God and the Problem of Evil

Category: Bible/Christian Worldview 133 1

The existence of evil is one of the biggest problems faced by a Christian worldview. It is perhaps the main reason why so many people do not believe in Jesus Christ. C.S. Lewis summarized the problem well when he said, “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.” He continues, “This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form.”[1]

Theologian Millard Erickson notes that the problem of evil “is a very severe problem, perhaps the most severe of all the intellectual problems facing theism.”[2] This is true, and it is why Christians must have a coherent, logical, and biblical response to the problem. In this article, the problem of evil will be discussed within a biblical worldview.

Evil and the Fall of Man

To begin any study of the problem of evil, a Christian must start at the beginning. A couple of definitions will help. Evil has been divided into two different kinds. The first is moral evil which “is evil that arises from human or angelic actions.”[3] John Frame refers to moral evil as “sin, the transgression of God’s law (1 John 3:4).”[4]

The second is natural evil which includes earthquakes, famines, disease, tornadoes, and other types of suffering that do not necessarily arise from direct human or angelic deeds. John Stuart Mill says of natural evil:

Nature impales men, breaks them as if on the wheel, casts them down to be devoured by wild beasts, burns them to death…starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold, poisons them…Even when she does not intend to kill, she inflicts the same tortures in apparent wantonness…A single hurricane destroys the hopes of a season; a flight of locusts, or an inundation, desolates a district; a trifling chemical change in an edible root starves a million of people.[5]

The question that needs to be answered is why God allows either of these to occur in a world that he proclaimed “very good” (Genesis 1:31, NIV). How do we reconcile the divine sovereignty of God with the pain and suffering that we experience on a day-to-day basis?

Genesis 3:14-19 presents us with part of the answer. It is here that the biblical narrative teaches us that God cursed the world because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. This is when sin and evil entered the world. This means that evil is a punishment for our rebellion against our Creator. Romans 8:19-25 adds to this that sin has affected the subhuman world as well since creation moans because of the curse. However, the same passage teaches that it will be liberated from this curse at the return of Christ.

Sin has corrupted everything in our world. Albert Wolters says, “The effects of sin touch all of creation; no created thing is in principle untouched by the corrosive effects of the fall.”[6] He continues, “all evil and perversity in the world is ultimately the result of humanity’s fall, of its refusal to live according to the good ordinances of God’s creation.”[7]

Douglas Moo adds, “[Creation] has ‘been subjected to frustration.’ In light of Paul’s obvious reference to the Gen. 3 narrative – Murray labels these verses ‘Paul’s commentary on Gen. 3:17, 18’ – the word probably denotes the ‘frustration’ occasioned by creation’s being unable to attain the ends for which it was made. Humanity’s fall into sin marred the ‘goodness’ of God’s creation, and creation has ever since been in a state of ‘frustration.’”[8]

Genesis 3:17-19 and Romans 8:19-25 explicitly teach that natural evil occurs because of mankind’s sin. Earthquakes, disease, and the like cause mayhem throughout the world because they are a punishment for our sins.

This illustration shows the typical argument for the problem of evil.

Explaining the Existence of Moral Evil

Although Scripture is clear in explaining why God allows natural evil, there is another bigger problem that the Bible does not give a straight answer to (or at least it does not seem to). That problem is why did God even allow mankind to have the ability to sin in the first place? If he is all-loving and all-powerful then why did he allow us to have the possibility of doing evil?

N.T. Wright, who notes that evil is “an intruder into God’s good creation” says almost immediately after this statement, “The Bible simply doesn’t appear to want to say what God can say about evil.”[9] According to him and others, Scripture does not give a clear statement for why God allows moral evil. However, this is incorrect if one looks closely at the overall narrative of the Bible. An answer does appear.

There have been a number of possible explanations for why God allows evil. One popular explanation is what is often called the “best possible world” model. It is thought that this is the best possible world that God could have created. Otherwise, he would have made things better. This is why God allows moral evil.

However, Scripture teaches that God will create a new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:1), which will be sinless. This makes it clear that God can create a better world, so the “best possible world” model is not biblical. It is also worth pointing out that many scholars doubt that a “best possible world” could even exist (we could always imagine a better world even while living in a sinless paradise).

Another possible explanation is that an orderly universe needs evil. Some teach that to have an orderly and functional universe we need some amount of evil. The problem is that the new heaven and new earth will be orderly yet without evil so this model also fails biblically.

Third, we have the “soul-making” model. This teaches that God allows evil and suffering in order to make us better people. This is an interesting point-of-view, but Scripture teaches that humanity was “very good” from the beginning. This seems to imply that there was never a need for “soul-making.” Mankind’s fall into sin is what caused all the problems.

Libertarian Free Will

The most common explanation for the existence of moral evil is that God has given mankind free will, and they have misused their free will to rebel against him. There are two different views of free will. The first is called libertarian free will. The second is known compatibilism. Let’s examine both and see how each handles the problem of evil in relationship to Scripture.

Libertarian free will has been a very popular view throughout church history. It was accepted by Augustine who explained it by saying:

If man is a good, and cannot act rightly unless he wills to do so, then he must have free will, without which he can not act rightly. We must not believe that God gave us free will so that we might sin, just because sin is committed through free will. It is sufficient for our question, why free will should have been given to man, to know that without it man cannot live rightly…[Divine punishment for sin] would be unjust if free will had not been given not only that man might live rightly, but also that he might sin. For how could a man justly incur punishment who used free will to do the thing for which it was given? When God punishes a sinner, does He not seem to say, ‘Why have you not used free will for the purpose for which I gave it to you, to act rightly’? Then too, if man did not have free choice of will, how could there exist the good according to which it is just to condemn evildoers and reward those who act rightly?…Both punishment and reward would be unjust if man did not have free will.[10]

Alvin Plantinga, one of the most well-known advocates of the free will defense, explains it in the following manner:

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…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. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.[11]

He continues:

The heart of the Free Will Defense is the claim that it is possible that God could not have created a universe containing moral good…without creating one that also contained evil…It therefore follows that it was not within God’s power to create a world in which…[there is] moral good but no moral evil.[12]

Libertarian free will teaches a number of things according to Augustine and Plantinga. First, how can people be good without free will? Second, we cannot live a righteous life without freedom. Third, divine punishment and blessing are not possible without being free. In fact, punishment would be unjust. Fourth, God cannot determine a person’s actions so he can do only good deeds. Fifth, God can prevent moral evil only if he prevented moral good. Sixth, it is possible that God cannot create a world where only good existed.

In the view of libertarianism, evil exists because people decided to use their free will to rebel against God. This is consistent with the teaching of Scripture. Libertarian free will also teaches that if there is any kind of determinism at all, then God would be the author of evil. Thus, at least part of the idea of libertarian free will is an attempt for Christians to explain the existence of evil without putting the blame on God. In libertarianism, the existence of evil was a risk God was willing to take in order to honor human responsibility and freedom. It is even believed that God limits his sovereignty and power in order to allow human freedom. This model solves the theological problems of evil. It explains why mankind experiences pain and suffering in the world.

The popular view of free will.

The Problems of Libertarian Free Will

However, libertarianism does have some problems. One of the biggest problems is that it has a difficult time conforming with the biblical teachings on God’s foreknowledge and predictive prophecy. If we are free in the libertarian sense, then God could not predict the future because what we do with our free will could never be known beforehand.[13]

Is this consistent with what we see in Scripture? Does the God of the Bible not have exhaustive foreknowledge of the future? Think of all the prophecies in the Bible (the books of Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jesus’ teaching in the Olivet Discourse, etc.). What about the prophecies concerning Christ? Does God only get lucky when he predicts that a person will do something?

A closer look at the topic of predictive prophecy shows something very profound. I will examine Isaiah 41-48 for this article. These chapters give us many instances where God actually challenges the pagan gods (see for example 41:21-26, 42:8-9, 43:8-13, 44:6-8 among others). Sam Storms summarizes these passages and God’s challenge:

These chapters are, in a manner of speaking, a challenge by God to the pagan deities: put up or shut up! That is to say, God proves his deity, that he and he alone is God, by appealing to his exhaustive foreknowledge of the future and his ability to predict to the smallest of details everything that is coming to pass…if God does not have knowledge of the future, he is no better than the stone and wood idols before which misguided men and women bow down in futile allegiance.[14]

Concerning God’s prediction of the Babylonian exile and the restoration of Israel under Cyrus (who is mentioned by name in 44:28 about 150 years before he was born), Storms needs to be quoted at length to understand the full force of what this means for libertarian freedom:

Remember also that the destruction of Babylon was an event that encompassed hundreds of thousands, perhaps hundreds of millions (who can calculate?) of human decisions and actions, and countless consequences to each. In order for the captives to be released by Cyrus, there must have been a mother and father who decided to give birth to a child whose life would be filled with thousands of decisions that would culminate in his being at the right place at the right time (all of which must itself have been brought to pass by thousands of decisions and actions of perhaps thousands of other people). Furthermore, for the Jews to be released from captivity they first had to be taken captive. For this to occur, the Babylonians had to have decided to invade Jerusalem. Countless military decisions and maneuvers were involved on both sides of the battle lines.[15]

Storms continues:

The point is this: for God to foreknow and predict the fall of Babylon and the release of the people through Cyrus, God must have foreknown countless thousands, perhaps millions, of other events and choices on which the fall and release depended. No event ever occurs in a vacuum or stands in isolation from other events. Any single event in history is itself both the product of and the precursor to a complex web of countless millions of other events. How could one foreknow infallibly the certainty of any one event apart from infallible foreknowledge of every preceding event that in its own way contribute to that one event coming to pass and apart from which that one event would not come to pass?[16]

It is clear that God is not only getting lucky with his predictions. He is not limiting his sovereignty to be compatible with human freedom as some may want to believe. God knows well beforehand what decisions every person is going to make. This causes a major difficulty for libertarian free will. If God knows our future choices, then this would indicate that perhaps we are not as free as we think we are (or want to be).

There are other problems with libertarian free will as well. It is often thought that moral good could not exist without the existence of evil. However, this runs into difficulties with the new heaven and new earth. Like the other models mentioned earlier (soul-making, best possible world, etc.) the eternal state is a problem for libertarianism. How could God not only predict the new earth but sustain it when human beings have libertarian freedom? If God cannot know or determine in any way how people are going to behave then how could he predict a day when he will create a world with no sin?

The early church father Origen took libertarian free will so seriously that he believed that God could not create a sinless paradise as Scripture foretells. John Frame says of Origen and his belief, “Nevertheless, even universal salvation [which Origen believed] will not bring the redemptive drama to an end. Even in heaven, men and angels will still have free will. So God will not be able to prevent them from falling again, and history might then have to continue on to another cycle of redemption.”[17]

If we are consistent with Scripture at all, then we should understand that this kind of thinking does not stand well with the hope of the Gospel. How can God promise salvation if people are completely free in every way imaginable?

There is also the problem that humanity cannot choose to follow God. Paul, in Romans 8:7-8, specifically mentions that “the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.” Unbelievers are not free in the libertarian way to choose anything they want. They are slaves to sin. One could argue that since Christians are free from sin, then they have libertarian free will. However, this prompts the question “How can some people have libertarian freedom while others do not?”

The simple fact is that libertarian free will is not a perfect solution to the problem of evil. It has its strengths, but also its weaknesses. What about the second option brought earlier? What is compatibilism?

Compatibilism

Scott Christensen describes compatibilism for us when he says:

The biblical view that divine determinism is compatible with human free will. There is a dual explanation for every choice that humans make. God determines human choices, yet every person freely makes his or her own choices. God’s causal power is exercised so that he never coerces people to choose as they do, yet they always choose according to his sovereign plan. People are free when they voluntarily choose according to their most compelling desires and as long as their choices are made in an unhindered way. While God never hinders one’s choices, other factors can hinder people’s freedom and thus their responsibility. Furthermore, moral and spiritual choices are conditioned on one’s base nature, whether good or evil (i.e., regenerate or unregenerate). In this sense, one is either in bondage to his or her sin nature or freed by a new spiritual nature.[18]

Compatibilism teaches that God’s sovereignty and human free will are compatible. That is, we are free in our choices, yet God knows the future and even determines them. There are numerous places in Scripture that present this kind of push-and-pull.

A couple of examples will suffice. Joseph’s brothers intended evil in selling him into slavery, yet God intended it for good. His brothers made a choice to sell Joseph into slavery, yet God also made a choice to send Joseph to Egypt (Genesis 45:4ff). Leviticus 20:7-8 tells the Israelites to keep God’s commands to be holy. Yet, in the same breath, God says that he is the one who sanctifies the Israelites. Which is it? Does God do it or do the Israelites. It is both. Paul embraces his responsibility in 1 Corinthians 15:10, yet he also understands that God is also working in him.

There are other examples as well. People have made many choices throughout history. Many of these included decisions where a man would move his family from one place to another. Paul, however, teaches that God “determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live” (Acts 17:26). Don’t forget that we are Romans 8:7-8 which was brought up earlier. We are sinners, and our minds are hostile to God. We are not free to follow God with all our hearts. The biggest problem with compatibilism is that it is difficult to comprehend. How can both determinism and freedom be true at the same time? Yet, we have many places in the Bible that teach this very thing. If true, it is up there with topics such as “How can God be one and three at the same time (the Trinity)?” or “Where did God come from?” Our human minds simply cannot understand them yet Scripture teaches them.

Compatibilism and the Problem of Evil

What can compatibilism teach us about the problem of evil? First, it still teaches that mankind is free in their choice to rebel against God. That means that evil came into the world because of humanity’s fall into sin as Genesis teaches. At the same time, there is another component to it as well.

God knew and allowed this to happen for his purposes. Frame summarizes this well when he says, “It is certainly true that when God brings pain and suffering upon people, he has a good purpose…And in a context dealing with the sufferings of Christians, Paul says that ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him’ (Rom. 8:28). Recognizing and affirming this principle is an essential element in any Christian response to the problem of evil.”[19]

One could call this a version of the Greater Good model of the problem of evil, and it fits very well with compatibilism. This model teaches that without some evil in the world then some things that are good could not exist or be realized. These include courage, patience, compassion, justice, and even redemption.

In the Bible, God uses evil in different ways to bring out good. Examples include to enable Christians to comfort others (2 Cor. 1:3-7), to redirect a believer’s attention to what is most important (Ps. 37), to give believers great joy when their suffering is replaced by glory (1 Peter 4:13), and others.

Christensen makes an excellent point when he says, “If evil provided no foil for righteousness to prevail, life would sink into a hollow impassivity. This explains why the redemptive triumph of Christ over all diabolical powers becomes the greatest narrative in history.”[20] Christ’s victory over evil could never have happened if not for the fall of man.

This also has a profound effect on the new heaven and new earth. Think about how much more we will appreciate and enjoy a sinless world after feeling the effects of sin for a short time. Frame continues this thought by saying:

And when we look back upon our sufferings in this world, they will seem small to us as well, ‘not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom. 8:18). It is then that we will see how God has worked in all things for our good (Rom. 8:28). Paul, who underwent much more suffering than most of us, even says that ‘our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all’ (2 Cor. 4:17).”[21]

The fact that God is working for our good should teach us that even the evil in this world is not out of his hand. God is in perfect control. This fact, along with the new heaven and new earth and the greater-good defense, may give us the answer to the problem of evil. Perhaps a life with suffering will allow the new earth to be that much better. This will bring glory to God in ways we can’t imagine in this life. We should trust God in that regard.

Conclusion

The problem of evil is a complex one. Scripture teaches that evil and suffering exist because mankind freely chose to rebel against his Creator. As a result, all pain and suffering that exists are a punishment for that rebellion.

When it comes to why God allows the ability to sin in the first place, the answer is not directly given in the Bible. There have been different models brought forth to explain the problem. The model that is most consistent with both free will and God’s sovereignty is, in my opinion, compatibilism. Although not an easy model to fully comprehend it takes divine sovereignty and human responsibility and gives us an explanation of evil in a way that other models simply do not provide. Evil is a punishment for sin, yet God allows it for our glory and his.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1996), 16.

[2] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 439.

[3] John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 22.

[4] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 168.

[5] John Stuart Mill, Nature and Utility of Religion (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958), 20-21.

[6] Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), 53.

[7] Ibid., 55.

[8] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 515.

[9] N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006), 44-45.

[10] Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will, trans. Anna Benjamin and L.H. Hackstaff (New York, NY: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964), book II, chapter 1, 36.

[11] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 30.

[12] Ibid., 31, 47.

[13] Concerning this topic, Plantinga says that “you might be able to predict what you will do in a given situation even if you are free, in that situation, to do something else. If I know you well, I may be able to predict what action you will take in response to a certain set of conditions; it does not follow that you are not free with respect to that action” (p. 30).

[14] Sam Storms, Tough Topics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 38.

[15] Ibid., 40-41.

[16] Ibid., 41.

[17] John M. Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015), 104.

[18] Scott Christensen, What About Free Will? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2016), 9.

[19] Frame, 170.

[20] Christensen, 83.

[21] Frame, 172.

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