A Primer on the Problem of Evil

One of the more frequent objections to Christianity is the problem of evil. Typically it’s phrased the following way: “If a good and loving God exists, why is does evil exist (i.e. the Holocaust and the terror attacks of September 11, 2011), why is there wide-spread suffering in the world (i.e. AIDS in Africa, Avian flu in Asia) and why does God allow natural disasters (i.e. hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes) to happen?”  Most people draw several conclusions from this dilemma, better known as theodicy:

1)      Either God is not good because if He was He would surely not allow evil to exist,

2)     He’s not powerful enough to stop evil and suffering, otherwise he would have done so by now,

3)     He’s actually the cause of evil and all religion is the ongoing source of evil and suffering in this world.

This often seems to be an Achilles heel when Christians declare the Gospel in the public arena, especially when coming in contact with tough-minded skeptics.  Atheists will challenge Christians with this problem all while ignoring the overwhelming amount of evil that has been done in the name of Atheism in the 20th century alone.  Either God is not good or not powerful enough to stop evil therefore He doesn’t exist.  After all, who would want to worship a god who is petty, unjust, malevolent, vindictive and fickle, or a racist, misogynistic, homophobic, genocidal maniac, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins.

In many discussions, I’ve found that something horrific has happened in the person’s life– and through they challenge you in the form of an intellectual question – their pain and hurt are palpable.  Diagnosing the situation takes work on your part: building trust, friendship and demonstrating genuine care for the person. In fact, sometimes un-believers ask this question to see if Christians really do care. Of course Christians care – having been freed from sin and death, we are free to serve the neighbor in mercy and compassion.  But, how would you respond in truth and love?

Some of the answers Christians usually give are hardly adequate or caring (much less true and faithful according to Scripture):

1)      God is punishing you for your sin.  Pat Robertson said this when New Orleans was hit by Katrina because they were such horrendous sinners and again when Haiti was struck by the earthquake because they allegedly made a pact with the devil.  What did Jesus say when the tower of Siloam fell and killed eighteen people: “were these Galileans worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2-3).

2)     Perhaps you’ve been suffering because you haven’t been praying enough; maybe you just need to have more faith.

3)     God has chosen some for election and some for damnation and our course in life – whether for good or ill. – has all been predestined. No wonder this leads either to Pharisaism or (more frequently) despair and unbelief.

But there are also significant logical problems with the argument made by unbelievers, namely, the existence of evil disproves the existence of God.  As Lawyer and Christian apologist, Craig Parton writes:

“Without an absolute moral standard (which the analytical philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein established is not possible without a transcendent source), one cannot speak of ‘evil’ save in a totally relative or culturally conditioned manner.  In short, one must presuppose an absolute standard to even employ the word ‘evil’ in a comprehensible fashion.  However, an absolute standard of morality is impossible unless God exists.  If there is no God, both good and evil are strictly relative concepts and by-products of cultural conditions and sociological-political-psychological factors.  If God does not exist, there is no ‘problem of evil.’  What is, is and no more can be said.”[1]

The fact that there is objectively moral evil in this world does not disprove Christianity’s truthfulness.  In fact, Christianity has the best explanation for the origin of evil, namely, in the acts of rebellious creatures, not their Creator.

“Evil entered the human condition as a result of a completely free moral choice by the creature to do his own will in direct contradiction to the edict of God Almighty.  The result was eternal separation from God, as well as suffering and death in this life [Genesis3].  Sin is irrational, however, and does not obey nice, clean rules of cause and effect (i.e. you get what you deserve).”[2]

Such deadly consequences lead many to wonder, “How long, O Lord?  When will You return and put an end to this suffering?”  Consider the words of St. Peter: “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9) for God desires that all men would be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). God is long-suffering for the sake of those who have yet to hear the Gospel.

Thankfully, the Biblical account does not end with man’s separation from God on account of sin.  God did not sit back and hope that fallen humanity would make the best of a world gone terribly wrong.  In Jesus Christ, death, the wages of sin and evil have been conquered and destroyed forever.  Seen through the Cross, the problem of evil is not a problem for Christianity; Christianity has the best (and only) solution to the problem of evil.

“Contrary to the attitude of benign resignation in eastern religions towards evil (the concept of karma and the essential unity of good and evil emasculate any real ability to aggressively counter the cause and effects of human evil and suffering), Christianity speaks of human depravity being so real and dreadful that it required the entrance into grainy human history by the sinless Son of God in order to make atonement.  Thus not only is evil condemned, but God Himself takes on the consequences of that evil in His very body.”[3]

God knows and understands exactly what we suffer here on earth better than we know it ourselves.  Jesus knew what it meant to suffer; He was unjustly treated, He bore the evil consequences of sinful men, innocently, unto death.  Furthermore, Christ has promised to return and upon that return there will be no more weeping, no more tears, no more pain or death.  Yes, in the mean time we live between the cross and the consummation of Christ’s return.  We don’t know how long the negative consequences of our sin will be allowed.  But we wait with confidence in Christ on the basis of what He has done for us – His death and resurrection – and has promised – His return.  “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

Not only does Christianity understand the true nature of evil, but more importantly, the true solution: Christ Crucified.  The problem of evil is so serious that God sent His only Son into the world, not to die for perfectly, deserving, worthy people but for sinners.  We have confidence precisely because God has made the most amazing efforts to help our situation even though He was not in any way obligated to do so.

“For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.  For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.  But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).


[1] Craig Parton.  Religion on Trial. Wipf and Stock: Eugene, OR, 2008. p. 79.

[2] Ibid, p. 80.

[3] Ibid, p. 80.

About Pastor Sam Schuldheisz

Pastor Schuldheisz serves as Pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Huntington Beach, CA. He graduated in 2004 from Concordia University Irvine. And he is a 2008 graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana. Pastor Schuldheisz is also blessed in marriage to his wife of 7 years, Natasha. Together they enjoy the blessings of parenthood with their daughter Zoe. And when he’s not writing sermons or changing diapers, he enjoys reading and writing about the works of the Inklings and other belletristic literature, and Christian apologetics. He’s even been known to answer to Pastor Samwise on occasion.


A Primer on the Problem of Evil — 16 Comments

  1. I believe it was Pat Robertson who made headlines claiming Haiti had made a pact with the devil, not Falwell.

  2. The LORD GOD had to remove the man and his wife from the Garden for their own benefit. Had they eaten of the tree of life in their separation from the LORD GOD they would be eternally fighting evil. Even in their ouster the LORD GOD clothed them ” And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. ”
    (Genesis 3:21 ESV)

    The first announcement of the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ ” I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring;
    he shall bruise your head,
    and you shall bruise his heel.”
    (Genesis 3:15 ESV)

    An old Jewish tradition oft repeated by Orthodox Rabbis ” The serpent was a walking furry creature. The LORD GOD took his skin and clothed the couple and turned the leftovers into the modern serpent .”


  3. Of course there is an option for explaining evil, that is the failure of the Promise of the Incarnation to yield the expected results, one that religious apologists rarely wish to consider. As God works according to His will, and that ‘will’ and His Promise or Word has been explained to humanity by an all too human and fallible theological process, it is highly likely that religion is simply false and has nothing to do with God. No more than institutional wishful thinking with a theological spin on it.

    If natural reason was capable of comprehending the mind of God there would be no reason or need to ‘Reveal’ anything? And two thousand years on, 30,000 different and competing denominations unable to agree about anything is hardly the stuff Truth is made of!
    No doubt He has his own plans to sort out the man made mess in his own way. I just wish He’d get started!

  4. I have heard liberal ‘Christian’ pastors proclaim that Christianity does not really have any answer to the problem of evil, and that we just have to trust God that He has an explanation. We need to teach our people the doctrine of the Atonement so that they can see how the story of the Creation, and the Fall, and the Passover, and the Law of Moses all relate to each other, and so that they will know that the orthodox Christian church has a very good set of answers. Just because it takes a little time to set it all out is no excuse for saying that answers don’t exist.

  5. Regarding “God is punishing you for your sin.”, there are many examples in the old testament where this is the case. When the Israelites turned to paganism, God allowed the neighboring nations to conquer and enslave the people. Rebellion, cruel punishment, and redemption were a constant cycle for the nation of Israel for centuries.

    On a personal level, recall the rebellion of Aaron and Miriam against Moses. Miriam was punished with leprosy. What happened when Korah challenged Moses? The earth swallowed him and his family. When Absalom rebelled against his father King David, he and his followers were ultimately killed. Noah cursed Ham and his descendants. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu were instantly killed for usurping the duties of the high priest.

    Why does God choose to help some suffering people while others are given nothing? If not for the quantity and/or quality of our works or amount of faith, on what basis, then, does God pick and choose whom He will help?

    I know not to think of God as a fast food employee, but on what basis do we deserve to ask Him anything?


    Finally, I thought Lutherans believed in predestination. Am I mistaken?

  6. I think you are correct. I haven’t had the time to go back and verify that for sure. But upon hearing that I definitely think you are right. Thanks

  7. Lutheran believe that people are predestined to be saved.
    They also believe that God has NOT predestined any to be lost.
    They are lost because they reject the gift of salvation won on the cross for all the world.

    God chose you from the beginning and gave you the gift of faith so that you can believe in Jesus Christ.
    Jesus came to the Jews first and most of them did not receive Him. It is no different now among the rest of us.
    It is as He said, “Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many go in thereat. Strait is the gate and narrow the way that leads to eternal life, and few there be that find it.”

    But never think that you are saved through the quantity or quality of your good works! Without faith, given by God, they would be of no value at all. With faith, you serve your neighbor with your good works, as we all should, but they do not save you.

  8. @Wallenstein #6
    “Regarding “God is punishing you for your sin.”, there are many examples in the old testament where this is the case. When the Israelites turned to paganism, God allowed the neighboring nations to conquer and enslave the people. Rebellion, cruel punishment, and redemption were a constant cycle for the nation of Israel for centuries.”

    Discipline and punishment both hurt, so it is understandable that we would confuse the two. But notice the intended result of the discipline that God sent to his people: their salvation. As the Confessions put it (in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession), “Hearts that do not feel God’s wrath, in their smugness spurn consolation.” (If we think we are not lost and don’t need to be saved, then we don’t want to hear anything about Christ on the cross. When the Law has done its job of driving us to our knees in repentance, only then do we cling with faith to the cross of Christ!)

    God’s alien work of terrifying us with his law prepares us to receive the good news with joy that he has saved us through his Son Jesus Christ! When He causes grief, as Jeremiah says (Lamentations 3:32), Then He will have compassion according to His abundant lovingkindness.

    While we might suffer the consequences of our own sin, and while God certainly disciplines those whom he loves, God is never punishing us for our sin; he already punished Jesus for us! “It is finished!”

  9. @Wallenstein #6

    John 9:2-3 particularly verse 3. “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

    So yes, sometimes people are punished, feeling the wrath of the Law. Sometimes they are comforted, displaying the mercy of Christ. God’s ways are not our ways. We will not always know why things are. We just need to trust His perfect Will is always accomplished, for His glory and our salvation.

  10. Lutherans teach the predestination of the Scriptures: if you’re in heaven it’s all Christ’s doing. And if you’re in hell, it’s all your fault. It’s not nice and logical like TULIP, but it’s Biblical.

  11. “”The theology of glory is the theology of fallen Adam, who, being “like God,” experiences the creation through the categories of good and evil. He does not trust God’s Word but relies on his own reason and senses. He moves from the seen to the unseen, judging God by what he sees and experiences. This is how Eve rationalized her rebellion: She sensed that the forbidden fruit was good for food; she saw that it was pleasing to the eye; she reasoned that it was desirable for gaining wisdom. And so she and Adam “bit into” a way of doing theology that sets the creature over and against the Creator. With eyes wide open, they saw themselves as autonomous creatures, independent of God, having no need to take God at his word and trust him. They were self-enlightened, self- sufficient, self-aware, self-actualized-their own persons and their own gods. The theology of glory is the natural theology of fallen humanity, centered in the self.
    The theology of the cross is the theology of Jesus Christ, the second Adam, who lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. His glory is the cross; his death is his hour of power. The theology of the cross sees the glory of God hidden under the suffering and death of the Son of God. The cross of Christ is the starting point and the focal point for all theological thinking, comprehending the visible and manifest things of God through Christ’s suffering and his cross. Centered in the cross of Christ, the theology of the cross is uniquely positioned to deal with suffering and death.””

  12. Pastor Schuldheisz this issue is so important. I especially understanding the difference between God’s discipline and punishment that Pastor Crandall mentioned. Makes me want to do an in-depth bible study on this subject. I believe many struggle with these things and we need to be able to give people not only comfort but clarity. Many fall away because of an improper understanding of these two.

    My daughter-in-law did and is now very bitter towards Christ and Christianity. She needs so much healing and God’s word to be explained to her. Satan has driven a wedge into her heart between the only one who truly can heal her. The Lord Jesus Christ. What he did by coming to earth and dying for her is the only things that will make her truly whole.

    Pastor Cwirla your paper goes very well with this subject. There are answers but sometimes all we can do is trust our loving savior when those answers don’t make allot of sense.

  13. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to faith is paying attention. For when we pay attention, we see God as he really is, not as we may have been told that he is. And what we see is not love, not compassion, not mercy, but rather contempt, disdain, and hostility toward humankind. God “forms the hearts of men”, and yet chooses to form them for evil. God chooses that children should be abused, that the powerless should be exploited and tortured, and that this should continue from generation to generation. God created Satan, and sets the bounds within which Satan works. Is it for God’s perverse amusement that bullies and liars prevail everywhere? All of the explanations offered here are as chaff at the winnowing. The grain is the reality that we suffer continuously in this world. And God looks down from his throne and laughs at our impotence to change anything he has ordained.

  14. @Solveig #4

    “Can we not use the term ‘theo-idiocy’?” That is a good place to begin. Examining whether theology is a valid human intellectual project is an important question. The whole of what is called ‘Christianity’ is founded upon the presumption that natural reason is capable of comprehending the mind of God through the interpretation of the scriptural record. Yet that record itself may not itself even be complete! Do we have a revelation or an all too human theological counterfeit of a revelation. The means to answer that question may very well be what a judgement is all about.

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