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The problem of evil is one of the most significant and challenging objections to Christianity. How can a Good God allow such evil and suffering as we see today? It seems to be an insurmountable problem for Christians to face. Is there a way to answer this problem satisfactorily?
This two-part article series looks at tackling this troubling question to give a compelling Biblical answer to this most important issue in hopes of helping us to see the true hope of the Gospel. The answer to the problem of evil has typically been called a "theodicy" - coming from two root words meaning "the justification of God."
In the Bible, the Preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes observes,
“Again, I observed all the acts of oppression being done under the sun. Look at the tears of those who are oppressed; they have no one to comfort them. Power is with those who oppress them; they have no one to comfort them. So I commended the dead, who have already died, more than the living, who are still alive. But better than either of them is the one who has not yet existed, who has not seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3)
This problem of pain, suffering, and evil is not a new one. Philosophers and all of the major religions of the world have their ways of addressing the challenge that the world as we experience is filled with pain, suffering, and instances of evil (both big and small). Something inside all of us cannot just let it sit for too long without attempting some sort of rationalization or explanation. We’re looking for meaning in it all.
There are two main questions in the problem of evil that we will grapple with today:
The Moral Question - How can a Good God exist with so much pain, suffering, and evil in the world?
The Meaning Question - Is there any meaning and hope in the midst of evil, pain, and suffering?
A Good God and the Problem of Evil
The first of those two questions were articulated by the Greek philosopher, Epicurus in the fourth century B.C. and was more recently and popularly restated by the Scottish philosopher in the 18th century, David Hume as follows:
“Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? From whence then is evil?” (David Hume, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, p.63)
This argument is used by many today who question the existence of God whether or not they have even heard of Hume or Epicurus. However, it isn’t just God’s existence, goodness or omnipotence that is called into question. The existence of evil also calls into question the justice of God - how is it right for him to allow such evils as the holocaust? The omniscience of God - did he not know this was going to happen? What about his wisdom? Is he simply not wise or clever enough to create and rule the world in such a way that there is no evil? Even his beauty is questioned as evil stands as an ugly blemish on creation with the destruction of death, disease, and disasters all around.
Modern Secularized Culture’s Problems
The modernization and secularization of our culture have actually left us as a society more ill-equipped to deal with the realities of evil, pain, and suffering. We now live in what the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor called “the immanent frame” which is marked by nothing more than what can be found in the temporal and material realm. All of life is bound to the here and now. There is no mystery, no wonder, everything is explainable by formulas and nothing to look forward to - the material is all there is.
This reality led to what Taylor called “the buffered self” - the impulse to insulate oneself from what lies beyond the natural realm. We avoid it and entertain or work ourselves to death to escape being haunted by the implications of the God who is there.
These two markers of our secularized age don’t just influence secular culture and people, but also religious people and Christians because we too live in the culture. We can all tend to live within the immanent frame - as if this world is all there is - and buffering ourselves with entertainment, careers, and distractions that hinder us from considering God in our day-to-day lives.
The Problem of Meaninglessness
The atheist writer, Julian Barnes, ironically, writing to alleviate the fear of death among atheists opens his book with, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” (Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, p.1) But why miss God? If the atheistic premise frees the person to enjoy a life free from the fetters of religion, why is there still this lingering inner longing?
Part of the answer may be that we know what that means. We know it means ultimate meaninglessness and futility.
If this world is all we have, then it is all we will have. If things go badly in this life, there’s no hope beyond it. This sort of outlook gives no hope to those who live under oppressive regimes, extreme poverty, and starvation or are victims of abuse and injustice that is never rectified. Ultimately, this sort of atheistic outlook only is appealing if you’re one of the few who are blessed with a charmed life - you won the genetic lottery and have the means to enjoy the best of life. However, even for those born with the golden spoon in their mouth, the struggle to find meaning still lingers.
Andrew Delbanco observes:
"A gulf has opened up in our culture between the visibility of evil and the intellectual resources available for coping with it. Never before have images of horror been so widely disseminated and so appalling... The repertoire of evil has never been richer. Yet never have our responses been so weak. We have no language for connecting our inner lives with the horrors that pass before our eyes in the outer world." (Andrew Delblanco, Death of Satan, p.3)
People in past generations faced far greater tragedies and hardships than we do today, yet had better resources to handle them. We think of the “Great Generation” that weathered the World Wars or even earlier generations who suffered plagues that wiped out two-thirds of the population of Europe. Up until fairly recently, about half of children died before adulthood and a quarter of newborns died in their first year! Compare that to today when global infant mortality is 2.9%. Today, we’re surprised when a child dies, then it was a sad norm. Wars, violence, plague, and suffering were far more regular parts of life in the past. Today, suffering is an alien intrusion into our modern ease and is considered to be avoided at all costs.
If this world is all we have, then a purely materialistic worldview is ill-equipped for enduring suffering in hope - especially if there is no hope for its end in this life.
However, this still doesn’t answer the question of evil and suffering disproving God. It is hypothetically possible that the atheistic worldview is right and there just isn’t any meaning to it all.
Evil Presupposes the Triune God
Every one of us innately knows that the category of evil presupposes some objective standard by which to measure what is evil. How do we know what is evil if we do not know what is good? Evil is said to not actually be a thing in and of itself, but rather the absence or corruption of good. It is parasitic on the good and thus needs the good to “exist”.
Even from the fifth century, Augustine noted this. Evil is not a thing in and of itself - so it is improper to say that God “created” it - at least not in a direct sense. Randy Alcorn notes,
"There is no such thing as cold, only lower degrees of heat (or the complete lack of it). Death is not the opposite of life, but its privation. A cloth can exist without a hole, but the hole cannot exist without the cloth.... A shadow is nothing but the obstruction of light-no light, no shadow." (Randy Alcorn, If God is Good, p.25)
This is very different from the ideas of Eastern Mystic Religions though, which think of evil as an illusion. It is not. Evil is a very real corruption of the good. So to be able to recognize evil, we must know good. Evil implies something that has gone wrong with the way things ought to be.
We see in Genesis 3, with the story of Adam and Eve’s fall - as they rebel against God and eat the fruit wanting to be able to define good and evil for themselves apart from God that this plunged our world into destruction and the curse of sin. Sin is why things have gone wrong and are not as they ought to be.
When we observe an act of cruelty or suffer injustice, we don’t go through a complicated process of making value analyses or comparing criteria from an abstract ethic system. Instead, we react almost instantly with an intuitive knowledge that the act is evil and an expectation that others do also!
As R.C. Sproul has said if someone disagrees that there are objective moral standards, the simplest way to test that would be to steal their wallet. Even the smallest child will very soon learn to object “that’s not fair!” when they feel they have been wronged. We all live as though objective morals exist because they do. The Bible calls this awareness our conscience and the Apostle Paul spoke clearly about it in Romans 2:14-16,
“So, when Gentiles, who do not by nature have the law, do what the law demands, they are a law to themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts. Their consciences confirm this. Their competing thoughts either accuse or even excuse them on the day when God judges what people have kept secret, according to my gospel through Christ Jesus.”
Deep down, we know that there is objective right and wrong. God has written it on our hearts. The problem of evil wouldn’t actually be a problem if this were not the case!
By What Standard?
Though we instinctively know right and wrong, this should lead us to ask what is the logical basis for this? Where do moral laws come from?
The only basis for evil and objective moral laws is the Triune God of the Bible. Not just some generic theism or any god will do. Why?
Objective Moral Laws presuppose a Lawgiver. But what is this Lawgiver like?
Objective moral laws are personal. We don’t speak of evil with regard to inanimate objects, but rather all evil is committed against persons. Similarly, all good is spoken of in reference to persons. Injustice, murder, violence, lying, stealing, etc - are all against persons. So, the moral law must have a source that is also personal. This rules out the impersonal gods of deism. It also rules out any god that is solitary - such as in Islam - because such a god cannot be said to be eternally personal - with whom would he be personal and relate? That god cannot be loving until he creates because there would be no one to love. Only the Triune God - in the eternal relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit - is the God who is Personal and who can also be eternally said to be love.
Moral laws are constant. This means they don’t change based on subjective tastes. If they did, then we could never call things objectively evil - only that we don’t prefer them. It would make something as horrendous as the holocaust or genocides a matter of preference rather than something objectively evil. Thus, the source of these moral laws must also be constant and unchanging. This rules out the gods of some religions like Hinduism who change and are fallible.
Moral laws are just. So the Source must also be morally perfect. This rules out any god who acts in a way that is not morally pure.
Moral laws are universal. They are backed up by the authority which issues and enforces them. For moral laws to be universally binding and applicable throughout all places and times, the authority behind them needs to also be universal and eternal. This rules out any lesser god that is not totally sovereign over all of space, time, and events.
Moral laws need a transcendent Source. Furthermore, this God cannot be subject to moral laws - because that would put him under the law, as some gods of ancient myth are judged by an abstract moral law above them. Rather, this morally perfect God would be the Source of these moral laws because they flow from His being which gives life and existence to all things. God’s law reflects His character.
According to David F. Wells, God is,
“the unchanging norm of what is true and right in all places, times, and cultures, a God whose reality is unaltered by the ebb and flow, the relativity, of life, unaffected by private perceptions or internal psychology." (David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland, p.91)
Thus, it is only the Triune God of the Bible that can account for and is the standard for objective morals. Only the God of the Bible is personal, eternally existing in the communion of Father, Son, and Spirit, perfect, unchanging, all-powerful, and eternal. No other worldview can account for all these features of objective moral standards.
Other religions and philosophies try to posit other alternatives, such as that moral laws were advantageous in the evolution of our species and societies and so are a product of survival of the fittest and social priorities. However, this does not account for their objectivity and universality. Why do something altruistic that doesn’t benefit your tribe/clan or gene pool? Why not do something “evil” if it helps propagate your genes and prevents others?
Furthermore, if there is no God, there is no problem with evil. This is the logical conclusion of atheistic ideology. I guess this may be a way of solving the problem of evil, but it doesn’t seem like much of a solution to pretend that evil doesn’t exist. We know it does deep down, and this sort of answer gives no solace to the grieving mother or violated victim.
“The honest and careful theist must admit that evil is a problem because he has a clear view of who God is and what evil is. But the atheist and his cousin the agnostic have the deeper problem. They must suffer the ill effects of evil while having no way to explain it. The secularist cannot justify its existence if God does not exist. In other words, the only reason why evil is a problem at all is that God does exist.” (Scott Christensen, What About Evil?, p.43)
Famous atheist, Richard Dawkins admits this when he writes”
“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden, p.133)
This is the situation for those who deny the existence of the God who is. The category of evil presumes upon objective morality which is grounded in the Christian God of the Bible. Thus, to even raise the problem and wrestle with it in a way that makes any sense, you must presuppose the God who is, the Triune God of the Bible.
Far from disproving God, the problem of evil actually presupposes God.
This does not solve the problem of why evil exists though. It only shows that evil does not disprove God’s existence. So, if evil does not disprove God’s existence, then why does God allow it to continue? Next, we will look at some justifications for God in the face of evil.
Bad Attempts to Justify God
There are some ways of trying to give a defence or justification of God in the face of evil that actually ends up destroying the Biblical definition of God. These are insufficient and defeat the purpose of a defence. If you have to give up what you are defending at the outset, you’ve not done a great job of defending. I’ll briefly take a look at two bad defences and then what is the Biblical defence. However, due to time and space, we will not be able to do a full treatment of these.
The Free-Will Defence
Some try to solve the problem by saying that God created humans with libertarian free will. Libertarian free will is the ability to always choose the contrary to what one actually chose. It is freedom in the sense that it is completely free of God’s control. It is said that love cannot exist without libertarian free will and that this was a good so great that it was worth the risk of creating a world with the possibility of evil in order to preserve humanity’s free will. Thus, God is not responsible for evil since humanity has a libertarian free will which God chooses not to hinder.
However, this defence fails in three ways:
Firstly, it ultimately makes the autonomous will of humanity sovereign, not God. God is helpless to the wills of his created creatures and is forever subject to react to their decisions. God can never be sure to accomplish His will because the will of people can always thwart it. This is a God who is just a little bigger than ourselves and not the Sovereign God of the Bible.
Secondly, the Bible does not teach that we have a libertarian free will, but rather what is known as a creaturely free will. We are not robots and can make free decisions, however, our will is not superior to God’s but works under His sovereign will. Our will is also not totally free - we are bound both by our natural capacities and by our sinful inclinations to do bad things. We only do that which our hearts are most inclined to do and nothing else. Jesus said that it is out of the heart that evil desires and actions come (Matthew 15:18-19 & Mark 7:21). So our will isn’t free in a libertarian way but rather works according to our strongest desires. Unless those desires change, we will always act according to them.
Lastly, it presumes that libertarian free will is necessary for love. However, is this true? It doesn’t seem to be so in the Bible’s conception of Heaven, where there will never be the possibility of humans choosing to sin. Thus, in heaven we clearly see that this idea of libertarian free will is not essential to humanity or to love - for no Christian would assert that we are not human or unable to love in heaven.
Professor John Frame comments,
“Scripture never uses the free-will defense in any passage where the problem of evil is up for discussion. You will not find it in the book of Job, in Psalm 37, or in Psalm 73. Indeed, all these passages presuppose the usual strong view of divine sovereignty.” (John M. Frame, Apologetics, p.106)
The Open Theism "Defense"
Another way that people seek to solve the problem is by denying God’s omniscience. This argument hinges similarly on the idea of free will and says that God does not know everything that will come to pass infallibly. God knows everything he has created and knows the probable outcomes, but He cannot know the future choices of free creatures until they come to pass. However, this also fails as a defence because it denies the God of Scripture who declares the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10) and consistently speaks of God as all-wise and all-knowing. It similarly assumes a libertarian free will, which we have seen is not true.
These attempted defences have imagined a God who is not truly sovereign, omnipotent, and omniscient in order to excuse Him from perceived problems. However, as Scott Christensen notes,
“It is easy to turn away from God for answers when he has been domesticated, emasculated, and shorn of his transcendence, full power, sovereignty, and holiness. In a cosmic construct in which humanity lies at the gravitational center, God's goodness is reduced to having human tranquillity as his highest goal." When that goal seems unachievable, disillusionment quickly sets in.” (Scott Christensen, What About Evil?, p.36)
The God who is does not need to be tamed. It is no victory if in one’s attempt to defend God they end up the God of the Bible. You cannot destroy God in order to save Him.
A Biblical Justification of God
Firstly, we must recognize that this problem of seeking a justification of God is a uniquely Christian one. We only know God to be omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good because he has made it clear to us about Himself in Scripture. Thus, the solution must be found in Scripture.
God’s Word does not shy away from affirming God’s total sovereignty. Listen to the remarkable words of Nebuchadnezzar, a proud and evil pagan king who in his rebellion against God found out the hard way after God humbled him by taking his sanity and making him eat grass like an ox:
“But at the end of those days, I, Nebuchadnezzar, looked up to heaven, and my sanity returned to me. Then I praised the Most High and honored and glorified him who lives forever: For his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are counted as nothing, and he does what he wants with the army of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. There is no one who can block his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:34-35)
This sort of a God is not the god of our imaginations. Humans don’t dream up gods like this - who have total, unmitigated, unrestrained freedom and sovereignty. This God is not tame. This sort of God may sound scary to you - and this might be the case if you are at enmity with Him or if He were not also good. A sovereign God who is not good would be a tyrant. But one who is both good and sovereign is a God whom we can trust to rule well and perfectly.
So what about evil acts that people perpetrate? Are we then not responsible because God is sovereign? Does this make God the author of evil?
No, the Bible teaches a concept known formally as “Dual agency”. As the historic Reformed Confessions of Faith state it,
“God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass (Isa. 46:10; Rom 9:15, 18; 11:33; Eph 1:11; Heb 6:17); yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein (James 1:13, 17; 1 John 1:5), nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established (Prov 16:33; Mat 17:12; John 19:11; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28); in which appears His wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing His decree (Num. 23:19; Eph. 1:3-5)." (Adapted from the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 3.1 and the Westminster Confession of Faith, 3.1)
This is illustrated at the end of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, we see the conclusion to the story of Joseph. Joseph was his father’s favourite son. He was betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery and they told his father he was dead. He ended up in prison in Egypt, and through a series of events that God orchestrated, ended up at the position of second in power in all of Egypt. Through this, he was able to save his family and people from dying of starvation in a devastating famine. Eventually, his brothers come to him at the end, afraid that he will be angry with them for what they had done in betraying him and selling him into slavery. Look at what he says:
“But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today…” (Genesis 50:19-20)
Notice here that the brothers MEANT evil against Joseph. They are responsible for their actions. Their actions were still evil even though it eventually led to good - the saving of the people from starvation. But note that God MEANT it for good - to accomplish His good purposes. There is a dual agency behind every action.
On the one hand, people are morally responsible for their actions because they mean them - they intend them - and God judges the intentions of the heart (1 Corinthians 4:5). However, on the other hand, God has a bigger overarching purpose that doesn’t destroy human responsibility but rather supersedes it and works through it, over it, and above it - He meant it for good. God has a morally legitimate reason for allowing evil to produce a greater good. We think this way in many situations where we willingly endure an evil or pain for some greater good or gain.
Indeed, the apostle Paul assures us that, “...we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
God is working all things to an ultimate good. But what is that good?
The Glory of God
What is that ultimate good that God is working all things toward? Is it our temporal good?
Obviously not - because not every instance of evil has a temporal solution to why it exists. We cannot always see the purposes of God in our lifetime like Joseph and his brothers did. However, even they did not know the ultimate purposes of God which would come out of their lives long after they were gone. We’re simply too small and time-bound to understand all the intricacies of the infinite and eternal purposes of our God.
So, what is God’s ultimate good - the ultimate reason for allowing the existence of pain, suffering and evil? It is the same reason for everything else He does. The ultimate good is God’s glory - the glorification of His attributes and worship of His Name. God is primarily about His glory - He is in fact jealous for it.
God’s Jealousy for His Glory
Some people, like Oprah, object to this. She thinks that God's jealousy for His glory is. a character flaw. Check out this video clip...
The passage that Oprah was referring to comes from Exodus - repeated in chapters 20 and 34. It is about the worship of God and His glory.
“...for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” (Exodus 34:14)
Like Oprah, maybe this idea of God being jealous seems wrong to some of you. We think of jealousy in human terms as a sin - you shouldn’t be jealous of other people or their stuff because it does not belong to you. However, for God, to whom else would He give glory? To worship or give glory to anything else would be idolatry. This is exactly what He says in a related passage:
“I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.” (Isaiah 42:8)
You see, for us, it is wrong to be jealous because we have no rightful claim over others - but for God, He created and gives life to everything - so He does have the right. There is no greater or more deserving end than God Himself. Thus, the greatest good that God can be for is actually Himself!
Christianity is not another me-centered religion but is intensely God-centered.
Take some time in your discussion groups now to talk through these questions:
What does this passage say about the intentions of God and the responsibility of people in the death of Jesus Christ?
How does this show God’s ultimate purpose in allowing evil?
We'll continue this discussion in part 2 of this series (releasing on June 1) on the problem of evil where we consider if there is meaning in suffering and pain.
So check back soon for the next article, and please consider sharing this article if you've found it helpful!