The argument from evil in the gospel

There are at least two arguments from evil in the gospels, that is, claims that some evil is incompatible or counts as evidence against either the existence or goodness of God. One occurs while Jesus is walking to the tomb of Lazarus:

Jesus wept. The Jews therefore said: Behold how he loved him. But some of them said: Could not he that opened the eyes of the man born blind have caused that this man should not die?

(John 11 35-37)

That is, the one who does miracles failed to save Lazarus from death, which bespeaks either inability, ignorance, or malice. But the one who does miracles is either God or his representative, and so the failure to heal Lazarus counts as evidence against God’s benevolence, knowledge, or existence. The narrative places this argument in between Christ’s great promise “I am the Resurrection and the life” and his proving this by raising Lazarus. The text is showing that the argument from evil occurs between the promise and its fulfillment. Notice that after the fulfillment,  Christ does not so much confound his enemies as change the terms under which they are his enemies, since after Lazarus’s resurrection, those who are against Jesus go from merely questioning him to advocating his death.

Many therefore of the Jews, who had come to Mary and Martha and had seen the things that Jesus did, believed in him.  But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them the things that Jesus had done.

The chief priests, therefore, and the Pharisees gathered a council and said: What do we, for this man does many miracles?  If we let him alone so, all will believe in him; and the Romans will come, and take away our place and nation.  But one of them, named Caiphas, being the high priest that year, said to them: “You know nothing.  Neither do you consider that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation perish not.”

(John 11 45-50)

The refuting of the argument from evil does not win everyone over to theism, but intensifies our opinions about God.

The other argument from evil occurs in Matthew 16. Immediately after Peter confesses that Jesus is divine, Christ is described as telling his disciples about his approaching suffering and death. And Peter taking him aside, began to rebuke him, saying: Lord, this shall never happen to you. The rebuke makes perfect sense: since God is good, he most certainly would not allow himself to suffer the worst possible evils. For Christ to suffer evil would count as evidence against his divinity. Christ’s response is as emphatic as it is familiar:

Turning to him, he said; Get behind me, Satan, you are a scandal unto me: because you savour not the things that are of God but the things that are of men.

(Matthew 16:23)

In the divine plan, evil is cancelled not by avoidance or by the sort of providence that keeps it from ever arising, but by forgiveness, that is, by a person cancelling the debt that is owed to him by choosing not to savor it or demand its rectification, but by incinerating it within his own heart. Evil is the matter of offering or forgiveness, and so is meant to be destroyed by eliminating any possibility that we might encounter it, but by negating it after it is encountered by offering or forgiveness, or generally, by incorporating it into a meaningful life.

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