On this 10th anniversary of the horror witnessed in American and around the world when the ‘twin-towers’ or 1 World Trade Center were attacked (as well as other sites) by Muslim extremists, it seems to be a good time to discuss the problem of evil. The ‘problem of evil’ in Christian apologetics is and has been one of the top apologetic issues throughout history.
Many have pointed to the attacks on 9/11 (September 11, 2001) as a turning point in our generation concerning this issue. The ‘New Atheists’ (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.) began writing their – soon to be popular – books not long after this event. For the atheist, it was the confirmation that religion was truly dangerous. For the rest of us, it brought us face to face with evil in a way many of us had not experienced in our lives of relatively peaceful existence. One’s worldview needed to be able to deal with this kind of event. I believe that when people were actually faced with the reality of this kind of evil, many found their position wanting and began to either search for answers, or to focus the problem on someone else. As Christians, we should be prepared to provide answers.
First, a note of caution: when dealing with evil and suffering, there is a time to ponder it, and come to good philosophical and intellectual conclusions about it, but there is also a time when one is in the midst of grief and suffering. When dealing with evil in the latter sense, it might be best to consider the Biblical book of Job and just ‘be there’ and ‘walk with’ the suffering person. Having this problem worked out before hand will often help in those situations, but usually isn’t helpful to work through in the moment. The best comfort in these times is to know God is in control and that as Christians we know how the story ends!
Whose problem is it?
This seems like a strange question to ask. Certainly evil is everyone’s problem, right? Well, yes it is, but this question gets at a problem with non-theistic worldviews such as atheism. Under atheism, one cannot really have true evil. There can be things which one does not like or that are not beneficial, but these things ultimately just ARE. For something to be good, or conversely evil, there has to be real objective morality, which in-turn requires an objective moral law giver. For example, 2+2=4 is correct and therefore might be ‘good’ in some sense, or at least better than 2+2=5, but there is no morality involved. Making a particular chess move might be ‘good’ or better if the goal is to win the chess game, than making one which loses the game, but again, there is no morality involved. This is about the extent of ‘good’ available to the atheist. It is simply a pragmatic good, not a moral one. To take this a bit to the absurd in order to make the distinction, if a rape passed on some genes which advanced the species, it would have1 to be considered, on the whole, good in the atheist worldview, no matter if it is distasteful in society. But what about the morality of such an action?
When an atheist brings up the problem of evil, it is first a good idea to evaluate why the challenge is being advanced. If the atheist is (like many of the New Atheists are) complaining about the evil they see in the world, it is fair to challenge this assertion based on the above discussion. In THEIR worldview, evil has no real weight or place. They are borrowing from the theist in order to lodge their complaints. At best, on their worldview, they can complain that they don’t like what is going on in the world around them, but it is kind of a matter of ‘tough cookies!’ or ‘deal with it’. Or, to be more diplomatic, ‘I agree, I don’t like that either’ and then do some pushing on that hole in their worldview. Maybe ask how they can have evil without God. Isn’t this just the way things are? If you do much reading of the New Atheists writing in the area of ethics, you will soon find determinism lurking close to the surface. I don’t see any other choice for them, so I appreciate their honesty. One can only put an illusory veneer of ‘choice and behavior’ on top of this determinism of the atheist worldview.
The ‘New Atheists’ especially seem to like to do a lot of this invalid type of complaining about evil. I believe someone said of Sam Harris, that he is really sure there is no God, and he is really, really mad at Him! Their writings are loaded with objections to what sure looks like real evil to me.
However, the atheist might also be basing the challenge on the Christian worldview. In other words, she might be taking Christianity for a test-drive, so to speak, to see how evil fits. She can’t seem to make it fit and is, then, issuing this challenge to the Christian. It is basically a matter of, ‘evil isn’t a problem in my worldview, but I can’t see how evil can fit into a Christian worldview with a loving God.’ This kind of challenge we do need to address. It is a valid challenge.
Is it a problem?
Evil is certainly a challenge for anyone; it is for the Christian as well, at least to answer sufficiently. However, we can show that it potentially fits within the Christian worldview, and I think fits pretty well (especially compared to other worldviews). In other words, it is a challenge, but I don’t think it is ultimately a problem. Remember, while you as a Christian might currently be answering such a challenge, or struggling with the effects of evil yourself, EVERYONE has to deal with this issue. Don’t let someone challenge you without being willing to answer the same challenge based on their own worldview.
The typical formulation of the problem of evil (in a philosophical sense), looks something like the following:
- God is supposed to be 100% good.
- God is said to be omnipotent, or all powerful.
- An all powerful God would be able to stop evil.
- A good God would want to stop evil.
- Evil exists.
- Therefore God does not!
When we are presented with such a challenge, we need to realize that the final conclusion rests on the validity of the premisses leading up to it. For example, if the atheist were dealing with some other religion where God wasn’t 100% good, then the argument falls apart. If God isn’t all powerful, the argument falls apart. This means that the argument won’t work to disprove theism as a whole, just possibly the Christian God IF the premisses accurately describe God AND the other premisses are all accurate.
Certainly, the first two statements are held by orthodox Christians. The third, that God could stop evil at any time, would seem to then follow. The fourth statement is where the problem is to be found. It doesn’t take into account that God might have some valid reason for allowing evil.
In John Stackhouse’s excellent book on the topic, he states it this way, “God, to put it bluntly, calculates the “cost-benefit ratio” and deems the cost of evil to be worth the benefit of loving and enjoying the love of these human beings.”2 We simply aren’t privy to fully understand what those reasons are. It would be quite the arrogant statement for the atheist to then say that this is unacceptable and that they would do better if they were God (which is where they would have to go to retain any weight left in the argument). Perhaps (no, certainly!) it is too complicated for us to comprehend. A scene from the 2003 movie “Bruce Almighty” comes to mind where God turns over control to Bruce (played by Jim Carrey). Bruce quickly learns how tangled the web is and that tweaking one thing over here has massive implications over there. This complexity also fits well with God’s answer to Job. God doesn’t really answer the problem, but begins to ask Job if he is able to comprehend what God has done or has any such ability to do what God has done.
In fact, given that the Bible says God actively restrains evil, a better question might be why there isn’t more evil or why there is so much good in the world. While horrible things happen, I can certainly imagine things being worse! In fact, if the naturalist or atheist position were true, much of the good behavior we see in the world (especially pure altruistic behavior) seems rather odd. It is impossible to explain every situation, but we can see how the given explanations fit within the various worldviews. The basic idea is that God created the world in a way best suited to bring about some greater or otherwise unattainable good.
What are some possible Christian explanations for the why? One of the big explanations is that of free-will (or probably better, free-choice). While this gets into a debate between Calvinist and Arminian positions within Christianity, to the extent that humans are responsible for their actions (and the Bible says that we are), it would seem to follow that evil would be an option as people begin to act and interact. In fact, it is more than an option, the Bible says that we sin because we love sinning! We’re responsible as we don’t sin under compulsion. We will to sin and rebel and our choices follow.
Another explanation, post-Fall of humanity into sin (and note that within all of creation, Satan was fallen and around before Adam and Eve fell), is that evil is a form of punishment. The Bible holds a tension here between God ordaining various types of punishment and justice for the perpetrators of evil, while at the same time, the punishments are typically carried out by agents fully intending to do evil (ex: the Babylonians brining punishment on Israel). Where we have to be VERY careful here is in our trying to read into things (ex: the hurricane happened to punish those people over there).
Pain and suffering are also unpleasant and are supposed to be that way. Partly, this can mean that when we see evil and suffering, they should be a wakeup call that things are not the way they are supposed to be. It is an indicator that something is not right with our life or the world in a similar way that a cut and the associated pain tell us we are being damaged (so we can react) and also teach us to be more careful or act differently in a given situation. C.S. Lewis said that pain is God’s megaphone to wake a deaf world.3
Pain and suffering can also produce mature character. This is a bit like the previous point in that part of our lessons take place in bumping into the boundaries of how we should be acting, and thus experiencing pain. God sometimes uses this to help shape us. Stackhouse refers to this as the physician analogy. “But health matters more than happiness. Indeed, the physician realizes that the patient’s longterm happiness depends on his health, and thus requires the short-term unhappiness of dealing squarely with his current illness. Moreover, for the physician to mislead the patient – even if the patient would prefer to be misled – is malpractice.”4 Again, it is important to note that we’re not in a position to look at some individual instance of evil or suffering and declare with certainty which of these reasons it is. Sometime, we might have more clarity when looking back at our lives, but again, only God is truly privy to this knowledge.
Finally, evil should, when analyzed properly, lead us towards God. This means that it has an evangelistic type of effect on people. The world isn’t as it should be. We need to pay attention to the solution we’re being provided by our creator.
One other type of evil that should be mentioned is what is often called ‘natural evil.’ What we have been talking about so far could be called ‘moral evil.’ The primary difference is agency. Moral evil is a kind of evil that results from the actions (or sometimes inactions) of moral agents. Natural evil would be something like an earthquake or flood. While these things are under God’s control, so in that sense agency is involved, I like to look at them as neutral unless we are given a specific reason to think otherwise (ex: Noah’s flood). When we fell into sin, we threw off God’s protection and care. Thankfully, God has not totally given us our wish! In fact, one can only speculate about how often God saves us from the natural happenings and disasters of our dangerous world. In other words, natural disasters might not be caused by the fall into sin (as some Christians hold), but the problem might be that God isn’t always protecting us from them.
Another important thing to note is how much of a role human evil plays in the effects of natural evil on humanity. Consider the difference in human loss of life between areas that are somewhat properly constructed and prepared for natural disasters as opposed to when similar disasters happen in third-world locations. With our currently level of technology, much of the loss of life around the world due to natural disasters has a lot to do with politics, greed, and carelessness (moral evils).
In the end, we must remember that evil is not part of God’s ultimate plan. It isn’t the way things are going to be one day. Stackhouse summarizes, “However it functions instrumentally in God’s providence, therefore, evil is fundamentally anomalous and temporary. It cannot survive in the ultimate state of God’s cosmos.”5
(The rest of the article is a bit of an aside over the internal debate between Calvinism and Arminianism within Christianity, but is pertinent to the problem of evil discussion.)
A bit more should probably be said about the debate within Christianity between the Calvinist and Arminian views (while noting that either thwart the atheist’s challenge). Theology matters! This can be seen in trying to work out this problem. The Bible says that God ordains, but doesn’t author evil. While I think this is best left in a bit of mystery, it is interesting to see how theologians have tried to work it out.
The free-will defense, on the face of it, looks pretty compelling, however it is not without some problems. First, it is unclear how humans could have true freedom without implications on God’s sovereignty. I suppose God could corral human actions through external means, but then are humans really free? Second, in the new creation, evil will be abolished. If evil were possible due to freedom in this life, will freedom be taken away in the next? If not, wouldn’t another fall be possible? Ultimately, the Arminian position places more emphasis on the human perspective. God is bringing about a solution that is best for his creatures (the most saved, best lessons learned, etc.)
On the other hand, the Reformed or Calvinist perspective places more, if not all, the weight on God’s sovereignty. God’s purpose in making the world the way it is and for allowing evil is to display His attributes of justice and righteousness, as well as mercy and grace. We get to see God’s justice in dealing with sinful rebellion and in the effects of the rebellion, but we also get to see His mercy in saving sinners from their due reward. The problem here is that God seems to plan for the evil before it is even initiated (though it is carried out by creatures willing to do so). There is something unsettling about God deriving glory from evil and suffering. However, the Bible clearly claims this kind of sovereignty for God. The problem seems to be that the Bible also shows creatures as making choices and calls on them to change their ways. Some kind of tension between the two needs to held.
I can think of two solutions to the problem of there being no evil in heaven mentioned above. First, that there isn’t free-will in the sense an Arminian thinks of, as it would be odd to have this kind of freedom now, and then have it taken away. The exception to this, second, would be that the sanctifying process removes any want or will of anything evil or sinful (yet the will is free). For example, there are things you probably find so horrendous (torturing a baby) that you’d never even entertain the thought willingly, let alone act on it. Maybe God will refine us to such an extent that we look at all sin (including the things we currently give in to or love to do) as that incredibly distasteful.6 The problem with this is that it doesn’t seem to give a guarantee. Either way, we are well into speculation here about how God is going to accomplish something beyond our current comprehension. (And, I’m certainly no expert on Calvinism or Arminianism either.)
In summary, Christians have a good response to the problem of evil. Evil fits within the Christian worldview without any serious problems, as much as evil is not a comfortable topic. Evil doesn’t really fit within the atheistic worldview in any meaningful way. The formal challenge is easily broken; it is the emotional reaction to which we need to respond by walking alongside the suffering.
A couple of books I have read and recommend:
- Can God Be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil by John G. Stackhouse Jr.
- The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis
Some other apologetic web sites blogging on this topic on this anniversary of 9/11 (note: I have not read all of these, so am not necessarily endorsing every viewpoint):
Atheism, Evil and Ultimate Justice by Luke Nix @ Faithful Thinkers
Resources on the Problem of Evil by Brian Auten @ Apologetics315
Do all roads (and flights) lead to God? (Pluralism) by Scott Smith @ Sarcastic Xtian
Evil’s Three Faces and a Christian Response by Rob Lundberg @ The Real Issue
Did God Cause 9/11? by Cory Tucholski @ Josiah Concept Ministries
Where Was God on 9-11? A response to Rabbi Kushner by Neil Mammen @ Neil Mammen’s Blog
Where Was God on 9/11? by Stephen Bedard @ Hope’s Reason Blog
Did God Allow the Attacks on 9/11 for a “Greater Good”? by Erik Manning @ Gospel According to Erik
The Need for Moral Choices and Consequences by Randy Everist @ Possible Worlds
The Two Ground Zeroes by Carson Weitnauer @ Reasons for God
America After 9/11: Is Religion Evil? by Mikel Del Rosario @ Apologetics Guy
9/11: “Full Cognitive Meltdown” and Its Fallout by Tom Gilson @ Thinking Christian
My 9/11 Memorial: Christianity Gives Authentic Hope In The Face Of Suffering by Gabriel Pagel @ Bringing Back the Tao
On September 11th, 2001 harmless things became fearful by J.W. Wartick @ Always Have a Reason
9/11: Where Is God During A Catastrophe? by Arthur Khachatryan @ Cold and Lonely Truth
Christianity and 9/11: Guilt by Association? by Tom Gilson @ The Point Blog
Suffering and the Cross of Christ by Holly Ordway @ Hieropraxis
If God, Why Evil? by Christiana Szymanski @ In Defense of the Christian Faith
Remembering 9/11: A Young Californian’s Perspective by Maureen @ Take-Two Blog
- It has been pointed out to me that an atheist would not have to come to this conclusion, as they have various options for generating ethics systems to choose from. A better way for me to say this is that they would have a hard time standing up against such a notion, as I don’t see how they would ground the opposition. ↩
- John G. Stackhouse Jr., Can God Be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) Kindle location 815 (p74?). ↩
- C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Kindle Locations 1020-1021). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition. (p91) ↩
- John G. Stackhouse Jr., Can God Be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) Kindle location 944 (p84?). ↩
- Jr. John G. Stackhouse. Can God Be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil (Kindle Locations 900-901). Kindle Edition. ↩
- H/T: Dr. John Stackhouse ↩