Justin Martyr: The Problem of Evil (Christmas Edition)


Do not be afraid! Listen carefully, for I proclaim to you good news that brings great joy to all the people

In explaining the meaning of Christmas, Justin tackles the problem of evil by examining the massacre of infants ordered by Herod. Think for a moment about what life would have been like in Bethlehem for parents with young children.

BookCover_UnholyNightIf you have trouble imagining what it might be like, Unholy Night, the mashup by Seth Grahame-Smith (of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter fame) may help. In this book he relates some of the horrors unleashed by Herod.

a woman in dark robes, running barefoot toward them down one of the cobblestoned streets. Running faster than she’d run in her life, because nothing in her life had ever been as important. …

There was a baby in her arms.

Naked. Tiny. Held to its mother’s breast as she ran from the horse. The black horse galloped after them with a soldier on its back, his armor clanging around him, his sword drawn.

That image should make you recoil.

As an aside this was an interesting look at the Christmas story, but this book is not for the squeamish.

Later in the book, having escaped Herod’s horrors the Antioch Ghost (the primary character in the story) would ask Mary:

“Either I’m right,” he continued, “and he doesn’t exist, or you’re right, and he’s the kind of God who watches children die.

This is essentially the problem of evil. Why did God allow Herod to massacre infants?

Justin tackles that question in Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 102:

As soon as He was born in Bethlehem, as I previously remarked, king Herod, having learned from the Arabian Magi about Him, made a plot to put Him to death, and by God’s command Joseph took Him with Mary and departed into Egypt.

For the Father had decreed that He whom He had begotten should be put to death, but not before He had grown to manhood, and proclaimed the word which proceeded from Him.

But if any of you say to us, Could not God rather have put Herod to death?

I return answer by anticipation:

Could not God have cut off in the beginning the serpent, so that he exist not, rather than have said, ‘And I will put enmity between him and the woman, and between his seed and her seed?’

Could He not have at once created a multitude of men?

But yet, since He knew that it would be good, He created both angels and men free to do that which is righteous, and He appointed periods of time during which He knew it would be good for them to have the exercise of free-will; and because He likewise knew it would be good, He made general and particular judgments; each one’s freedom of will, however, being guarded.

For Justin evil actions are committed because God gives man (and angels) the gift of free will. God in working out His own plans insures that He acts in ways that preserve these free will choices. That may include withholding His power to prevent evil choices that He foreknows will occur.

Justin later in this work (chapters 140-142) argues that those who crucified Jesus cannot escape the guilt they deserve using the excuse that God had planned for the event to occur, as Trypho proposes.

But that you may not have a pretext for saying that Christ must have been crucified, and that those who transgressed must have been among your nation, and that the matter could not have been otherwise, I said briefly by anticipation,

that God, wishing men and angels to follow His will, resolved to create them free to do righteousness; possessing reason, that they may know by whom they are created, and through whom they, not existing formerly, do now exist; and with a law that they should be judged by Him, if they do anything contrary to right reason: and of ourselves we, men and angels, shall be convicted of having acted sinfully

Again the reason that the wicked are responsible for their actions is because they were freely committed.

Justin concludes reminding Trypho that the guilt and future punishment need not remain because the Messiah’s First Advent is good news for all the people. All who accept the gift of salvation (through faith and repentance) shall benefit and be blessed.

[we] shall be convicted of having acted sinfully, unless we repent beforehand. …

So that if they repent, all who wish for it can obtain mercy from God: and the Scripture foretells that they shall be blessed …

I can wish no better thing for you, than this, that, recognizing in this way that intelligence is given to every man, you may be of the same opinion as ourselves, and believe that Jesus is the Christ of God

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