The Problem of Evil Is a Changeup
Baseball season is upon us. That means I will quickly spend my yearly allowance of baseball illustrations. For those of you who know baseball, you have permission to just think of Johan Santana and skip down a few paragraphs. But let’s face it, you’re going to keep reading, because … baseball.
A changeup is a type of pitch that relies on deception. Most pitchers don’t just throw the ball as hard as they can every time. They use different kinds of pitches to keep the hitters off balance. Fastballs are hard to hit because they are fast. Bendy pitches (e.g., curveball, slider, knuckleball, etc.) are hard to hit because they change direction on the way to the plate. Changeups are neither. They are slower than a fastball and don’t bend as much as bendy pitches. Changeups are designed to look like a fastball but come in about 10 mph slower (and maybe bend a little bit). So when a batter is thinking about a 95 mph fastball, but the pitcher throws an 85 mph changeup, the hitter swings too early and misses. Sometimes he tries to slow down his swing, but can’t, so he ends up looking very silly. The aforementioned Johan Santana did this a lot. His best pitch was his changeup, and from 2004 to 2008, the stat heads say he was the best pitcher on the planet.
However, if a batter knows a changeup is coming, it becomes a very easy pitch to hit. It essentially becomes a slow fastball, which even bad hitters are able to turn into home runs.
For Christians, the problem of evil is a changeup. If it fools us, we strikeout in a bad way. But if we recognize it and know how to answer it, it becomes a slow fastball right in our wheelhouse.
The problem of evil (a.k.a., “the problem of pain” or “the problem of suffering”) comes in many forms:
If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why do bad things happen?
Why do bad things happen to good people?
Why is there so much evil in the world?
Why did my (insert type of loved one) have to die, and someone else didn’t?
Sometimes atheists ask these questions as an attack on Christianity. They think we can’t answer them. Other times, the question is more honest. Someone is really hurting and can’t help but think God is mad at them.
These questions look unhittable, because we really don’t know why God allows specific evils to occur. We don’t know why a kid walks into a school and shoots the place up. We don’t know why a hurricane destroyed a city. We don’t know why someone got cancer. If we try to explain each specific case, we will strikeout.
But we do have answers. There are several general intellectual answers and one universal substantial answer. But before you read the intellectual answers, you have to promise read the substantial answer too, because that one is infinitely greater. Did you promise? Okay. I give you permission to keep reading.
The most popular intellectual answer is probably the “free will defense.” It’s popular because it seems to get God off the hook. It basically says that God allows us to make our own choices and lets the consequences fall accordingly. But it still leaves God as either unloving or unable to intervene. It also lacks biblical support (Is. 46:10; 1 Cor. 2:14). The free will defense, at least in my opinion, fails miserably. I recommend not using it.
There is also what I call “the relative evil answer.” Our evaluation of evil is relative to our experience of evil. If 95% of children died at the age of five, that would be really, really awful, but we wouldn’t consider it quite so tragic when one dies. On the other hand, if the average life expectancy were two hundred years, we would consider it tragic when someone dies at ninety-five. But since the life expectancy is something lower than ninety-five, we say, “He lived a good, long life.” If we managed to eradicate cancer, diabetes, the flu, the common cold, and broken bones, ingrown toenails would start to bother us a lot more. The point is, whatever level of evil God permits us to endure, we will consider the highest level to be tragic. In truth, we really have no idea how much evil God protects us from. I find this answer to be somewhat helpful, but not much. Use sparingly.
The biblical historical answer is the fall into sin. “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). This answer is biblical and true, so we should affirm it and use it wisely. But wisdom teaches us that it’s not always what a person needs to hear. When someone is really hurting, just skip to the end.
Related to this answer is the theological assertion that there are no good people. “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). So the version of the problem of evil that asks, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is based on a false premise. If God gave us what we truly deserve, we would all be conceived straight into the pit of hell. Wisdom will also dictate how best to use this answer. When someone is hurting or thinks God is mad at them, skip to the end.
So here’s the end: God’s answer to the problem of evil is the cross. The totality of this answer includes the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Jesus Christ, but the center of all this is the cross. This is the substantial answer to the problem of evil. God’s answer is not an explanation; it’s a solution. So ask yourself, What’s better: for God to explain why some evil thing happened or for God to come down and actually fix it?
God does not allow the world to just go on spinning in a fallen and evil state. He is good enough and strong enough to do something about it, and he has. God himself has come down into our problem of evil. He has borne all of our sin in his body (1 Peter 2:24). He carried it into death and left it there. In order to triumph over death, he marched straight into the mouth of death and allowed himself to be swallowed, divinity and all. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven where he reigns over all things (this includes setting limits to evil). And he is coming again to raise the dead and transform his believing saints into his perfect image (1 Cor. 15:52). On that day he will say concerning the problem of evil, “There; fixed it” (paraphrase).
And if we ever wonder why Jesus doesn’t just return and fix it now, it’s because he desires more people to come to repentance (1 Tim. 2:4). We endure evil in this age because it’s an age of repentance. In the meantime we rest assured that the problem is under control. The fix has been purchased, and at the right time, Jesus Christ will apply the fix to all creation.
The problem of evil is right in our wheelhouse. This is the question every letter of Christian doctrine exists to answer. So wait back on the changeup. Let a person complain. Then give them Jesus. When the problem of evil comes your way, don’t swing too early. Listen to the complaint, and apply the right part of the gospel. It could be, “Your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5), it could be, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23), or it could be some other word of promise, but it always has to do with Jesus’ death, resurrection, and glorious return.