The Complexity of the Problem
Grappling with the problem of evil is a notoriously dubious endeavor due in part to the complexity of the problem. Therefore, if any viable solutions are to be reached, the specific kind of evil must be recognized and defined, and the theological system in which that evil resides must be identified.
Two Kinds of Evil
The first step toward a profitable discussion of the problem of evil is to identify the kind of evil under consideration. The two categories of evil in the universe are identified as moral and natural. The former is the sin that mankind commits (e.g., murder, rape, neglect, deceit, etc.). The latter is the amoral events and circumstances that come about in nature that cause suffering or pain for God’s creatures (e.g., earthquakes, hurricanes, drought, etc.). In Genesis 3:17–19, Moses presents natural evil as the result of moral evil. Due to Adam’s rebellion and disobedience in the garden, all nature bears the weight of the curse (Rom 8:19–22). John Frame writes:
Scripture … gives us an explicit answer to the problem of natural evil. Natural evil is a curse brought on the world because of moral evil. It functions as punishment to the wicked and as a means of discipline for those who are righteous by God’s grace. It also reminds us of the cosmic dimensions of sin and redemption. Sin brought death to the human race, but also to the universe over which man was to rule.12
In light of the clear teachings in the Scriptures, the presence of natural evil presents no logical problem for the Christian. Therefore, this paper will focus primarily on the problem of moral evil.
Various Theological Systems
Another factor that contributes to the complexity of the problem is the variety of disparate theological systems present within theism. With every system, the problem takes on a unique shape. As Feinberg observes, “The traditional formulation of the problem is too simplistic. There is not just one problem of evil, but rather many different problems.”13
Each system has its own unique set of problems. Therefore, before a solution can be formulated, a theological system must first be established. For the sake of this discussion, it will be helpful to define the meaning and implications of four of God’s attributes, viz., his omniscience, omnisapience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence.
Omniscience ascribes to God an infinite and perfect knowledge of all things both actual and possible.14 Moreover, he knows all events because he sovereignly ordained them. Nothing happens outside of God’s knowledge, decree, and divine sanction. Not only does he see the future, he designs it, working everything out “to the council of his will” (Eph 1:11). Thus, it necessarily follows that nothing exists or operates outside of God’s purview.15 Not only does God decree the good (Eph 2:10), he also decrees the bad (Prov 16:4).
Many theists reject this understanding of God’s sovereign omniscience, concluding that it makes God responsible for evil and casts doubt on his goodness and love.16 In an effort to resolve this tension and absolve God of any wrongdoing, some have sought to adjust the meaning of omniscience, effectively emptying it of all its significance. A fitting example of this is reflected in the writings of Harold S. Kushner. In his popular book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, he concludes that “God wants the righteous to live peaceful, happy lives, but sometimes even he cannot bring that about. It is difficult even for God to keep cruelty and chaos from claiming their innocent victims.”17 In an effort to maintain God’s goodness and love, Kushner compromises God’s knowledge and power. According to Kushner’s theological system, God is not responsible for evil because God is powerless to prevent it, restrain it, or end it.18 Although this position resolves the problem of evil, it does so at great and terrible cost. As Wayne Grudem effectively cautions:
If evil came into the world in spite of the fact that God did not intend it and did not want it to be there, then what guarantee do we have that there will not be more and more evil that he does not intend and that he does not want? And what guarantee do we have that he will be able to use it for his purposes, or even that he can triumph over it? Surely this is an undesirable alternative position.19
To a lesser degree, the Arminian system is also guilty of stripping God of his knowledge and power by its position on human free will.20 In this system, God cedes his sovereign authority to his image-bearers by giving man the freedom to make his own decisions and choose his own path. In his divine wisdom, God determined that creating free beings with the potential for evil was of greater value than creating a perfect world filled with preprogrammed automatons. In this system, evil originates in the free choices of man and for that reason God is not responsible for it.21 Although this explanation harmonizes the existence of God and evil, it does so at the expense of God’s sovereignty and should therefore be abandoned.
Rather than creating trouble for the believer, a proper understanding of God’s sovereignty should bring profound confidence and peace. For even in the face of the greatest of evils, the Christian can be assured that God remains in control. As powerful and dominant as evil may appear, it can never step outside the bounds of God’s sovereign design. Perhaps the clearest display of this is witnessed in John’s prophecy contained in the book of Revelation. Within this book, John describes some of the vilest evils imaginable wreaking havoc upon the earth. Yet in spite of their commanding authority and extensive influence, John is clear that God reigns supreme. For every evil John describes is limited by God in its scope (e.g., Rev 9:1–21) and in its duration (e.g., Rev 17:1–18:24).
God’s wisdom is directly tied to his knowledge. Possessing a full and perfect understanding of all facts both actual and possible, in infinite wisdom God applies the greatest means in order to bring about the highest ends.22 The necessary implication of God’s wisdom is that our world, with all of its evils and imperfections, is the best of all possible worlds.23 This is a presupposition that is foundational to any discussion of the problem of evil. As Van Til notes, “It goes without saying that this self-sufficient God, who controls all things and knows all things because he controls them, can use the best means to attain his end. But what are the best means? They are those that God sees fit to use.”24 Although it may not be apparent to finite man, it must be affirmed that this world is the best possible means of accomplishing the greatest possible ends. The character and infinite wisdom of the Creator demand this conclusion.
As noted above, J. L. Mackie defines omnipotence as the limitless power of God. It is upon this definition that his deductive argument rests. Yet is his definition biblically valid? Although there are several passages in Scripture that seem to suggest that God’s power is unlimited (e.g., Job 42:1–2; Matt 19:26), the Bible explicitly states that God cannot do everything.25 Instead, “God can do all things consistent with his nature and purpose.”26 God can only do that which he wants to do. The scope of his power is not limited by any external restraints (Dan 4:35), but rather by his own nature. God walks in conformity with his laws and standards not because he is subservient to them but because they are a reflection of his being (Lev 19:2).
As it relates to the problem of evil, one of the things that God cannot do is actualize contradictions.27 He cannot, for example, create a square circle or make two plus two equal five, for such a contradiction would be in violation of his nature. Understanding God’s omnipotence within these parameters sets the course for addressing the faulty assumption that “a wholly good omnipotent being would eliminate evil completely.”28 As Feinberg argues, when presented with the decision of creating a world like ours or a world without evil, “God had to choose between actualizing one of two good things. The two goods are mutually contradictory, so God couldn’t do both… . If he removes evil, he cannot also create the best of all possible worlds.”29 Since evil exists, the logical conclusion is that it plays a vital role in the existence of the best possible world.30 Thus, a world without evil would be a world that is less than best.31 Since God cannot create both a world without evil and the best of all possible worlds (i.e., actualize a contradiction), Feinberg rightly concludes that “he is not guilty for failing to do both.”32
The final term to be defined is omnibenevolence. As demonstrated above, in order for the Christian worldview to be a logical contradiction, it must be proven that the goodness of God necessitates the eradication of all evil. If this can be demonstrated, then the presence of evil would nullify the goodness of an omnipotent deity. According to this interpretation, a God that is capable of removing evil yet unwilling to do so is himself evil.
As compelling as the argument appears, it contains a deficient interpretation of the goodness of God. For although God in his goodness is opposed to evil, it does not necessarily follow that he must eliminate evil. Good parents seek to protect their children from as much pain and suffering as possible, but never at the expense of their child’s own welfare. No good parent would refuse necessary medical care for his child in an effort to spare him the pain of the surgeon’s scalpel, nor would he neglect corrective discipline simply to make the child’s life more comfortable. As will be illustrated in due course, God in his infinite wisdom uses even the darkest of evil for the good of his children and the glory of his name (Rom 8:28).
The Validity of the Problem
One final facet to consider before formulating a response is the validity of the problem. When confronted with the problem of evil, a commonly cited objection is that the atheist has no right to use evil to disprove God’s existence since, according to his own worldview, evil cannot exist. Objective moral evil requires an objective moral law, and an objective moral law necessitates an objective moral lawgiver.33 Since the atheistic worldview rejects objective moralism, it must also reject objective evil. Thus, with no basis or mechanism for identifying evil, it is argued that the atheist’s groundless accusations require no serious consideration. Pointing to the contradictions within the atheist’s own worldview (i.e., his belief in relative moralism and objective evil), this objection34 endeavors to end the discussion before it begins.
Although this defense is insightful,35 it does not resolve the tension within the theistic worldview and is therefore not a viable response to the problem. The burden of proof for the theist is not primarily to expose the inconsistencies of opposing worldviews, but rather to give an account for the apparent inconsistencies within his own. As helpful as this observation is, it simply proves that the presence of evil is a problem for the theist and the atheist alike. The responsible atheist raises a valid argument if he limits the problem to that of the theist’s internally inconsistent worldview. For example, if the atheist rests his defense against the existence of God on his belief in the objective reality of evil, then his argument is self-contradictory and therefore invalid. However, if he presents his argument against God by entering, for the sake of argument, into the theists’ worldview and contending that their belief in God and evil is logically inconsistent, then his complaint is valid. Therefore, any worldview that affirms the simultaneous existence of God and evil must give an account for the apparent contradiction that arises.
12 Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015), 157.
13 No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 777–78.
14 It should be noted that although God knows all possibilities, he never sees them as potential actualities.
15 “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (Lam 3:37–38).
16 See the section titled “How Can God Decree What is Evil?” for the author’s response to this accusation.
17 When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Anchor Books, 1981), 62.
18 This errant system of thought is commonly referred to as “Open Theism.”
19 Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 328–29.
20 The Arminian interpretation of man’s freedom is commonly described as contra-causal, non-determinist, or libertarian free will.
21 This theodicy, labeled the “free-will” defense, is presented most clearly in Alvin Plantinga’s book God, Freedom, and Evil.
22 Mark A. Snoeberger, “Systematic Theology I” (course notes, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, Fall 2016), 106.
23 Van Til writes; “Because of his self-contained and necessary knowledge he can, when he chooses, create a universe, and create this universe just as he wants to create it. This is, therefore, ‘the best of possible worlds.’ God’s wisdom is displayed in it” (An Introduction to Systematic Theology, [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007], 237).
24 Introduction to Systematic Theology, 237.
25 For example, he cannot deny himself (2 Tim 2:13), tell a lie (Heb 6:18), or be tempted to sin (Jas 1:13). The reason he cannot do these things is not because he is deficient or inept, but because he will not act against his nature.
26 Rolland McCune, Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Allen Park, MI: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2009–2010), 1:218, emphasis added.
27 Feinberg believes that limiting God’s omnipotence to exclude the logically nonsensical is the essential component to resolving the problem of evil. In this paragraph, I rely heavily upon his strategy to theodicy building. For a concise presentation of his four-part strategy, see No One Like Him, 781–82.
28 Mackie, Miracle of Theism, 150.
29 No One Like Him, 781, emphasis added.
30 As demonstrated in the previous section, the wisdom of God demands this conclusion.
31 This is not to say that the best possible world does not include the eventual eradication of evil (see Rev 21:1–4), but rather the best possible world cannot include the absence of evil from world history.
32 No One Like Him, 782.
33 It is this line of reasoning that has led theistic apologists like Gregory Koukl to the conclusion that “the existence of evil is actually evidence for the existence of God, not against it” (Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing your Christian Convictions [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009], 84).
34 Labeled by Frame as the “Ad Hominem Defense” (Apologetics, 171).
35 The famous Christian apologist C. S. Lewis identifies this observation as a crucial turning point in his own personal journey from atheism to Christianity (Mere Christianity: What One Must Believe to Be a Christian [New York: MacMillan, 1960], 45–46).