Andy Peck is asked a question by his son that has more to it than meets the eye
The question came from my teenage son, but it’s the kind of thing that might occur to a child of almost any age.
A rudimentary understanding of the Bible tells us that it’s the story of God’s redemption of humanity, and that the need for this comes when the devil, depcited in the form of a serpent, tricks Eve into eating the forbidden fruit and sin enters the world.
And so the question comes: so if God is all powerful and all knowing why doesn’t he foresee the problem with that pesky fallen angel, take him out, like any self-respecting deity would do, and save us all a whole lot of grief?
Let us look at a biblical understanding of the devil and how we might answer.
Who is the devil?
It is clear that the Bible sees the devil as a real unseen angelic being opposed to God. Scholars differ on how they interpret some of the statements and imagery surrounding the devil. Some see prophesies about human leaders as depicting the devil - see Isaiah 14:4-15, Ezekiel 28:11-1). But there is a consensus that believes that he was a chief angel who set himself up in opposition to the living God and is expelled from heaven as a result taking a third of angelic beings with him (Rev. 12:7-11.
Some posit that this takes place prior to the creation of the world and so this gives added poignancy to the devil, in the form of a serpent, tempting Eve. The devil had sought to increase his own power and so might have been envious of human beings, who God had made as image bearers from the very beginning. In sinning Adam and Eve are effectively giving authority to the evil one, when they should be under God’s rule.
But the devil is not mentioned very often within the biblical narrative and certainly the implication is that human beings are responsible for their sinful behaviour and shouldn’t blame the devil even if it becomes clear that the devil is comfortable that so many behave in opposition to the living God.
In the book of Job it is clear that the devil is under God’s control and there is no sense that there is a heavyweight contest between equally matched opponents. God is always the powerful one.
In the New Testament there is far more mention of the evil one. The devil is described as the tempter (Matt. 4:4), the father of lies (John 8:44) who masquerades as an angel of light (1 Cor. 11:14), as the prince of the power of the air (Eph. 2:2) who has power over all not under the rulership of Jesus. It describes people as unable to function because of his involvement in their lives (Mark 5:1-20).
But the victory of Jesus over the devil is clear: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15).
In the book of Revelation, Christ proclaims, “I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Rev. 1:18) and we read of his eventual destruction: “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever”(Rev. 20:10).
And what about suffering?
So in our understanding of the work of the devil we have to bring into tension God’s creation of a reality in which an angelic being might rebel against him causing pain and suffering and a God who is powerful enough to do anything he wants. All of which centres upon our understanding that our creator God willingly sets up a universe in which beings can live in opposition to him, shake their fist at him, slander and abuse him, or deny his existence at all, even as he seeks after them and suffers himself in order that redemption may be possible.
And so along with the mystery of the devil’s involvement we have the puzzle surrounding God creating a world in which so much suffering is allowed and so many having lives that they would scarcely want. (Remember one billion live on a dollar or less a day, many of whom have daily struggles we can barely imagine.) How we square his power with human free will is discussed at length in theological circles and if you google ’calvinism’, ’arminianism’, ’molinism’ and ’open theism’, you will get different takes on the issue. I failed to find an ‘objective description of each’ to link this article to. (This is for your enquiry if you fancy it, nor for your child…!)
But life is full of such puzzles. We’re able to enjoy the best of life even in the midst of tension. So much of your life is dependent on where you were born and who you were born to and what characteristics you were given in which to inhabit this world. You enjoy the love of your spouse when your first meeting could be regarded as random and the fact that the two of you connected at all an apparent accident! Of course some choose to battle with this and some have unpleasant lives as a result. But most of us choose to make the best of things and save for the old philosophical inquiry, live with life as it is.
With this background in view here’s what I said to my son
”Great question! I’m not sure we can never fully know. The Bible describes God as creating a world where human beings have a degree of choice on how they live and it seems that this went for angelic beings too and the devil does rebel and his power is not taken away. In the Bible God doesn’t typically bulldozer his way so that he gets what he wants all the time, even though this means that things turn out worse than he would have wanted. And even though this meant that he would need to send his own son to give his life for people like us who rebel against him.
”I don’t know why God has created things the way he has, but the Bible does give the best explanation for life as we find it. Certainly, evidence for the risen Jesus is extremely strong and the Gospels records how he viewed reality, and he talks about the devil and wins the battle with him and so I aim to listen to him. And there are enough awful things happening around the world for me to conclude that if I didn’t believe in the devil I would certainly have to invent him! I am grateful that one day God will banish the devil for ever and until then I am looking to follow Jesus who has signalled his end.”
You may want to change the language according to the age of the child. That’s too much for a primary aged child. It might be enough to say: ‘Good question and a bit of a puzzle. But God had his reasons and is always able to bring good when things seem unpleasant and one day will make sure that evil and the devil are done away with for good.’ And if they ask more questions on the back of that, hopefully you will be able to handle it.”