The Problem of Evil - No Problem After All
We know that the Bible clearly explains that love, patience, compassion, forgiveness and grace (undeserved favour) are at the core of God’s character and purposes. But, it would seem people like to turn this fact against God by claiming evil could not exist if a God with these attributes truly existed. In effect they break the second commandment by making up their own designer god – their own idol. They manufacture a god in the form they would like him to be and then when they cannot see this god in reality they then transpose this fiction onto the real God like a delete button which they then press to erase him. This would be funny, if its consequences were not so serious. Atheists arrogantly assume they can make attributions about God, entirely out of their own imagination, without any reference to the evidence, or what God actually says about his purposes and then eradicate him because the God they manufactured does not fit with the reality they would prefer. Paradoxically, this ridiculous arrogance corresponds exactly with what God has to say about Man’s self-deluding pride.
In making their own designer idol, into which they then poke the pins of their unbelief, non-Christians and those that use the ‘problem of evil’ to slip off the rails of faith, fail to take a range of factors into consideration:
The essential first point to keep uppermost in one’s mind is that the presence of evil does not disprove God’s existence. It may raise questions about God’s way’s and purposes, but it fails to prove God does not exist. He does not go away simply because people raise an objection concerning what they think he could or should do in relation to evil. It is not the presence of evil that is the problem it is the atheist’s stubborn refusal to accept there is a God in the first place. Their issue is spiritual not intellectual.
Secondly, without God evil perpetuated by Man and ‘natural evil’, or bad events that just happen, might be much worse. No one can prove it, or disprove it, but perhaps God is restraining evil all the time. Perhaps, without that intervention the world would be an impossibly horrible place where Man's inhumanity to Man would know no bounds. If it is possible to assume God can and therefore should eradicate all evil it is equally legitimate to propose that God does infact keep evil from running rampant.
Thirdly, it is a self-defeating argument for those who use it to deny the existence of God, for without belief in God there is no objective moral basis for defining evil as evil. The atheist cannot define something as evil unless there are pre-existent, independent and objective standards against which any act called evil can be measured. Murder is not wrong simply because a law says so. If that were so a murderer, at the moral level, can simply say he does not believe the law is valid for him. All the atheist objecting to murder can say is murder is wrong because society believes it should be and a law says so. That does not make the act of murder evil, it just makes it legally prohibited. What is called the Axiological Argument explains this point by drawing logical inferences from fact. If there is an objective, transcendent moral order then it must have come from somewhere. That ‘somewhere’ must be a lawgiver and since the moral law is transcendent its giver must be God. This is the most reasonable explanation. But, there is even more to it than that. Atheists invariably counter with the claim that the moral order simply exists, but this reasoning falls foul of probability. It is highly improbable to assume a pre-existent moral law just happens to fit exactly into the human condition. This is too much of a coincidence to just happen by chance. Of course atheists are big on chance. After all they base their whole world view on everything just coming into being by chance. This blind faith is the cornerstone of their dogma.
Fourthly, evil is either Man-caused, or it happens as a natural event (e.g. disease or an earthquake). It cannot be attributed directly to God, unless God tells us he caused it.
Fifthly, a great deal of evil is almost certainly caused and perpetuated by Satan, an entity rejected out of hand by atheists. Jesus describes him as the father of lies, a thief and a murderer. A great deal of evil can be sheeted back to these ‘attributes’.
Next, God never promised Man would enjoy life without difficulties and problems, in fact it was quite the opposite. After the fall God made it clear that Mankind, as a result of its rebellion and disobedience, would be dogged by hardship and the injustice foisted by some on others. This is not because God wills it to be so, but happens because Man is fallen and therefore prone to do evil things. So, evil has nothing to do with God and everything to do with ourselves. In fact the Bible makes it clear that God never promised to intervene in Man’s affairs to eliminate evil (short of his end times judgement) and the fact that he is all powerful and loving does not mean he is required to intervene to prevent it. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, draws on the potter analogy. God is the potter, we are the clay. The clay cannot tell the potter what to do, nor is the potter bound to do anything demanded or expected by anyone.
Then there is the very important issue of free will. God made Man ‘in his image’. In other words he wired us with many of the characteristics that were innate to himself. Free will refers to the right to make decisions on our own. It embodies the rights we hold dear; the right to live in freedom, make our own life choices, chart our own path, associate with whom we will and believe what we choose to believe. If God had not done that he would have denied his own character and forced Mankind to live on instinct and programmed responses. We would be little better than animals or robots and exist in the absence of love and other higher human characteristics like creativity, hope, joy, expectation, nobility of purpose and a host of other virtues. Imagine a world like that. How many of us would be prepared to sacrifice them to remove the possibility of evil. Evil would be replaced with an even greater tragedy. Existence would be pointless, colourless and meaningless. God would have therefore never created anything in the first place. What would be the point? Fortunately, God is working towards a situation where free will can exist in the complete absence of evil. This is the bigger picture the atheist refuses to recognise. Without this process God, in his holiness, would be obliged to simply destroy Man. We cannot completely comprehend why God has to operate in the way he does to get to that place, but the absence of this clear understanding is not proof for God’s non-existence. All it really represents is a gap in our knowledge.
We can see God at work. He has to completely defeat Satan, in a properly judicial sense. He started that process by selecting a people – Israel, to be his initial witnesses, under a special covenant. Then he interposed himself in the form of Jesus to pay the full and final penalty for all sin – past present and future. Now he is inexorably working towards the final judgement of Man and Satan. In the meantime evil exists. Some argue that in its absence there would be far less impetus for people to seek and find God through Christ. It is certainly true that in times of hardship and trial many turn to Christ. Far better to find Christ, even if evil served to bring one to that place, than to live life and then die without Christ and find oneself lost to hell forever.
A related argument suggests God uses evil to discipline people. After all a good parent does not shirk from using forms of punishment to discipline children. Perhaps God makes use of the presence of evil to do the same? We cannot make these arguments with complete certainty. However, the many examples, recorded in the Bible, where God uses terrible affliction and war to punish individuals and whole people groups, stand in their support. These examples affirm at the very least that God does use the just application of what might otherwise be called ‘evil’ against evil. The atheist does not have to like it, but he cannot use it to deny God’s existence. To do so is to make a blind, unjustified and perverse leap of faith.
What about Job? God allowed Satan to afflict this God-fearing man with all sorts of evil, without providing self-justifying reasons. God does not have to explain himself to us. When he finally confronted Job he did not try to justify Job’s sufferings. Instead he emphatically reminded Job that he was God. He was the one who had created all there is and he is not answerable to his creation. Job may have anguished over why he was allowed to suffer, but God was not obliged to tell him. Also, Job’s sufferings were temporary and God restored to him everything he had lost. Job repented for his presumptuous cry for God to explain himself. Another matter is worth noting. God allowed Satan to take all of his large family in death. This suggests the whole issue of suffering and death is regarded quite differently by God than it is by us. That is not to say God likes evil. He has pledged to destroy it forever. Unfortunately, from our perspective forever is a difficult concept to grasp, but for God it is an ever present reality. There is no doubt that this distinction must play a part in God’s treatment of evil.
Some important things need to be kept in mind about Job. His terrible experience never turned him from his trust in God; he remained faithful. Satan wagered Job would forsake God under intense pressure, but he never did. His experience has also served down through the ages to provide many with instruction about how God expects us to react if evil enters our lives in any of its forms. Job’s story associates evil with Satan and puts both in their place.
Lastly, God has always dealt with most forms of evil. For instance he told the Israelites that if they remained obedient to his covenant with them he would protect and prosper them. He also came as Jesus the incarnate God to die for all those who repented and acknowledged him as their saviour. While evil has yet to be eradicated, God has promised it will be fully and finally stopped. With that came the promise that freedom from death, sin and evil, would be crowned with immortality forever.
Evil put in its place
All of these factors, taken together, largely put evil in its place and undermines the atheistic argument about its presence and its usefulness as a proof for God’s non-existence. It also explains why so much evil exists. We could at this point launch into all the proofs, historical, archaeological, scientific and biblical supporting God’s existence. These proofs are so extensive they reduce the argument from evil to the margins of atheistic usefulness. It really is little more than a red herring.
The Church and evil
Sadly, one more aspect needs to be considered. The fact is the Church has been guilty of falsely billing God as the provider of immediate and exaggerated happiness, contentment - a cosmic combination of sugar daddy and fix it man (See our post on therapeutic deism). This has found expression in a number of ways:
Christians in recent times have constantly portrayed God as the ultimate exemplar of love, without balancing the message with the fact that God is also avenger and judge. God’s love is only unconditional, in any specific sense, for those who elect to honour him with repentance and faith in the work of Christ on the cross. His general love for his creation is also there, but it is tempered by the presence of evil, the actions of Satan in a fallen world and limitations God places on his own interventions in that world.
Just as the world has exaggerated the nature of free will, making it a licence to do what it likes, the Church has in recent times exaggerated grace. It has corrupted grace through false prophets, false teachers and a desire to appeal to the world by being as much like it as possible. Grace has been taken out of its salvific realm and put into the general milieu by the Church to excuse false doctrine, immorality and more general compromise. Now, even the existence of hell is being falsely subjected to a wide false grace that purports to leave hell empty. In the same way grace is employed to claim all religions can lead to the same God.
This false grace is used to claim we should not judge others, while taking a ‘relaxed’ attitude to sin and the gospel. Exaggerated grace has robbed the gospel and the Bible of holiness and reduced righteousness to a generalised ‘goodness’ that often has little to do with God’s commands. This has opened Christianity up to opposition from those who would by nature resist God, while making the Church largely ineffective and weak.
Under these conditions the power the Church should have to resist its detractors and remain a potent witness for Christ has declined dramatically in the western world. This may well be all part of the falling away predicted in the Bible. If the Holy Spirit has been taken out of the way prior to the onset of the end time events prophesied in the Bible then we can expect a weakened Church and much stronger opposition to God’s existence and the Bible’s instruction. If this is not the end times, but just another stage in history, then we can expect the Holy Spirit to bring on a rebalancing between truth and error, between righteousness and pagan rebellion. But, if that is the case God is going to have to ring the changes in the Church first. A painful reformation will be needed. One thing we can be sure of. Evil will not disappear until God has done with this world as it now is. Only the new world and the end of Satan will inaugurate complete and everlasting freedom from sin, death and evil.
Christian philosophers seem to like falling into the trap of accepting the atheist’s application of a standard logical thinking system to this issue, which involves taking several uncontested variables from which a conclusion may be drawn. They have obviously been taught this technique at university. In this article we have avoided this trap because trying to reduce the means by which God operates to a couple of simple propositions is an over-simplification. Anyway, here is how it works:
-God is all good (1st variable)
-God is all powerful (2nd variable)
-Evil exists (3rd variable)
-God cannot exist because he would have applied his power and goodness to evil and prevented it (the conclusion).
For all the reasons covered in this article this logical thinking tool is completely inadequate for proving the non-existence of God. Christian philosophers should know better than to use it. Just because God is all powerful and good does not mean he is obliged to apply these attributes to the problem of evil from the beginning of human history. In addition he has applied them to evil and promised to eradicate it from the eternal lives of all those who believe in him – future tense.
Lets re-frame the logic sequence to illustrate its emptiness. Imagine a guy living in a cave. He is told of the existence of aircraft, but never actually sees one until one day an object he recognises from photo's is an aircraft crashes outside his cave. Shocked by the event he scrawls on the side of his cave:
-Planes have engines
-Planes have wings
-Planes fall out of the sky
-Therefore, planes cannot fly.
Obviously, our cave-dweller has drawn an erroneous conclusion because he is not aware of all the facts. The atheist who uses the problem of evil as a basis for denying God's existence, jumps to a mistaken conclusion based on ignorance of the bigger picture.
To insist God should have prevented evil from the beginning is little more than the arrogant presumption that God must operate according to an atheist’s prescription. It is the god-of-my-making presumption. Errant theologian Bart Ehrman is a master of this presumption. Boiled down, all his bluster about evil in the world is based on his insistence that God should perform according to Bart's prescription. He makes God in his own image and then executes him. Isaiah compared this gross error to the clay thinking it could tell the potter what to do (Isaiah 10:15, 29:6 and 45:9). Erhman tries to ameliorate his error by claiming he is an agnostic. In fact he is an atheist who has yet to recognise the gulf he has put between himself and reality, for God says no man can hide behind double-mindedness. Either you are for him or you are against him. Various scriptural references capture this principle (James 1:8 and 4:8, Matthew 6:24, Luke 11:23, Galatians 1:10, Proverbs 11:24).
Finally, we need to return to the pre-eminent argument that the presence of evil does not disprove God’s existence. As we said earlier, it raises questions about God’s way’s and purposes, but it does not disprove God. The late Dr Greg Bahnsen accepted this argument but maintained it was insufficient in itself to deal with the problem of evil. We disagree. It may not satisfy the atheist, but it is logically consistent as far as the existence of God is concerned. The plain fact is that the existence of evil does not disprove God. The limiting factor for both atheist and Christian alike is the fact that no one can understand the full breadth and depth of God’s goodness and power in term of how when, where, why and to what he chooses to apply them. There has to be too many factors outside anyone’s understanding to justify drawing conclusions about what God would or should do. The obvious example is the advent of Christ. Why did God wait thousands of years before inaugurating the New Covenant in Christ? Why did he institute a 'shadow’ of it in the Old Covenant system operated through Israel? Clearly, God’s agenda is beyond our full understanding and he has never been under any obligation to make it otherwise. Instead he has given us enough, preserved in the Biblical text, to know the broad parameters of God’s plan for this planet. Thinking it is possible to punch God out of the ring using the presence of evil as the king hit is ridiculous.
In the end it turns out that the problem of evil is an issue that Man cannot resolve until God finishes with this world as it now is. Until then claiming evil proves the non-existence of God is, at best, a poor straw-man argument.
These books, in addition to the Bible (NIV) proved useful in considering the question of evil in the world:
Bahnsen G.L. (1999): Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith. American Vision, Atlanta.
Hunt D. (1996): In Defense of the Faith: Biblical Answers to Challenging Questions. Harvest House, Eugene.
Kumar S. and Heininger J. (1987): Christianity for Sceptics. Life Foundation, Auckland.
Lutzer E.W. (2000): Ten Lies About God: And How You Might Already be Deceived. Word Publishing, Nashville.
Strobel L. (2000): The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity. Zondervan, Grand Rapids.