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.

1 thought on “A Primer on the Problem of Evil

  1. Probably no one will see my note. Thanks for the encouraging message. Unfortunately my church teaches quite boldly your point: 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. They teach that God was pleased to arrange Adams sin (through secondary means of course) Yes it does lead to dispair, and one wonders the point prayer really has when you hear an over emphasis on God’s wrath and justice and His having predetermined everything since the foundation of the world.

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