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