Pastor John Piper has asked, “Where was God when so many good things happened this past year? How can God be a God of justice, yet allow so much good to happen to people who dishonor him by disbelieving in him, or giving lip service to his existence, or paying no more attention to him than the carpet in their den, or rejecting the kingship of his Son, or scorning his word, or preferring a hundred pleasures before him? How can God be righteous and do so much good to us who are so unrighteous?” This is the theme of “Where is God? Part I.”
Of course, we all know there is another aspect off of which Piper’s questions play…the problem of evil. When all the world is shaking its head in horror and disbelief at the evils of our day, the implication most suggested in those words, “Where is God?” is one that attempts to rationalize a good God with the evil we observe.
This question has been asked and attempted to be answered many times throughout the ages. Where is God when bad things happen? In a recent essay, Joe Rigney tackles this colossal question, addressing the biblical, philosophical, and emotional aspects of this question by comparing God to human authors and the stories and characters they create. After identifying and reasonably answering the obvious difficulties one might have with such a comparison (i.e. God being markedly different than a human author and flesh and blood people being markedly different from characters in a book), Rigney’s analogy actually allows one to wrap his or her mind around the conundrum of evil and a sovereign God.
Rigney identifies the age-old philosophical “problem of evil” as the following:
(1) If God is all-knowing, then he knows what evil is.
(2) If God is all-good, then he himself is not evil and he would prevent evil, if he could.
(3) If God is all-powerful, then he can prevent evil.
(4) Evil exists.
(5) Therefore (1), (2), or (3) (or some combination), must be false.
However, examining evil in light of his proposed author-story analogy allows us to see that (1) and (3) clearly hold, but that (2) can be denied. After all, why does evil exist in an author’s stories? Rigney argues that God ordains evil “for the same reason that C.S. Lewis creates the White Witch: so that Aslan will have someone to conquer. Evil exists so that Good can triumph. Death exists so that it can be thrown into hell (Rev 20:14). And this does not in any way minimize the wickedness or horror of evil. God is sovereign and evil is real.”
Rigney continues, “God remains all-good even if he allows and ordains evil for his own wise and good purposes. In other words, God may ordain that evil exist because the existence of evil serves some greater good that God has in view.” The author-story analogy sheds light on how God is not tainted by the evil of his creatures (as a human author, Tom Clancy for example, is not readily considered evil for the evil characters or evil plots he’s included in his novels). The author-story analogy also sheds light on why God would ordain evil for his own wise purposes (he, like more finite authors, is working out a great and glorious narrative that will ultimately see evil overcome, where the hero will be completely triumphant and reveal himself to a grateful, rescued people who, now on the other side of their sorrows, fully realize the suffering from which they’ve been freed).
“This way of looking at the world allows us to view every part of the story through two lenses: a wide lens and a narrow lens. The narrow lens keeps us from minimizing the reality of evil, as if pain and wickedness were simply illusions. We must never give in to the false logic that says, “Because God ordains all things, there is really no such thing as evil.” The Bible will have nothing to do with such reasoning. Christians do not shrink from calling evil “evil” (Gen 50:20), or calamity “calamity” (Isa 45:7), or disaster “disaster” (Amos 3:6). What’s more, we are called to weep with those who weep, to fight the curse that hangs over this fallen world, and to rage against the darkness with all the power of the light.
“At the same time, we must not elevate evil above its station. Nothing happens apart from God’s wise and good decree. Therefore, we must not stop reading in the early chapters. The story does not stop, and so our wide lens allows us to see, or at least to trust, that Judas’s betrayal will not go unpunished, Wormtongue’s lies will not stand, and the blood of the martyrs will in fact bear fruit. This is a happily-ever-after kind of story. This is the kind of story where dragons are slain and tears are wiped away and faithful death is always followed by resurrection. Sorrow may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
The thing to be marveled at in the story God is writing is not only that there is purpose in every aspect of life, the good and the evil, but that God, the author, would provide the ultimate, mind-blowing plot twist, in making himself a character in the story he creates. This is the sort of thing that fascinates us in stories like Tron, the designer becomes a player in his own creation!
“God-as-Author and God-as-Character means that we can view God’s relationship to the world in two complementary ways. On the one hand, he is transcendent and high and lifted up, looking far down upon the children of man. He is the Alpha and Omega, relating to creation a-temporally, outside of time. If history is a great river, he views the entire sweep of it — twists and turns and all — in one comprehensive glance from his heavenly mountain.
“On the other hand, he enters into his story as a character, walking with his creatures and engaging with them as fellow characters, rejoicing over their successes and grieving over their losses. He enters the river and rides the rapids with us, hands waving wildly in the air. This is the God who weeps, the God who repents, the God who changes his mind. This is the God who, though unchanging, becomes flesh and dwells among us.
“Which brings us to Christmas. This is what the Incarnation is all about: the Author of the story becoming not just a character, but a human character. In this narrative, God is the storyteller and the main character. He is the Bard and the hero. He authors the fairy tale and then comes to kill the dragon and get the girl.
“The Incarnation is God’s definitive answer to the emotional problem of evil. The living God is not a detached observer or absentee landlord. He doesn’t stand aloof from the suffering and pain and evil that forms the central tension of his epic. The God who is born is also the God who bleeds, the God who dies, the God who identifies with our sorrows by becoming the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief.
“God comes down, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and draws to himself all of the sin and the shame, the rebellion and the hate, the sickness and the death, and swallows it whole. And he swallows it by letting it swallow him. The Dragon is crushed in the crushing of the Prince of Peace. The triumphant hour of darkness and evil occurs on the day we know as Good Friday.
“This biblical paradigm frees Rachel to lament when Herod slays her little children, to weep that her little ones are no more, knowing that God is weeping with her, shedding Christmas tears of sovereign mercy. And it does so without removing the soul-anchoring consolation that the Author of this story has good and wise purposes in writing his story in the way that he does. We desperately need both aspects of the analogy. We need a Sovereign Author who crafts each chapter, paragraph, and sentence (no matter how horrible) into a fitting narrative, one in which evil exists to be crushed underfoot. And we need a Consoling Character, a very present help who identifies and suffers with the brokenhearted, entering into our pain and loss with love that will endure long after the last tear falls.
“Because in the story God is telling, evil does not have the last word. Good Friday is not the end (which is why it’s so good). He burst from the spiced tomb on Resurrection Sunday, commissioned his disciples, and ascended to his throne, where now he sits until all of his enemies are subdued under his feet, including and especially Evil.
“This then is the truth, goodness, and beauty of the Christian answer to the problem(s) of evil. It is the confession of Jesus Christ, the Divine Author who never himself does evil, but instead conquers all evil by enduring the greatest evil, and thereby delivers all those enslaved and oppressed by evil who put their hope in him. “