It is perhaps one of the greatest intellectual stumbling blocks in all of religious thought. As much as any soul would like to avoid the topic all together, sooner or later each person will be forced to grapple with the seemingly incongruous realties resulting from the simultaneous existence of both a sovereign God and the prevalence of evil in the world. To some, the disconcerting existential trauma of suffering in their lives and in the lives of those around them is enough to make one come down in the negative in their answer to the God question. However, upon deeper reflection one is forced to realize that — though still mind boggling — it is not necessarily inconsistent for both evil and the Biblical conception of God to exist at the same time.
In the hopes of gaining just a bit of perspective into such an overwhelming universal mystery, it is probably best to start out by formulating the problem in a summarized written form. Norman Geisler in “Introduction To Philosophy: A Christian Perspective” states the problem in the following manner: “(1) If God is all-powerful, He could destroy evil. (2) If God is all-good, He would destroy evil. (3) But evil exists. (4) Therefore, there is no such God (Geisler, 274).” To establish a credible defense to these charges, the Christian must show that evil does not necessarily upset the divinely appointed applecart and is allowed to exist because of the purpose it serves in subordination to higher, more important realities even if these do not always make sense to finite human sensibilities.
At the heart of this debate is a discussion as to both the nature of God and the nature of evil. As to the ethical nature of God, Matthew 5:48 instructs the reader, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your father which is in heaven is perfect.” However, that goodness is not like unto that of a saintly grandmother, though kind and loving in all of her intentions, who is helpless to prevent the world from deteriorating all around her.
In the spirit of the Rooseveltian axiom of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, God has the power necessary to carry through implementing how He thinks things ought to be. Colossians 1:17 says, “And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.” This is further elaborated and extended in Acts 17:28 which reads, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being…”
Pretty much nothing happens without God knowing about it and at least allowing it to happen by not intervening to prevent it even if He himself does not endorse the action, behavior, or event in question. Evil, by its very nature on the other hand, is a thought or deed violating God’s nature of absolute goodness as expressed in the form of His natural and special revelation to those who inhabit the universe He created.
Yet, if God really does have the whole world in His hands as the old spiritual suggests, there needs to be a bit of explanation on the part of the apologist or theologian. For if God really is in sovereign control, one must show how this fits together with passages such as I John 1:5 which says, “This then is the message we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”
The first step in eliminating the apparent contradiction arising between the existence of both God and evil is to show how evil might serve some purpose or be allowed to exist as the unfortunate byproduct of some more comprehensive good. Perhaps the best response Christian thinkers have provided thus far over the centuries is probably the so-called “Free Will Defense”.
The underlying assumption of the Free Will Defense posits that the fault and consequences for evil in the world lies solely on the shoulders of those who commit moral transgressions and exhibit ethical shortcomings rather than upon a God imposing them upon the world from the outside. Scripture bears much of this idea out in passages such as Romans 5:12 which reads, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men for that all have sinned…” Thus, it is pretty much our own fault as a species as a whole for the misery rampaging across the face of the earth and in individual lives.
While such a theory might help account for things such as crime, war, and even sickness since none of us have escaped the stain of sin, by itself it does not provide enough explanation to account for the tragedy arising from natural disasters (often referred to as so-called “acts of God”) or why God does not normally intervene to prevent ne’er-do-wells from inflicting pain and suffering upon their victims innocent in terms of instigating these particular acts of malice. Both of these quandaries find their answer in what Ronald Nash calls the “Natural Law Theodicy” or what John Frame refers to as the “Stable Environment Defense”.
Frame notes in “Apologetics To The Glory Of God” that a stable environment is fundamental to human existence (164). Ronald Nash writes in “Faith & Reason: Searching For A Rational Faith”, “Free rational action requires a world of natural objects governed by natural laws (200).”
C.S. Lewis adds to this perspective in “The Problem Of Pain” , “But if matter is to serve as a neutral field it must have a fixed nature of its own … if you were introduced into a world which thus varied at my every whim, you would be quite unable to act in it and would lose the exercise of your free will (19).” Lewis continues in the following paragraph, “Again, if matter has a fixed nature and obeys constant laws, not all states of matter will be equally agreeable to a given soul, nor beneficial for that matter which he calls his body (20).”
Thus in essence, the same system of reasonably stable natural laws that allows man to survive and even thrive in an otherwise hostile universe can also end up allowing the very same components of nature that man requires for his very existence to be turned on him and to inflict harm upon him. Lewis points out how fire can either warm the flesh or burn it.
This is wrought with consequences as to why both nature and man seem capable of raining down misery with impunity. As to the issue of natural disasters, Romans 8:20-22 explains, “For the creation was subjected to frustration not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it… We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time (NIV).” Thus, the very physical setting of creation is under the curse not unlike that imposed upon humanity for the fall of the species into sin.
Though the providence of God no doubt often spares certain individuals from befalling the ferocity of a world out of control, the system of physical laws through which the natural world is governed is usually left in place for the overall benefit of finite kind. For we would be unable to adjust in our current condition to a constantly changing and fluctuating cosmos. This principle readily applies to those bent on using physical matter to inflict their own corrupt wills upon secondary by-standing parties.
For example, one can use a baseball bat to enjoy an afternoon of leisurely recreation or to work someone over during an armed robbery. While we would all like God to intervene to prevent physical matter and natural forces from wreaking havoc upon us, in all likelihood doing so would inflict even greater harm upon the human species and the world in their current condition than simply allowing these contingent entities to continue on until the so-called end of history and the beginning of eternity.
Much of this theodicy is focused upon the preeminence of freedom in the relationships established under the terms of the divine economy. But some might argue that it is at this point of imbuing the actors in the universal drama with their own sense of freedom that God erred in His drafting of the cosmic screenplay. However, it is because of His absolute goodness that God has seen fit to grant some degree of say-so to those He loves the most.
It is because of the overwhelming sense of importance placed upon love that freedom must take precedence over order and control though freedom and love take place within the boundaries established by this order and control. For as any lovesick high school student turned down for the prom eventually realizes, love must be given freely or it is not true love.
The Scripture says in Joshua 24:15, “….choose you this day whom ye will serve.” The text does not say that the decision will be thrust upon you. The Lord will hear enough whining on the Day of Judgment. He does not need to make His task more difficult by assigning the responsibility for our eternal fates and destinies to any party other than ourselves.
For centuries, skeptics used the problem of evil to chip away at the foundations of theism. However, the fact that the objection can be raised at all points towards the affirmative in its conclusion to the God question.
Human beings recoil in horror as they do to the pain and unfairness of the world since it is such a shocking affront to the way things were originally intended to be. Atheism uses this reaction deep within the soul to make its case for a totally naturalistic universe. But if evil, pain, and suffering are simply a part of the natural order, on what grounds are we justified in railing against it, and for that matter, how are we even capable of determining something has gone awry in the first place?
If evil is nothing more than part of the backdrop against which life plays itself out, man should barely notice it. For example, most normal people do not lie awake at night wondering why there is oxygen in the world or work themselves up into having an anxiety attack despairing as to why they will have to eat breakfast in the morning. The ability to complain about and speak out against evil points to the reality of some transcendent standard existing above the fray by which to justify this innate tendency towards making judgments.
One might counter that these standards simply exist within the individual as personal conscience. Yet both the daily news and the pages of history are replete with examples of how competing interpretations of these principles differ considerably and the conflicts that often arise without appeal to a yet higher arbitrating authority.
Thus, some external standard must exist in order to tell the difference between right and wrong. The only sufficient basis for this criteria is found in God. Alister McGrath provides the following proof in “Intellectuals Don’t Need God & Other Modern Myths“: “(A). Unless there is a God, there cannot be objectively binding moral obligations. (B). Objectively binding moral obligations exist. (C). Therefore, there is a God (40).”
At this point, the Christian thinker ought to take the problem of evil, invert it, and turn it against the critics of faith. John MacArthur writes in “Terrorism, Jihad & The Bible”, his response to the September 2001 terrorist attack upon the United States, “The question we ought to ask is not why disasters happen sometimes. What we ought to ask is why don’t disasters happen all of the time (65).”
The problem really is not so much the problem of evil but rather the problem of pleasure. For human beings have done such a superb job messing up the world, that if God did not exist, how does any pleasure exist at all? And if God does exist, why does He continue to bless mankind despite the rebellion, animus, and contempt characteristically displayed on the part of the species to its benevolent Creator?
James 1:7 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” No matter how wretched life can get, somewhere along the way most people can recall at least a single moment of fleeting kindness in their lives and usually more.
Even if the Christian takes the time to carefully delineate the case that God is not responsible for the existence of evil in the world and how the existence of phenomena morally classified as such does not contradict His nature of absolute holiness, this is often still not enough to satisfy some of the more rigorous skeptics. These voices will counter that, even though the above theistic assertion might be true, God is still the bad guy in this story. In their eyes, He has not done enough to use His immense power to rectify the situation.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. God has been far from passive in solving this problem He did not create.
Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman write in “An Unchanging Faith In A Changing World: Understanding & Responding To Critical Issues Christians Face Today“, “God has embraced this in the most intimate way possible through the abusive treatment His Son received when he was tortured and crucified (81).” These apologists continue, “Thus, the real problem of evil — …whether anything can be done to overcome it and bring good out of it — has been answered (81).” In essence, the problem has already been solved. The thing is that we are so mired in the flow of time that we are not yet able to fully enjoy the effects of this resolution.
God did not run away from the problem, but instead tackled its resolution head on in the most enthusiastic manner imaginable by allowing pain and evil to be visited upon Himself and in the person of His Son Jesus Christ. Nor did God gloss over the reality of evil in the attempt to buttress His position by spinning the matter in His favor by downplaying our pain.
God comes at the issue in such a straightforward manner that His blunt forthrightness would make plain-spoken newsman Bill O’Reilly blush. Job 14:1 declares, “Man born of woman is of few days and full of trouble.”
God could very well quote the following from that old country song when we grow weary of the troubles inherent to life in this world: “I beg your pardon. I never promised you a rose garden.” He does, however, promise to do away with them in the next world where He will wipe away every tear according to Revelation 21:4. If God really was little more than a fairy tale, would the authors of Scripture include those texts that do little to sooth the troubled soul about the bleakness this side of Heaven and instead force the individual to confront some rather starting realities?
The problem of evil has plagued the mind of man at least since the day the first parents were expelled from the Garden of Eden for disobedience. However, the problem is not so much that God is a messed-up illogical being but rather that man is so limited in his capacity for reason that he is unable to ascend to the level of understanding necessary to comprehend the operational totality of the universe at the level of cosmic completeness.
God let’s a whining Job have it in Job 38:3-4 and beyond when the Lord inquires, “Gird up now thy loins like a man [translated as “brace yourself’ in the NIV]; for I will demand of then an answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare if you hast understanding.”
And while man can theodicize until he is blue in the face, such answers provide only a modicum of comfort when one befalls ill health, when a family member passes away, or when religious fanatics fly airplanes into skyscrapers. During such trials, the best one can hope for are the reassurances found in Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purposes.”
Boa, Kenneth and Bowman Robert. “An Unchanging Faith in a Changing World: Understanding and Responding to Critical Issues That Face Christians Today.” Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997.
Frame, John. “Apologetics To The Glory Of God: An Introduction.” Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishers, 1994.
Geisler, Norman & Feinberg, Paul. “Introduction To Philosophy: An Introduction.” Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1980.
Lewis, C.S. “The Problem Of Pain.” New York, New York: MacMillian Publishing, Eighteenth Printing, 1973.
MacArthur, John. “Terrorism, Jihad & The Bible: A Response To The Terrorist Attacks.: Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2001.
McGrath, Allister. “Intellectuals Don’t Need God & Other Modern Myths: Building Bridges To Faith Through Apologetics.” Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993.
by Frederick Meekins