The Problem of Evil: A Christian Response
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Where is God?
A Biblical Response to the Problem of Evil
Many thoughtful people throughout the ages have struggled to reconcile the existence of evil and suffering with the Biblical concept of a loving God. Indeed, many have rejected the God of the Bible because they cannot believe that He would allow the profound evil and extreme suffering they see in the world around them. Eli Wiesel, for example, says that he lost all faith in God when he experienced the utter horror of the Holocaust.
Wiesel writes about a little boy, about 12, who was hanged by the Nazis. The little boy’s body was not heavy enough to cause his neck to break when the scaffold was released. The boy hung there, choking, for many minutes. One of Weisel’s fellow prisoners asked, “Where is God? Where is He?” (Night, p. 44).
A soviet torturer in the Gulag was quoted as saying, “I thank God, in whom I don’t believe, that I have been allowed to live to this day that I may fully express the evil that lies in my heart.”
In the face of such evil, it is certainly fair to ask, “Where is God?”
The Problem of Evil
The so-called “Problem of Evil” has been succinctly summed up as follows:
If God is all-powerful and all good, how can He allow evil and suffering to exist? Since evil and suffering clearly exist, God cannot be all-powerful or all good. Therefore, the Biblical view of God is logically inconsistent.
If God wishes to prevent evil but cannot, He cannot be all-powerful. If He can prevent evil, but chooses not to, He is at best capricious and at worst actively evil Himself.
Put another way:
Premise 1: God is all-powerful.
Premise 2: God is all-good.
Observation: Evil Exists
The observation contradicts the two premises; therefore, they cannot both be true.
Various writers and scholars who believe in God have wrestled with the Problem of Evil. Harold Kushner, in his best-selling book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, resolves the apparent contradiction by rejecting Premise #1: “God is a God of justice, not of power” (p. 43).
Theologian R.C. Sproul also accepts the contradiction, but argues: “In the final analysis, the evidence for the existence of the good (God) is not vitiated by the anomaly of evil” (Objections Answered, p. 128-129).
It must be frankly stated that each of these “solutions” is no solution at all. Neither fairly addresses the Problem of Evil on its own terms. Kushner offers a watered-down God, one who is good but ultimately powerless. Sproul, who is otherwise one of the keenest of thinkers, simply argues that because the “good” outweighs the “evil,” we should not doubt God’s existence. Yet, it does not account for the evil that does exist. The Problem of Evil does not posit a preponderance of evil, but merely that it exists. If any evil exists that God could prevent, the Problem of Evil still applies.
Christian author Phillip Yancey comes closer to the mark by finding hope in the pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection:
Did God desire the Holocaust? Ask the question another way: Did God desire the death of His own Son? Obviously, because of his character he could not possibly desire such atrocities. And yet both happened, and the question then moves from the unanswerable “Why?” to another question, “To what end?”
At the instant of pain, it may seem impossible to imagine that good can come from tragedy…. We can never know in advance exactly how suffering can be transformed into a cause for celebration. But that is what we are asked to believe. Faith means believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse (Where is God When it Hurts, p. 160).
Yancey does not build a logical foundation for his analysis, however – such is not his purpose. His book is a beautifully written, honest, and heartfelt exploration, but is not intended as an apologetic.
So, is there an adequate Christian response to the Problem of Evil? I believe there is, and it is a profound one. It comes from the writings of Cornelius Van Til and a “school” apologetics known as “Presuppositionalism.” Van Til’s approach is based on the Bible and a careful critique of the atheistic “worldview.” The remainder of this paper is derived from Van Til and other presuppositionalist thinkers, in particular Greg Bahnsen. Within the scope of this paper, I can only briefly outline the presuppositionalist response to the Problem of Evil; if you’d like to do more in depth research, please refer to the short bibliography at the end of this paper.
For Whom is Evil a Problem?
Let us consider the Problem of Evil from the perspective of two mutually exclusive “worldviews.” A worldview is the foundational collection of beliefs one holds with regard to ultimate reality. Often, the components of one’s worldview are taken for granted. These “pre-agreed upon” components may be termed “presuppositions.” A presupposition is a foundational belief that is often felt by the believer to not require proof. For example, we may believe that nature is uniform – that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that a waning moon will always follow a full moon – and take this belief as so fundamental to our perception of reality, that it need not require proof.
The atheistic worldview holds that there is no God. All matter, life, light, and space itself, are the products of natural processes. The theistic worldview – the worldview embraced by Christianity and the other great monotheistic religions – holds that there is a transcendent, Creator God who has revealed Himself in human history.
With regard to the Problem of Evil, we may ask how each worldview accounts for evil. That is, on what logical basis do adherents of each worldview conclude that a particular act is evil?
The Christian worldview accounts for evil by presupposing that the God of the Bible created the universe and has revealed to humanity His absolute measure of good and evil. God’s word – indeed, His very character as revealed in the Bible – provides a logical basis for determining what is good and what is evil.
The atheistic worldview, on the other hand, cannot account for evil. Indeed, in an atheistic universe, there is no absolute evil at all. Good and evil are perceived as conventional “agreements” among members of a particular society or culture. Thus, for the atheist, good and evil are relative concepts. Indeed, today, we hear those who proclaim a worldview antithetical to Christianity advocating “tolerance” for acts that previous generations had condemned as unacceptable, depraved, or evil. Proponents of the atheistic worldview speak of “moral relativism,” and the “changing morals of society.”
We may ask, in light of the relative nature of good and evil, on what basis the atheist may determine that a particular act is evil? Atheist apologist Gordon Stein has said that the reason he views the Holocaust as evil is that it was counter to the mores of European society (“The Great Debate: Does God Exist?”). Since Germany was a part of Western Europe, and the moral standards in Western Europe held genocide to be evil, the Nazis were guilty of committing evil. We may ask, though, how Dr. Stein would have characterized the Holocaust had Germany won the war? In that case, the mores of Western Europe would have become those of the Nazis. In the universe of moral relativism, the morals of a society may change over time. And since evil is in the eye of the beholder, according to the atheistic worldview, we would have no right to criticize what to a loyal Nazi was a “good” act. Indeed, it could not even be logically argued that since the Nazi’s forced their morality on Western Europe by conquest, the change in morality was not valid, for – again – the majority view would have been that the conquest itself was a good thing. Further, it could be argued that Western Europe forced its morality on Germany through conquest; and since there is no absolute measure of right and wrong, there is no moral justification for doing so.
Some atheists have suggested that evil is that which causes suffering. That which mitigates suffering is good. However, we may ask on what basis the atheist reaches this conclusion? Why is suffering evil? What if causing some to suffer mitigates the suffering of others? For example, in the Sudan, the government is systematically starving, killing, and enslaving Christians. Is this evil in an atheistic universe? It is causing suffering for the Christians, but the government of the Sudan says that a greater good is being served. There is more food for the Islamic majority. Religious homogeneity is good; the heterodox must be removed. On what basis can the atheist criticize what the Sudanese government is doing as evil?
If the atheist follows the inexorable logic of his worldview to its conclusion, there really is no evil. This view is represented in the radical skepticism of David Hume, who argued that in the absence of God, it is impossible to know anything with certainty.
Few atheists actually live their lives as though they cannot know anything with certainty. Some, like Hume, may take this position philosophically – and I applaud their intellectual honesty in doing so. But few, if any, actually live as though there are no absolutes. Even the staunchest proponents of moral relativism argue as if tolerance were a moral absolute. Indeed, there is an instinctive revulsion most of us feel – atheists included – to acts of evil, even when they are condoned by a local society. Slavery is evil despite the fact that almost every society that has ever existed at least at one time believed slavery to be acceptable.
In their condemnation of evil, atheists are actually “borrowing” from the theistic worldview. Though the atheistic universe does not contain an objective standard by which to determine if an act is good or evil, most atheists behave and think as though such a standard exists. Even if they acknowledge philosophically the lack of an objective measure, and may refuse to be “judgmental” about less consequential matters of morality, they nevertheless instinctively decry wanton cruelty, even if it occurs within a context of societal approval.
Most atheists do not realize the internal inconsistency between their worldview and their “core” beliefs regarding good and evil. When it is pointed out to them, they have one of three choices:
Thus, the Problem of Evil is just as much a problem for the atheist as it is for the theist. Indeed, as we shall see, it is actually a greater problem for the atheist, because Christians have a logical answer for the Problem of Evil, while the atheist does not.
Working All Things for Good
The atheist may, at this point, suggest that while his worldview cannot account for the existence of evil, nevertheless, the Christian worldview is still logically inconsistent on its own terms. The theistic worldview accounts for evil by positing a transcendent, Creator God who is the author of all morality and who has intervened in human history at least in part to communicate that morality to us. However, within that worldview, there still exists an apparent contradiction between that all-powerful and all-good God who allows evil to flourish.
Since we are now considering the Christian worldview, it is appropriate to turn to the Bible and see if we can find within its pages an adequate answer for the Problem of Evil.
First, the Bible tells us that when God created the world, it was originally good. In fact, in Genesis 1:31, God calls all that He has made “very good.” It was when Adam and Eve chose to ignore God’s sole commandment that evil first entered the world. The cause of evil is not God, but sin – the act of supplanting God’s will with our own. But why doesn’t God simply stop people from doing evil things?
The apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the church in Rome that God has made Himself known to all people through the grandeur of His creation (which, perhaps, includes an innate understanding of an objective measure for good and evil), and those who persist in rejecting him are ‘given over’ to their own rebellious nature (Romans 1:24). In other words, God allows those who rebel against Him to reap the consequences of what they sow. Thus, the fact that evil exists – and indeed is so pervasive – merely indicates the inability of humanity to achieve any good apart from God.
But if God is merely allowing those who reject Him to experience the consequences of their rebellion, why does He allow those who believe in Him to also suffer at the hands of evildoers?
Romans 8:28 tells us, “in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose” (NIV). The Greek phrase translated “in all things” signifies a totality – in every thing that happens, whether good or evil, God is working for the good of those who love Him. Thus, when “bad things happen to good people,” the Bible tells us that God is working even in these circumstances for their ultimate good. While it may appear that evil is flourishing in the short term, the Bible declares that God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil to exist, for He is working in all things – including that evil – for good.
The Bible provides an excellent example of this process in the story of Joseph (Genesis 37 – 50). If you are unfamiliar with this story, I invite you to read it in light of this discussion. At any point in the story of Joseph – from the time his father gave him a gift that inflamed the jealousy of his brothers, to the pit, to the slave traders, to Potipher’s wife, to the cupbearer who forgot about Joseph for two years – it was clear that Joseph was suffering at the hands of evil men. Evil might be said to be overcoming Joseph in any one of those circumstances, or in their collective whole. And yet, at the end, when Joseph is reunited with his family, and the nation of Israel is saved, Joseph can declare, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20 NIV). Joseph is rewarded for his steadfast faith – not just at the end, but also through God’s blessing and favor throughout. However, it is only at the end that the vindication of God’s plan is clearly seen and understood. Joseph’s brothers, the slave traders, Potipher’s wife – all are responsible for their individual actions. From their perspective, they acted of their own free will and for their own gain. Yet, in these acts of evil, the Bible portrays God as working and shaping events to His glory and to the ultimate good of those who love Him.
Based on what we have found in the Bible regarding the existence of evil, we may restate the Problem of Evil as follows:
God is all-powerful and all good. Thus, He does not allow evil to exist, except that for which He has a morally sufficient reason to allow.
Or, put another way:
Premise 1: God is all-powerful.
Premise 2: God is all good.
Observation: Evil Exists
Premise 3: God has a morally sufficient, though hidden, reason for allowing the evil that exists.
The addition of Premise #3 removes the logical contradiction in the Problem of Evil. While it may be impossible for us to understand what morally sufficient reason there could be to allow something as horrific as the Holocaust, nevertheless, there is nothing inherently illogical about such a supposition. The Bible declares that God’s ways are higher than ours – indeed, a being who could create the entire universe by speaking it into existence is surely able to work good through any evil Man may create – even an evil as vast as the Nazi atrocities during World War II.
Atheists are free, of course, to reject Premise #3 because it requires faith to believe that God has a morally sufficient but undisclosed reason for allowing evil to exist. But this rejection is not based on formal logic, but is rather an expression of their lack of faith in the first place. Atheists attack the Christian worldview by first arguing that evil is incompatible with God’s power and goodness. When presented with a logical and Biblically sound explanation for the existence of evil, they reject it again on the basis of their lack of faith in God. To quote Greg Bahnsen, “They would rather be left unable to give an account of any moral judgment (about things being good or evil) than to submit to the ultimate and unchallengeable moral authority of God” (Bahnsen, Always Ready, p. 174).
Where, then, is God? He is everywhere and in all things, even in the very heart of darkness, crafting events for the ultimate good of those who love Him. To Him be the glory!
Bahnsen, Greg. 1996. Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith. Atlanta, GA: American Vision. Texarkana, AR: Covenant Media Foundation.
__________. 1998. Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis. Phillipsburg, NJ: R&R Publishing.
__________, and Stein, Gordon. 1985. “The Great Debate: Does God Exist.” This is the famous formal debate between Dr. Bahnsen and atheist promoter Dr. Gordon Stein held at the university of California (Irvine). Available from Covenant Media Foundation (http://www.cmfnow.com).
Sproul, R.C.. 1978. Objections Answered. Glendale, CA: Regal Books.
Wiesel, Elie. 1969. Night. New York, NY: Avon Books.
Yancey, Phillip. 1988. Disappointment with God. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
__________. 1990. Where is God When it Hurts. Grand Rapids. MI: Zondervan.