Theodicy: The Problem of Evil
“If God is good and holy, then why is there pain and suffering in the world?”
This is a commonly asked and entirely understandable question. As we look around and take stock of the world, the pain and suffering present can make us question if good exists at all – let alone God. The problem of evil often shakes the faith of men and women, giving place to doubt and hopelessness.
Sometimes, those who are faced with such a question do their best to answer from a Christian understanding, yet sadly in other instances such questions are ignored or dismissed, or worse yet used in an attempt to disprove the very existence of God. Often both theists and atheists confronting this issue of evil in the world are left unsatisfied by the answers they’ve been given.
Atheists will argue that since God is said to be omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent that the reality of evil presents a contradiction so great that it disproves His existence entirely. Essentially, as articulated by Epicurus if God is all knowing then He knows about all the evil in the world, and if He is all powerful then He could stop it and if He is all good then He would want to. Therefore, they conclude, God is not all knowing, all powerful, or all good - so He doesn’t exist at all.
To combat this, some theists will compromise and give up one of God’s divine attributes. Maybe God is not as all knowing as we thought, maybe He’s unaware of evil; maybe He is powerless to stop it for some reason, or perhaps He’s simply not good according to how we define it. While this seemingly resolves the problem of evil in their eyes, it still leaves conflict: If God is not all knowing, all powerful or all good is He really the God revealed in Scripture?
For those who refuse to compromise on God’s omni-attributes they are left trying to resolve the problem of evil, explaining why or how God allows evil into the world. Those who are loyal to Scripture are often faced with certain challenges as this question is based more on philosophy than Scripture.
Some denominations and church traditions prefer to avoid the topic altogether, but as Scripture says we should be ready to give an account of what we believe and why (1 Peter 3:15). If we fail to do so, we are not fully training and equipping disciples of Christ and leaving them with a potentially fatal flaw in their doctrine.
In 1710, German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz introduced the term when he published a work entitled Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil.
In another of his works, The Monadology, he argued that this world was the “best of all possible worlds”; outlining his theory in five parts:
God has the idea of infinitely many universes.
Only one such universe can actually exist.
God’s choices are subject to sufficient reason – God has reason to choose one thing or another.
God is good.
Therefore, the universe that God chose to exist is the best of all possible worlds.
Critics would come to challenge Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds”, and others still would go on to respond to those criticisms as both theists and atheists struggled with the problem of evil.
Moral & Natural Evil
People often think of evil as anything which is unpleasant or bad. However, Scripture addresses two distinct categories of evil: Moral Evil and Natural Evil. These are important distinctions that must be understood when discussing the Problem of Evil.
Moral Evil is that which is caused by people, such as murder, theft, rape, etc. Whereas Natural Evil is that which can cause pain and suffering but is not attributed to human activity, such as earthquakes, drought, tornadoes, etc.
When we say God doesn't create evil, we are referring to the category of Moral Evil. For example, God does not force people to murder and rape. However, in the category of Natural Evil, that which can cause death or pain, God does often use such calamities in an act of judgment against Moral Evil.
The Other Problem of Evil
Another issue with the problem of evil is actually defining what evil is. Many in both camps approach the topic believing evil is a created substance, but then the inevitable question is “why God would create evil?” But this is not the orthodox Christian perspective. In historical Christianity generally speaking Moral Evil is not a created thing but rather an absence of good.
In mathematics if we were to account for the value of evil, we would do so with a value of zero.
Evil as Absence
Imagine for a moment that you are an astronaut working for NASA, or SpaceX. You’ve been sent to Mars, but not to worry – your employer has thought of everything. They’ve built a bio-dome to keep you safe, meeting all your needs; oxygen, food, water, even companionship with other astronauts.
When you first arrive on the red planet you enjoy all that this bio-dome has to offer. However, one day a fellow astronaut is peering through the glass walls, staring off in the distance at a mountain range. He asks you if you know what’s on the other side.
At first you shrug off his question, but as the days pass you find yourself staring out at the desolate landscape wondering what is beyond that mountain range. Eventually, this thought becomes an overwhelming compulsion driving you mad. Until, one day in a fit of insanity you burst through the airlock, intent on discovering what lay beyond. Now, immediately your eyes begin to water and burn and your lungs feel as though they will burst.
Here in this moment we see two types of men. One who comes to his senses and returns to the source of life and goodness as fast as possible. And another type of man who looks back on the safety and security that he once enjoyed and despises it – blaming NASA/SpaceX and the bio-dome for his current suffering, and becoming all the more determined to press onward until he eventually collapses and dies.
Similarly, God is good and love and the source of all good things. Apart from Him there is absence of love and all good things - which is pain, suffering and death. While this analogy is far from perfect, it does underscore the aspect of sin as absence of God’s provision experienced when one rejects it.
It is understandable to question the problem of evil, suffering and death but we must realize such things are contrary to the nature and provision of God and are the result of departing from Him.
In The Beginning
In the beginning there was God and He created the heavens and the earth. Everything that is, was created by God from nothing. God is good, God is love. When God made everything He declared it was good. Creation as God intended it was perfect; free of evil, suffering and death. Death, toil and suffering were not part of God’s plan for the world. Death and suffering are the result of people going against the will of God. Once man introduced sin into the world it spread like a cancer, corrupting and affecting God’s perfect creation. This is often referred to as the Freewill Defense.
The Free Will Defense
God is good, perfect and holy. He made man in His image and likeness, thus maximized the goodness in the world by creating beings with free will. That freedom means that we have the choice to do good or rebel and do evil things. God does not create evil, but evil can’t be avoided without depriving us of our freedom. A world without freedom is not a good world.
Here we see God’s attributes protected while providing justification for God allowing evil into the world.
The Patience & Mercy of God
Scripture tells us that God is patient and longsuffering, not willing that any should perish. So while we look around and see horrendous evil in the world, Scripture tells us that God sees it also. Moreover, Scripture tells us God hates it. However, God’s desire for men to repent and return to Him and live is so great that He endures much evil.
Our State as Evil
Scripture tells us that to be wicked is to go astray from the state God created and intended us for. One problem everyone faces is the realization that everyone falls short of God’s perfection and has at times engaged in evil. We’ve all lied, stolen or done some wicked thing during our lifetime.
If we object to the patience and mercy of God, we inevitably condemn ourselves. Thus any charge against God’s allowing evil, is in fact a demand we be destroyed. We are fortunate indeed that God is patient and loving and merciful!
Forgiveness & Redemption
God has always freely pardoned the repentant. We see in Isaiah 55:7 that He calls the wicked and unrighteous to cease their evil and return to Him, promising to freely forgive them. However, forgiveness alone was not enough.
While God may forgive men the evil they commit, that forgiveness does nothing to address the consequences for that evil. It is true that God could have simply refused to forgive sinners, or that He could have forgiven them and left them to die and forever be prisoners of the grave, but we are told He had other plans.
Scripture says the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil, break the hold of the grave and reconcile those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong futility. Because God has forgiven sinners when they return to Him, He chose to redeem mankind through the incarnation and work of Christ. Now, not only have we been forgiven, we’ve been given a promise of complete redemption and eternal life for those in Christ.
According to Romans 9:22, although God wanted to punish evil He has endured patiently, affording everyone time to repent and return to Him
The Judgment of God
Scripture also tells us that God does pronounce judgment against evil. A time comes when He will no longer afford the sinner time to repent and they die physically. Moreover, there is a Great Judgment coming where everyone will give an account of what they’ve done. There the unrepentant and rebellious perpetrators of evil will be judged, cast into the Lake of Fire and suffer the second death. Not only will the evil be destroyed, but Scripture tells us that God will throw in death itself.
So we see from God’s perspective a desire for men to repent and return to Him, great exercise of patience to that end, but a terrible judgment against those who persist in evil.
Critics have said that the Free Will Defense only pertains to Moral Evil, those acts committed by people – not Natural Evil like catastrophes, plagues, pain and suffering. Thus critics conclude that the Free Will Defense is insufficient in addressing all the evils of the world, bringing the matter full circle.
However, the problem stems from viewing pain and suffering, that is to say Natural Evil, similarly to Moral Evil, rather than the judgment of God against Moral Evil.
Now the objection is often raise, “What about the innocent who die from Natural Evil?” Clearly children and Godly men and women often experience pain and death from Natural Evil, so how does this reality comport with the Christian understanding of God?
To Live is Christ, to Die is Gain
Orthodox Christianity teaches that to live is Christ, that is to say that a life lived in service of Christ is a life of suffering. We inhabit a world scarred by sin after all. Sin is an injustice, rebellion to God. It is precisely during our suffering that our faith serves as salt and light, demonstrating the goodness of God to a dark world.
Moreover, to die is gain – for we are told to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. For the Christian death is not an evil, but a release wherein we are reunited with God in eternity and delivered from this world so devastated by evil.
So we see that those innocent who die during God’s judgment against evil are not themselves condemned, but rather are rescued. In this light, Natural Evil is only a judgment against the unrepentant evildoers and an escape for the righteous.
Evil is a Distraction
The devil uses the evils of the world to drown out the Gospel – that Good News that evil has been conquered and will be destroyed. So now, while we await the return of Christ and that final judgment and destruction of evil once and for all the devil seeks to mislead and take as many with him as he can.
Evil is in your face, it shouts out about suffering and injustice and screams “There is no God!” Its message is one of hopelessness and defeat, “Why struggle?”
In 1 Kings 19 we see Elijah witness a tornado, an earthquake and wildfire but God was not there. It was in the low whisper that he found God.
That is what evil seeks to distract us from, the gentle goodness, love and mercy God offers to all who would return to Him.
No Greater Answer
All of this having been said there is no greater answer to the Problem of Evil in the world than the incarnation and victory of Christ. In Him we see the fullness of God, a Servant, a Healer, a Redeemer and Conqueror.Sin results in pain, suffering and death. Nowhere do we see this more than when Christ suffered and died - despite being Holy and innocent. He did this to not only confront evil, but to deliver us from it so as to judge and destroy it. He did this as a neon sign flashing in the dark world which proclaims: "I know about the evil, I want to stop it... so I have and I will. Come to me while there is time!"