God and Evil
“Probe an atheist or agnostic deeply enough about why they doubt God’s existence, and he or she will likely recount for you the problem of evil. This problem keeps many from faith in God altogether and rattles the faith of even the staunchest believers” says John S. Feinberg in his essay, “Why I Still Believe in Christ, in Spite of Evil and Suffering” (237). Mankind has always had trouble explaining the evil, pain, and suffering that occurs in the world. We have records of many that have been through almost incomprehensible suffering and they are pushed to the question, “Where is God?” Job, a man whose life is recorded in the Old Testament book bearing his name, is the classic example of the innocent sufferer. Everything was taken from him (possessions, family, and his own health) even though he was innocent of any wrong-doing that would warrant such punishment. Can it be that God exists when evil is so prevalent?
There are three general ways of relating God and evil. First, the atheist will affirm the reality of evil and deny the existence of God. Second, the pantheist will affirm the existence of God and deny the reality of evil. Third, the theist will attempt to show that while it is true that evil is real, it is also true that God exists. It is the goal of this essay to demonstrate that the position of the theist is a reasonable position to hold. Such will be accomplished in the following fashion: First, a general introduction to the problem will be stated. Second, the attributes of God will be examined. Third, a definition of evil will be given. Fourth, two possible reasons for God creating this world will be proposed. Fifth, a description of the ideal environment or world will be given. Sixth, human suffering will be briefly examined.
General Introduction to the Problem
For centuries, scholars have debated what is now known as “the problem of evil.” Men such as Epicurus, David Hume, J. L. Mackie, and H. J. McCloskey are commonly cited to challenge the theistic position. The basic thrust of the argument is that if there really were an all-powerful and all-loving God, there would not be the evil with which humans must contend. It is said that to affirm all three of the following statements would result in a logical contradiction.
1. An all-powerful being exists.
2. An all-loving being exists.
3. Evil exists.
Stated formally, the argument often looks like this:
1. If God is all-loving, He would destroy evil.
2. If God is all-powerful, He could destroy evil.
3. Yet evil is not destroyed.
4. Therefore, an all-loving and all-powerful God does not exist.
Thus the biblical theist (one who believes in the God of the Bible) must deal with this problem and offer a reasonable theodicy. We will offer logically that it is not evil that evil exists, and that the God of the Bible had a morally justifiable reason for creating the world as He did. Much of the argument will center on the fact that man has freedom of will and choice. Man is free to either love God or to reject Him outright. While not seeking to prove the existence of God, we will justify the reality of evil along with the existence of God. [Please bear in mind that any theodicy will be mainly an answer to the academic community, not a comfort to the sufferer. Logical explanations of this nature are, generally speaking, of no practical value to the one in the midst of suffering.]
Attributes of God
The attributes of God are an intricate part of the supposed contradiction. Without both the God of the Bible (infinite in all His attributes) and human freedom, evil is unexplainable.
The Bible teaches that God is all knowing (omniscient). Hebrews 4:13 clearly shows that God knows every move every creature makes because all things are open and laid bare before Him. If this is the case, did God know man would sin? Yes. Did God want man to sin? No. In His infinite wisdom, God had a plan to bring man back into fellowship with Him (Genesis 12; Ephesians 1, 3, et al.). God knew man would sin, thus implemented the plan of sending His Son and establishing the church so that man could be forgiven of sin and brought into fellowship with God.
The Bible also teaches that God is Omnijust. In Romans 11:22, Paul shows the dual nature of God’s holiness: goodness and severity. God loves all men, including sinners (1 John 4:8; 2 Peter 3:9), but He hates the sin men commit and cannot let sin go unpunished. To let sin escape unpunished would violate God’s nature, thus rendering Him to be less than God.
The Bible further teaches that God is all-powerful (omnipotent). We are told in Psalm 33:6 that God simply spoke the world into existence. God has the power to do anything that is subject to being done. Obviously, some things are logical impossibilities as even omnipotent power cannot make a married bachelor or a four-sided triangle, etc. Such does not warrant accepting a weakened view of God’s power as some have done (i.e. Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People).
The Bible also teaches that God is all loving (1 John 4:8; John 3:16; et al.). God will not act in a way that is contrary to His nature (overlooking sin), but His desire is that all would come into fellowship with Him (2 Peter 3:9) and He has given us the proper environment to accomplish such.
The question may be raised, “If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why does He permit one man to kill another?” The answer lies in the fact that God, in His infinite wisdom, created man as a free moral agent. Man makes the choice to behave in whatever fashion he so desires. It may be said that God permits evil only in the broad sense in that He created man and, in effect, He permits evil.
What Is Evil?
It is common for theologians and philosophers to refer to evil as being synonymous with that which causes human suffering. As we build our case, it will be important to distinguish between natural or physical evil and moral evil. Natural evil chiefly refers to suffering and pain that mankind experiences due to physical calamities (tornadoes, earthquakes, famine, etc.) or diseases such as cancer. Moral evil is understood to be the result of the misconduct (sin) of mankind. While the Bible teaches in numerous passages (Romans 8:18; 1 Peter 5:10) that there will be occasions that humans suffer during their lives on this Earth, it also plainly teaches that sin is the only intrinsic evil (1 John 3:4; Romans 3:19; 4:15). Natural disasters and human suffering are not evil in and of themselves. In his book, Have Atheists Proved There Is No God?, Thomas B. Warren contends:
Neither pain nor suffering is intrinsically evil. Nothing that merely happens apart from some connection with a will can have moral predicates. Before the question, “Is pain an intrinsic evil?” can be answered properly, two further questions must be asked: “To whose will are you attributing it?” and “Is it in harmony with God’s will?” (That is, does it contradict sonship or brotherhood, does it affect fellowship with God? Does it violate his will?). To say that a state, thought, or action is intrinsically evil is to say that some will brought it about and that it is out of harmony with God’s will, that is, it is unfilial and unfraternal—in short, that it contradicts God’s will as revealed in the Scriptures. (40)
Though not intrinsically evil, natural disasters and suffering may be viewed as the instrumental result of sin. Referring to the fall of man recorded in Genesis 3:1-19 the apostle Paul writes, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). [All Scripture references are taken from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.] It is to be understood that, ultimately, humans endure suffering because of involvement in sin.
With sin being the only evil and defined as that which breaks God’s law and causes one to harm the filial relationship with God or fraternal relationship with man, nothing that is subhuman can be evil. This means that no natural calamity such as earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, etc. can be considered evil. Not even diseases as horrible as cancer or Alzheimer’s can be considered evil. Subhuman occurrences of pain and suffering can be either instrumentally good or evil, depending upon the reaction of the sufferer (more will be said about this in the section on Human Suffering). Thus we contend that it is not evil that there is evil in the world. Evil that happens as a result of choices made by men can be traced to free will. Suffering that happens as a result of sub-human causes are simply part of the ideal world God designed for man.
God’s Purpose for Creation
In his book, Yet Will I Trust Him, John Mark Hicks contends that God created this world out of the overflow of His love (51-81). As evidenced by the Godhead (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit), God is loving, part of a community, and desirous of fellowship. Note the way the three worked in conjunction with the creation of the universe, etc. Since God is love, He desired to share His love with others, thus creation.
In creating to share His fellowship and love, God must have that love and fellowship reciprocated. Thus man must freely choose to love God and be in fellowship with Him. There must be a choice involved, man can not be forced into reciprocation. Hicks illustrated this idea by telling of a prince who is in love with a peasant girl (62). He could order her by force to marry him due to the fact that he is royalty, but he would not be receiving genuine love. He must go meet her, befriend her, have her fall in love with him as a man, not by force as a prince. Thus they both freely choose to love and be in fellowship with one another.
Another idea advanced is that of John Keats. Keats was a poet who in April of 1819 wrote a letter to his brother and sister in which he coined the phrase “vale of soul-making.” He stated that intelligence (man) needed some pain and trials in order to become a “soul.” From this we use the term to describe this world and environment God has created. His desire and eternal purpose is that man freely and lovingly submit to His will, even if it means choosing suffering over sin. It is in this world, the “vale of soul-making,” that man chooses to overcome suffering and adversity to lovingly submit to the will of God.
The Ideal Environment
German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz is known for postulating that since God is infinite in knowledge and power, he could have created an infinite number of universes. Since the present universe is the one he chose to create, in spite of the evil and suffering that exists, it must be the absolute best of all possible worlds (Koestenbaum 132). Some would argue against this point by saying that this world is not the best world possible, but it is the best way to achieve the best world (Geisler and Feinberg 334).
One characteristic of an ideal world would be for its inhabitants to have absolute free will, the ability to make any and all moral choices. The Bible plainly teaches that mankind has been granted freedom along with the opportunity to choose obedience to the Heavenly Father (Galatians 3:26-4:6; Matthew 11:28-30). Consider these thoughts from Alvin Plantinga:
A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. (30)
Next, an ideal world would be orderly and adhere to natural laws. The same ax blade that is used to chop wood can be used to destroy human life. One cannot expect intercession each time an instrument is used in an instrumentally evil manner. The result would be chaos. In like manner, one cannot expect the Creator of this world to act in an irrational way. To do so would be to violate His very nature as well as the laws of the universe.
Another characteristic of the ideal world would be one that contained, as phrased by John Hick, an “epistemic distance” between God and man. This means that God must be hidden to the extent that man is not coerced or forced to perceive the reality of his Creator. Hick contends that God “must be knowable, but only by a mode of knowledge that involves a free personal response on man’s part” (317).
Warren summarized why our present world is ideal when he wrote:
It seems that when we arrive at the description of a world in which man could best live as a free and responsible person, that description fits the world we presently live in: it is one which provides man’s basic needs, it is teleological (created by God for the purpose of being a “vale of soul-making” for man); it is law-abiding (not chaotic and arbitrary), which it must be if it is to provide an environment for a rational, moral response by man (thus allowing the possibility of sin, pain, and suffering); it is challenging (allowing man to choose suffering over sin); and it is one which allows man to learn the things which he needs most to learn (including the possibility that man can learn the will of God). (54)
As Leibniz stated so long ago, this world is the best of all possible worlds. The world we know contains epistemic distance from God, we are free and not forced to perceive Him even though He is “not far from each of us” (Acts 17:27). Our world is law-abiding. It is challenging, and it provides for the basic needs of man.
Every instance of human suffering is necessary to contribute to man becoming a son and brother in the vale of soul-making. There must be the possibility of suffering, even prolonged and intense suffering, if man is going to live with free will in a world that follows natural laws and that is at an epistemic distance from God. In fact, it is often the case that human pain is actually a divine gift to man. Consider that sometimes pain may alert the sufferer to greater pain ahead, thus it keeps one from self-destruction. As Norman Geisler has stated, “In some sense, we need pain so that we are not overcome by the evil that we would choose were it painless. He alerts us to the fact that there are better things than misery” (Geisler and Brooks 67).
Many things cause the suffering of man:
1) Sometimes there is suffering due to the fact that people are careless. One may accidentally shoot oneself because they forgot to empty the gun of shells before cleaning it.
2) Sometimes there is suffering due to ignorance. A man may not know that the food he is eating has gone bad and that he will soon suffer intensely.
3) Man may suffer as a result of his own sin. Choosing to live a life of fornication will lead to mental anguish and possibly to disease.
4) Man may suffer as a result of someone else’s sin. Drunk drivers can kill and injure others; parents who have lived immorally may pass disease on to their innocent child.
5) Man may suffer as the result of natural calamities and disease. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, men contract disease. There is no explanation at which to point a finger.
6) Finally, the Bible teaches that men may suffer as the result of divine discipline (Hebrews 12).
Knowing that there are these various causes of suffering, many ask, “Why does God allow these things to happen? Why does He not stop them?” Again the answer is man having free will while living in this vale of soul-making created by God. Critics often cite monumental events such as occurred on September 11, 2001, or even the Holocaust of World War II as proof that there is no God. There was simply too much unnecessary human suffering. Yet, as Barry Leventhal points out, “Without God in the Holocaust in some fashion or another, the Nazis could have never been held accountable for their evil deeds, for there would have only been deeds, not evil deeds. Without God, there is no Lawful nor Moral accountability for one’s actions” (11).
It is necessary that the distribution seem random. It is necessary that the distribution seem egregious. Infants and other righteous ones must suffer just like the wicked (Matthew 5:45). Without all of this, man would not be in the ideal vale of soul-making and man would not be truly free.
God has chosen to share fellowship and love with His creation. In order for this love to be genuine, He had to design man with complete free will. This necessitated man living in the perfect environment (one in which God could be deduced via the evidence and one that allowed prolonged and intense suffering) and then choosing to lovingly submit to the will of God over sin. Thus to say that the God of the Bible, who is all-powerful and all-loving, exists even though evil exists is a reasonable statement. It is not evil that evil exists.
God is all-powerful. God is all-loving. Evil exists. The biblical theist can affirm all three statements without being guilty of a logical contradiction.
Thomas Bart Warren
Thomas Bart Warren did undergraduate work at Oklahoma Christian University and holds two graduate degrees from Freed-Hardeman University. He is the grandson of Thomas B. Warren and is Vice President of Warren Christian Apologetics Center. He serves as Associate Editor of Sufficient Evidence. Mr. Warren may be contacted at email@example.com.
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Warren, Thomas B. Have Atheists Proved There Is No God? Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1972.