If Evil is, then God is not?

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 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?”[1]

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.”[2]

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.”[3] 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.”[4]

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.

 

Bibliography

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.

[1] Feinberg, Kindle Locations 179-182

[2] Feinberg, Kindle Locations 222-224

[3] Feinberg, Kindle Locations 736-737

[4] Carson, 214

Strength to Strength in times of Suffering

In his devotional “Mornings and Evenings,” Charles Spurgeon wrote his own commentary on the passing of Christians from security and strength to further stability and power. This progression is contrary to much of our natural experience, and Spurgeon acknowledges the same. A runner, for instance, begins with full energy and ends with none; and the wrestler finishes his long match with much less vigor than he had at the start. But Christians are anchored and empowered by someone who is unnatural, and their advancement from strength to strength is observable as well as biblical.

The Bible speaks of a God who is not merely a passive all-observing eye. No, the biblical God is the creator and sustainer of every aspect of His creation; He is the ever-active, sovereign king of the universe (Acts 17:24-25).

This brings great comfort to the humble Christian. Spurgeon says, “Thou shalt never find a bundle of affliction which has not bound up in the midst of it sufficient grace.”[1] This means that there is no amount of suffering, no tumultuous season of life, no seemingly unrewarded effort expended that is completely in vain. The Bible never calls evil by the name of good, but all things are by God’s design and for the ultimate good of His children (Rom. 8:28; Lam. 3:37-38).

Much more could be said on this biblical assertion of God’s sovereign work to bring about the sanctification of His children, but Christians may be observed as having lived out this surprising experience as well. While not all churchgoers exhibit this same development, the mark of mature Christianity is finding secure refuge in Christ.

Consider the believer who receives a terrible diagnosis from the doctor. She may recoil and feel distress just as much as anyone, but her soul is eventually steadied and the Commander of the storm calms the gales of her mind.

Think also of the young Christian couple that rushes their newborn to the emergency room only to learn that their child’s mortal life has ended much too soon. Their pain and anguish is beyond words, but the light of life somehow invades their dark night of the soul.

Christ is their portion, and He is enough.

Once, Christians were commonly noticed as experiencing joy in the face of their own sorrow. In our day of commonplace denial and distraction, it is not so normal to see anyone bear the load of suffering well. Yet, when the Christian does it is a bittersweet site indeed.

What a peculiar beauty it is to see the Christian rejoice in the Lord while they are enduring significant pain. Others may even become irrationally envious of the agony of these exemplary saints when that agony is born steadily by the grace of God.

Spurgeon is also quoted as having said, I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.

The counter-intuitive destination of a Christian’s suffering is safe in the arms of Christ. Isn’t it a wonder that Christians will often find themselves crawling out of Christ’s bosom and onto the floor of life until they encounter some strange pain or confusing fear? Upon such an encounter, they cry out for the embrace of the Father’s care and find Him worthy of their full trust and reliance.

Only in this light may we perceive suffering as a gift.

Oh, that you and I would know the strength of God’s abiding Spirit – with or without the common suffering of life under the curse of sin. May the Lord bless us with His caring allotment of energy and affliction, for His glory and for our greatest joy.

“[W]e rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”[2]

“God will give the strength of ripe manhood with the burden allotted to full-grown shoulders.”[3]

Hope in times of suffering, pain and loss

While a young mother was changing her two-year-old daughter’s clothes, she heard Bella’s tiny voice.  Pointing to herself, Bella asked, “I cansoo?”  Leslie, Bella’s mother, was used to interpreting her daughter’s attempts at communication, but this word was new.  “Say it again,” Leslie said.  She needed to hear it again in order to make a good translation.  “I cansoo?”  Bella tried the question once more, but still the word was not clear.  Then Bella pointed to the scar on her tiny body that was left when her chemotherapy port had been removed, and said “Port.  Out.  I cansoo?”

Leslie was overcome with the stark reality of the whole situation, but she was able to maintain her composure for the moment.  Leslie said to her little girl, “Bella, are you saying cancer?”  Bella’s eyes widened and she responded, “YeahI cansoo?”  With a lump in her throat, Leslie said, “Yes baby, you have cancer.”

Bella is still enduring the effects of this terrible disease, but every human to one degree or another experiences suffering, sickness, emotional distress, and general discomfort.  In fact, the grim reality of mortal life is that it eventually ends in death.  However, people have ways of coping with this reality, and life seems to go on – at least for some.  What are we to do with our sense of helpless weakness?  Should we deny the inevitable by thinking that sickness and death are oddities?  Should we eat, drink and be merryfor tomorrow we die?  Is there any place that we may turn for truth, stability and strength?

Yes, as a matter of fact, there is stability and strength to be found in truth.  Yet, the basis for hope may not be what one might expect.  The reason that humans may have hope, especially in times of great distress, is that there is one who has died before us.  But, how can death provide hope for those plagued by death? It is not only the death of another that provides hope, but it is the subsequent display of divine authority and power.

Jesus Christ, the eternal God, was no ordinary man (John 1:14).  His life was lived in perfect obedience to God’s law (Hebrews 4:15), yet He died as one condemned – cursed by God (Romans 3:25).  While Jesus was perfectly good and righteous, He endured the full wrath of God as a sinner of the worst kind (Isaiah 53:4-6). At His moment of death, Jesus spoke out, “It is finished” (John 19:30).  This was to claim that the punishment for sin was thorough, and God’s wrath against all sinners who trust in Christ was exhausted.

Following this atoning sacrifice, Jesus Christ conquered death – not for just a little while, but never to die again!  This is where hope may be found in times of painful distress.  This mortal life, under the curse of sin and power of death, is not all there is!  Read the words of the Apostle Paul from 1 Corinthians 15:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (v3-4).

Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (v20-22).

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

Death is swallowed up in victory.

O death, where is your victory?

O death, where is your sting?

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (v54-58).

In the life, death and resurrection of Christ we who trust in Him are assured and comforted. In Christ we are able to see our sin for the ugly offense that it is and God’s gracious grace on beautiful display.  In Christ we are able to see death, the final and ultimate foe of all mankind, subdued and overcome by the power of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection.

Therefore, the hope… the stability… the strength… the inclination to endure is not that we will be spared from pain, sickness, disease and death…  No, but even in these things we are victorious because of Christ (Romans 8:37-39)!  Oh, Christian, look not only to your temporal merriment, but fix your eyes upon the hope of glory!  Behold the King of splendor!  Lift up your gaze to the eternal, true and living God, who is the Savior of your soul – the steadfast promise keeper.

This life may be marred by difficulty, pain and sin, but our glorious future is more wonderful, more beautiful, more stimulating than anything we have ever known.