As a pastor, the two main reasons I have heard people give for not being active in the local church are (1) people in the church seem just as lousy as everybody else, and (2) with so much evil and suffering in the world, belief in a good and loving God is a tough pill to swallow. For the first charge, they usually cite some sin they assume they are innocent of and assume people in the church are guilty of, whether it be racism or greed or hypocrisy. For the second charge, they usually cite some evil that they ascribe to God’s ineptitude.
The implication of these charges is that if God and Christians could each clean up their acts, just think of all the people we could get into the church. The only problem with this is that the news headlines tell us every day that the world is even more of a mess than the church may be, even with all the church’s imperfections.
This desire to get things sorted out and cleaned up is a near universal human desire not just limited to conversations about the church. Case in point, the United Kingdom held its local elections not long ago. A brand-new political party won its first seat. The name of this newly founded party?
The Rubbish Party.
Rubbish is the United Kingdom word for garbage, waste, and littering. The goal of the party is to get rid of the rubbish they see all around them.
From time to time, the church has certainly tried to clean up both its act and God’s act, though this has never quite been pulled off: “Let’s get rid of the dead wood and cut this thing down to the really committed, really good people.” It has been said that such attempts often end up creating a church full of people who look more like those who crucified Jesus than those who followed him. It is like the old saw about two Puritans talking to each other and one of them says to the other, “There is none so righteous as me and thee, and sometimes I worry about thee.”
You do not have to live very long to ask a cluster of questions regarding the problem of evil. Why are there evil and dangerous people in the world? Why doesn’t God just get rid of them? And how are we supposed to handle them while we are waiting? One day Jesus told a story that addressed that exact set of questions.
The Goodness of God and the Existence of Evil
Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew.
The farmer’s workers went to him and said, “Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds! Where did they come from?”
“An enemy has done this!” the farmer exclaimed.
“Should we pull out the weeds?” they asked.
“No,” he replied, “you’ll uproot the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.”
Matthew 13:24-30 (nlt)
Do you understand Jesus’ story? If not, don’t feel bad, because neither did his closest followers. They walked by fields of wheat every day, and they still had to ask him what the story meant. Here is Jesus’ explanation:
Leaving the crowds outside, Jesus went into the house. His disciples said, “Please explain to us the story of the weeds in the field.”
Jesus replied, “The Son of Man is the farmer who plants the good seed. The field is the world, and the good seed represents the people of the Kingdom. The weeds are the people who belong to the evil one. The enemy who planted the weeds among the wheat is the devil. The harvest is the end of the world, and the harvesters are the angels.
“Just as the weeds are sorted out and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the world. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will remove from his Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. And the angels will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s Kingdom. Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand!”
Matthew 13:36-43 (nlt)
How Did We Get Here?
This story helps make some sense of the problem of evil and its existence in a world created by an all-powerful, good God. The farmer’s plan was good seed in his good field. It alludes back to Genesis, where God saw all that he originally created and that it was very good. An enemy is who distorted the farmer’s good plan.
Jesus’ words here of “everything that causes sin” and “all who do evil” do not refer to people who drive fifty-eight in a fifty-five-miles-per-hour zone. In the story, it is clear that there is an enemy of God. Some people choose to live lives of such consistent evil that they are known as “children of the devil” (1 John 3:10).
These are literally Satan’s seeds.
These people not only sin but also cause others to sin. It’s the person who turned your now addicted son on to drugs. It’s the person at work spreading lies about you because he or she doesn’t like you and wants your job. It is the person who has been hitting on your spouse. It is the guy who buys a trafficked girl for a night of his pleasure at her pain. We are talking about the people whose lives are all about doing whatever they want and not caring if it hurts other people.
Why will Jesus remove them? Because Jesus hates the suffering they create in others. God is going to put an end to it. They will either change or be removed. The world is a mess now, but it won’t be forever. Jesus wants justice to be done and people to be protected and live in joy. In the story, he says, “The righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 13:43, nlt).
God’s plan for an all-good world has been temporarily delayed but not ultimately defeated. But let’s not sugarcoat this. Not everyone will be included. There will be a fiery furnace and the gnashing of teeth.
Justice Requires Judgment
Many people are not conscious of the fact that Jesus’ teachings included such confrontational ideas. For those aware of it and raised in a Western culture, we have been schooled to be troubled by this point of Jesus’ words. My nonbelieving friends say to me, “I like this Jesus guy, but can’t I have all the ‘love one another’ stuff without these words about fiery furnaces and gnashing teeth?” In a word, no. If God is loving, then he must desire justice, which requires judgment. As author and preacher Max Lucado observes, in our culture, “we disdain judgment but we value justice, yet the second is impossible without the first. One can’t have justice without judgment.”[i]
Still others familiar with the violent images of this parable may wonder, Isn’t asking people to believe in teachings like this just going to cause them to be more violent? You’d think so, but it’s just the opposite in real life.
Miroslav Volf is a Yale professor who is from Croatia. Life in the early 1990s in Croatia was unthinkable. People would come and literally kill your children and burn down your house. Volf argues that if you do not believe in a God who punishes evildoers, then when someone comes into your home, kills your children, and burns down your house, what are you going to do? You would do that and more to those who did that to you.
But let’s say you do believe there is a God who will punish and remove the evil. Then you don’t have to take matters into your own hands. The need for such a belief to restrain revenge sounds severe if you’ve never lived in a place of extreme violence against you. Volf writes,
The only means of prohibiting all recourse to violence by ourselves is to insist that violence is legitimate only when it comes from God. . . . It takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind. . . . If God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make the final end to violence God would not be worthy of our worship.[ii]
Divine retribution is not just practical doctrine that restrains revenge in our down-to-earth world; it’s what this parable of Jesus teaches.
Which One Do You Pull Up?
We want to get rid of dangerous and evil people now. The sooner, the better.
Our natural instinct is to think, God, why don’t you just get rid of them now? Or if not, let us. Here’s why God doesn’t want that: “If you try to tear out the weeds, you’ll tear out the wheat” (see Matthew 13:29). What does Jesus mean by this?
When we think of a weed, we might think of a dandelion or other common weed. The word Jesus uses often translated “weed” is a specific type of rye grass called darnel, which has poisonous seeds. At the harvest, if you processed it with the good wheat, the resulting flour would be ruined. It you fed it to your family, they would get sick. So the poisonous weeds must be removed.
Here’s the problem: Until they are full grown, darnel and wheat are virtually impossible to distinguish from each other. You might think you are removing a weed, when you are really uprooting wheat. The reason Jesus does not ask us to get rid of evil people is that we would not do a very good job of it. We keep thinking someone is a weed. We write the person off. We look down on the individual and wish he or she were simply gone. God is saying, “Be patient. Give that person some time and you might be surprised. That person might turn around.” It was the same with the parable of the two sons: one looked obedient in the morning but proved disobedient, and vice versa for the other.
Let’s pretend you had the job of uprooting some people and leaving others. The first case goes like this: In his teens, he began living with someone. He got her pregnant. After living with her fifteen years, he dumped her and got engaged to someone else. He got engaged to the second woman only because doing so would advance his career. During his two-year engagement, he began living with a third woman, who was not his fiancée. Meanwhile, during this time, he gave up on going to church and joined a cult. He eventually became bored with that and became a skeptic.
Leave him rooted or pull him up? Looks like a weed, but if you tear him out, you tear out the future Saint Augustine, one of the most influential and important Christians in history.
We are not the judge, as we do not have all the information to make a just judgment. Thankfully, we can trust that God’s judgments are just.
God’s Restraining Work While We Wait
Now, you might be thinking, So how are we to handle evil? Are we supposed to just let it run rampant? No. God is at work restraining evil even while the ultimate solution for getting rid of it lies in the future. God has given us his Word as a moral standard (see Psalm 119). He has created the family to bring up children in the instruction of the Lord (see Ephesians 6:1-4). He has founded the church to be the light in the midst of darkness and the pillar and foundation of the truth (see Matthew 5:14-15; 1 Timothy 3:15). God’s Holy Spirit is now present to restrain the growth of evil through convicting the world of sin and of the coming judgment (see John 16:8).
Limiting evil now is one of the reasons God has instituted human government (see Romans 13:1-7). Part of the role of a police officer, a CEO, a governor, an army officer, a principal in a school, or a senior pastor in a church is to enforce law and order within an assigned domain. Yet because there are such things as unjust laws, we are not absolved from actively calling for our laws and leaders to be as just as possible within this world.
God has given us authorities to punish evil people and restrain them from doing more. Authorities should discipline, arrest, expel, or confine evil people to jail if necessary. Jesus’ parable is not denying that, it is simply observing that no matter how much we do that here and now, there are still going to be evil people. The farmer will sooner or later separate the wheat from the weeds, but not fully in this moment while the harvest is still growing…
You’ve been reading with Tom Hughes from Down to Earth: How Jesus’ Stories Can Change Your Everyday Life. Read a free excerpt from the beginning of the book here. Or get started on the YouVersion reading plan in English or Spanish.
[i] Max Lucado, “This Evil Will Not Last Forever,” Max Lucado, https://maxlucado.com/this-evil-will-not-last-forever/.
[ii] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 303–4.