Sin and the Problem of Evil: Thinking Rightly About Wrong

Most people will agree that there is something wrong with life as we experience it. Few would doubt that life could not be better or that there is a problem with the way things are.

Sin, in the 21st Century, has been marginalized by psychology, genetics and philosophy. Personal responsibility for actions taken has been diminished and blame shifted to government, educational deficiency or parental failure. The problem of evil is the greatest problem facing human beings on many levels. The roots of sin are deep. In the area of apologetics the problem of evil raises large emotional and intellectual barriers to faith and faithfulness.

Right thinking about what is wrong with life is essential to following Christ appropriately, and to free us from the dual dangers of cynicism and romanticism.[1] A present danger of our age is to think too superficially about sin and the impact of our rebellion against the reign of God over us. There is a tendency to reduce sin to a series of named activities. This leads to inadequate and unsatisfying responses to the problem of our radical separation from God and its impact on us. In reducing the gap between the holiness of God and the rebellious heart of Human beings we limit our understanding of the gracious character of God in His redemptive work in history. This reduces our sense of wonder, humility, gratitude and worship.

In the process of sanctification, weak concepts of the active power of sin, emotive responses to authority and law, a lukewarm commitment to the perfection of God and the weak sense of hope arising from this leave Christians unarmed and unmotivated. The fruit of a life confronted by and freed from the power and guilt of sin should be gratitude and profound humility. These should replace legalism, quick fix “how tos” and behaviour management that leave people feeling purposeless, powerless, guilty, hopeless and cheapened. Weak views of sin result in disappointment in relationships when the expectations and demands we place on others are not met. We are surprised at their (and our) failing.

Separation from God touched every area of human life. When the reformers talked about total or radical depravity they meant that all parts of what makes us human, our emotions, conscience, will, creativity and reason are damaged or corrupted and in rebellion against God. The good we do is not completely pure, even as our evil deeds, thoughts and intention are not always as bad as they could be. Sin is radical, all pervasive, an active force. Its corrupting power affects our personal lives, our close relationships and the operations of society. It is simply not the way things are supposed to be.

And the woman saw the fruit: consequences of sin on knowledge.

Rebellion against God’s command, given for our good, had an impact in the area of knowing. The attempt to enter into the experiential knowledge of evil in spite of the decree of God removed the possibility of certainty in knowledge. They knew the good, because it was all around them. They talked to evil embodied in the form of the serpent but do not appear to have recognised it as such. In tasting the fruit they internalised the essence of evil, which is independence from God. They “knew” evil from the inside. It is telling that the last observation on the human condition before the fall is that they were naked and not ashamed. Their nakedness speaks of vulnerability without shame or the fear of violation. The openness and innocence in this text sets the scene for the sadness which follows. This is in contrast to the skin required later to cover them. We have, by our wilful separation, lost the immediate knowledge of God’s glory, as if innocence was the shield that enabled us to live in the presence of the God whose perfections make Him a consuming fire to all that is evil.

The impact of sin expressed in seven separations.[2]

The decision to sin resulted in death but what kind of death? What does it mean that we are dead in our trespasses and sins[3]? The reality of this fall expresses itself in seven separations:

1. God in his perfect righteousness will have nothing to do with evil and is, therefore, justly angry with us, his creatures. This wrath of God is experienced daily for we were created for loving fellowship with our Maker, an indignation which will last eternally for those not reconciled to him through Christ.

2. Our hearts are filled with self-worship and pride rather than humble devotion to the Lord. In our alienation from him we have a deep reluctance within us to love and serve our Creator.

3. We are alienated from ourselves: that is, within each one of us we find the disintegrating power of sin. We do not faithfully express God's holiness and so we experience guilt and shame. We are not what we should be, we are unable to do what we wish, nor do we even accurately know what is deep in our own hearts.

4. This separation within our own persons is also expressed in our bodies. Pain, sickness, and debility that come with advancing age demonstrate this physical corruption. Death, our final enemy, manifests this reality most fully as it tears apart body and spirit and brings our bodies down to the grave.

5. We are alienated from each other. Even in our most cherished relationships: marriage, family, and friendship, we discover ugly passions in our hearts: pride, envy, resentment, bitterness, and hatred. These passions are at work in every facet of human society, in hostility between individuals, social groups, classes, races, and nations. This inner enmity may break out in discrimination, violence, warfare, and even genocide.

6. There is separation between us and the creation around us. Instead of our dominion being made known in faithful stewardship of the earth we pollute and damage our environment and recklessly destroy our fellow creatures.

7. Even creation itself suffers separation as it has been subjected to the curse. The earth resists our attempts at dominion so that our daily work can be burdensome and even unproductive, and the natural order experiences disintegration and violence.

The work of God in overcoming these separations[4]

Christ, in his death, through his substitutionary atonement on the cross and in his triumphant resurrection, has overcome, is overcoming, and will fully overcome all these separations.

Apart from the effectual work of the Spirit, no one would come to faith, because all are dead in trespasses and sins; we are hostile to God, and morally unable to submit to God or please him because the pleasures of sin appear greater than the pleasures of God. Thus, for God’s elect, the Spirit triumphs over all resistance, wakens the dead, removes blindness, and manifests Christ in such a compellingly beautiful way through the Gospel that he becomes irresistibly attractive to the regenerate heart.

The Holy Spirit does this saving work in connection with the presentation of the gospel of the glory of Christ. Thus neither the work of the Father in election, nor the work of the Son in atonement, nor the work of the Spirit in regeneration is a hindrance or discouragement to the proclamation of the gospel to peoples everywhere. On the contrary, this divine saving work of the Trinity is the ground of our hope that our proclamation is not in vain in the Lord. The Spirit binds his saving work to the gospel of Christ, because his aim is to glorify the Christ of the gospel. Therefore we do not believe that there is salvation through any other means than through receiving the gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The death of Christ is a necessary substitute in our place for our sins. This results in our gratitude and humility, which is expressed both towards God and towards those with whom we live. We will boast in nothing because we have done nothing but have received everything. We will live as those who were under the sentence of death and who have been reprieved. We will commit ourselves to putting to death that for which Christ died and living in the power of the resurrection. This means that we will live in the expectation hope that God will empower us to overcome our fears, suspicions, jealousies, angers and hatred. We will not expect this to be immediate or without pain and suffering but we will expect God’s active help.

Christ is the peace between God and us as well as among us. Therefore, the divisions that so often exist between people, whether personal, cultural, racial or economic, ought to be overcome by those who have come to know Christ. Though it will not be perfect in this age, yet, in our homes and families, in our friendships and our churches, in our workplaces and neighbourhoods this supernatural restoration of relationships ought to be realised, in part, wherever there is true Christianity.


[1] Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Apollos (IVP) 1995

[2] We are grateful to L’Abri for allowing us to use this list from The L’Abri Statements, April 1997

[3] Ephesians 2: 1

[4] Source: Affirmation of Faith of The Bethlehem Institute, John Piper, August 28, 2000

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