The so-called “problem of evil”1 is perhaps the most famous of all arguments against Christianity2, most famously formulated by the philosopher Epicurus. It exists in two versions: the logical problem of evil and the evidential problem of evil, but only the former will be considered here3. The logical problem of evil seeks to show that the existence of evil is incompatible with an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent god (such as the Christian God):
- If the Christian God exists then evil does not exist.
- Evil exists.
- The Christian God does not exist.
This syllogism utilizes modus tollens, as does any reductio ad absurdum. Epicurus supports the first premise with a series of questions:
- Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
- Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. [i.e., not benevolent]
- Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
- Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
Only the second question pertains to the Christian God. Therefore the first premise of the syllogism can be understood as:
- If God exists then evil would not exist, because a benevolent God who knows exactly how to prevent evil (omniscience) and is able to prevent evil (omnipotence) would prevent evil.
This premise still has two technical errors, which I will make more sense if we switch to phrasing the argument as a question: “How can a benevolent God exist who allows suffering?”
- The word “allows” should be replaced with “causes”, because God is the cause of every event, including evil (Is. 45:7).4
- The word “now” should be added to the end of the sentence, because there is day in which evil will no longer exist (Rev. 21:4).
Rewording the premise accordingly, we finally have this to work with:
- If God exists then evil would never exist, because a benevolent God would never cause evil.
The argument fails as a reductio ad absurdum because benevolence (or what the Bible calls “goodness”) is not defined the way that the Bible defines it. Epicurus seems to use this definition of goodness: “the trait of always wanting to prevent suffering”. The Bible celebrates God’s goodness in Psalm 145 by saying, “You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.” The same idea is expressed by Jesus in Matthew 5:45 when he says that God brings sun and rain even to the unrighteous: he satisfies their desires. Goodness, therefore, is not the absence of suffering but the satisfying of (some) desires.
Although the argument is unsound, the question of why a good God would cause suffering remains. The Bible states that God does all things for his glory (Rom. 11:36), therefore we can say that God causes suffering because it will, ultimately, produce more glory for him than if there were no suffering at all. Specifically: without evil, there would be no opportunity for God to demonstrate his power over evil, deliver justice to evildoers, contrast his righteousness with evil, or contrast his pleasures with suffering. In other words, suffering creates the opportunity to magnify God’s glorious attributes.
The Bible writers do not address any argument against God’s existence. Atheism is acknowledged and called foolish (Ps. 14:1), but nothing more. Nevertheless, the refutation I provided raises questions that the Bible writers did answer5:
- Does God owe his creatures answer for why he causes my suffering? (Job 42:1-6)
- Does God have the right to demonstrate his glory through his creatures’ suffering? (Rom. 9:19)
- No, God does not owe you an answer, because you should already know the answer: God is infinitely wise and he will do what is best for your pleasure and his glory, as he did with Job. Although Job never wavered from calling God righteous, he expect an explanation. God rebukes Job with a series of questions intended to highlight the absurdity of the creature questioning the creator (Job 38-41). Job repents afterward: “I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You. … Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 42:2-3) New Testament parallels can be seen in Romans, where Paul states that God has predestined all things for the good of his children (Rom. 8:28-30) and that the means through which he ordains this are wise, deep, and unsearchable (Rom. 11:33-36).
- Yes. Paul quotes from Isaiah 45:9-10: “Woe to him who strives with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth! Shall the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ Or shall your handiwork say, ‘He has no hands’? Woe to him who says to his father, ‘What are you begetting?’ Or to the woman, ‘What have you brought forth?'” What authority does the creature have to question the creator?6 God is allowed to do demonstrate his glory in whatever way he pleases. And make no mistake, it pleases God to demonstrate his glory through dealing with sin, whether by mercifully rescuing some unto eternal life or by justly punishing some to eternal destruction: “What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy?” (Rom. 9:22-23)
The Emotional Problem of Evil
While the logical problem of evil is not difficult to dismantle, the emotional problem of evil is much more challenging, because our emotions and our reason are not always in sync. It’s easy, for example, to quote Romans 8:28 as the baseline explanation for why a particular tragedy or atrocity occurred, but it is quite difficult for some of us to convert that reasoning into peace with God’s ordinations.
I will not claim to have answers to the problem of evil that can satisfy your emotions. If you are struggling with the emotional problem of evil, I beseech you to run back to the simple truth that God is wiser than you. I would encourage you to read Job 38-41. May God grant you the same realization that he granted Job. Nevertheless, I still want to offer three reasons for you to delight in God’s ordinations:
- God’s story is the kind of story you already enjoy.
- God’s story includes real justice for evildoers.
- God’s story demonstrates his love for us.
The Greatest Story
Everyone loves a good story: a protagonist overcomes an obstacle, usually at the climax, followed by a resolution. We’re hardwired to find this kind of story emotionally satisfying, especially when the protagonist is an underdog. Who hardwired us this way? God, when he made us in his image. The very type of story that satisfies us the most is the very story that God is writing throughout all of history. God, who humbled himself in the form of a lowly carpenter, is the protagonist who overcame evil (the obstacle) at the climax of human history (the cross and resurrection) and offers us the greatest resolution of all (eternal life in the New Heaven and New Earth). This is why “history” can rightly be called His Story. It began with paradise lost. It ends with paradise regained. And everything in-between points to the cross.
To those who find God’s story unsatisfying: why do you create and enjoy the same kinds of stories? Do your stories not have an underdog protagonist who suffers greatly, an obstacle, a climax, and a resolution? Why the suffering? So that the triumph of the protagonist can be magnified. If there is place in your stories for suffering, why cannot there be place in God’s story? You say, “Because my stories aren’t real.” But if a fictional story containing these elements is satisfying, how much more is a true story that contains these elements? Long story short, it is inconsistent to chide God for doing exactly what we enjoy: creating a good story. “Oh, I love a good story, but I don’t love the particular story God is writing.” Then I refer you back to my earlier point: you fail to acknowledge the wisdom of God.
The Atheist’s Problem of Evil
By now you understand that I do not believe the problem of evil is actually a problem for Christians. But I do think it is a problem for atheists and I will present two arguments toward that end:
- If God does not exist then objective evil does not exist.
- Objective evil exists.
- God exists.
The second argument:
- If God does not exist then evil will not be punished.7
- Evil will be punished.
- God exists.
The atheist will dispute many premises here as a result of his self-deception, but he is a liar: he knows that evil exists and will be punished (Rom. 1:18-20). The purpose of these arguments, then, is not to persuade the atheist (indeed, the arguments beg the question) but to highlight the absurdity of atheism and how it contradicts the human experience. Everyone recognizes (some) evil and desires to see evildoers brought to justice, but given atheism there is no guarantee of justice, unlike in Christianity, where all evil was either dealt with on the cross or will be dealt with in Hell. Given atheism, what justice is there toward the evildoer who never got caught? None. Consequently, if someone finds the Christian answer to the problem of evil unsatisfying, how much more unsatisfying should they find the atheist’s answer?
The Vindication of God’s Love
On the cross, Jesus experienced more suffering than any being in the history of the creation had ever or will ever experience. But do you realize that he did it for sinners like you? God chose to suffer this way so that anyone who puts their faith in his life, death, and resurrection could be free from the eternal suffering that is due anyone who sins. Therefore, God not only knows suffering better than we do but his suffering is proof of his love for his elect. Indeed, Hebrews 12:2 says:
[Let us look] unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Are you neglecting so great a salvation? Or have you believed on the name of Jesus so that you can be united with him in his suffering and his resurrection?
- To call it a “problem” begs the question of whether the associated argument succeeds as a reductio ad absurdum. In my opinion, it should be referred to as an argument with a specific name, such as the Epicurean Argument Against God.
- The argument applies to any worldview with an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent deity, but this article only answers the argument as it is relates to Christianity.
- The evidential problem of evil seeks to show that the existence of evil merely makes the existence of God less probable. Since worldviews can only be refuted through reductios ad absurdum and since a probabilistic argument cannot provide a reductio ad absurdum, I have no interest in addressing this argument.
- Hard determinism immediately rules out the “free will defense” (FWD), which is the name given to a popular defense against the problem of evil: God had to allow evil if he wanted his creatures to have free will. (I assume that “free will” here refers to libertarian free will.) Since it is not possible for any creature (or even himself) to have free will, this cannot be a reason for the existence of evil. Another problem with the FWD is that it implies that there is no free will in Heaven, since evil does not exist there, meaning that Heaven is, in one sense, inferior to a fallen world.
- In both questions I use the term “creature” because the questions apply to animals as well. The suffering that animals experience is the result of the same sin that causes human suffering.
- This is not a matter of whether the creature is allowed to point out whether the creator has done wrong, for God can do no wrong, but simply whether the creature is allowed to protest the means by which God demonstrates his glory.
- The first premise could be changed to “If God does not exist then some evil will not be punished” to appease the atheist, but technically this conditional statement is false because the atheist has no meaningful definition of punishment and therefore it is meaningless to say that, given atheism, some evil is punished.