If God’s so good, then why do bad things happen? Why would a good God allow so much pain and suffering- or for that matter, why would a good God allow any pain and suffering at all?
What we’ve just stumbled upon is known as The Problem of Evil and it’s been around ever since the first human stubbed their toe- maybe even before that!
The problem goes like this: If God is all knowing, if He is all powerful, and if He is all good, then He’d have to stop any and all instances of evil before they happen, wouldn’t He? He would know about all evil if He’s all knowing, He would be able to stop all evil if He’s all powerful, and He would want to stop all evil if He’s all good. Therefore, since God exists, there should be no evil, right? But evil does exist. So, since evil exists, then God must not.
Well, not so fast. In order to wrestle with and do justice to this problem, we need to do the initial groundwork of defining our terms.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY ‘EVIL’?
Evil: significant pain and suffering.
Moral evil: significant pain and suffering intentionally prompted by a moral agent.
Moral Agent: a self-conscious person capable of moral and immoral action.
Natural evil: natural disasters and diseases which result in destruction, pain, suffering, loss of life. Not prompted by moral agents. (for instance, if a mad scientist creates a tornado to destroy a town, that would not count as natural evil, it would instead be an instance of moral evil.)
Gratuitous Evil: instances of evil which have no purpose; purposeless evil.
With these definitions in hand, let’s analyze the problem of evil. Initially, we might point out that atheistic worldviews, those which don’t believe that there is a God, will have a difficult time actually defining evil. Since they don’t believe in a transcendent, all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing Law-Giver like God, it’s hard for them to make sense of a transcendent, objective, and binding moral law. Without an objective and binding moral law, who’s to say what’s evil or good? It’s hard to see how an atheist view of the world allows room for objective morality and intrinsic human dignity. This point can be, has been, and should be pressed by theists.
But, while we might be tempted to overplay this definitional point against the atheist, turnabout is fair game! Meaning that, although the atheist might have a difficult time even making sense of the problem of evil based on their own worldview, for the theist who believes in God and His objective and binding moral law, the question of evil is fair game. For theists, moral evil is called “sin” and natural evil is still within the purview of God’s “providence” (guiding control). So, we theists still need to propose a defense against the problem of evil.
As we set out to defend against the problem of evil from a Christian-theistic worldview, it’s important for us to consider what philosopher-theologian, John Feinberg, notes in his book The Many Faces of Evil, namely that there is no single “problem of evil”. The problem of evil actually turns out to be a family of problems and can more accurately be described as the problems of evil.
PROBLEMS OF EVIL
Problems of evil arise in various forms. There are logical or deductive problems of evil which seek to demonstrate an internal contradiction in the theist’s worldview, and therefore prove that there is no God. This problem is posed in the form of a deductive argument like the following one:
I. God is omnipotent (all-powerful)
II. God is omniscient (all-knowing)
III. God is omnibenevolent (all or wholly good)
IV. God is omnicompetent (conjunction of I-III)
V. If the omnicompetent God exists, then there would be no evil in the world.
VI. There is evil in the world.
VII. Therefore, the omnicompetent God does not exist.
There are also evidential or inductive problems of evil which seek to demonstrate that the vast weight of the evidence of evil in the world leads to the conclusion that there probably is no God. This is a weaker conclusion than the deductive problem.
There are also various other types of problems of evil which can be posed in either deductive or evidential arguments against the existence of God.
Problems of moral evil ask: if God really existed, why would God allow moral agents to be so, well… immoral? And there are problems of natural evil which ask: why would God allow natural disasters or diseases to cause so much pain, suffering, destruction, and loss of both human and animal life, if He really existed?
There are also problems of the amount of evil which ask: why would God allow so much evil in the world if He really existed. Even if He had some sort of reason for allowing some evil, certainly He wouldn’t have to allow so much!
Then there’s the problem of gratuitous evil which focuses in on “purposeless” evil. Maybe a theist, might be able to argue that God has a purpose for allowing certain instances of evil in the world, but aren’t there are some examples of evil that are just pure brute evil, evil for which there is no justifying purpose? Think about the very real possibility that a tree could be struck by lightning, catch fire and fall on some poor random deer. That very well may have happened at least once in the history of the world. What purpose could that possibly have? If none, then perhaps this problem of gratuitous evil is evidence against the existence of God, which would be classified as an evidential problem of evil. Or, put more strongly, perhaps this purposeless evil can be used in a deductive gratuitous problem of evil to show that since there is purposeless evil, God does not exist.
Lastly, there are religious problems of evil, which ask questions like “how could God allow this to happen to me?” These are more personal and existential problems that arise specifically when an individual’s circumstances clash with their theology. For instance, when someone finds out that their nephew has Leukemia they might think something like: “my brother is a pastor and yet his son was diagnosed with Leukemia right before his first birthday, how could the God I serve allow that?” Among these religious problems we could also include the problem of hell, which asks: if God is so good, how could He punish His image bearers for an eternity in hell?
Each of these problems pop up differently in different theological systems. So, one’s theology will shape one’s response to the specific problem of evil which they uniquely face. But what most Christian responses to the problems of evil have in common is an appeal to some greater-good defense, that is, that God has some morally sufficient reason for allowing evil to exist. Perhaps there is a morally sufficient reason for God to allow certain evils in order for His good purposes to be achieved. Perhaps God had to allow certain evils in order to achieve said evils’ antecedent goods or subsequent goods. Or perhaps God is using such evils to bring about an even greater good. These greater-good defenses come in all different shapes and sizes:
The Best-Possible-World Defense: God has created the best possible world that He could have, and in order for there to be some of the goods that God wanted to create, there had to be some evil as well, but all in all, it’s better for Him to have created, even with evil, than for Him to not have created anything good at all.
The Free-Will Defense: God made created-persons in order to have a loving relationship with Him. Love requires free choice and cannot be coerced if it is to be genuine love. So, God gave angels and humans free-will. With free-will comes the ability to love God or turn from God in love of self. Satan abused his free-will and fell into sin, and in turn, he coerced humans into doing the same. Evil is thus the result of free-will, but a world with free-will is still a better world than a world without it.
The Privation Defense: a subset of the free-will defense, this defense says that evil is a corruption of the good. God is responsible for the good that happens in the world, but not the lack of good that happens in the world. Free creatures have the ability to corrupt the good into evil, and while evil is parasitic on the good, a world with the possibility of the corruption of good plus free will is still a better world than a world without free-will.
The Character-Building/Soul-Making Defense: God created mankind good, but incomplete, not perfect, immature. In order for mankind to grow in character, perfection, and/or reach completion, humans need to endure hardships, trials, tribulations, and overcome them, including evil. No pain, no gain! Evil itself is literally a necessary evil if God wants to obtain the greater-good of having morally, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually mature human persons.
The Stable-Environment Defense: God designed us to function in the reality He created. In order for us to operate properly, there have to be laws which govern nature and make reality stable and predictable. There has to be cause and effect. God gave us a stable environment external to us with regularities but he also gave us pain receptors and various sense organs in order to help us navigate our stable environments and avoid damaging our bodies. But this stable environment means that God won’t intervene every time we are about to stub our toes. Imagine the chaos if every time a carpenter was about to accidentally smash his thumb, his hammer turned into a rubber ducky. Or if every time someone wanted to curse someone out, only nice words came out. Or if every time someone wanted to cause harm they were prevented from doing so. That may sound good at first, but proponents of this defense argue that God’s constant intervention would actually destroy both our stable environment and our ability to reason and make predictions in it, and they argue that if God constantly intervened to stop malicious actions, speech, and thoughts, then human free-will would be destroyed.
The Felix Culpa Theodicy: some philosophers and theologians distinguish between a ‘defense’ and a ‘theodicy’. On this conception, a ‘defense’ merely seeks to give a possible reason for how evil and God could both coexist and a theodicy seeks to give the specific reason for why God does allow evil. A defense might argue that there’s a morally sufficient reason for God to permit evil, a theodicy seeks to give that morally sufficient reason. According to the felix culpa theodicy, the morally sufficient reasons for which God allows evil are the infinite goods of Incarnation and Atonement. A world with evil is a world with the possibility for the atoning work of Jesus on the cross and his incarnation which makes atonement possible. The best world, is a world where sinful creatures are offered redemption and salvation from their sins.
The Christocentric Greater-Good Defense: similar to the felix culpa above, the Christocentric Greater-Good Defense puts Christ at the center. At the Cross of Christ, we see that God used the greatest evil in cosmic history, the wrongful conviction and crucifixion of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, in order to bring about the greatest good in all of human history, Salvation for anyone who repents and trusts in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins. God used the worst evil ever in order to bring about the greatest good ever, reconciliation between God and man, the redemption of God’s very own image bearers. But we are also told in Romans 8 that God won’t stop at redeeming mankind, but that all of Creation will be set free from their bondage to corruption as well. A redeemed humanity needs a redeemed world to live in. Now if God could intend the greatest evil for the greatest good, then of course He has a morally sufficient reason for the evil He allows in our lives. If He’s done it with the worst evil, then He can bring about a greater-good from lesser evils like the ones we have in mind.
Greater-Goods Vs. Gratuitous Evil
Gratuitous evil, or purposeless evil, seems to pose an immediate problem for greater-good defenses. What about evils that have no purpose, no greater goods to justify them, no subsequent or antecedent good which make them necessary? Many Christians argue that gratuitous evil isn’t a special problem for their defense against evil, but others do. Either way, a Christian can respond to the problem of gratuitous evil by arguing that we can’t know that there really are any cases of truly gratuitous, purposeless evil. Sure, it might seem to us that there is no purpose or even possible purpose for God to allow a given instance of apparently gratuitous evil, but in order for us to know for sure that He, an all-powerfully good God, truly has no morally sufficient purpose, we
would have to be omniscient ourselves. Ironically, we would have to be God in order for us to know that there is no purpose God could have for allowing an instance of apparently purposeless evil.
Although a good Christian defense to various problems of evil ought to pull from several of the defenses given above, at the end of the day, every Christian defense ought to point to the cross and God’s mercy towards sinners, God’s hatred for sin and evil, God’s willingness to endure the greatest evil and indignation Himself in the person of Jesus Christ on the cross, and God’s own sovereignty over sin. God has a plan to bring about a greater good and God’s plan cannot be thwarted. God continually uses evil to destroy itself, and so we remember the cross, where God publicly displayed the death of death and the beginning of the end for evil. This is a God we can lean on in the face of evil.