The problem of evil and the goodness of God
We all know evil exists. No matter what any of us believes—if we’re a Christian, a Buddhist, or a moral relativist—every single one of us knows evil is real.1
Another act of evil was committed in the United States as I sit in front of my computer. Another mass shooting. This time at a shopping mall.
Using the world “another” makes me feel uneasy. I worry because it signals a normalization of these events. Normalization is acceptance. Acceptance of this sort, it seems to me, is evil.
And those two evils are compounded by the same mix of platitudes and faux-outrage from politicians on both sides of the aisle. Men and women equally committed to doing nothing about a very real and solvable problem.2
Evil is real, it is present, and it is a problem. And it’s not just a problem in the immediate situation. Nor is it any of the other acts of evil happening in the world right now:
- oppressive governments crushing their citizens rather than protecting them;
- millions of unborn children being robbed of their humanity and their lives every year;
- millions of men, women, and children being sold and exploited by human traffickers;
- families being torn apart by adultery and abuse;
- hypocrites defiling the name of Christ as they protest funerals, churches, and places in the midst of suffering with messages of hate and judgment.
These evils are real. They are a problem. But they also point us to a concern that gnaws at our consciences as we try to make sense of why evil seems to continue unabated.
Does the Problem of Evil Contradict God’s Goodness
For thousands of years, philosophers and theologians, since before the days of ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (c. 341-270 BC) and beyond the days of C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), have attempted to make sense of this problem, which we might boil down to a conflict between the existence of evil and a good and all-powerful God. We often see the problem as a contradiction, an either/or situation that leads us to conclude that only one of these can be true, not both.
Lewis summarized the problem this way: “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.”3
God’s lacking “either goodness, or power, or both,” however, doesn’t square with what we read in Scripture. And explaining away evil doesn’t square with our experience in the world. Both are true. So it seems we are limited to one of these three options:
- God is willing to prevent evil but is unable to overcome it;
- He is able to prevent evil but is unwilling to do so; or
- He is willing and able to prevent evil but chooses not to.
But could there be another option, one that offers a both/and instead of an either/or? Could the problem we see be a paradox rather than a contradiction, something that seems to be inconsistent on the surface but when we examine it more deeply, the truth is revealed?
The Good News About God’s Goodness
In answering the problem of evil, the Bible doesn’t directly show us the origins of evil. We don’t learn from Scripture exactly how it came to be in the first place. We don’t find the first cause. The Bible doesn’t (as we so often do) put the blame on Satan4 or entirely on human will.5 But it also doesn’t put the blame on God Himself as the Creator of all things.
Instead, the Bible points us back to the character and nature of God with four truths:
1. God is good.
God’s goodness is the foundation of the entire message of the Bible. It is at the heart of God’s purposes in redeeming people from every nation and people group. Throughout Scripture, God is praised for his goodness, and his goodness is the model for human goodness. He is the standard by which we can determine if something is good because He is the one who is truly “good” (Psalm 34:8; 107:1; 119:68; Luke 18:19).
2. God is the source of good.
God is the only One truly capable of declaring anything “good.” He is the One who defines what it means to be good and the One we emulate when we do good (Genesis 1:4; Ex. 20; Psalm 16:2; 3 John 11).
3. God does good on behalf of His creation.
God is always doing good, both to those who love Him and those who continue to be far from Him. Maybe a simpler way to say it is because God is good, he does good.
- God sends the sun and rain on everyone.
- He blesses the faithful.
- He gives good gifts.
- God takes what was meant for evil and uses it for good.
- God shows no favoritism.
- He judges fairly and honestly.
All the time, everywhere—even in the midst of pain and suffering— God is doing good (Gen. 50:20; Psalms 23:6; 68:10; 73:1; 119:65; 145:9; Lam. 3:25; Matt. 5:45; Luke 6:35; Acts 14:17; Rom. 2:4; 8:28; 11:22; Eph. 2:7; Titus 3:4).
4. God gives a good answer to the problem of evil.
The gospel itself is God’s answer. In the incarnation, Jesus, God the eternal Son, entered into the world to be our righteousness. He died on the cross to pay the penalty for our evil. And as He rose from death, He declared evil’s defeat forevermore (1 John 3:8).
These are hard truths to grasp—almost impossible! As Martin Luther said, “It’s very difficult for a man to believe that God is gracious to him. The human heart can’t grasp this.”6 Yet this is the answer to the problem of evil. As much as our whys and what-ifs about what we don’t know matter (and they do), what we do know matters more.
We know that God is good. We know God is the source of all that is good. And we know he is good to this world and the beings he created, showering grace and blessing upon us all. And most importantly, he gives a good answer to the problem of evil by being the answer to the problem of evil!
- God answered the problem, defeating evil through Jesus’s death and resurrection.
- He answers the problem, defeating evil as he works in and through his people, the Church.
- God will answer the problem, defeating evil forever when Christ returns and makes all things new.
Living in the tension of the problem of evil
So we live in a kind of tension. The problem of evil—how can a good God allow these continued acts of evil—lingers. We can see who God is, what he is doing, and how he has and will definitively deal with evil. And hopefully, as Christians, we genuinely believe it.
And so in our tension, we wait and we watch. We hope and pray. And we take deliberate actions to curtail evil in whatever ways we can, as God’s people. To pursue goodness and justice even when doing so is unpopular based on the politics of our peers. And we do so because we’re leaning on God’s character, trusting that he really does seek the good of all who love him according to his purposes (Rom. 8:28).
And that willingness to live in the tension is what keeps us from falling into some kind of nihilistic despair. Or it does for me at any rate. I long for the day when evil will be no more, because I know it really will be so. it gives us good news to tell: In Christ, God has defeated evil. In Christ, He defeats evil. And in Christ, He will defeat evil forevermore. And it gives us good reason to pursue the good of all, no matter the cost.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
- Moral relativism is a philosophy that believes objective standards of right and wrong do not exist. In this view, standards of right and wrong, or good and evil, are best understood as social constructs determined by our cultural or historical period.[↩]
- And those who insist that it’s not solvable is trying to sell you something.[↩]
- C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 16.[↩]
- An option which gives the father of lies too much credit, since he is hardly God’s equal.[↩]
- A view held by many Christian theologians stating that for those who are capable of making meaningful moral choices, the possibility of doing evil always exists.[↩]
- Martin Luther, in Martin Luther’s Table Talk: Abridged from Luther’s Works, Volume 54, ed. Henry F. French (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 5.[↩]