Evil and the Cross

And Pilate, wishing to content the multitude, released unto them Barabbas, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified (Mark 15:15).

An innocent man scourged and crucified. Such terrible evil!

One of the most challenging questions that people face is the problem of evil. If God is so good, holy, and loving, how can He allow people to suffer pain, misery, and evil? The challenge of this question has only intensified as time has gone on and people show even greater cruelty toward one another. People want to know where God was during the Holocaust and in the genocides that have been committed ever since. Many claim to lose whatever faith they had in God on account of the problem of evil.

It is not as if God cannot create a world without any evil: the New Testament teaches that God intends to do so in the future (2 Peter 3:10-13, Revelation 21:1-22:6). If God can create a world without evil, misery, sin, and pain, why did He not do so the first time around?

Many “answers” are provided. Some declare that evil exists as a consequence for sin. It is true that evil often does occur as a consequence of sin, be it the presence of death in the world (Romans 5:12-18), natural disasters (Romans 8:20-22), condemnation (2 Kings 17:7-23, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9), or even the suffering of innocents (Romans 5:12-18). But this does not describe how evil comes into being. Others will then point to free will: God made mankind not as robots but as free moral agents, and for free moral agency to exist, a choice must exist (Isaiah 7:15-16, Ezekiel 18). Yet God certainly knew what the choice would be (Ephesians 3:11): why allow man to make the choice if it would lead to such great misery and pain?

The problem of evil is also addressed in “apocalyptic” parts of the Bible, such as Daniel 7-12, 2 Corinthians 4:4, Ephesians 6:12, and Revelation 12:9-12. While God maintains overall control of the universe, this world is currently beset by evil cosmic forces, which God will destroy on the last day (Revelation 19-20). While this may explain why God does not necessarily act to stop evil today, it still does not help us understand where these evil forces came from.

Ultimately we come to the answer provided in Job and Ecclesiastes: we humans cannot really know, and it is emptiness to consider the question (Job 38:1-42:6, Ecclesiastes 8:14, 16-17). When many people hear this, they want to protest. How can God “abandon” us without an answer to such a pressing question? What good is the Bible if it does not answer our most difficult question?

Yet maybe the problem is not with the Bible or its answers, but instead with the question itself. Why do people want to know where evil came from, anyway? We humans often believe that if we have knowledge about something, we can gain power over it. This worked with technology and science, so why not evil? The challenge is that even if we were given a most satisfying answer to the problem of evil, it would not make evil any less miserable or painful.

Evil is too challenging and complicated to be so easily dismissed. The problem is more with us: we do not want to really come face to face with the challenge evil presents. Evil pervades everything: we all have committed evil (Romans 3:9-23), and evil or at least the potential of evil exists in every person, corporation, organization, society, and government. When we are confronted with evil, we try to argue our way out of it, legislate it away, or avoid the issue. Yet none of those “solutions” ever works. We cannot, by our own devices, remove evil.

Furthermore, consider the basic message of the New Testament. God the Father told Peter, James, and John that Jesus was “His beloved Son” (Matthew 17:5). We know that Jesus prayed to God in the garden, imploring His Father to remove the evil that He would soon face (Matthew 26:39). We know that the Father heard Him (Hebrews 5:7). Therefore, if God could have somehow removed the problem of evil, or could make it irrelevant, without causing His Son to suffer such terrible pain and anguish, would He not have done so? The very fact that the New Testament teaches that the Son of God had to suffer evil demonstrates that the problem of evil cannot be answered by a philosophical argument. Asking why evil exists provides no benefit; instead, we must consider what God has done about the problem of evil.

The Bible makes it very clear that God deals with the problem of evil through Jesus’ death on the cross. God the Son was willing to take on flesh and to learn humiliation and obedience through suffering (Philippians 2:5-11, Hebrews 5:8). God handles the problem of evil in His own person!

Consider from the Gospel accounts all of the forms of evil that Jesus experiences on the day of His death. He experiences the evils of physical suffering in His scourging and crucifixion (Mark 15:15, Luke 23:33). He suffers political, social, and religious evils by the very “chosen people of God” who should have welcomed Him (Luke 22:63-71, 23:21). Further political evil comes from Pilate and Herod, enemies united in the downfall of Jesus (Luke 23:12). Since Jesus suffers evil without committing sin, He suffers the great moral evil of injustice (cf. Isaiah 53, 1 Peter 2:20-24). He suffers mental, emotional, and spiritual evil through the mockery, taunting, and temptations of the people and the Evil One behind them (Mark 15:29-32, Luke 4:13, 23:32-38).

Political, social, religious, moral, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual evil: Jesus experienced the full vent of such evils while enduring the cross. All the powers of evil threw all they had against the Son of God. He exhausted all their power in His death and resurrection, and He gained the victory over evil and its forces (Romans 8:2, 1 Corinthians 15:1-20).

The Bible does not provide an answer to the question of why evil exists, but God has definitively acted against evil through Jesus’ death on the cross. For whatever reason, evil cannot be willed away in this world. Instead, we must defeat evil. The only way that we can defeat evil is through the blood of Jesus the Lamb of God and our being willing to suffer as He did (Revelation 12:11, Romans 8:17). If evil stares us in the face and we cannot understand how God would allow evil to exist in the world, let us turn our face toward the cross, and see that God was willing to give His most precious Son in order to defeat evil. Let us follow Jesus’ example that was given for us and learn obedience through suffering evil unjustly (Hebrews 5:8, 1 Peter 2:20-24). Our hope of glorious salvation is dependent on God’s defeat of evil on the cross and our victory through Him (Revelation 12:11). Let us praise God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Theology While Suffering

Thou, O LORD, abidest for ever; Thy throne is from generation to generation. Wherefore dost thou forget us for ever, And forsake us so long time? Turn thou us unto thee, O LORD, and we shall be turned; Renew our days as of old. But thou hast utterly rejected us; Thou art very wroth against us (Lamentations 5:19-22).

The impact of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Babylonians, along with the exile to Babylon, upon the people of God can hardly be overstated. These events would completely rattle every aspect of the common theology and worldview of the day. In the ancient Near East, blessings and conquest meant your god was happy with you; plagues and defeat meant your god was angry with you. And yet here Judah experiences plague, pestilence, violence, complete devastation, and even exile, which to many would have meant as much a separation from the god of their land as much as it mean separation from their country. Formerly, even when things looked bad, the Temple of YHWH in Jerusalem remained; now, even that was gone. The complete humiliation of Judah posed major theological challenges: if YHWH is the God of Israel, how could YHWH allow these things to happen? Was YHWH powerless against the Babylonians and their god Marduk? If YHWH is punishing us, why does He do so in ways that give the other nations reason to blaspheme His name and thoroughly disrespect Him? How can YHWH be our God and care for us when we have been brought so very low?

God provided a lot of warnings to the people beforehand through the prophets; God would again speak to the people to comfort and encourage them after the events took place. There is less written from and about those actually experiencing the event and its immediate aftermath: some of the psalms seem to come from this period (e.g. Psalm 44), and we get some indication of events from the book of Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah 39:1-44:30). Yet it is the voice of Lamentations which provides a moving and visceral response to these tragic events. The author of Lamentations describes what happens, and understands why the tragedy was necessary. Nevertheless, the author wrestles with the pain, suffering, misery, and the question of God’s presence and concern for His people.

The book of Lamentations is a masterpiece. Its author, over its first four chapters, expresses the pain, anguish, and distress of Jerusalem and its people, and does so using acrostic patterns (each verse or couplet of verses begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet). Yet it is in the fifth chapter that the author breaks out of the convention and pours out his soul before God. He pleads for God to see their reproach and describes their humiliation (Lamentations 5:1-18). Yet, in all this, he remains convinced of God’s existence and authority (Lamentations 5:19). He wants to know for how long YHWH will continue to turn away from His people and abandon them to their humiliation; he asks YHWH to turn back to His people so His people will turn back to Him and all may be renewed (Lamentations 5:20-21). The author recognizes the present distress, and concludes with his understanding of the situation: YHWH has rejected His people and remains angry with them (Lamentations 5:22).

It comes as no surprise that Lamentations is not one of the more popular books of the Bible: it is not a happy book. Lamentations is full of the types of things which we humans generally seek to avoid: pain, distress, misery, suffering, and the attempt to try to make some sense out of why it happened and where God is in the midst of the pain. We know that there might be a time when we might experience something of the sort, but we certainly do not look forward to it. We would rather continue to live as we are living, seek to focus on the happier parts of life, hope we avoid as much suffering as we can, and trust that if suffering comes we will somehow find a way through it.

But then moments of suffering come. Perhaps we will be fortunate and be able to endure them without too much distress. But what will become of us if we experience a time of intense suffering far beyond anything we might have imagined? Doubts and fears will arise. Hope might be extinguished; despair may turn to cynicism. The confidence held in one’s view of God and how one looks at the world might be strongly shaken. Many in such a condition, even if they recover physically, never do so emotionally and spiritually.

This is why it is important to understand the value of strong theology even in the midst of suffering, or perhaps even on account of suffering. We can see this from the author of Lamentations. He has seen and experienced terrible evils which most of us can only imagine with dread and terror, terrible things done by the pagan nations against the people of God, and yet his faith is firm and resolute. He recognizes that God remains sovereign and in control. He has perceived that God is angry with His people and punished them and he does not seek to find fault with God because of it. He is able to maintain the hope that God will turn back toward His people and renew them as of old.

When we do not maintain that strong theology while suffering, we will be tempted to fall away. The same distress which the author of Lamentations rightly understands to be God’s chastening is understood by others as the consequence of turning away from the Queen of Heaven (cf. Jeremiah 44:15-19). While many Jews remained faithful to God in Babylon, we will never know how many others could not handle all the distress and pain and the challenge to their worldview and just assimilated into Babylonian culture, assuming that since the Babylonians were successful, their gods and perspective were clearly right, and their former belief in YHWH was wrong. Such people have been made invisible historically, no doubt swept up in every successive change of empire and belief in Mesopotamia. They attached themselves to the way of the world; their fate will be as the world.

Times of suffering will come. Our faith will be tested as through fire (1 Peter 1:3-9). Perhaps our sufferings will be manifestations of God’s discipline (cf. Hebrews 12:4-11). Perhaps our suffering will come on account of our trust in God in Christ (cf. Luke 6:22-23). Or maybe our suffering will not come with an explicit reason; it will just be. That suffering may be so severe as to shake our confidence in everything which we used to believe was true. How will we respond to such distress and calamity? Will we be able to maintain our confidence in God and His goodness toward His people? Will we find a way to maintain our hope despite our distress and pain? At that time we will perhaps gain a better appreciation for the message of Lamentations, and seek to take refuge in the same hope which sustained the author of Lamentations even when it seemed that there was no hope left. Let us stand firm in God and trust in Him in good times and in bad, when suffering or well, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Healed by His Wounds

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

Ever since Isaiah 53 was composed it has been a compelling passage. It had special meaning for its author and then for his original audience. It would be the passage which the eunuch was reading and considering in Acts 8:31-34. All sorts of interpretations have been made ever since.

It is likely that, at least in part, Isaiah has a suffering figure in mind in the latter days of the Babylonian exile. God is redeeming Israel again and will again bring her back to the land He promised them– but a particular suffering one will not make it.

Nevertheless, it is a stretch to argue that Isaiah really and completely has himself or some individual of the 6th century BCE in mind. Atonement requires an unblemished offering (e.g. Leviticus 1:3), and neither Isaiah nor someone two hundred years later were unblemished. Sure, they may have suffered because of sin, but they had their own sins against them, too. They could not really accomplish atonement by themselves.

Yet there was a Man concerning whom it was attested that He was tempted but did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). A Man who learned obedience through suffering, who was able to accomplish the atonement of which the Temple system and the previous servant were but a type (cf. Hebrews 7:23-28, 9:1-15, 10:1-14). This Man was Jesus of Nazareth, of whom Peter testifies:

Who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree, that we, having died unto sins, might live unto righteousness; by whose stripes ye were healed (1 Peter 2:24).

Peter explicitly identifies Jesus of Nazareth with the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53. It was by the stripes upon Jesus– His scourging– that we are healed (Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24; cf. Matthew 27:26).

When we think about it for a moment, we can perceive that Isaiah 53:5 really sets up a series of absurd statements. He was wounded for our transgressions? The chastisement of our peace was upon Him? We receive healing through His wounding? This does not really make any human sense whatsoever. Wounds injure and cause pain– they do not heal. Peace and chastisement are poles apart. If someone else gets abused because of our misdeeds, we otherwise would call that injustice and oppression, since if anyone deserves abuse for misdeeds, it is those who commit those misdeeds!

Yet this absurdity is precisely the point, for it gets us to the ultimate absurdity: in order to demonstrate God’s love, Jesus had to suffer great pain (Romans 5:6-11).

This concept poses a challenge to some people. What kind of God is this who shows His love by causing someone to suffer? It sounds disconcerting, to say the least!

In other contexts, however, this same impulse is extremely praiseworthy. How many stories have we read, or movies have we seen, that feature some character willing to suffer in order to protect or defend a loved one? Do we not consider it praiseworthy when someone is willing to give up a kidney or bone marrow or some other part of their body to another so that the latter can continue to live? Another compelling story in the Scriptures is found in Genesis 44: Judah, who had previously proved willing to sell Joseph into slavery, is now willing to stand as surety for Benjamin his brother, to suffer the penalty of the latter for the sake of their father.

If we can appreciate all of these examples as expressions of human love for one another, how much more should we appreciate God’s ultimate demonstration of love as expressed through Jesus of Nazareth? God did not want us to have to pay the true penalty for sin– eternal separation from Him and torment (cf. Romans 6:23, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). There is nothing that we humans could ever do in order to redeem ourselves or pay for our sins since we have all sinned, and no law could ever make us righteous once we have broken it (cf. Romans 3:9-20). If redemption were to be accomplished, it would have to be done by God Himself.

Therefore, the Word, the Son of God and God the Son, was willing to humble Himself, taking on the form of Jesus of Nazareth, to learn obedience through His suffering, to pay the penalty for us. He endured the beatings and crucifixion so that we did not have to endure eternal torture for our sin. He suffered chastisement in order to fulfill the demands of the law to set it aside, to kill hostility between people, and make peace between God and man and man with one another (cf. Ephesians 2:11-18). His wounds allow us to be cleansed from sin and to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-7).

The powerful and compelling message of Isaiah 53:5 is only matched by its fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth. We can only imagine the terrible suffering that He endured on that final day so long ago. Yet we can– and must– at times bring it to mind. We must consider how the whip abused His back, how the thorns pressed deeply into His scalp, and how the nails tore through His wrists and ankles. And, all the while, we must remember that it was accomplished for us. It was by every one of those wounds that we are healed.

A humbling expression of love– and such is its intent. Let us reflect on Christ’s suffering and live for Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry