Now I have to ask you: If Jesus Christ, the Son of God, did not presume to face the forces of evil in the world without a profound knowledge of the Bible in mind and heart, how could we try to face life any other way? It’s true that this takes a great deal of time and effort. Worship, daily reading, meditation and memorization, singing, listening to teaching—all of these are necessary to become as acquainted with the Scripture as we must be.
A Christian Answer to the Problem of Evil and Suffering
The Christian answer to the problem of evil and suffering begins with God himself. When we have a proper view of God, the apparent problems begin to melt away.
First, God is the standard for his actions—whatever he does defines concepts of justice, goodness, love, and mercy. Too many times the supposed problem of the justice of God begins when we mistakenly believe that there is some standard of justice that stands above God and to which God’s actions must conform. Such a view reflects the philosophy of the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. In reality, however, God is ultimate and his character sets the standard for what justice is. We can’t do all that God does, because of our limited knowledge and creatureliness, but God can do as he pleases and whatever he does is just.
Second, some people believe that God needs to justify certain actions recorded in Scripture. However, Scripture makes it clear that God does not need to defend his actions to us. He does not defend himself for giving Adam a wife who led him into sin (Gen. 3:12), or when he tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22), or when Job wants answers for his apparent unjust suffering (Job 23:1-7; 31:35ff; 40:4-42:6). God is the sovereign Almighty Lord who does what he pleases (Psalm 115:3; 135:6; Eccl. 8:3) and owes no one an explanation (Rom. 9:19-21).
Third, as fallen, finite, and created beings we cannot understand the reasons of a perfect, infinite, and uncreated God (Ezek. 18:25). Like a two-year old can’t understand the reasons a parent insists on a necessary medical procedure for the child, so we do not have the capacity to understand all that God ordains in this world. To assume that God does not have a good reason for something he allows is to presume that because we do not understand God’s reasons, He could not possibly have any.
Finally, God is not obligated to show kindness or mercy to anyone, or to deliver anyone from human evil or suffering (Exod. 33:19). Sometimes there is an underlying assumption in objections to God’s existence that fallen humans deserve mercy and a trouble-free life. In reality, fallen human beings deserve nothing but God’s wrath. The fact that God allows anyone to live and experience good in this life is purely by his own benevolent kindness.
An even better Christian answer is that God may have a perfectly good reason for allowing evil and suffering that we cannot know or comprehend. The standard atheistic view assumes that God could not possibly have a good reason for allowing evil and suffering, yet cannot prove that assertion in any way. The Christian answer says that with man’s limited understanding, he cannot possibly know whether or not God has good reasons for allowing suffering.
The Christian response to the standard atheistic view might look like this:
- Premise 1: If God were all-powerful, he would be able to prevent evil.
- Premise 2: If God were all-good, he would desire to prevent evil.
- Premise 3: But there is evil.
- Premise 4: God may have a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil that we don’t know about
- Conclusion: Therefore, God may allow evil for reasons we don’t know, and still be all-powerful, all-good
We understand this in real life. If you see a man standing over a child slicing open the child’s body with a sharp knife, you might assume that what he is doing is evil. But then if you see that the man is a doctor and is performing surgery, your view of the situation changes. You begin to see that the man is actually being good and merciful, even though he is causing pain to the child. In the same way, humans can only see the evil and suffering that God allows from a limited viewpoint. Only God knows the ultimate, eternal plan for evil and suffering that will end in good.
Taking Evil Seriously
Ultimately only the Christian worldview validates that suffering is genuine, yet not meaningless. Unlike worldviews that deny evil and suffering, the Bible fully acknowledges that such things truly exist. Further, the universal human longing to find meaning in suffering is fulfilled only in the Christian faith. Evil and suffering do have a purpose, and they are guided and limited by the all-powerful God of the Bible. Some worldviews, especially those that believe in the evolutionary progress of man tend to minimize evil so they can claim that the world is evolving into paradise.
God does not stand aloof from evil and suffering. Instead, he enters the creaturely experience by taking on humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus experiences every kind of trial and temptation that can be experienced by human beings, yet without sinning (Heb. 4:14-16). He willingly subjected himself to the frustration and sorrow of life in a sin-cursed world, and grieved it passionately. God grieves over evil and suffering (John 11:35). In order to make sure that evil and suffering would not be the final chapter of the story of creation, God himself experienced the greatest suffering in order to ensure an end to suffering. Jesus suffered the ultimate evil and pain by taking our hell on the cross in order to offer redemption and rescue from sin and the curse.
Hope for Deliverance from Evil and Suffering
Ultimately only the Christian worldview has grounds to call evil what it is, to see evil as destructive and awful as it really is, and to provide hope for future judgment on those who perpetrate evil. The Bible tells us that God hates evil and has nothing to do with it (Hab. 1:12; Jam. 1:13-17). Evil is the enemy of God and all he has made. When God brings all things to an end, the devil, Death and Hell are cast into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:10, 14). This speaks of the absolute end of death, evil, and suffering.
Non-Christian views minimize evil, fail to recognize it as such, or are unable to give distinctions between good and evil. The Christian worldview sees evil in all its complexity. First, evil is individual—there is evil in each individual. Second, evil is collective—societies can do evil, such as Nazi Germany, Communist Russia and China, or the murderous tyranny of ISIS in the Middle East. Finally, evil is structural—such as international sex slavery or government corruption. Christianity has a thorough view of evil that considers any failure to keep God’s commands as sinful, rebellious, and mutinous.
The Christian worldview, however, provides a decisive answer for good and evil. God ultimately overcame evil by the death of his Son, Jesus, who conquered the consequences of sin and death by his resurrection (John 16:33). He makes it possible for us to overcome evil by copying his example (Rom. 12:17-21; John 11:25). By Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross we are now victorious over sin and already enjoying the benefit (1 John 2:13-14; 4:4; 5:4).
The very difficult challenge of the problem of evil and suffering in the world is turned into a positive argument for the Christian God once we see the biblical answer to this objection in all its richness and complexity. Apart from the Christian faith, there is no meaning and purpose in suffering. Human evil will go unpunished and most people in the world are destined for a lifetime of hopeless victimization at the hands of others and cruel nature.
In the Christian worldview, however, we have answer, meaning, purpose, and most importantly, a loving, sovereign God who guides all things for his own glory and the good of his children. Rather than this objection being an insurmountable wall, it is a doorway into fruitful evangelistic and apologetic conversations.
Several other attempts have been made to address evil and suffering in our world.
- Non-Reality of Evil View—Some Eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, deny that evil and suffering are any more than an illusion. By denying that evil and suffering are real, they attempt to avoid any dilemma between the deities in charge of the world and the way the world is. The problem for this view, however, is that the experience of suffering is universal and undeniable. Additionally, these same Eastern religions seek to end oppression and alleviate the very suffering that they deny exists. This is clearly self-refuting.
- Weakness of God View—This view argues that God does not overcome all evil because he cannot, even though he wants to. The advantage of this approach is that God cannot be held responsible for what happens in the world. The disadvantage is that it eliminates any possibility of God finally overcoming evil. If God cannot do anything to stop evil now, we should not assume that he can ever do anything to end evil. God becomes impotent to deliver us from the endless cycle of suffering.
- Free Will View—This view argues that man has free will, and therefore, God has nothing to do with evil because he cannot interfere without impinging on man’s free will. The advantage of this view is that God is not responsible for human acts of evil. The disadvantages are numerous. First, suffering still happens through natural disasters, illness, and the general brokenness of the world. Second, this view puts shackles on God’s ability to act, because man’s freedom becomes primary. If God cannot impinge on man’s free will, how do we know he can fulfill his promises? Third, Scripture repeatedly speaks of God determining our free choices (Gen. 50:20; Acts 2:23, 4:27; Rom. 9). Any way you look at it, this view fails to answer the tough questions.
- “Christian” Fatalism—This view simply says, “God is in control, and therefore you cannot avoid suffering. Don’t let it get you upset. Just stoically accept it, because all things work together for good. So, actually it’s a blessing. It’s nothing to cry over.” The obvious problem with this view is that it distorts the sovereignty of God and eliminates genuine emotion, contra the biblical affirmation of grief and crying out to God.
So, how should a Christian deal with the problem of evil and suffering? Are there any answers to this seeming contradiction?
In the next post we will begin to present a Christian view.
The Problem Stated
Those who see an irreconcilable conflict between an all-powerful, all-loving God and evil and suffering in the world do so with several arguments. Some ask the thought-provoking question, “Couldn’t God have made a world in which evil and suffering don’t exist?” This is a troubling question, because the answer is certainly, “Yes.” As we will see later, this doesn’t mean that God is unjust, but this question does have a strong emotional impact.
Others argue, “I would never hurt my children needlessly, so why does God? If God is not even better than me, why should I worship him?” This is an argument by analogy. By comparing human parenting to the Creator God’s relation to the world, these people use a well-known experience to a deeply spiritual and philosophical problem. Certainly, a parent-child relationship ought to be marked by gentleness, kindness, and protection from harm. If God cannot even live up to basic human expectations, how can he be worshiped?
A more complete objection to God in the face of evil and suffering is the one proposed by 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, whose argument has served as the standard atheistic objection to the existence of God. Hume argued:
- Premise 1: If God were all-powerful, he would be able to prevent evil.
- Premise 2: If God were all-good, he would desire to prevent evil.
- Conclusion: So if God were all-powerful and all-good, there would be no evil.
- Premise 3: But there is evil.
- Conclusion: Therefore there is no all-powerful, all-good God.
Hume’s argument can be very convincing at first glance. Many people have been swayed by it because it seems like air-tight logic. It also reflects the heart struggle of many people who have grappled with the very painful experience of suffering, either at the hands of wicked people, or in the brokenness of life in this world.
So, how do we contend with this argument? There are several ways to answer this challenge.
Challenging the Assumptions Behind Hume’s Argument
One thing that must be done when evaluating any argument is something we have covered several times in this study—challenge the presuppositions. In other words, we must examine the assumptions behind an argument to see if they are, in fact, true and sound. Several elements of this argument should be scrutinized.
It is assumed that suffering is necessarily bad. Without stating why suffering is necessarily bad or a sign of disorder in the world, this argument assumes it. However, as we have seen in previous lessons, if the naturalistic worldview is true, suffering is a natural part of an evolutionary world, and shouldn’t be considered “bad.”
It is assumed that people are basically good and innocent so that suffering is somehow unfair. The assumption here is that suffering violates an obligation by God to make life in this world only good. This is based on the assumption that man is basically good, worthy, and deserving, and therefore God is obligated to give us a life devoid of suffering.
It is assumed that evil and suffering cannot result in good that will make it worthwhile. In combination with point #1, suffering is necessarily bad, and no amount of suffering can be good, regardless of what good might come out of suffering. At the same time, the unbeliever who uses this argument probably acknowledges the principle of suffering that results in good in other areas of life—an athlete who suffers pain and hardship in training to become good at her sport, someone who says no to spending and lives frugally so he can save money to buy a house, and so on.
BUT, it is also assumed that at there is a distinction between good and evil. In addition to the first three assumptions, there are ethical and spiritual assumptions in this argument. By calling something evil, Hume is assuming that there is good that stands in contrast to evil.
There is a standard by which to judge between good and evil. To distinguish a good act from an evil one, there must exist some kind of moral law that tells us the difference between good and evil, otherwise each person could decide for himself, and there would be no moral difference between kissing someone and killing them. Yet, most rational people intuitively know that there is a moral difference between the two acts. Whatever the standard is that differentiates good acts from evil ones, it must be objective and timeless to avoid relativism, which itself is a justification for the worst kinds of evil.
The standard can be known and ought to compel people. If the standard that discerns good from evil has any usefulness, it must be knowable by people and ought to carry and ethical obligation for them to obey it. If the standard is not known, it is useless. If it is merely a suggestion and does not have the power to demand compliance, with punishment for non-compliance, it has no purpose. Acknowledging evil, therefore, assumes that there is a moral good that beings ought to follow.
Finally, it is assumed that there is meaning to the events in the world and to the suffering of people. In other words, Hume’s objection to God assumes that there should not be contradictions in the world and that things should make sense. However, apart from God, there is no reason to assume that the world should make sense. If naturalism is true, the universe is guided by chance—random, blind, unthinking forces—and we should not expect there to be meaning, which only comes about in an intelligent universe.
It is clear, then, that this seemingly convincing argument against the existence of God is full of assumptions about the world that it cannot prove. It demands an explanation from God when it cannot even explain itself.
Hume’s argument is a philosophical one that is clearly flawed, yet it has the virtue of taking evil seriously. There are other approaches to evil and suffering that come from religion and philosophy that try to do away with either evil and suffering or the nature of God as all-powerful and all-loving. We will explore these in the next post.
One of the most difficult objections to the Christian faith to answer is the question of how there can be a good, loving, powerful God when there is so much evil and suffering in the world. The challenge with this objection is that unbelievers borrow Christian views of the brokenness of the world and deep, human depravity, while simultaneously rejecting the God who tells us how those things came to be and acted so that these two things would be overcome. The sense of justice and desire for mercy and restoration that so many unbelievers long for shows that intuitively we know the world is not as it should be. Only Christianity can provide an answer for these deep questions that keep so many from believing.
In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan is asking his brother Alyosha how he can believe in a good God when he has seen and heard of so much suffering in 19th century Russia. The description of human suffering is realistic and should cause us grief just to read it.
There was a little girl of five who was hated by her father and mother, most worthy and respectable people, of good education and breeding…This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty- shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans!
Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to dear, kind God’!
What can a Christian say to those who question or deny the existence of a loving, powerful God in light of the magnitude of evil and suffering in this world? This series of posts will provide some answers to this difficult apologetics question.
Affirm That This World is Under a Curse
When unbelievers raise the objection to God’s existence because of evil and suffering in the world, they are asking good questions, for two reasons. First, by taking the problem of evil and suffering seriously, they are expressing the inner longing that each person has to reconcile his beliefs with the way the world is. Most people don’t want to be irrational. They want the world and their beliefs to be consistent with each other. Therefore, when unbelievers raise this question they are balking at a perceived contradiction. They clearly see that the world is unjust, cruel, and disappointing. To believe that a God exists who could fix these problems, but does not, would be a contradiction in their minds.
Second, when unbelievers raise this objection to Christians, they have already dismissed many of the other belief systems and religions. As will be explained a little later, many worldviews cannot account for evil and suffering, so they deny that such things exist. On the contrary, Christianity tells the story of how evil and suffering entered the perfect world God created. It takes serious the reality of evil in the human heart and the brokenness of the world because of the curse of sin.
The problem of evil and suffering, therefore, is a very real problem. And it is a Christian problem. No other religion affirms that God is all-powerful and all-good, and that heinous evil resides in the human heart, and suffering marks the natural world. People who deny that God is all-powerful or all-good don’t have to give account for evil and suffering in the world, because either their god can’t do anything about evil and suffering, or is indifferent to them. Those who deny the reality of evil, or who believe that people are basically good, or who deny that suffering is anything more than an illusion also do not need to answer this objection. No, the problem of evil and suffering is a distinctly Christian problem.
In addition, because of technologies such as the internet, cell phone cameras, and social media, people living today are more aware than ever before of the heinous nature of human acts of evil and the global scale of suffering. Both of these are staggering when considered in their raw reality and totality. For all of human history until the last few decades, evil and suffering outside our immediate locales, our town or region, has seemed distant. Reports of such beyond our immediate context took days or weeks to reach us, and had to be described by word of mouth or print media. Today however, we are eyewitnesses, almost immediately, of some of the worst suffering and atrocities around the world, and in high definition.
For a Christian trying to proclaim an all-powerful, all-loving God, these vivid displays of evil and suffering can seem an insurmountable objection to the Christian faith. How can we legitimately tell of such a God when these terrible situations seem to testify against Him?
In the next post we will look at the standard atheistic argument against the existence of God and see how it relates to this problem of evil and suffering.
The final segment in this topic deals with the fall into sin that corrupted all of God’s creation and plunged man into guilt and condemnation.
4. Because of sin, man is completely fallen
In contrast to many worldviews and religions, Christianity believes that man is fallen and his heart is corrupt. Since the Fall into sin, every person is born with a depraved heart that will not choose God apart from the Holy Spirit’s supernatural drawing to Christ (Rom. 3:10-18; John 14:6; 6:44). In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve tried to do without God in every respect. By rejecting God’s evaluation of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they asserted their right to interpret the world as they saw fit. In the case of the forbidden fruit Eve determined that it was “good” for food, even though God declared it to be the spiritually and physically poisonous.
The motivation for Eve’s disobedience, however, was not simply to try a new flavor of fruit, but to transcend her humanity to become divine, as the serpent had promised her (Gen. 3:5). In other words, Eve wanted to escape her creaturely limits and become like God—infinite and divine. This was all a lie, however, and her actions resulted in death. Many false religions and worldviews are based on a desire to become divine, or to escape death like God. What they promise, however, can never come true. Humans will always be created beings, finite and limited.
In eating the fruit Adam and Eve also attempted to decide for themselves what is right and wrong. They tried to establish their own ethics in rebellion of God’s declaration of right and wrong. Here is another common aspect of unbelieving belief systems: they want to reject God’s laws and establish their own. These false ethical standards often lead to a removal of any restraint whatsoever, which leads to violence, abuse, and anarchy. We see this most clearly in the days of Noah (Gen. 6:5, 11-12), the time of the judges (Judg. 17:6; 21:25), and the last days predicted in the New Testament (2 Tim. 3:1-9).
The result of the Fall is that every one of natural man’s intellectual and spiritual functions operates wrongly. Man’s thinking is now slanted away from God in rebellion and ignorance (Eph. 4:17-19). Man is not objective, because his sinful, evil heart turns away from God, truth, beauty and goodness, and seeks to satisfy self. The result is that man embraces lies, ugliness, and evil. He loves the darkness of sin rather than the light of truth (John 3:19-21; Rom. 1:25).
Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia used two pictures to illustrate this truth. Imagine a woodworker who sets his table saw to exact measurements to cut boards at a right angle. He leaves the workshop for a few minutes to get the wood, and while he is gone his 10-year-old son enters the room and changes the angle of the saw. Every board that the woodworker cuts after that will be wrong and will be damaged. In the same way God created us holy and perfect, with our intellect, emotions and will operating rightly. After the Fall, these faculties are now damaged, and while they resemble the original design, they are damaged and do not function properly.
Another illustration helps us understand the unbeliever’s bias against God and the truth. Imagine yellow-lensed goggles are glued to the face of the unbeliever. Everything he sees now has a yellow hue. He cannot see colors correctly because of these goggles. Yet, he insists he is wearing no goggles and sees colors correctly. In the same way, the Fall has distorted the man’s intellectual understanding, and he cannot see truthfully until the Holy Spirit removes the goggles in regeneration. It takes the regeneration of man’s reason to correct the damage done by the Fall. When a person is saved, the Holy Spirit replaces his unbelieving heart of stone with a “heart of flesh” that now functions properly (Ezek. 11:19-21; 36:26-27). He takes away spiritual blindness and replaces it with sight (John 9:39).
Having a biblical understanding of God and man provides many powerful avenues for apologetics. We avoid defending concepts we don’t believe. We tap into the powerful truths of the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor. 1:24). The more we know the Scriptures and sound doctrine, the more weapons we possess in the war of ideas. We are able to more effectively destroy arguments and pull down strongholds of unbelief (2 Cor. 10:3-5). Knowing what we believe is the best foundation for apologetics and evangelism, because it gives us the ability to answer unbelief from any direction.
2. Man is different from God
Many world religions, especially the Asian religions have a monistic view of the world. That is, they believe that all things that exist are the same at the core. All things participate in Being, and God or the gods possess more Being than we creatures. The goal in these religions is either to erase the distinctions between man and the gods, or to be swallowed up into the Great Divine and cease to exist. Regardless of the details, man is not at all or not much different in his essence than God.
The Christian view of God is quite different, in contrast. We believe in what is called the Creator/Creature Distinction (CCD). The CCD teaches that God is wholly other than us. God is infinite, holy, and divine. In contrast we are finite, fallen, and creaturely. God has always been God and always will be God. We are creaturely (created beings), and will always be creaturely, even when we obtain our glorified bodies in eternity.
Since we are finite, fallen, and creaturely, we could know nothing about the infinite, holy, divine God unless he revealed himself to us. And this is what makes the Christian God unique. God not only tells us who he is, but he continually comes down to us to reveal himself. We call this the condescension of God. All through the Bible God stoops down to his creation to show and tell us who he is and how we can be reconciled to him.
In Genesis 1:2 we are told that the Holy Spirit was hovering over the waters as God was creating. In Genesis 3:8 God comes down to confront Adam and Eve about eating the forbidden fruit. In Genesis 7:16 God closes the door of the Ark himself. In Genesis 32:24-32 God wrestles with Jacob and gives him a new name. In Exodus 3:7-8 God comes down to see the suffering of his people before he leads them out of Egypt. Over and over throughout the Bible God comes down to his people, protecting them, speaking with them, rescuing them. This culminates in the incarnation of the Son of God taking on humanity with the birth of Jesus. In this ultimate sense God has come down and revealed himself and reconciled us to God.
The CCD reminds us that God is not like us and his ways are not our ways (Is. 55:8-9). One of the distinctions of Christianity is that we do not make images of God, because those who do invariably make idols in the likeness of other created things (Rom. 1:22-23). But God is so different than us that he forbids the making of idols because they cannot represent him. However, God has revealed himself to us in His Word and through His Son. This means that we can know him, because he has chosen to reveal himself to us.
Some, such as agnostics, like to argue that even if God exists, we can’t know anything about him. Such would be true if it weren’t for the fact that God has revealed himself to us. This is why a clear doctrine of Scripture is so important for Christians. We are able to escape ignorance by acknowledging the Bible as God’s Word to us.
3. Man was designed to represent God on earth
Not only are human beings made in the image of God, but also from the beginning man was given purpose through the tasks given to him in the Garden of Eden. Genesis 1:28-30 reminds us that man was to rule over the earth and cultivate it. That is, Adam and Eve were to develop all the natural resources on earth for their enjoyment, pleasure, and comfort. Everything we have in our modern world today, from the Hubble space telescope, computers, robotic surgery, and skyscrapers, was in the ground when Adam and Eve were created. God gave man the commission to cultivate the potential of the earth. This is a noble calling!
In the next post, we will look at the effects of the fall on mankind.