It is a riddle that philosophers have pondered, skeptics have flaunted, and theologians have debated for centuries. If God is all-powerful and all-good, then why is evil so rampant?
If God is all-powerful, then he would be more than able to rid the world of evil.
If God is all-good, then he would be more than willing to rid the world of evil.
But, there is evil in this world. Everywhere, it seems. So, what’s the deal?
Is God able but not willing? Then he is not good. Is God willing but not able? Then he is not powerful. Either way, he is not God.
Popularly attributed to 4th-century philosopher Epicurus, and popularized by 18th-century philosopher David Hume, this form of the problem of evil poses the question: How can we reconcile the existence of evil with the existence of God? In other words, if God exists, why is there so much evil? The philosophical/theological debate rages to this day.
However, the problem of evil is a problem for everyone, not just philosophers and theologians. We see horrific things happening every day. When we are on the receiving end of that evil, we find that no amount of philosophy can soothe, and no amount of argumentation can heal. In those movements, believers are left with their faith shaken, and unbelievers are left with their doubts confirmed. The pain and suffering leave us wanting, not an argument, but an answer.
So, is the evil we see in the world the indictment against God’s existence that so many for so long have said it is?
Here’s the thing…
Everyone is driven by the problem of evil. By which direction does it drive us?
Evil, both moral and natural, with all the pain and suffering it causes, does not drive us away from God. It drives us towards God.
For C.S. Lewis, the problem of evil was possibly the greatest obstacle to his belief in God. Art Lindsley, relates, “When Lewis met Christians, he would pose this problem to them. He felt that their attempts to provide an answer were attempts to avoid the obvious difficulty.”
As Lewis thought deeper, however, he was struck by the realization that the evil he threw in believers’ faces was really evil. He recognized that it was not a psychological illusion or a personal feeling. If it was, it would not really be evil. This idea presented him with a larger problem than he had bargained for. He explains:
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?…Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.
Lewis realized that evil is still a problem, but not one without an explanation. The problem of evil and the existence of God are not contradictory. If anything, God’s existence is necessary for us to even have a concept of evil. The existence of evil ceased to drive him away from belief in God and eventually drove him towards belief in God.
The problem of evil, at least stated as a logical argument, depends on assumptions about God that simply do not go far enough.
“If God is all-powerful,” the skeptic says, “he would rid us of evil.” Let’s take that thought a couple of steps further.
How do you suppose God would rid us of evil? In order to do so, he would at some point have to rid us of the ability to choose to do evil, leaving us with only the ability to do good. This would eliminate what is specifically known as moral evil, that which results from human choice.
But, there is a problem. When we make moral judgments, holding people responsible for their actions, we assume their choice in the matter. If someone has no choice, we have no grounds for judgment. As Dr. John Feinberg states, “No one can be held morally accountable for failing to do what they couldn’t or for doing what they couldn’t fail to do. That is, moral praise or blame can be correctly assessed only to someone who acts freely.”
God could prevent the occurrence of evil only by eliminating the possibility of moral good. But, if God wanted a genuine loving relationship with humans as the Bible asserts, he would have to give them the capacity to freely choose him and what is good. This would by necessity allow for the freedom to reject him and choose evil. So, there is no reason to believe that the existence of evil and the existence of God are logically contradictory.
“But wait,” says the skeptic, “if God is all good, he would not allow all the pain and suffering.”
Through personal experience, the problem of evil runs even deeper. It is nearly impossible at times to reconcile the existence of a good and powerful God with our personal suffering or the pain we observe in others. This is especially true of natural evil, that which results from an act of nature. While the harshness of pain and suffering is nothing to doubt, should it cause us to doubt that God exists?
We all have been through pain that has produced a greater good. Getting fired only to find a better paying job. Going through intense physical pain only to gain strength. Losing a loved one only to draw closer to the family and friends we still have with us. Short term suffering for a long-term good is a reality with which we all are familiar.
Who is to say then that God on a cosmic level is doing exactly that? What if God is allowing temporal evil to achieve an eternal good? That is precisely what the Biblical worldview asserts. It may be impossible for us to imagine a good reason for God to allow evil. However, it takes a tremendous amount of faith in one’s own intelligence to suggest that this means there cannot be one.
Furthermore, if our complaint assumes that God is great enough to rid us of evil, we also must assume that God is great enough to have a good reason not to. If God is transcendent enough to stop what we do not have the ability to stop, then he is at the same time transcendent enough to have an ultimate purpose that we do not have the ability to understand. Suggesting otherwise is the classic “having your cake and eating it too.”
Most Christians understand that this is not the best possible world. In fact, we hope it is not. But, just because this is not the best possible world, does not mean it is not the best actual world that leads to the best possible world.
Please understand, this is no trite “God works in mysterious ways” argument. I am not saying, “You just don’t get it—somehow, God will work it out.” I agree with the skeptic, at least in terms of sympathy, who criticizes believers who throw out such petty replies. However, in terms of logical conclusions and personal experience, I do not see why the problem of evil must drive us away from God. In fact, …
We talk about the problem of evil in terms of fairness and justice. However, we should ask ourselves the same type of question C.S. Lewis asked himself: Where do we get these ideas of fair and unfair, justice and injustice?
We certainly do not get them from nature. In nature, the strong eat the weak. In nature, the rule is to adapt or die. In nature, physical violence is the way of survival, struggle is the way of life, and extinction is the way of death. There is nothing fair about nature, at least not in any sense that can ease the human conscience (or stomach).
We certainly do not get them from one another. If evil is defined by way of personal preference, then whose personal preference should we go with? If evil is defined by way of consensus, then what happens when consensus goes against us? The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, driven by distinctly atheistic ideology, began with a personal redefinition of the morality of a tyrant that became national consensus.
So, where do we get these ideas? Where do we get meaning for a word like evil? Philosopher Alvin Plantinga said it well:
Could there really be any such thing as horrifying wickedness [if there were no God and we just evolved]? I don’t see how. There can be such a thing only if there is a way that rational creatures are supposed to live, obliged to live….A [secular] way of looking at the world has no place for genuine moral obligation of any sort…and thus no way to say there is such a thing as genuine and appalling wickedness. Accordingly, if you think there really is such a thing as horrifying wickedness (…and not just an illusion of some sort), then you have a powerful…argument [for the reality of God].
The evil that we see in the world, and all the pain and suffering it causes, is real evil. It cannot be that it is only a matter of personal or cultural preference. Therefore, our minds and hearts are driven to look upward for definition.
The Christian worldview does not simply alleviate the problem of evil. It answers. Unlike other worldviews, it does not chalk it up to an illusion or a survival mechanism. It does not attempt to rule out evil in lieu of God’s existence, and it does not attempt to rule out God in lieu of evil. Christianity springs from God’s revelation of himself to establish what evil is in sharp contrast to his holiness. But, it does not end there.
The Christian worldview has an answer to the problem of pain and suffering that no other worldview has: A Savior God who has experienced it firsthand. Jesus Christ was innocent of any evil yet condescended to the pain and suffering it causes. He felt every ounce of it but never fell into it. He was sacrificed for it and beat the death punishment of it. In Jesus Christ, God felt the utmost pain of evil.
Timothy Keller confirms, “God put himself on the hook for human suffering. Therefore, though Christianity does not provide the reason for each experience of pain, it provides deep resources for actually facing suffering with hope and courage rather than bitterness and despair.”
In Jesus Christ, we do not just have sympathy; we have healing. We do not simply have an explanation; we have justification. We do not only have a reason; we have also have redemption. We are not promised simple mitigation; we are promised eternal resurrection.
There is much evil in this world. But, it is nothing that God has not felt. It is nothing that God cannot fix.
 Art Lindsley, “The Problem of Evil: C.S. Lewis Speaks to Life’s Most Difficult Questions”, Knowing & Doing, Winter 2003.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; Harper Collins: 2001), p. 38-39.
 John S. Feinberg, “Why I Still Believe in Christ, in Spite of Evil and Suffering”, Why I Am a Christian, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), p. 274.
 Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Dutton, 2008), p. 26-27.
 Keller, p. 27-28.
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