The Problem of Evil

by Dr. Phil Fernandes

A chapter from his doctoral dissertation
© 1997, Institute of Biblical Defense, All Rights Reserved

One of the greatest obstacles keeping people from accepting Christ is the problem of evil.1 This problem can take several different forms. First, the metaphysical problem of evil asks how evil can exist in a world created by an all-good God.2 Is God the cause of evil, or, is evil itself uncreated and eternal? Maybe evil is not real; it is simply an illusion.3 The metaphysical problem deals with the origin and reality of evil in God’s universe.

Second, the moral problem of evil deals with the evil choices of personal beings.4 This form of the problem argues that since an all-good God would want to destroy evil, and an all-powerful God is able to destroy evil, the existence of evil proves that no all-good, all-powerful God exists.5 The Christian apologist defends the existence of an all-good and all-powerful God. Therefore, he will respond to this argument.

The third form of the problem of evil is called the physical problem of evil.6 The physical problem of evil deals with incidents of natural disasters and innocent human suffering.7 How could God allow evil to occur that is not directly caused by the abuse of human free will?8

The fourth and final form of the problem of evil is not really a philosophical issue. It is the personal problem of evil.9 The personal problem of evil is not a theoretical question about the existence of evil. Instead, it is a personal struggle with a traumatic experience in one’s own life.10 Examples of this would be the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one, a bitter divorce, the loss of a job, or the like. In these situations, the troubled person does not need philosophical answers. What is needed is encouragement, comfort, and biblical counsel.11 Since this form of the problem of evil does not deal with philosophical discussion, it will not be dealt with in this chapter. The remainder of this chapter will deal with the first three forms of the problem of evil.

THE METAPHYSICAL PROBLEM OF EVIL

The metaphysical problem of evil can be stated as follows: 1) God created everything that exists, 2) evil exists, 3) therefore, God created evil.12 There are several ways people respond to this argument. First, like the Christian Science Cult, some can deny the reality of evil.13 They view evil as an illusion, but this entails a rejection of Christian Theism which clearly accepts the real existence of evil and offers Christ as its solution.14 Therefore, viewing evil as an illusion is not an option for the Christian apologist.

A second possible response to the metaphysical problem is dualism. This is the view that God and evil are coeternal.15 God did not create evil, in this view, since evil is eternal. This view fails in that it makes evil a second ultimate being along with God. God would then no longer be infinite since He and evil would limit each other. However, the cosmological argument has shown that there must be an infinite Being to explain and ground all finite existence. There cannot be two infinite beings, for they would limit each other. If God and evil are both finite, then there would have to be an infinite cause for the existence of both. Dualism would only push the problem of evil further back. It does not offer any ultimate solution to the dilemma. Also, the acceptance of dualism entails a rejection of the existence of the God of the Bible. Therefore, it is not an option for the Christian theist.16

The Christian apologist must defend the reality of evil without proposing evil as eternal or as a creation of God.17 Saint Augustine dealt with this same problem centuries ago. His proposed solution to the metaphysical problem of evil was that all things created by God are good. Nothing in its created nature is evil. Evil, therefore, cannot exist solely on its own. However, evil is real; it does exist. Still, it must exist in something good; it cannot exist on its own. Evil is a privation, a lack or absence of a good that should be there. Evil is a corruption or perversion of God’s good creation. Blindness in a man is evil, for God created man to see. But, blindness in a rock is not evil, for God never meant rocks to have sight. Evil, according to Augustine, is a lack of a good that should be there. Augustine stated, “evil has no positive nature; what we call evil is merely the lack of something that is good.”18

Augustine stated that God did not create evil; He merely created the possibility for evil by giving men and angels free will. When men and angels exercised their free will by disobeying God, they actualized the possibility for evil.19

Thomas Aquinas argued against the metaphysical problem of evil along the same lines as did Augustine.20 This basic response has been the traditional Christian solution to the metaphysical problem of evil. God did not create evil, but, evil exists as a privation or corruption of that which is good. God cannot be blamed for evil. He is only responsible for creating the possibility of evil. When God gave angels and men free will, He created the possibility of evil. Fallen angels and fallen men are responsible for evil through their abuse of free will.21

THE MORAL PROBLEM OF EVIL

The moral problem of evil affirms that an all-good God would want to destroy evil, while an all-powerful God is able to destroy evil. Since evil exists, it is concluded that an all-good, all-powerful God does not exist.22 Some people respond by denying God’s existence (atheism). Others deny that God is all-powerful (finite godism). Rabbi Harold Kushner is an example of the latter. He argues that God is not all-powerful. Kushner declares that mankind needs to forgive God for His failures and help Him to combat evil.23 Obviously, the options of atheism and finite godism are not viable for Christians. Christians must defend both God’s omnipotence (all-powerfulness) and His infinite goodness. Therefore, the moral problem of evil must be answered in another way.

Christian philosophers Geisler and Corduan offer several effective responses to the moral problem of evil. First, there is an unnecessary time limit placed on God.24 The argument against the existence of the theistic God from moral evil assumes that because evil exists God cannot be both all-good and all-powerful. However, what if an all-good and all-powerful God allowed evil for the purpose of a greater good? What if this God is also in the process of destroying evil and will someday complete the process?25 Second, God may have created the possibility of evil for the purpose of a greater good (human and angelic free will). God would not force His love on angels or mankind, for any attempt to force love on another is rape (and not really love at all).26 Therefore, He gave men and angels the freedom to accept or reject His love and His will. Free will necessitates the possibility of evil coming into the universe.27 In fact, human and angelic free choices brought evil and human suffering into the world.

Third, God will use evil for good purposes. If evil did not exist, there could be no courage, for there would be nothing to fear. If evil did not exist, man could only love his friends; he could never learn to love even his enemies. Without evil, there would be no enemies.28 Only an infinite God can know all the good He will bring out of evil (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Fourth, Geisler and Corduan argue that an all-good and all-powerful God is not required to create the best possible world. They reason that all He can be expected to do is create the best possible way to achieve the greatest possible world. Heaven is the greatest possible world.29

Several other points could also be made. First, the atheist usually denies the existence of objective evil since he knows that this would admit to the existence of the absolute moral law.30 The atheist knows that once he acknowledges the absolute moral law, the existence of God (the absolute moral law Giver) surely will follow.31 For evil to be objectively real, it must exist as a perversion of that which is ultimately good. To escape this conclusion, the atheist usually chooses to deny the existence of evil. Therefore, it is rather ironic that the atheist (who usually denies the existence of evil) attempts to use evil to disprove the existence of the God of the Bible. The presence of evil may be problematic for all other world views (including Christian theism), but it is totally devastating to atheism. If there is no God, then there are also no objective moral values. The most consistent atheists, such as Nietzsche, have readily admitted this.32

Second, all world views must deal with the problem of evil, but the God of the Bible is the only guarantee that evil will ultimately be defeated.33 The God of deism is no longer concerned with the problems of this world (such as evil).34 In pantheism, evil is an illusion.35 In atheism, there is no basis to call anything evil.36 But, the biblical God guarantees that evil will be defeated through Christ’s death, resurrection, and return (John 1:29; 1 Peter 2:24; 3:18; Romans 4:25; Isaiah 9:6-7; 11:1-9; Zechariah 9:9-10; Revelation 20;4-6).

Third, non-Christians act as if the existence of evil is an unexpected factor in the Christian world view, but this is not the case. God would not have given mankind the Bible had it not been for the problem of evil. If man had not Fallen in the garden, he would have had no need for salvation (Genesis 3:1-7; Romans 3:10, 23; 5:12; 6:23). The Bible could actually be titled “God’s Solution to the Problem of Evil.”

In short, the solution to the moral problem of evil (how an all-good, all-powerful God can co-exist with evil) is that God gave humans and angels free will. It is the abuse of this free will by humans and angels that has brought evil and human suffering into existence. God created the possibility for evil (by giving man and angels free will), not evil itself.

Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga adds an important detail concerning the Christian response to the moral problem of evil. He writes that there are two ways Christians can respond to this dilemma. First, he may develop a free will theodicy. A theodicy is an attempt to explain what was God’s reason (or reasons) for allowing evil. On the other hand, according to Plantinga, the Christian does not have to go that far. Instead of presenting a free will theodicy, he may develop a free will defense. In this case, rather than attempting to explain the reason as to why God allows evil and human suffering, the Christian can merely suggest a possible reason why God has allowed evil and human suffering.37 The free will defense, according to Plantinga, is sufficient in itself to show that the existence of evil does not rule out the possible existence of the God of theism.38

In other words, since the problem of evil is an attempt to prove God’s existence as being impossible, the Christian only needs to provide possible solutions to this problem. Once this is done, God’s existence will have been shown to be possible. Further argumentation (such as the cosmological, teleological, moral, and ontological arguments) can then be presented to argue for God’s existence with a higher degree of probability.39

THE PHYSICAL PROBLEM OF EVIL

The physical or natural problem of evil deals with evil not directly connected to the abuse of human freedom.40 All physical or natural evil is at least indirectly related to the abuse of human freedom. Without the Fall of man in history, creation would still be perfect (Genesis 1:31). Still, much physical evil is not directly related to human choices. Natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and deaths of innocent infants are examples of physical evil.

Geisler and Corduan list five explanations for physical evil.41 None of the five are meant to be all-encompassing. Each explains some of the physical evil that occurs. First, some physical evil is necessary for moral perfection.42 There can be no courage without something evil to fear. Misery is needed for there to be sympathy; tribulation is needed for there to be endurance and patience.43 For God to build these characteristics in man, He must permit a certain amount of physical evil.

Second, human free choices do cause some physical evil.44 It would be an obvious error to assume that no physical evil is caused by the abuse of human free will. The choice to drink and drive has caused much physical evil. Many infants have been born with an addiction to cocaine due to their mothers’ choice to abuse drugs while pregnant. It is impossible for God to remove all physical evil without tampering with human free will.45 It is even possible that some major natural disasters are caused by the evil choices of humans. According to the Bible, this was the case with Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20-21; 19).

Third, some physical evil is caused by the choices of demons.46 The Scriptures speak of demons (fallen angels led by Satan) causing suffering to humans (Job 1, 2; Mark 5:1-20). Demons oppose God and His plans, but they will ultimately be defeated by Christ (Revelation 19, 20, 21, 22).

Fourth, God often uses physical evil as a moral warning.47 Physical pain is often a warning that greater suffering will follow if behavior is not changed. Examples of this would be excessive coughing that is often caused by smoking and heavy breathing caused by over training during a physical workout. Also, God may use pain and suffering to cause a person to focus on him, rather than on worldly pleasures.48

Fifth, some physical evils are necessary in the present state of the physical world.49 To survive, animals often eat other animals. Humans eat animals as well. It appears that, at least in the present state of the creation, lower life forms are subjected to pain and death in order to facilitate the preservation of higher life forms.50

Physical evil, therefore, does not present any insurmountable problems for Christian theism. Though man is limited in knowledge and cannot infallibly ascertain why God allows each and every case of physical evil, the five reasons given above should suffice to show that the presence of physical evil in no way rules out the existence of the God of the Bible.

CONCLUSION

Once the Christian apologist has provided strong evidence for God’s existence, he need only give possible reasons why an all-good and all-powerful God would allow evil and human suffering. God has good reasons for allowing evil and human suffering, even though we may not know them fully. Therefore, the existence of evil does not disprove the existence of an all-good and all-powerful God. These two are not mutually exclusive.

ENDNOTES

1 Nash, 177.

2 Geisler and Corduan, 318.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 333.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 364.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Nash, 179-180.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid., 180.

12 Geisler and Corduan, 318.

13 Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (Boston: The First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1971), 293, 447, 472, 480, 482.

14 Geisler and Corduan, 318-319.

15 Ibid., 319.

16 Ibid., 319-320.

17 Ibid., 318-320.

18 Augustine, City of God, 217, 247, 305, 508.

19 Geisler and Corduan, 323-324.

20 Aquinas, 91-92.

21 Geisler and Corduan, 320-330.

22 Ibid., 333.

23 Kushner, 129,134,145-148.

24 Geisler and Corduan, 334.

25 Ibid., 348.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid., 342-343.

30 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 34-39.

31 Ibid.

32 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, ed. by Walter Kaufmann, (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 228.

33 Geisler and Watkins, 41.

34 Ibid., 148-149.

35 Ibid., 99-100.

36 Ibid., 59.

37 Plantinga, 28.

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid.

40 Geisler and Corduan, 364.

41 Ibid., 372-378.

42 Ibid., 372-373.

43 Ibid., 372.

44 Ibid., 373.

45 Ibid., 373-374.

46 Ibid., 375.

47 Ibid., 376.

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid., 376-378.