The mystery of the permission of evil is still a mystery. All of our explanations are inadequate; they all leave something unexplained. But that the permission of evil is for a wise purpose and has been foreseen and provided for in the Plan of God no one can contradict. It is no mystery that the endurance of suffering and experience of evil has beneficial results in the long run. It is a true saying that is found in the New Testament “for the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12.11 ). Of Jesus Himself it is said that He was made perfect through suffering (Heb. 5) and again, that He became a merciful and sympathetic High Priest by reason of the things which He suffered. There is evidently something in the endurance of suffering and evil which has a direct effect on the development of man in the direction of the Divine ideal. It must be accepted that suffering is the result of sin, and that sin came into the world, not by any action of God, but by the deliberate choice of man; at the same time we have to admit that in some wonderful manner, which we do not at present understand, God is using this suffering in the accomplishment of His purposes.
It is here that we must enter upon the subject of human free will. It is essential that men enjoy the exercise of free will if they are to be a responsible unit in God’s creation. This is one of the respects in which man differs from the animals. They have their own orbit in which they live and move and have their being, an orbit out of which they cannot move, circumscribed as they are by the limitations imposed upon them by their instinct. They have no option but to obey the rules of their own life cycle and no one would dream of imputing any kind of moral responsibility to an animal for its actions. With man it is different; he has the ability, within certain limits, to please himself whether he will follow laws of righteousness or laws of evil, and he can intelligently and knowingly co-operate with God, or fight against God, as he will. God made the first man with that ability to choose between good and evil in order that he might be in fact the lord of all earthly creation, living in harmony with the laws of God and discharging his obligations as a citizen of earth not blindly, nor of constraint, but willingly and because of full sympathy with, and endorsement of God’s laws of righteousness. So, man embarked on his new life of experience, having the power to choose between good and evil. He chose evil and fell.
We need not be dogmatic as to the precise nature of man’s first lapse into sin. In the story of Eden it is represented as the eating of forbidden fruit, the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We may be tolerably sure that the story at least intends us to know that man committed a fundamental breach of Divine Law. The action, whatever its nature, involved violation of the very law of his being, and the result of his act was that death entered into his physical and mental structure. Because his posterity were as yet unborn the same processes of death passed upon them. Thus, says Paul, death passed upon all men, for that all were sinners.
Humanity was thus committed to sin and consequent suffering while it multiplied and spread over the face of the earth. Sin was destined progressively to devitalise the human race and obliterate the knowledge of God from men’s minds. But always there remained the inherent goodness of human character, implanted in man at creation, urging to better things. It was in this soil, after the first shock of the Fall had passed, that the search for the way back to God could take root and discover real values.
Here came the first lesson for human learning. Man cannot exist without God. “In him we live, and move, and have our being” said Paul to the Athenians. That may be more literally true than our finite human minds are capable of comprehending just yet. But a truth that men must learn is that life everlasting and life in perfection can only be attained and enjoyed when life is brought closely in tune with God and lived in conformity with God’s law. “He who believes in Me”, said Jesus “has everlasting life.” (John 6. 47 NKJV.) During the first few millenniums after the Fall the opposite was true; the practice and power of sin increased, the span of human life shortened, the physical vitality of man decreased, and his mental powers and intelligence declined. To this period belongs the degeneration of human types, from the splendid physique of the first men to those miserable, almost sub-human creatures remains of which have been found by scientists in various parts of the earth. Among the groups that did not descend to savagery but retained some semblance of culture and civilisation there arose mythological religions to supersede what was left of true knowledge of God. By the time of Abraham, two thousand years before Christ, there was very little real understanding of God and His ways in the world.