Nobody paints evil like Fyodor Dostoevsky. This may be overstating the case considering that evil, like the artists who attempt to portray its horrors, is vast and multifaceted. So, I concede the likelihood that there might be an artist out there who “does evil” differently, or even better than Dostoevsky.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky uses Ivan, the agnostic brother, to expose the true face, and some say cost, of evil. He trains his lens squarely on children, namely when they are subjected to brutality practiced by adults. Adult maltreatment of children is Ivan’s chief argument against the existence of a loving, powerful god. Dostoevsky’s unflinching focus is fitting because evil perpetrated against children sticks between the teeth and dares us to pretend we don’t feel it. Unlike adults, who Ivan rightly observes have “eaten the apple” and are therefore somewhat culpable for their sins, children cannot be so easily maligned.
Take Ivan’s story of a father and mother who in the dead of night push their five-year old daughter out of the house and order her to trudge through the maddening snow to their outhouse a distance away, thus barring her from using the indoor bathroom. They send her out in the midst of a howling Russian snowstorm because she soiled herself while indoors. Ivan’s question is: where is God when such brutality is executed?
Why does a supposedly powerful, just, and loving God allow this ill treatment to continue against the least powerful in his creation? There is no shortage of explanation for this enigma. It is the conundrum philosophers, particularly theologians, even have an acronym for: POE, or the Problem of Evil. But this essay will not rehash the problem. Instead, I wish to discuss a lesser-known defense we Adventists propose for why the POE endures, and why God, who could put a stop to it, has not done so.
The church has wrestled with this subject from its beginning. It has had to explain why Jesus has not returned to, among other things, end this suffering—despite our perennial assurances that his coming is imminent. The official Adventist position on what has to happen before Christ returns is found in the “Investigative Judgment” (IJ) doctrine, now “repackaged” as the “Pre-advent Judgment.” That statement is expressed as Fundamental Belief #24. In Adventist parlance, the IJ is God’s process of determining which professed Christians (in all ages) merit salvation and who deserve damnation. This examination is believed to have begun in 1844, the year many Adventist pioneers expected Jesus to return to earth. According to this understanding, since October 22, 1844, God has been examining the records of each believer’s life history. When he finishes, Jesus will return.
There is a second unofficial and rather controversial belief, held by the fundamentalist/ultra-conservative wing of Adventism, concerning the continued delay. This group is broadly represented by proponents of Last Generation Theology and evidently includes a good number of the church’s higher administrators. They assert that Jesus is waiting for a small group of individuals within the church to achieve perfection in the last days. These individuals will consequently demonstrate that God’s law could be obeyed perfectly by humans, just like Jesus did, without recourse to divine assistance. So far, no one that I’m aware of, in or out of this group, has come forward claiming to have achieved, or come close to achieving, this perfect state.
But now I turn to the focus of this essay—a seemingly innocuous extra-biblical claim early Adventists advanced to mitigate concerns about the long delay of the Parousia. Predictably, this idea traces its origins to Ellen White. She states that there are other unfallen worlds and beings or “intelligences” and “holy angels” watching us. In fact, she was once given a guided tour to one such place and marveled at what she saw:
The Lord has given me a view of other worlds. Wings were given me, and an angel attended me from the city to a place that was bright and glorious. The grass of the place was living green, and the birds there warbled a sweet song. The inhabitants of the place were of all sizes; they were noble, majestic, and lovely. They bore the express image of Jesus, and their countenances beamed with holy joy, expressive of the freedom and happiness of the place. I asked one of them why they were so much more lovely than those on the earth. The reply was, ‘We have lived in strict obedience to the commandments of God. (Early Writings, p. 39)
These entities, unsoiled by sin, are supposed to be keenly watching how the rebellious drama taking place in our world will play out, as they need to be convinced that Satan’s accusations that God is unjust and dictatorial are meritless. This is a major reason, according to White, why “the author of evil was spared” and allowed “to fully develop his character,” and also why God has been so “forbearing” toward Satan since the rebellion in heaven (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 72). Thus our world, where God saw fit to banish Satan and a full third of heaven’s angels who went rogue, is now the epicenter of the inhabited universe, where Satan is allowed seemingly unlimited time and unfettered freedom to make his case.
While on the surface this idea projects God as infinitely patient with Satan and the evil attributed to him, it also, maybe unwittingly, sows the seeds of God’s inability to end the “experiment.” By supposedly allowing Satan time “to make his case,” God seems to have conceded time itself to his adversary. Satan then, is evidently the one who determines when he’s had sufficient time, not God. If God didn’t stop Satan yesterday, presumably because Satan didn’t have enough time, then why would God stop him tomorrow without Satan protesting that God was arbitrary and ended things too soon? After all, what other evidence are God and the onlooking universe looking for to convince them that the usurper’s case can’t be made? What justifies the continuation of evil in the eyes of both heaven’s angels and unfallen beings?
Ellen White explains that God refrained from blotting out Satan immediately after his failed coup, because he was concerned that his creatures would have “worshipped him in fear.” But this seems specious considering the evil that God has tolerated to prove this premise. If God is willing to allow the torture of five-year-olds as an acceptable price to demonstrate that Satan is really very bad, then we might be in this situation much longer.
Is God okay with what Revelation’s writer attributes to him?
The third angel said in a loud voice, ‘God will punish all those who worship the beast and the beast’s idol and agree to have the beast’s mark on their forehead or on their hand. They will drink the wine of God’s anger. This wine is prepared with all its strength in the cup of God’s anger. They will be tortured with burning sulfur before the holy angels and the Lamb. And the smoke from their burning pain will rise forever and ever. There will be no rest, day or night, for those who worship the beast and its idol or who wear the mark of its name. (14:9–11 ERV)
Here the character differences between God and Satan, on the question of gratuitous violence, is seriously conflated. Torture should never be in God’s arsenal of how he reacts to bad choices from his wayward children. When God is made to do what the Revelator assigns to him, Satan’s accusation comes full circle. God becomes Satan-like, doing what the actual Satan is supposedly an expert at.
As Ivan surmised to his little brother: “It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand, it’s the world created by Him I don’t and cannot accept.” And, I will add, it’s the kind of god-image we believers have made, that is unpalatable. If we go by what the gospel writers attribute to Jesus, God himself should not be happy either. That’s one reason he sent Jesus to set things straight. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” And if we can’t imagine Jesus being a cheerleader for violence, especially against children, we shouldn’t imagine God endorsing it for anything else—not by allowing it to continue or making it a gating criterion for the Second Coming.
Nothing is gained when we portray a god who blithely looked on when atrocities like what happened in Hitler’s Germany or Rwanda took place. Neither does it serve any moral purpose to construct a god who wakes up the dead to kill them a second time. Humans may do or imagine these horrors, but a moral God would stoop too low in taking part in such appalling behavior. Whoever is watching this carnage, angels or other beings, should have had their fill of this horrific spectacle long before now. In any case, we should not offer such a defense for the problem of evil.
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.
Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found by clicking here.
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