The Problem of Evil (POE)
David W. Hegg
Introduction: If, as it is believed, God’s sovereignty extends to all things, then the presence of evil in the world presents a real problem. Is God the author of evil? If so, is it possible that the entrance of evil into creation was accomplished apart from an evil act? And further, if God is sovereign, why does he allow evil to exist? Why are babies born with birth defects, or into grave poverty? Why does God allow the Ebola virus to devastate whole villages and nations? Why, why, why?
The questions continue when we try to define just what evil is. In some ways, evil is conceived of in the same way as art: I don’t know what makes art “good” but I’ll know it when I see it!”
We all have our ideas of what is evil, but what really makes something “evil?” Who gets to decide? And most importantly, what is God’s relationship to evil and how are we to understand the presence of evil in the universe over which our God is in charge?
1. Does Evil Exist?
A. The biblical answer
Gen. 2.9 And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Gen. 3.4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Gen. 3.22 Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.
From the beginning of time, evil has existed! In fact, the whole story of Redemption depends on it, as we will see!
But, believe it or not, those who own the worldview known as evolutionary naturalism, also known as scientific materialism have come to the conclusion evil cannot exist, for if it did, it would necessitate an absolute standard … like God!
B. The naturalistic answer
“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” ― Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life
Arthur Allen Leff (1935–1981) was a professor of law at Yale Law School who is best known for a series of articles examining whether there is such a thing as a normative law or morality. Leff answers this question in the negative follows his insight to its logical conclusion and notes that there is no way, using logic, to prove that any particular act, no matter how horrible, is normatively wrong. Put it another way, one can never prove to another person that a particular set of behaviors is right or that a different set of behaviors is wrong. He states:
“I will put the current situation as sharply as possible: there is today no way of ‘proving’ that napalming babies is bad except by asserting it (in a louder and louder voice), or by defining it as so, early in one’s game, and then later slipping it through, in a whisper, as a conclusion.
“All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around at the world, it appears that if all men are brothers (then) the ruling model is Cain and Abel … as things now stand, everything is up for grabs.
Napalming babies is bad.
Starving the poor is wicked.
Buying and selling each other is depraved.
Those who stood up and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot – and General Custer too – have earned salvation.
Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.
There is in the world such a thing as evil.
But …Sez Who?
God help us.”
(Arthur Leff: “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law” in Duke Law Journal, 1979 No. 6 (1229)
Those who leave no room for God cannot explain the presence of evil!
Note: While the Problem of Evil is considered the #1 objection to the existence of God, the truth is just the opposite! Without God, you must argue against everything you see and know to be true; you must argue that evil does not exist, for if it exists, there must be a standard by which good and evil are determined AND this standard must exist outside of the effects of this world!
2. What is Evil?
Gen. 50.20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
So … we must agree that evil exists, but can we agree on what evil is? HARDLY!
Defining Evil is very difficult as we will see. We often think of evil in terms of:
A. Natural evil?
We often think of evil in terms of disaster, tragedy, and pain. In the natural world these are often considered “evil”:
• forest fires • earthquakes • tornadoes • floods • hurricanes • tsunamis • disease • deformity
Yet, in truth, we do not think a forest fire is evil unless it brings harm to humanity. We don’t think an earthquake is equal where there is no damage or loss.
Thus, all these “natural evils” reduce to a question of moral evil in that a forest fire is not evil, but starting one is. We only consider disease and defect evil if they cause pain or anguish to someone.
But all categories reduce to this question: why does God allow these things in his creation, which ends up being a “moral” question about God!
Consequently, it is not helpful to attempt categories of evil (natural, moral, physical, spiritual, etc) for ultimately they all reduce to the “moral” question of why a moral God would allow evil to enter and continue in his world.
B. Moral Evil:
Our primary understanding of “evil” in this world falls under this heading. It includes evil thoughts, evil actions, and evil outcomes:
C. Defining Evil: Every thought or action is good or evil based on its whether or not it aligns with some part of God’s nature. God is all “good” and no evil. Thus, all good must be a reflection of some part of God, while evil is that which in no way aligns with the nature/attributes of God
As stated above, the naturalistic thinking about “evil” insisted that, if it existed it would argue in favor of some standard not subject to the effects of this world. That is, if evil existed its presence would prove the existence as well of a standard by which evil was defined as evil, and further, that standard would have to exist outside the influence of the evil that is found in the world. Of course we know that standard is God.
Summary: Evil exists, and while there are both natural evil, and moral evil, ultimately everything comes back to the moral question. Evil is defined as that which does not align with the nature/attributes of God.
The next question: Why did God create a universe in which there are those evil things that do not align with his nature/attributes? Why does evil exist?
3. God and Evil
Is. 45.7 I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.
A. Why did God allow evil?
The Popular Presentation of P.O.E.:
If God is all-powerful, then he could eradicate evil.
If God is loving, he would desire to eradicate evil.
If evil exists it can only be that God is either:
- not all-powerful or not loving.
In either case, the God of the Bible cannot exist.
NOTE: The P.O.E, as stated above, is unsolveable if we attempt to do so within the worldview of those who present it this way! If we accept the critic’s view of omnipotence and evil, then we cannot solve the problem!
But: if we look at it through the lens of the Biblical Worldview, we will find it not nearly as big an obstacle as it first appears:
We can pose 3 questions in response:
1) Must God eradicate evil? = a question of God’s obligation
2) Can God eradicate evil? = a question of God’s ability
3) Should God eradicate evil? = a question of God’s wisdom and prudence
#1: (Must): God is obligated to do what is right, that is, what is aligned with his nature.
#2 (Can) is the crucial one, for if it can be determined that God cannot eradicate evil, then it must be seen that he is neither obligated to do so, nor is it wise for him to try.
#3: (Should): God should do whatever is right, with “right” determined by whatever is aligned with his nature.
So: I will argue God cannot eradicate evil for at least Four Reasons:
1) it would be contrary to his nature, and
2) it would make the primary thing he has planned to accomplish through creation impossible.
3) it would keep him from doing other things that can only be accomplished through evil.
4) when it comes down to it, you and I don’t want him to eradicate evil.
1) God cannot eradicate evil without doing radical damage to his nature.
Why? God cannot eradicate evil for to do so would be to act contrary to his nature:
God is perfectly good and holy, infinitely so. In order for these attributes to exist it is necessary for their opposites to exist, namely evil and unholy. Thus, if creation contained no evil, God could not be holy; if evil did exist but no longer did, we could not understand the goodness and holiness of God. God cannot eradicate evil for it would mean a radical reduction in his nature.
Quote: “… If God were to do whatever it would take to eliminate moral evil, He would … cause us to question whether He has one or more of the attributes ascribed to him …”
(John Feinberg, Theologies and Evil, pg. 125)
2) God cannot eradicate evil for to do so would make the things he has planned to accomplish through creation impossible.
Here we address the BIG question in terms of the presence of evil in our world:
Q: Why did God create a universe in which evil not only exists, but plays a very prominent role?
This question lies at the heart of the entire discussion of the presence of evil in our world. Those of us who subscribe to the biblical understanding of the sovereignty of God must be able to answer this reasonably, thoughtfully, and satisfactorily.
A: We answer in the following way:
1. God always does what is best and right. Thus, this universe, complete with evil, must be the best of all possible universes when “best” is measured by God’s nature and purpose.
2. God’s purpose in creation in the first place is to showcase his glory (which is always God’s highest priority.)
3. It appears God’s glory is best shown in the redemption of that which sin has corrupted. This primarily regards mankind, but also extends to the entirety of the created universe.
4. Thus, for God to accomplish all he intended to accomplish through creation in the first place, evil had to be part of that creation.
Excursus: But, how could God bring evil into existence without that being, in itself, an evil act?
Since we have no information about God’s activities before time relating to the existence of evil, all we need to do to answer this question is supply reasonable theories as to how God brought evil into creation without being the first perpetrator of evil itself. We divide the answer into 2 parts. A general theory as to how evil came into existence, and a specific theory as to how sin entered into the created realm through Adam and Eve.
General Theory: Augustine was the first to come up with the following:
1. Evil is not a commodity; it is not a “something” but rather is the absence of virtue. In this, evil is like darkness which is not a commodity, but rather the absence of light.
2. To bring darkness into being it is necessary only to remove the light. In like manner, to bring evil into existence it was necessary for God simply to remove virtue.
3. The removal of virtue, as the removal of light, cannot be proven to be an evil act.
4. Thus, God did bring evil into existence but in a way that was, in itself, not evil.
Specific Theory: I first learned this theory from my reading of _________________:
1. God created Adam and Eve “good”. Their natures were innocent, devoid of the necessity to sin (sinful nature) but not of the ability to sin (as is self-evident from the fact that they did commit sin.) While they were able to sin, they were not compelled by their nature to do so.
2. Yet, God withheld from them the ability (gift) of perseverance in the state of innocence. That is, he did not endow them with immutability. Such a withholding cannot be evil since perseverance in innocence (immutability) is not a necessary part of human nature.
3. To so create Adam and Eve was not wrong on God’s part since the withholding of the gift of perseverance (immutability) did not render them less than human.
4. Thus, when Adam and Eve sinned, it was their own doing even though, by withholding the ability to persevere in innocence God made their sinful actions certain.
Summary: God brought evil into existence, and made the entrance of sin into creation and humanity in particular, certain, but did so apart from any evil action on his part.
3) God cannot eradicate evil for to do so would keep him from doing some things that can only be accomplished through evil. Evil exists in our world, and certain things God desires to do can only come about by means of evil:
• Joseph: Genesis 50:20: As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
• Cyrus (Persian King): Isaiah 45:7: I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.
• Jesus: the Cross: Acts 2.22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs … 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.
B. Why does God continue to allow evil?
Q: “Okay, so now I may understand why God created a universe in which evil was a necessary component, but “Why does God continue to allow evil?”
Examples: babies born in abject poverty, in countries without clean water • mass murders • diseases • poverty • birth defects • rape, incest, child abuse • Ebola • crime • any number of other tragedies that plague our lives!
A: There are at least 2 reasons we actually do not want God to eradiate evil:
1) We want to be free moral agents, capable of making our own choices.
2) We want what we have in Jesus Christ.
4) When it comes down to it, you and I don’t want him to eradicate evil.
1) We want to be free moral agents, capable of making our own choices:
• Let’s think about this. If we could make God get rid of evil, we would need to think through the following questions:
a) Which forms of evil should he end? All forms? What about your lies, your breaking of the speed limit, your team losing the game? all poverty? all disease? all crime? Who decides? When we put it this way we begin to see the truth that some “evil” is necessarily part of the human existence.
b) Should he prevent those in poverty from having children? How about those who live where there is no clean water, no medical attention, and no food? Who gets to decide how much money and resources is enough to warrant being able to have a child?
c) What about incest, rape, etc? Should we also include adultery, fornication, homosexuality, along with pornography, and all sorts of sordid sexual thoughts and activities? Who gets to decide?
d) And while we’re at it, if God were to eradicate all evil, then he would have to eradicate all sinful choices, and if that were the case, we would no longer be free to choose evil. We would be one-dimensional beings, without moral freedom simply because the only choices available would be the good ones! But, if we want to be free moral agents, capable of making our own choices, then of necessity there must be both good and bad (evil) choices, along with both good and evil consequences for those choices.
2) We want what we have in Jesus Christ
Think about it: if God ends all moral evil, then sin doesn’t exist, and the cross is unnecessary!
This is the biggie! While we can’t explain it perfectly, we can understand this certainly. We must understand that the biblical world view is all about redemption. It is all about the glory of God demonstrated in the redemption of sinners and the gathering together of a people for God’s own name with whom he will dwell in perfect harmony and love for all eternity.
Our greatest glory is found in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ, extended to us via the cross and the empty grave. Without sin there would have been no cross, and hence, no empty tomb. Worse, there would be none of the delight we come to know as the rescued and redeemed children of God.
Summary: In the end, we find that, if we allow the naturalists to define the argument, the problem of evil is without a solution. But, when we look at it through the lens of our sovereign God and inerrant Scriptures, we find that the very presence evil is, itself, a powerful argument for the existence of God who alone is the standard of what we may define as evil. Evil exists, because a holy God exists. And because they both exist, we can be saved from the first by the grace of the second.
We believe God has a reason for permitting evil even though we can’t know the specific reason in every situation. We know the “WHO” so we trust he has a sufficient “WHY.”
1. God is omnipotent and omniscient.
2. God is love, and omni-benevolent.
3. Evil does exist.
4. Therefore, for any evil that God allows, he has morally sufficient reason for allowing this evil, even if we do not know what this morally sufficient reason is in some cases.
Put another way, an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God created our world.
God created a good world in which evil was possible and became actual, and he had good reasons for doing so.
Evil exists in God’s world. And even if the presence of evil does not disprove the existence of our all-powerful and loving Heavenly Father, it still hurts! Despite the great blessings we have from God – family, friends, fellowship, joy, laughter, soccer, steak, ice cream, etc - this is still a broken, dangerous world. And we long for the day when we’ll be delivered from it … and we should long for that day, for our souls were made for God, to dwell in the beauty of his holiness!
But: he has designed us to live out the redeemed life in the midst of an as yet unredeemed creation! He asks us to shine in a dark place, to live in a sin-intoxicated world as trophies of his transforming grace!
So, how should we live?
1. With eyes firmly fixed, not on life’s horrors, but on the saving grace that has taken us from darkness to light, and on the future grace we’ll enjoy when Jesus returns.
2. With hearts overflowing with love for Christ and the redemption we have in him.
3. With hands and feet and voices engaged in the mission of Christ, knowing the message we carry is the only hope for our world … until Jesus comes and makes everything right:
Rev. 21.1-4 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
The Problem of Evil, Peter Kreft
The Goodness of God and the Reality of Evil, Albert Mohler
Apologetics to the Glory of God, John Frame; (P & R, 1994)
Covenantal Apologetics, Scott Oliphint; (Crossway, 2013)
God, Freedom, and Evil, Alvin Plantinga; (Eerdmans, 1974)
Theologies and Evil, John S. Feinberg; (University Press of America, 1979)