Common Objections Answered: The Problem of Evil
The “problem of evil,” briefly stated, goes like this: The Bible teaches that God is good and just (James 1:12-18; Ps. 111:7), and at the same time all-knowing and all-powerful, i.e., sovereign (Is. 45:7; Ps. 95:3-5; 115:3; Acts 17:24-26). Such a God would want to prevent all evil and is surely able to do so. However, there is much evil in the world. Therefore God is either able to prevent it (sovereign) but unwilling (not good); or willing (good) but unable (not sovereign). On this view, there is a contradiction within the Bible’s teaching about God. The Bible is therefore not reliable. The God of the Bible cannot exist.
This argument has been around a long time. It was already present in the ancient world, applied to their many gods. The Greek philosopher, Epicurus (3-4th century BC) expressed it clearly. Many unbelieving philosophers have taken it up since then. It has worked its way into popular thinking: “I can’t believe in a God who would allow such atrocities as...” Many regard it as an infallible proof that Christianity is false. It is probably the “best” argument that unbelievers have in their arsenal. Yet for all that, it is weak and seriously flawed.
Christians have made many attempts over the centuries to show how flawed is this argument from the existence of evil. The church father Irenaeus (2nd century AD) argued that evil was necessary for spiritual growth. Augustine (4-5th century AD) reasoned that evil was not a thing, but the absence of something. God could therefore not be charged with the creation of evil, since it is not a thing.
Prior to that, Greek philosophy had persuaded many that matter was evil. They struggled to see how a good God could personally create matter. This view even affected some of the church fathers. That is probably why Arius (3rd-4th century AD) denied that Christ is divine: He could then create the world without God “getting His hands dirty” with matter, avoiding that aspect of the problem of evil – as it was seen at that time. Arius’ views on Christ went on to influence the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who deny the divinity of Christ.
Because of the frequency with which this issue arises, it is important for the believer to know the argument and how to deal with it. If you can master this one, you should be able to handle most of what will be thrown at you. That is not to say that the Christian can answer every question that might arise concerning evil. For example, we will not often be in a position to explain the specific reason why God ordained a particular tragedy, crime or sin. Nor will we be able to explain precisely how predestination works, or how man can still operate as a free agent, without free will and under God’s predestination. We can, however, make a satisfactory defence in general terms:
- If the unbeliever would win this argument over the problem of evil, he would be left with a world in which the evil remains, but with no hope of redemption. There would be no hope of final justice. The problem that evil exists would remain with man – a hopeless situation. “Winning” this argument – if he could – gets man nowhere. It would leave him in a worse position.
- God has always shown Himself thoroughly opposed to evil. From the beginning, He forbade sin and warned of dire consequences from it (Gen. 3:3). When Adam and Eve fell into sin, He followed through with those consequences. He has continued to forbid and punish sin ever since, bringing both temporal and eternal consequences. He has redeemed His elect from sin. He turns evil to good. Eventually He will banish every last trace of evil from the world, at the same time balancing the scales of justice. Moral evil has not been done by God, but by man. What men call evil today is a mixture of moral evil perpetrated by those opposing God and just consequences coming upon a rebellious world.
- A distinction must be made between the doing of evil and the predestining of it. God does not do evil. He does predestine it. As I mentioned, we may not know the precise reasons why He predestines particular evils, but we do know the ultimate reason: it is for His glory. In fact, the Christian defines moral evil as hostility to the glory of God. On that definition, God’s predestination of evil cannot be evil, for He predestines everything for His own ultimate glory. Men and devils, however, frequently act in opposition to God’s glory. They are the doers of evil.
- This is seen most clearly in the evil perpetrated by those who crucified Christ. According to Lk. 22:22, Acts 2:23 and 4:28, these actions were predestined by God. He predestined it for very good reason: His glory and the salvation of sinners. Those who crucified the Son of God were, however, held accountable. The same dynamics apply to other lesser crimes and sins.
- Trying to explain away the “problem of evil” by introducing the idea of man’s original “free will” is not helpful. First, because man’s freedom is always under God’s predestination. Second, because unbelievers will still hold God culpable if He is able to prevent evil, but decides not to – say, to preserve man’s free will. They will argue that surely a sovereign God could have found some way to prevent evil without harming man’s free will.
- The unbeliever is not actually in any position to judge God in any matter, let alone in questions of good and evil. Man cannot judge the “secret things” (Dt. 29:29). He cannot see the final outcomes. He does not know all the reasons why God predestines evils. He does not know how predestination works. He is simply not in a position to judge God’s ways. The question of the apostle Paul is very relevant here: “O man, who answers back to God?” (Rom. 9:20). People will sometimes reply that if that is so, why does God put within man a sense of right and wrong, of justice and so on? But the problem is that men try to make their finite and fallible sense of such things the bench-mark for judging God.
Greg Bahnsen, in his helpful book, Always Ready, makes the point that the unbeliever is actually the one with the problem of evil. For the non-Christian argument depends on the premise that there is evil in the world. But the unbeliever has denied the only proper basis for defining objective evil. He has defined evil in a subjective and relativistic way. He cannot prove that evil exists, only that things happen that he (and others) don’t like. In a sense, he is attacking God by borrowing absolutes from the Bible. To use C. Van Til’s analogy, he is like the little child who must stand on his father’s lap in order to reach up to slap him in the face. This is where the Christian must really press upon the unbeliever: “You ask how a good God can permit evil? Well, from where do you get your idea of good and evil? You refuse to accept the Bible’s definition of evil as judging your own life, but you want to use an absolute definition of good/evil to judge God!”
Bahnsen goes on to point out that the Christian presupposes that God is both good and sovereign, for that is what the Bible teaches. We therefore see God’s predestination of evil as good in itself, and for a good reason – even though we don’t know all the specifics. The real problem is that the unbeliever examines things from a different presupposition. He refuses to trust the Lord unless he knows all His reasons. He trusts himself, his own moral sense and reasoning powers, more than he trusts God. The “problem of evil” is not really a logical or philosophical problem for the Christian. It is merely another expression of lack of faith on the part of the unbeliever.
These things need to be said to the unbeliever who raises the “problem of evil.” He needs to be challenged as to his basic presupposition, that there is no God, or that God has not spoken an infallible Word. He needs to be challenged as to the meaninglessness and hopelessness of a world where there is no God, no absolute truth and no hope of a remedy for evil. He needs then to be told the gospel that offers the only hope, the only solution to the unbeliever problem of evil. That gospel provides a solution only because it is given to us by a God Who is perfectly good and sovereign, uncompromised by the problem of evil.