Reunion Community Church
What’s your problem?
: morally reprehensible: SINFUL, WICKED
: the fact of suffering, misfortune, and wrongdoing
What’s your definition of evil?
The so-called problem of evil is one of the most common objections raised against the Christian faith. Perhaps no one has more succinctly stated the apparent contradiction between an all-loving, all-powerful God and the existence of evil as the eighteenth-century Scottish skeptic David Hume:
Is he 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? Whence then is evil?
More modern skeptics have posed the logical (or deductive) problem of evil this way:
If God is all-good (omnibenevolent), He would prevent evil. If God is all-powerful (omnipotent), He could prevent evil. If God is all-knowing (omniscient), He knows how to prevent evil. But evil exists. Therefore, either God is not all-good, all-powerful, or all-knowing (or maybe He doesn’t exist!)
The existence of suffering and evil in the world has been an obstacle to faith for many, and for others, a source of constant doubt. When addressing the problem of evil from within the Christian worldview, I am convinced the following points must not only be taken into consideration but earnestly thought through and reflected upon until they become both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. When they are, I believe the problem of evil (POE) largely goes away.
So why is the problem of evil a problem? Here are ten reasons:
#1 The POE is a problem because we fail to differentiate between the problems of evil and their respective solutions.
John Feinberg begins his book The Many Faces of Evil by laying out two very helpful and essential ground rules that must be understood by anyone attempting to discuss God and the problem of evil. These two ground rules are as follows: (1) there is no such thing as the problem of evil and (2) the problem of evil in its logical form is about the internal consistency of any given theological position.
First, we need to realize that there are several problems of evil, not just one. The phrase “problem of evil” can be used to refer to a host of different dilemmas arising over the issue of God and evil. For example, someone who raises the problem of evil may be referring to the religious/emotional problem of evil, the logical problem of evil, the evidential problem of evil, moral evil, or natural evil, just to name a few. That there is not just one problem of evil necessitates that any discussion about God and evil must first begin by clarifying what problem is under discussion. Each problem is separate and therefore may require its own solution. In addition, the skeptic cannot reject a defense for a particular problem of evil by arguing that it does not solve every problem of evil. No one defense addresses every problem of evil, nor was it intended to do so.
For example, an atheist may reject the free will defense because they don’t believe it adequately handles the problem of natural evil. But the free will defense is primarily used when addressing the problem of moral evil, not natural evil. Solving the problem of natural evil may require additional argumentation or an entirely different solution altogether. Either way, the atheist who reasons this way is simply mistaken. As Feinberg notes, “It is wrongheaded at a very fundamental level to think that because a given defense or theodicy doesn’t solve every problem of evil, it doesn’t solve any problem of evil.”
Second, the problem of evil in its logical form is about the internal consistency of any given theological position. In other words, the critic is claiming there is a contradiction in the theist’s system and is therefore obligated to show a specific problem within the system they are attacking. Skeptics must be careful not to artificially generate an internal inconsistency within the theist’s system by attributing views of God, evil, freedom, love, omnipotence, justice, etc., to the theist which the theist himself doesn’t hold.
For example, an atheist cannot object to the free will defense on the grounds that God could create human beings with free will, and yet at the same time eliminate all moral evil, based on the atheist’s belief in view of free will known as compatibilism. If the theist incorporating the free will defense holds to libertarian free will, the atheist would be artificially (falsely) generating an internal inconsistency by importing his own definition of free will into the theist’s system. The atheist again is simply mistaken. If an internal inconsistency exists, it must be shown to exist within the theist’s system, not one imposed on him by the atheist. A critic may not like a particular defense or theodicy and may object to the system on external grounds, but this has nothing to do with whether the theist’s system suffers from an internal contradiction.
Finally, many of these supposed contradictions simply assume that God does not have a morally sufficient reason for allowing the evil He does. But this would be something the critic needs to justify. As long as the theist offers a possible explanation as to why God allows evil, the charge of contradiction becomes groundless. Of course, theists should certainly do their best to offer not just possible, but plausible solutions. In fact, there are already many theological systems that are able to solve their own logical problem of evil. These systems include theonomy, Leibnizian Rationalism, as well as those incorporating a free will defense.
#2 The POE is a problem because we fail to examine it from a worldview perspective.
The problem of evil is not just a problem for Christians. It is a problem for everyone. I do not mean by this that every worldview needs to reconcile the existence of an all-loving, all-powerful God and evil. Rather, I mean that everyone, regardless of their worldview, must give an account for the existence of pain and suffering. This is not an attempt to dodge the objection. It is simply a point of the fact that each person should be able to give some explanation of pain and suffering from within their respective worldview.
Therefore, looking at the problem of evil from a worldview perspective we can frame the discussion by means of two questions:
Which worldview best accounts for the origin and existence of evil?Which worldview offers the best solution to evil?
It is when we begin to compare and contrast Christianity with other belief systems in light of these questions that the superiority of the Christian worldview becomes evident.
For example, what can atheistic materialism say in response to the existence of pain and suffering? More specifically, can atheistic materialism offer a better account for the origin and existence of evil, as well as a solution, when compared with Christian theism? These questions seem to be relevant given that atheists and skeptics are those most often complaining about the POE.
Regarding the origin of evil, it seems all the atheist can say is “Evil just is.” Nature is red in tooth and claw. Evil is nothing but matter in motion, the same as goodness. Furthermore, how do objective moral values arise from matter, chance, and time? While Christians need to reconcile God and evil, the atheist must not only deal with their own problem of evil but also the problem of goodness, i.e., reconciling the existence of objective moral values with a materialistic universe. Richard Dawkins has stated,
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.
If atheistic materialism is true, it seems all the atheist can say is that life is filled with gratuitous and unredeemable suffering…and then you die. There is no ultimate justice, let alone ultimate meaning, purpose, or value in life. But this can hardly be considered a solution of any sort. In terms of worldview thinking it is difficult to see how atheistic materialism can offer any consolation in the face of pain and suffering.
As another example, how do Eastern religions deal with pain and suffering? For Hindus evil is Maya, an illusion. Evil is not real. People suffer because of injustices performed in past lives (karmic debt). Therefore, suffering should not be alleviated since this would interfere with the karmic cycle and bring bad karma on the one attempting to aid the sufferer. This position prevents compassion and morally obligatory action in the face of horrendous evil. Furthermore, Hinduism and Buddhism, both advocates of karma and reincarnation, cannot make sense of these two doctrines within their respective religions and end up with logically incoherent systems:
For there to be reincarnated subjects of karma, there must be individual, personal selves that endure and continue as themselves from lifetime to lifetime. But Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta Hinduism do not affirm the existence of individual, personal selves. Therefore, these religions cannot logically support the existence of selves that endure from lifetime to lifetime or which are subjects of karma. Therefore, these Eastern religions cannot logically support reincarnation. If this argument succeeds, it not only demonstrates that they cannot solve the problem of evil, it further shows that both religions propose essential truth claims that contradict each other: (1) there is no self, and (2) reincarnation and karma. Thus, both religions fail the test of internal logical consistency and are necessarily false.
What about Christianity? Christianity does not conclude that “evil just is” nor that evil is an illusion. As Augustine argued, evil can be explained in part as the deprivation (or privation) of good. Evil is what ought not to be. Christian theism can account for both the origin and existence of evil since it teaches there is a part of reality which is non-physical. Furthermore, since evil is not some “thing” but rather the privation of good, God is not the direct creator of evil. Rather, evil came as a result of free beings using their free will badly. Christian philosophers and theologians throughout the centuries have offered numerous defenses in light of the problem of evil, arguing that God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil. Some of these defenses include the free will defense and the soul-building theodicy.
In short, an all-loving, all-powerful God can allow evil so long as He has a morally sufficient reason for doing so. While Christians may not be able to answer why God allows each and every particular instance of pain and suffering, there is no logical contradiction between the existence of evil and an all-loving, all-powerful God. Furthermore, the Christian message of God incarnates entering His creation and suffering in our place so we may have the hope of eternity makes these slight and momentary afflictions of no comparison to the eternal weight of glory that awaits us (2 Cor. 4:17). Those who reject God because of evil are rejecting the only One who can redeem evil and suffering for good. Randy Alcorn summarizes the Christian position this way:
The Bible never sugarcoats evil…The Christian worldview concerning this central problem is utterly unique. When compared to other belief systems, it is singularly profound, satisfying, and comforting….I’m convinced that Christianity’s explanation of why evil and suffering exist beats that of any worldview. Its explanation of why we can expect God to forever deliver His redeemed people from evil and suffering is better still. The answers revealed in Scripture not only account for how the world is, they offer the greatest hope for where the world is headed.
#3 The POE is a problem because we forget that evil is evidence for the existence of God.
When you admit the existence of evil, i.e., things that are really wrong, you are acknowledging the existence of objective moral values. This seems to be problematic for both the atheist and the relativist considering the atheist cannot adequately ground objective morality, and the relativist assumes morality is relative.
The atheist or relativist may call upon the theist to give an account for the internal consistency of the theist’s worldview given the existence of both God and evil, but as soon as the atheist or relativist acknowledges that evil is real they have subsequently surrendered their worldview since they are assuming an objective standard of moral goodness. By “objective” I mean independent of what people think or perceive. Complaining about evil assumes that evil is a real thing that it is objectively wrong; otherwise, we could simply dismiss the atheist or relativist by saying “that’s just evil for you.”
So where does this objective standard of morality come from? The only suitable grounding for objective morality is an objective moral law-giver: God. Ironically then, the existence of evil can be turned into an argument for the existence of God:
If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. Evil exists. Therefore, objective moral values exist. Therefore, God exists.
This argument is logically valid. The skeptic concedes premise two by raising the problem of evil in the first place, e.g., “Why does God let bad things happen?” Therefore, the argument hinges on premise one. However, in reflecting on premise one it seems clear that if there is no God, then there is no objective grounding for moral principles which apply to all people, in all places, at all times. Morality would be relegated to cultural conventions or individual ethical subjectivism. William Lane Craig sums it up this way:
Although at a superficial level suffering calls into question God’s existence, at a deeper level suffering actually proves God’s existence. For apart from God, suffering is not really bad. If the atheist believes that suffering is bad or ought not to be, then he’s making moral judgments that are possible only if God exists.
In short, when the atheist or relativist raises qualms about God allowing evil he implicitly admits to an objective standard of morality which his own worldview cannot account for, but which the Christian worldview can. In other words, in order to complain about evil and raise the objection in the first place, atheists, skeptics, and relativists must borrow from Christian moral capital and the Christian worldview.
#4 The POE is a problem because we fail to take into account the full scope of evidence.
If evil, pain, and suffering were all there is, belief in the existence of an all-loving, all-powerful God might become rather absurd. Unfortunately, this is how the skeptic often paints the picture, emphasizing what seem to be gratuitous examples of suffering while at the same time either denying or ignoring the counterevidence against his position and in favor of God. Only examples of pain and suffering are offered as evidence against God, while any arguments or evidence for God are unfortunately left out.
Arguments which may be offered in favor of the existence of God include the cosmological, teleological, moral, transcendental, ontological, and, as mentioned above, even the argument from evil for the existence of God. Evidence which needs to be considered includes evidence for the beginning of the universe, the fine-tuning of the cosmos, the existence of objective moral values (again, including evil), the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the reliability of Scripture, so forth and so on. Regarding these considerations, William Lane Craig states,
The interesting question is whether God’s existence is probable relative to the full scope of evidence. I’m convinced that whatever improbability suffering may cast upon God’s existence, it’s outweighed by the arguments for the existence of God.
In other words, if we have independent lines of evidence which point to the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving God, then we may be justified in believing in God even in the face of unexplained evil. We need to look at all the evidence, not evil in isolation. In his book Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, Douglas Groothuis places his chapter on the problem of evil near the end of the book for this very reason:
This chapter is placed near the end of the book because we should not take up the problem in a philosophical vacuum. We have contended that the case for Christian faith is multifaceted and cumulative. Christianity is rationally supported by a number of arguments. If so, then the biblical worldview cannot prima facie be refuted by one particular problem…We should consider all the arguments given thus far for the Christian worldview and against its competitors when considering the problem of evil…Therefore, the God-denier cannot declare victory over theism by merely stating the problem of evil.
#5 The POE is a problem because we fail to understand our relationship to Adam.
If we want to know why there is so much pain and suffering in the world, we need to go back to the beginning and look at the first choice. Most of the pain and suffering in the world can be attributed to free agents using their free will badly. This is exactly what Adam and Eve did and what we as their offspring continue to do. In short, our first parents willingly rebelled against God bringing corruption into the world and plunging all of mankind into a lifelong education of the knowledge of good and evil.
But how is it that wholly good beings, placed in a wholly good environment, in perfect relationship with God and one another, possessing wills inclined toward God, could turn against God? William Dembski offers this as a possible solution:
Precisely because a created will belongs to a creature, that creature, if sufficiently reflective, can reflect on its creaturehood and realize that it is not God. Creaturehood implies constraints to which the Creator is not subject… The question then naturally arises, Has God the Creator denied to the creature some freedom that might benefit it? Adam and Eve thought the answer to this was yes…As soon as the creature answers yes to this question, its will turns against God. Once that happens, the will becomes evil. Whereas previously evil was merely a possibility, now it has become a reality. In short, the problem of evil starts when creatures think God is evil for “cramping their style.” The impulse of our modern secular culture to cast off restraint wherever possible finds its root here…No longer able to trust God, humanity turned inward and sought fulfillment in its creaturehood rather than in the source of its being, the Creator.
What were the consequences of this first sin? Not only was the marriage relationship damaged but the ground was cursed. This raises the issue of natural evil. Much of the evil we see in the world including cancer, disease, sickness, pestilence, and death are explained as the result of sin entering the world. Natural evil then is the result of Adam and Eve exercising their free choice badly. Furthermore, sin also affected every aspect of their persons (mind, will, emotion, body), a concept known as total depravity. Mankind is now in bondage to sin and without hope apart from the grace of God.
But why do we suffer for the sin of Adam and Eve committed so long ago? This question fails to take into account that Adam and Eve are not some disconnected couple who lived long ago and have nothing to do with us. They were our first parents, they sinned, and they reproduced! The apostle Paul says in Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”
One of the reasons we struggle with the doctrine of original sin is due to our strong sense of Western individuality. In reality, we are less individual than we think. Millard Erickson states,
…the entirety of our human nature, both physical and spiritual, material and immaterial, has been received from our parents and more distant ancestors by way of descent from the first pair of humans. On that basis, we were actually present within Adam, so that we all sinned in his act. There is no injustice, then, to our condemnation and death as a result of original sin.
If this is true, everything that we are we received from Adam and Eve, including our soul and consciousness. Once Adam and Eve became corrupt, all they could produce was corruption, i.e., they could not produce anything better than themselves. To say it again, they were our first parents, they sinned, and they reproduced. Each one of us is a little Adam or Eve. When we understand our relationship to Adam we learn several lessons regarding the problem of evil:
First, evil is the result of free beings using their free will badly.
Second, Adam and Eve plunged all of mankind into a lifelong education of the knowledge of good and evil. God is using evil and suffering to teach free creatures the horror of sin and the horror of rebellion against God. The lesson is this: if you hate evil, hate sin! William Dembski states,
We are the arsonists. We started the fire. God wants to rescue us…But to be rescued from a life of arson requires that we know how destructive arson is… If God always instantly put out the fires we start, we would never appreciate the damage fires can do. We started a fire in consenting to evil. God permits this fire to rage… so that we can rightly understand the human condition and thus come to our senses.
Third, Adam’s seed always deserves to die unless it repents (Rom. 6:23). Jesus Himself takes it for granted that the wages of sin is death and that it is only God’s mercy that keeps us alive. To help emphasize this third point, let’s take a moment to look at Jesus’ own comments regarding the problem of evil.
Excursus: Jesus on the Problem of Evil
In Luke 13:1-5 we have Jesus’ clearest teaching on the problem of evil:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.
Not only is this Jesus’ clearest teaching on the problem of evil but we see Him addressing both moral and natural evil in His response. Notice that Jesus is first questioned regarding an example of what we would call moral evil: the murder of some Galileans by Pilate. In providing an answer, Jesus Himself introduces an example of natural evil: the falling of the tower of Siloam which killed eighteen.
How did Jesus answer the problem of evil presented to Him? Was Jesus taken back, struck by the profundity of such a pregnant question? His answer is short and to the point: “They weren’t worse sinners, they were just sinners. And unless you repent, you’ll die too.”
D.A. Carson in his book How Long, O Lord? Provides several important insights into this passage. It would behoove us as Christians to reflect deeply on these points.
First, Jesus takes it for granted that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23):
Jesus does not assume that those who suffered under Pilate, or those who were killed in the collapse of the tower, did not deserve their fate. Indeed, the fact that he can tell those contemporaries that unless they repent, they too will perish shows that Jesus assumes that all death is in one way or another the result of sin, and therefore deserved.
Second, because death is what we all deserve, it is only God’s mercy that keeps us alive:
Jesus does insist that death by such means is no evidence whatsoever that those who suffer in this way are any more wicked than those who escape such a fate. The assumption seems to be that all deserve to die. If some die under a barbarous governor, and others in a tragic accident, it is not more than they deserve. But that does not mean that others deserve any less. Rather, the implication is that it is only God’s mercy that has kept them alive. There is certainly no moral superiority on their part.
Third, wars and natural disasters are always calls to repentance, and the fact that we question God’s goodness in times of calamity is a reflection of our own depravity and rebellion:
Jesus treats wars and natural disasters not as agenda items in a discussion of the mysterious ways of God, but as incentives to repentance. It is as if he is saying that God uses the disaster as a megaphone to call attention to our guilt and destination, to the imminence of his righteous judgment if he sees no repentance. This is an argument developed at great length in Amos 4. Disaster is a call to repentance. Jesus might have added (as he does elsewhere) that peace and tranquility, which we do not deserve, show us God’s goodness and forbearance.
It is a mark of our lostness that we invert these two. We think we deserve the times of blessing and prosperity, and that the times of war and disaster are not only unfair but come perilously close to calling into question God’s goodness or his power—even, perhaps, his very existence. Jesus simply did not see it that way.
Dr. Clay Jones in his class on Why God Allows Evil entertainingly replays the dialogue from Luke 13 like this:
Questioner: Jesus, we have the problem of evil here, the great problem of the ages. People are being killed Jesus. What have you got to say?
Jesus: They weren’t worse sinners, they were just sinners, and unless you repent you’ll die too. Next?
Questioner: Whoa! Jesus, hold on for a minute here! This is the PROBLEM OF EVIL! The question of the ages! Philosophers have debated this forever! People are dying here Jesus! What have you got to say???
Jesus: They weren’t worse sinners, they were just sinners, and unless you repent you’ll die too. Next?
Questioner: No, Jesus, don’t you get it?!? Let me put it to you this way. You see, if God were all-loving, He would want to prevent evil. If God were all-powerful, He could prevent evil…
Jesus: They weren’t worse sinners, they were just sinners, and unless you repent you’ll die too. Next?
That’s it ladies and gentleman, Jesus’ answer to the problem of evil. All fallen, unregenerate sinners born in Adam are corrupted to the core and deserve death. Whether we die by murder, accident, or disease isn’t anything more than we deserve. It is only by God’s grace that anyone is saved and it is only by God’s mercy that anyone is kept alive.
What implications does this have for Christian apologetics? At least three:
First, it means that Christian apologists need to take the consequences of sin and reality of human depravity seriously when addressing the problem of evil. Many Christians simply pay lip service to what the Bible has to say about these topics. It’s no wonder then we are often at a loss for words when someone asks, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” A completely biblical, though partial, rejoinder is this: no one is good but God alone! Bad things don’t happen to good people because no one is good. Jesus raised no qualms about our naturally born status as sinners before God, the universal corruption, and guilt of humankind, or our need for repentance. He introduced these very issues Himself in addressing the problem of evil. He took it for granted that the wages of sin is death. Christian apologists should do likewise.
Second, when addressing the problem of evil, Christian apologists need to present a theodicy which minimally includes the biblical teaching of original sin and human depravity. Why God allows evil won’t make sense unless we have the problem of sin clearly before us. J.I. Packer stated,
The subject of sin is vital knowledge… If you have not learned about sin, you cannot understand yourself, or your fellow-men, or the world you live in, or the Christian faith. And you will not be able to make head or tail of the Bible. For the Bible is an exposition of God’s answer to the problem of human sin and unless you have that problem clearly before you, you will keep missing the point of what it says.
The same is true for the problem of evil. The subject of sin is essential because in raising the problem of evil, the skeptic must put forth an anthropodicy (justification of man) by arguing that man is “basically good” and God is unjust for allowing the suffering and evil He does. In response, the theist must show these assumptions to be false, and in their place put forth a theodicy (justification of God) which includes evidencing the depths of human depravity and arguing that God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil. Until we clearly articulate and defend the gravity of sin, as well as the universal corruption and guilt of humankind, many of our answers to the problem of evil will largely remain unpersuasive.
Third, the present moral and natural evils we experience are appropriate segues into our need to practice and preach repentance in light of the final eschatological judgment. Those who experience such evils are not any more deserving. Rather, these disasters serve as warnings to all of us that final disaster awaits everyone who remains hardhearted and unrepentant:
So when disaster strikes, let us not wring our hands over the mysterious ways of God but encourage everyone to reflect on their sinful and doomed state in hopes that some will escape the Final Disaster that awaits the ultimately unrepentant.
End of Excursus
Finally, no matter how many examples are presented to us of human suffering and evil, the major recourse is to point to human sinfulness:
Suffering and evil are the result of sin… To those who complain about evil and suffering, our reply should be: “Hate sin!” Our problem in understanding why humans suffer is that we diminish the significance and extent of human sinfulness.
#6 The POE is a problem because we fail to grasp the depth of human depravity.