The Cross of Christ and the Problem of Evil
by Scott Christensen
One of the perennial conundrums of the Christian worldview is seeking to make sense of the ubiquitous presence of evil in the world. How can such malevolent conditions persist under the hand of a perfectly righteous God who abhors all manner of wickedness and yet has the requisite power to quickly dispense with it? This is the classic problem of evil or theodicy. A theodicy is an attempt to justify the ways of God in the face of evil. The logical problem poses a trilemma. God has revealed himself as being (1) omnibenevolent and (2) omnipotent which is juxtaposed with the fact that we also have a world filled with (3) evil. The undeniable reality of evil would appear to place one or both of these suppositions about God in jeopardy. However, to be faithful to God’s infallible self-revelation, we cannot dispense with these truths. This means there is some explaining to do.
Most Christian scholars who tackle the problem of evil accept God’s perfect goodness and power. However, they are content to simply defend God against charges that he is somehow culpable for the seemingly unfortunate intrusion of evil upon his good creation. Few are compelled to speculate about whether God has a positive purpose in permitting evil; or dare we say, ordaining it for some good end? But is the attempt to formulate a positive theodicy as ill-advised as some claim? I do not think so. The grand narrative of Scripture provides a compelling theodicy whose locus is the cross of Christ. The atoning work of Christ does not answer every last question the multifarious quandaries of evil and suffering present, but it addresses the broadest and most important question—why does evil exist in the first place?
The Monomyth and the Metanarrative of Scripture
The triple movement that forms the metanarrative of Scripture is part of the familiar parlance of biblical theology—creation, fall and redemption. This summary of the biblical plot is the paradigmatic example of what many literary critics call the monomyth in storytelling. The monomyth is a near universal pattern that makes all serious storytelling (whether history or fiction) so captivating. If a story is to grip an audience and draw hearers (or readers or watchers) to the edge of their seats, a crisis must be introduced—a compelling conflict that cries out for a hero to bring it resolution in the course of the story. A fledgling warrior must save his people from a superior foe. Think Braveheart. Think David and Goliath. A beautiful but obscure and lowly maid must be rescued by a handsome prince. Think Cinderella. Think Ruth and Boaz. A visionary who cannot catch a break must overcome impossible obstacles to meet success. Think Thomas Edison. Think Nehemiah. The ideal monomythic pattern in storytelling follows a “U” shaped plot arc—good followed by crisis followed by restoration to the good. C. S. Lewis calls the storyline of the Bible the “True Myth” because it embodies this universal mythopoetic pattern and invests it with truth—not only truth in terms of the Bible’s historical veracity, but in terms of how the Bible solves the primary crisis of humanity: how our sin has alienated us from God and his good design for us.
Subsequently, the presence of evil in the world, dating back to the serpent slithering into the garden and tempting our parents to reject God, is the crisis of the Bible’s grand story, the crisis of history and humanity itself. The crisis thrusts us into an impossible predicament we cannot solve on our own. It produces a persistent internal clamoring for some kind of resolution—a cry for redemption; a cry for a heroic redeemer that is not forthcoming lest he come from above. This tells us that God is authoring this story. He provides the pieces that make it a coherent and compelling solution to problem of evil. In fact, he designed the whole story long before he created the world, purposing the crisis of sin and the fall to wreck the goodness of creation so that he might display his glory in redemption. Notice this entails God freely exercising his meticulous providence, superintending all that transpires in time, space, and history (Ps. 115:3; Eph. 1:11). At the heart of this glorious story of redemption is the most unexpected and momentous plot piece—the incarnation and atoning sacrifice of the Son of God. The center of history—the climax of the story—is the cross of Christ. He alone is heroically suited to resolve the conflict of sin, evil and suffering that has plagued humanity.
The Greater Glory Theodicy
In what follows, I provide a brief argument (four propositions and a conclusion) that seeks to make sense of evil in the world. The argument is based on the metanarrative of Scripture—creation, fall, and redemption; together with the revelation of God concerning his overarching purpose for creation and history. I call this the Greater Glory Theodicy because it seeks to locate the primary solution to the problem of evil in that which brings God the greatest glory—the atoning work of Christ.
God’s Glory Is Supreme
Jonathan Edwards in his important work The End for Which God Created the World said, “The design of the Spirit of God is not to represent God’s ultimate end as manifold, but as ONE. . . . For it appears, that all that is ever spoken of in the Scripture as an ultimate end of God’s works, is included in that one phrase, the glory of God.” The apostle Paul succinctly frames the matter this way: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).
First, God is the sole source (“from”) of all things. Secondly, God is the sole sustainer (“through”) all things. And most importantly, God is the single goal (“to”) to which all things point. In other words, “To him be glory forever.” The Bible consistently indicates that God’s ultimate purpose in creating the world is to supremely magnify the riches of his glory to us, his image bearing creatures. Of course, God has no need to create the world. He is fully satisfied in his own trinitarian being. Creation is an exercise in divine freedom (Ps. 115:3). Nor does God have a need to magnify the riches of his eternal glory (Rom. 9:23) to his creatures. However, given that he freely chose to take this course, the following truths arise.
God’s Supreme Glory Is Centered on the Cross
It does not require a great deal of reflection to answer the question: where is God’s glory most magnified? Is it not the cross of Christ, the central symbol of the Christian faith? But what is the cross? It is the unique, necessary, and sufficient means of rectifying the crisis of history, the debilitating problem of our rebellion against a holy God. At the core of the cross is the work of atonement whereby Christ in his perfect sacrificial death satisfies the demands of God’s justice leveled against the sin of those whom he chooses to redeem from sin, death, and eternal destruction (Eph. 1:4-8). The voluntary (Luke 23:46), penal substitutionary (Rom. 5:6-10), and atoning work of Christ (Heb. 2:17) via the bloody scandal of crucifixion provides the primary explanation for the incarnation (Phil. 2:6-8). The death and resurrection of Christ as an atonement for sin is the nucleus of God’s redemptive plan. Can we imagine anywhere in creation where the glory of God shines brighter? Even the supremely magnificent yet ancillary events of Christ’s incarnation, exaltation, and return all find their glory in the Lamb that was slain—whose atoning blood purchased a people for God (Rev. 5:6-14). We marvel most at the foot of the cross and the empty tomb.
The Cross Alone Procures Redemption
It follows that only the atoning work of Christ on the cross is capable of redeeming human beings (Acts 4:12; Heb. 9:11-14). Once God in his freedom determined to author this story of redemption no other means was available to him. It is on the cross where divine freedom meets divine necessity. Only a hero bearing a unique identity could face the indomitable conflict of evil—our evil, and make propitiation for it (1 John 2:1-2). The only satisfactory mediator—the grand Protagonist—must be truly God yet truly man (Col. 2:9), having no marks of sin (Heb. 4:15), whose will is only to do that of the Father (John 8:28-29), and to perform it perfectly in the climax of unimaginable suffering (Heb. 5:8-9).
What is remarkable here is how unexpected and unconventional a hero Christ proves to be. The way he achieved redemptive victory is unusual to say the least. Strip away the familiarity of the cross; take away its blithe, near-banal treatment in contemporary Evangelicalism, and we run smack into its implacable horror. Its shame bespeaks defeat not victory. Yet here is where irony thrives. Surprisingly, in the blood-drenched pores of its beams, the cross defeats evil. Jesus defeats death by dying. He crushes evil by faltering beneath its wicked weight. He permits the grotesque and malignant spikes of our iniquity to be driven through his limbs (Col. 2:14) and then shows sin and death to be powerless by rising from the dead. He enters the portals of evil while being treated as a villain so that he may exit as our hero. Weakness is power. The cross is where God’s severest wrath meets his most immeasurable mercy. This subversive storyline defies all human expectations. It appears foolish to the natural mind (2 Cor. 1:18). Only the divine author would script such an unconventional narrative of redemption which leads us to the next line of the argument.
Redemption and the Cross Are Unnecessary without the Fall
The concept of redemption is meaningless without a prior crisis, a conflict, a disruption of the good. Biblical redemption must not be seen in isolation from the previous plot points of the scriptural storyline—creation and fall. The cross’s procurement of atonement only comes into view because of some prior derelict condition that necessitated it. Redemption restores the good state of Eden that was ruined by the fall. Without a world wrecked by human evil there could be no redemption; no need for atonement. Yet, God seeks not merely to restore a chosen people to an Edenic-like state, but to a new and better state; a future new heavens and new earth that far exceeds the wonder of prelapsarian Eden. It will be a paradisiacal kingdom ruled by the Lamb that was slain (Rev. 5:12), who is also risen and exalted, given a name that is above every name (Phil. 2:9-11).
Some older saints called this theodicy O felix cupla—O fortunate fall. We are accustomed to thinking that Adam and Eve’s disobedience was an unfortunate move. In one sense of course, it was deeply unfortunate. It violated the express will of God for his creatures’ immediate well-being. But the theodicy I propose the Bible commits us to is one where the fall was also paradoxically fortunate. Why? Because it occasioned the opportunity for God to supremely magnify his glory in the atoning death of Christ for our redemption. The greater goods that accrue to us on this count could not have happened unless God planned that our parents would fail. Their failure allowed him to put into motion an unfolding plan of justice-arresting mercy; an unprecedented course of redemption, restoration, and reconciliation that causes us to marvel at the glory of God shining forth via incarnation and atonement. This is a glory that Adam and Eve in their pre-fall condition could never imagine.
The Fall and Redemption maximizes God’s glory
Why did God permit the fall? More pointedly, why did he purpose it? Why the intrusion of evil into his good creation? Why this dystopian planet full of corruption and endless agitation of peace, harmony, and unbroken fellowship with God? There are two answers to these questions. First, nothing but redemption could maximize God’s glory as it has. Given this divine purpose, the fall is made necessary. Secondly, there was no suitable or greater way to accomplish redemption than through Christ’s incarnation and atonement. That God would humble himself by taking our lowly flesh as his own and subjecting himself to the humiliation of the cross is utterly mind-boggling (Phil. 2:6-8). Therefore, both the fall and God’s redemptive work become necessary aspects of his freely-chosen, glory-maximizing plan. God ordained evil to transpire to this end.
The freedom of God in magnifying his glory is the driving force behind his plan of the gracious, redeeming, atoning work of Christ. Here is the conclusion we must draw as we work out a biblical theodicy. Certainly, God’s glory was magnified in the prelapsarian paradise of Eden. This is what a fallen world longs for whether knowingly or not. But what we do not often recognize is that God created the conditions for a much better world than unfallen Eden. As much as his glory was magnified in that former world, it is being magnified more in the present and future world as it moves toward the consummation of redemption. Not only is God’s glory more magnified in a fallen-but-being-redeemed world than it would be in an unfallen-not-needing-redemption world, but his glory is most maximized in such a fallen-but-being-redeemed world. How so?
Because elect sinners have a view of being rescued from an otherwise inescapable predicament caused by their own willful rebellion against the Almighty. They have a view of an ill-deserved favor abundantly poured out upon their unsightly heads by the very God they once despised. They are being fitted for a world where the redeemed are exceedingly more benefited than if they had never fallen in the first place. Their fall occasioned God to display the unrivaled magnificence of mercy and grace that an unfallen world had no occasion to behold. There is nothing quite as wonderful as being the object of God’s ill-deserved, glory-maximizing mercy.
We get to witness the marvel of the incarnation and humility of the sovereign Lord of creation displayed upon a cruel cross; all for the purpose of raising us up from the pit of destruction. The view standing above that wicked abyss is made all the more glorious given we were once helpless captives of its malice, ruthlessly festering in our souls. It is a view now dominated by the refulgence of our risen and exalted Savior whose luster will only shine ever brighter in the restored paradise to come (Phil. 2:9-11). Subsequently, this broken world with all the deleterious effects of evil, is strangely yet gloriously, the best of all possible worlds holding for us the greatest possible goods.
Scott Christensen (MDiv, The Master’s Seminary) is the author of What About Free Will? (P&R 2016). He is working on his current book entitled Light Pouring Out of Darkness which tackles the problem of evil. He pastors Summit Lake Community Church in Mancos, Colorado.