The “Problem of Evil” is one of the biggest philosophical challenges to a belief in God and is a major contributor to the rejection of Christianity. In fact, well-known biblical scholar and critic Bart Ehrman credits the problem of evil with his own loss of faith. We’ve addressed this topic in an earlier article, but a more comprehensive response is appropriate. The problem can be simply stated as follows:
- If God is all-good, He would want to destroy evil
- If God is all-powerful, He could destroy evil
- Evil exists
- Therefore, an all-good, all-powerful God does not exist
The logic seems sound on the surface. But can these really be our only options? Clearly, the problem of evil presents believers with a dilemma. Or does it?
Two Parts to the Problem
The existence of evil really has two distinct areas that must be addressed. The first is its physical existence. Why does evil exist at all? Why do bad things happen to good people? The second issue is the emotional problem of evil. How should people react to evil when it happens? How do we provide comfort to them and answer their questions?
The physical problem of evil is actually the “easier” to answer. In this article, we will show biblically how or why an all-good, all-powerful God can allow evil.
The emotional problem of evil is much more difficult. This fact is because people who are suffering do not want an intellectual, “just the facts ma’am” kind of explanation. They want empathy, understanding, and most importantly, for their pain to stop. While answers for the emotional problem of evil are harder to find (including for the unbeliever), they are there and we will address them, as well.
Defining the Problem
If we are going to explain evil, we have to define what it is. Biblically speaking, evil can be thought of as anything that is counter to God’s will, laws, or nature. Evil, when it moves from thought to action, becomes sin. The Bible is very clear on what God considers to be evil or sin.
But this definition, though accurate and helpful, is not complete. There is an important nuance we also have to understand. By itself, evil is not a thing. Since evil is a violation of God’s desired state, it is not an intrinsic thing so much as it is a corruption of the good it was supposed to be. As a result, you can have good without evil, but you cannot have evil without good.
This is a very important point. It explains very clearly how God is not the cause of evil. God created all things and He created them “very good” (Genesis 1:31). But evil is not a thing. It is a corruption of things. So when something God has created good ceases to be or do what God intended, it becomes evil. But how can something or someone violate the will of an omnipotent God? We’ll get to that…
There are two broad types of evil that must be addressed and reconciled with the existence of a good God. The first is “moral evil” which results from intentional human thought or action such as hate, cruelty, torture, murder, etc. The second is “natural evil” which is when pain, suffering, death, etc. result from natural phenomena such as earthquakes, tsunamis, disease, etc.
The Ultimate Cause of Evil
To understand how a good God could allow so much evil to exist, we have to back-up a bit. The Bible states that God made everything “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Based on this text and others (e.g. James 1:13-17, 1 John 1:5, Psalm 119:68, Psalm 5:4, Exodus 34:6, etc.), we can see very clearly that God is not the author of evil and it was not part of His original design.
Furthermore, God made mankind is made in His image (Genesis 1:26). Being made in God’s image means that we have certain of His characteristics such as intellect, emotion, and will, as well as the desire for relationship. God created us to be in a perfect, loving relationship with Him.
But for any loving relationship to exist, there must be free will. Love is a choice. Forced love is a contradiction. If humans were created so that we had no choice but to love God, then we would be nothing more than automatons, and our love would be meaningless for us and for God. So God gave us free will to enable the greatest possible good…a freely chosen, loving relationship with Him. Unfortunately, mankind abused that freedom and chose to violate God’s standards. In so doing, we created, and continue to create, “moral evil.”
Mankind’s sin has major, long-lasting consequences. As we have discussed in other posts, God is holy and cannot co-exist with sin or evil (e.g. Isaiah 6:3, Habakkuk 1:13, Isaiah 59:2). So our sin creates a separation from God (e.g. Isaiah 59:2, Genesis 3:8). If not dealt with through the atonement of Christ, this separation will last eternally (e.g. John 3:18, Romans 6:23, Revelation 20:14-15).
In addition to creating separation, sin has marred our perspective. In fact, our very nature has been corrupted (e.g. Ephesians 2:3, Psalm 51:5) and is bent on following our own path. In effect, we try to become our own god rather than submit to the true God (e.g. Romans 1:18-25, Genesis 3:4-5).
Another consequence of our sin is that Creation itself has been corrupted. We were made to be stewards of God’s creation (Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:15). So when we chose to go our own way, the physical world suffered loss as well (Genesis 3:17, Romans 8:19-23). Because of this, the so-called “natural evil” is a real possibility.
An important point has to be made here. The Bible does not say that every instance of human tragedy or natural evil is because of some specific, individual sin the victim committed. Rather, because each of us, to varying degrees, violates God’s will, evil exists and the entire world experiences it. And while we can still have a relationship with God through Christ, it will not be the perfect one God intended until we leave our fallen nature and world behind. Until then, we will be subject to the world we corrupted.
So we can see that God is not the author of evil. We are. It is true that God allows evil, but only as a “side effect.” It is only through free will, and the resulting potential for evil, that the greatest possible good can occur (i.e. loving God). God’s desire was and is to create that greatest possible good, even though He knew it would result in some evil. Fortunately, He also had a plan to take care of that through Christ.
The Emotional Problem of Evil
As previously stated, dealing with the emotional problem of evil is often more difficult than the physical problem. Being able to explain the reason evil exists doesn’t help someone that is suffering through a trying time. So how does Christianity address the emotional hurt of evil?
On one hand, it is understandable how someone’s suffering can cause them to question God’s goodness, love, or even existence. On the other hand, it is somewhat ironic. Because from Genesis 3 forward, the Bible fully acknowledges the existence of evil. Its presence should not surprise us in the least since it is entirely consistent with what the Bible teaches. Furthermore, the Bible is clear that even good people can be harmed by it (e.g. Cain and Abel).
In fact, we have the perfect example of a good person suffering because of evil with Jesus. Here is a person who never did anything wrong and loved and served God completely. And yet He suffered rejection, torture, humiliation, and an excruciating death.
As we’ve discussed elsewhere, Jesus did this to pay the penalty of our sin. But He also provides us with many examples of how we should behave in the face of evil. Furthermore, we can take comfort in the knowledge that God has walked in our shoes. There is no struggle we face that He has not also experienced (Hebrews 4:15). So Jesus provides us encouragement through trials by showing we are not alone (e.g. Hebrews 13:5).
Beyond the example of Christ, we have the promises of God. God does not promise us a life free from evil or suffering but He does promise to help us through it (e.g. Romans 8:28, Matthew 11:28-29, Isaiah 40:29-31, Psalm 23, Psalm 46:1-3). And if we trust in Christ, He promises to remove the pain and corruption of evil in eternity (e.g. Revelation 21:4, 2 Peter 3:13, Isaiah 25:8).
Ultimately, we see that the emotional challenge of evil can be addressed by maintaining a proper, godly perspective. Certainly this is easier said than done, but most things are. Through prayer, study of God’s word, and fellowship with other believers, we should seek to develop a biblical outlook that takes the “long view.” When we do, we realize that our suffering, no matter what it entails, is temporary and pales in comparison to the glories of an eternity with God (e.g. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, Romans 8:18).
In the final analysis, there are several key points we have to remember. Evil is very real and can absolutely represent challenges. However, Christianity has explanations and answers for each of these challenges. And while evil can be extremely difficult or painful to experience, God promises to ultimately deliver us from evil’s impact if we trust in Him.
Further, evil utterly fails as evidence against God’s existence. The Bible never discounts or shies away from the existence of evil, so we shouldn’t be surprised if we experience it. In fact, it is the existence of evil that made Christ’s sacrifice necessary in the first place.
Finally, the reality of evil in no way discredits the massive evidence in support of God’s existence such as the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the moral argument, the historical evidence for Jesus and the resurrection, the historical and prophetic accuracy of the Bible, the unparalleled wisdom and life-changing impact of Christian teaching, etc. At most, the problem of evil is something we have to come to terms with in our lives, but it poses no threat to God nor should it pose one to faith.