Why Is There Evil?
Apologetics for a hurting world
It’s a sad and unfortunate reality. Everyone — Christians and non-Christians — will have to deal with the problem of pain and suffering. Whether we’re facing a personal tragedy or hearing about someone else’s, it is natural to wonder why such evils exist.
This can be especially troublesome for those who embrace the Christian worldview. After all, we Christians believe that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good. Wouldn’t an all-powerful God be able to prevent evil? Wouldn’t an all-knowing God know how to eliminate it? And wouldn’t a perfectly good God like that intervene to put an end to suffering?
We collectively refer to such questions as the “problem of evil.” For hundreds of years, atheists have cited this as a primary reason for their rejection of God. Confronting the reality of evil can shake the faith of committed believers as well. Christians facing crises may begin to doubt whether there is a God or whether God truly loves them.
It’s just as important for church leaders to help Christians navigate their questions about why evil exists as it is to respond to the atheist who rejects God’s existence because of evil. First, we must state the problem more clearly. There are many variations, but here is a conditional argument that captures the essence of the problem of evil:
- If God exists, then there is no evil
- But there is evil.
- So, God must not exist.
By the rules of logic, this is a valid argument. A valid argument is one in which the truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion. So, we must determine whether the premises are true. Because almost everyone accepts that there is evil, our attention should focus on the first premise. Is it really the case that if God existed, there would be no evil? Why might someone think this is true? Typically, skeptics offer two reasons for this belief:
- A perfectly good being, like God, would always eliminate as much evil as possible.
- There are no limits to what an all-powerful God can do.
If either (a) or (b) is false, then we have no reason to think that Premise 1 is true, and so we have no reason to accept the conclusion that God must not exist. As it turns out, there are good reasons to believe that both (a) and (b) are false. Let’s examine each in turn.
We should begin by noting that (a) assumes there are never morally sufficient reasons for God to allow evil. But why should we accept that assumption? When we think about our own lives, we see that there are occasions when we allow pain and suffering (and even sometimes intentionally cause them) because there is a morally sufficient reason for doing so.
For example, when each of my sons were very young, my wife and I sat by and watched as strangers came into the room to poke them with sharp instruments. Even though that action caused immediate pain for our children, no one would think we’re bad parents because of it. Why is that? Because there was a morally sufficient reason for allowing their temporary pain: avoiding polio and various other diseases. This remains true even though our sons were incapable of understanding why we allowed them to undergo that pain.
There may be some things God wants for us that are only possible if humans have free will.
We can be good parents and also allow suffering; likewise, God can be morally perfect and allow evil and suffering.
There is likely a host of different morally sufficient reasons for God allowing His creation to undergo pain and suffering, but one reason that covers many instances of evil is the human ability to exercise genuinely free will. Being able to freely choose God is such a great good that this alone is a morally sufficient reason for God to allow evil. If it is truly a choice, then some will freely choose to reject God, and some will even intentionally cause pain and suffering for others.
Here some might raise an objection. Why wouldn’t God just create us in such a way that we always — and freely — choose Him? After all, humans would then get the good of freely choosing God, but there would be no associated evils. This objection gets to the heart of the second assumption in the argument against God. That is, it assumes that (b) there are no limits to what an all-powerful God can do.
It may seem unintuitive at first, but if we reflect on this assumption, we’ll see that it’s false. When we say that God is all-powerful, or omnipotent, we mean that God can do anything within His character and the bounds of reason. In other words, saying that God is all-powerful doesn’t mean that God can make a married bachelor or that He can make 2 + 2 = 5. These sorts of things are logically impossible.
An all-powerful God can do what is naturally impossible, such as making the sun stand still, parting the waters of the Red Sea, or raising the dead, because there’s nothing illogical about that. But just as God can’t make married bachelors, not even God can make someone do something freely. If He makes us do it, it’s not free. If it’s free, then no one made us do it.
When atheists object to God’s existence because of evil’s existence, or when Christians begin to doubt God’s existence because of the evil they see in the world, they’re typically making the claim that God could just get rid of evil entirely because He has the ability to do whatever He wants. What that ignores, however, is that there may be some things God wants for us that are only possible if humans have free will. And if we have free will, then not even God can ensure that we won’t encounter sin and suffering in this present fallen world.
What we’ve seen, then, is that not only do we have no reason to accept Premise 1 as true, but we actually have good reasons to believe it is false. It could only be true if the supporting assumptions (a) and (b) were true. But, as we noted, both of those assumptions are false. God may allow evils to occur because there is no logically possible way for us to choose the forgiveness and life He offers without also allowing for the possibility of sin and death.
Does that mean God doesn’t care about our suffering? Of course not! He cares so much He sent His Son to die so that we can look forward to a perfect future with Him. We know that Jesus has already paid the price for our sins and taken away the sting of death (1 Corinthians 15:55-56). One day soon, He will put a stop to evil once and for all and make all things new. “‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
I provide more insight on the problem of evil in my forthcoming book, available January 2019 from Bloomsbury Press. In Explaining Evil: Four Views, two Christians and two atheists each give their own explanations for evil and critique the explanations of the other contributors.