The Bible instructors at Mount Paran Christian School have a vast knowledge of the Christian faith that they graciously share during their courses for students. These instructors have agreed to extend their expertise to a summer blog series exploring various aspects of Christianity. In this final installment of the series, Bible teacher Scott Minear addresses the challenging topic of reconciling the existence of evil in a world ruled by a loving God.
The problem of evil is the proverbial bogeyman of Christianity. A monster hiding beneath the bed or within the closet, whose presence we ignore for fear of discovering a horrific reality we are ill-equipped to understand and resolve. Despite efforts to hide within a tightly wrapped cocoon of bed sheets while fervently shutting anxious eyes, we still hear and feel the monster’s destructive movement and hostile presence. News of evil is exhaustingly constant. Experience of evil is undeniably painful. Evil, saturating human experience, is a problem, and the problem requires a definition and response.
Iterations of the problem evil creates for Christianity generally manifest in two forms. First is the logical problem, which attempts to establish God and evil as contradictory concepts unable to coexist like an immovable object and irresistible force. The argument follows: If God is omniscient (all-knowing), then He possesses knowledge of all evil. If God is omnibenevolent (all-good), then He desires to overcome evil. And if God is omnipotent (all-powerful), then His ability is sufficient to permanently end the experience of evil. Therefore, evil should not exist.
A brief survey of current events and human history reveals irrefutable evidence testifying to the reality of moral (human against human, e.g. crime) and natural (nature against human, e.g. disease) evil. If evil is certain, then the God of the Old and New Testaments is impossible. A less knowledgeable, less altruistic, less able god might exist, but not the God of Christian worship.
The second manifestation is the existential or experiential problem. If the logical problem is a question of “how” – How do God and evil coexist? – then the existential problem is asking “why.” Why is God allowing me to experience, and not rescuing me from, the paranoia of insecurity, regrets from broken relationships, or sorrow from burying a child or parent, ad infinitum? In short, why is God, if He exists, ignoring my suffering? The logical and existential problems of evil appeal to the minds and hearts of individuals, either contributing to Atheists’ disenchanted wall of disbelief or planting a seed of doubt in theists’ faith. Likewise, any attempt to breach the Atheist’s wall or uproot the theist’s (for our discussion - Christian’s) doubt requires knowledge and compassion to effectively respond to the “how” (mind) and “why” (heart) questions born from the experience of evil.
A RESPONSE: FREE WILL AND SOVEREIGNTY
Answers to the “how” question of the logical problem normally focus on either free will (Deut. 28:1-2,15; Matt. 7:24-27) or God’s sovereignty (cf. Is. 46:9-10). While these biblically-grounded beliefs are not mutually exclusive, the following discussion examines each individually to avoid fascinating, but complex and currently unnecessary, theological tangents.
The free will solution proposes God desires authentic relationships with humanity over a world without evil, and free will is necessary to initiate and cultivate authentic relationships. Thus, God chose to create a world where the highest good of real love (Matt. 22:36-40) is possible through humanity’s free will, despite the risk of freedom resulting in evil. If the free will solution is accepted, then God remains all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful because a free humanity is the cause of evil, not Him, and He cannot restrain evil without violating free will and eliminating the possibility of real relationships anchored in genuine love.
The response focusing on God’s sovereignty is the greater good solution, which defends God’s knowledgeable, good, and powerful ability to determine all evil for greater good on either a personal, communal, or universal level (Rom. 8:28-29; 1 Pet. 1:6-7; Is. 48:10-11). Therefore, while God determines evil (people are still responsible for sin - Jas. 1:13-15), evil is not the end, and it results in greater good because God is all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful. God’s omni-attributes, in other words, are the solution to evil, not the problem.
Readers might express disagreement while reading the responses to the logical problem of evil due to discussions of free will and God’s sovereignty. This post does not attempt to promote one view over another, but includes the differing, biblically-grounded responses to equip Christians from different theological traditions. Furthermore, whether or not one affirms or denies God’s determination of evil or human agency, a Christian should learn every response to the problem of evil for the benefit of the different people maintaining different perspectives he or she might speak with for the sake of the Gospel.
A COMPASSIONATE APPROACH
Unlike the primarily knowledge-oriented answers to the logical problem, the “why” questions of the existential problem require a compassionate approach. Before sharing Christianity’s God-dependent resources empowering perseverance through experiences of evil, we must patiently and empathetically listen to people’s pain. Suffering individuals require space to express their emotions without fear of the minimizing of their experience through cliché sentiments like, “Let go and let God.”
One’s intent in superficial-sounding expressions might be good, but quickly grasping for the “silver-lining” communicates a self-centered desire to avoid inconvenience instead of an other-centered love seeking to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15) and “carrying each other’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). Provide a compassionate and understanding presence through patient and empathetic listening first, and then point the individual to the beautiful provision of God. For God is the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in our affliction,” and “will Himself restore [us] and make [us] strong, firm and steadfast,” while preparing “for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison,” where “He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (2 Cor. 1:3-4; 1 Pet. 5:10; 2 Cor. 4:17; Rev. 21:4). We experience God’s amazing promises through faith in Jesus, the Son of God, who conquered evil by suffering on behalf of humanity (Jn. 3:16). If we look to the cross in the midst of pain and suffering, then we know the answer to the problem of evil “cannot be [God] does not love us…[or] He is indifferent to our condition. God takes our suffering so seriously He was willing to take it on Himself.” (Timothy Keller)
A final response encompassing the logical and existential problems involves highlighting the inherent flaw of leveraging evil against God. Pointing to evil to disprove God assumes objective evil exists, which is to assume all people – despite personal or cultural opinions – consider certain values, actions, and experiences as evil. However, to correctly recognize objective evil, the objective good (right values, actions, and experiences for all people) must exist. To quote C. S. Lewis, “A person does not call a line crooked unless he or she has some idea of a straight line.” Knowledge of evil is impossible without knowledge of good, and the existence of objective goodness is impossible without the existence of God (moral argument for God’s existence). Evil, therefore, is surprisingly evidence for God, not against Him. If God does not exist, then the objective good does not exist (Mk. 10:18), and if objective goodness does not exist, then objective evil does not exist, which negates all evidence for the now nonsensical problem of evil.
A PROBLEM FOR EVERYONE
Renouncing Christianity due to the problem of evil is similar to abandoning a luxury doomsday bunker as a powerful hurricane approaches. Another worldview, like another form of shelter, will be discovered, but will it withstand the devastation of evil or the hurricane better than the promises of Christianity’s God or the amenities and securities of the bunker? Denying Christian belief does not resolve the problem of evil because evil is a problem for everyone. Regardless of one’s worldview, the storm of evil is either here or quickly approaching.
G. K. Chesterton writes, “Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.” We know evil exists in the world because of our inherent knowledge of God’s goodness (Rom. 2:14-15). We sense the monster creeping up behind us, and we need a “fairy tale” to show us the monster can be defeated.
Which story will you choose? The Gospel is the true story of God permanently conquering evil through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God alone supplies the immediate provision to persevere through current experiences of evil and the future hope of evil’s ultimate defeat. Evil might be the monster hiding in the shadows, but it is time to turn on the lights.
Scott Minear is the twelfth-grade Bible teacher (Christian Apologetics) at Mount Paran Christian School. He received a BEd from the University of Georgia and a MDiv from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The 2019-2020 school year was his fourth year of teaching in the educational context. For further reading, Mr. Minear recommends Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God (pastoral) or William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith (academic).