The Problem of Evil
Who can command and have it done,
if the Lord has not ordained it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and bad come? (Lamentations 3:37-38)
I was raised in a culture that believes that the universe is a battleground for good and evil. Satan, a fallen angel, rules this world, until the coming of Jesus when Satan will be vanquished. And we need to be certain we’re on the right side.
The problem is, that’s not what the Bible says. On the contrary, in Genesis, God declares his creation “good,” and he says it more than once. The sin of Adam and Eve has specific consequences for Adam, Eve, and the serpent. Humans get cast out of the garden to experience suffering and hard work. But nowhere does God declare that his world has become anything less than good. Even when he sends the flood, his reason is because of “the wickedness of humankind” (Genesis 6:5).
Then there’s the question of Satan, who supposedly rebelled against God and rules this earth. But again, that’s not what the Bible says. In fact, the Book of Job makes clear that Satan does what God allows him to do and no more (Job 1:11-12).
Satan next appears in Zechariah’s fourth vision (Zechariah 3:2). Here, God rebukes Satan. But the context is important. Satan is the Accuser, and Jerusalem has been sent into exile for her crimes. Now the exiled people of Jerusalem confess their guilt (Zech 1:6), and God revokes the sentence (Zech 3:4). God’s rebuke represents a rejection of Satan’s accusations– accusations of which, as the previous prophets made clear, Jerusalem was entirely guilty. But because of her repentance, God now sets aside those accusations. She is forgiven.
Where else does Satan appear in the Old Testament? Nowhere. (In some translations, the Hebrew word satan, or accuser, is rendered as a proper name, Satan, but without a definite article, al-Satan, it does not refer to Satan the being.)
Which leads us to the New Testament. Interestingly, in the first reference (Matthew 12:24ff), Satan is also identified with YHWH’s ancient archenemy, Ba’al, the Canaanite fertility god. The name “Beelzebul” literally means “The Great Lord Ba’al.” (The common variation “Beelzebub” is actually a Hebrew pun meaning “Lord of the Flies,” which insulted those who worshiped Ba’al.) In this passage, Jesus describes Satan as having a kingdom and being a lord of demons. But he does not say that Satan’s kingdom includes, or even exists on, the earth. Indeed, in verse 28 Jesus tells us that because he casts out demons by the Spirit of God, “the kingdom of God has come to you”– right here on Earth, right now.
There are many references to Satan prowling for souls. As the Accuser in Job, he prowled the Earth in a similar fashion. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:4, even refers to the “god of this world [who] has blinded the minds of unbelievers…” But the question remains: Does Satan do this with or without God’s permission?
The most graphic description of Satan and his works appears in Revelation. He first appears in 12:3 as a “portent” or sign in heaven in the form of a dragon. He’s identified as Satan in 12:9, after we are told in 12:7 that “A war broke out in heaven…” We are not told how or why the war broke out, but again, the context of this passage is essential. The second woe has just passed (11:14). And we are told that the third woe is coming very soon. Then the seventh angel blows his trumpet and announces the Kingdom of God, and the ark is revealed. But note well: these woes are warned and created by God, not by Satan.
What does this mean for us? It means that nothing that happens is outside the purview of God. His whole intention for us is for us to turn to him and love him (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Sometimes he uses kind words. Sometimes he uses more forceful measures. Sometimes I wonder what he’s thinking. I often wonder why the innocent suffer. But eventually I have to surrender to the truth: he is God and I’m not. I will never be able to understand his thinking.
Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, writing in 1413, described this very well:
For a man beholds some deeds well done and some deeds evil. But our Lord beholds them not so. For as all that has being in nature is of God’s making, so are all things that are done in property of God’s doing. For it is easy to understand that the best deed is well done, and the highest, so well as the best deed is done, and the highest, so well is the least deed done, and all in property, and in the order that our Lord has ordained to it from without beginning. For there is no doer but he. (Revelations of Divine Love, 13)
(To be continued.)