It’s the most powerful argument out there. Several have stumbled because of it. It’s the skeptics’ go-to reason for rejecting Christianity. It’s the problem of evil. The problem goes something like this:
- God is all-powerful
- God is perfectly good
- But evil exists
The skeptic reasons, if God is all-powerful, he has the ability to stop all the evil in the world. And if God is perfectly good, he would want to stop all the evil in the world. Evil, however, exists in the world. Therefore, God must not exist.
The problem of evil is a powerful argument — the most powerful one in the skeptics arsenal. This is especially the case because of the deep emotional involvement most of us have with suffering. None of us likes suffering. We wish we never experienced it. Yet, we all do.
Loved ones or friends die tragically. We get a terrible diagnosis from our doctor. The money dries up. We experience betrayal from those we thought were closest to us. Mental health issues beat us down. The list could go on.
Furthermore, we’re aware of horrible atrocities that happen all the time. The Holocaust, sex trade, famine, hurricanes, and disease. If God is real wouldn’t he stop these horrendous events?
Is God All-Powerful and Perfectly Good?
In Rabbi Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, he says we’re “forced to choose between a good God who is not totally powerful, or a powerful God who is not totally good.”1Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, 42-43. He goes on to conclude, “It is too difficult even for God to keep cruelty and chaos from claiming their innocent victims.”2Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, 43. In other words, Kushner believed that God was perfectly good and would stop evil if he was powerful enough to do so. Unfortunately, Kushner’s god doesn’t have that capacity.
I believe Kushner presents a false dilemma. I don’t believe it’s necessary for us to choose between the two attributes. More than that, the Bible doesn’t allow us that opportunity. Rather, the Bible presents God as both all-powerful and perfectly good simultaneously.
We read about God’s power in Psalm 147:4-5. It declares, “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name. Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit.”
The Bible also teaches that God is perfectly good. Psalm 5:4 affirms, “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you.”
I could give dozens of other texts to support the duel claims that God is both all-powerful and perfectly good. Rabbi Kushner, while trying to get God off the hook, ends up giving us a god that’s not worth worshipping. After all, who wants a god who isn’t supremely powerful?
Evil isn’t Inconsistent with a Powerful and Good God
We come back to the problem of evil. Does it prove that God doesn’t exist? I don’t believe so.
Consider a parents relationship with their child. Parents allow their children to “suffer” all the time. They impose discomforts on their kids when they make them eat vegetables, take them to the dentist, and force them to get shots at the doctor’s office. The young child doesn’t like these things, finds them terribly inconvenient, and in some cases uncomfortable, but this doesn’t mean a good and authoritative parent doesn’t exist.
On the contrary, it’s precisely because the parent loves their child that they require these discomforts. More than that, the parent is in a better position to know why the dentist, shots, and vegetables are good for the child despite the child’s protests.
Now, if the understanding gap between a parent and a child is wide, the gap between God’s understanding and ours is infinitely wider. Thus, if children can’t understand why parents allow them to suffer, should we be surprised when we don’t understand why God allows us to suffer?
As far as I can tell, it’s not logically incoherent to say that an all-powerful, perfectly good God allows human suffering.
Biblical Principles of Evil and Suffering
One can’t always know why God allows certain evils to occur. He doesn’t give us a one-to-one correlation manual. Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God.” With that being said, God does give us some general principles that help explain some of the purposes of suffering.
1. Man’s Sin Led to Evil and Suffering
When you read the Bible, you realize God created the world perfect in every way — no evil or suffering. Humans, though, rejected God, and as a result, brought sin and evil into the world. Therefore, the world we live in now isn’t the same world God created. Human sin has led to all the suffering in the world.
2. God Ordains Suffering to Judge the Wicked
We read numerous times throughout Scripture where God brought suffering on Israel or other nations for their acts of wickedness. We can think of this in contemporary terms of God bringing judgment on the Nazis or ISIS by destroying their armies and killing their leaders.
3. God Ordains Suffering to Discipline his Children
The book of Job forces us to pump the brakes on automatically assuming God is disciplining someone for their sin when they experience suffering. We shouldn’t, however, rule out the possibility. Hebrews 12:10-11 states, “God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.”
Like a loving parent who disciplines their child with the hopes that the correction will help that child flourish as a human being, God sometimes disciplines us because he loves us and wants what is best for us. And, sometimes, like that child who doesn’t understand how the parent expresses love through the discipline, we, likewise don’t always understand God’s discipline either.
4. God Ordains Suffering for our Growth
It’s no secret that comfort leads to complacency. C. S. Lewis famously recognized, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”3C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 93. To ignite growth within us, God allows us to experience suffering.
The Apostle Paul tells us, “But we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom 5:3-4). For Paul, he could “glory” in his suffering because he recognized God was growing his Christian character.
Think about the kid who gets everything handed to him and never goes through any pain in his life. What do we say about that person? They’re a spoiled brat! Right? We wouldn’t be any different if everything went our way all the time. We wouldn’t develop character traits such as humility, compassion, or mercy. Furthermore, just about every person who has gone through difficult times can look back on their experience and say they learned something valuable from their hardship.
5. God Accomplishes Good through Evil and Suffering
From our vantage point, we don’t have the ability to see how God is working out his perfect plan through human suffering. But the Scriptures affirm that God is working out all things — including evil and suffering — according to the council of his will (Eph 1:11).
Take, for example, the story of Joseph. His brothers committed all kinds of evils against him. They kidnapped him, threatened to kill him, and eventually sold him into slavery. At the end of Genesis, though, everything comes full circle as Joseph is the vice president of Egypt and his brothers are standing before him. At that moment he pronounced to them, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20).
Joseph understood that God had ordained all of his suffering for a good purpose — to eventually get him into a position of power where he could save many people, including the nation of Israel. Now, we might not always be able to see the bigger picture like Joseph could, but we can be confident that God accomplishes greater goods through the evil and suffering we face.
6. God has an Answer to Evil and Suffering
God doesn’t remain aloof to all our evil and suffering. Instead, he chose to enter into it in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus endured suffering, pain, and agony for the purpose of eradicating it altogether. The author of Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we have, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).
In other words, God’s given us an answer to our suffering. It’s Jesus. It’s not a philosophical argument or abstract idea. After all, who wants to hear philosophical reasons in their midst of their suffering? Nobody. Rather, we want people to be with us. We want their presence. And this is precisely what God has done for us. He’s joined us in the trenches of our pain and guarantees he will bring it to an end someday.
Similar to Joseph, here is another instance where great evil occurred (the most innocent man to ever live was betrayed and crucified on a cross), yet God has accomplished the greatest good through it (salvation to the world).
The Problem of Evil Turned Upside Down
Much more could be said about the problem of evil, but I’ll only make one more point. It seems to me that the problem of evil, though the skeptics’ primary weapon, can actually be used against them. You see, when they ask why there is so much evil in the world, they presuppose that objective evil exists. And if objective evil exists, then objective good must exist too.
That is, you can’t know that something is wrong, unless there’s an objective standard to measure it against. For example, you don’t know a 45% is a bad score on a test unless you know the standard is 100%. Without the standard of 100%, a 45% wouldn’t have any meaning. In the same way, without the standard of good, the so-called evils in the world wouldn’t be evil after all. They’d just be. But if objective moral categories exist — like evil — there must be someone who established the universal moral standards, and that someone is God.
C. S. Lewis made this point a while back. Formerly an atheist himself because of all the evil and suffering he saw in the world, Lewis had an epiphany of sorts. He writes, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”4C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.
So while the problem of evil is difficult to answer, it actually proves, rather than disproves, God’s existence.