The Problem of Evil

The physician returns to the examination room with a clipboard, tired eyes, and a noticeable weight on his shoulders. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he begins. “The results came back and the news is not good.” You think to yourself, “How can a child so young have such a terrible disease? What kind of world is this? What kind of God would allow a child to be so afflicted?”

Perhaps the most difficult set of problems in the Christian faith is the existence of evil and suffering. For those of us who, with Moses (Ex. 9:16), Paul (Rom. 9:14–33), and Augustine confess that God is sovereign over all things and that humans are nevertheless morally responsible for their free choices, the problem is particularly acute. For those who deny the first article of the Apostles’ Creed—“I believe in God the Father almighty”—the problem might not seem as great, but their approach raises its own crises: where does Scripture even begin to hint that the God who spoke all things into being (Gen. 1:3) relinquished control of His creation? What does Scripture give one to think that God is naturally unable to resist the human will? After all, Paul asks in Romans 9:19, “Who can resist [God’s] will”? The implied answer is “no one.” Hence the problem.

In Romans 9, Paul is discussing how it is that some come to faith and others are reprobated, or allowed to remain in their sin with all that entails. Paul, quoting Malachi 1:2–3, is quite blunt: “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated” (Rom. 9:12). Lest the reader be tempted to let God off the hook, Paul intensifies the problem. “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’ ” (vv. 14–15). When it comes to salvation, “therefore it depends not upon the one willing nor on the one running but upon God being merciful” (v. 16).

In case the point is not crystal clear—the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture knows how willful and intent on missing the obvious we can be—Paul is moved not only to quote Exodus 9:16 but to make it even more pointed: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” (Rom. 9:17–18). Arguably, in Exodus 9:16, Yahweh shows something to Pharaoh, but in Romans 9:16, Paul points out that God also shows something through Pharaoh. Paul sees Pharaoh as God’s instrument.

The Court

Paul knows our response: “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” (v.19) Paul’s reply: “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God? (v. 20). The first part of Paul’s reply draws upon Job 33:13: “Why do you contend against [God]?” and upon chapters 38–42, where Job, after resisting his counselors and the temptation to shake his fist at God, finally calls for a trial of sorts. Yahweh appears for the preliminary hearing. He asks just one devastating question: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4). Before the Lord will allow Job to sue Him for malpractice, He demands that Job prove that he has standing before the court. Job does not. He was made from dust. There was a time when Job was not, but God has always been and always will be. Yahweh demands, “Tell me, if you have understanding” (v. 4). Of course, Job is silenced by God’s opening query. For all of Job’s righteousness, for all his very real suffering, he lacks standing before the almighty and all-holy God to lay charges. Job does not see the big picture and because He is a creature not the Creator, he cannot comprehend the mysteries of creation. For all his pain, Job is still dust, and to dust he will return.

The Clay

In the second part of Romans 9:20, Paul adds a layer to his reply by quoting Isaiah 29:16: “Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ ” He explains the analogy: 

Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory? (Rom. 9:21–23)

These “what if” questions are not hypotheticals. They are Paul’s response to the problem. The sovereign God is the potter. We creatures are but clay. As the potter, He is the owner and master. Imagine that you took up pottery and bought a potter’s wheel, a kiln, and, of course, the materials. Imagine, after getting set up, after working with the clay to prepare it, you were just about to throw it on the wheel to form it when it began talking back to you. You might suspect that someone spiked your tea or that you were experiencing a psychotic break with reality. In reality, clay does not speak. If it is absurd to us finite creatures to think of clay speaking back to us, how much more absurd is it to imagine creatures (made from clay) speaking back to their Creator in order to accuse Him of evil and injustice?

The God who spoke all things into being is not utterly remote from our self-inflicted suffering and pain. He has drawn as near as possible by taking on human nature.
The Cross

There is one other location to consider in this regard: the cross. The God who spoke all things into being is not utterly remote from our self-inflicted suffering and pain. He has drawn as near as possible by taking on human nature: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). God so loved His sinful creatures that He gave His only and eternally begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (3:16). God the Son loved us so much that He volunteered to come as the substitute and mediator for the elect among the fallen. He endured injustice all His life (Matt. 8:20) and actively obeyed the holy law for us, but He did not stop there. He paid the penalty for our sin, “the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). God the Son incarnate entered fully into our misery. He suffered more indignity than Job by carrying our sin all the way to the cross and thence to the grave.

Before we shake our fist at God, we must first consider God the Son incarnate, Jesus the Messiah, crucified for us, murdered for us, for our sins, and raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25). It is unthinkable that a Christian, after he has turned his eyes to the cross, would turn away to shake his fist. Since Christ has absorbed God’s wrath against us (1 Thess. 5:9), He has made our wrath at God unthinkable.


Whether we consider Yahweh’s response to Job or Paul’s response to the problem of evil, in light of divine sovereignty, we see that while Scripture provides helpful insight into the issue, it does not give what most would regard as an answer that satisfies every concern we might raise. The truth is that we are not capable of understanding the answer any more than we are capable of understanding how it is that Adam, whom God created “good and after his image, in righteousness and true holiness” (Heidelberg Catechism 6; see Gen. 1:26), would freely choose to disobey his God, to listen to the lies of the evil one, and to plunge himself and all of us into sin and death. That is a mystery, too, for which Scripture blames only us. Scripture, however, does give us categories, ways to think about this problem. The imagery of the court and the clay help us to understand how we should think and speak of ourselves and God.

The God who owed us nothing but wrath nevertheless did not leave all people in their sin. Graciously and mysteriously He looked upon the “mass of damnation” (as Augustine put it)—all people in Adam—and chose some of them “in Christ,” selecting them without regard to their merits in order to unite them to His Son and give them eternal salvation (Eph. 1:3–14; 2:1–4). Of course, bad things happen in this fallen world, but God is good and He has drawn near to us in the God-man Jesus our Savior.

Surely, he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. (Isa. 53:4–5)

Editor’s Note: This post was first published on January 15, 2018.

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