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 seriously 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.
Mark Farnham is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Pastoral and Pre-Seminary Majors at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, PA. Previously he taught systematic theology and apologetics at the seminary level for eleven years. Prior to that he served as senior pastor in New London, CT for seven years. Mark earned a PhD in Apologetics from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He also holds a Master of Theology degree in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Master of Divinity degree from Calvary Baptist Seminary.