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The Problem of Evil in a Nutshell

The problem of evil is certainly one of the greatest apologetic issues that Christians face today. In a postmodern world, people’s questions, objections, and problems with the Christian worldview are usually connected to the reality of evil in the world, and their attempts to harmonize this reality with the seemingly contradictory notion of an all-powerful, all-good God. So valid is this issue that Ronald Nash, the late evangelical philosopher, said a few years ago (and I quote him loosely), “It is absurd to reject Christianity for any reason other than the problem of evil.”

We must be careful not to relegate this problem exclusively to the intellectual realm. I think J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig have it right when they say we must distinguish between the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil (Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 536). The intellectual problem of evil asks, “Is it possible for a good, all-powerful God to exist in a world where evil is present?” The emotional problem of evil asks, “Why would God allow such a thing as _______?” See the difference? One question is concerned with the objective coherence of God and evil, the other is concerned with the subjective coherence of God and evil.

While I think the primary issue today is more with the emotional problem of evil, I do believe that the intellectual problem is one that must be faced before the subjective problem can be addressed with integrity. Therefore, I believe that while the two can be distinguished, they should not be separated.

The foundation for both comes from this syllogism:

1. If God is all-powerful (omnipotent) and
2. If God is all-good (omnibenevolent)
3. Then His goodness would motivate Him to use His power to eradicate evil.

The intellectual problem of evil is easier to answer since evil’s existence does not, in reality, present the logical contradiction the syllogism suggests. In other words, the conclusion is not a necessary conclusion, only a possible one. While God could use His power to eradicate evil, His goodness does not necessitate such an act. The following will attempt to explain.

There are three possible defenses to the problem of evil:

1. The free-will defense: Many would say that God cannot create a world where there is true freedom, yet determine all that happens. In other words, being all-powerful does not mean that God can do anything. There are many things that God cannot do. For example, God cannot make a square circle, He cannot make a rock so big that He cannot pick it up, He cannot sin, He cannot commit suicide, and He cannot lie (Titus 1:2). In short, God cannot do anything that is inconsistent with His character, and He cannot harmonize logical contradictions (since, by definition, they are beyond reconciliation). According to the free-will defense, it would be a logical contradiction to say that God can create a world where true freedom exists, yet evil is guaranteed not to exist.

Positives:

  • It does seem consistent with the very idea of personhood, which requires some degree of freedom.
  • God is not ultimately responsible for evil.

Problems:

  • True libertarian freedom is a difficult notion to sustain, both biblically and philosophically. While we make free choices, we make them based on who we are, which is not completely self-determined.
  • This seems to give ultimate control to human freedom, thereby diminishing the sovereignty of God.
  • This does not deal adequately with the problem of natural evils (hurricanes, floods, droughts, etc).

2. The greater good defense: Others would say that God has a transcendent purpose that ultimately legitimizes all evil, even if our understanding of this purpose is absent. What might seem like meaningless suffering and pain to us is actually serving to produce transcendent good. For example, what Joseph’s brothers meant for evil (selling him into slavery out of envy), God used for good (preservation of the nation of Israel). While what the Jewish leaders did to Christ was evil (crucifying Him on a cross), it served God’s purpose as a transcendent good (redemption of humanity). Therefore, God’s goodness is actually harnessing evil to bring about something greater.

Positives:

  • Strong biblical support
  • Keeps God’s sovereignty intact.
  • Brings meaning to suffering even if we don’t understand its end purpose.
  • Analogies in our own experience (discipline of children, the pain of a workout, surgery)

Problems:

  • Can seem rather cold as a subjective defense of personal pain and suffering
  • Would seem that God could find a better way, especially when the evil is so atrocious (loss of children, pedophiles, severe depression)
  • It is hard to conceive of any possible good that can be found in certain evils (prolonged suffering of those buried alive, miscarriages that are not even detected, suffering and pain among heathens who never hear the Gospel, etc.).

3. Evil defines good defense: This argument would propose that evil itself is a conduit through which good can find a definition and reality in contrast to its opposite. In other words, one cannot recognize, define, or appreciate good without evil. God allows evil so that good can be seen more clearly. As when a diamond is placed against a black background, one can better appreciate its beauty, so when good is placed against a backdrop of evil, one can understand its true goodness. Other examples may be found in the assumption that without evil circumstances, there can be no acts of bravery, heroism, and self-sacrifice. Therefore, evil creates opportunities for good to present itself as truly good.

Positives:

  • Gives evil a purpose
  • Finds analogies in real life, where people find distinct dignity as they rise above humanity’s natural evil inclination toward selfishness through outstanding acts of sacrifice.

Negatives:

  • Seems like a rather cold way for God to define good
  • The assumption that good cannot be defined or recognized without evil is hard to accept. Did God himself not know good until evil was present?
  • Does not explain what seems to be meaningless suffering and pain or natural evils

While I have presented these options as mutually exclusive, they are not. In fact, I don’t know of any who will actually defend the Christian worldview with regards to the problem of evil by offering any one of these alone as sufficient. However, some will emphasize one more than another.

I believe all of these have their place so long as they are defined correctly. I believe human freedom is the ultimate cause for the genesis of evil (natural or moral). Yet I also believe God is in providential control of all things, including evil, and has a purpose which He is free to reveal or leave in a shroud of mystery. I also believe that part of the good that comes from the allowance of evil is the opportunity for us to see true righteousness in all its beauty.

Whatever position that we take, we must be sensitive to the magnitude of this issue, especially today. We must also approach these issues with great humility, knowing that the problem of evil is a problem precisely because it causes great pain and suffering. Discouragement and disenchantment with God when evil is present must not be looked down upon with a smug attitude of theological elitism. Theological understanding, mixed with some degree of agnosticism (i.e., not knowing), is vital. This should prepare us to face our own upcoming evils with deep roots. It should also give a foundation for tender comfort to those in pain.

Genesis 50:20
“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.”

Romans 8:18
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

1 Peter 4:13
“But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.”

Hebrews 2:10
“For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings.”

Romans 8:28
“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

23 Responses to “The Problem of Evil in a Nutshell”

  1. I think Swinburne also has a theodicy in this area claiming that evil brings about character development. It would’ve been nice to see some theodicies on the problem of natural evil as well but this was a nice summary.

    However, I do have a question with regard to libertarian free will. You seem to suggest that this diminishes the sovereignty of God but then argue that we are the ultimate cause with regard to evil. Unless you have a different notion of what libertarian freedom entails (such as overruling God’s causal power) then I think this is a contradiction. Either a person can be an ultimate cause of something and not diminish God’s sovereignty or he cannot be the ultimate cause without diminishing God’s sovereignty.

    Can you clarify? Thanks.

  2. The free will defense and the greater good defense work best together. The greater good included giving us freedom.

    God be with you,
    Dan

  3. I do not think the syllogism is generally interpreted the way you have it written, though it is accurate this way. I think people generally view it in a slightly different way: “Then His goodness would motivate Him to use His power to immediately eradicate evil.

    We just don’t like God’s timeline. But, of course, as soon as the fall took place, God immediately acted to resolve the issue of evil. The serpent would bruise the heal of the woman’s seed and the seed would crush the serpent’s head. The plan was enacted immediately. But there is still evil in the world because the plan is still unfolding and will not be ultimately resolved until Christ’s return.

    Perhaps when we step into eternity and the full counsels of God are revealed, we will see this was the best possible solution. Does the clay question the potter?

  4. I think that saying that man has some freedom to choose in no way limits the soveriegnty of God. It is God who gives man the ability to make choices, which is not the same as libertarian free will. God gives man the choice to obey or disobey. God also established the consequences for each choice. In no way is his soveriengnty maligned. Every decision a man makes will be judged by an all powerful God. A God who can allow choice and still work everythng for his glory and purpose is a much bigger God than a deterministic God. IMHO

  5. Don’t forget about the character formation defense and the natural law defense.

    The character formation defense states that it is necessary for humans to be confronted by evil and suffering in order to mature and grow. Think of something like enduring through suffering or persecution.

    The natural law defense states that the universe has to be bound by natural laws that allow the intelligent agents to predict the consequences of their actions so that they can be held responsible for their own choices. If the universe were unpredictable, then no one could know what would happen if they acted. But some evil and suffering follows from this decision by God to let things run their course without his intervention.

    More in this post on my blog:
    http://winteryknight.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/why-does-god-allow-people-to-experience-evil-and-suffering/

  6. Understanding evil begins with one little phrase in I Corinthians 13:5–(love) does not seek it’s own. Since God is love (I John 4:8), He does not seek His own. Thus, God had to create an alternative to Himself to provide a choice for His created beings because, if He didn’t, there would only be His own. Lucifer ended up choosing the alternative, becoming Satan, and establishing his kingdom in the alternative, the place of darkness. That’s where God went to create our world and, driven by hatred, Satan scammed Adam and Eve into letting go of God. By doing this, Satan inserted a dividing wall between God and the human race. Christ obliterated that wall on the cross. And, we now have the ability to have life more abundant and to overcome and utterly defeat the kingdom of evil. God is good and we overcome evil with good. God will give us His knowledge, understanding, and wisdom so that we can accomplish all that needs to be done to get rid of evil forever.

  7. @Patriciazell

    I think that has some theological/philosophical problems. It entails that God had no choice but to create the universe because he was somehow “lacking” in love. It would require us to claim that God is not love until He creates (in order to not seek after His own), which to me seems absurd. Unless you want to say the universe has existed for eternity, I think we should be quick to dismiss that position. Furthermore, I think the Trinity is sufficient to avoid that problem as the Father, Son and the Spirit will seek after the good of the other in perfect harmony for eternity without the need to create a universe.

  8. I disagree with Ronald Nash’s statement that it is absurd to reject Christianity for any other reason than the problem of evil, but I could reformulate it and say that it would be easier to accept the Christian kind of God were it not for the problem of evil. It’s not just that evil doesn’t make sense in light of the Christian God. It’s that the evil makes a whole lot more sense in his absence. The universe does not look like a place created by a good God. It looks like a place governed of indifferent physical forces and populated by evolved beings whose evolution only imperfectly prepared them to live moral lives.

    And here is the main point I want to make: You want to be able to say atheism is intellectually bankrupt, that anyone who would deny God is denying the obvious. But even if the defenses above can make belief possible, the one thing you cannot seriously say is that it is obvious.

  9. Perhaps, as Christopher Wright noted, “we are not meant to, and never can, ‘make sense’ of evil; the very essence of evil is the negation of all goodness—and ‘sense’ is a good thing. In the end, evil does not and cannot make sense.”

    As beings made in the image of God, we want things to make sense. “We instinctively seek to establish order, to make sense, to find reasons and purposes, to validate things and thus explain them.”

    The fact that evil cannot make sense is why the Bible endorses worship through a language of lament (something rarely heard about in the Church).

    See: http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2009/03/11/evil-cannot-make-sense/

    See: Evil–a purely parasitic corruption of reality
    http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2010/04/28/evil-a-purely-parasitic-corruption-of-reality/

  10. I still think Gerstner said it best: “While we do not believe that personal freedom is the ultimate explanation of the origin of evil, we do believe that freedom was the means by which sin did come into the world . . . We can only declare that sin exists, God exists, and God is the ultimate cause of all things. He cannot be the immediate cause of sin since He is altogether good. He must therefore, have brought evil about indirectly. How or why He did this we may not know. That He could and did do it the facts require. We must simply leave the matter there. This is what we call a mystery. We do not know how certain things have come to pass. We know only that they have come to pass” (Reasons For Faith, p.19, 135)

  11. Another option:

    Because we live in a fallen world, evil (especially “natural” evil) has been let loose to make us hate this world and drive us toward God.

  12. Neat. I just happen to have read JL Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence, 1955 a few days ago.

  13. Remember that one day this whole “experiment/demonstration” of sin will be over, God’s character will be vindicated and evil will be no more. Amen

  14. I definitely am in the free-will defense camp, but the curse was God’s response to man’s disobedient choices. Logically, if God is the source of all goodness, and the only source of goodness, then the only way to allow man the option of being free from God (opting out of the relationship entirely) is to make man liable to end up in hell. While on earth, all experience the curse of disobedience, while still having the blessing of God’s presence to sustain us and be merciful to us through the circumstances.

  15. If God were to force us into relationship with Him, we could justly accuse Him of not being loving and good on that basis. If God were to never let us experiment with what kind of outcomes there are when we have control, or when we try to be independent from Him, we would always wonder if we could do better, and if God were really not the best and the most loving after all.

  16. Looking at God’s response to Job, it seems that if God tried to explain to us how His goodness and sovereignty are intact in the universe, it would be like Einstein trying to explain to Cain how the energy to destroy a city is locked up in a single atom of matter. I like Michael’s wrap-up about approaching the issue with great humility, and how the different views are not mutually exclusive.

  17. Terrific piece!
    The only thing I’d add was explained to me by a Priest. It’s not very “satisfying” or “seeker friendly,” but makes sense: We as humans try to judge everything by our understanding of OUR moral code. God, however, operates within a moral code too sublime for us to understand… humans understanding it would be like an Irish Setter trying to understand Algebra.
    God’s not a really, really, really smart/loving/moral version of us: He’s God.
    While a discussion like this is always worth having, the REAL issue isn’t the question, “Why does God allow evil?” It’s “Do you trust Jesus to do the right thing?”
    Thanks for a great article!

  18. Evil is an incredible problem and it is one of the many topics that evangelicals stay away from and don’t like to discuss. Today I’m largely agnostic, and the problem of evil was a part of my loss of faith.

    What makes evil worse is the problem of God being omniscient. You through that into the picture and you have sometihng ugly in the making.

    For example….why would a loving God who is omniscient allow a 6 year old to be sexually molested? Especially when he could have intervened and stopped it? Why do Christians call this God good? Why do Christians call this God to be “moral and just”? Why do Christians worship a God who allows such evil acts to occur?

    Evil comes in many forms. Molestation, murder, embezellment, genocide, etc.. that is what you refer to as evil by free will. Evil that isn’t the result of free will is equally disturbing. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami, tornadoes, etc..

    So far I think the best answer is by Greg Boyd. I could write a long post

  19. Eagle, Your argument is part and parcel to why I reject Reformed Theology… and feel like Arminian Theology is closer to the actual Truth. I hope you’ll google it, and read about what theologian Jacobus Arminius has to say.
    In my humble opinion, we’re free to do all the terrible things we do to each other, and SOMETIMES God intercedes directly to change events miraculously. (He has the power necessary to manipulate everything all the time, but chooses not to). For instance, it was not part of God’s plan for those two planes to hit the World Trade Center… and He was grieved to watch it unfold. BUT, He didn’t intervene, because he knew he could ultimately use that horror to bring more people into his fold, and thus to heaven.
    I believe God is a shepherd, herding Pit Bull puppies. He knows they all have the potential to grow up and maul each other… but He chooses to allow them to mature. If you were going to kill them when they grew teeth, why create them?

  20. I can see that human minds tend to understand the problem of evil in the exact opposite way that it really is at least to my knowledge.

    For after knowing and experiencing all and much study and verification I realise that the problem of evil in the world really points to God’s existence rather than against it.

    Most atheist, agnostics and humanists cherish the hope of being able to live and get along with out God per say. This is exactly what God hates and it explains the problem of evil. You see what is evil to human beings is not evil to God. On earth we have 8 billion people odd trying to make life on earth better to no avail they should have realised by now that there is a outer, higher and superior force preventing the human paradise they seek. Read Amos 3:6 ‘…shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?’

    It is God’s sacred pledge to buffet and bruise an errant mankind at every turn they make with their self loving human oriented ways. This world was made for God not for man – get your derrières off of the Governor’s chair fall on your faces and praise the Lord who is Good in all his ways, Good in the eyes of divinity not humanity.

    Which God in mythology is able to talk any way? Which human being is able to cast the first stone anyway?

  21. We should further learn this, God is not ashamed of evil or what human beings call evil either. In Isaiah 45:7 God’s word says ‘I make peace, and create evil; I the Lord do all these things.

    We should put away the childish view of God and of Love. Who is to say that if love exists there will never be tribulation on the earth and never individual suffering. Sorrows have only now beginning. Where there is love there is justice and where there is trangression of the Law of the Holy One, there will be hell.

    God knows that you can’t please every human being all the time not only is that impossible but it is wrong. It is always wrong to seek the pleasure of the human being over the pleasure of the divine.

    We should also mature away from the childish interpretation of Omnipotence. Omnipotence should mean possessing all possible power. This may include doing some of the things that are impossible with man but it does not mean accomplishing the non-sensical. You can’t create an infinitely strict criteria of impossibility and then flout it.

    Have not you read in the Bible Hebrews 6:18 ‘in which it was impossible for God to lie’ Not all things are possible with God. Thank God the sensible things are. Thank God the worthy things are. Thank God the things which are for the establishment and edification of his Way, Truth, Light and Eternal Rule and Supremacy are.

    There is greater comfort in accepting the evil of the Lord than there is in accepting the so called ‘goodness’ of man.

  22. It is mathematically wrong to make an inequality into an equation. While God is eternal, evil is not. While God is eternal, man is not; but man can seek unto immortality. You don’t want to live in an eternal hell why do you want to preserve your trangressions of God’s law unchecked.

  23. Let’s not forget that God IS going to judge the world for evil, (read Revelations).
    Let us not forget that “God is patient, not wanting anyone to perish.”
    And finally, let us not forget that “God’s ways are higher than our ways.”

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