What about our Option 1: that God allows evil and suffering, but does not decree or purpose them?
Paul, in his letter to the Romans, chapter 1, describes how mankind fell into wickedness and all the suffering which it brings. I take this to be a historical narrative-type descrition:
though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Romans 1:21
There’s that word ‘futile’ again, same word used so famously in Ecclesiastes. How did this evil, this futility and senselessness come into the world? Through man’s actions and will.
they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…they did not see fit to acknowledge God… Romans 1:25,28.
Truth exchanged for lies, reality for fantasy, the structure and logic of relations overturned. These are all the qualities of ‘futility’ which the Preacher identified in the human condition. There is no understanding man in the grip of this evil:
Though they know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. Romans 1:32
Crazy. Stupid. Senseless. But the point here is that this is something man has done to himself. We chose this, and rejected God and his order of things. There is no hint in this passage that anyone else’s desire is being followed besides the wicked desire of mankind.
What of God then – how did he view these developments? The passage is framed with statements of God’s wrath, his strongest disapproval of what has occurred (1:18, 32). The message is clear: none of this was God’s intention – quite the opposite. His response is to judge and condemn the evil which man has generated. And this judgement takes a particular form:
So God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves… Romans 1:24
Three times Paul tells us God’s response was to ‘give them over’ to their wickedness. He left them to it, to reap what they had sown. It would be the most perverse misunderstanding to suggest that God intended the evil which he allowed to spread through his beautiful creation. Paul is saying the reverse: the evil did not originate with God or form part of his purposes. He detested it. Rather he allowed mankind to have what they chose, instead of what he chose for them.
What did that giving over look like? It looked like suffering:
They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Romans 1:29-31
Every war movie, every violent confrontation you’ve ever seen should be flashing before your eyes. Every instance of school-yard or workplace bullying. Every torture session, every cruel word. Every family bustup. Here’s where it all comes from. From God’s purposes? No: from man’s choice of the evil rather than the good.
Now this is a classic statement of Option 1: God allows but does not decree evil.
Some Christians will want to say, ‘Yes, but behind that story is another one, which points in a different direction. A story in which God is secretly the cause of everything.’ And of course this story, lying behind all others, trumps them all. All we will say here is, we don’t find Paul or the Preacher or Job telling that other story about evil. Any story which neutralises the story they do tell, so that it can’t function in our lives, should be treated with caution.
This ‘giving over’ which Paul describes is pretty scary: God leaving us to our own wickedness. Terrifying, really. But what it doesn’t do is to align God with the calamity. At the pastoral level, the great difference between this view and Option 2: (God decrees evil and suffering), is that here God is not seen as behind our suffering. He never sides with the misery, as something he approves or initiates or sends. Evil is ours, not his. Even while allowing our evil, God still detests it. He remains on our side, as his creation, and against evil, as the enemy of the created order. This is perhaps what James, that wise pastor, is getting at in his teaching about testing:
Blessed is anyone who endures testings. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life … No one, when tested, should say, “I am being tested by God”; for God … himself tests no one.
If God is not the one behind the trial, then however angry we get about the suffering, we are not going to feel angry with him. In fact, it gives us something to talk to him about. Under the most intense pressure, our connection to God is not likely to be strained or alienated. On the contrary, it is at those times that we can turn to him most energetically, as our protector, as the only one who can help. When you’re in trouble, you instinctively look for backup, for a strong ally. And this is exactly what we find repeatedly in the lament psalms, with their familiar cry: ‘Don’t leave us in this mess, Lord, save us!’ It’s the sort of desperate appeal to God our saviour which Jesus teaches his disciples to pray:
Deliver us from evil!
Tomorrow: “How long O Lord?”