Note: this paper was given at the Rethinking Hell symposium on January 26, 2019.
As someone who wound up rather circuitously in pastoral ministry, the problem of evil is not one that is lost on me, especially as a graduate of Biola University. I have seen a half dozen of my friends and acquaintances leave the faith over various issues, but I believe these issues can largely be traced back to the question of evil. It would be impossible to try and answer all of the philosophical questions concerning that question in this paper, and I believe there have been sufficient theological and philosophical responses to such questions from adept theologians like Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, and John C. Peckham most recently in his masterful work Theodicy of Love. As such, it is my goal to sketch out a Pauline theodicy that seeks to answer the question of evil. In essence I am taking Jerry Walls admonition for annihilationists to take seriously other various doctrines and concepts and show how they can be integrated. I hope this attempt warms his Wesleyan heart. I know it has warmed mine.
Three theses can be deduced from the Pauline literature, but more could be mentioned: first, the question of the materialization of evil. Second, the promulgation of evil. Third and finally, the end of evil as it relates to our doctrine of annihilationism. The doctrine of hell for evangelicals has been largely relegated to something that happens at the end. What we need is a worldview shift concerning that question: how does God respond to the evil in his world? Does he incarcerate it or destroy it? Those are some of the questions I will explore in this paper.
It is worth noting, simply for the sake of transparency, that I do operate from a specific side of the Christian tradition and so my commentary is intentionally reflective of my own views, not the views of Rethinking Hell as a whole. But I'm right so there is that.
1. Paul's Narrative World
First, we must consider Paul's own reality as it relates to his theodicy. The narrative of Paul the Apostle centers on a lifetime of brutality and anguish, mirroring the narrative of Israel's Scriptures. Often we focus upon the beatings sustained by Paul as depicted in 2 Cor 11:23ff: imprisonments, severe beatings, death ever present, forty lashes minus the one, beaten by a rod three times, danger from rivers, robbers, the hostility from the people of the nations, his own people, city, sea and false family members: "in toil and trouble, in sleeplessness, in hunger and thirst, often fasting, in cold and nakedness." This all occurring during a time where to assert that Jesus the Anointed One is indeed Lord of all was an affront to Caesar's reign was death. The early martyrs attest to this reality in Pliny's letter to Trajan:
An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
Trajan responded to Pliny with this:
That whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.
The ancient world was an inherently political reality, a world built upon the backs of slaves. It did not pay to be a Christian during this time. Death loomed over every person. Paul gained nothing by being a "slave of Christ." At a time when the wealthiest among the Roman elite held a majority of the land and wealth, we need to be reminded that when we read Paul we are not stepping into a vacuum. Every step Paul took on his missionary journeys was on contested soil. So when one thinks about what non-Christians say about the problem of pain and evil, one can hardly find a better first century source than Paul the Apostle—a man who lived the terror and pain and wrestled through these questions. If one imagines the trial this takes on the human body, one is free to envision a broken, bloody, brutalized figure whose body was evermore being conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Perhaps that is why Paul boasted in his sufferings.
2. The Materialization of Evil
Concerning the materialization or origin of sin and evil—and I am using the two synonymously for the sake of brevity, the closest we get to a "fall" narrative in Paul's thought is Romans 1:18ff. God's wrath is being "apocalyptically unveiled" against what is considered "godless" and "human unrighteousness." What follows is what can be called a "decline of civilization narrative," where an author dictates the downfall of an empire or a specific reality or nation. Despite "knowing God," these people changed or "bartered" the glory of the immortal God for images in the image of corruptible humanity, and birds, and four-footed creatures and reptiles" (1:23). Paul is clearly echoing the creation account in Genesis 1-3 and the notion of idolatry is ever-present—the lack of the presence of the noun or verb for "sin" or "to sin" is irrelevant because we know Paul is operating with an Adamic narrative. I am also assuming that "unrighteousness" is a sin. This sin manifests itself in the mind and deeds of human beings and becomes, we might say, an organic reality. Seneca writes the following concerning the decline of civilization narrative
But the first men and those who sprang from them, still unspoiled, followed nature, having one man as both their leader and their law, entrusting themselves to the control of one better than themselves. For nature has the habit of subjecting the weaker to the stronger… It was avarice that introduced poverty and, by craving much, lost all…we once possessed the whole world! (Epistles 90)
Similarly, Paul reflects on the origin of sin in Rom 5:12 when he writes—in typical controversial and debated fashion—"For this reason, just as sin entered into the world through the one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death crept to all people because all sinned." I rendered the verb διέρχομαι ("to spread, travel") as "crept" because I believe it fits contextually—sin is a living thing, and it feeds on living things. But here we see a glimpse into the Adamic narrative, especially as it relates to Death being a ruler over us (Rom 5:14ff) and I would argue this Adamic narrative carries on into Romans 7. Sin came into being because we sinned. Here, we might say, is the beginning of what is often called the "free will" defense: even though humanity was granted all things except to eat from that pesky tree, even though they knew God, they frittered God away for things that do not even resemble God. Thus, the original sin, as it were, came into the world because of a desire for autonomy apart from God. We all worship something, and these days you can see idol worship just by turning on the news. What we can determine quite clearly is that Paul believed that sin was something organic and structural, a personification that takes a whole host of metaphors and analogies. A key verse for this is Rom 6:6:
We know that our old self was crucified along with him, so that the body of sin might be utterly destroyed, so that we might no longer be enslaved to sin.
The slave-master analogy requires a real socio-historical grounding. Slavery was incredibly common in the ancient world, with estimates of around 300,00 of them existing in the Roman Empire during Paul's time. Hence, the presence and materialization of sin not only abounded across the Roman Empire, it manifested itself in the very bodies of the early Christians who were slaves and slave-masters. As such, the question of the emergence of evil is clear. Sin, as a cosmic oppressor, comes to birth through the sinful activity of humanity. Death feeds on life. Sin feeds on life. As such, the materialization of sin and death and evil stems from the desires of creature who have forsaken God—it is not God who created evil; that falls upon us. As Beverley Gaventa writes, "humanities refusal of God's lordship meant that God conceded humanity for a time to the lordship of another."
3. The Reality and Promulgation of Evil
The second point concerns the reality and promulgation of evil. From whence evil came, we know. The reality of evil is more pressing, as it is the straw that broken many a former Christians back. The sin of racism, violence, greed, avarice, and so forth remains ever present in our world. For many, Paul is often considered to be the source of Christian anti-Semitism, slavery, and sexism. This list of Paul's alleged sins increases expansively if one consider the impact of government sanctioned violence (Rom 13:1-7). This is not the place to defend Paul on every point but a few words are needed. If we are to take Paul seriously as a theologian, we must be certain of his character. What good is a theologian if he or she ignores the things of Christ? What good is the apocalyptic vision is that vision is tainted by the worst wiles of the ancient world? First, Paul's Judaism and comments about Judaism reside within, I would argue, the prophetic tradition and I am not inclined to argue that Isaiah or Ezekiel are Anti-Semitic. Paul sees himself within this prophetic strain (c.f. Rom 1:1) and criticism and condemnation of sinful behavior is not limited exclusively to Paul. As it concerns slavery and women, one cannot find a single ancient source that advocated for the abolition of slavery. But, one can find this little Epistle addressed to a certain Philemon that—I would argue—plants the seeds of emancipation for slaves. The famous text in Galatians 3:26-29 about the abolition of hierarchy through baptism in the church, for the Jew and the Gentile, for the slave and the free person, for male and female, is a strong hindrance to the notion that Paul was intent on maintaining a hierarchical social order. If one includes the activity of early Christian women in Romans 16 for example, one would not expect to find a sexist commending such women for their work in the Gospel. That will suffice for now to assure us of Paul's good character toward 'the least of these.' As such, I would argue that Paul's moral character as it relates to the reality of evil is of use to us. Paul, as an ethical theologian, is an excellent source for understanding the reality of evil insofar as he was aware of evil and that he worked to overcome it as he was able in his time.
Moving to the reality of evil, Paul certainly believed that individuals participated in evil activities. But, I think the problem is far greater than being about individual sin. For Paul, evil has a personality to it—it seeks to subordinate and oppress us (Rom 6). It seizes opportunities to enslave and to kill (Rom 7). Although the powers were created as good (Col 1:15ff), they have since become fraught with violence and oppressive power. What was once good at least in terms of concession (recall that whole "give us a king" moment from the Old Testament) has become corrupt. For Paul, this age or this reality is symbolic of the destructive power of Satan and competing sovereignties. This is the reason Paul calls the "rulers" or "sovereignties" as being of "this age" (1 Cor 2:6-8), and not of the unfolding age to come. As Paul recognizes in Galatians 1:3-5:
Favor to you and peace from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord, who delivered himself over for our sins so that he might rescue us from this present wicked age in accordance with the will/resolve of our God and Father, to whom is glory for ages upon ages. Amen.
Several points must be noted about this fascinating little text. First, notice the distinction between ages: the apocalyptic age of God includes the liberation of humanity from bondage. Only God's glory and favor and peace can reign "for ages upon ages," with no hit to God's sovereignty. There are no other sovereignties to usurp God's power. Second, the notion of liberation includes distinct echoes of the Exodus narrative where God emancipated Israel from bondage, taking them from death into new life. Third, this age is characterized as "wicked" or "evil;" (πονηροῦ) as opposed to good or holy (Eph 2:2). Throughout the Synoptic Gospels the language of "ruler" (ἄρχων) is often linked with demonic realities and powers (Matt 9:34; 12:24) and human powers that enslave (Matt 20:25). What this tell us is that human and supernatural powers have been corrupted and in turn have become corrosive toward God's creation. And they wield immense power in our world. With the Adamic narrative and the decline of civilization narrative in mind, what is Paul's response when the person in Adam cries, "Wretched human that I am, who will liberate me from this body of Death?" (Rom 7:24).
4. The Vanishing of Evil
For many Christians, the question of the "end" of all things is ultimately a question about hell and suffering. Very little is usually said about what this "end" contains, only that there is pain and anguish and a form of torment as it relates to evil. However, it must be said that Paul did not envision the "end" in a way where people and entities are kept alive forever and ever. Paul's vision of "hell" or the "end" must be reframed in broader and more precise ways. Paul has a much bigger picture in mind. For the apostle, the question is not about whether or not God torments people forever and ever. Rather, the question should be seen as, "what is God's ultimate response to evil in the world?" How does God respond to injustice and violence and oppression and exploitation? Hence, theodicy is at the center of Paul's thought world as it relates to sanctification and God's ultimate act in response to the terrors that bind and enslave us. This reconceptualization will press us toward a more robust biblical theology that takes seriously the evils of our world and God's ultimate answer to the terrors and the trials. Apocalyptic theology or eschatology cannot be projected into the future, as if God is not at work now in our world to redeem and wage a cosmic battle against evil.
Questions, of course, arise when we consider such things. For example, one might suggest that sinners continue in sin in hell. This is the view asserted by D.A. Carson among others, and this view has found little support among New Testament scholars. Other views have softened the traditional formulation of hell as eternal brimstone, fire, and torture to something like separation or compared it to 'warm beer.' Ronnie Demler, my colleague and sometimes-cuddly curmudgeon, has documented this sort of argumentation in the Rethinking Hell anthology, so I point you to that for substantiation.
As one can see, often the apologetic impulse in much of evangelicalism deals not with a grand vision of God's sovereignty and holiness and powerful war against sin, but with the individual being consigned and incarcerated to a small corner of the cosmos. Such a framework does not work well at all with Paul's grand vision. So, allow me a few moments to offer a tentative sketch of the Pauline data as it relates to the problem of evil.
Paul's words in Romans 8:18-23 are an appropriate lens by which we begin our conversation. The text reads as follows:
[EXT] 18 For I think that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to compare to the coming glory to be apocalyptically disclosed to us. 19 Because the created order is eagerly waiting with anticipation for the revealing of the sons of God, 20 for creation was subjected with frustration, not willingly, but because of the one who subjected it in hope 21 that even creation itself would be emancipated from its enslavement of destruction for the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that all creation has joined together in groaning and suffers the pain of childbirth until now. 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves—the ones who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit—groan amongst ourselves, anticipating adoption as sons, the emancipation of our bodies. [EXT]
All of creation is subjected in turmoil and anguish and the evidence of this can be found on whatever news channel you prefer. The present reality of suffering and anguish is a prime element of early Christian thought, although the notion of escapism is to be ignored. For Paul in Rom 8:18-23 we see an active reality—the created order—responding to corruption and the process of destruction, where the cosmos is cognizant of its own status and anguish amidst corruption and degradation. Rather, creation is in need of liberation by means of humanity and our work as agents of liberation. God's own hope for a liberated cosmos (vv.20-21) is set in opposition to agents of destruction and corruption, who seek to subordinate and dominate the created realm. God's act of subordination is assumed to be for the benefit of the oppressed, with the ultimate goal of "adoption" and "emancipation." Thinking ecclesiologically and ecologically, the church is to be God's agent of redemption in a world beset by violence and horror. The church is united to this cosmic reality and we participate with it, groaning and eagerly anticipating and even suffering with the created order. The goal of glory is the final culmination of perfection in God's cosmic order, where sin and evil is ultimately removed from all reality. God's process of rectification assumes a new reality (Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:16-17) where the kingly image of the eternal Son is supreme above all other orders and realities and principalities and sovereignties (Col 1:15ff). God's perfection of the cosmos is the ultimate restoration of the original design in creation and Eden.
In an often-disregarded verse, Paul outlines the specific end of a principle agent in the rebellion against God: Satan. Paul writes
[EXT] But the God of peace will crush (συντρίψει) Satan beneath your feet in swiftness. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you." [EXT]
What is compelling about this verse is that it directly matches the fate of Satan that is proclaimed elsewhere in Scripture (Heb 2:14-15): as the principle evil actor in the divine drama, Satan maintains a significant presence in the New Testament. The language Paul uses in this text is fascinating on two accounts. First, the language of being placed "under your feet" suggests destruction (Psalm 109:1 LXX) and the church is the agent in doing this. Second, the verb συντρίψει is used throughout Second Temple literature to denote destruction, especially as it relates to warfare. 1 Macc 4:32 and 2 Macc 12:28 are specific in their vision of the "destruction" of their enemies: "but they called upon the Sovereign who with great power shatters (συντρίβοντα) the might of his enemies" (12:28). The Book of Odes also speaks of "The Lord shattering (συντρίβων) [enemies in] wars" (1:3; 7:44) a view that is also echoed in Judith 9:7 and 16:2. In Judith specifically, God is the specific agent who "crushed" or "destroys" various warriors and nations who rebel against God. This suggests linguistic and thematic continuity with Rom 16:20 and that Satan's fate is utter decimation from where there is no life, vitality, or remnant. Hence, the final end of Satan in Pauline thought coordinates best with the view that those who participate in evil against God's call to participate in sanctification and victory in Christ will ultimately be undone in death (Rom 6:23).
Paul's magnum apocalyptic opus in 1 Cor 15:24-26 reads as follows
[EXT] 24 Then the final End: when he hands over the Kingdom to God, even the Father, after he has annihilated all rulership and all sovereignty and power 25 For he will continue to reign until he has placed all of the adversaries beneath his feet. 26 The final enemy to be utterly annihilated is Death. [EXT]
These verses in the larger pericope of 1 Cor 15:20-28 represent a master vision where Paul outlines in some detail what will happen to all evil things, particularly the fate of the powers and the sovereignties. The notion of dueling sovereignties is a question that Paul has wrestled with throughout his entire surviving corpus: Jesus the Lord versus Caesar and the Empires of this world, and the problem of competing imperial ideologies in the ancient world are finally confronted here. Christ's kingship is predicated upon his sole exercise of sovereignty and the annihilation of all (πᾶσαν) of the universal realities that have shaped the cosmos; nothing evil has escaped Christ's grasp. A key Greek verb bookends our section here (v.24: καταργήσῃ in relation to the annihilation of the powers) and in the complete annihilation (v.26: καταργεῖται) of the final enemy. These realities (the Powers) and the final enemy (Death) will cease to exist when Christ finally and decisively acts in response to their tyranny. Similarly, the various "rulers" will also be "destroyed" or "brought to nothing" (καταργουμένων) in 1 Cor 2:6. Thiselton notes, "the present tense underlines that they are in the process of being reduced to nothing; this process remains continuous as an unstoppable process, i.e., they are doomed to come to nothing, or doomed to pass away." The perfection of creation and the call for holiness means that the current world order is in direct conflict with God's desires. God's will for a world without sin is predicated upon the free actions of creatures who refuse God's gift of Christ, and all who have aligned themselves with the sovereignties will be given over finally into death. The hostility of the powers—both human and non-human—are doomed to nothingness, as sin cannot co-exist with God and God's people in New Creation. This word group (καταργέω) is also applied to the "lawless one" or the "person of lawlessness" (ὁ ἄνθρωπος τῆς ἀνομίας) in 2 Thess 2:7-10. In response to the evil done by this figure, Jesus will "kill" (ἀνελεῖ) him and "annihilate" (καταργήσει) him when he comes in glory (2 Thess 2:8). The discontinuity procured by Sin and Death means that Paul's vision of a triumphant God entails the annihilation of all things hostile to God: the final enemy of God is that which seeks to dominate all of creation, this ultimate adversary of Death. The removal of sin from the body of the believer (Rom 6:6) echoes the removal of sin and evil from the cosmic order here. In responding to the created powers, God renders them null and void, with utter decimation and final obliteration for the benefit of those who were oppressed by them and enslaved to them.
A few closing points:
· To assert that God maintains old vestiges of sin and evil entities somewhere in the cosmos does not comport at all with the Pauline data. Evil cannot exist with a good and sovereign God at the helm of history. Evil and Death, as powers that enslave and corrode, cannot exist within God's creation.
· To assert that evil and sin and death are eternally existent in the bodies of those who rejected Christ is miss out on the military language utilized by Paul. Paul's use of incarceration imagery is never used in an apocalyptic sense to refer to people being eternally existent in a state of agony or boredom. Rather, in all of Paul's apocalyptic discourses, annihilationist or destructionist language is used.
5. The Sea will be as Glass
The question, in conclusion, is how Paul's vision concerning the destruction of evil affects our theological consideration. The integration of various issues in theodicy and the apocalyptic fall of Satan and the powers are actually vital for Pauline theology. To introduce various other questions about the eternal existence of people in a state of hell is to miss out on the point of Paul's theological outlook. There are no other sovereignties or powers to press against God's sovereignty. In the chaos of this world, Paul's perspective gives us hope—especially to those of us who are pastors—in that evil and sin and death exist, and they are at war with God. As John Peckham has stated, "The suffering God of the cross himself took on death in order to destroy it, and he will indeed destroy death and the enemy who has its power (Heb 2:14). In the meantime, we can maintain faith in the goodness of this God of love while raging against the (temporary) "dying of the light." One is not immune from suffering simply by privilege of being born or being a Christian. Evil is overwhelming because it is evil. Evil does that. But God did not hide himself from such evil. And Paul didn't either. Chaos reigns but it cannot reign eternally.
As John the Seer said some thirty years after Paul, "And I saw what looked like a sea of glass glowing with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and its image and over the number of its name" (15:2). Let us live into that.
 Beverley Gaventa, "The Cosmic Power of Sin in Paul's Letter to the Romans: Toward a Widescreen Edition," Interpretation 58.3 (2004): 229-240, 233.
 Here, Paul is addressing a mixed audience and hence women are included with the status of first-born sons.
 Specifically, the language of "corpses" (πτῶμα) and and the verb for "shattering" (συνθλάω) in vv.5-6 of the LXX denote annihilation. This victory is envisioned as a military conquest, not a passive or peaceful submission.
 The verb can also be used to denote metaphorical destruction; cf Sir 13:2 and 27:2.
 Louw-Nida glosses this verb as "to cause to cease to exist - 'to cause to come to an end, to cause to become nothing, to put an end to.' " 13.100.
 Richard Hays observes the following: "this parallel [with 1:28] shows that it is God who is acting to destroy these rulers and to establish his sovereignty over the world." First Corinthians, 43.
 Thiselton, First Corinthians, 231-232.
 Peckham, Theodicy of Love, 170.