The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-76) stated the issue quite bluntly: If God is almighty, and love, then it is impossible for evil to exist. Should we then agree with Charles Baudelaire, “if there is a God, then he is the devil”?
David Hume was a product of his time, as we all are. This time included Calvinism, and the view that, in order for God to be God, His “almightyness” meant that He must be in “Sovereign” control of all things; not to be in total control, was not to be God.
Thus, genocide (a lot in the Hebrew Bible) is apparently commanded by God, albeit through human agents, such as Joshua and others, is an expression of this power, as are the modern genocides of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, the African-Caribbean slave trade, and all other atrocities before and since. We might indeed sympathise with Hume as respects such an appalling Deity.
Christians have always taught that they should start with Jesus as the very expression of what God is like. Sadly, far from “Love your enemies”, as Jesus taught, the opposite has been the case. As has Jesus’ teaching to be “peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God” (i.e. share in God’s character), his role-modelling as “one who came not to be served, but to serve”.
There have been many exceptions, by virtue of their very humility not well-known. Instead, those so-called Christians who hungered for power, crushed the very ethics and lifestyle that Jesus taught. Jesus’ ministry was marked by concern for the poor and oppressed, and He actually agreed with Baudelaire when He referred to the religious powers as “children of their father the devil”.
“You have heard it said, but I say to you”, might sound unimpressive, until we realise that what Jesus is claiming is an authority that is greater than that of the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament.
This was shocking to the religious powers, and what, eventually, led to Jesus’ death by crucifixion. It was the official charge, that Jesus had “made Himself equal with God”.
The very earliest followers of Jesus went on to understand that Jesus was the very expression of what God is like. Not a domineering despot, the head of one of the most authoritarian religious regimes that the world has ever seen, a Torquemada (1420-98), a Grand Inquisitor, but the very opposite. “He who has seen me, has seen the Father [God]”, said Jesus. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being… In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”
Thus wrote a disciple of Jesus, who described himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.
What then is God, but the Servant exemplified in the life of Jesus?
The one who rejected the trappings and practice of abusive power, and yet had so much power that the religious authorities could not get rid of Him quick enough?
What, then, is the life of God, but one of shining a light into spiritual and moral darkness, to expose it for what it is? God cannot, the New Testament states, “deny Himself”.
In the same place, we read that “God is love”, and that “Love does not seek its own way”. This is a non- coercive love, that seeks by persuasion, not force, to draw people, for all eternity. Jesus is, as we read, kenosis, One who “empties Himself, in order to be like a Servant”.
In this, we have an answer to David Hume. God is not all-powerful in the sense that He can do anything. This is self-contradictory. He cannot contradict His Servant-heart. This Servant-heart is an expression of a specific love that wills a free relationship, and, in this, people are free “to work out their own salvation”. Thus is the answer to evil.
The critic will ask, quite legitimately, “What about dysteleological evil”? That is, such evil as flows (literally) from such events as earthquakes? That is for another article!
Recommended reading: Thomas Jay Oord (editor) (2009). “Creation made free: open theology engaging science”, Eugene, Wipf & Stock.