Atheists and agnostics sometimes complain about “the problem of evil.” If God is good, they say, why does evil exist?
I note the irony that disobedience to God’s will seems to be the cause of evil and leads to all the evil results we see around us. For instance was it God or man who was the first murderer? Christians and Jews know the answer to that one: Cain, one of the first generation children of Adam and Eve. By far the majority of human tragedy comes from human greed, anger, short-sightedness or outright stupidity.
Beyond this there is a problem for atheists hidden on the other side of their own question: the problem of good.
What do we mean by the problem of good?
There are two aspects to the problem of good. First, if there is no God how do we know what is good? Why is good, well, good? How do you derive morality from a struggle for “survival of the fittest, for instance?” Why do most people seem to innately have a sense of right and wrong (whether or not they actually follow the right)? The idea of having a built-in conscience is more of a problem than most atheists want to acknowledge.
There is even an aspect of the problem of good that can be puzzling to Christians. It can be formulated like this: “If human beings are tainted by a sinful nature, why are there non-Christians who are seemingly more morally upright than many Christians who have the Spirit of God?” In other words, why are there good people around who are not Christians?
And why do some non-Christian artists, artisans, designers, engineers or scientists come up with superior work to many Christians ones?
The answer to both has been discussed in a doctrine called the doctrine of common grace. This doctrine is rooted in aspects of God’s character.
Jesus has interesting things to say about the character of God that we can sometimes miss if we aren’t paying attention. For instance, in Matt 5:43-48 Jesus teaches his disciples to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. Why? So that they can behave as children of the Father. He gives the example of God sending sun and rain on the ungodly as well as the godly. God is even kind to the ungrateful and wicked (Luke 6:35).
While a casual reading of the Bible by a skeptic can give the impression of a harsh and tyrannical deity, there is much more revealed than at first glance. Even in judgment God displays a remarkable forbearance, as we will demonstrate a little later.
First of all, was it necessary for God to create humankind as a thinking creation? Better yet, do we deserve to exist in the first place? In fact, God liked his created humans enough to declare his whole creation “very good.”
When Adam and Eve sinned they were warned that death would follow if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And it did. But, really, 930 years later (at least for Adam)? Compared to our 70-or-so-year modern lifespans that hardly seems like a punishment.
After only about 1560 years there was so much human evil and violence on the earth that humankind seemed on the verge of wiping itself out, so God intervenes by sending a flood. Yet he allows enough humans and animals to survive to give them a fresh start.
God later tells Abraham that his descendants would have to wait 430 years to inherit their land because the sin of the Amorites has not gotten bad enough to drive them out yet. Really, God is going to wait 430 years before intervening? Watch out for that angry, quick-tempered God! (For those of you not accustomed, this is what sarcasm looks like.) So, in reality, God really is very slow to anger and much more merciful than he is given credit for by his opponents.
The point is this: the tree was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, not the tree of evil. God allows enough good for society to function well enough to allow the human race to prosper as a whole.
This is not to say that God eliminates dysfunction and tragedy. No. He even tells Adam that life will be hard and toilsome. But that doesn’t stop humanity from multiplying and filling the earth. It also doesn’t stop mankind’s ability to overcome many problems and rule over the earth.
The God who created the world is also the one who sustains it (Colossians 1:17). He does that, in spite of the twisted nature of his human creation. He explains why in John 3:16. God wants human beings to have eternal life. They can’t have it if they don’t have any chance to survive in the here and now. So he sustains the world in a balance that allows both good and evil to become obvious to all.
He also allows it to make God’s work and will obvious to all if they do not refuse to see. For instance, the world will eventually see how God’s judgment is not based on random anger, but is based on a reality that transcends human points of view (Romans 1:18-19, Rom. 1:25).
Acts 14:17 In Lystra Paul heals a man born blind and begins to be seen as a god. He points them to Jesus, beginning with what even pagans know: there is a God who has been providing for them. He equates this Sustainer God with the Creator God.
Theologian Louis Berkhof tells us what such grace accomplishes: “[It] curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men.” Thus common grace encompasses not only physical blessings like rain and food and health, but also blessings in the areas of intellect, morality, creativity, society, and religion. Like all grace, all undeserved favor, it is meant to point us to our kind, loving Creator.
Four Purposes of Common Grace
- Common Grace Serves God’s Greater Purpose of Saving Grace by restraining both human sin and God’s wrath (Rom 13:1).Otherwise we would be destroyed either by God or ourselves
- Common Grace Demonstrates God’s Mercy and Goodness.God takes no pleasure in final judgment but delights rather in salvation.
- Common Grace Demonstrates God’s Justice. God allows people to know him by his works and therefore know that judgment is coming and is just.
- Common Grace Demonstrates God’s Glory. As man exercises dominion he shows how creative God is for making man in his image.
Common grace allows us to influence our homes, workplaces and society through the dominion mandate.
There is biblical precedent for believers cooperating with non-believers to achieve what God commanded in the cultural mandate:
- Daniel served faithfully in Nebuchadnezzar’s court (Daniel 2)
- Jeremiah wrote to the Jewish exiles in Babylon charging them to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7)
- Paul told the Galatians, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people” (Galatians 6:10)
At the same time, there is other scripture that seems to say the opposite:
- When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, “they plundered the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:35-36)
- Paul admonished the Corinthians, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and unrighteousness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14)
- When the Jews returned from Babylon, the Samaritans were not allowed to help the people of God rebuild the temple (Ezra 4:1-3)
This concept of cooperating with non-believers but not being yoked with them, being “in the world but not of the world,” is more complicated than it first appears. Help is found in the “doctrine of common grace.”
R.C. Sproul has a very helpful video about common grace on YouTube.
Here are some sources for the information regarding the Lous Berkhof quote, the purposes of common grace and the ideas about working together yet not “unequally yoked with” non-Christians in this post: