Evil marches over good while brutal bullies are laughing and their victims are languishing. To make matters worse, the cultural corruption has overtaken the government, court system, and lawmen who were supposed to serve as the dike holding back the flood of evil.
Sound familiar? History is a cul-de-sac every generation drives around. Tucked in the Old Testament is a little book called Habakkuk. It’s written by a guy facing the same troubles as today and rather than ranting, he starts writing what became a book of the Bible.
Ancient solutions to modern frustrations
Why is Habakkuk so upset? Because he is a godly person who knows the character of God and Kingdom of God. Subsequently, all of the sin and suffering that he sees in the world enrages him. He begins the book bearing his name with a bit of a rant, saying in 1:2-4,
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.
Habakkuk’s two questions are the same one’s we are asking more than 2,500 years later.
How long? How long will God watch the world devolve from people made to act like Him to people who act like animals? When do we get to quit our jobs, put on our party hats, and blow our kazoos because Jesus came back? This question is asked dozens of times throughout the Bible, most often in Psalms when someone in great suffering cries out to God asking when they get to be Home.
Why? Why does a good and all-powerful God put up with so much rebellion? Why does God not fix the things that only he can fix when we are at the end of our resources and rope? Why do godly grandmas die in poverty of cancer while drug dealers and immoral celebrities live long lives in big mansions to be worshipped like gods?
What to do when politics, religion, and culture are swirling the drain
God answers Habakkuk’s cries, but his response is unexpected. There would be more suffering before relief, which we see in Habakkuk 1:5-11:
Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own. They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand. At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it. Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!
Sometimes, we just wish God that would tell us what He was doing. In this case, God’s plan was to use the most ungodly, powerful, ruthless, cruel, and unjust military power to correct His people. Hearing God’s plan plunges Habakkuk into something that counselors call “complex grief.” Complex grief is what happens when difficult experiences pile on top of one another, becoming an overwhelming deluge so quickly that you do not have time to process anything.
Overcoming this situation will require tremendous faith that God is good, omnipotent, and omniscient. This is precisely what faith is: moving forward in the dark trusting that God is ahead somewhere. Upon hearing that God would use really bad people to discipline His people, Habakkuk could have easily stopped trusting God. The only life raft that Habakkuk can hold on to is faith, which is the theme of the entire book: “…the righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4).
We want resolution, God wants relationship
When it comes to the problem of evil crashing into our own lives, we want a resolution. At the same time, God wants a relationship in which we grow to trust Him more and more until our Redeemer comes and brings resolution with him. This is living by faith. Just as we grow intellectually to understand God more deeply, we also must seek to trust God more relationally. Often, we want a resolution that removes our problems, and God wants a relationship to walk with us through our problems. This is the message of Habakkuk and the Bible’s answer to the problem of evil.
God is sovereign, powerful, and good. Evil exists, and creatures bear moral responsibility for it. Many people deny one or more of these essential truths when trying to make sense of sin and the injustice and suffering it causes. People postulate that perhaps God is not truly in charge of the world, that God is somehow limited in his ability to effect change in the world, or that perhaps God is both good and evil. Some deny the reality of evil, rendering it an illusion or matter of perception. Others deny responsibility for their own sinfulness, shifting the blame to other people or a bad environment.
Philosophers have long sought a way to winsomely and persuasively reconcile the character of God with the reality of sin. Gottfried Leibniz first coined the term theodicy in 1710 to describe this quest for understanding. Theologian J. I. Packer says that the word theodicy is a combination of the Greek word theos (“God”) and the root dik- (“just”), meaning that it seeks to “justify the ways of God to man,” or show that God is both good and sovereign despite contrary appearances.1
Christian philosophers and theologians have explored several approaches to the problem of theodicy, trying to identify God’s role in suffering. Christian philosopher C. Stephen Evans says:
Two of the more important theodicies are the “soul-making theodicy,” which argues that God allows evil so as to make it possible for humans to develop certain desirable virtues, and the “free will theodicy,” which argues that God had to allow for the possibility of evil if he wished to give humans (and angelic beings) free will. Theodicies are often distinguished from defenses, which argue that it is reasonable to believe that God has reasons for allowing evil even if we do not know what those reasons are.2
Specific forms of theodicy speculations vary wildly, as Evans explains. Some even teach a false universalism whereby everyone will be saved in the end. Others say that we will retain our freedom to sin even in our resurrected heavenly state, which leaves open the possibility of sin occurring again in the eternal state. J. I. Packer further comments:
Some Calvinists envisage God permissively decreeing sin for the purpose of self-display in justly saving some from their sin and justly damning others for and in their sin. But none of this is biblically certain. The safest way in theodicy is to leave God’s permission of sin and moral evil as a mystery, and to reason from the good achieved in redemption.3
Why Does God Allow Evil?
Some say God ordains all sin, using it for His greater glory, but according to Scriptures like Jeremiah 32:26-35, some sins are against His will in every sense. God says in Jeremiah that His people have chosen to “provoke me to anger” by doing “nothing but evil in my sight from their youth.” As a result, they have aroused “anger and wrath.” God goes on to say,
They have turned to me their back and not their face. And though I have taught them persistently, they have not listened to receive instruction. They set up their abominations in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.
God is emphatically clear that grotesque evil, including the slaughter of children to a false pagan “god”, is certainly not in accordance with His will or desires.
Others say that God allows sin because He honors our free choice; however, stories like the judgments of Pharaoh and Jerusalem clearly define limits to his patience. We can safely say that God is at war with sin and evil, overcoming it with good through his redemptive work as his promised Messiah crushes the Serpent (Gen. 3:15; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14-15; 1 John 3:8).
The Bible repeatedly declares that God is always, perfectly, and solely sovereign, powerful, and good. God can be angry with our continual sinning, but it never destroys his plan, limits his power to act, or stops Him from doing good within the worst evil. From the appearance of Satan in the garden onward, God has dealt with sin and evil in a way that compels us to continually trust in Him, having faith in His ultimate providence and triumph over sin. To assume that God cannot (making Him not sovereign and/or not powerful) or will not (making Him not good) prevail is to judge God before He judges evil. Since we are in the middle of history, we must not judge Him but rather trust Him until He is finished with sin and history as we know it.
God is sovereign over evil
In the meantime, evil is never outside the providential control of God. His work is to do good in the context of an evil world. An example is the story of Joseph in the final twelve chapters of Genesis. We read of Joseph’s betrayal at the hands of his brothers, his unjust suffering, and his eventual rise to power because the Lord was with him, whereby many lives were saved. When confronting his brothers, the providence of God at work in the life of Joseph crescendos: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”6
Many years later, a descendant of Joseph named Jesus Christ suffered similarly. He too was betrayed by his “brothers,” suffered the worst injustice in history, and died in shame on a Roman cross. At that moment, it would have been tempting to think that God had lost his sovereignty, sinned against Jesus, or failed to stop the injustice. However, three days later, Jesus arose from his grave, atoning for the sins of the world, and God was vindicated as fully sovereign, good, and powerful.
God used the freely chosen evil of Judas, Herod, Pilate, Gentiles, and Jews to accomplish his perfect purpose7 in the same way he used the Chaldeans, a horribly evil nation, to punish the persistent sin of Judah and Jerusalem in Habakkuk.8 This does not mean that their evil is God’s responsibility. They freely desired to kill and destroy. In a cosmic irony, the God of all providence used evil to judge evil. Even as his hand brought punishment to Israel and death to Jesus, he also brings redemption and resurrection into the context of judgment and death.
We presently see and know only in part4, and God has secrets He has chosen not to reveal to us.5 A day is coming when we will also rise with and to Jesus. On that day, our faith will be sight and we will see God fully vindicated as we enter the best possible world after passing through this world’s waiting room. Until that day, our answer to the the problem of sin is ultimately a prayerful, worshipful, humble, and continual meditation on Romans 8:28, which promises, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Today, we trust by faith. One day, we will see by sight. In this regard, the answer to the problem of evil is patience from the people of God.
If you would like to learn more about the problem of evil from the book of Habakkuk in the Bible, you can hear my sermon series or read my daily devotions for free at markdriscoll.org
1J. I. Packer, “Theodicy,” in Sinclair B. Ferguson and J. I. Packer, New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 679.
2C. Stephen Evans, “Theodicy,” in Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics and Philosophy of Religion
(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002), 114.
3Packer, “Theodicy,” 679.
41 Cor. 13:12.
7Acts 2:23; 4:27–28.