Part 3: The Problem of Evil and Suffering
A Series of Responses to Jon Steingard’s Declaration of Disbelief in God
How could a loving God allow so much evil and suffering in the world? This is not just one of Jon’s main concerns, but the single most prolific objection to the existence of God worldwide. In almost every survey conducted, it is the #1 reason why non-believers say they don’t believe in God, and it is the #1 struggle among believers as well, leading many to disbelief. In the words of renown philosopher, Ronald Nash:
“Objections to theism come and go. Arguments many philosophers thought cogent twenty-five years ago have disappeared from view. A few other problems continue to get a sympathetic hearing from one constituency or another. But every philosopher I know believes that the most serious challenge to theism was, is, and will continue to be the problem of evil.”
This question hits each person in a different way. For some, it may the genocide committed by a regime in another country, and for others, it may be the death of a son or daughter. It could be the incredible suffering caused by floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes around the world, or it could be the news story of a little girl starved to death by her own parents. For me, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the plight of long-term kidnap victims, such as that of Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus in Ohio, or Jaycee Dugard in California. These girls were raped, tortured, and starved for years on end. All they needed was for God to orchestrate one little instance where someone would have noticed something and they could have been saved from years of abuse. Would that be too much to ask? Questions about evil and suffering can also become very personal. Why are you letting this happen to me? Are you punishing me? Do you care? Are you there at all? These questions will come up in your life and in almost every life that you encounter.
As powerful an objection as this may seem at first, if you are currently a believer, you’ll find that not only should evil and suffering not take the legs out from beneath your faith, but it should help substantiate that belief in God. For the unbeliever, I simply want to show how these things are indeed compatible under the Christian worldview. Before diving in, it’s important to note that there are two aspects of this problem: the intellectual and the emotional. The intellectual answer, which we will be dealing with in this article, is concerned with giving a rational explanation as to why God can co-exist with evil/suffering. The emotional problem is centered on individuals who are personally hurting and have a dislike of any God who would permit such evil and suffering. For them, it’s not actually an issue of logical incompatibility; they simply want nothing to do with a God who knowingly allows all the suffering that exists, thus they choose to believe He doesn’t exist at all. Though more people probably deal with this issue emotionally rather than intellectually, the two become easily intertwined. Thus we must first show that the intellectual problem of evil and suffering is not a proof of atheism.
For the intellectual questioner, the problem resides in the notion that the following five statements cannot all be true:
- God exists.
- God is all-knowing (omniscient).
- God is all-powerful (omnipotent).
- God is all-good, all-loving (omnibenevolent).
- Evil and suffering exist in the world.
Since the whole problem is based on the self-evident fact that evil and suffering exist, for the skeptic then, if God does exist, He either doesn’t know about the evil and suffering in the world (He is not all-knowing), or He doesn’t have the power to do anything about it (not all-powerful), or He doesn’t care (not all-loving). Since giving up one of those attributes seems to contradict our concept of God, then instead they give up the very existence of God. However, two assumptions are being made here. It assumes that (1) an all-powerful being can do absolutely everything and (2) a good being would eliminate all the evil and suffering that He possibly could. Neither of these is necessarily true. First, God cannot do logical impossibilities (i.e. create a square circle or a married bachelor). Second, it’s possible that God in his omniscience may have good reason to allow evil and suffering. Both of these will come into play moving forward. Just as there are multiple arguments for the existence of God, there are multiple answers to the problem of evil and suffering. You can pick whichever one most resonates with you!
The Notion of Evil Requires the Existence of God. This stems directly from the previous article where we used the Moral Argument to help prove the existence of God. Ask anyone how they would define evil. Here are some definitions straight from the dictionary: the lack or corruption of goodness (this presupposes a standard of goodness, just as detecting an error is only possible if you know what is correct); profound immorality (this presupposes a moral standard); a departure from the way things ought to be (this presupposes a design-plan). Every definition points us to God, who is the very standard of goodness or morality and is the grand Designer of the universe. As stated in more detail in the previous article, there can be no objective evil without a standard of what is good, and the only objective standard we can point to is God Himself. Without God, how are certain things objectively evil? Under atheism, we are simply accidental by-products of nature. As famed atheist Richard Dawkins put it, “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference… we are simply machines for propagating DNA… it is every living object’s sole reason for being.” The implications of atheism are far-reaching and quite bleak, and certainly can’t form a solid foundation for calling anything objectively evil.
We Live in a Fallen World. According to the Christian worldview, God created the world perfect, and it was exactly as He intended. There was no sin, no evil, and no suffering. However, when He created humans in His image, He gave us “free will.” Certainly for love to be real and genuine, there must be a choice, or else we would simply be puppets, and there is no pleasure, glory, or satisfaction in creating robots to do one’s bidding. There can be no true love and relationship without the choice to reject God, the choice to worship or blaspheme. It is logically impossible for God to create humans with free will without the possibility of moral evil. God cannot make someone freely do something. According to the Christian Bible, when God created the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, everything was good and perfect, but He did have one rule. That rule was not to eat the fruit of a specific tree. He told them that on the day they ate of the tree, they would gain something they would wish they never had, the ‘knowledge of good and evil.’ He knew that when they chose to disobey, evil and suffering would enter the world, and nothing would ever be the same again. There would always be a human awareness that things aren’t the way they should be. I know that people shouldn’t abuse children, but they do it anyway. If I didn’t know they shouldn’t, then it wouldn’t bother me that they do. That is the very knowledge of good and evil that is so inherent to our very souls, regardless of belief in God or in any other belief system. Evil and suffering are in this world because of man, not God. Man has the free will to do ‘bad’ things to people, and God would need to trump man’s free will in order to stop it directly. Sin affects everyone, not just the one who commits it. In fact, in a world where man is in a state of rebellion against God the Creator, Christians should expect there to be evil and suffering in the world.
This also applies to the question of natural disaster. How does man’s free will explain floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes, which cause incredible suffering around the world? In a general sense, the earth, including natural disaster, reflects the fallen state of mankind. As goes man, so goes nature. According to Genesis, God cursed everything under man’s authority- the earth, the ground, and the weather. In the New Testament of the Bible, Scripture says that natural disasters will only increase as mankind continues to disobey and sin against God. In a more direct sense, the worldwide flood described in Genesis was a direct result of mankind’s rampant evil. This catastrophic flood would have completely changed climate patterns, destabilizing the earth’s crust, and creating the potential for most of the natural disasters we see today. But that’s not all. Man’s own decisions largely affect the amount of suffering caused by natural disaster. If they had chosen to build stronger and taller levees in New Orleans, there would not have been as much flooding due to the hurricane. Some decisions are simply human mistakes or oversight that lead to greater suffering, but most often, it is mankind’s sin steeped in selfishness. Consider earthquakes or monsoons that have affected third-world countries in Asia. The poor in these countries, if they have shelter at all, are forced to live in unsafe housing, which collapse more easily under the stress of natural disaster. If more people were selfless with their money and time, the funds and aid would be more readily available to build more suitable housing. If some corrupt governments didn’t keep the donated money for themselves, aid would be more quickly available and in greater force to help those affected by natural disaster. Can you imagine if the whole world (especially the USA) was focused on helping others rather than gaining power and living luxuriant lifestyles? There is no doubt that even the suffering from natural disasters would be much less.
Suffering Can Be a Result of God’s Discipline and/or Judgment. Certainly this is not always the case, and in many circumstances, this explanation can come across as cold and heartless. However, we cannot ignore the Biblical precedent for this. As for judgment, many would think of examples such as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah due to the endemic evil of those cities. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, He did what any good and just God would do and He judged sin. We ask, Why do bad things happen to good people? But who are ‘good’ people? All have sinned; all have selfish motives at some point. It can be argued that no one is truly ‘good’. We may think God’s judgment is too harsh, but we must remember that the severity of sin’s punishment is a reflection of the position of the person sinned against. If a teenager punches his brother in the face, he may be grounded, but if he punches the President in the face, he may face prison time. The action is the same, but the punishment is based on the offended, not the offender. On the same token, we underestimate the significance of sin in the face of a perfectly holy and righteous God. A righteous and just God cannot turn a blind eye to sin. Similarly, any good and just Father will discipline His children. The imperfect discipline of our earthly parents is vital to our upbringing. Without discipline, we are simply spoiled bratty children of God, rather than the strong, mature men and women that He intends for us to be. Read Hebrews 12:5-11, which more plainly states the necessity of God’s discipline than anything I could write here. Hardship builds character. (See 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, 1 Peter 1:6-7, Romans 5:3-4, and James 1:2-4).
God Can Work Good Out of Evil and Suffering. To start, an important clarification: There is a difference between God causing evil in order to produce a good result, and God allowing evil and working good from it. I am advocating only for the latter. Knowing the past, present, and future, God’s perspective is far broader and greater than ours as finite humans. How could we possibly presume to know if God has reasons to allow certain evils? Who are we to decide whether His reasons are valid? We can’t see the big picture. Consider the chaos theory or the butterfly effect- one small event may have a large and unforeseen effect, only known to God. Sometimes God may allow seemingly terrible things to happen but works great things out of them. A person dies of cancer, but 20 people come to saving faith in Christ at the funeral where the Gospel is preached. An earthquake causes much destruction but sparks a spiritual revival never before seen in that country (as it did in Haiti). In fact, Christianity is spreading most quickly in countries where persecution is the greatest. For those familiar with the Bible, think of the story of Joseph. He was sold into slavery, imprisoned, and wrongly accused. One can hardly find a story with a greater combination of evil (done both by his brothers and Potiphar’s wife), and of pain and suffering. And yet all of this had to happen for Joseph to become one of the most powerful men in all of Egypt, saving countless lives, including those of his own family (Gen. 50:20). What is the greatest evil ever committed in all of history? For Christians, we might say the crucifixion and murder of Jesus Christ, the very Son of God. Jesus may have willingly gone to the cross, but men are still responsible for this greatest of evils. God did not crucify Christ; He allowed Jews and Romans to use free choice to condemn and crucify Christ. However, God used it for His purposes and brought out of it salvation for all mankind and a restored relationship to Him. The greatest good came out of the greatest evil.
God’s Chief Purpose for Us in this Life is Not Happiness. God is concerned first and foremost with the state of our soul and whether we will spend eternity with Him. Dr. William Lane Craig states this best, so I will quote from his book, On Guard, which I highly recommend:
One reason that the problem of suffering seems so puzzling is that people naturally tend to assume that if God exists, then His purpose for human life is happiness in this life. God’s role is to provide a comfortable environment for His human pets. But on the Christian view, this is false. We are not God’s pets, and the goal of human life is not happiness per se, but the knowledge of God- which in the end will bring true and everlasting human fulfillment. Much of the suffering in life may be utterly pointless with respect to the goal of producing human happiness; but it may not be pointless with respect to producing a deeper knowledge of God.
A relationship with our Creator, who loves us more than we can imagine and who provides eternal happiness and fulfillment, far outweighs our temporary earthly suffering. The worst trial will seem insignificant in comparison once we gain a true perspective on eternity and understand it as it relates to the Kingdom of God as a whole.
When it comes to the evil and suffering topic, there are also logical issues to consider when we start demanding that God do certain things to prove His own existence. Where would God draw the line? I love the lyrics from the song “Truth” by Lecrae, which articulate this problem nicely:
Some people say that God ain’t real
‘Cause they don’t see how a good God can exist with all this evil in the world
If God is real then He should stop all this evil, cause He’s all-powerful right?
What is evil though man? It’s anything that’s against God. It’s anything morally bad or wrong
It’s murder, rape, stealing, lying, cheating
But if we want God to stop evil, do we want Him to stop it all or just a little bit of it?
If He stops us from doing evil things, what about lying, or what about our evil thoughts?
I mean, where do you stop, the murder level, the lying level, or the thinking level?
If we want Him to stop evil, we gotta be consistent, we can’t just pick and choose
That means you and I would be eliminated right? Because we think evil stuff
If that’s true, we should be eliminated!
As these lyrics state, we are arbitrarily making demands of God as to how much evil He should be eliminating in order to prove that He exists and is an all-powerful, all-loving God. At the same time, how do we know how much evil and suffering God has stopped and we never knew about it? How many times may God have protected your loved ones from harm or supernaturally stopped a worldwide crisis, and yet we remain completely unaware of His actions? God may well have created a world with the least suffering and evil possible, given human freedom. Finally, just because God has not eliminated all evil and suffering yet, doesn’t mean that He won’t. The Bible says that one day He will wipe every tear from our eyes and there will be no more sickness and pain. So why hasn’t He done it yet? The Bible indicates that He is delaying his righteous wrath and ultimate judgment of evil in anticipation that as many people as possible have a chance to be redeemed. He is delaying everything out of His love for us, as He does not want any man to perish. (See 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).
As of this writing, the two greatest issues in the United States are the COVID-19 pandemic and racial discrimination. One can be considered suffering due to ‘natural disaster’ (barring conspiracy theories which may have merit), and the other an evil stemming from the hearts of man. We could apply many of the above points to these two problems. The equality of humankind and the inherent value of every individual is rooted in the fact that God created every person in His image. Atheism has difficulty finding solid footing on which to say that racial discrimination is objectively wrong. We also can’t see the big picture of the long-term effects of the pandemic crisis and any good that may come out of it. Instead of raising a fist at God for allowing the COVID-19 virus to spread, perhaps we should be on our knees thanking God that the virus doesn’t have a higher mortality rate.
Some may look at the previous points and say, “Well, you are explaining away the problem of Evil and Suffering using the Christian worldview and even examples and verses from the Bible. I am not a Christian, so that doesn’t work for me.” But that’s the entire point. From a secular perspective, it can be hard to believe in a loving all-powerful God in light of the evil and suffering in the world. However, the Christian worldview offers an explanation of how and why these are indeed compatible, if not expected. If you are a Christian, we must remember that no matter what happens in your life, God has already proven His love for you on the cross. In the middle of your circumstances, God has already met the deepest need of your heart. He has paid the price of your sins, and you are united with the One who already conquered death. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage, I have overcome the world. – John 16:33