David Hume, the famous 18th-century philosopher, framed the issue as succinctly as anyone: “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”
Much closer to our time, philosopher H.J. McCloskey, in his 1962 article “The Problem of Evil,” describes the situation as follows: “The problem of evil is a very simple one to state. There is evil in the world; yet the world is said to be the creation of a good and omnipotent God. How is this possible? Surely a good, omnipotent God would have made a world free of evil of any kind.”
You don’t have to be a philosopher to feel this tension. All of us experience various types of evil, whether great or small, on a regular basis. Why would a good and all-powerful God allow this? Satisfying answers do not spring readily to mind.
It is therefore no surprise that the presence of evil drives many people to conclude that such a God does not exist. The logic is straightforward: “A God who is good and all-powerful cannot allow evil to exist, but evil does exist, therefore there is no good and all-powerful God.”
Obviously, many others come to a different conclusion. Despite the presence of evil, millions today do believe that God is both good and all-powerful. For some, the reality of evil causes pain but no tension; it is a sad fact of life in a fallen world. For others, however, the tension persists. They don’t give up their faith, but feel at times like their faith is shaky, or even that they’re somehow being dishonest, like those refusing to acknowledge a bad diagnosis.
So what can we say about the problem of evil? To answer this question we must ask five more.
Question 1: What do we mean by “evil”?
It’s important to begin here because we use the word “evil” in at least three different ways.
To begin, we sometimes use the term loosely to refer to things we don’t like, such as fruitcake or the DMV office (or the New York Yankees). That’s not the type of evil we’re discussing here.
Second, we sometimes use the word to refer to some sort of harm, misfortune, or negative circumstance we choose to bring upon ourselves. For example, I love to run. In fact, I love to run so much that I began training for a marathon. Now when training for a marathon, they say to build up your pace gradually, otherwise you will end up with an injury. But I went out for a long run at a pace that was way too fast for my poorly-trained body. The resulting injury meant I had to completely give up running for a time.
Interestingly, even though I knew this was entirely my fault, I still found myself saying, “Lord, why me?” And even though the answer was obvious, I wanted to blame someone else. Since God could have prevented this, he happened to be my first choice.
Here’s another example: What happens if a man is unfaithful to his wife and she leaves him? The suffering will be real, but it’s suffering he has brought upon himself. The responsibility is his, not God’s. These types of evil—the ones we choose to bring upon ourselves—are not what we’re talking about either.
Today we’re talking about evil in a third sense: the suffering we cannot control. Sometimes it is due to the moral choices of others: a parent abuses us; a drunk driver kills a beloved friend; our parents divorce. Other times the suffering comes from natural events: a hurricane destroys a city; a tsunami wipes out 250,000 people; a child is stricken with leukemia. It is this type of evil—the suffering we can’t control or prevent—that leads to the “problem of evil.” It is in the face of this type of suffering that we sometimes conclude, “Surely a good and all-powerful God does not exist.” And this leads to our second question.
Question 2: Does the problem of evil prove that there is no good and all-powerful God?
For many, the answer to this question is a slam-dunk: “Of course it does.”
But how so? What does the argument look like? It’s not enough simply to declare this. We have to explain why the presence of evil leads us to this conclusion. For example, consider the following sentence: “All single men are bachelors; therefore, Abraham is not a bachelor.” As it stands, this is not an argument; the first statement does not necessarily lead to the second. In order for this to be an argument, we need to add another statement: “All single men are bachelors; Abraham is not a single man; therefore, Abraham is not a bachelor.” Now we have an argument.
Similarly, if we say, “Evil exists; therefore there is no good and all-powerful God,” we have not made an argument. The first statement does not necessarily lead to the second. We need other statements in between. Perhaps the most common approach goes as follows: “Evil exists; a good and all-powerful God would not permit evil unless there was a justifiable reason; if there were a justifiable reason, it would be apparent to us; there does not appear to be any justifiable reason for evil; therefore such a God does not exist.” Now we have an argument. The argument only works, of course, if we know that each of the additional statements is true. Are they?
Many have pointed out there is a huge assumption here, namely, that if a good and all-powerful God has reasons for allowing evil, then we as finite human beings would be able to figure them out . But why should we assume this to be true? As finite beings we’re limited in ways that an infinite being is not. He may have reasons we cannot begin to comprehend.
Philosopher William Alston gets at it this way: Suppose that some of the very best scientists in the world come up with a new theory about quantum physics. Suppose I, as a non-physicist, look at their theory and say, “Because I cannot figure it out, they must be wrong.” It’s possible they might be wrong, but I have no real basis for knowing.
Alston’s point is simply this: We are not in a position to assume that if an infinite God has reasons for allowing evil, then we as finite and fallible beings should be able to figure them out. And because we cannot assume this, any argument which does—such as the approach identified above—has not proved anything at all.
Naturally, some of us hear this and say, “I don’t care how the philosophical arguments go. I still feel in my heart of hearts that there are types of suffering that are so bad—so unjust—that it is impossible that a good and all-powerful God exists.” This leads to the next question.
Question 3: How is evil a problem for atheism?
As soon as we use the term “evil”, we are making a judgment; we’re saying that something is wrong, that injustice exists in the world. We feel that it is wrong for one person to murder another. We feel that it is unjust for a man like Hitler to murder six million people. And we feel this way because we believe human beings have dignity and, as a result, fundamental rights.
But on what basis do we feel this? Christians respond that we have been created in God’s image and given inherent worth by Him. But if this is not true—if we’re simply the random product of evolutionary forces—then where does such dignity come from? At this point even many secular thinkers acknowledge that it is difficult—if not impossible—to argue that we have any inherent dignity or worth if there is no God. In his 2000 article, “A Common Humanity,” atheist thinker Raimond Gaita states it this way: “The secular philosophical tradition speaks of inalienable rights, inalienable dignity, and of persons as ends in themselves. These are, I believe, ways of whistling in the dark, ways of trying to make secure to reason what reason cannot finally underwrite. Religious traditions speak of the sacredness of each human being, but I doubt that sanctity is a concept that has a secure home outside those traditions.”
If, for example, we’re watching a National Geographic special on lions and see one lion kill another, do we sense that it has committed a wrong? That it has in some way transgressed the dignity of the other? No, we think only that this is a matter of nature working its course. The first lion is under no moral obligation to let the second live.
But let us not miss the point: Without God, we are no different than the lion in terms of dignity; we are simply smarter animals on a different branch of the evolutionary tree. It is no more wrong or unjust for one person to kill another than it is for one lion to kill another, or for the robin to eat the worm. It might be unwise to murder, because there will be penalties to pay. It might go against community opinion in terms of what is right and wrong. It might be unfortunate for the person who is murdered. But in no way is it fundamentally wrong; no injustice has occurred. It is simply the working out of the survival of the fittest.
None of this, of course, is meant to disprove atheism. It is simply meant to illustrate a point: If our hearts tell us there is evil in the world—that certain acts are horribly wrong because they transgress our dignity and worth—then retreating to atheism doesn’t help us, since atheism—to be consistent—can’t provide a basis for human dignity in the first place. In this regard, evil is just as much a problem for the atheist as it is for the believer.
At this point someone might well respond: “All that’s been said so far is that evil does not disprove God and that evil is also a problem for atheism. So what? The question still remains: How could a good and all-powerful God allow so much evil and suffering in the world?”
Let me admit up front that we do not know what the answer is. But, as Tim Keller says in his book The Reason for God, we do know what the answer is not. And this leads to the fourth question.
Question 4: How might the fact that God himself experienced evil help us?
The foundation of the Christian story is this: In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God has entered into human history and voluntarily experienced ultimate suffering and evil, all as an act of love for us. Christian writer Dorothy Sayers puts it this way:
The incarnation [of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth] means that for whatever reason God chose to let us fall into a condition of being limited, to suffer, to be subject to sorrows and death—he has nonetheless had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine … . He himself has gone through the whole of human experience—from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death … . He was born in poverty and … suffered infinite pain—all for us—and thought it well worth his while.
On the one hand, Sayers is pointing out that Jesus’ sufferings were many and real. In the Gospels you see Him rejected and slandered (Matthew 12:24), misunderstood by family and friends (John 11:16; 14:8), abandoned and betrayed by those who loved Him (Matthew 26:47-56; Luke 22:54-62), and suffering unimaginable physical violence (Matthew 27:27-35). Be it emotional or physical pain, God has not kept Himself immune from the suffering of this world.
But even more significantly, Sayers points out that He did all this as an act of love for us (John 10:11-18; 15:13). The Scriptures teach we’ve all contributed to this world’s suffering, be it from things we have done or failed to do. So how can God bring justice for these things—to make sure that someone pays for them—without destroying we who are guilty? Only by paying the penalty Himself. This is the unique message of Christianity: God’s love for us propels Him to pay our penalty on our behalf, and in so doing to experience evil in all its ferocious brutality.
So how can a good and all-powerful God allow suffering and evil? We simply don’t know. As Keller states, however, we know what the answer is not: It is not because He doesn’t love us; it’s not because He doesn’t care; it’s not because He doesn’t understand. It cannot be any of these, for his love-propelled voluntary suffering on our behalf tells us otherwise. Writer John Stott, in his book The Cross of Christ, explains:
I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as “God on the cross.” In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? … [The God I worship is] that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. … There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we … stamp another mark, the cross, which symbolizes divine suffering.
And this leads to our last question. The fact that God voluntarily suffered evil might demonstrate His love, but is this where the story ends? Is this world simply like one long, sad movie, with a God who understands our suffering, who loves us in our suffering, and yet who does nothing about it in the end?
Question 5: Where does the story end?
In the second to last chapter of the Bible, we read this description of what the end will be like: “[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4). The very things that cause us suffering now—death, mourning, pain—will be gone. On what basis is this claim made? The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.
We may think of it this way. Suffering and evil show up in all sorts of ways: poverty, war, abuse, relational pain, and ultimately death itself. These are all similar in one way—we label them as evil. But one of them is unique: Death is the only one that can never be avoided. People may be brought out of poverty; wars and abuses may end; relational pain can be healed; but death is unavoidable. It is the strongest expression of evil there is. No one has ever ultimately defeated it—except Jesus. The Scriptures teach that God not only suffered and died on our behalf, He also came to life again and defeated death itself. Which means this: If He can defeat the strongest of evils, then He can defeat all the rest.
Why does He not do so sooner? The Bible doesn’t say. But its certainty about the end of the story is not rooted in wishful thinking; it is rooted in a cosmic battle that has already taken place, a battle in which Jesus has defeated the worst of all evils. It is this Jesus—this victorious king—who not only comforts us in our present suffering, but who will one day come again and defeat suffering in all its forms. This—and nothing less—is the assurance that belongs to those who name Him as their king.
Jay Sklar is associate professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary, where he has taught since 2001.