The Christian Faith has had many antagonists over the centuries, but it seems that the boldest and noisiest adversaries of Christianity in recent decades have been those from an atheistic position. From this vantage point (though atheism is certainly no belvedere), some have postulated the finding of Christianity’s death knell. Feinberg describes the theistic conundrum by citing the philosopher David Hume.
“The problem of evil as traditionally understood in philosophical discussion and debate is stated succinctly in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he [God] able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he [God] both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”
Long before Hume, Epicurus (a third and fourth century BC Greek philosopher) articulated much the same analytical dilemma against theism. While this form of argumentation has been around for a very long time, it seems to have gained some traction in contemporary minds. Whether or not this is truly a problem for theists is the subject of this essay, but it is important to note at the outset that such a problem is really shorthand for multiple problems concerning at least three basic assumptions in the syllogisms represented above. Feinberg lists these suppositions as “(a) God is omnipotent (in some sense of “omnipotent”), (b) God is good in that he wills that there be no evil, in some sense of “evil,” and (c) evil, in the sense alluded to in (b), exists.”
The problems of evil, then, are the difficulties one might face in defending a theistic position that holds to one or more of these suppositions. Each supposition may be dealt with individually, but the theist must construct a consistent view of the character and nature of God while acknowledging that “evil” is experienced in this world.
The problem of evil is important to address for several reasons, but it may be most interesting to humanity because of the universality of suffering and pain. It is quite reasonable to perceive that when a person rails against the being of God because of the experience of evil, they likely mean to use evil as a synonym for human suffering and pain.
It is hardly conceivable that an atheist would intend to argue that God does not exist because of the ills humanity has inflicted upon the mountainous Alps as they utilize climbing equipment to bash and injure the spectacular terrestrial protrusions or because of the painful astrophysical results of human interference with the lunar landscape. Even less we might expect an atheist to speak of the human offense to God’s character or His holiness when they continually rebel against His kind and good directives. No, when the atheist raises a fist against the Creator of the universe, he does so with contempt against God because of the tremendous pain and suffering that humanity experiences while living under the sun.
The atheist perceives these experiences to be unjust, unacceptable, and incongruent with the existence of any good and powerful God.
Atheists notwithstanding, many people struggle to understand their own experiences with incredible pain and suffering. The problem of evil is important to address for the sake of all those searching for some kind of prism through which to view their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering so that they might make sense of it. Many have sought to excuse God from the pain and suffering of humanity, some have tried to justify pain and suffering as a means to some greater end, and still others have decided that the best answer to the problem is that God simply must needs create a world in which evil runs rampant to some degree or another.
The “Free Will” advocate claims that the best way to defend the existence of a good and powerful God in spite of evil is to lay the blame for such evil upon the shoulders of free volitional creatures who have brought about the disparaging pain and suffering we now endure. This sounds enticing to many theists, and at first glance may provide the uncritical mind some sense of refuge from the atheistic assault.
However, it is conceivable that God could have created free volitional creatures without the possibility of sin, disobedience or evil. Indeed, this is the hope of all biblical Christians – namely that sinners saved by God’s grace will live in perfect freedom for all eternity without ever experiencing another moment of pain, suffering, sin or evil. Thus, the Free Will advocate falls short of adequately answering the challenge.
The consequentialist asserts that the temporal evils of pain and suffering are regrettable, but they are also part of the building blocks of a future and greater good. This sort of reasoning may dance dangerously close to the line, which distinguishes good from evil, calling those things that are evil the very things that are necessary to bring about final or ultimate good. This defense too may have an initial appeal, but it falls apart when pressed further and when contrasted with the biblical position.
What kind of good God must use evil to bring about good? Can evil ever be called good without serious injury to the term good? It seems quite unappealing to think of a good God who is confined to merely manipulating evil ingredients to bring about His good purposes.
The rationalist position is that of reason and God’s acting out of rationalistic compulsion. This seems the most arrogant position of all, positing that God must act according to sufficient reason (that is according to some humanly accessible rationale). According to this view, “human reason, apart from divine revelation, should be able to discover that reason and ascertain what God would choose.” Under this rubric of thinking, God has created a world with the presence of pain and suffering because such a world is the best possible world that God might have created.
However, this position fails to measure up to the biblical standard as well. First, God’s volition and intelligence are both infinitely greater than the human capacity; and this is so even before the gnoetic effects of the fall of sinful humanity. Second, and yet again, the biblical Christian awaits exactly such a world as this position claims impossible. The hope of eternal glory is that God will reconcile fallen humanity to Himself in such a way that sinners will ultimately be glorified and free from evil, sin, pain and suffering.
There seems to be many insufficient answers to the problem of evil, and so too there may also be several productive ways to address it.
First, before any theist feels the burden of defending theism against an atheistic accusation concerning evil and the existence of God, he may ask the atheist, “What is evil?” The atheist must assume evil, which assumes good, which assumes God who calls things good, in order to accuse this same God he has just charged with non-existence.
Under the atheistic worldview, there is no such thing as moral good or moral evil. In fact, there is no reason to suppose the universe to be reasonable or coherent at all – especially in terms of morality. Therefore, the theist is not obligated to answer the atheist’s accusation.
Second, the question or problem of evil may be raised by someone who is not antagonistic to the theistic worldview, and in such an instance it seems good that a Christian would be prepared to answer with truth, and in a tone of compassion.
In my view, God has created a good world (Gen. 1:31), and human existence is better than non-existence. Additionally, God has intended to create un-glorified humans (at least initially) rather than glorified ones, and this is the reason (though not necessarily the purpose) for the possibility of pain and suffering (Gen. 2:17).
Un-glorified humans possess volitional freedom to the extent that they are capable of choosing rebellion or submission towards God. Having chosen the former in no way releases humanity from God’s sovereignty, though it does place humanity under the curse of God’s wrath (Gen. 3:24); and God’s sovereign rule over all that comes to pass in no way releases humanity from culpability for such rebellion. Blameworthy for all manner of sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, humanity has fallen under the curse of God’s wrath and lives in a world full of pain and suffering (Eph. 2:1-3).
This pain and suffering that is now endured is not good, and it is never to be called good (Isaiah 5:20).
However, God has not left un-glorified humans without hope in the face of such evil; rather, God Himself has invaded human history in the person and work of Jesus Christ in order to suffer the greatest pain – the unbridled wrath of God – on behalf of fallen, un-glorified humanity.
This same God-man (Jesus Christ) has also conquered death and brought about final and ultimate victory over evil, pain, and suffering. The God of Christianity is a God of justice, righteousness, mercy, and grace. He has scandalously suffered as a human, and this provides not only hope for suffering sinners, but also a gracious and empathetic Savior.
Ultimately, my position is one of trust in the God who has revealed Himself through special revelation, recorded on the pages of Holy Scripture. I do not intend this as a cop out, rather a humble submission to what God has revealed about Himself and about humanity. God is both absolutely sovereign and perfectly good, and un-glorified humanity is radically sinful.
Within this tension lies another stark truth: good is always good and evil is always evil.
God does not build out good ends through the use of evil means. Instead, He providentially orchestrates all of creation for His glory and for the greatest joy of all those whom He loves. God’s good and sovereign providence and man’s sinful activity, which results in prolific pain and suffering, is a tension in the Scriptures that must not be lost. Carson addresses the matter by saying,
“[W]e will avoid implicitly denying one truth when we affirm another; we will grow in stability; above all, we will better know the God who has in his grace disclosed himself to rebels like us, taken up our guilt, participated in human suffering, and sovereignly ensured that we will not be tempted above what we are able to bear. In knowing him better we will learn to trust him; and in trusting him we will find rest.”
In summary, the atheistic accusation, “If evil, then no God!” simply cannot fly; it does not even leave the ground. If there is no God, then the possibility of any moral good or moral evil is nil. Yet, there are those who find themselves suffering tremendously who seek some comfort in their time of pain. For them, the Bible offers a God who rules sovereignly, graciously, and lovingly.
Only the Bible provides the opportunity for sinful, suffering humans to learn of a merciful, suffering King; and it is this King who promises the hope of glory – the final and eternal freedom from evil, pain, and suffering – through His finished work of redemption.
Carson, D. A. How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990.
Feinberg, John S. The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004.
 Feinberg, Kindle Locations 179-182
 Feinberg, Kindle Locations 222-224
 Feinberg, Kindle Locations 736-737
 Carson, 214