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The Problem of Evil

What does it mean to claim that “Jesus is Lord” in a world where so many bad things happen?

By Susan R. Garrett | Presbyterians Today

When something terrible happens, many Christians comfort themselves by saying, “God is in control” or “Everything happens for a reason.” But is this really what the Bible and our Presbyterian tradition teach us? Today, with hundreds of thousands killed by the war in Iraq and the tsunami in Southeast Asia, age-old questions about evil seem more pressing than ever.

Who calls the shots?

When New Testament authors tried to explain why things happen as they do, they often referred to unseen forces at work in the world. Terms they used for these forces included “principalities,” “powers,” “authorities,” “rulers,” “kings,” “angels,” “demons,” “spirits,” “thrones” and “dominions.” They applied the terms sometimes to heavenly or spiritual realities, sometimes to earthly officeholders or structures of power, and often to both at once. For example, when Paul wrote that the “rulers of this world” had not understood the secret wisdom of God or else they would not have crucified Jesus (1 Corinthians 2:7-8), he was apparently referring both to the human “rulers of this world” who killed Jesus and to the spiritual forces that drove them.

Today many evangelical Christians (including some Presbyterians) stress the invisible, spiritual side of the powers and downplay or ignore their worldly dimension. Such Christians understand the powers, rulers, angels, etc., as spirit-beings, each with unique intelligence and supernatural abilities, and each committed to serving either Satan (understood as chief of the fallen powers) or God. According to this interpretation, much of the world’s evil stems from an ongoing effort by the fallen powers to undermine God’s aims.

But the Reformed tradition (which includes Presbyterianism) has insisted that the powers’ earthly, human dimension be kept in view. We take the New Testament’s language about “powers and principalities” to refer not (or not exclusively) to spirit-beings but (also) to social entities, and norms for behavior. Whether or not one understands the powers as spirit-beings, it is important to recognize the systemic dimensions of sin that they foster.

Sinful systems

“Rulers and rules” are often intended for good, as with legitimate governments, the medical establishment, the family, a college honor code, or the Geneva conventions. But in the Reformed view, all worldly powers are prone to sin. Even powers with good intentions at times put selfish goals (such as profit or pleasure) ahead of the interests of God or fellow humans. The prison abuses at Abu Ghraib by members of the United States armed forces illustrate this sort of gap between professed intention (spreading freedom) and actual practice. So does the sexual abuse of youth by clergy.

In some cases the rulers and rules seem designed for evil, as with a cartel of drug traffickers, or a gang’s expectation that its members act violently. Some “powers and principalities” are definitely worse than others, seeking only to enhance their own position. They consistently reject rules and standards meant to protect the rights of others, and devotedly serve a lesser god. Examples include the child pornography industry (where the “god” is money) and the Ku Klux Klan.

We readily absorb and reflect the corrupting influences of our social and cultural worlds. If I discriminate against someone, it may be that my family, peers, and culture have blinded me to my own privilege, and convinced me that certain classes of people deserve lesser treatment. Or a “suicide bomber” may have been persuaded by the members of a militant group to see acts of violence as expressing loyalty to God and to the attacker’s own people.

Humans sometimes sin because forces larger than they blind them, deceive them, subjugate them. We are accountable before God both as individuals and as members of sinful communities whose biases and perversions we learn, act on, and pass on to others.

‘Left Behind’ theology

Some popular explanations of evil are inconsistent with a Reformed view. Consider, for example, the Left Behind novels, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. This set of 12 novels, which have sold over 62 million copies, depicts events expected by many evangelicals: the rapture of the saints, seven years of tribulation, and the Battle of Armageddon.

Evil, in this understanding, comes from outside humans, indeed from outside the world: it is a supernatural force that blinds people as if by magic and indwells them by possession. LaHaye and Jenkins ignore evil’s systemic dimension.

Such a view promotes the dangerous assumption that, once we are saved, all is right with us. We can safely pass the buck because the evil has been expelled from our individual souls. We needn’t worry about evil deriving from the social systems we support.

Because LaHaye and Jenkins view evil powers as separable from people and institutions, they fail to see that the powers are embodied in all our institutions, including the church, and that humans are complicit in them. They fail to see how even churches are still prone to believe sin’s twisted promises of well-being and to heed its words of flattery and enticement.

Bringing good out of evil

How did we come to inhabit a world controlled by the powers? And where is God in the mix? The Apostle Paul traced our “present evil age” (Galatians 1:4) back to the time of Adam. When Adam sinned, a cosmic shift occurred: powers called “Sin” and “Death” entered into the world. God relinquished a measure of control over the world to these and to all the powers, which now determine the outcome of many earthly events, both natural and human-caused. The powers, fallen as they are, exercise control because God lets them do so.

But always God looks ahead to the Day of Resurrection, when the dead will be raised and Christ’s lordship over the powers — initiated at his resurrection — will be complete. The Presbyterian Study Catechism says Christians share this “resurrection hope.” We hope not simply that we as individuals will live again, but that all of creation “will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). On that day, God will truly “be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

From Paul’s perspective God does not directly will bad things that happen. At the creation God gave the powers genuine authority, and they determine the shape of many events, including many instances of evil. Sometimes the powers work against God, just as we as individuals sometimes work against God. God does not directly will those things to happen, though God in God’s sovereignty does allow the powers to have their way.

On the other hand, Paul writes, “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Paul is saying that God regularly turns even bad things to good ends. When we affirm God’s providence, we are announcing our confidence that “God provides for the world by bringing good out of evil, so that nothing evil is permitted to occur that God does not bend finally to the good” (Study Catechism, question 22). Thus God permitted Joseph’s brothers to take him captive, but though they meant it for evil “God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

Fire-power vs. resurrection power

Full and final redemption from the fallen powers will not come until the Last Day (1 Corinthians 15:28). The good news of the gospel is that at his resurrection Jesus Christ became “first fruits” of the coming redemption, and Lord over the powers (1 Corinthians 15:23; Ephesians 1:20-21; 1 Peter 3:22).

Christians already share in this authority when they call upon Jesus’ name: “See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.” (Luke 10:19; cf. Ephesians 6:10-17; Philippians 2:10). But what does this “authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy” look like in practice?

Jesus’ lordship over the powers, and our authority as his disciples, is not manifested in supernatural protection of the saints as much as in the divine strength we are given to persevere in the midst of this fallen world. This is the same strength that enabled Jesus to endure (not escape) the crucifixion and so to undermine the powers as they sought to obstruct God’s reign. Jesus promises us real power — “power at work within us” by which God “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

In the final volume of the Left Behind series all the vengeance envisioned in the later chapters of Revelation is carried out. Here LaHaye and Jenkins understand divine power as just like worldly power, only more so. “Power” in their view means fire-power, the power to destroy. So, at his glorious appearing Jesus slays millions of non-Christian storm troopers by the sheer power of a spoken word, and then causes their bodies to be instantly decomposed.

This is an image of Jesus wielding the power of death. But it is a false and idolatrous image. God’s power is not the power of death, for death is “the last enemy,” which will itself be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26). God’s power is the power to create, the power to endure, the power to forgive, the power to love. God’s power isresurrection power. It is the power of life. Such power, freely given, is God’s answer to the problem of evil, until that great day when all creation is set free from its bondage.

“And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new’” (Revelation 21:5).

Susan R. Garrett is professor of New Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This article condenses ideas first presented in her article, “Christ and the Present Evil Age,” in Interpretation 57:4 (October 2003).

This article originally appeared in the March 2005 issue of Presbyterians Today.

How Jesus helps

We are not alone in our struggle against evil

The Spirit of Jesus enables us to persevere in our grappling with the sinful and sorrowful conditions of human existence, in ways that we never could by our mortal strength alone. Christ frees us from the dominion of the powers and shows himself to be their Lord by:

  • Healing our blindness. Jesus gives us eyes to see when sin seduces us with its wily and deceptive promises.
  • Undergirding us when death buffets and torments us. We conquer our fear by trusting in the God who raises the dead, and by drawing on strength conferred by the Holy Spirit.
  • Forgiving us when we fail morally. By accepting us, even running to meet and embrace us when we are dragged down with shame, he enables us to triumph over the forces that tempt us to despair.
  • Empowering us to love and to serve people we have wronged or hated. Jesus enables us to forgive those who have wronged us, and to call those wrongs to mind no more.