[Note: This is the prepared text for a sermonette delivered at the United Church of God congregation in Portland, OR on Sabbath, March 9, 2019.]
One of my favorite genres of book to collect is called theodicy [spell out word]. In this genre of book, Judeo-Christian writers attempt to justify the goodness of God despite the evils of this world. Does God’s goodness need justification? Many people would argue that it does indeed. The Jewish rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book on the subject, “When Bad Things Happen To Good People.” Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel fretted for decades over the seeming contradiction between the existence of the horrors of Auschwitz and the reality of a God who could allow such a thing to exist and to murder so many of those who considered themselves His chosen people. Militant atheist authors like Christopher Hutchens and Richard Dawkins, among others, blame God for all kinds of evils and claim that if God exists He cannot be good. And on and on it goes. Does the Bible openly confront the question of the existence of evil as it affects believers? And how does the Bible justify the existence and goodness of God in the face of these concerns?
We should note at the outset that even in the faith chapter, Hebrews 11, the problem of evil is not absent. Hebrews 11:35-40 gives us a vivid picture of the sort of bad things that can happen to believers. Hebrews 11:35-40 reads: “Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.” It is striking that in the midst of a chapter of the Bible that openly and honestly deals with the question of faith, one that explores the faith of believers in Old Testament times, that the author of Hebrews clearly states that believers did not always receive deliverance in this life. Nor did such believers, even when they were tormented or afflicted or killed in various gruesome ways, receive the promise yet of eternal life in God’s kingdom because God has something better for us, that we should be raised with them. It is striking that when talking about and encouraging faith that the author of Hebrews clearly acknowledges what may be considered as problematic issues in viewing God as just.
Yet this open honesty about problematic and difficult issues regarding this present evil world ought not to be surprising. For time would fail me to discuss all of the problematic examples of evils that God allowed recorded in scripture. That said, it is worthwhile to provide at least one example as it strikes to the core of the sort of evils that most threaten the idea people have of the goodness and justice of God. Let us turn to 2 Samuel 13. The beginning of this chapter details the obsessive love of Amnon, eldest son of King David, for his half-sister Tamar, and the stratagem urged by a cousin of his to get Tamar in a vulnerable position. Let us pick up the story in 2 Samuel 13:11-22 and see how the Bible confronts the evils of rape and incest: “Now when she had brought them to him to eat, he took hold of her and said to her, “Come, lie with me, my sister.” But she answered him, “No, my brother, do not force me, for no such thing should be done in Israel. Do not do this disgraceful thing! And I, where could I take my shame? And as for you, you would be like one of the fools in Israel. Now therefore, please speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you.” However, he would not heed her voice; and being stronger than she, he forced her and lay with her. Then Amnon hated her exceedingly, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. And Amnon said to her, “Arise, be gone!” So she said to him, “No, indeed! This evil of sending me away is worse than the other that you did to me.” But he would not listen to her. Then he called his servant who attended him, and said, “Here! Put this woman out, away from me, and bolt the door behind her.” Now she had on a robe of many colors, for the king’s virgin daughters wore such apparel. And his servant put her out and bolted the door behind her. Then Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore her robe of many colors that was on her, and laid her hand on her head and went away crying bitterly. And Absalom her brother said to her, “Has Amnon your brother been with you? But now hold your peace, my sister. He is your brother; do not take this thing to heart.” So Tamar remained desolate in her brother Absalom’s house. But when King David heard of all these things, he was very angry. And Absalom spoke to his brother Amnon neither good nor bad. For Absalom hated Amnon, because he had forced his sister Tamar.”
Whatever can be said about this account, it cannot be said that it dodges or minimizes the horrors that human beings are capable of. Acts 13:22 calls David a man after God’s own heart, but never says that David was a good father. Perhaps David felt that given his own sin with Bathsheba that he did not present a good enough example of moral probity to properly discipline his sons. Maybe he was too busy with ruling Israel and writing psalms to closely supervise what the royal princes were doing. The Bible, though, does not in the least minimize the horrors of what happened to princess Tamar though, noting that long after being raped by her half-brother Amnon that she remained desolate in her brother’s house. Nowadays we would probably say that she suffered from PTSD, but it is worth noting that nowhere does the Bible even remotely hint that she had done or said something wrong to justify Amnon’s actions. The Bible does not blame the victim here. It places the blame where it belongs, on the darkness of Amnon’s wicked heart, but yet the story itself clearly demonstrates that God did not protect Tamar from the obsessive love of her half-brother, as much as we might wish that God would protect innocent women and children from the horrors of rape and incest and abuse.
How, then, does the Bible itself justify God in the face of this lack of protection of the innocent from exploitation and abuse? Let us turn to Psalm 10 to begin to see the answer. Psalm 10 begins with a discussion of the wickedness of those who would exploit the poor and vulnerable, and verses 1 through 4 read as follows: “Why do You stand afar off, O Lord? Why do You hide in times of trouble? The wicked in his pride persecutes the poor; let them be caught in the plots which they have devised. For the wicked boasts of his heart’s desire; he blesses the greedy and renounces the Lord. The wicked in his proud countenance does not seek God; God is in none of his thoughts.” And what is the justification of God that this psalm provides? Let us read the conclusion of the psalm in verses twelve through eighteen: “Arise, O Lord! O God, lift up Your hand! Do not forget the humble. Why do the wicked renounce God? He has said in his heart, “You will not require an account.” But You have seen, for You observe trouble and grief, to repay it by Your hand. The helpless commits himself to You; You are the helper of the fatherless. Break the arm of the wicked and the evil man; seek out his wickedness until You find none. The Lord is King forever and ever; the nations have perished out of His land. Lord, You have heard the desire of the humble; You will prepare their heart; You will cause Your ear to hear, to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, that the man of the earth may oppress no more.”
What we see here is that the believers of biblical times did not expect God to prevent suffering from happening to the decent but vulnerable. They did expect and demand that God would bring the wicked to account in His judgment. And that is a fair demand. It is worth noting, at least briefly, that this same expectation of judgment after the fact is promised in the New Testament as well. Matthew 18:6-7 gives the fate of those who cause believers to stumble. As it is written in Matthew 18:6-7: ““But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!”
Let us not think that the writers of the Bible were ignorant of the sorts of evils that lurked in the dark hearts of mankind and womankind. Let us not think that the Bible presents a view that believers are promised protection from all the evils of a fallen world and that everything will go well and easily for those whom God has called. Contrary to the accusations of contemporary atheists, the Bible has never shied away from addressing the problem of evil as it relates to believers or to humanity as a whole. All too often in the melancholy course of human history the vulnerable have suffered greatly because of the wickedness of those who had the force to satisfy their dark desires. The Bible clearly details the wickedness that has resulted from the influence of Satan and his demons as well as the corrupt bent of our own hearts and minds and behavior. And nowhere in the Bible does God give a blanket promise that believers would be spared from the experience of the sorts of evils that exist as a result of people rejecting God and gratifying their own corrupt and evil desires. Yet God does promise that those who are faithful to Him will inherit eternal life, and that those who reject His ways and oppress and exploit others will suffer judgment. Is it so unreasonable, even in a wicked world like this one, that God would ask us to trust Him that He knows what He is doing and that He will make everything work out in the end? For it is not yet the end of the story.