scrabble tiles

SCRABBLE to solve
the Problem of EVIL

1. (verb): scratch or grope around with one’s fingers to find, collect, or hold on to something.
Eg. “She scrabbled at the grassy slope, desperate for purchase”.
2. (trademark): a game in which players build up words on a board from small lettered tiles.

In Genesis 3:14-5, we read that following the deception of Eve and the transgression of Adam,
The LORD God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this, CURSED are you more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field;
On your belly you will go, And dust you will eat All the days of your life;
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed;
He shall CRUSH your head, And you shall strike his heel.”

Now you might or might not believe that the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden has any historical truth to it. For my part, I have wrestled hard with the question of whether there is adequate historical evidence to believe in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (I’d be happy to talk through my conclusions!), but I haven’t had the chance to give any meaningful time and energy to engaging with the historical question of Adam and Eve — and all of the associated biological, anthropological and theological consequences that an answer to such a question will have.

So I suggest that we come to this discussion simply as mere humans agreed that EVIL is a real problem to which we do not have all the answers, and for which we need everybody’s help. Indeed, we could divide it into a variety of different problems, but here I want to zoom out as far as possible to consider the problem in its most general terms. So I come to this story in Genesis asking that we leave aside our scientific and/or religious opinions to one side for a few brief minutes, and consider instead, regardless of its factual truth or falsehood, whether there is any new perspective that Moses’ account of this ancient Israelite legend might give us upon the even more ancient Problem of Evil. On my part, I find the passage challenges me to consider afresh this question: ‘What is EVIL?’

Specifically, is evil a CURSE from God, or a demonic power we can CRUSH?

Being a playful and childlike soul who finds it hard to think seriously about a subject as sobering as evil without my mind distracting itself with a less weighty theme, I find myself shuffling around the letters, hoping that somehow the secret to unlock the solution might be hidden before our very eyes.

‘Perhaps…’, I hear the rationalizing half of my brain suggest, ‘perhaps, all we need to do is to replace E with H’. I wonder if I’m in danger of falling, like Alice-in-Wonderland, down a rabbit-hole. But my brain continues: ‘…and before you say “EH?”, let me try and explain…’

1. EVIL, according to Moses’ story, involves EXILE and HURT.
a. EXILE, in that Adam and Eve are forced to leave the paradise of perfect pleasure represented by The Garden of Eden.
b. HURT, being the specific consequence that God explicitly declared over both Eve (in child-bearing, Gen. 3:16) and Adam (in farming, Gen. 3:17).

But what if we didn’t withdraw from God in EXILE, but instead took our HURT to God?

2. HURT involves PAIN and SUFFERING.
a. PAIN is a low-level physical feedback system designed to help us avoid damaging ourselves. Repeat after me: ‘Pain is good, just ask someone with leprosy’. (Leprosy causes a decreased ability to feel pain, resulting in repeated injuries and infections due to unnoticed wounds).
b. SUFFERING, on the other hand, is our high-level intellectual narrative telling us that the story we are living will end in tragedy (I learnt this from Julian Baggini, The Virtues of the Table, pp.53-54). Pain only translates into suffering insofar as we interpret our pain to mean that we will subsequently experience negative consequences — if we think the pain will have positive consequences, then it becomes ‘but a momentary trial’ (eg. 2 Cor. 4:17).

The problem of suffering is thus a problem primarily of HOPE, and only secondarily of HURT. Of course, it is vital to ensure that our hope is well-grounded, and that we’re not deluding ourselves and effectively becoming victims of ‘intellectual leprosy’, preventing us from properly feeling and responding to potential damage. This quest for a well-grounded hope leads us to questions concerning reality: what is the nature and character (if we might allow ourselves to personalise the transcendent forces which will determine our ultimate end) of ‘the powers’ (ELOHIM, ‘God’) that threaten to overwhelm our vulnerable human minds, bodies, — and spirits?

If we are to talk in terms of ‘God’, can we coherently and convincingly talk about God being good?
Since Epicurus, thoughtful people have argued ‘No’, in three simple steps:
i. If God is unable to prevent evil, then he is not more powerful than the other transcendent powers — that is, He is not the ‘Sovereign Elohim‘; which is to say that He is not God.
ii. If God is unwilling to prevent evil, then he is not good.
iii. If God is willing and able to prevent evil, then why does it exist?

This is a valid argument, and a profound question. Let’s begin by addressing the first assertion, and consider that word so beloved by conservative evangelical Christians — God’s ‘SOVEREIGNTY’.

3. SOVEREIGNTY involves RESPONSIBILITY and therefore (one might suggest) CULPABILITY.
a. RESPONSIBILITY: The duty to deal with the consequences of a wrong.
b. CULPABILITY: The guilt of actively allowing or passively permitting a wrong.

We rightly feel that an honourable God with sovereign power over everything must surely have a responsibility to deal with the consequences of evil. Now in our twenty-first century context we might better understand the responsibility of an honourable sovereign less in the terms of a feudal monarch’s honour (cf. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo), and more in terms of a multinational corporation’s social responsibilities.

If there is demonstrable injustice in the supply chain then the director at the top of that chain needs to take responsibility — and if he isn’t willing to make the necessary changes, then we consider him culpable for the wrongs that continue to be perpetuated. It doesn’t matter if the factories where the injustices are evident are under the control of corrupt and malicious middle-managers! If you are truly sovereign and good, then you need to do something about it! If this is true for NIKE, then how much more should it be true for God!

Now, we could cut straight to the chase, and point out that in the person of Jesus, who submitted — to John the Baptist’s confusion! (Matt. 3:13-15) — to ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4), God has already essentially said ‘Sorry’ to humanity, acknowledging his personal responsibility for the problem of evil, and demonstrating his willingness to do whatever was necessary to solve that problem, however humiliating the solution might be. And we know that the journey of Jesus that began with his baptism ended unavoidably with him being crucified by the angry mob of humanity, for the claim that he was the designated ruler of the kingdom of heaven. We had the chance to tell God what we think he deserves for allowing injustice to continue in this world — and we took that chance and crucified Him. Whether or not God is fairly culpable, He is certainly not unwilling to take responsibility.

This is generally the approach which Calvinists take to the problem of evil — address the first prong of the trilemma by accepting that God is indeed sovereign, and thus actively responsible for every tiny detail of the world that we experience; address the second prong of the trilemma by swiftly and confidently proclaiming the gospel, hoping that the message of the cross adequately demonstrates the goodness of God’s character, even if the mystery of evil remains unresolved. Being by nature an impatient evangelist with a weighty sense of the urgency of the call of Christ, this is the approach to which I have tended to be most sympathetic.

But perhaps this time we could probe that contemporary image of the multinational corporate supply chain and see what insight it might give us into how a good sovereign might manage the RISK involved in releasing CHOICE to middle-managers. For while at one end of the theological spectrum Calvinists emphasize the ineffable sovereignty of God, at the opposite end the emphasis is instead put on free choice as a necessary precondition for real love.

And before we move on to talk about choice, we must first finish our discussion of God’s sovereignty by establishing that although God does take responsibility for all that happens, a biblical worldview will not allow us to assign Him direct culpability for it. James 1:13-15 makes quite clear that God is not the active cause of evil: Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’, for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Insofar as there are spiritual forces at work in this process, they are not to be identified with God but with “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev. 12:9; cf. James 4:7, 1 Peter 5:8, Eph. 6:11-12 ). The Christian claim is not that all spiritual power is good, but that among the various heavenly principalities and powers, the sovereign God “is light, and in Him is no darkness at all” (Jn. 1:5, cf. James 1:17).

We must now begin to tread carefully, for to speak of freedom and choice is to enter a theological minefield. Whatever you do, don’t start throwing around the phrase ‘free will’, without first carefully considering what you actually mean, or you might unwittingly unleash the pent-up fury of several centuries of unresolved Christian controversy, and find yourself crushed under the weight of Luther’s diatribe against Erasmus, and if you manage to emerge from that, then you’ll still have to deal with Augustine’s criticisms of Pelagius.

We could sidestep two thousand years of theology and try to wrestle directly with the teaching of Scripture, but we will still find that a straightforward reading of the New Testament makes clear that the human will is not so free as one might like to think. “No-one can come to me unless the Father has granted it to him,” Jesus says (Jn. 6:65) — for as He explains elsewhere, “flesh gives birth to flesh, but [only] the Spirit gives birth to spirit… [which is why] I said ‘You must be born again’ ” (Jn. 3:5-6). Paul reaches the same conclusion, “that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Rom. 7:18). This is why he tries so hard to make clear that “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). John says similarly that “to become children of God…[one must be] born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:13). Even James agrees that the decisive choice in an individual’s salvation belongs not to that individual but to God: “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18).

So in fact the human will is not ‘free’. Specifically, we need to understand that a person isn’t born again because they chose to follow Jesus — rather, a person can only choose to follow Jesus if they have been supernaturally born again. But just because we affirm the necessity of irresistible saving grace to regenerate spiritually-dead sinners, this does not logically require that we deny spiritual agency that is genuinely free (though not independent — this is the freedom of partnership as ‘coworkers with God’, eg. 1 Cor. 3:9) on the part of those who have been born again, and are now “seated with Christ in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 2:6), “far above all principality and power and might and dominion” (Eph. 1:21). “For where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17).

For although on the subject of salvation I seem to remain a theologically conservative evangelical whose emphasis rests entirely on the sovereignty of God, those same theologically-conservative evangelical convictions also commit me to take straightforwardly the biblical exhortation to “…eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:1). And when it comes to the prophetic word of God, we find that far from the comprehensive determinism sometimes associated with certain Christians’ use of the word ‘sovereignty of God’, there is instead a dynamic flexibility to God’s sovereign government of the world. We see this explicitly in Jeremiah 18:7-10, where God personally promises to be radically responsive to human choice:
“If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it”.

So there is then real freedom of choice — just not an unlimited freedom. Rather human choice is limited and constrained by boundaries on various levels. Some of those constraints are dynamically dependent on the decisions we choose to make, while others operate at a more profound depth than can be reached by mere willpower.

Without a secure underlying sense of SAFETY, we cannot rest.
But without ever experiencing DANGER, we become bored. (Credit to CS Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (1938), whose thoughts on the good of danger have catalyzed my thinking on this topic).

It is a legal requirement in the UK today for employers to assess the risks to the health and safety of their employees while they are at work. ‘Why then,’ asks the responsible citizen of the twenty-first century, ‘did God not foresee the dangers of this world that [you Christians claim] He created? Because if He did foresee them then He can’t be good…’

To which the theologically-conservative Christian replies, ‘Well, He didn’t just foresee it, He specifically and sovereignly selected it among all the possible options’. The skeptic’s brow furrows in visible bewilderment. Then the Christian continues, ‘But He’s going to work it all together for good, eventually — at least for those He predestined…’

More recently, Greg Boyd has enthusiastically advocated an alternative possibility, suggesting that the future does not have any actual existence — it exists only in terms of various open possibilities. Therefore not only (a) does God not ever in any sense (with possible unusual exceptions) determine people’s choices, but that (b) He actually doesn’t know what those choices are going to be until people have made them. Since part (a) of Boyd’s thesis is already outside of what a Calvinist would consider to be Christian orthodoxy, it is perhaps unsurprising that this suggestion has not been well received in Calvinist circles. In particular, it seems to undermine the possibility of affirming God’s Providence, as Joseph does when he says to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20) — and we’ve already mentioned the promise of Romans 8:28, that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him.

Now I have already said that while I affirm that the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit works in such a way as to determine people’s consequent choice to follow Jesus, nevertheless there are some choices that are real and undetermined. In particular, I see sanctification as being about learning to voluntarily choose to consistently unite your thinking and feeling with Christ, through whom you have already been united in the spirit and therefore justified (through no choice of your own, but through God’s choice).

And I like the idea of thinking about the future in terms of possibilities. Certainly ‘possibility thinking’ is a good, useful and necessary human tool — and so I instinctively assume that we should be able to root it in the nature and character of God. If God is infinitely wise, then there’s no reason why He couldn’t, before the beginning of time, have mapped out all the possible consequences of every conceivable human (and angelic) choice throughout history. God could then have committed in general to do whatever necessary to ensure that eventually all things would be worked together for good, and specifically to become incarnate and die to bear the consequences of whatever foolish choices humanity might make.

So we can affirm that God will eventually bring about the best of all possible worlds, without committing ourselves to justifying every incident in history as the best possible route to that ultimate goal. This is not to say that anything that happens is ‘outside of God’s plan’ — just to encourage us to appreciate that a good plan doesn’t require a totalitarian leader micromanaging the decisions of all involved, but rather leaves space for all who are involved to make a genuine contribution that actually makes a difference, while simultaneously ensuring that there are adequate safeguards in place to avoid unnecessary danger.

In particular, we can note that God’s primary mode of engaging with history is through dynamic partnership with His people. So in general God doesn’t frequently intervene to prevent pain and suffering, but rather allows us to see and experience the negative consequences of foolish and sinful human choices, so that we might learn to actively partner with Him — both naturally, as we grow in scientific understanding of the natural mechanisms built in to creation; and supernaturally, as we release the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit through prayer.

This seems to me to integrate the strengths of Greg Boyd’s innovative idea into an orthodox evangelical theology that affirms God’s sovereignty in salvation. Indeed, having thought it through like this and disentangled God’s specific sovereign action(s) from His general commitment to allow humanity to experience the natural consequences of their actions, it then feels less significant whether you deny or affirm that God had actual foreknowledge of what would happen before it did.

(You may feel that I have failed to deal with one of the most difficult implications of affirming the sovereignty of God in an individual’s salvation — the corollary that God doesn’t choose to save all those whom He created. Was it not then malicious to create them in the first place? How can a good and loving God create people who are eventually left to suffer endlessly in hell? I have wrestled with this question here. First, we should note that a finite quantity [eg. of judicially-inflicted pain] can be stretched out over an infinite time-frame — suppose a point A was to move half the remaining distance towards an end-point B each day… Second, we can consequently see that hell is not an infinite punishment but a finite one in which each person experiences judgment precisely proportionate to their sin, small or great. Third, it is thus possible that a generally law-abiding non-Christian could experience more joy in their life-time than pain in the after-life.)

In our quest to CRUSH the Problem of Evil, we have now addressed the dimensions of Hurt (CRUSH), Sovereignty (CRUSH), Choice (CRUSH), and Risk (CRUSH) — which just leaves U.

If you were here in front of me, I’d be unlikely to be able to resist pointing a finger at you and telling you in no uncertain terms that the real challenge of solving the Problem of Evil is recognizing that ‘the problem is U‘!

You would protest: ‘Who are you to judge me! How dare you! I’m not evil!’

Which highlights that the final and fundamental dimension of the problem of evil that we need to address is that of JUDGEMENT.

The interesting thing about the Problem of Evil is that, having untangled God’s holy sovereignty from sinful human choices, we can turn the Problem inside out. Which is to say that while some might find that the existence of Evil makes it understandably difficult to believe in God, the non-existence of a Transcendent Moral Authority (‘God’) would mean that ‘Evil’ would have no objective existence. For if the things you call ‘evil’ are not actual trangressions of transcendent moral reality, but are merely things that you (and perhaps your culture) find offensive and unjustifiable — then by what right can you impose your [community’s] standard upon the one you have judged to have committed ‘evil’?

This is why to properly ground the Rule of Law, we need to affirm some sort of Natural Law — which explains the lack of success of those prosecuting Nazi war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials. But that is an essay for another day.

Our point here is that in speaking of ‘Evil’, a person necessarily implicitly appeals to a transcendent moral authority — ie. a ‘God’. It is therefore likely that in rejecting ‘God’, you are not rejecting the logical necessity of a good and sovereign transcendent power — you are just refusing to submit to the sovereignty of ‘God’ as you have encountered Him. Which is understandable, because on the one hand it feels like He is self-righteously condemning you (‘what do you mean God thinks I’m a sinner?’), and on the other hand it seems that He fails to meet your own standards of goodness (‘why do bad things happen to good people?’).

Now the good news is that ‘JUDGMENT’ doesn’t start with ‘U’. It starts with ‘J’ — for JESUS! As Christians we believe that the full revelation of God’s sovereign goodness is found only in Jesus Christ. Jesus didn’t self-righteously condemn sinners, but outraged the religious establishment by seeking out their company (Mk. 2:16) and declaring their sins forgiven (Mk. 2:5; Lk. 7:47). And on the cross Jesus proved (Lk. 23:34) as a person His total commitment to the standard of non-retaliatory forgiveness and love for enemies He had preached (Matt.5:38-48), and demonstrated as God His divine willingness to submit to the judgement pronounced upon sin (Gal. 3:13).

So we might say that God’s judgment isn’t about condemnation and punishment, but rather about discernment and discipline. But what is the difference between ‘condemnation’ and ‘discernment’, or between ‘punishment’ and ‘discipline’? If you are never willing to explicitly condemn anything as beyond the limits of what is acceptable, do you really have discernment? If you are never willing to punish the transgression of a clearly communicated boundary, then are you really exercising discipline?

My wife and I have been wrestling with how to deal with the temper-tantrums and ceaseless pushing-of-limits our two young children (currently aged 3 and 1). What does it look like to put consistent boundaries in place to help our kids manage their emotions, control their behaviour, and understand how to relate well to other people? How do we establish the truth that ‘actions have consequences’ without being harsh?

Various friends of ours have recommended the teaching of Danny Silk, pastor at Bethel Church in California, and the author of Loving Our Kids On Purpose (LOKOP), Keep Your Love On (KYLO), and Foundations of Honor (FOH). One of his major themes is about ‘Removing the Punisher’: “Punishment is driven by fear and creates fragile relationships in which the level of trust is low and the level of anxiety is high” (FoH p.79). Rather than ‘punishment’, Danny Silk talks in terms of ‘consequences’. But in reading LOKOP, it becomes clear that Danny Silk does actively impose disciplinary consequences on his children (eg. for not going to sleep at bedtime — ‘I’m not tired’ — his son is given extra chores to help tire him out) that are more than the mere consequences that would naturally follow their actions. As I use the word, this active imposition of artifical consequences is ‘punishment’. But although my definitions don’t quite align with Danny Silk’s rhetoric, I thoroughly agree with his point that discipline should be motivated by a love rather than any desire for retribution; and that the aim must be primarily to train a child in self-control, rather than simply to enforce submission to your control.

Just as the misery of suffering essentially depends on the narrative lens through which pain is experienced, in the same way the harshness of condemnation and punishment depends on whether or not we know we are loved by the one imposing that consequence. And when we know we are loved, it becomes possible to receive a word of correction without feeling condemned. And when we understand the reasons why we must submit to painful processes of discipline, then it stops feeling so much like punishment.

So judgement in itself is a good and necessary thing — so long as we know that we are unconditionally loved by the one who judges us. And “God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). So through Jesus the Problem of Evil is solved. Humanity no longer has to languish under its CURSE, instead we can CRUSH it underfoot.

Which is to say that our fundamental problem is that we’ve been looking at life all backward. But if instead of running away from God in exile, we would instead TURN to Him for healing for our various hurts, then we would find that the problem of E-V-I-L had also been turned around, becoming instead simply a problem of how then we should L-I-V-E.

The decisive blow against evil has been struck — but to comprehensively remove all trace of evil from our world there remains much still to do!

And the key is to understand FEAR — for this is the underlying reason that we run from God in exile, rather than toward Him for healing; and why we shrink back from the problems we see oppressing the world around us, rather than boldly stepping forward to work out solutions.

There are three Greek words used in the New Testament for ‘fear’. The standard word (47 occurences) is phobos, from which we get the word ‘phobia’. Sometimes this is a negative fear, as in Romans 8:15, where Paul says “For you have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear (phobos), but you have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry ‘Abba, Father!'” But sometimes this is used to describe a positive quality, as in Acts 9:31: “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.”

Then we have the words deilia and deilos, meaning ‘timidity’ or ‘cowardice’. This is purely negative: “God has not given us a spirit of timidity (deilia), but of power, love and self-control” 2 Tim. 1:7.

The third word is eulabeia, ‘reverent caution’. This is used only twice, and both in the Letter to the Hebrews: once for the acceptable attitude believers should have in coming before God in worship, and once to describe how Jesus Christ Himself called upon God in prayer.

It doesn’t seem too great a leap to then suggest that in general all fear is made up of these two component parts: appropriate reverence and timidity. And only as we come to fully understand the nature of the thing we fear can we say for certain in what ways we are unnecessarily timid, and in what ways we are rightly careful. As Christians we should be fearless, but not rash.

This is why the ‘fear of the Lord’ is still the beginning of wisdom — even in this New Testament age, when we do not have a ‘spirit of fear’. We do well to stay reverently mindful that God still requires that we approach God on His terms, rather than ours — which is to say, through Christ, with gratitude for His supreme sacrifice upon the cross, and with the willingness to fully surrender our lives to God and say (like Jesus did) ‘Not my will, but yours be done’ (Lk.22:42).

When we’ve given God the reverence He deserves then there’s a certain sense in which we can ‘reverently’ say to absolutely everything else, however frightening it might first appear and however dangerous it might actually be, ‘You don’t scare me! Even if you kill me, you can’t separate me from the love of God!’ (cf. Rom. 8:38-39). And in that apostolic confidence (cf. Phil. 1:21) we can go forth into all the world! But there’s another sense in which it is wise to take the time to let the seed of godly vision develop into a complete plan, and then to see what that plan will cost to pursue (cf. Lk. 14:28).

In general, following Christ costs everything — but He’s worthy of it all, so the equation is simple. But God is interested not only in our whole-hearted devotion, but in our increasing discernment. And so there may be some tasks He to which He calls us where we will find that the resources He has given us are only sufficient to the task if we use them in the most effective way. ‘You can’t pour out your alabaster jar at the feet of every single person that you meet’ (cf. John 12:3-7). As CT Studd said: “Only one life, ’twill soon be past — only what’s done for Christ will last”. Which is to say, reverently, YOLO!


Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (Ephesians 5:15-17)