I was hiking with a philosophy professor, the same one who taught my first semester philosophy course, and in our conversation the topic of the problem of evil came up. You’re probably familiar with the basic argument:
“If God is all-good and all-powerful, then He wouldn’t will for evil to exist. But clearly evil exists. Therefore God cannot be both all-good and all-powerful.”
Granted, the atheist attempt to resolve the paradox by rejecting the reality of God is still left with the reality of suffering. The only hope an atheistic worldview can offer for the end of evil is found in the eventual yet inevitable extinction of humanity—be it from global nuclear disaster, a wandering asteroid, or the final collapse of the universe. Pretty dim.
And yet, the responses I heard from many of my theist friends were hardly better: “We don’t understand it, but it’s part of God’s will.” Really? The holocaust was God’s will? Purposeless suffering of children in famine struck regions, is that God’s will too? On second thought, the atheist position is sounding like the better of the two.
Fortunately, there’s third explanation. Enter the Biblical meta-narrative of the Great Controversy between good and evil. The problem of evil raises concerns about God’s character; the Great Controversy addresses those head on.
The Great Controversy
Recall that God values human freedom, immensely. But choices have consequences. Our choices affect both ourselves and others. More than that, choices impacted the natural world. Creation is groaning. God is not numb to this pain. He heard the cries of humanity. Prompted by love, God sent His Son, the Christ. Christ experienced our pain, suffers, and dies. Yet the Christ rose from the grave, demonstrating the certainty of the hope of a new world. A world that is without sin, suffering, and death. A world where everything will be set right. We wait for that world, yet we do so in the knowledge that God understands our suffering, He is present in it, and soon, He’ll act decisively to bring it to an end.
That’s the story. And that’s what I told my philosophy professor as we hiked up a hill beneath the cloudless blue skies on a sunny California day, but he had a few questions: (1) Why didn’t God get it right the first time? (2) Why is He taking so long? (3) And what’s to prevent the same thing from happening all over again?
Good questions. I’m not sure how compelling my responses were at the time, or what impact that conversation ultimately had on my professor, but those questions led me to dig deeper into the narrative and see if it spoke to them. I wasn’t looking for complete answers—“we see in a mirror dimly”—but enough for my faith to latch onto.
What I found satisfied both my mind and soul. It expanded my understanding of the atonement ten-thousandfold and left me in awe of God’s wisdom and goodness. Here it is:
“Angelic perfection failed in heaven. Human perfection failed in Eden, the paradise of bliss. All who wish for security in earth or heaven must look to the Lamb of God. The plan of salvation, making manifest the justice and love of God, provides and eternal safeguard against defection in unfallen worlds, as well as among those who shall be redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. Our only hope is perfect trust in the blood of Him who can save to the uttermost all that come unto God by Him. The death of Christ on the cross of Calvary is our only hope in this world, and it will be our theme in the world to come. Oh, we do not comprehend the value of the atonement! If we did, we would talk more about it.” (Signs of the Times, December 30, 1889)
Let’s make a number of observations.
First, the opening lines (“Angelic perfection failed… Human perfection failed…”) emphasize that sin wasn’t due to God making His creation deficient. Three times in Scripture God affirms that Lucifer was made perfect (Ezekiel 28:11,15) before announcing that iniquity was found in him (Ezekiel 28:15). Likewise, humanity was made as a part of a “very good” creation. Nevertheless, free will necessitates that creatures, no matter how well they’re made, have the capacity to err. And err creatures did—both angels and humans. The fact that sin originated without a full explanation is highly significant:
“It is impossible to explain the origin of sin so as to give a reason for its existence… Nothing is more plainly taught in Scripture than that God was in no wise responsible for the entrance of sin; that there was no arbitrary withdrawal of divine grace, no deficiency in the divine government, that gave occasion for the uprising of rebellion. Sin is an intruder, for whose presence no reason can be given. It is mysterious, unaccountable; to excuse it is to defend it.” (Great Controversy, p.492)
Christianity does not house the concept of yin and yang. To use a more contemporary example, there is no need for the Sith. Sin isn’t part of a master plan as some kind of balancing power. It is an unwanted guest in an otherwise “very good” creation. And like an unwanted guest, the proper course of action is not to try to justify its presence, but to seek to get rid of it.
Second, although we often talk of the redemption as restoring Eden, notice that something will be fundamentally different after the plan of salvation is complete. Chiefly, God’s love and justice will have been revealed in a way that it never before had. This explains Paul’s expression about the “mystery of God”, long hidden, now being revealed in Christ. That mystery is the depth of God’s love (Ephesians 1-3). Creation has always seen a glimpse of the Creator’s love, but the plan of salvation fully unmasks it: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The resurrected Christ forever bears the scars of sacrificial love on his hands (John 20:27, Zechariah 13:6).
Finally, we can now begin to get at the question of why it’s taking so long. Note well: God’s goal is much bigger than we originally thought it. It isn’t just about temporarily restoring humanity to Edenic bliss—rather it is about providing a basis to eternally secure all created beings against any future rebellion. When one zooms out to those scales, time takes on a different meaning. We’re used to thinking about a year in terms of our little planet alone—the length of time it takes earth to orbit the sun. But in astronomy we also have the concept of the cosmic year—the length of time it takes our entire solar system to complete its orbit around a massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.
A year is 365 days.
A cosmic year is around 230 million years.
This helps put things in their proper perspective. Cosmic matters often run on cosmic time. Hence, perhaps a better question is “Why is the plan of salvation unfolding so rapidly!”
In the same spirit, Peter reminds us:
“But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:8-9)
We’re still here in the midst of a suffering world, but enough has been revealed about God’s awesome goodness that we can learn to trust and praise Him while “waiting for new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).