The problem of evil is often seen as the most effective argument against the existence of God. How could a good, all-powerful God allow evil to exist?
At the outset, it must be stated that both theists and non-theists approach the issue through the lens’ framed by their presuppositions, and thus arrive at different conclusions. This is crucial to acknowledge because to assume that we can obtain an objective explanation to this issue is a step in the wrong direction.
Evil either draws us to God or pushes us away from him. Evil is the ultimate test of what we believe about God and his goodness. The answer to the problem of evil is not in explaining it, but in addressing the deeper matters of our presuppositions.
Still, the problem of evil doesn’t discredit theism (especially Christianity), and every person who professes belief in God should consider this problem for themselves. Evil shouldn’t give us a reason to disbelieve in God any more than its justification should motivate us to believe in him.
We must reflect on two things that help illuminate this issue: what is our response to a good God, and what is our response to an evil world?
1. Our Response to a Good God
What if God created humanity for its obedience instead of its ability to comprehend the mechanics of a world that cultivated such obedience?
If God is on a higher ontological level than humanity (Isa. 55:9), then it makes sense for his sovereign purposes to be incomprehensible to us. For to explain evil in an exhaustive sense, so as to see the big picture behind all the facets and details, is to rise to the level of God, which is impossible for finite beings anyway.
The crux, it seems, is not with evil or God, but with our limitations and assumptions about the issue. We often assume we can find an answer to it, and we assume God ought to explain himself for the things he does (see Job 38:1-41:34; Rom. 11:33-35). These are dangerous assumptions, for they distort a multifaceted issue into over-simplistic parameters.
When the first humans listened to the serpent (Gen. 3:1-7), they submitted themselves to the Creation instead of the Creator, resulting in an upheaval of God’s good world (1:31; Rom. 5:12). Humanity as a whole is thus faced with an intolerable dilemma: we can conceive God’s mysteries, but we cannot comprehend them (see Eccl. 3:11).
With this dilemma comes the question that is laid before every human: do you trust God, even if you can’t understand him? Perhaps God wants us to trust him even when evil dissuades us. Perhaps he wants us to trust him even when he appears untrustworthy; isn’t this, after all, the greatest form of trust?
Is hope still hope when one is certain of the future (Rom. 8:24)? Likewise, trust in God is only possible when we can’t comprehend his mysteries.
Paradoxes are at the heart of the Christian faith: Jesus is equally God and man; God is “three in one”; Mary was a pregnant virgin; man is saved by faith and grace. Any core concept of Christianity will always be unexplainable. The answers, in a sense, are too big for the questions. The same is true with evil; it’s a paradox to believe that the good character of God allows evil.
There’s more to life than certainty, and only when we can accept that can we start exploring the legitimacy of faith. Love, grace, kindness, forgiveness are all unexplainable by logic. Perhaps evil is also meant to be unexplainable by such means.
For those who disbelieve in God, they merely believe in their own faculties, and since they cannot know God through those faculties, they don’t believe in him. Their answer to “do you trust God?” is found in their trust in something else.
2. Our Response to an Evil World
I can know about Banff, Alberta even though I’ve never been there, but that knowledge doesn’t compare with the experience of going there. Virgins can know about sex, but does that knowledge compare with experience?
Could I know about forgiveness if I never sinned?
Perhaps God wanted to cultivate virtues that can only be obtained through the presence of evil.
What if life is meant to be experienced–the good with the evil–so we are forced to confront our own attitude towards God? A numb life is one that’s ignorant of God and finds him irrelevant, but one that simultaneously endures evil and enjoys good is one that has a better grasp of their own worldview (regardless of what their conclusion about God is).
Experiencing a world riddled with good and evil does not give us a reason to disbelieve in God, but begs us to answer what we think of God and what we think the Created order “ought to look like”; it reveals our presuppositions.
From those presuppositions, then, we must take the next step. The problem of evil is not meant to be an isolated philosophical topic. When evil confronts us, the last thing we care about is the philosophy of it. We want relief. This is precisely where Christianity shows its power. It doesn’t explain evil; it does something about it. Even more, the heart of Christianity, the cross, is the perfect union of good and evil. God shows both mercy and justice, life and death, and light and darkness in the crucifixion of Jesus.
In his death and resurrection we find that God cares, and that he’s willing to do something about evil even if we may not comprehend why it exists in the first place. God himself plunged into evil, suffering it, so that we can follow him into new life that’s found in a renewed world where evil is not possible.
Christianity teaches us that the evil in this world is not comparable to the goodness in the world to come (2 Cor. 4:17). But even now, we have the opportunity to express the world to come now. We “move on” from the problem of evil when we accept it as a reality and join with God in making the world a better place. Will we sit and complain about evil, or will we “repay evil with good” (Rom. 12:21)? Will we follow God’s lead and embrace evil like a firefighter embraces a fire to save the souls inside? Or will we complain about the fire?
If we believe God is who he says he is, and if we believe he has done what he said he’s done on the cross, then we can find peace in knowing that he will do what he has promised, and that is bringing judgment upon all evil. Yet we must realize that the evil in us deserves judgment as well (Rom. 1:18; 3:23). Will we deny the evil that’s lurking inside us? Will we nurture it? Or will we acknowledge it and trust God with it?
The problem with the problem of evil is not found in the theory, but in the way we respond to it.
In addition to writing at A Clear Lens, Alex Aili (B.A. in Biblical Studies) writes short stories and offers his musings about God’s hand in the world at Covert God: Redemption in Shadows. He is a novelist-in-progress who lives in northern MN with his wife and two sons. He thrives on coffee, good pipe tobacco and longs walks in the woods. See what he’s up to on Twitter.
Kreeft, Peter and Tacelli, Ronald K. Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994.
Nash, Ronald. Faith & Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988.
Wisdom, Jeff. Through the Valley: Biblical-Theological Reflections on Suffering. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011.