This paper has been written by me in the course of my theological studies at European Nazarene College (www.eunc.edu). You may use this text as a part of your work provided that you give credits to its author – Petar Neychev. If you have questions – please, leave a comment or contact me through the Contact Us page.
Probably one of the most controversial and often discussed aspects of the doctrine of God is this of evil. Whether as a result of a deep theological discussion or a simple everyday experience-based conversation, the presence of evil in the created order is strongly agreed upon.(1) Thus, the issue at stake becomes “How do we deal with it?” It should not be surprising that there are various paths leading towards understanding the question and alluding to the answer. In the following lines the major of these will be briefly presented, accompanied with their strongest arguments. As a separate section the Wesleyan approach will be outlined in greater detail, in order to offer a perception which is more balanced. Following this the author will present a concluding section on applying the Wesleyan approach in everyday life and ministry in today’s world. This is how the author will present and defend the stand that the problem of evil, although unresolvable is yet surmountable, and it is not in contradiction with the remaining characteristics of God which are clearly stated in the Bible.
As it was mentioned in the introductory words, there are various ways of perceiving one of the greatest paradoxes of theology – the good God and the obvious presence of evil in his creation. I would like to begin by presenting a view according to which evil is but a mere illusion – it is not real. J.R. Zurheide in When Faith Is Tested points out that Christian scientists attempt to resolve the problem through a series of logical syllogisms. Thus, starting out with “God is All” they reach a conclusion claiming that “Sin and Sickness are not real.”(2) It underlines a quite unreasonable leap, which is additionally argued down by the integrity of the doctrine of God as Creator of all.(3) Zurheide very well formulates the consequences of this view and the logical conclusion of the syllogism mentioned above:
“Be that as it may, by arriving at the conclusion that matter does not exist, Christian Scientists also claim that pain, sickness, suffering, and death are both illusory and the result of false beliefs. Try sharing the unreality of pain with one who has just unintentionally hit the thumb with the hammer…”(4)
Thus we can quickly arrive at the opinion that “the concept of illusion does not help to resolve the problem of evil since it raises too many questions about itself.”(5)
Another attempt is the one which Zurheide calls “Eliminating “God is Great”. Starting with the simple name of it, and without any dry theological argumentations this statement would sound ridiculous to the believer. The ones in favor of process theology(6), however, together with Rabbi Harold Kushner will argue pro-. This view tries to resolve the paradox by removing of the causes for it – the claim that God is omnipotent. Kushner, for instance, argues based on the book of Job that:
“If we have grown up, as Job and his friends did, believing in an all-wise, all-powerful, and all-knowing God, it will be hard for us, as it was hard for them, to change our way of thinking about Him… But if we can bring ourselves to acknowledge that there are some things God does not control, many good things become possible.”(7)
Several of the critiques of this standpoint include the suggested dualism (Zurheide 30), and the inconsistent and unclear use of terms such as “bad” and “good” by the author of the quotation himself. Process theology is also not accepted as a correct perception, which is well expressed by Wright in the following words:
“It is difficult to see how these themes in process thought can be squared with biblical faith. On a more ironic level, we might feel we have enough prolems of our own without having to help God continue his development with his as well.”(8)
I would like to combine the following two approaches in one discussion, since there is a strong similarity between them.(9) The perception of evil as good and the one of evil as necessary have in common the specific dignity they assign to it. The first way, supported by Leibnitz and Sanford, suggests that evil is actually helping the developing world (notice the connection also with process theology here) by enhancing the good there is. A vivid example here could be the saying “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” Evil is also given the role of helper for individuals to understand God better.
On the other hand, the issue of evil as necessary could also be referred to as the “free will defence” (Wright 84). To describe it briefly, this is a view in which the argument is that God could not create a free-will-driven being without the presence of evil. Otherwise man would automatically do the proper thing, and thus freedom is lost. The bottom line of this argument is the following:
“The free will defence… maintains that God is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good but that it was not within God’s power to create a world containing moral good without creating one containing the possibility of moral evil.”(10)
To briefly summarize the effects of these two views one can state the following: When we see evil as good we proclaim that there is peace (as opposed to the constant battle) between God and evil. The psychologist Carl Jung goes as far as saying that we need not speak of a trinity, but of a quaternity – where he secures a place for Satan within the Godhead. Concerning the view of evil as necessary one may argue that since creation and all within it come from God then the logical way of thinking is also under his power. This is to say that the last quotation from Wright can be denied by saying that God could have created a world in which the impossible now could be possible, but his love and the desire he had for man did not prevent him – God limited himself because of his love.
(The material for the discussion in this section is taken entirely from Dunning unless otherwise stated.)
Compared to the ones mentioned above, the Wesleyan approach to the problem of evil stands out with its balance and biblical support, and at the same time recognition of the reality which mankind experiences in the world. From the following lines it will also become clear to the reader that the Wesleyan approach does not seek to clearly define the origin of evil from its very beginning, but to guide the believer in dealing successfully with the present (and very practical!) characteristics of it.
Remaining true to the biblical foundation this approach claims that “God was the sole Source of all existence” – ex-nihilo (Dunning 241). From that statement one can also conclude that “since all that is derives from God’s will which because of his holiness can only be good, nothing in existence can be intrinsically evil” (Dunning 241, italics mine). This eliminates the contradiction with the remaining aspects of the doctrine of God which are present with the views presented earlier.
The Wesleyan approach perceives evil in two categories – moral evil, which is in its essence sin, and natural evil, which is referred to also as physical evil. The moral evil, or sin is viewed as “man’s rebellious will, his refusal to acknowledge the Lordship of his Creator” (Dunning 252). Thus it becomes relatively easy to comprehend the moral evil, since it is grounded in the individual. The issue of natural evil, however is one of various unknowns. And here is where the Wesleyan approach stands out by not emphasizing on the origin of this evil, but on dealing with it and its end. The biblical emphasis is clearly communicated through the passage from Revelation 21:1, which reads: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had vanished” (NEB). The cross of Christ is perceived as “God’s final word to the issue of suffering” (Dunning 254). This is the way in which mankind triumphs over evil, instead of being lost in the unsuccessful attempts to discover the origin of it. This is how the Wesleyan approach opens the door for mankind to seek God’s love in a world contaminated with evil.
After having a general overview of the approaches to the problem of evil one may still remain with a certain discomfort concerning the practical application of all said so far. It should be made clear that the final answer from a Wesleyan view is in response to the question “How do we overcome it?” but not “How do we resolve the paradox?” By distinguishing between the two kinds of evil, this approach allows the individual to seek victory over evil though the cross of Christ (through redemption, faith, and hope), and mankind as a whole – by being dependent on God’s love and the personal relationship with him, the results of which apostle Paul formulates very well:
“ For I am certain that nothing can separate us from his love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below – there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord ”(Romans 8:38-39, GNB).
Dunning, H. Ray, Grace, Faith and Holiness. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1988
Plantinga, Alvin, God, freedom, and evil. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 1977
Wright, Nigel G., A theology of the dark side : putting the power of evil in its place. Carlisle: Paternoster, 2003
Zurheide, Jeffry R., When faith is tested : pastoral responses to suffering and tragic death. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997