Charles Dickens and Theodicy

In the preface to the third edition of Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens addressed his English critics who took offense to his use of unsavory characters such as prostitutes and thieves in a book written to a “civilized” audience. The novelist’s response, like the novel itself, is a splendid lesson on the relationship between good and evil:

I confess I have yet to learn that a lesson of the purest good may not be drawn from the vilest evil. I have always believed this to be a recognized and established truth, laid down by the greatest men the world has ever seen, constantly acted upon by the best and wisest natures, and confirmed by the reason and experience of every thinking mind. I saw no reason, when I wrote this book, why the very dregs of life, so long as their speech did not offend the ear, should not serve the purpose of a moral at least as well as its forth and cream. (1841)

That which Rembrandt illustrated with his brush, Dickens described with his pen: light is never so radiant as when contrasted with darkness, good never so virtuous as when juxtaposed with evil. In the Gospel itself, the very same principle described by Dickens comes to the fore. With the advent of the Christ, the opposing forces of good and evil, light and dark, make war against one another. But when standing against the darkness, light isn’t simply light; it’s brilliantly victorious. According to Christ, “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:19-21) The specific verb John uses is ϕανεροω (phaneroō), meaning “to become public knowledge,” or “become disclosed” or “become known” (BDAG, 1048). Thrown into beautiful relief against the darkness, the light unveils. It shines and stands apart. And the brilliance of the Gospel is only multiplied through the backdrop of evil: life wrought through death, blessings through suffering. Thankfully, this accentuating interplay between light and dark isn’t by chance; it’s part of God’s wonderful design.

The characters and the plot of the biblical narrative, similar to Dickens’ fictional Oliver Twist, are carefully chosen and orchestrated in such a way that God’s mercy in Christ is exceedingly glorious in the climax of the cross. Many of the most ultimate and mysterious questions that Christians have concerning the overarching scheme of the Bible will remain unanswered this side of glory. However, Scripture does shed some light (pun intended) on the question of evil. For instance, why does evil exist? Why did God create Satan? Why did God create Adam and Eve knowing they would sin? Why did God create Judas? In the face of such daunting questions, the Apostle Paul rests in the sovereignty of a God who willingly made His light to shine even brighter against the darkness. In Romans, Paul writes, “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.” (9:21-23) When contrasted with vessels of wrath, God’s vessels of mercy appear all the more radiant in glory.

Simply put, without actually authoring sin, God plans and permits evil in the world “in order to make known” His grace in Christ and to accentuate His mercy. He wanted it that way to further show His glory. To dismiss evil as an unplanned, unfortunate accident is to diminish the sovereignty of God, fashioning Him into our image instead of bowing before a holy Creator who works all things according to the counsel of His glorious will. (Eph. 1:11) But it also robs God of His divine artistry. In the end, salvation history is God’s remarkable masterpiece of light’s triumph over darkness that would make Rembrandt himself envious.

Can God work good out of evil? Of course. He not only can; He does. Just ask Joseph’s brothers (Gen. 50:20). Gaze upon the bloody cross (John 19:30). Look at the life of the former Pharisee named Paul (Gal. 1:23). The Bible is littered with examples of Dickens’ observation that “a lesson of the purest good may…be drawn from the vilest evil.” And it makes for more than good fiction. The message that God works even bad things for the good of those called according to His purpose is medicine for the souls of the hurting and the wounded (Rom. 8:28). It’s also our hope that at the end of a muddy trial there lies a crown of life (James 1:12). God shines His best light in the face of darkness, and it doesn’t make us question His goodness. It makes us run to the light (1 John 1:5-7).

Obbie Todd

Obbie is the pastor at the Church at Haynes Creek in Oxford, Georgia, and is a PhD student in theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Obbie and his wife Kelly have been married for 5 years. They are the parents of twins, Roman and Ruby. Obbie is a pastor by day and a Jonathan Edwards junkie by night…and by day too.

Adam Dalton