Paul and the Problem of Evil

One of the dilemmas that has vexed humans beings since the beginning of our existence is the problem of evil.  Different cultures have had diverse ways of dealing with the problem, but most would admit that a fully satisfactory answer is often lacking.  For example, in the ancient world, there were four different ways of looking at evil. 

The first was the way of the Stoics.  The Stoics were known for their aloof nature and their consideration of evil was no different.  According to this view, the world is as it is, and all we can do is deal with it.  If you don’t like it, you can always leave it, but everyone must take the world as it is.  This is somewhat admirable for its frankness, but hardly satisfies when answering questions of deep suffering. 

A second option in the ancient world was the Epicurean philosophy.  This idea said that a divine being or beings may have made the world, but have since left it alone to run on its own accord.  Evil in inevitable, and one should try to do one’s best to live life in such away to avoid as much of it as possible.  There is a certain practicality to this, but again, it is hardly satisfying.   

A third option is called dualism.  This view says that there are two great beings behind creation, one good and the other evil, and life is a constant battle between these two equal but opposite forces.  At times some Christians have flirted with this idea, seeing God and the devil as two beings battling one another. However, in Christian thinking, the devil is no true match for God.  In the dualist philosophy, the power of darkness is equal to the power of light and goodness. 

Finally, there was the thought of the average every day pagan.  Most pagans believed there were multiple gods in the heavens and these gods controlled much of human fate.  If something bad happened to you, it was likely because you had angered one of the gods, or someone had struck a deal with them to bring you temporary trouble. 

So these are four different ways that the ancient world viewed the problem of evil.  My guess is, they are not very satisfying to you.  Perhaps we should add one more.  There was also the view of the Jewish people. 

Even though the people of Israel wrestled often with the problem of evil, it is important to understand that they had nothing like a systematic set of answers to this problem.  Texts like the book of Job demonstrate this point.  When God finally comes on the scene at the end of the book of Job, no specific answer is given for suffering.  It is enough to know that God is God, and he knows what he is doing in creation.  After all what right do any of us have in questioning him? 

However, even though a specific answer is not given for the problem of evil, Israel’s scriptures present stories that give us glimpses of the forces at work behind the problem of evil.  In the first eleven Chapters of Genesis, four stories give us shadowy indications of the root of evil.  The stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel show us that human rebellion is involved.  The story of the flood alludes to cosmic forces involved in the problem of sin, and the story of the Tower of Babel demonstrates the arrogance of human empire.  Yet none of these, in the Jewish interpretation of their own scriptures, served to give a definitive answer to the problem of evil. 

Even though a definitive answer is missing, Israel was not without strong notions of a solution.  Indeed, they had learned through the call of Abraham and his promise to bring a blessing to the whole world, that in God’s purpose, he had called Israel herself to be part of the solution.  In their mind, the primary problem in the world was human idolatry, which was especially exhibited in the power of the Gentile nations.  Israel knew that it had been called to be a light to the nations, to bring God’s solution to bear upon the world’s problem.

But as Israel’s story progressed, a further problem was revealed.  Israel herself was subject to the same forces of evil that inflicted the pagan nations.  God’s banishment of Israel to Babylon was sure evidence of this fact, along with the domination of one gentile empire after another.  This left Israel with a deflated view of herself.  Israel knew she needed to regain her status as the light of the world, and in her mind, the way to do that was a recommitment to the Law. 

All of this would have been firmly in Paul’s mind as a learned Pharisee of the first century. 

However, something dramatic happened that changed Paul’s perception of the problem of evil.  On the road to Damascus he encountered Jesus, risen and alive.  This shocked Paul to his very core and made him reevaluate everything he thought he knew as a Jew.  It was these events that led Paul to a revolution in his thinking about human evil and its solution.  Three things factored into this reconsideration. 

First was the crucifixion of Jesus.  If the crucifixion was one of the solutions offered to the problem of evil, then Paul realized that evil was more than simply a problem of cleaning up Israel’s behavior through the Law.  Something much more radical was needed.  The crucifixion showed that the problem of human sin was not just a problem of the pagan nations, or indeed, of Israel’s failures, but was a deep problem at the core of human life that Paul traced back all the way to Adam himself (Romans 5:12).  Israel’s problem was much deeper than Paul could have known.  The law would not be capable of cleaning up this problem.  It was powerless to do so.  Only the giving up of the Son of God himself as a sin offering could affect a solution to this problem. 

A second factor in Paul’s rethinking was the resurrection of Jesus.  While Paul, like most Jews of his day, believed in an eventual resurrection of the righteous, he did not anticipate a resurrection right in the middle of the current age.  The resurrection of Jesus not only vindicated him as the true Messiah, but also revealed a further solution to the plight of evil.  What Paul saw that no Jew had seen before him is that the resurrection showed that the problem was not just a matter of human sin, but was also a cosmic problem.  The true enemy of the people of God was not the pagan nations of the world, but the cosmic powers of Sin and Death. The resurrection proved to be the defeat of these cosmic powers, and gave a foreshadow of what was to come.  What was to come was nothing less than “new creation”–a renewal of the cosmos through the power of the resurrected Christ. 

But there is a third factor in Paul’s rethinking.  This was the role of the Spirit.  One of the primary problems of human evil is the corruption of the heart.  Throughout Israel’s scriptures there are hints given that in the future age, God would deal with the human heart, writing his own law into it.  How this was to be brought about, no one knew.  But Paul now saw how it was being accomplished.  He experienced it in his own life, and also saw it in the conversion of many people throughout the Roman Empire.  Not only had God forgiven sin through his crucifixion and defeated death through his resurrection, but he also renewed the human heart through the gift of his Spirit.  This is key to understanding God’s purposes.  If it had only been a matter of defeating death, God could have resurrected everybody at once with Jesus.  But God’s purpose is to unfold what he had always intended for his creation–to work in partnership with human beings, helping them to accomplish the original divine task to rule over the earth and all it contains.  This will ultimately happen when the full resurrection takes place and the whole cosmos is renewed through Christ.  But God wants to give us a foreshadow of that now, and he does so through the Spirit filled church. 

So we see with all this how Paul dealt with the problem of evil.  It does not answer all of our questions.  Indeed, much remains a mystery, especially in regard to evil’s origins.  But the answer tells us a lot about the problem.  No one had pulled it all together in quite this way until the apostle Paul.  We can be forever thankful that God called such a man to write, and such a church to preserve it. 

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