On Good, Evil and “Happy Fault”

On Good, Evil and “Happy Fault” September 27, 2022

Joseph recognized by his brothers, by Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois, 1863 oil on canvas, at the Musée Municipal Frédéric Blandin, Nevers {{PD-US-expired}}; Wikimedia.

I take great comfort from the conviction that God will not allow evil to have the last word. God brings good out of evil. This theme appears throughout Scripture. One of the most well-known texts along such lines is Joseph telling his brothers that what they meant for harm God meant for good to save many lives.

For those who are not familiar with their sibling rivalry (which is a gross understatement!), Joseph’s brothers envied him and wanted to kill him, but sold him into slavery instead. Joseph turned out all right, though. He ended up serving as Pharaoh’s right-hand man in Egypt and saving the known world, including his family, from a severe famine that would have destroyed countless lives. For the whole story, read Genesis 37-50. We find Joseph assuring his brothers at the close of the story that he will not harm them but take care of them: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20; NIV)

The Joseph account encourages me. I firmly believe that good will ultimately triumph over evil and that God, who is sovereign in love and goodness, will have the last word. I bank on this conviction daily as I seek to survive and thrive in caring for my son Christopher who endured a catastrophic brain injury over nineteen months ago.

Christian theologians have put forth a variety of answers in trying to account for God’s sovereignty and human freedom amid evil. This post will not set forth a summary of these positions or presumptuously attempt to resolve the complexities and solve all related theological conundrums in short order. But whoever would attempt to provide a definitive resolution must account for the various complexities of this most vexing intellectual problem. The great skeptic David Hume puts the matter in this way: “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”

Rather than try to resolve this weighty matter in a short entry, I will offer a few words of caution before bringing home the significance of Joseph’s account in Genesis to my family’s situation. My hope is that you might experience encouragement amid your own struggles to find confidence in God’s sovereign goodness while wrestling with evil, too.

Right or wrong, I have often had a visceral reaction to the term “felix culpa,” which is translated “happy fault” or “fortunate fall.” The Latin phrase felix culpa is an expression often used to refer to the good fortune that befell humanity with Adam’s fall into sin recorded in Genesis 3. One of the classic texts often associated with this view is found in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, where the archangel Michael comforts Adam with the perspective that his sin was the occasion for God bringing about humanity’s redemption through Jesus’ sacrifice generations later. Here’s Adam’s response:

O goodness infinite, goodness immense!

That all this good of evil shall produce,

And evil turn to good; more wonderful

Than that which by creation first brought forth

Light out of darkness! full of doubt I stand,

Whether I should repent me now of sin

By me done and occasioned, or rejoice

Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring,

To God more glory, more good will to men

From God, and over wrath grace shall abound. (xii 469-78)

It is worth pointing out that it is not clear that Adam thinks he is better off for sinning (contrary to many interpretations), though Adam is grateful to receive blessings from on high (Refer here to a discussion of the complexities with interpreting the text).

There are many ways to take “felix cupla” and related notions in trying to resolve the relation of good and evil. I will only share a few perspectives that I find deeply disconcerting. I for one do not think we are better off for sinning so that grace might abound (a perspective Paul rejects in Romans 6:1-2). Nor do I resonate with the idea that we are better off that evil is in the world so that goodness might stand in bold relief. Some might frame this discussion by way of evil being a necessary ingredient in the outworking of history. But I hardly think God needs evil to bring about a greater good.

Surely, I am grateful for God’s merciful response in delivering us from the manifold consequences of Adam’s rebellion recorded in Genesis 3 through Jesus’ blessed life and sacrifice on our behalf (See Genesis 3:15, for example, which is often viewed as the first gospel reference—proto-evangelium). That said, there is nothing about Adam’s sin that is fortunate. God brought about much good in response to human sinfulness but totally despite human depravity.

My family and I have endured unfortunate, happy-go-lucky, happy-faulted, flippant remarks over the course of the past nineteen months as we deal with my son’s TBI. Some treat the incident as if my son’s TBI is the equivalent of a severe migraine. Such remarks, though often well-intended, remind me of what Simon’s cleaning person Nora said to Melvin Udall in the movie As Good As It Gets. Simon could no longer afford to pay Nora for cleaning his residence due to his severe injuries from the assault and needs someone to help take care of his dog. So, Nora asks Melvin played by Jack Nicholson to help. She also asks him to open the curtains in Simon’s abode so he can see the beauty of God’s handiwork. That way, Simon will know that his severe beating and loss of income will turn out for his best. I love Melvin’s biting response, which you can find here. I am often tempted to respond to such remarks Jack’s way in my less righteous moments.

To be fair, it is very difficult for anyone (including me) to comprehend the catastrophic nature of my son’s TBI, or its aftermath for the family on so many levels. Moreover, for all the flippant, happy faulted remarks we have endured, we have received a near infinite number of incredibly thoughtful and compassionate words and expressions of comfort and care, for which we are extremely grateful. But what comforts me more than anything is the conviction that God will bring good out of evil, or as Martin Luther King, Jr. often declared: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” (Check out this clip).

Over the years, I have taken great comfort in Joseph’s words amid harm that I have had to endure. I now apply those words to my son and family’s situation. God has a way of bringing much good out of great evil. The all-good, all-knowing, almighty God is a master chess player who will not be undone by the world, the flesh, and the devil. And so, I pray daily that God will bring much good out of evil for the saving of many lives through my son and family’s ordeal. Would you please join me in this prayer? This hope keeps me going.

Dr. King was fond of quoting from James Russell Lowell’s poem, “The Present Crisis.” Here he reflects on Almighty God’s sovereign work in and through Jesus hanging on the cross. Jesus’ scaffold or cross sways the future:

Truth forever on the scaffold,

Wrong forever on the throne,

Yet that scaffold sways the future,

And, behind the dim unknown,

Standeth God within the shadow,

Keeping watch above his own.

As with Dr. King, I take great comfort in knowing that God does indeed bring much good even out of great evil. The same God who was at work in Joseph’s ordeal, and Jesus’ passion on the cross, will bring about much good through our own present crisis. Why this ordeal befell my son and us, I do not know. How or when God will bring about much good, I do not know either. And while I do not think God brought about the evil to accomplish much good, God will not allow evil to have the last word.

May my son be a participant in Jesus’ future victory even in the present tense! May you also experience comfort and confidence that God will bring about much good even through great evil. Jesus, whom God raised from the dead, is victor. The scaffold of his cross sways the future.

About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology & Culture, Multnomah University & Seminary; Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins; and Author and Editor of numerous works, including The Word of Christ and the World of Culture: Sacred and Secular through the Theology of Karl Barth (Eerdmans, 2003) and Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths (Thomas Nelson, 2012). You can read more about the author here.

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