When God Steps Back: The Law and The Problem of Evil

Evil is evil. Could there be a statement more pathetically obvious, yet more profoundly ominous? We live in a world rife with evil. Every day, there is murder and mayhem on the news. School shootings have become more routine than Presidential elections, and more children on this planet are malnourished than well-fed. Many nations reek with poverty and injustice, even including parts of our own.

Yet simultaneously, as Christians we affirm the existence and immanence (which basically means closeness to our world) of a good God. This God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. He is love, and He is the true life. He is the Lord All-Powerful, able to do all He decides to do, who overflows with mercy and compassion to those in need.

To most people, these two realities are at least at tension with each other, and for many they are outright contradictions. How can so much evil fill a world created, sustained, and cared for by a good and omnipotent God? The problem of evil boggles minds upon minds.

Throughout history, numerous solutions to the problem of evil have been proposed. The Gnostics attributed evil to the god of matter and good to the God of Spirit. Ancient polytheist religions imagined very many gods—some good, some evil, and none flawless—who determined the fortunes of the world. Many dualistic religions posit an evil force and a good force, equal to each other and locked in conflict. Within Christianity, we’ve had many of our own ideas. Augustine considered evil a lack of God like how darkness is a lack of light. Free will as the source of evil was the favorite answer of many throughout church history, from the early fathers to modern Arminians and Molinists. Calvinists say that evil is decreed, ordained, and made certain by God for His own purposes to His glory, though God Himself stays out of evil directly.

Certainly, no one can completely explain evil. If we could, evil could not be as evil as it really is. Without mystery and darkness, evil simply becomes an ugly tool, unlikeable but manageable and necessary to the world (an implication of classical Calvinism which I take issue with). We must always understand that we will never understand evil completely.

This all said, I’ve been reading a book named Atonement by Thomas Torrance, a proper genius. He suggests an interesting understanding of why and how sin runs as loose and rampant as it does in the world, though not an explanation of how it originated. Here is an apologetically long quote, which I will summarize and explain afterwards (all emphasis mine):

On the one hand sin is rebellion against God, but on the other hand sin gains part of its character as sin from the divine resistance to it. If God not oppose sin, there would be no really objective and ultimate difference between sin and righteousness. Thus the divine opposition to sin is a factor in the qualification of humanity as sinful before God…But, as Paul felt, the disturbing factor seemed to be that God actually withheld his full opposition to sin and allowed it so much freedom that it challenged his righteousness and deity. Yet that was in the very mercy of God, as the cross showed, for the cross reveals that God withheld his final resistance to sin until, in Christ, he was ready to do the deed which would also save us from his wrath…

A very significant fact we have to consider is that before the death of Christ the difference between man and God is given an order of relative validity, or established in the extent of its separation from God…It was established (a) by the condemnatory law which expresses the divine judgment on sin, although that law was not yet fully enacted and inserted into history, and (b) by God’s withholding of final judgment against sin, for that means that God withheld from man his immediate presence which, apart from actual atonement, could only mean the destruction of humanity.

This merciful act of God by which he holds himself at a distance from fallen men and women and yet places them under judgment establishes, as it were, the ethical order in which righteousness has absolute validity and yet in which mankind has relative immunity and freedom

Here then is the fact we have to consider: the law of God which repudiates human sin at the same time holds the world together in law and order and gives it relative stability—but sin takes advantage of that and under the cover of the law exerts itself more and more in independence of God. That is why the New Testament speaks of the law as the strength of sin, for its very opposition to sin gives sin its strength, and by withholding final judgment from the sinner, holds or maintains the sinner in continued being.

Whew, that was a long quote! So, I’ll restate and summarize his point. According to Torrance, after the fall God had a problem. If He gave Himself fully to humanity, we would be destroyed (this is because God in His holiness is a consuming fire, which would bring Hell to sinful men). The solution to this was the law: by setting up a moral standard in between God and humanity, God actually keeps us and our world in a basically stable order. We are not burned up by God’s wrath, but He steps back and withholds Himself from the world.

The problem is that this mercy—God’s holding back of Himself to keep from judging and killing us in our sins—is the very thing which sin uses to run rampant. Every step God takes back to keep us from the fire of His holiness is a step evil can use to wreak havoc while God is at a distance.

In this understanding, the law is both the mercy of God and the judgment of God, while also being opposition to sin and the very thing which lets sin run loose. With the law, God steps back from the human world so He doesn’t destroy us, though what the law says still puts a judgment on evil. But with the consuming fire of God’s holy love hanging back, sin and death have room to do what they please and wreck everything.

This is the situation of the world outside of Jesus, the problem of evil. But in Christ this problem is fixed. Jesus was and is God, and was and is human. So when He lived a perfect human life, died a substitutionary human death, and rose to a new human life, He created an eternal and safe place for God and people to live together. In Jesus, since He is perfect and sinless humanity, God can be perfectly present. The Father doesn’t withhold Himself from the Son, and the Son is not destroyed because He has no sin in Himself.

This is why Jesus is our refuge, and our salvation. When we become “in Christ,” when we are united with His death and resurrection, we get to have perfect communion with God through His human Son. Though in our sinful human flesh we would be condemned to Hell by being brought near to God, in Jesus Christ’s perfect human flesh we are raised to eternal life by being brought near to God.

In sum, then, God created the law to separate Himself from sinful man, because if He was with us completely we’d be condemned by His holy love. Yet this separation by the law is exactly the room sin and evil need to run rampant and wreak havoc on the world. This situation can only be repaired in Jesus, the only person in whom God and humanity are united without opposition. Most of the world hasn’t accepted Christ yet, though, so the world at large is still stuck in separation from God which leaves room for boundless evil. The only solution is to spread the Gospel, brining more people into the refuge of Jesus until He returns. Then the entire human world will be brought back into God’s complete presence, with the result that those who refuse Jesus will suffer the fate of God’s eternal consuming fire while everyone in Christ will be saved to eternal life.

Amen, hallelujah! Come, Lord Jesus!

I'm 22. I'm married with a toddler and a newborn. love Jesus Christ. I grew up a Southern Baptist and now situate myself within Evangelical Calvinism (which isn't TULIP!). I also draw substantially from N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, and Alastair Roberts. I go to the Baptist College of Florida. I'm also a bit nerdy.