Is it a problem?
Evil is certainly a challenge for anyone, including Christians, to answer sufficiently. However, we can show that it potentially fits within the Christian worldview, and I believe it fits well (especially compared to other worldviews). In other words, it is a challenge, but I don’t think it is ultimately a problem. Remember, while you as a Christian might currently be answering such a challenge, or struggling with the effects of evil yourself, EVERYONE has to deal with this issue. If someone is challenging you, see if they are willing to answer the same challenge based on their own worldview.
The typical formulation of the problem of evil (in a philosophical sense), looks something like the following:
- God is supposed to be 100% good.
- God is said to be omnipotent, or all powerful.
- An all powerful God would be able to stop evil.
- A good God would want to stop evil.
- Evil exists.
- Therefore God does not!
When we are presented with such a challenge, we need to realize that the final conclusion rests on the validity of the premisses leading up to it. For example, if the atheist were dealing with some other religion where God wasn’t 100% good, then the argument falls apart. If God isn’t all powerful, the argument falls apart. This means that the argument won’t work to disprove theism as a whole, just possibly the Christian God, IF the premisses accurately describe God AND the other premisses are all accurate.
Certainly, the first two statements are held by orthodox Christians. The third, that God could stop evil at any time, would seem to follow. The fourth statement is where the problem is found. It doesn’t take into account that God might have some valid reason for allowing evil.
In John Stackhouse’s excellent book on the topic, he states it this way, “God, to put it bluntly, calculates the ‘cost-benefit ratio’ and deems the cost of evil to be worth the benefit of loving and enjoying the love of these human beings.”(2) We simply aren’t privy to fully understand what those reasons are. It would be quite the arrogant statement for the atheist to then say that this is unacceptable and that they would do better if they were God (which is where they would have to go to retain any weight left in the argument). Perhaps (no, certainly!) it is too complicated for us to comprehend. A scene from the 2003 movie “Bruce Almighty” comes to mind where God turns over control to Bruce (played by Jim Carrey). Bruce quickly learns how tangled the web is and that tweaking one thing over here has massive implications over there. This complexity also fits well with God’s answer to Job. God doesn’t really answer the problem, but begins to ask Job if he is able to comprehend what God has done or has any such ability to do what God has done.
In fact, given that the Bible says God actively restrains evil, a better question might be why there isn’t more evil or why there is so much good in the world. While horrible things happen, I can certainly imagine things being worse! In fact, if the naturalist or atheist position were true, much of the good behavior we see in the world (especially pure altruistic behavior) seems rather odd. It is impossible to explain every situation, but we can see how the given explanations fit within the various worldviews. The basic idea is that God created the world in a way best suited to bring about some greater or otherwise unattainable good.
What are some possible Christian explanations for the why? One of the big explanations is that of free-will (or probably better, free-choice). While this gets into a debate between Calvinist and Arminian positions within Christianity, to the extent that humans are responsible for their actions (and the Bible says that we are), it would seem to follow that evil would be an option as people begin to act and interact. In fact, it is more than an option, the Bible says that we sin because we love sinning! We’re responsible because we don’t sin under compulsion. We desire to sin and rebel and our choices follow from that desire.
Another explanation, post-Fall of humanity into sin (and note that within all of creation, Satan was fallen and around before Adam and Eve fell), is that evil is a form of punishment. The Bible holds a tension here between God ordaining various types of punishment and justice for the perpetrators of evil, while at the same time, the punishments are typically carried out by agents fully intending to do evil (ex: the Babylonians brining punishment on Israel). We have to be VERY careful here not to try to reading into things (ex: the hurricane happened to punish those people over there).
Pain and suffering are also unpleasant and are supposed to be that way. Partly, this can mean that when we see evil and suffering, they should be a wakeup call that things are not the way they are supposed to be. It is an indicator that something is not right with our life or the world in a similar way that a cut and the associated pain tell us we are being damaged (so we can react) and also teach us to be more careful or act differently in a given situation. C.S. Lewis said that pain is God’s megaphone to wake a deaf world.(3)
Pain and suffering can also produce mature character. This is a bit like the previous point in that part of learning takes place in bumping into the boundaries of how we should be acting, and thus experiencing pain. God sometimes uses this to help shape us. Stackhouse refers to this as the physician analogy. “But health matters more than happiness. Indeed, the physician realizes that the patient’s longterm happiness depends on his health, and thus requires the short-term unhappiness of dealing squarely with his current illness. Moreover, for the physician to mislead the patient – even if the patient would prefer to be misled – is malpractice.”(4) Again, it is important to note that we’re not in a position to look at some individual instance of evil or suffering and declare with certainty which of these reasons it is. Sometime, we might have more clarity when looking back at our lives, but again, only God is truly privy to this knowledge.
Finally, evil should, when analyzed properly, lead us towards God. This means that it has an evangelistic type of effect on people. The world isn’t as it should be. We need to pay attention to the solution that has been provided by our Creator.
One other type of evil that should be mentioned is what’s often called ‘natural evil.’ What we have been talking about so far could be called ‘moral evil.’ The primary difference is agency. Moral evil is a kind of evil that results from the actions (or sometimes inactions) of moral agents. Natural evil would be something like an earthquake or a flood. While these things are under God’s control, so in a sense agency is involved, I like to look at them as neutral unless we are given a specific reason to think otherwise (ex: Noah’s flood). When we fell into sin, we threw off God’s protection and care. Thankfully, God has not totally given us our wish! In fact, one can only speculate about how often God saves us from the natural happenings and disasters of our dangerous world. In other words, natural disasters might not be caused by the fall into sin (as some Christians hold), but the problem might be that God isn’t always protecting us from them.
Another important thing to note is how much of a role human evil plays in the effects of natural evil on humanity. Consider the difference in human loss of life between areas that are somewhat properly constructed and prepared for natural disasters as opposed to when similar disasters happen in third-world locations. With our current level of technology, much of the loss of life around the world due to natural disasters has a lot to do with politics, greed, and carelessness (moral evils).
In the end, we must remember that evil is not part of God’s ultimate plan. It isn’t the way things are going to be one day. Stackhouse summarizes, “However it functions instrumentally in God’s providence, therefore, evil is fundamentally anomalous and temporary. It cannot survive in the ultimate state of God’s cosmos.”(5)
(Continued in Part 3)
A couple of books I have read and recommend:
Can God Be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil by John G. Stackhouse Jr.
The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis
2. John G. Stackhouse Jr., Can God Be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) Kindle location 815 (p74?).
3. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Kindle Locations 1020-1021). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition. (p91)
4. John G. Stackhouse Jr., Can God Be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) Kindle location 944 (p84?).
5. Jr. John G. Stackhouse. Can God Be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil (Kindle Locations 900-901). Kindle Edition.
This article was first published at TilledSoil.org. Copyright © 2013 TilledSoil.org. All rights reserved.
(Note: This article was originally posted on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, but the subject matter is always relevant. The article has been modified from the original, and broken into three parts due to length.)