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  1. article

    The Mystery of Iniquity

  2. devotional

    A Gentle Defense

  3. article

    God's Dupes?

The Mystery of Iniquity

R.C. Sproul

It has been called the Achilles’ heel of the Christian faith. Of course, I’m referring to the classical problem of the existence of evil. Philosophers such as John Stuart Mill have argued that the existence of evil demonstrates that God is either not omnipotent or not good and loving — the reasoning being that if evil exists apart from the sovereign power of God, then by resistless logic, God cannot be deemed omnipotent. On the other hand, if God does have the power to prevent evil but fails to do it, then this would reflect upon His character, indicating that He is neither good nor loving. Because of the persistence of this problem, the church has seen countless attempts at what is called theodicy. The term theodicy involves the combining of two Greek words: the word for God, theos, and the word for justification, dikaios. Hence, a theodicy is an attempt to justify God for the existence of evil (as seen, for instance, in John Milton’s Paradise Lost). Such theodicies have covered the gauntlet between a simple explanation that evil comes as a direct result of human free will or to more complex philosophical attempts such as that offered by the philosopher Leibniz. In his theodicy, which was satired by Voltaire’s Candide, Leibniz distinguished among three types of evil: natural evil, metaphysical evil, and moral evil. In this three-fold schema, Leibniz argued that moral evil is an inevitable and necessary consequence of finitude, which is a metaphysical lack of complete being. Because every creature falls short of infinite being, that shortfall must necessarily yield defects such as we see in moral evil. The problem with this theodicy is that it fails to take into account the biblical ideal of evil. If evil is a metaphysical necessity for creatures, then obviously Adam and Eve had to have been evil before the fall and would have to continue to be evil even after glorification in heaven. 

To this date, I have yet to find a satisfying explanation for what theologians call the mystery of iniquity. Please don’t send me letters giving your explanations, usually focusing on some dimension of human free will. I’m afraid that many people fail to feel the serious weight of this burden of explanation. The simple presence of free will is not enough to explain the origin of evil, in as much as we still must ask how a good being would be inclined freely to choose evil. The inclination for the will to act in an immoral manner is already a signal of sin.

One of the most important approaches to the problem of evil is that set forth originally by Augustine and then later by Aquinas, in which they argued that evil has no independent being. Evil cannot be defined as a thing or as a substance or as some kind of being. Rather, evil is always defined as an action, an action that fails to meet a standard of goodness. In this regard, evil has been defined in terms of its being either a negation (negatio) of the good, or a privation (privatio) of the good. In both cases, the very definition of evil depends upon a prior understanding of the good. In this regard, as Augustine argued, evil is parasitic — that is, it depends upon the good for its very definition. We think of sin as something that is unrighteous, involving disobedience, immorality, and the like. All of these definitions depend upon the positive substance of the good for their very definition. Augustine argues that though Christians face the difficulty of explaining the presence of evil in the universe, the pagan has a problem that is twice as difficult. Before one can even have a problem of evil, one must first have an antecedent existence of the good. Those who complain about the problem of evil now also have the problem of defining the existence of the good. Without God there is no ultimate standard for the good. 

In contemporary days, this problem has been resolved by simply denying both evil and good. Such a problem, however, faces enormous difficulties, particularly when one suffers at the hands of someone who inflicts evil upon them. It is easy for us to deny the existence of evil until we ourselves are victims of someone’s wicked action. 

However, though we end our quest to answer the origin of evil, one thing is certain: since God is both omnipotent and good, we must conclude that in His omnipotence and goodness there must be a place for the existence of evil. We know that God Himself never does that which is evil. Nevertheless, He also ordains whatsoever comes to pass. Though He does not do evil and does not create evil, He does ordain that evil exists. If it does exist, and if God is sovereign, then obviously He must have been able to prevent its existence. If He allowed evil to enter into this universe, it could only be by His sovereign decision. Since His sovereign decisions always follow the perfection of His being, we must conclude that His decision to allow evil to exist is a good decision. 

Again, we must be careful here. We must never say that evil is good, or that good is evil. But that is not the same thing as saying, “It is good that there is evil.” Again, I repeat, it is good that there is evil, else evil could not exist. Even this theodicy does not explain the “how” of the entrance of evil into the world. It only reflects upon the “why” of the reality of evil. One thing we know for sure is that evil does exist. It exists, if nowhere else, in us and in our behavior. We know that the force of evil is extraordinary and brings great pain and suffering into the world. We also know that God is sovereign over it and in His sovereignty will not allow evil to have the last word. Evil always and ever serves the ultimate best interest of God Himself. It is God in His goodness and in His sovereignty who has ordained the final conquest over evil and its riddance from His universe. In this redemption we find our rest and our joy — and until that time, we live in a fallen world.

A Gentle Defense

As people who have identified with the Lord Jesus Christ through repentance and faith, we should not be surprised when persecution comes our way. After all, to suffer is part of our calling as Christians (1 Peter 2:21). Whether mild or intense, persecution and discrimination are an inevitable result of our profession.

Left to ourselves, we would not be able to withstand the onslaught of fallen humanity. However, we have not been left to ourselves. We have the Holy Spirit who, by illuminating our hearts and minds to understand His Word, enables us to stand firm in our faith.

In His providence, God has provided us with the first epistle of Peter as a powerful reminder of His work and a strong encouragement to stand for Christ in the midst of great suffering. We have been reminded that we have been brought by God into a living hope of salvation that can never be taken away from those of us with true faith (1:1–12). Because of this we are now God’s true people and will receive all of the blessings promised to His children (2:4–10).

As a result, we must live lives that reflect holiness and love (1:13–25; 2:1–3; vv. 11–12). Doing so will not be easy; in fact it will result in suffering. Yet to stand firm for Christ in the midst of such difficulty means that we patiently endure suffering and submit to God’s established authority structures (vv. 18–25; 3:1–7). Rather than be concerned with retaliating against those who cause us to suffer, we must instead offer them blessing (vv. 8–12).

That we must bless those who persecute us shows us that we are not always to endure suffering in silence. Today’s passage confirms this, calling us to give a gentle and reasonable answer to those who ask about our living hope. As we respond to suffering with patience and blessing, some will want to know what motivates us to do so.

Therefore, we all must become apologists. We all must equip ourselves to defend the faith. Yet in our defense we must be gentle, avoiding the temptation to be pridefully harsh or overtly contentious so that the non-believer to whom we relate may see the true character of the Lord who dwells within us.

God's Dupes?

Ravi Zacharias

Is the Christian faith intellectual nonsense? Are Christians deluded? 

“If God exists and takes an interest in the affairs of human beings, his will is not inscrutable,” writes Sam Harris about the 2004 tsunami in Letter to a Christian Nation. “The only thing inscrutable here is that so many otherwise rational men and women can deny the unmitigated horror of these events and think this is the height of moral wisdom” (p. 48). In his article “God’s Dupes,” Harris argues, “Everything of value that people get from religion can be had more honestly, without presuming anything on insufficient evidence. The rest is self-deception, set to music” (The Los Angeles Times, March 15, 2007). Ironically, Harris’ first book is entitled The End of Faith, but it should really be called “The End of Reason,” as it demonstrates again that the mind that is alienated from God in the name of reason can become totally irrational.

Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins suggests that the idea of God is a virus, and we need to find software to eradicate it. Somehow, if we can expunge the virus that led us to think this way, we will be purified and rid of this bedeviling notion of God, good, and evil (“Viruses of the Mind,” 1992). Along with Christopher Hitchens and a few others, these atheists are calling for the banishment of all religious belief. “Away with this nonsense!” is their battle cry. In return, they promise a world of new hope and unlimited horizons once we have shed this delusion of God. 

I have news for them — news to the contrary. The reality is that the emptiness that results from the loss of the transcendent is stark and devastating, philosophically and existentially. Indeed, the denial of an objective moral law, based on the compulsion to deny the existence of God, results ultimately in the denial of evil itself. Furthermore, one would like to ask Dawkins, are we morally bound to remove that virus? Somehow he himself is, of course, free from the virus and can therefore input our moral data. 

In an attempt to escape what they call the contradiction between a good God and a world of evil, atheists try to dance around the reality of a moral law (and hence, a moral lawgiver) by introducing terms like “evolutionary ethics.” The one who raises the question against God in effect plays God while denying He exists. Now, one may wonder: Why do you actually need a moral lawgiver if you have a moral law? The answer is because the questioner and the issue he or she questions always involve the essential value of a person. You can never talk of morality in abstraction. Persons are implicit to the question and the object of the question. In a nutshell, positing a moral law without a moral lawgiver would be equivalent to raising the question of evil without a questioner. So you cannot have a moral law unless the moral law itself is intrinsically woven into personhood. This means that an intrinsically worthy person must exist if the moral law itself is to be valued. And that person can only be God.

Our inability to alter what is actual frustrates our grandiose delusions of being sovereign over everything. Yet the truth is that we cannot escape the existential rub by running from a moral law. Objective moral values exist only if God exists. Is it all right, for example, to mutilate babies for entertainment? Every reasonable person will say “no.” We know that objective moral values do exist. Therefore, God must exist. Examining those premises and their validity presents a very strong argument. 

The prophet Jeremiah noted, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”(Jer. 17:9). Similarly, the apostle James said, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (James 1:22–25). 

The world does not understand what the absoluteness of the moral law is all about. Some get caught, some don’t get caught. Yet who of us would like our heart exposed on the front page of the newspaper today? Have there not been days and hours when, like Paul, you’ve struggled within yourself and said, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:15, 24). Each of us knows this tension and conflict within if we are honest with ourselves. 

Therefore, as Christians, we ought to take time to reflect seriously upon the question: “Has God truly wrought a miracle in my life? Is my own heart proof of the supernatural intervention of God?” In the West we go through these seasons of new-fangled theologies. The whole question of “lordship” plagued our debates for some time as we asked if there was such a thing as a minimalist view of conversion? “We said the prayer and that’s it.” Yet how can there be a minimalist view of conversion when conversion itself is a maximal work of God’s grace? “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). 

If you were proposing marriage to someone, what would the one receiving the proposal say if you said, “I want you to know this proposal changes nothing about my allegiances, my behavior, and my daily life; however, I do want you to know that should you accept my proposal, we shall theoretically be considered married. There will be no other changes in me on your behalf.” In a strange way we have minimized every sacred commitment and made it the lowest common denominator. What does my new birth mean to me? That is a question we seldom ask. Who was I before God’s work in me, and who am I now?

The immediate results of coming to know Jesus Christ are the new hungers and new pursuits that are planted within the human will. I well recall that dramatic change in my own way of thinking. There were new longings, new hopes, new dreams, new fulfillments, but most noticeably, there was a new will to do what was God’s will. Thomas Chalmers characterized this change that Christ brings as “the expulsive power of a new affection.” This new affection of heart — the love of God wrought in us through the Holy Spirit — expels all other old seductions and attractions. The one who knows Christ begins to see that his or her own misguided heart is impoverished and in need of constant submission to the will of the Lord — spiritual surrender. Yes, we are all gifted with different personalities, but humility of spirit and the hallmark of conversion is to see one’s own spiritual poverty. Arrogance and conceit ought to be inimical to the life of the believer.  A deep awareness of one’s own new hungers and longings is a convincing witness to God’s grace within.

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