The Permission of Evil
Rev. Jared Buss
Pittsburgh; September 29, 2019
Readings: John 11:11-44; Divine Providence §251
One of the most foundational teachings of the New Church is that God is good. God is Love itself, which means that His very being is the desire to love and to bless something other than Himself (see TCR §43). And God is also Wisdom itself, which means that He has all power to bring what He wants into reality. These ideas are foundational—but it can be hard to reconcile them with the obvious truth that evil exists. Terrible things happen, and they happen to good people. If we believe in the Lord, we have to believe that He has something better in store for those who hurt, and that He has a plan for getting them there. That kind of faith is our rock and our refuge. But sometimes it’s hard to understand how the sad things we experience and a Divine plan to make everyone happy could possibly exist side-by-side. We’re tempted to think that maybe God isn’t really in control—but if He’s not in control, then how can He be called God? Or we’re tempted to think that He doesn’t actually want everybody to be happy, which is a terrible thought. To put it simply: if God is love, and God is in charge, why does so much evil happen?
A teaching that helps to make sense of this is the doctrine of permissions. In the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Church we’re told that the Lord governs every least thing in creation. This government is called His Divine providence. And we’re told that there are degrees of Divine providence. The Lord watches over everything, but some of what happens on His watch is what He really wants, and some of what happens is what He merely permits. In the book Divine Providence we’re told:
Laws of permission are also laws of Divine providence. There are no laws of permission per se or apart from the laws of Divine providence. Rather they are the same laws. When we say, therefore, that God permits, we do not mean that He wills, but that for the sake of the goal, which is salvation, He cannot prevent. (§234)
Things that the Lord permits are things He does not want. He merely allows them for the sake of a greater good. That greater good is our salvation—and that’s a really important idea to hold on to. In everything that the Lord does, His ultimate goal is to save everyone, which means to bring them into heaven, where they can find eternal joy (see DP §27ff.). His providence doesn’t make sense if we forget that that’s His goal—eternal joy, not earthly joy. He never does evil: people do evil, and He either stops that evil or He doesn’t. He never wants evil; but if He’s given a choice between something that would hurt somebody’s chances of salvation and some other thing, He goes with the other thing. If that other thing is evil, it is still, to Him, a lesser evil, and He permits it. This means that every bad thing we see—no matter how terrible—was permitted because it was the lesser of two evils.
The reading from Divine Providence used war as an example (§251). The existence of war is a challenge to many people’s faith—and people who don’t want to believe often point at war as evidence that there can’t possibly be a God. The reading makes it very clear that the Lord does not want war. People do terrible things in wartime, things that are “diametrically contrary to Christian charity.” And of course, anything contrary to Christian charity is entirely contrary to what He wants: He is Love itself. But the reading explains that preventing wars—though it seems unbelievable—would actually do more harm than permitting them. The explanation for this is really the explanation for why any evil is permitted. We read that evil loves in people cannot be kept bound, since “it is according to Divine Providence that everyone be permitted to act in freedom in accordance with his reason… and because without permissions, a person cannot be led by the Lord away from evil and so be reformed and be saved” (ibid.). We cannot be saved if we’re not allowed to act in freedom in accordance with our reason—if we’re not allowed to make our own choices based on our own sight of right and wrong. It can be tempting to think that God could force people to behave decently. But if He took our freedom from us, He would take our entire life from us. If He made even one of our choices for us He would obliterate us, and there would be nothing left to save. So He treats our freedom with incredible reverence. And freedom, if it’s to be real, must include the freedom to make the wrong choice.
On top of this, it’s actually better for evils to come to light than for them to remain bound up within us. We read that if acts of evil were somehow prevented, those evils would “remain shut in, and would, like the diseases called cancer and gangrene, spread and eat away every human spark of life” (ibid.). The unfortunate truth is that there’s evil in every human heart. The Lord’s desire is to save us: that means that that evil has to be dealt with. And to be dealt with it has to be recognized. It doesn’t have to be acted on—it just has to be recognized. We’re told, “evils cannot be removed unless they appear” (DP §278). Or as it says in our reading: “No one can be withdrawn from his hell by the Lord unless the person sees that he is in it and wishes to be led out of it; and this cannot come about without permissions” (DP §251). Sometimes it’s better for us to see hell around us and say, “No,” than for us to live in contentment with our eyes shut. This does not mean that war and things like it are good—no evil is good. It means that for the sake of the greatest good and the most precious thing in creation—our souls—the Lord permits us to see and do evil. War and things like it might seem like a tremendous price to pay for spiritual freedom; but could any amount of war ever cost more, in the Lord’s eyes, than the loss of a person’s soul?
To think in these terms requires a huge perspective shift. We don’t see the world this way. We don’t feel the world this way. Seeing wars and disasters and corruption on the news feels a lot worse than the idea of a person’s soul being lost. But God governs the world according to what He sees—and isn’t it right that He should do so? After all, He’s God, and as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are His thoughts higher than our thoughts (cf. Is. 55:9). We’re born into the natural world, so we’re born seeing things in a natural way—and we can’t help this. But the natural world is nonetheless just a veil on the face of creation. The Lord invites us to let go of the way we instinctively see, and to little by little have that veil drawn away. He says:
Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look on the earth beneath. For the heavens will vanish away like smoke, the earth will grow old like a garment, and those who dwell in it will die in like manner; but My salvation will be forever, and My righteousness will not be abolished. (Is. 51:6)
What’s real and what’s precious and what’s worth protecting is not what our natural minds have called real and precious. To see the truth, we have to let the Lord change what we see; this requires deferring to His point of view. The wonderful thing is, when we let Him lift up our eyes and show us what is most beautiful, then we also see that those best and most beautiful things are the very things that He’s been protecting with the fiercest love all along, and that no evil has ever touched them. The world seems like a far better and safer place when we let Him lift up our eyes.
The death of the body is a particularly powerful example of this. According to our natural way of thinking, death is just about the worst thing that can happen. We often measure the awfulness of awful events by the number of people who died in those events. But death isn’t as terrible in the Lord’s eyes as it is in ours. He certainly doesn’t wish for anyone to die young, or to die of accidents or diseases or crimes. He wills for us to live long, healthy lives. But our natural minds regard death as a termination, as the loss of existence, and that’s simply not what death is. After death our souls live on forever, and in many cases our happiness after death is limitlessly greater than anything we knew in this world. The Lord sees death in those terms, and that’s why He governs the world the way He does.
In the story of Lazarus, from the gospel of John, the Lord teaches that death is not the end. In this story He actually says to the disciples that He is glad, for their sakes, that He was not there to heal Lazarus before He died, because this way He is able to do a greater miracle; this way He is able to show that He has power even over death; this way they may see and believe (John 11:15).
But this story about the raising of Lazarus shows us something else that is deeply important to remember when we think about the Lord’s permissions. When we hear that the Lord sees things differently than we see them, and that what seems terrible to us is not necessarily as terrible to Him, it’s easy to infer from this that what we feel doesn’t matter, because it’s wrong. It’s easy to picture Him dismissing us—patting us on the back, saying, “you’ll see it differently in the end.” But that picture isn’t true.
In the story of Lazarus, Jesus weeps (v. 35). What was it that grieved Him? It wasn’t Lazarus’s death. He had come to Bethany to raise Lazarus. He’d already said to Martha, in so many words, “Your brother will rise again” (v. 23). He’d already said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (v. 25). He knew Lazarus would rise. He wept when Mary, like her sister, said to Him, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (vv. 21, 32). He wept to see her and her people weeping (v. 33). He wept for their grief, and for their confusion, and for the darkness in their minds; they believed that their brother was gone and that their God had failed them. He wept to see their pain.
He knew that in a such a short time Lazarus would come out of the tomb, and everything would be okay. From the perspective of mere logic, there was no reason to weep. But though the Lord governs according to laws that never change, He’s more than just so many laws. He loves His children. Our pain is real to Him, because it’s real to us. He may see that things will be alright; He may see that the evil He’s had to permit has not harmed the things that matter most. And He’s too wise to try to make us see what we’re not ready to see.
Think of a parent whose little daughter was given a flower that she delights in, who comes to her parent on the verge of tears because her flower has started to wilt. What would a loving parent do in that situation? They’d see so much that they couldn’t make the child understand—yes, the loss of the flower is a little sad, but there are gardens full of those flowers still growing, and untold millions yet to grow and bloom, and that’s how it is with flowers. Each individual flower lasts a short time, but still flowers, as a whole, are a good and a joyful and an abundant thing, forever renewed.
But to the child, the parent would probably just say, “I’m sorry.” And perhaps say, “I can’t fix it.” And maybe give a hug. And maybe say, “I’m sure there will be more flowers in your life.”
The Lord is our Father, and we are to Him like children who just don’t understand what He understands. There are sorrows and losses in our lives; and maybe those losses are small in the grand scheme of things, but they’re big to us, and to Him that matters. He loves us and He comforts us. And all the while He sees what we can’t always see: that every loss is answered with new gifts; that for every sorrow there are blessings blooming in hidden places, and untold abundance yet to come. When we grieve for the evil in the world, He comforts us. And, gently, He suggests that what we see is not all there is; that in this, His kingdom, His will shall be done. “Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy” (John 16:20).