Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Problem with the Problem of Evil

One of the more frequent objections to Christianity is the problem of evil: If a good and loving God exists, why is there evil (i.e. the Holocaust and the terror attacks of 9/11), why is there wide-spread suffering in the world (i.e. AIDS in Africa, Avian flu in Asia) and why does God allow natural disasters (i.e. hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes) to happen? There are several conclusions most people draw from this dilemma (often called theodicy): 1) Either God is not good because if He was He would surely not allow evil to exist or 2) He's not powerful enough to stop evil and suffering or 3) He's actually the cause of evil. No matter how you look at it, this seems to be the Achilles heel for Christians. Atheists often challenge Christians with the argument (ignoring the great, in fact, overwhelming amount of evil that has been done in the name of Atheism in the 20th century alone). Either God is not good or not powerful enough to stop evil therefore He doesn't exist. After all, who would want to worship a god who is petty, unjust, malevolent, vindictive and fickle?

Usually there is something bad that happens in someone's life– and while they may ask you in the form of an intellectual question – there is usually real pain and hurt in their life. This may take some probing on your part, but the question they have put to you in academic terms, may be very personal – perhaps their dad just died of cancer. In fact, sometimes un-believers ask this question to see if Christians really do care.

Of course Christians care – having been freed from sin and death, we are free to serve the neighbor in mercy and compassion. But, how would you respond? No doubt, this is a complicated answer.

The answers that some Christians have given are hardly adequate (or faithful to Scripture either): 1) God is punishing you for your sin. This is what Gerry Falwell said when New Orleans was hit by Katrina because they were such horrendous sinners or when Haiti was struck by the earthquake because they had made a pact with the devil. What did Jesus say when the tower of Siloam fell and killed eighteen people: "were these Galileans worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:2-3).

Or how about this one: 2) God is doing this to teach you a lesson. As if God was the author of evil sitting in heaven planning things to trip you up throughout your life in order to train you like a drill sergeant at boot camp.

3) Perhaps you've been suffering because you haven't been praying enough; maybe you just need to have more faith. This is one of the most damaging, not to mention un-biblical, answers given.

Before moving on to provide a brief answer, first we must dispute a logical problem with the argument made by unbelievers, namely, the existence of evil disproves the existence of God. As Lawyer and Christian apologist, Craig Parton writes:

"Without an absolute moral standard (which the analytical philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein established is not possible without a transcendent source), one cannot speak of 'evil' save in a totally relative or culturally conditioned manner. In short, one must presuppose an absolute standard to even employ the word 'evil' in a comprehensible fashion. However, an absolute standard of morality is impossible unless God exists. If there is no God, both good and evil are strictly relative concepts and by-products of cultural conditions and sociological-political-psychological factors. If God does not exist, there is no 'problem of evil.' What is, is and no more can be said."

The fact that there is objectively moral evil in this world does not disprove Christianity's truthfulness. In fact, Christianity has the best explanation for the entrance of evil into the universe – namely, that evil originated in the acts of the creature, not the Creator. "Evil entered the human condition as a result of a completely free moral choice by the creature to do his own will in direct contradiction to the edict of God Almighty. The result was eternal separation from God, as well as suffering and death in this life [Genesis3]. Sin is irrational, however, and does not obey nice, clean rules of cause and effect (i.e. you get what you deserve)."

Such deadly consequences have led many to wonder, "How long, O Lord, until Your return? Why don't You return now and put an end to suffering in this life?" It is precisely for the sake of the Gospel that God puts up with (allows) evil in this world. Consider the words of St. Peter: "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9) for God desires that all men would be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). God is long-suffering for the sake of those who have yet to hear the Gospel. And in this way, God's justice serves His mercy.

Thankfully, the Biblical account does not end with man's separation from God on account of sin. God did not sit back and hope we, as fallen human beings, could make the best of a world gone terribly wrong. In Jesus Christ, death – the wages of sin and evil – is conquered and destroyed forever. In reality, the problem of evil is not a problem for Christianity; Christianity is the best (and only) solution to the problem of evil.

"Contrary to the attitude of benign resignation in eastern religions towards evil (the concept of karma and the essential unity of good and evil emasculate any real ability to aggressively counter the cause and effects of human evil and suffering), Christianity speaks of human depravity being so real and dreadful that it required the entrance into grainy human history by the sinless Son of God in order to make atonement. Thus not only is evil condemned, but God Himself takes on the consequences of that evil in His very body."

God knows and understands exactly what we suffer with here on earth. Jesus knew what it meant to suffer; He was unjustly treated, He bore the evil consequences of sinful men, innocently, unto death. Furthermore, Christ has promised to return and upon that return there will be no more weeping, no more tears, no more pain or death. Yes, in the mean time we live between the cross and the consummation of Christ's return. We don't know how long the negative consequences of our sin will be allowed to endure until Christ returns. But we wait with confidence in Christ on the basis of what He has done for us – His death and resurrection – and has promised – His return. "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18).

Not only does Christianity understand the true nature of evil, but the true solution. Central to the Christian claim is the fact that evil is so serious that God sent His only Son into the world, not to die for perfectly, deserving, worthy people but for sinners. We have confidence in this regard because God has made the most amazing efforts to help our situation even though He was not in any way obligated to do so.

"For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.
For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).


  1. I thought this was a beautiful, yet simultaneously informative and relevant post. Thank you for the wise words, Sam

  2. Tim, thanks for reading. Glad you enjoyed it and found it edifying. For some reason or another the footnotes got cut off. Most of the quotations were from Craig Parton's book "Religion on Trial." It's a great little book on apologetics.