Many have lost their faith, others never had faith, for this reason. It appears as a blatant contradiction at the heart of Christian theology. How can we say that God is good, and that nothing is impossible for him, when so many things happen that no good God would want?
But the problem of evil is not only a barrier to faith. It also affects Christians at a practical level. Why should we work so hard to feed the hungry when God could feed them in an instant with no effort whatsoever? Why strive to preach the gospel to people when God could reveal himself to them without our involvement? Is the God of love really going to let people burn in hell for eternity because some Christian missed an evangelism opportunity? Why would God answer my prayer for sunny weather when he apparently couldn’t stop a Tsunami from wiping 250,000 people off the planet? Why would God exercise divine intervention to give me the parking space I pray for, and yet refrain from intervening to prevent 6,000,000 Jews from being slaughtered in the Holocaust?
That is why it’s simply not enough for Christians to ‘just have faith’ that God has his reasons even if we can never understand them. The way we understand evil and how it relates to God has an impact on every area of our lives: prayer, social action, mission, evangelism. We must engage with the problem of evil in order to understand these things well.
Breaking Down the Problem
This blog post is primarily about the problem of evil, not pain & suffering, although of course the two are connected. Pain is harder emotionally, but easier theologically, to understand and accept. Not all pain is evil – indeed, Scripture tells us that some pain is a remedy for evil (Rom 5:3-4; 1 Peter 1:6-7, etc.). Nor is it hard to see that God, who is wiser than us, may have reasons we can’t grasp at our present stage of maturity, for putting us through things we don’t like, just like a small child can’t see the reasons for things its parents put it through. Scripture doesn’t spell out the reasons for suffering (or perhaps it does and we are too immature to understand them), but it does promise that present suffering leads to future glory (see e.g. Rom 8:18; 2 Tim 1:8), comparing it to the suffering of an athlete-in-training who wants to win the greatest prize (1 Cor 9:25-27). In other words, we are assured that everything we go through is meaningful and promised that it will be abundantly worth it for us from the eternal perspective.
Evil, on the other hand, is the bigger intellectual problem for Christian theology. Evil is contrary to God’s will by its very definition. No pain or suffering would be good or necessary if it weren’t for evil. The problem can be divided into three separate questions.
- How is evil possible? If God is both utterly good and the source of all reality, then how could evil ever have come into existence? How is it even conceptually imaginable?
- Why is evil real? Why didn’t God create a Universe in which no evil would ever happen?
- Why does evil continue? Why doesn’t God intervene to stop the evil and injustice that is going on in the world?
1. How is Evil Possible?
If God is the source of all reality (as I said in a previous post), then is God also the source of evil? Christians have always emphatically denied this conclusion, because we believe that God is perfectly good. But if evil didn’t come from God, and everything that exists did come from God, then where did evil come from?
This is the least troubling question emotionally, but the hardest intellectually. Nonetheless, here is where we must begin, at the most abstract and theoretical level, because our approach to this question lays the foundation for everything that follows.
The Bible essentially says nothing about this particular question. But that very fact is interesting enough to be worth pausing to think about. Was the Bible written by idiots and fools? Why didn’t they think of this gaping flaw in their depiction of God? Or was the Bible written by upper-class ivory tower academics, who invented the idea of a perfect, all-powerful supreme being while sipping tea and eating scones, oblivious to the violence, poverty and injustice of the real world?
Neither, as it happens. But what the people in Bible times had, that we in the modern age lack, is the assumption that not everything that is true can be understood by the human mind with perfect logical precision. In ancient times, humanity was not the centre of the knowledge-universe. This meant that something could be true even if we didn’t fully understand it. But in the modern age we assume that if something doesn’t make total sense to us then it doesn’t make sense at all. We see no difference between ‘reality itself’ and ‘our comprehension of reality’.
We Westerners are more like ivory-tower academics than anyone in Bible times. The level of pain, suffering, death, disease, famine, war and injustice was a pervasive reality present to everyone at all times in the ancient world. It is we who have forgotten what life has normally been like in every age and culture other than our own. The belief in a good, all-powerful God was produced by a people who were constantly downtrodden, oppressed, enslaved for 400 years, persecuted, homeless refugees in the desert for 40 years, who were invaded, massacred and exiled repeatedly. Yet they insisted, again and again, that God is ‘The Lord Almighty’, the maker of all things, that nobody can thwart his will, and also that he is good, holy, loving righteousness and hating wickedness.
In my post ‘What is God?’ I used the analogy of flatland to attempt to show how there might be dimensions to reality that are by definition beyond our grasp. But the point of the analogy was that we can grasp a tiny corner of it. We can grasp a tiny corner of how evil is possible by noticing that everything in our world has a kind of shadow-side. Dark is not the opposite of light, strictly speaking, but only the absence of light. Cold is not an energy opposed to heat, but only what happens when heat is not there. A rip in a garment is not part of the garment, but only a corruption. So to follow the analogy: evil is not a positive substance in itself, but only a corruption, distortion, or tear in the fabric of reality.
As to how a tear in the fabric of reality is even conceivable, I think that is the point at which our human speculation must end. But let us notice this: the problem of evil is not an intellectual inconsistency for Christians alone. It remains an unsolved problem for every worldview. Evil, by definition, is what-ought-not-to-be. And something that ought-not-to-be can’t possibly have a fully rational explanation. To give it a rational explanation is to give it a rightful place in the Universe. But that is precisely what evil cannot have, by its very definition. Also, one cannot believe in evil without also believing in good. If there was no good, there would be no evil. But the same is not true the other way around. Good can exist without evil, but evil cannot exist without good.
2. Why is Evil Permitted?
Why didn’t God create a Universe in which evil would never become reality?
I am going to begin by rejecting one answer people sometimes give to this question. This is that God can bring about greater good through evil than he could have brought about without it. I reject this answer because of the foundations laid in the first question. To make good dependent upon evil is to give it a reality that does not belong to it. It is to give it a rightful place in the Universe. But evil, by definition, does not belong, has no rightful place. Evil, by definition, is what-ought-not-to-be. To give evil a necessary place in producing good, is to make evil part of God’s original plan, which is to place evil in the heart of God.
However, it is not the same to say that a certain type of goodness depends on the risk of the possibility of evil. Evil is never part of God’s will, but a situation which makes evil possible can be part of his higher will.
God created us in order that he might love us for eternity, and that we might love him. But love, to be real, requires that it be a free choice. Love compelled is no love at all. If it is a choice then it contains, by definition, the possibility of choosing not to love. So love requires the possibility of evil, and freedom gives us the power to make that possibility a reality. Once, our ancestors made that possibility a reality. We are living in the world that resulted.
Furthermore, God didn’t create us only to love him. He created us also to love each other. If God’s creatures are not to be eternally isolated from one another, they must be given the possibility of loving one another. But the possibility of loving one another includes the possibility of refusing to love one another. The beauty of love between creatures requires the possibility that creatures will hurt each other instead.
What about natural disasters such as Tsunamis or earthquakes, in which no human choice seems to play a part? Two answers. First, human beings are not the only free, rational creatures in God’s creation: there are angels and demons too, and these have an influence over the workings of the world. I am not saying that we can use ‘demonic forces’ as an excuse for anything we don’t like, but we must remember the biblical picture: all kinds of spiritual powers are at war in the heavenly realms, and we don’t know what side-effects they may have on the world we can see. Second, natural disasters pertain more to the problem of suffering than to the problem of evil. If an avalanche falls and kills someone we know, we rightly grieve. But we also trust that God knows the bigger picture, that the deceased person is now in his loving arms, and we shall see them again one day in paradise. We must always remember that, from the eternal perspective, this life is short like the blink of an eye, and any happiness we attain on earth is nothing compared to what awaits us.
3. Why Does Evil Continue (‘How Long, Oh Lord’)?
Granted that evil is possible, and granted that there are good reasons to allow humans to make it real, why does God allow it to continue? Why does God seem active/present sometimes in some places, and passive/absent other times and other places? Why doesn’t God stop the spread or ongoing influence of evil every time it begins? Furthermore, if God doesn’t do this, does this mean he is losing control of the situation? Does this mean that he no longer has rulership over the world?
To answer this many Christians take one of two routes. First, some back away from the idea of God being perfectly good. Some hard-line Calvinists simply say that whatever happens must be ordained by God, however evil it may seem to us. It is not for us to judge what is right and wrong. God is sovereign his will always prevails. The problem with this position is simply that evil, if it has any meaning at all, means something contrary to God’s character and will. To be sure, our understanding of what is right is imperfect and God’s is perfect. But our understanding is not nothing at all, or else we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between God and the devil.
Second, others back away from the idea of God being all-powerful. Some theologians, looking at the extreme levels of suffering and injustice in the world, cannot bring themselves to imagine that a good and loving God would be able to end the suffering, and yet would choose not to. So they conclude that he must be unable to end it for some reason. They redefine our definition of God, saying that we should look only to Jesus to see what God is like. Jesus came into the world weak, vulnerable, helpless, and he was rejected and abandoned. They say that this is what God is like: not the aloof and almighty judge on high, but one who suffers with us, who shares our pain, knows our distress, and remains with us in it.
Now there is some important truth in this. Since the crucifixion of Jesus, God is present in the midst of extreme pain and suffering in a very special way. He has gone through the anguish of abandonment, betrayal, loneliness, rejection, and extreme agony and now he can be ‘present’ to it – connect with those who experience it too. The cross has much to say about the theology of suffering and of evil. Whatever purposes God has in suffering, he takes upon himself the lion’s share of it.
But we must never forget Matthew 26:53, where, right before being crucified, Jesus says to his disciples, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” In other words Jesus points us to the God who is still all-powerful, even in our weakness which he shared for a time. God was able to rescue Jesus from his suffering – and Jesus was able to invoke that rescue, yet both God the Father and God the Son jointly chose to go through with it. If we identify with Jesus, then that identification has to go all the way. Jesus, the “one whom God loves,” suffered more than any of us will ever suffer. In one sense God could never have willed Jesus to be tortured and killed because God cannot will anything evil to happen. But, granted the evil and depravity that have already invaded the world, God deemed it fitting that it should be dealt with in this way. For those who join themselves with Jesus, and become united with him in his death, we are invited to join with him in suffering for the gospel, participating in the groaning of creation.
So if we neither diminish God’s goodness or his power, we are left with the problem. Why does God not rush in to the aid of the oppressed, the sick, the poor, and put an end to all violence and injustice forever?
The Bible gives three types of answers to this. First, the book of Job reminds us that God’s ways are so much higher than ours that we are unable to understand them. We cannot know in full why God allows injustice and sickness to continue, although we are sometimes given tiny incomplete hints, such as the one given in Job 1. We don’t know exactly why it has to be this way or last this long. But in the book of Job, God assures us that he has his reasons, and to say that we don’t know the reasons is not the same as believing that there aren’t any. God has the ‘big picture’ and we don’t. We have a choice like Job’s choice: do we trust him or not?
Second, rather than reflecting on the problem abstractly in the 3rd person, the Psalms address God in the 2nd person with prayers of lament and intercession: “God, why do you seem so distant! Do something, please!” These psalms are meant as an example for us to follow when we identify with their words.
Third, throughout the Bible we are promised again and again that there is coming a time when all suffering will cease, all pain and sorrow will end, God will wipe every tear from our eyes, and we will dwell with him in unutterable happiness forever. The Bible offers an incredible hope – the greatest hope imaginable. The promise of a future when everything will be put right, once and for all, and evil will never again be given any rule.
All three of these answers presuppose that we can’t fully ‘solve’ the problem of evil in this life. We can’t produce an airtight theological system which has everything nailed down, and leaves nothing open to mystery. But would we even want such a system, really? We’re speaking about the transcendent God, the one beyond all reality, beyond all power, beyond all comprehension, whose ways are higher than ours, whose wisdom is beyond grasp. If we could totally understand everything about why this God does what he does, would he be what we mean by God? Or would that be an idol of our own making?
Suffering can be relative to the age of the individual. For a two year old child, to be fed something they don’t like could be seen as the end of the world, the worst possible thing that could happen. It calls greatly into question whether its parents love it. But that is only because the child hasn’t lived very long: this could, in fact, be the worst suffering it has ever experienced. But the parent knows how much more life there is, and how the child will remember it, if they remember it at all, in 20 years’ time. The child can’t imagine 20 years’ time because its own experience is so limited. So the child’s choice is simple: to trust that the parents really do love it, or to rebel and be miserable. And perhaps we, when we are faced with suffering in our own lives, are like that two-year-old child from God’s perspective. We don’t know how that suffering will look to us when we are in heaven. What we do know is that we will see its true meaning and purpose, where sometimes now we can’t see that.
But modern society thinks of human beings not as children, but as grown-ups. The Western world demands total comprehension and rejects mystery. We live in an age which puts a high value on complete explanations and which ridicules any worldview that still retains a place for mysteries, too deep for the human mind to fathom. Therefore Christians are put under an enormous amount of pressure to remove all the mysteries in their faith and to present a complete, perfectly understandable and coherent understanding of the world.
I confess I am trembling in my boots while writing this post. I am not sure if I can live up to the ideal it puts forward, or maintain this kind of perspective whenever I face terrible suffering or encounter horrendous evil. But I do not believe that I have any choice about it. I may not be strong enough in the time of trial, but I can at least have an idea, right now, of what it would mean to be strong enough. At every moment, both now and when I face evil, like every human being, I am faced with a stark and simple choice between hope and despair. To remove or avoid evil is not possible. To understand or explain it fully is beyond the scope of human knowledge at present. In the meantime, I would rather live in full-blooded, absolute hope, than half-hearted hope. I refuse to settle for half-belief in a half-good, half-powerful God who does not pervade every atom and every moment of my existence. The choice before me, like the choice before everyone, is whether to trust this God or remain in the darkness of doubt and confusion.
We are not the centre of the ‘knowledge Universe’. There are things that are real even if we can’t fully understand them. Nor are we the centre of the ‘mission Universe’. God will accomplish his will in the world with or without us. We should not worry about the eternal destiny of non-Christians, except where it is part of our calling to do something about it. God will not send anyone to hell because we didn’t go on a mission trip to Afghanistan or evangelise to the next-door neighbour. But if God calls to love our neighbour by sharing the good news, or even to mission in Afghanistan, then we are missing out on a glorious calling if we disobey him – and, like Jonah, probably causing ourselves misery in the long run. It is true that the evangelical church sometimes forgets God’s omnipotence in the flurry of mission and social action. But if considering the problem of evil forces us to rethink our doctrine of mission, then it can only be to our benefit. Our place in God’s plan is small. The mission of the Church does not belong to us. It is first and foremost God’s mission. Let us entrust it to him, and work joyfully where he sends us as labourers in his vineyard. Let us pray to him whenever the problems in the world present themselves to us. Let us lament to him whenever we or those we love experience the effects of evil. And let us fight constantly against any evil we find in ourselves, knowing that it can only bring sorrow. But above all, let us remember that Christianity offers the greatest hope imaginable. There can be no greater hope.
Hart, David Bentley. The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? Eerdmans, 2011.
Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. HarperCollins, 2009.
Wilson, N. D. Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World. HarperCollins, 2013.
(Cover picture: 1993 Rwanda Genocides)