What does it mean to live in a universe where God judges evil?
A few weeks ago, I noticed a few visitors coming to my website in search of an answer to the question: "What does it mean to live in a universe where God judges evil?" Although this question is very important, I had not addressed it specifically in any of my essays. Indeed, the fact that one of my sermons was the first Google hit was totally fortuitous (or providential). However, as the hits increased, I decided to write a brief answer to this question. If you find it useful, you may want to look at some other relevant essays or at the original sermon which generated the hits. As always you are welcome to email me for clarification, criticism or further comments at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org. So what does it mean to live in a universe where God judges evil?
Answer 1: Evil exists and it is transcendentally Bad.
This may seem like an obvious point, but it is philosophically important given some of the alternative worldviews to theism in general or to Christianity in particular. The fact that God exists and that He is Good means that it is possible for the actions of individuals or the actions of communities or the actions of nations to be Wrong. If God has a will, then it is possible for us to violate it. If God delights in love, peace, and compassion, then He is eternally opposed to hatred, violence, and wickedness.
In contrast, apart from the existence of a Good, personal God, it is not clear whether evil has any transcendent meaning. For instance, the traditional Eastern understanding is that good and evil are two sides of the same coin or two ways of looking at reality, both of which are ultimately transcended as we unite with the Divine and lose all desire and sense of self. A naturalistic understanding of the universe would identify "suffering" with a certain biochemical response (say, a downregulation of seratonin) in human animals and evil with certain behavioral tendencies in human animals. In neither case does evil have any transcendent meaning. In the Eastern view, ultimate reality is beyond good and evil. In the naturalistic view, good and evil are expressions of personal preference or are constructions of a given culture. There is no standard external to man which says that Evil is Bad or Wrong. So the first consequence of living in a universe where God judges evil is a validation of our notion that Evil is truly Bad. Evil is not an expression of our personal preferences, just like our preference for chocolate over vanilla. Evil is not determined by local culture like our preference that men should wear a certain kind of hat. Rather, good and evil have a transcendent basis in God's good and perfect character. God abhors evil just as much as -and indeed, far more than- we do.
Related Essay: God and Evil
Answer 2: Good will triumph in the end
Although modern Western individualists (like myself) tend to view the doctrine of God's judgment with distaste or even abhorrence, the ancient Israelites did not feel this way. Rather, they looked at God's judgment as a source of great hope and joy. Why? Because "God works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed" (Psalm 103:4). The Psalms are full of rejoicing over God's justice because the ancient Israelites realized that the ultimate antidote for suffering, oppression, and evil was justice (see Psalm 10 or Psalm 68). Not flawed, biased, faulty human justice, but God's perfect, impartial justice. The Israelites longed for the day when God would end evil once and for all and save the helpless, who they constantly saw trampelled and oppressed.
When we think about the state of the world and the horrible suffering experienced by billions of men, women, and children, then we begin to see that their view of God's justice is far more appropriate that our view. The idea that God will judge evil is good news to the poor and the suffering. It means that there is an omnipotent Creator who sympathizes with their plight, who is enraged at their treatment, and who will come to rescue them. Naturalists could potentailly urge us to work for good and justice. But naturalism provides no hope that good and justice will ultimately triumph. Indeed, it seems that the inevitable heat death of our sun and of our whole universe will eventually plunge all of us into oblivion. If God does not exist, not only is there no assurance that Good will triumph over evil. Rather, we have almost complete assurance that nothingness will swallow up all human beings. Our deeds, whether good or evil, will perish in eternal emptiness. But if we live in a universe in which God will one day judge evil, then we have not only incentive to work for justice, but assurance that justice will one day triumph over injustice.
Answer 3: We all need to be rescued
Although the ideas that evil is truly Wrong and that God will one day put everything Right are inspiring and hopeful, they also ought to make us very nervous. After all, it is nice to believe that evil will be conquered and that oppression and injustice will be destroyed. But if we are at all thoughtful, we need to raise an important question: where do I stand with regard to God's justice? If God will judge "the secrets of men's hearts" and will punish every act of rebellion, is that cause for hope or for fear? I think the natural human tendency is to assume that, although we are not perfect, we certainly have little to fear from God's justice. After all, we are not nearly as bad as the truly cruel, wicked tyrants that litter human history. We tend to believe that we are fairly moral, decent people after all and that God will forgive whatever minor faults we may have committed. Unfortunately, the Bible has extremely different assessment of our state: "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Rom. 3:10-12)
If we honestly consider our words, thoughts, and deeds in the light of God's standard, we find that we fall woefully short. Jesus summarized the entire moral obligation of humanity in two short commands: love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. Do we? Do we pour all of our energy, time, passion, and intellect into loving the God who created us, sustains us, and gave us every good gift we've ever received. No. We spend far more time thinking about our jobs, our goals, our amusements, our money, and our family than we spend thinking about God. Would we ever think of treating our spouse or our best friend with the casual neglect with which we treat God? And do we love our neighbor as ourself? Why not check our tax return? How much money do we spend on ourselves and how much do we spend on our neighbors? on the homeless? on children struggling in developing world slums? How do we treat our spouse? Our children? Our employees?
Our natural response is to object that we are no worse than others. But that is precisely God's point. Read Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and see the life of purity, goodness, compassion and love God commands and expects from us. Reading Jesus' words is what it must feel like for a leper to go to a doctor's office and see a healthy person for the first time. In Jesus' teaching, we catch a glimpse of true holiness. The only realistic response is to recognize how far short we fall of it. We are all moral lepers, from the most moral philanthropist to the most immoral criminal.
What is the solution? Most historic religions believe in a God who judges evil. Most religions affirm that one day God will put things right and will put an end to evil and suffering by judging the wicked. The difference between all other religions and Christianity is two-fold. First, other religions always radically understate the magnitude of human sinfulness. The assumption of other religions is that -with God's help and with enough of his forgiveness- we can merit God's blessing. If we try hard enough, if we are loving enough, if we live a righteous enough life, then God will vindicate us. The Bible gives us no such hope. It says that we are utterly unable to merit God's favor. Rather, because of our sin we have merited nothing but his curse, his rejection and his judgment. But second, other religions radically understate God's grace. Christianity does believe that God is a Judge. But God is a Judge who was judged. Jesus once stood before a judge: Pontius Pilate. But rather than being vindicated as a good and righteous man, he was stripped naked, flogged, and crucified. More than that, on the cross, Jesus the righteous Son of God was made to bear our sin. The one who will one day judge all of humanity was himself judged and sentenced and struck down as if he were the worst of sinners. Why? In our place. Christianity teaches that salvation is not by merit but by substitution. The judge of all the universe stepped down from the bench and was led to the gallows. For us. The only response we can make is to repent and believe. Repent by turning from our own sinful desires, our own attempts to merit God's approval, our own selfish goals and believe by trusting in the good news of Jesus' substitutionary death on our behalf.
Related Essay: Why I Am A Christian
SummaryWe do live in a universe in which God judges evil. The bad news is that our sin renders us guilty before a good and perfect God. But the good news is that "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." (John 3:16-17)
If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org. I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is phenomenal. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here.