Philosophers Answer The Problem of Evil
Posted August 14, 2017 by Amy Wang
Photo: seannel / 123RF Stock Photo
Christian philosophers have provided the following answers to the problem of evil.
Why is there evil and suffering?
Because of free will. Evil and suffering exist because God gave creatures free will, and they used it to rebel against Him. The Devil, although blameless and perfect at creation, fell due to pride and selfish-ambition (Ezekiel 28:12-17,Isaiah 14:12-15). Adam and Eve, God's first human creations, were given full enjoyment of the garden of Eden, with only one restriction-- not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. However, they also disobeyed and the punishment was death (Genesis 2:16-17).
Why couldn’t God take away our freedom?
Having a robot for a wife would still be "no more than three steps above inflatable" (Jones, 122).
Free will is desirable. If we really think about it, free will is something we consider highly desirable, and perhaps even necessary for real loving relationships to exist. If you don't agree, ask yourself if you would ever choose to marry a robot. Clay Jones, a professor at Biola University, says a healthy person would answer no, even for the most lifelike robot. Jones says having a robot for a wife would still be “no more than three steps above inflatable” (Jones, 122). Furthermore, as Jones points out, many science-fiction movies highlight the value of free will as something worth fighting for.
Geisler writes, “God has to create free creatures who could sin before He could produce free creatures who can’t sin” (Geisler, 62). He believes that even though this world may not be the best possible world, it may be the best way to the best world actually achievable (Geisler, 66). The lower freedom to sin may be a stepping stone to the higher freedom from sin (Geisler, 63). It is like going through the wilderness to reach the promised land (Geisler, 63). After we are given the freedom to sin, we realize how horrible it really is and then seek the freedom from sin.
Why couldn’t God educate us so we’d never abuse our freedom?
He did educate us. God told the first two human beings, Adam and Eve, which tree not to eat from, i.e., the tree of knowledge of good and evil and God also informed them the consequence of disobeying Him, but they did not believe Him. Eve was tempted by Satan’s lie that “God is holding back something that would otherwise benefit them” (Jones, 30). Even today, many of us still abuse our freedom because, as Dembski says, we don't want God to “cramp” our style— we want to cast off all restraints (Jones, 36).
Today, Adam and Eve's story and many other stories of the horror and stupidity of rebellion are available to us in the Bible so that we may learn what NOT to do. This temporary life on earth is now a testing ground (Geisler, 30) and learning ground where God is preparing people to become citizens of heaven, a place where people give up the exercise of the lower freedom to sin for the higher freedom from sin (Geisler, 63).
Won't heaven be a boring place where prudes utter "Holy, holy, holy" all day long?
No, that's not what scriptures would lead us to believe. If that were true, heaven would become a new problem of evil (Jones, 178). In short, heaven would be hellish (Jones, 171). For a more in depth discussion, see Clay Jones, "Chapter 9 Will Eternity Be Boring?"
Why couldn’t God just NOT create us in the first place?
Many parents still choose to have children, despite knowing they may one day talk back, disobey, run away, or even commit a crime. They consider the potential benefits to be worth the risks. They hope their children can in time, with discipline, learn from their mistakes and learn to make wise choices. (Jones, 137)
How much more, then, is God willing to create free creatures, knowing with the certainty of His foreknowledge that the eternal good that comes out of pain and suffering will be worth it? According to the Bible, God knew the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10). He does not have to speculate about risks and benefits.
Why doesn’t God just intervene every time before we suffer or make us unable to feel pain?
Geisler indicates that sometimes God does intervene to deliver us from sickness and other times He doesn't intervene so that we can be delivered through sickness.
Pain is God's tool. Geisler says our time on earth is a learning ground where God is more interested in our character than our comfort and our holiness than our happiness (Geisler, 55). Geisler says that if God intervened all the time, we might not learn moral lessons such as the horror of rebellion. Without evil and suffering, we might not experience virtues like courage, patience, and forgiveness, which occur with the corresponding evils of danger, tribulation, and sin. Hence, the saying goes, "No pain, no gain" (Geisler, 65).
This doesn't mean that God never intervenes. Geisler indicates that sometimes God does intervene to deliver us from sickness and other times He doesn't intervene so that we can be delivered through sickness. There are people who will not be motivated to seek God without experiencing great trial. There are also people who will not believe without a miracle. God may have a purpose for intervening and a purpose for not intervening (Geisler, 86).
How could God punish good people or nice people?
The only perfectly good person who ever suffered is God, and He volunteered for it and bore the penalty for our evil (Jones, 77).
No one is good but God (Luke 18:19, Jeremiah 17:9). Clay Jones says many of us don’t really understand how bad we humans really are. If we did, the problem of bad things happening to good people would largely disappear, because there are no good people aside from God himself. When we witness the universality of evil across different cultures, e.g., holocausts, genocides, wartime rape, etc., we come to realize how pervasive evil really is. Even if we look deeply into the lives of those heroes we revere, like Gandhi, we might change our minds about their goodness. We might discover terrible sins they have committed that simply aren’t well known (Jones, 68). And there are many people who would do evil, but refrain only because of fear of punishment. The only perfectly good person who ever suffered is God, and He volunteered for it and bore the penalty for our evil (Jones, 77).
Niceness is not the same as goodness. Clay Jones says that a grandmother can be part of a racist organization and yet bake cookies and do other “nice” things. When we look into the lives of those who perpetrated the holocaust, we may find that they are actually in many other ways quite “nice,” but niceness is not goodness (Jones, 68). Even if we are good in almost all points but one, we are still guilty. Even if one does not murder or steal, but commits adultery, one is guilty. We may differ in the categories of sin we commit, but all sin, big or small, is still rebellion against God.
How could God punish people who have never heard the gospel?
They are still accountable for what they have heard. Whether or not people have heard about Jesus, everyone is without excuse when they do evil because everyone receives natural revelation. That is, they see enough of God’s attributes through creation and conscience, that they should know to avoid evil and are responsible for their evil choices (Romans 1:20). They will not be punished for failure to believe in something they have never heard, but rather for doing what their conscience tells them is wrong.
But, have they not heard (Romans 10:18)? In most of the civilized world, people have heard of the holidays of Christmas and Easter, which relate to the birth and resurrection of Jesus. Even where Christianity is not celebrated, people can still hear about Christianity through literature criticizing Christianity. For example, Jones points out that the Koran provides information about the key tenets that Christians believe, even if it rejects some of them (Jones, 80). Jones even provides evidence that the gospel reached India and China in the 1st century AD (Jones, 80).
Furthermore, God has His ways of reaching those who seek Him and walk toward the light that they do have. Consider the vision received by the God-fearing man Cornelius to have Simon who was known as Peter visit and share the gospel about Jesus Christ (Acts 10:30-40) or the angel who directed Philip on a path that led him to the Ethiopian eunuch to tell him about Jesus (Acts 8:26-40). There are reports that God can and does use human and angelic messengers, dreams or visions, books, miracles, and so forth. This can occur even in territories hostile to Christianity. If anyone fails to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ during their lifetime, then they have probably rejected the general revelation they already received.
How can God allow meaningless evil (also known as gratuitous evil)?
God may have a purpose for all evil. Just because we don’t know there is a purpose for every occasion of suffering doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If a sparrow will not fall to the ground unless God allows it (Matthew 10:29) and God has numbered all our hairs (Matthew 10:28-31), this gives us confidence that God is sovereignly working out everything for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). Sometimes, we don’t see what that good purpose is until we see the final outcome. For example, God allowed Joseph’s brothers to betray Joseph into slavery, but Joseph rose to power in Egypt and with the help of God-given dreams, brought salvation to the world during famine. Hence, he concluded what men intended for evil, God intended for good (Genesis 50:20).
After all, Geisler reminds us that people used to think there were vestigial organs or junk genes with no purpose, but later on an important function was found (Geisler, 48). Some of God's ways are beyond our scope of knowledge (Isa. 55:9, Deut. 29:29, Romans 11:33-34) and we might not understand them except in retrospect. For some example reasons why God may permit evil, please refer to the article "Benefits of Suffering Seen in Retrospect."
Isn’t God guilty of evil since He created us?
God only made evil possible but creatures made it actual (Geisler, 31).
No, by creating free creatures, God only made evil possible, but they made it actual (Geisler, 31). Geisler proposes that although God may have authored the whole story, the creatures in the book do actually make free choices for which they are responsible (Geisler, 24).
Isn’t it unfair that God allows people who are less wicked to suffer because of those who are more wicked?
Justice is delayed but not denied. When Habakkuk asks this question, God answers that the judgment of those who do more wickedly will surely come in its time (Habakkuk 2:3). In Psalm 73, Asaph wonders if he has kept his heart pure in vain, while the wicked prosper, until he understands their final destiny (Psalm 73:16-20). God has only delayed justice, but not denied it. The final judgment after death will bring perfect justice.
Consider also the parable of the wheat and the weeds, where the weeds exist for the survival of the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). As discussed in Benefits of Suffering Seen in Retrospect, the weeds may provoke the wheat to repent or to grow. Let us be grateful for God's patience in waiting for people to repent, without which we would all perish, too (2Peter 3:9, Luke 13:3).
Isn’t it unfair that we inherited a sinful nature from Adam and Eve?
Even if we have an inclination to sin, it is still a choice, and the fact that God holds us responsible means that it must be a free choice. We will be judged for our own choices. According to Ezekiel 18:20, the son will not bear the punishment for his father's iniquity.
For a more in-depth discussion of this topic, see Chapter 1 of Clay Jones's book, Why Does God Allow Evil?, including the possibility that all of humankind was in Adam's loins when he rebelled, just as Levi paid tithes through Abraham, being in the loins of his ancestor (Hebrews 7:9-10) (Jones, 37).
Isn’t God still responsible for permitting evil, even if he doesn’t cause it?
Yes, God is literally "on" the hook. The philosopher Peter Kreeft says God is not off the hook for permitting evil, but literally on the hook--He took responsibility by dying on the cross. The greatest suffering of all, God's own, is what brings ultimate victory over death (1Corinthians 15:55-57).
How could God punish people for eternity?
By human choice. Some people will persist eternally in rebellion and are unable to repent even when God gives them space to repent, so God gives them up to their own wills. God will not force heaven upon them if they'd rather reign in hell (Milton, Paradise Lost). Although hell is eternal, the Bible does hint of differing levels of punishment, which might be applicable to punishment in hell.
We might think that a little bit of sin is tolerable in heaven, but if you allow the slightest amount, it may eventually corrupt the whole. The Bible teaches that a little leaven leavens the whole lump.
For a more in-depth discussion of hell, see Chapter 9 "The Problem of Eternal Evil (Hell)" in Geisler's book, If God, Why Evil?. Geisler argues that justice, human dignity, and God's sovereignty demand it. He also explains that hell is not simply annihilation nor a temporary corrective place and explains why God cannot simply annihilate or correct the wicked.
What is the solution to the problem of evil?
The ultimate solution to the problem of evil is Jesus's death on the Cross, i.e., his crucifixion. Who expected that the greatest suffering would accomplish the greatest good? Just as Jesus overcame evil with suffering, Jesus's followers, too, are called to bear their own crosses. We, too, must overcome evil by good and honor God in the midst of suffering.
For Further Reading
- Geisler, Norman L. If God, Why Evil? (See also Geisler's video presentation "If God, Why Evil?")
- Jones, Clay. Why Does God Allow Evil? (See also Jones's video presentation "Why God Allows Evil?")
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