Master, was this man guilty of sin, or was it his parents, that he should have been born blind. Neither he nor his parents, Jesus answered; it was so that God’s work might be made evident.
There was an argument among Jesus’ disciples. Broadly, the question was, why do bad things happen. More particularly it was, why was this man born blind? Various answers were proposed: because he was a sinner, and thus somehow brought punishment on himself; or perhaps his parents sinned. Somebody must be to blame. Some evils are indeed blameworthy. When the bridge fails, it may be the fault of the builder. When the crop fails it may be due to slothful husbandry. When a bank fails, it may be the fault of improvident investment. But in the case of the man born blind there was no one to blame; his blindness was that kind of evil that puzzles and afflicts us all: small children with leukemia, a sudden tornado that destroys the work of a lifetime in an hour, pandemics from nowhere, the inexplicable failure of vast plans well designed and well intentioned.
Why do these evils exist; why does evil exist in God’s good world at all? Because God created man with freedom. No freedom, no love, no obedience. But where there is freedom there may be sin, and as it happened sin came into the world first through the rebellion of angels (Isaiah 14:12–15) and then through the rebellion of our first parents (Genesis 3:6). The Lord God Almighty is not bound by anything outside himself but He is constrained by the revealed determinations of His holy will. We know from the fact of the persistence of the cosmos through patient millennia that on that day when our first parents sinned, God choose not to destroy His creation but determined to see His plan, which He had intended to be perfect in Eden, fulfilled through long ages during which He would, after the catastrophe of the fall, bring humankind to the end for which He had destined them before the foundations of the world.
To do so required that evil be permitted in order that it might be overcome. The theological history of the world is the story of God’s indefeasible love overcoming the evil He has permitted in a warfare that lasts from Genesis 1:3 to Revelation 19:13–16. Because mankind is a creature of will who in accordance with God’s plan must not be destroyed but converted, and because the victory over sin and death is a work in time, the healing of the world is a process, the crown of which is the healing of souls, which must be accomplished not against the human will but through the human will. Evil was and is permitted to exist, as Jesus told His disciples in John 9:3, in order that God’s power might be evident. Evil exists to be overcome by the salvific actions of God as He pursues His determinate will to make all things new. In Saint Augustine’s words: “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.”
This is the answer given in the story of the man born blind. Is he blind because he sinned? Or because his parents sinned? Not so: the man was born blind, suffering in some mysterious way from the deformation of nature called original sin that was inflicted on nature and human nature by God’s permission, so that the work of God might be revealed in His healing. Evil was and is permitted only to be overcome. The answer rings in the darkness of the Easter Exultet: “O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” The sin of Adam was permitted so that it could be destroyed by the death and resurrection of Christ.” The blindness of the man who sat by the road was permitted so that God’s glory could be revealed.
From the broad brush of God’s providential government of creation to His particular healings of this man’s disease to His particular protection on occasion to the healing of man and cosmos through His death, His Resurrection, and His sending of the Holy Spirit, evil has been allowed to persist only to be overcome to the glory of God. This is what inspired Paul to give the Romans, and the world, the image of creation groaning and travailing, not because of some evil of its own, not because of some flaw intrinsic to it, but for the sake of Him who condemned it in hope. Nature and human nature, with divine permission invaded by evil, is groaning and travailing looking forward to the redemption of man and nature (Romans 8:16–22).
The story of the Creator’s battle with evil begins with the Genesis account of God’s overcoming of the darkness, chaotic formlessness, and emptiness inflicted upon creation by the rebellion of the angels with light, form, fullness of being. Later there would be the cleansing of the earth with the great flood after sin left only one righteous man (Genesis 7:1–9), then God’s tutelage of the rebellious chosen people who killed the prophets He sent, and finally the sending of the one who as man could accept His holy vocation, who could resist Satan, and in whom the loving obedience God had sought in Eden was finally realized.
The last act of creation’s story is not the gradual emergence of the peaceable kingdom in history, not the fruition of some evolutionary progress, but the last battle, described by the Prophet John, when the Word of God, Himself leading the armies of heaven (Revelation 19:12–18) , defeats Satan so that the time comes “for the wedding feast of the Lamb” (19:7). The last act is not the emergence of the utopian kingdom of earth but a penultimate last battle, after which, finally and consummately, God’s will that there should be a race of free, rational, men who will love Him and praise Him in a perfectly in a renewed Eden is realized.
The warfare goes on forever in the heavens (Ephesians 6:10–12), until at the birth of the Savior warfare is absolute, with Satan cast into and on earth (Revelation 12:13, 17), until in the nineteenth and twentieth chapters of John’ s Apocalypse, death and hell are cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14), making way for the twentieth and twenty-first chapters which describe God’s victory in the New Creation, the New Jerusalem, and a renewed nature. The battle begun in the Garden only becomes more acute in this present age when the Holy Spirit calls and forms the Church, the time called in Scripture the Last Days, when Satan is opposed by the power of God the Holy Spirit.
Because man was the means through which sin came into the world of Genesis, and because man restored was in the beginning the object of God’s indefeasible love and purpose, it must be that through man sin must be taken out of the world. No man enmeshed in sin from birth could make the perfect offering of life to the Father, restoring in obedience what our first parents had refused to offer when they opted for the serpent’s proposal that they should be their own lawgivers. So God sent His Son, to take perfect human nature from the woman preserved from sin by the merits of Christ foreseen, to become incarnate, in the greatest of the works of God through whom His power is shown and evil overcome in those who live in Him.
In God’s wise dispensation the part played by every human in the story of God’s victory over evil is each person’s willingness to allow God to enter and heal in himself the sin-afflicted soul of every man and woman through the means He has decreed, the sacraments or holy-makers: baptism, confession, sharing in Christ’s body and blood. Through these we live in Christ, our lives hid in him. By so doing we join that number whose names are written in the book of life and who will be with Christ forever in the New Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven from God. And the last chapter is the healing of nature, the renewal of Eden described in the last chapter of the last book in the Bible (Revelation 22:1–5, Ezekiel 47:1–7). In this the work of God is made evident and glorious.
In the long arc of God’s purpose evil let into creation by rebellious angels and men will be permitted until the end. It will be evident in creation, in which God’s struggles to create and maintain an ordered world for man in the face of the malevolent powers of this world’s darkness, who ever seek to return nature to the formlessness, emptiness, and darkness from which God rescued it. Evil was in the in the Garden, in which God permitted the most subtle beast to tempt (Genesis 3:1–7), evident in the temptation of Christ (Matthew 4:1–11), evident in the doubt displayed (and overcome) in Gethsemane (Matthew 25:37–39). Jesus described the character of these times, in which the power of God is displayed in the coming of the Holy Spirit while Satan, knowing that his time is short (Revelation 12:12), continues to exercise as much of his power as God will allow; a time of glory for redeemed souls amidst a history marked by wars and rumors of wars, by the failure of love, of betrayal and disturbances of nature (Matthew 24–25). All this permitted so that God’s power may be revealed in His final victory. Jesus miraculously healed the man born blind so that the work of God might be made evident. In the end He will heal every blindness, every defect of nature, every sorrow, wiping away every tear, with the light of his glory in the new creation.