permission granted?

It’s with no little trepidation that I take up the next topic in my personal ‘confessional’ series — the sovereignty of God. In particular, I want to say something — more or less briefly — about what I believe about God’s sovereignty.

Now, I can hardly do justice to such a wide topic in one post (not least because it’s intimately bound up with other topics that I have covered or would like to cover in other posts — election, the cross, conversion, etc). So I want to focus on one of the hardest cases: the mind-bending fact of God’s permission of evil.

I take Mark 5.12-13 as my text:

[T]he unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the pigs. Let us enter them’. Jesus gave them permission. So the unclean spirits came out and went into the pigs. Then the herd rushed down the steep slope into the lake, and about two thousand were drowned in the lake.

The context, of course, is that of the encounter between Jesus and a man afflicted by a Legion of demons — in which Jesus redeems him and hands him back his humanity. We must not pass over the significance of the context. The activity of the Creator God in Jesus brings him into fundamental conflict with evil. Again and again.

Michelangelo's 'Christ the Redeemer' (image by Tetraktys)

When Jesus gets involved, when the Creator takes up the cause of his tragically enslaved world, he’s victorious. He untwists and sets right what evil has marred and degraded. He conquers evil, heals and restores his world, securing its fulfilment and wholeness.

This is the essential context within which any talk of God’s ‘permission’ of evil must play out. Evil doesn’t belong in God’s world in any ultimate sense. Not only is it an alien invader from the beginning, it also has no future. None whatsoever. And yet (mysteriously) … God allows it. This episode leaves us in no doubt that, face to face with evil, Jesus is fully able to obliterate it. Yet he gives the unclean spirits permission to wreak further destruction, mysteriously wrapping their tendrils around a part of God’s good creation and dragging it down with them.

I think I want to say that this strange fact of God’s permission of evil — sitting mysteriously alongside the clear indications of his ultimate victory over it — directs us to something important about how God triumphs over evil. He doesn’t fight fire with fire. He doesn’t crash tackle evil to the ground, buying in to its ways and means. Rather — patiently, gently, lovingly — he lets evil do its worst, bearing its full force, in his own being, in the person of his Son, exhausting and overcoming it once and for all…

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