how much money we spend, how many elections we hold, how many organizations we start, how many blogs we write, how many complaints we air, how many tears we cry, or how many wars we wage, boredom, annoyances, miseries, fears, tragedies, suffering, injustice, evil, sickness, pain, and death continue unabated.
Why? The problem of evil.
The Bible speaks of both ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ and uses a constellation of images to explain them as everything from rebellion to folly, self-abuse, madness, treason, death, hatred, spiritual adultery, missing the mark, wandering from the path, idolatry, insanity, irrationality, pride, selfishness, spiritual blindness, spiritual deafness, a hard heart, a stiff neck, delusion, unreasonableness, and self-worship.
Regarding evil and sin, biblical Christian doctrine professes four essential truths.
- God is fully and continually all-powerful.
- God is altogether good and in Him exists no evil whatsoever.1
- Evil and sin really do exist.
- Sinners are fully responsible for their sin.
Doing away with any one of these truths only explains away or reduces part of the problem without really solving it. Perhaps God is not all-powerful, or maybe God is not good, or maybe evil is an illusion. Maybe sin is not our fault but rather the fault of our parents’ failures or our circumstances. In opposition to these incomplete solutions, the Bible—the most honest book ever written—faces evil in its thorough darkness without blushing or backpedalling. It commands us to do the same. Rising up from the pages of Scripture is the greatest evil and sin of all: the murderous and bloody crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
We must make a distinction between moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil is the result of the choices of a responsible agent, whether intentional or negligent. Natural evil is suffering that occurs without the involvement of a moral agent (hurricanes, floods, earthquakes). Since humans are morally responsible agents, they cannot commit natural evils.
Defining evil (the essence) and sin (the action) is very important. Augustine is among the most articulate Christian thinkers on this point. Prior to his conversion to Christianity, he was part of a cult called Manichaeism. That cult—like many Eastern religions, including pantheism, panentheism, and the New Spirituality (or New Age)—considered God to be both good and evil.
Augustine’s prayer in his book Confessions describes his own experience whereby God opened his eyes to his personal sin. Augustine prays:
But You, Lord, while he was speaking, turned me back towards myself, taking me from
behind my own back where I had put myself all the time that I preferred not to see
myself. And You set me there before my own face that I might see how vile I was, how
twisted and unclean and spotted and ulcerous. I saw myself and was horrified, but there
was no way to flee from myself…You were setting me face to face with myself,
forcing me upon my own sight, that I might see my iniquity and loathe it. I had known it,
but I had pretended not to see it, had deliberately looked the other way and let it go
from my mind.2
Following his conversion, Augustine rightly said that evil is a flaw, a lack or deficiency in something inherently good. Evil is therefore a privation, or that which deprives a being of some good belonging to it. Like a parasite, evil is heinous because it destroys that which was once beautiful and whole. Zechariah 10:2 uses the four words to describe privation: nonsense, lies, false, and empty. An example of privation is blindness, which is simply a lack of sight. Blindness cannot be understood unless compared to the concept of sight.
Understanding How Adam’s Sin Affects Us
Not only is sin a privation; it is also corruption, according to Romans 5:12–21. Adam’s sin affects us all in three ways.
- Adam’s original sin has been passed on since the fall, causing the rest of humanity to be born into a sinful state and condition. The corrupted sin nature that we inherit from Adam begins in our mother’s womb.3 This is what John Calvin referred to as “a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature.”4
- Adam’s sin nature is imparted to us so that apart from the enabling grace of God, we are unable to respond to the gospel or remedy our depravity. Simply put, we are each sinners by both nature and choice.5
- Adam’s sin and guilt are attributed to us through imputed sin, so our legal standing before God and relationship with Him are negated. Thankfully, by the grace of God, the sinner’s guilt and condemnation were imputed to Jesus Christ. He atoned for sin on the cross and enabled His righteousness to be imputed to the sinner as a Christian.
As a result of our inherited sin nature, we are children of wrath,6 sinners,7 and destined to death.8 Practically speaking, we are incredibly selfish. Children, for example, commonly fight over toys, hit one another, push one another, yell at one another, and steal from one another as a result of their fallen nature. No one has to teach us how to be selfish, cruel, or evil. There is something broken in us that appears as soon as the opportunity to do evil arises. Speaking of our sin nature in these terms, A. W. Tozer says:
There is within the human heart a tough fibrous root of fallen life whose nature is to
possess, always to possess. It covets “things” with a deep and fierce passion. The pronouns “my” and “mine” look innocent enough in print, but their constant and universal use is significant. They express the real nature of the old Adamic man better than a thousand volumes of theology could do. They are verbal symptoms of our deep disease. The roots of our hearts have grown down into things, and we dare not pull up one rootlet lest we die. Things have become necessary to us, a development never originally intended. God’s gifts now take the place of God, and the whole course of nature is upset by the monstrous substitution.9
The disease of sin has gone so deep that it can only be killed by dying to self and allowing Jesus’ sacrifice to take its rightful place as the substitute for our sin. Although sin can overtake our lives, God does not tempt us to sin. The temptation to sin comes from our sinful nature, but God wants us to live in freedom. Jesus’ own brother speaks of the source of sin within us:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be
tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he
is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to
sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.10
The Bible could not be more stark, bleak, and frank: the human condition is one of sin and evil. Apart from a gracious act of God to bring about a change, our destiny is one of justice with no one to blame but ourselves. This is the unvarnished bad news that we must accept before the unblemished good news of Jesus Christ can be fully appreciated.
1 Ps. 5:4; Isa. 59:2; 64:7; Zech. 8:17; 1 John 1:5.
2 Augustine, Confessions, 8.7.
3 Pss. 51:5; 58:3.
4 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 2.i.8.
5 Pss. 51:5; 58:3; Isa. 53:6; 64:6; Rom. 3:23, 1 John 1:8.
6 Eph. 2:3.
7 Rom. 5:12, 19.
8 1 Cor. 15:21–22.
9 A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Radford, VA: Wilder, 2008), 18–19.
10 James 1:13–15; see also Prov. 27:19; Jer. 17:9; Mark 7:21–23; Luke 6:45.