Some Christians are rather breezy about the problem of evil. We shouldn't be.
Do I need to remind you of the grisly beheadings that have taken place over the past few weeks? Do I need to remind you of the blood of innocents that’s been spilled in our own country? Do I need to remind you of the dozens of wars throughout the world, or of the bystanders who lose everything because they’re in the wrong place? Do I need to remind you how many of Christian brothers and sisters worship in secret, in constant fear of being found out by the authorities?
Atheists often raise the problem of evil: How can a good and omnipotent God exist when there is so much unrequited suffering and injustice in the world? Omnipotent goodness cannot exist in this kind of world. He must be either impotent or wicked.
But atheists shouldn’t be the ones raising the questions. We should be. We have even more reason to be obsessed by the question of justice than atheists. They have concluded that God doesn’t exist, and that cruelty and unrequited evil are just the way things are. It’s a depressing world to live in, but they have the comfort of knowing that not much can be done about it, and the energy that comes from thinking everything depends on them. Christians confess that there is an omnipotent God, a God who created all things and who rules all things; we confess that He is wholly good. How can that God tolerate the scale of evil that we see in the world? We don’t have the luxury of making our peace with this world, of saying that it’s all OK.
We often deal with these evils by ignoring them. When we do pay attention, we deal with this by giving pat theological answers. God is sovereign. Human beings are wicked. It’s not surprising that there is a lot of horror in the world. Our pat theological answers may be technically correct, but they lead to indifference to injustice. If your theology of God’s sovereignty or of human sin makes you complacent about evil, then you haven’t grasped the Bible at all.
God doesn’t ignore injustice. God isn’t complacent about evil. Worshipers of such a God don't have the luxury of being breezy about evil.
Isaiah 41 deals with this question directly. It opens with a “Hear ye! Hear ye!” The islands are summoned to appear before the court. "Put on strength," Yahweh says, "and come to court. Bring your case." When the islands show up, they don’t display much strength. Yahweh is there, presiding in the court. They see and they fear. In the Hebrew, the two words pun with each other. The islands are supposed to come clothed with strength but they instead come trembling before the Lord. They draw near as the Lord commanded, but they are hesitant.
Even their idols and idol makers don’t give any reassurance in the court. They lean on each other. Each one says, You’re doing good. The craftsmen who make the idols and the one who covers the idols with gold are both there. They both compliment each other. They say that their gods are good, nicely made, nicely done. But then their gods can’t stand up on their own. They come with their idols, but they have to nail the idols down to make sure they don’t topple over. The idols are immobile anyway; they have feet but they cannot walk. And now the idolaters have immobilized them further by nailing their feet to the floor.
This opening scene is ambiguous. It’s a court scene, with Yahweh presiding. But against whom? Against Yahweh Himself. Yahweh summons the court, but He is also the accused. Yahweh is the one who calls the court together, but He is also the One who has to give an account of Himself. He is the One who has to give a defense. Yahweh doesn’t brush away the accusations of injustice. He doesn’t brush away Israel’s complaints, or the complains of the nations. He doesn’t play His sovereignty card. He subjects Himself to the scrutiny of the nations. He is God in the dock. Yahweh is the Sovereign Judge who allows Himself to be judged.
His defense focuses on His righteousness (zedekah), personified here as a warrior, equipped with a sword and bow, pulverizing His enemies to dust. Yahweh's righteousness is not a righteousness of avoidance. Yahweh’s righteousness is not a righteousness that maintains its purity by keeping away from wickedness and injustice, by turning the back and holding it at arm’s length. That is Pharisaical righteousness, righteousness that is a passive not-doing. Nor is righteousness a tolerant letting-be. Yahweh’s righteousness is a warrior.
In Isaiah 41, this righteousness is embodied in Israel, Yahweh's Servant. It's laughable to think of weak, impotent Israel as Yahweh's warrior of righteousness, but Yahweh’s defense is focused on what He will do with Israel. Israel will be the great proof. When He makes His righteousness rise from the east; when He turns back those who are hot against Israel; when Israel pulverizes her enemies rather than being trampled by them; when Israel drinks her fill of water in the wilderness of exile and walks through the desert as through a shady grove – then all will see and know and gain wisdom: Because they will know that the hand of Yahweh has done it.
There’s a flaw in the defense, though, since all of Yahweh's defense is oriented toward the future. This the basis for Yahweh’s impugning of the witnesses arrayed against Him. When we return to the court scene, He calls on them to present their arguments and their case, but He reminds them of the nature of the case. To refute Him, to charge Yahweh with injustice, they have to be able to declare the former things. They also have to declare what is going to take place. If they can do that, then Yahweh will acknowledge them as gods. If they can’t do that, they and their gods are nothing, worthless. Their testimony is worthless because they can’t testify what God will do tomorrow. They cannot charge Yahweh with injustice unless they know the whole story, beginning to end.
This is a strange defense to say the least. Yahweh defends Himself not based primarily on what He has done, but on the basis of what He will do. What He has done shows that He can do what He has promised. But in Isaiah's time Yahweh’s full defense is still to come.
For us, much of what Yahweh promised to do is now past. He did bring Israel from exile. He did deliver them from various enemies. He did turn His people from a despised and trampled worm into a people that rules the nations. He did bring justice to His people.
He did this preeminently in Jesus. Jesus is God's justice in flesh, God’s justice rising from the sunrise with healing in His wings. He comes as God’s answer to the charge that He doesn’t care about justice. In Jesus, the God of Israel again places Himself in the dock, quite literally taking the role of the accused and standing trial before men. In Jesus, the Judge is judged, and proven innocent of all charges. In Jesus, Yahweh’s righteousness comes to blow away dust and chaff and to make the world new.
Even so, we don’t yet see all of these promises fulfilled. Justice hasn’t come. The world is still languishing under evil. Righteousness has not turned the wicked to dust, or blown away the chaff. Jesus has come, and we do see Jesus crowned with glory and honor, a pledge that justice will be done. Yet for us too, just as for Israel, Yahweh’s final self-defense depends on what He does in the future.
And this means that pursuing justice is always an act of faith, always action done in confidence that God has brought, and even more that He will bring justice. We do not yet see everything subdued beneath His feet, but we do see Righteousness enthroned in heaven.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.
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