Westminster Presbyterian Church
The Problem of Evil
There are some passages in scripture that tend to lend themselves to raising broad questions that may even be beyond the immediate text of the passage that they are dealing with. Questions, that to answer, one needs essentially to look outside of the given text and to look at the breadth of scripture to get at what God would have us to understand. And it seems to me that as I reflect on verses 13 through 15 in particular of chapter one that two of these kinds of questions are explicitly raised in James’ text and one is implicitly raised as you raise those other two questions.
Explicitly, James seems to be making the statement that God is not the author of temptation or sin and that God tempts no one as well. Tied closely with this is the explicit and clear idea that God is not nor has ever been the source of evil. Yet as we look around the world, there is evil. As we look around the world, we are tempted. And if God, as scripture also teaches us, orders all things according to the council of his will, then how do we explain these things in the world around us. Thus for the next several weeks I would like to address three issues: The first, that we will be looking at this morning is the problem of evil; the second will be the problem of pain; and the third is the problem of sin.
Let’s begin by looking more closely at the statement that James is making in verse 13. Now remember the context—context is king when we deal with these passages in small doses—the context is that of dealing with perseverance in suffering for faith—suffering many trials and tests of diverse kinds. Now James begins in verse 13 by saying, “let no one say when he is tempted…” Now this language of temptation is language that can refer to a general testing. I teach in school and I test the kids—whether they like it or not I test them periodically to see whether they have gained said knowledge that I wanted them to get out of the unit which we studied.
But this word can also refer to a different kind of testing, a testing that is designed to entice someone to commit sinful or unacceptable behavior. And this is the broader context of what James is getting at here. This is not the kind of test that one might take in school to make sure that one understands the basic material. But this is the kind of test that were one to fail that test, would lead one into sin. This is the same kind of language that is used of Jesus’ own being tempted in the wilderness. It is the language of the Pharisees, who were seeking to test Jesus and test Jesus in order that they might trap him and arrest him. It is the language that we find in the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil.” It is also the language of how the disciples were tempted to fall asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus had gone to pray and he said to the disciples, “stay and watch and pray with me, and don’t fall into temptation and go to sleep.”
That in itself, particularly in terms of the Gethsemane passage, has some very important implications for us. For such language applied is not only to spiritual temptation and spiritual sin but also is applied to physical sin. What it is that Jesus is dealing with the disciples is that they were given an instruction, they were given a command. They were instructed to watch and pray with Christ while he went further into the garden to pray and to prepare himself for his own arrest. The temptation that they faced was not whether to pray or not but to be able to stay awake and to be faithful to doing what Jesus had called them to do.
How often we go through our own lives, as we go to our own time of prayer, as we go to our own time of devotion, that we too struggle, as those disciples did, against fatigue and against sleepiness. How often we have no problem sitting and picking up a magazine and reading it all of the way through, but as soon as we pick up our Bible, three verses into it, our heads are nodding and we are nodding off. How often we have no problem sitting down and watching a television show but when we sit down to pray we find ourselves dozing or we find our mind wandering into a hundred different areas. I think that the implication here that is being made is that this is just as much a temptation into sin as it would have been had Jesus accepted the Devil’s temptation to worship him or something along those lines.
In the book by C.S. Lewis entitled Peralandra, the second of his space trilogy, he describes himself being battered by what he calls “the barrage.” And the Barrage is his feeling doubt, and his feeling distrust, and his feeling discouraged as he goes to do those things that he needs to do that God has commanded him to do. How often we face those same kinds of doubts, those same kinds of worries—am I really up to this test? Am I fairly fearful of what it might mean if I were to step out in faith for this thing or that. This kind of trial, C.S. Lewis describes as the Barrage, and he describes it as the work of the demons that are around us in this world. This causes us by doubt and by fear to not do the things that God has commanded us to do. If you will, even a form of trial and a form of test.
I think that there is a lot of truth in that. So often we don’t think in terms of all of the things that cause us to stumble and fall. C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters gives us a myriad of wonderful examples of this. This character that Screwtape is trying to test and tempt ends up going to church and ends up writing to his Uncle Wormwood saying, “I have all these problems, this guy has gone to church, I have lost him.” And Wormwood says, “what are you talking about? Sit him next to someone he doesn’t like. Sit him down next to someone he knows all of the good gossip about, and he will spend more time focusing on the nit-picking thing about the person he does not like or knows all of the gossip about than about what is going on in church. So often we look at these things and say that they are just part of the weakness of our own human nature, indeed, they are part of the weakness of our own fallen sinful nature. But, indeed, they are in a sense a form of trial and form of temptation that we are to resist, that we are to labor against.
When we go to pray at night, when we go to open our Bibles to read, do we ask God to help us resist temptation? Do we ask God to help us keep our eyes awake and alert so that we might grow in our knowledge of Him? That we might grow in our devotion to Him as we go before His holy throne. I think that there is a great deal that we can learn from this.
But now, with this understanding, James goes on to say something very important. He says, when you are tempted or tested in this way, let no one say, that “I am being tempted by God.” And he gives a reason. He says, and here is the reason, he says literally, “because God is untemptable, and he tempts no one.” That God is beyond the possibility of being tempted. It is something that is unable to happen to him. And such a statement, as one who is untemptable, is made of no other person in the Bible. It essentially says that God is so pure and so perfect, that because God is who he is, even the concept of God succumbing to temptation and sin is utter nonsense. It would be like saying that “x+y=4” and “x+y=16.” Both cannot be true.
Sometimes we refer to this as the “Law of Non-Contradiction.” That two contradictory things cannot exist together. You cannot be a boy and a girl at the same time; there are rules and guidelines that set one against the other. For God to be tempted would be a contradiction of his very character, is what James is saying here. But this being said, it raises two very important questions in our minds. First of all, if God cannot be tempted, how then was Jesus tempted? Was his temptation something that was real? Or was it something that was simply played out as an actor upon the stage? And secondly, if God cannot be tempted and does not tempted, how is it that a God who orders all things according to the council of his will allows us to be tempted? Or perhaps we could say, how is it that an untemptable God allows his creatures to undergo that which he is not susceptible to?
First, if God cannot be tempted, how is it that Jesus was tempted? For indeed, does not the writer of Hebrews say in Hebrews 4:15, “for we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted”—same language—“has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” This is the same word that is being used so how are we to understand this? Is James just talking about God the Father as being the only one who is untemptable? No, that would make the three members of the Trinity have different attributes applied to them and thus would reduce the Son and the Father to not being of the same essence, thus undoing the Trinity and presenting a polytheistic religion—something that is contrary both to scripture and to the Jewish tradition upon which our Christian tradition is built, for the Old Testament scriptures do explicitly state that God is one.
Then, was Jesus perhaps just play acting as the Devil tempted him? We have to answer, no, as well. Not only would it reduce this passage that we just read from Hebrews to nonsense, for how can he identify with us with that he has not undergone. But also, Jesus, as the second Adam, had to be tempted and tested in the same way that Adam was tempted and tested so that he could succeed where Adam failed. One thing that is interesting to note, is that if you look at the account of Adam failing the test of eating the fruit, that he was tempted or tested in three ways. He was tempted with food that looked to be good. He was tempted to doubt the truthfulness of God’s word, and he was tempted to idolatry, making himself to be a god. Indeed, those are the three temptations that Jesus himself faced in the wilderness.
So with those before us, what options do we have before us in answering this question? Theologians in the early church were faced with this question at a very early date. And the answer that they found was in the description of the dual nature of our Lord. That Jesus, while one person, was both fully human and fully divine. That he was not simply kind of a fleshy body indwelt by the Spirit of God, but everything that makes you and I human, Jesus himself had. He had a human mind, he had a human soul and a human spirit but he also was divine in all three of those ways. And in this way, they understood the temptation of our Lord, that it was Jesus’ human nature that was susceptible to these temptations, even though his divine essence was not. That it was a real possibility for Christ to sin when he was tempted, but as he did not have a nature of sin to compel him to do so all was not lost and Christ underwent the temptation without falling into sin.
We can draw a great deal of comfort from what the writer of Hebrews is reminding us of. For all of the temptations that are common to life, we are told that Jesus underwent. He can sympathize with us in our pain and our heartache. More importantly, he can empathize with us for he has gone through it already. And it is out of that identification with us. It is out of his ability to identify and relate to us that is the driving force behind his passionate intercession with God for us on our behalf. We can take our cares to the cross knowing that the one that we take those cares to understands us in our pain, he understands us in our weakness, he understands us in our hurt, he understands us in our heartache, he understands us in all of our desires and in our weaknesses. How often as we go through life, as we face trials and as we face difficulties, we feel as if nobody understands us, we feel as if we are speaking but we cannot communicate our heartache to somebody because nobody will understand what we are going through. Beloved, let me remind you that Christ Jesus does understand and Christ Jesus has promised never to leave nor forsake you, for he has borne our weaknesses, he has suffered our infirmities, and he knows you. He knows you in your strength and in your heartache, and he knows you better than you know yourself. Take those things to him; take your cares to his feet.
Secondly, if God cannot be tempted, and does not tempt, How is it that a God who orders all things according to the council of his own will allows us to be tempted? Or how is it that an untemptable God allows his creatures to undergo that which he himself is not susceptible to. And that gets at the real question of the problem of evil around us in this world. If God is God and all that he created was pronounced to be good, where does evil come from?
There have been many approaches that have been used to handle this question. Some have argued that it is all the Devil’s fault. That after Satan’s fall and rebellion everything just kind of fell apart and God had to just kind of work things through to make sense out of it. Others have argued that God made man in such a way that God made man with a free and absolute will, and thus we chose to bring evil into this world. While both of these answers have sought to protect God from evil, they raise two important questions: Is God not omnipotent—is he not all powerful? Is God not omniscient—is God not all-knowing? Does God somehow restrict his power and his knowing when it comes to man’s ability to choose right and wrong? Were this the case, it would reduce all prophesy to something that is a little bit more than just a good guess on God’s part. While some in our society would present God as doing just this, God just kind of working, not knowing the future, just working and hoping to bring his good ends about—tweaking history to manipulate it as best as possible. That kind of teaching, beloved, is a lie, it comes from the pits of hell, and it smells of smoke.
Scripture presents God as being God and Sovereign creator over all things. Scripture presents God as the author of the rise and the fall of nations and of men—of God opening Lydia’s heart so that she would be receptive to the gospel and of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he would march on to his own destruction. Isaiah 45:7 presents God as the author of both peace and calamity and everything in between. The words in the Hebrew here are “ra” and “shalom.” Shalom means “peace” or “goodwill.” Ra is the Hebrew word that can mean problems or calamities or trials—that when addressing the problem of evil, and when addressing the problem of its origin, we need to reject those proposed solutions. And the first thing that we need to do is to define what we mean by the word, “evil.”
The Oxford American Dictionary, defines evil as that which is profoundly immoral or malevolent. I think that the Bible helps clarify that a little bit more. As you go through in the language and you are dealing with the question of evil and of sin, and evil is that which is done in rebellion against God. With that in mind, I would suggest that we understand evil a little differently. Just as goodness is not so much a created thing but is a reflection of the character of God, so too, I would suggest that evil should not so much be seen as a created thing but as reflection of the character of sin. Think of it this way—that which is good for us is that which draws us closer to God; and that which is evil for us is that which draws us away from God.
Yet, this still leaves us with an important question: If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, if God orders all things according to the council of his will, even, in many cases, our own wills. If all that God does is good—why did God allow, or even ordain, that the angels first and then man would fall? I think that St. Augustine’s answer is right on the mark. Augustine argued that had we not fallen as a race, we would never have understood the depth of Christ’s sacrificial love for us as his people. Though the fall brought pain and it brought misery into our lives, and though it was a sinful action on the part of men and angels, it was yet good that God permitted us to fall. The song that the choir sang a little bit ago, echoes that sentiment. Speaking of Christ with his arms outstretched—speaking of the blood that Christ shed as he was on the cross—writing out to you and to me, to his people throughout the ages, that “I love you.” How we could not have known that level, that expression of Christ’s willingness to die and express his love to us had we not fallen in sin. And thus, as we return back to the book of James, the suffering that we endure is good, for it grows us into the image of Christ Jesus.