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A Christian Answer to the Problem of Evil & Suffering
The Christian answer to the problem of evil and suffering begins with God himself. When we have a proper view of God, the apparent problems begin to melt away.
First, God is the standard for his actions—whatever he does defines concepts of justice, goodness, love, and mercy. Too many times the supposed problem of the justice of God begins when we mistakenly believe that there is some standard of justice that stands above God and to which God’s actions must conform. Such a view reflects the philosophy of the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. In reality, however, God is ultimate and his character sets the standard for what justice is. We can’t do all that God does, because of our limited knowledge and creatureliness, but God can do as he pleases and whatever he does is just.
Second, some people believe that God needs to justify certain actions recorded in Scripture. However, Scripture makes it clear that God does not need to defend his actions to us. He does not defend himself for giving Adam a wife who led him into sin (Gen. 3:12), or when he tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22), or when Job wants answers for his apparent unjust suffering (Job 23:1-7; 31:35ff; 40:4-42:6). God is the sovereign Almighty Lord who does what he pleases (Psalm 115:3; 135:6; Eccl. 8:3) and owes no one an explanation (Rom. 9:19-21).
Third, as fallen, finite, and created beings we cannot understand the reasons of a perfect, infinite, and uncreated God (Ezek. 18:25). Like a two-year old can’t understand the reasons a parent insists on a necessary medical procedure for the child, so we do not have the capacity to understand all that God ordains in this world. To assume that God does not have a good reason for something he allows is to presume that because we do not understand God’s reasons, He could not possibly have any.
Finally, God is not obligated to show kindness or mercy to anyone, or to deliver anyone from human evil or suffering (Exod. 33:19). Sometimes there is an underlying assumption in objections to God’s existence that fallen humans deserve mercy and a trouble-free life. In reality, fallen human beings deserve nothing but God’s wrath. The fact that God allows anyone to live and experience good in this life is purely by his own benevolent kindness.
An even better Christian answer is that God may have a perfectly good reason for allowing evil and suffering that we cannot know or comprehend. The standard atheistic view assumes that God could not possibly have a good reason for allowing evil and suffering, yet cannot prove that assertion in any way. The Christian answer says that with man’s limited understanding, he cannot possibly know whether or not God has good reasons for allowing suffering.
The Christian response to the standard atheistic view might look like this:
- Premise 1: If God were all-powerful, he would be able to prevent evil.
- Premise 2: If God were all-good, he would desire to prevent evil.
- Premise 3: But there is evil.
- Premise 4: God may have a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil that we don’t know about
- Conclusion: Therefore, God may allow evil for reasons we don’t know, and still be all-powerful, all-good
We understand this in real life. If you see a man standing over a child slicing open the child’s body with a sharp knife, you might assume that what he is doing is evil. But then if you see that the man is a doctor and is performing surgery, your view of the situation changes. You begin to see that the man is actually being good and merciful, even though he is causing pain to the child. In the same way, humans can only see the evil and suffering that God allows from a limited viewpoint. Only God knows the ultimate, eternal plan for evil and suffering that will end in good.
Taking Evil Seriously
Ultimately only the Christian worldview validates that suffering is genuine, yet not meaningless. Unlike worldviews that deny evil and suffering, the Bible fully acknowledges that such things truly exist. Further, the universal human longing to find meaning in suffering is fulfilled only in the Christian faith. Evil and suffering do have a purpose, and they are guided and limited by the all-powerful God of the Bible. Some worldviews, especially those that believe in the evolutionary progress of man tend to minimize evil so they can claim that the world is evolving into paradise.
God does not stand aloof from evil and suffering. Instead, he enters the creaturely experience by taking on humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus experiences every kind of trial and temptation that can be experienced by human beings, yet without sinning (Heb. 4:14-16). He willingly subjected himself to the frustration and sorrow of life in a sin-cursed world, and grieved it passionately. God grieves over evil and suffering (John 11:35). In order to make sure that evil and suffering would not be the final chapter of the story of creation, God himself experienced the greatest suffering in order to ensure an end to suffering. Jesus suffered the ultimate evil and pain by taking our hell on the cross in order to offer redemption and rescue from sin and the curse.
Hope for Deliverance from Evil & Suffering
Ultimately only the Christian worldview has grounds to call evil what it is, to see evil as destructive and awful as it really is, and to provide hope for future judgment on those who perpetrate evil. The Bible tells us that God hates evil and has nothing to do with it (Hab. 1:12; Jam. 1:13-17). Evil is the enemy of God and all he has made. When God brings all things to an end, the devil, Death and Hell are cast into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:10, 14). This speaks of the absolute end of death, evil, and suffering.
Non-Christian views minimize evil, fail to recognize it as such, or are unable to give distinctions between good and evil. The Christian worldview sees evil in all its complexity. First, evil is individual—there is evil in each individual. Second, evil is collective—societies can do evil, such as Nazi Germany, Communist Russia and China, or the murderous tyranny of ISIS in the Middle East. Finally, evil is structural—such as international sex slavery or government corruption. Christianity has a thorough view of evil that considers any failure to keep God’s commands as sinful, rebellious, and mutinous.
The Christian worldview, however, provides a decisive answer for good and evil. God ultimately overcame evil by the death of his Son, Jesus, who conquered the consequences of sin and death by his resurrection (John 16:33). He makes it possible for us to overcome evil by copying his example (Rom. 12:17-21; John 11:25). By Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross we are now victorious over sin and already enjoying the benefit (1 John 2:13-14; 4:4; 5:4).
The very difficult challenge of the problem of evil and suffering in the world is turned into a positive argument for the Christian God once we see the biblical answer to this objection in all its richness and complexity. Apart from the Christian faith, there is no meaning and purpose in suffering. Human evil will go unpunished and most people in the world are destined for a lifetime of hopeless victimization at the hands of others and cruel nature.
In the Christian worldview, however, we have answer, meaning, purpose, and most importantly, a loving, sovereign God who guides all things for his own glory and the good of his children. Rather than this objection being an insurmountable wall, it is a doorway into fruitful evangelistic and apologetic conversations.
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.