The problem of evil can be said to be the most intellectually and emotionally compelling objection to the existence of the Christian God. It goes as follows:
- If God is all good, then he will want to eliminate evil
- If God is all powerful, then he will be able to eliminate evil
- If God is all knowing, then he will know that evil exists and how to eliminate it
- Therefore, if God exists, evil does not exist
- Evil does exist
- Therefore an all good, all powerful, and all knowing God does not exist.
It is natural to expect your friends to have your back. Knowing that they neglected to help you in your time of need can feel like a slap in the face and a betrayal of that friendship. So it is understandable that when people are faced with tragedy that they know to the depths of their soul should never have been allowed to happen, they look at God and question.
I believe this objection ultimately fails. I will agree that evil exists. As for the other premises, I would like to tease them apart a little and see if we can get a more thorough understanding of them.
The first premise: If God is all good, then he will want to eliminate evil.
This is assuming something about the nature of good—that it must be interventionistic. I don’t know that it has been sufficiently argued that it is. You can think of cases where it is morally acceptable, or even morally obligatory for humans to not intervene in the immoral or unjust acts of other humans. For example, your neighbor is an admirer of a murderous tyrant and enjoys reading his literature. Do you break into your neighbor’s house, burn his books, and reeducate him? Your neighbor is cold and rude to his wife. Do you take him at gun point to bring his wife flowers and chocolates? We have set expectations of what God owes us that He doesn’t necessarily.
My next question is, Is justice delayed justice denied?
“You have wearied the Lord with your words;Malachi 2:17
Yet you say,
‘In what way have we wearied Him?’
In that you say,
‘Everyone who does evil
Is good in the sight of the Lord,
And He delights in them,’
Or, ‘Where is the God of justice?’”
Even the saints in heaven in Revelation cry out to God, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10) In Malachi God answers His accusers that one day they will see what happens to the good and the bad. In the end people will get what they deserve.
There is a reason why suffering is not ended yet. God works everything out for good. (Romans 8:28) Every wrong and harm He can turn around and make beauty from ashes. Abraham waited a long time for God to fulfill His promise of making a nation out of him, so late that it seemed impossible. Then when he was 100 years old, he had a son, and they named him Isaac, or laughter. It seems like an appropriate stamp of God’s approval on Abraham, that those who hear when he had this son would laugh, because it must be God.
I often think of Joseph, being sold into slavery by his brothers while they told their father he had died. Joseph went from slave to prisoner after he was falsely accused of attempted rape. The whole series of events seemed catastrophic for him, but it was in prison where he made his connection with the king, and that connection led him to become one of the most powerful men in the most powerful nation at that time. He then saved the people, including his own family, from famine and starvation.
It was Satan’s desire to kill Jesus, but God used that evil plan against him to ultimately defeat him. The early church was treated cruelly, but as a consequence, they fled, and their faith was spread all over the world. Some were killed for refusing to deny Christ, but that was proof of the reality of what some were personally witness to.
God is actively involved in our world, and He is creating something from it that we may not be able to see from our vantage point, but we have been given this promise:
“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”Romans 8:28
One reason we know for our suffering is testing.
“The refining pot is for silver and the furnace for gold, But the Lord tests the hearts.”Proverbs 17:3
This testing is evidence that we are worthy to be a part of God’s kingdom. (2 Thessalonians 1:4-9) We will be rewarded based on our growth here in the kingdom of heaven when we will rule and reign with Him. (Luke 19:11-27, 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, Daniel 7:27) When we make it to heaven, we won’t be tested in the same way. It also demonstrates who is really saved at all. (Mathew 13:21)
Another reason is for our training. With suffering, we learn patience (James 1:2-4), endurance (Romans 5:3-5), and obedience (Hebrews 5:8). I’m sure many would love the opportunity to pose their questions directly to God and hear Him clearly answer them. Jeremiah the prophet did pose the problem of evil objection to God in Jeremiah 12. God’s response is surprising.
“If you have run with the footmen, and they have wearied you,Jeremiah 12:5-6
Then how can you contend with horses?
And if in the land of peace,
In which you trusted, they wearied you,
Then how will you do in the floodplain of the Jordan?
For even your brothers, the house of your father,
Even they have dealt treacherously with you;
Yes, they have called a multitude after you.
Do not believe them,
Even though they speak smooth words to you.”
It is as though God sees life for us as a challenge, a battle. As though we were meant to be heroic, not only in the valiance of our efforts, but also in our wisdom. It seems the standards He expects us to aspire to are more than mere humans can bear. It reminds me of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:3, that those who are behaving with envy, strife, and divisions were behaving like mere men. How can we succeed then? “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)
Suffering is an opportunity to practice the love of Christ. “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (1 John 3:16) By helping the weak. “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’” (Matthew 25:40b) By setting free the captives. “To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free.” (Isaiah 58:6)
Suffering can also be discipline, to punish someone for their sin, but also to train them to be a better person. It may be from God (Hebrews 12:5-6), the government (Romans 13:4), the church (Matthew 18:15-17), or from parents (Proverbs 13:24).
Suffering can also be God’s justice here on earth. Sometimes God does intervene before the final judgement. He did so with the flood (Genesis 6:5-7), with the nations of the world (Exodus 6:6; Daniel 4:26; Jeremiah 46-51), and with Israel (Deuteronomy 28). The Bible is full of examples of God judging and rescuing. He heard Hannah praying for a child. (1 Samuel 1:10-20) He heard the child Ishmael crying in the wilderness (Genesis 21:17). He sent angels to pull Lot’s family out of Sodom. (Genesis 19:12-13)
Another reason why God delays judging people is that He is giving them time. “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
We have seen that the evil in this world will be dealt with, and that God is using the delay for good purposes. While we don’t always get to know exactly what those reasons are, one thing we can be confident of is that God knows what He is doing. The evidence for this is all around us. We exist in a mind-bogglingly complex universe. It was crafted with precision all around us. It is teeming with layered and interconnected systems that work harmoniously and in cycles to perpetuate our life. Just looking out into this world, even if you don’t really know where humanity came from, what we are doing here, or where we’ll end up, you can see the orderliness of the world. This is in effect what God tells Job. Job is an ancient man who loses everything, from his livelihood to his family to his health. He knows he doesn’t deserve it, and he doesn’t understand why these tragedies happened to someone as noble as himself. God answers him with this idea in Genesis 38-41.
Because God crafted the whole universe, He is able to solve the ethical problems we cannot when it comes to knowing all of the consequences of an action. He can know what greater good lies behind the evil that we see.
There are two kinds of causes: one caused by an event, and one caused by a will. If an event was the cause, then some physical matter is acting based on its own physical properties, which has to have been moved by something else. A will is a fundamentally different thing. It is the self-sufficient cause of a decision. It is a being that moves itself. This opens up a world of possibilities. Two important things relate to our discussion. It creates the possibility for personal responsibility, and for real relationships.
Because a person is the cause of their own action, the punishment rightfully stops with them. Romans 2:6 says God will repay each one according to their own actions. As history plays out, each person has the potential within themselves to act in ways that are better or worse. God allows people the space and time to act so that, in part, they can flesh out who they are and be punished in full. (1 Thessalonians 2:16) Jesus excoriated the lawyers of his day, telling them that the blood of all the prophets who had been killed in history would be on them because they killed and tormented those they were given. (Luke 11:49-51)
Free will also means the possibility of change. God repeatedly says that those who reject their evil ways and turn to God will be accepted. (Jeremiah 18, Ezekiel 18)
Without free will, relationships would be impossible. A relationship is one will interacting with another will. If one being is not moving himself, either because some physical phenomenon or another being is moving him, then there is no interaction between wills and no relationship. That is a being interacting with themselves. Relationships by definition require two or more free will agents who can act uncontrolled by the other or the environment. There is an old movie called The Stepford Wives. It is about a young couple that moves into a neighborhood and as time goes on the wife begins to notice something strange. The wives of the other couples start to change. They lose certain imperfections to become cliché perfect housewifes. The wife discovers that the husbands had been recording their wives’ likeness, voice, and personality, and replacing them with androids that removed all the qualities they didn’t like. In the pursuit of perfect happiness and love, these men had eliminated their companionship for a pretense. They were talking to a technologically advanced version of sock puppets and pretending someone was listening and responding. What this means is for love to be real, it must be a free choice. That also means that the person must have been able to choose not to love. For us to truly love God and each other, we must be able to also choose to reject God or each other.
Premise two: If God is all powerful, then He will be able to eliminate evil
Can God create a rock that is too heavy for Him to lift? This is one of the classic questions that is supposed to reduce the concept of All Powerful to absurdity. It is basically asking the question “Can God create limitations for Himself?” The answer to that is yes. Not only can He limit Himself, He is also intrinsically limited in two other ways.
The first is that God is limited by reason. This is because God is real, and real things have truth values. For example, God can’t both exist and not exist at the same time and in the same way, because that would violate the law of non-contradiction. God cannot be both God and not God, because that would violate the law of identity. God also cannot make a round circle or a married bachelor, given the definitions remain the same, because those statements are contradictions by definition. God cannot make silent red ideas jump on trampolines, because that string of words does not point to any actual statement. It is a nonsense statement with no truth value. God cannot insert incoherent meaningless string of words here, because that is not a thing that is to be done. In other words, God’s power is limited to those things to which power relates.
The second way that God is limited is by His good character. That means He acts based on true principles that respect things of inherent value in the universe. For example, God cannot lie. (Titus 1:2) He does not try to make people desire to do evil. (James 1:13)
One classic objection that argues that God’s goodness and His superiority are at odds is Euthyphro’s Dilemma, which goes as follows:
Do the gods love good action because it is good, or is good action good because it is loved by the gods?
First Event Second Event
The standard of good exists God loves it
God loves a standard Therefore it is good
If God loves good because it is good, then that means it is a standard that is above God, thus making Him less than something. If good is good because God said so, then that would make it just an arbitrary thing, and from one day to the next, God could declare any horrible or sacred thing good or evil. Both of these things are problematic.
To this I respond that goodness is behaving in a way that respects those things of inherent value. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existed for eternity in the past. The Being of God is what has inherent value. The way they related to each other is what is righteousness. While this goodness is not above God, it is also not arbitrary, because we know that God does not change. (Malachi 3:6) So God is constrained by His own nature. There is a part of the standard of goodness that is in a sense arbitrary, but it is in this way: God created man where man did not exist before and He gave man His image. Before man existed, it was not wrong to kill a man, but after God brought him into being, it was wrong. The way that God infused His own worth into man makes man an inherently valuable being, and in some ways God dictated and dictates that, and in other ways God is still constrained to act justly towards His own image and is limited. When God hands down His laws to man, it is the Maker delivering an owner’s manual. It is information on what the nature of man is, what his value is, and how he is intended to function properly. While that is arbitrated by God, so is our very nature and existence.
What does the death of Jesus say about God’s limitations when it comes to evil in humanity?
The God of the universe sends His Son who had been with him forever to become a human and be brutally humiliated and tortured to death. Why would He do that? If He could just snap His fingers and make everyone follow the golden rule and wipe out all evil and suffering, why did He have to die?
There are moral laws God must follow. He could not just dismiss evil and pretend it was okay or never happened. He could not bring free will agents to heaven when they had chosen to act like hell.
Jesus died to be punished instead of those who do wrong, the murderers, the rapists, the kidnappers, the thieves and liars and haters and adulterers. He lives to model who we were meant to be instead. The death of Jesus tells us that there has to be a reckoning for evil. It tells us that God is intensely concerned with the evil we are suffering and perpetuating. It tells us what He is willing to personally go through to bring an end to evil, rather than eliminate a cause of evil—us. It tells us He has made a way to have people who have freely chosen to love and respect Him and each other for all eternity.
- If God is all good (He is), then he will want to eliminate evil (He does. Jesus’ death proves that.)
- If God is all powerful (He is *within reason and justice), then he will be able to eliminate evil (He can. He can either eliminate evil people, or perfect them.)
- If God is all knowing, then he will know that evil exists and how to eliminate it (He does: judgement or redemption)
- Therefore, if God exists, evil does not exist (Choice, redemption, and growth take time, so final judgement must be delayed.)
- Evil does exist (Yep)
- Therefore an all good, all powerful, and all knowing God does not exist. (A bunch of whoring vile scum dares to crawl on the face of this earth and God hasn’t wiped us out because He is throwing Himself into saving everyone He can. Evil exists because God still loves us that much.)
Dealing with the Emotional Impact
The problem of evil is a protest against the imperfection of reality, but given that we must accept the existence of evil, what is the next best possible outcome? What emotional resolution does atheism bring to the problem of evil? Your oppressors may never face punishment in this life, and therefore ever. What could be more insane? Every atrocity in history stands for eternity unchallenged and unchallengeable. Worse than being robbed of justice is being robbed of vindication. On what basis do you even know that what was done was actually wrong? Maybe those were just your feelings. Maybe the guy who enjoyed doing it had different feelings. On what basis do you even object? You are just making noises, just emoting, just informing the universe of your chemical processes which will pass. This is a very hard challenge for the atheist.
On the other hand, theism is able to answer the anger with evil. With God, it is possible to see victory. It is possible to see justice in the end, and yet not be lost in despair that you yourself must be dammed. It has hope of a future without this suffering. I was once asked when I am wearied by this world, what does God do to restore my soul? This is what I wrote:
Shall I count the ways?
- He demonstrated true love for me
- He showed me how to be faithful to those you love no matter what, that it is possible under the worst of circumstances
- He brings the worthless creatures of the world to perpetual justice
- He takes every terrible circumstance and uses it for good
- He gives a purpose to suffering
- He shows you who to be. He lets you know how deep and rich life is when you and others manifest that.
- He holds your soul securely
- He always gives you a way to do the right thing
- He guides you
- He cares about your burdens, and will carry them for you
- He makes a way to cleanse yourself of brokenness, guilt, and shame, and to become right
- He has many plans for you for eternity that will make all these things very small
- He cannot be stopped