This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.
(9) Q. But doesn’t God do man an injustice by requiring in his law what man is unable to do?
A. No, God created man with the ability to keep the law. Man, however, at the instigation of the devil, in willful disobedience, robbed himself and all his descendants of these gifts.
(10) Q. Will God permit such disobedience and rebellion to go unpunished?
A. Certainly not. He is terribly angry with the sin we are born with as well as our actual sins. God will punish them by a just judgment both now and in eternity, having declared: “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.”
(11) Q. But isn’t God also merciful?
A. God is certainly merciful, but he is also just. His justice demands that sin, committed against his supreme majesty, be punished with the supreme penalty—eternal punishment of body and soul.
More than 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote something like this: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence comes evil?” You don’t have to be a philosopher to ask these questions. Many people struggle over the problem of evil in a world governed by a good and powerful God. And the authors of the 16th century Heidelberg Catechism believed it better to deliberately address this conundrum than to wait for it to arise in the midst of a crisis. For many people that crisis is an introductory philosophy class. Christian students hear updated versions of Epicurus’ problem of evil, and they crumble, sometimes abandoning the faith.
But the problem of evil is not a serious threat to Christianity. The questions raised actually help us better understand our well-deserved misery and God’s justice and mercy. The reality of evil in a world ruled by a good God requires us to grasp three important truths:
1. People Are Unjust
A critical factor is often left out of the so-called “problem of evil,” or the question of how to reconcile the existence of sin and suffering with a good and all-powerful God. That factor is the injustice of people who were created able to choose either good or evil. Should God be blamed for creating humanity with both “the ability to keep the law” and the freedom to disobey and rob “himself and all his descendants of these gifts”? Could you protect a young child from getting into trouble by never letting her out of her locked room? Yes. But would such boundaries honor her personhood? Critics of Christianity want both free people and a God who prevents evil. God actually honored humanity’s freedom by allowing the fall.
But God didn’t create evil. He didn’t inject sin into the world. God created a paradise to be managed by people with no unmet needs and with an ability to do exactly what God required. Humans might have prevented evil from coming into the world. But the people God made were not puppets or robots. Their wills were capable of obeying or disobeying God’s will. And God hasn’t moved the goal line. He still maintains the standard he clearly explained to Adam and Eve: “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law” (Gal. 3:10). Humans willingly disobeyed. Adam and Eve listened to the devil instead of God.
And we can’t excuse ourselves from their sin. We are born with sin (Ps. 51:5). Adam and Eve robbed us of the ability to keep the law. But we also sin willingly; we contribute to humanity’s massive and rapidly growing righteousness-debt owed to God. The problem of evil is ours, not God’s.
2. God Is Just
Not only was God not wrong to allow his free creatures to disobey his holy will, but he’s also not wrong to punish us for doing so. God “is terribly angry with the sin we are born with as well as our actual sin.” Isn’t that right?
Would we expect anything less from a good Creator who made us in order to flourish in fellowship with him? Shouldn’t God be terribly angry that Adam and Eve ruined their relationship with him and dragged the rest of humanity down with them? Shouldn’t God be terribly angry that in the very next generation Cain murdered a brother in the act of worship? Shouldn’t God be terribly angry over modern abuse and neglect, pride and envy, perversion and dishonesty?
What if the Bible’s answer to this question was different? “Will God permit sin to go unpunished? Yes. God doesn’t care about disobedience and rebellion. He’s happy to let it go unpunished.” What kind of god would he be? Could we suppose that he cared when we were sinned against? Could we trust him to make things right in the end? Would kind of world would we live in? If God didn’t care about injustice, why would we? In his justice God sets a pattern for us to be angry over sin and to agree with his verdict of our sin.
The last question asks about mercy; “Isn’t God also merciful?” But the question hints at cynicism; you catch an assumption that mercy should cancel justice. It is a hypothetical plea for cheap grace. But if grace is cheap, justice is a sham. You’ve sinned terribly … but whatever.
The worst thing we can do is criticize God for being unjust or unfair. The surest way to experience God’s vengeance is to set yourself up as his judge. The best thing to do is believe and confess that “[t]he Lord will judge his people” (Heb. 10:30) and that “[i]t is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
3. God Is Merciful
The question of God’s mercy could be asked with the hope of cheap grace. But the answer is still true: “God is certainly merciful.” How do we see God’s mercy in this lesson?
God shows mercy in the possibility of questions. The problem of evil is typically an attack on theism. That’s wrong. It’s unwise to charge God with injustice. But our merciful God welcomes sincere questions about his oversight of this world. At least a dozen times psalm writers ask, “How long, O Lord?” (e.g. Ps. 13:1). More often they ask, “Why?” “Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” (Ps. 44:24). Keep asking these questions, convinced that your only comfort is union with Jesus.
God also shows mercy in the promise of redemption. God will not compromise his justice. He “will by no means clear the guilty” (Exod. 34:7). Unlike human judges and jurors, he can’t be bribed, threatened by popular opinion, or swayed by emotional appeals. And that’s good; he is just the Judge we need! But the Lord is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod. 34:6–7). Justice is not his only or overpowering attribute.
God shows mercy in the power of the cross. The philosopher Epicurus lived 300 years before Christ. He did not know how God would answer the problem of evil in the cross. The omnipotent God is willing to allow evil in order to honor the freedom of his creatures. The benevolent God is willing to bear evil in order to bring about its end. In Christ, on the cross, “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Ps. 85:10).