The prosperity of evil people has been a nagging problem for believers throughout the ages. For example, in the past, Asaph was depressed and confused about why wicked people do so well (Psalm 73). Even in the future, the martyrs of the tribulation will cry out; “how long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). In the present, we are upset by those who appear to break God’s laws with impunity.
The point is: if God is holy, and if in fact He has issued commands to His creation, then should He not do something when those commands are violated or ignored? But people regularly don’t obey. They do indeed ignore those standards that God Himself has set up. And furthermore, while engaged in such things, it seems there is a high level of distain for God and His standards. We see, in our own country, political leaders who lie and deceive and whose arrogance knows no bounds. They seem to be a law unto themselves, as God’s laws are irrelevant. Daily in the public forum, “reality” stars, movie stars and many other “famous” folks flaunt their immorality and post on the internet their fleshly indulgences and depraved behaviors. And nothing seems to happen. The impression is that God has grown disinterested in all of this, or that perhaps, over the millennia, He has grown a little more tolerant toward such behaviors. His apparent inaction is quite troubling deep down in the souls of many of those who follow Him. The resulting confusion is what Isaiah spoke about centuries ago (Isaiah 5:20-21).
“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and clever in their own sight.”
And Malachi 2:17 and 3:14-15 record something quite similar.
“You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, “How have we wearied Him?” In that you say, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delights in them,” or, “Where is the God of justice?” “You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept His charge, and that we have walked in mourning before the Lord of hosts?’ So now we call the arrogant blessed; not only are the doers of wickedness built up, but they also test God and escape.”
With tears, the prophet Jeremiah added another verse to the song.
“For all of them are adulterers, an assembly of treacherous men…lies and not truth prevail in the land; for they proceed from evil to evil.”
These prophets represent accurately the thoughts of many who see evil flourish but with few, if any, negative consequences. So, people conclude that it really makes little difference if a person does or does not live by biblical truth. It does appear that God has absented Himself from the world scene. Of course, we know that God’s Word states that God has not withdrawn from life here on earth. In fact, in answer to the question of Malachi 2:17, “where is the God of justice?”; the next verses make it clear that He is coming in judgment. Malachi 3:15 suggests that the “arrogant” and “evil doer” are seen as blessed, but in 4:1 the “arrogant” and “evil doer” are seen as being consumed like chaff in God’s fiery furnace of judgment.2
So, the short answer is that God will, in His time, judge those who break His laws. No one gets away with flaunting evil in the face of the holy God. But as we consider present evil and future judgment, we should remember certain facts.
Fact #1: God has not changed over the centuries. Any idea that God has evolved to being a deity who now sees righteous and unrighteousness in a new light, is just plain wrong. One of the attributes of God is that He is immutable (does not change). He has not diminished in holiness, love or any other attribute. In fact, that point is made in Malachi 3:6 where God declares;
“For, I, the Lord do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.”
God’s holiness has not changed but then neither has His love and mercy. And for that, Israel (and all of us) was to be very thankful. So, the issue is not that God has changed and is now more tolerant of sins. The line between righteousness and unrighteousness has not become blurred. He is the same today as He was millennia ago. His love and mercy do not change and neither does His attitude towards evil.
Fact #2: God is patient, but He is not indulgent. Perhaps the most succinct statement on this matter is one that God Himself made in Exodus 34:6-7. Moses had asked God to reveal Himself, and in these verses the nature and attitude of God is declared in a wonderful way. God revealed that He is slow to anger, gracious and compassionate. He is so very kind and patient towards sinners. Yet, if people do not respond to Him and forsake their sinning, He will indeed enter into judgment against them. Later Old Testament writers were well aware of these important verses given at Mt. Sinai. But Israelites, Americans and everyone else must never interpret the absence of immediate judgment as proof that God has become indifferent or careless about violations of His righteous standards. He is so very patient, but He remains intolerant of sin and evil.
Fact #3: God greatly desires that people avoid judgment by trusting His Son for eternal life and deliverance from the lake of fire. The Apostle Peter put it well when he said that the Lord does not want anyone to perish, but prefers that all would come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9). When Jesus died on the cross, the testimony of scripture is that He fully and completely paid for all sin for all time. Salvation (deliverance from damnation and the reception of eternal life) is available to all. It is up to each individual to simply trust in Jesus, the Son of God and deliverer from sin, in order to receive that salvation (John 3:16; 5:24). God the Spirit works 24/7 convincing people of their need of a savior, and people must respond or face the awful consequences of their non-response.
Fact #4: God has declared that judgment will come and it will be both terrible and eternal. If anything makes it clear that God has not “gone soft” on the sins of people, it is the powerful truth of the nature of future judgment. Man’s offenses are against an infinitely holy God and the punishment must properly fit the crime. There are some basic biblical truths which teach the terrible nature of future punishment.
- Eternal. The fate of the unbeliever is an eternal one. Just as believers receive eternal life, so the judgment of the unbeliever will be endless (Matt. 25:41, 46; Rev. 14:11; 20:11; 2 Thess. 1:9). The warped theological idea of the annihilation of the wicked (that is, these go out of existence forever) is nothing more than wishful thinking and bad exegesis. Jesus and the Apostles tell us with certainty that the punishment will be an endless one.
- Separated from God. Even atheists today have a relationship with God through “common grace.” This is God’s unmerited favor towards all men, so that (for example) the rain falls on the just and unjust alike. But this “common grace” will be not exist in the future. We can only imagine what the full scope of being totally separated from God will mean experientially to the unbeliever. (2 Thess. 1:9). The eternal fate of the unbeliever is the “lake of fire” which is declared to be the “second death”. (The word death has the basic idea of “separation.”) This is, therefore, the place of eternal separation from the Lord God.
- Meaningless life. The scriptures repeatedly tell us that life has no real meaning unless a person is rightly related to their Creator/Savior. A life with no purpose or meaning breeds deep depression and even suicide. We are built for a close relationship with God. But an empty, meaningless existence will be the forever experience of the unbeliever! (2 Thess. 1:9; Eccles. 2:25)
- Suffering. Usually the first thing that comes to mind, when the fate of the unbeliever is contemplated, is the matter of intense suffering. And the Bible does indeed support this perspective. (2 Thess. 1:8-9; Matt. 8:12; 13:41-42, 49-50; 22:13; 25:30, 46; Rev. 14:9-11; 20:10). Jesus and the Apostles speak in terms that dramatically communicate great sufferings. Even the term “lake of fire” visually communicates the idea of a suffering that will be intense. But all that is involved in this suffering is likely beyond anything we can even imagine.
When we contemplate, even briefly, the terrible future of the one who remains in unbelief, we can better appreciate why the gracious God patiently tries to bring men to belief, and so avoid this eternal consequence. The Lord understands perfectly the nature of this future judgment, and He knows why such a judgment is necessary. We will never have God’s level of knowledge on this matter. But we can understand that people don’t get away with violating God’s righteous requirements, and that God is not careless or unconcerned about evil that exists in His creation.
Armed with this biblical perspective, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are to see our world (culture) through the lens of the Scriptures. Perhaps the best way to end this brief discussion is by hearing the words of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 5.
“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them; for you were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light….And do not participate in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret….Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:6-8, 10-12, 15-17)