The Problem of Evil

by Shafer Parker

Some of you who follow the “doins” here at Faith Beyond Belief are probably aware already we’ve scheduled a couple of “Worldview Weekends” in June, with more to come (for more info on these introductory weekends click here). So I thought this week I’d share with you why I believe the Worldview Course, written by FBB founder Jojo Ruba, is so important, why every serious Christian ought to be exposed to its teachings, and why, if you’ve already taken the course I think you have a duty to encourage your friends to take it for themselves.

In my experience, objections to Christianity generally come from one of two angles. Either they suggest that science has somehow disproved its central claims, or else they raise the everlasting problem of evil. Our Worldview Course has excellent answers to both, but today I want to focus on session 7, the Problem of Evil.

You don’t have to study much history to recognize that every generation produces a new crop of atheist philosophers who believe that merely pointing out the existence of evil in the world constitutes a coup de grace against the idea of God. Three hundred years before Christ Epicurus wrote, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

If there is no God, the continued existence of good is harder to explain than the existence of evil.

Today’s “New Atheist” Daniel Dennett says much the same thing as Epicurus—if not so succinctly. “The idea that God is a worthy recipient of our gratitude for the blessings of life but should not be held accountable for the disasters is a transparently disingenuous innovation of the theologians…The Problem of Evil, capital letters and all, is the central enigma confronting theists. There is no solution. Isn't that obvious? All the holy texts and interpretations that contrive ways of getting around the problem read like the fine print in a fraudulent contract—and for the same reason: they are desperate attempts to conceal the implications of the double standard they have invented.”

So, is that it? Is the argument over before it has even begun? Not hardly. One of the reasons I love the Worldview Course so much is that it gives excellent and brief answers to Dennett’s fulminations. Spend a few moments memorizing these pithy responses to his pseudo-logic and you’ll never be stumped again when someone raises the problem of evil.

Evil Only Exists if God Exists

Let’s begin with what seems an obvious point, yet one Dennett and his fellow travellers apparently missed. (Pt. 1) “Evil only exists if God exists.” The problem atheists never face is that you can have pure goodness, but you can never have pure evil; just as adultery is a perversion of love, and murder is a perversion of justice, all forms of evil only exist as perversions of good things. For evil to even exist there must first be a good God Who made all things good. All temptations to do evil are temptations to pursue something good, but in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons. Food is good, unless you want to eat too much. Hard work is good, until the worker becomes a workaholic and neglects his family. Rest is good, until the lazy person does nothing but rest. I could go on, but you get the point. I’ll close this section with a quote from C. S. Lewis: “[E]vil is a parasite, not an original thing. The powers which enable evil to carry on are powers given it by goodness.” In other words, if God had not made a truly good world, evil would have had nothing with which to work

Evil Exists Because of Free Will?

Ask a philosopher what distinguishes humanity from the animals and sooner or later the discussion will get around to free will, or free agency. It seems obvious that self-conscious human beings make free choices in a way not given to the rest of the animal kingdom. In fact, free will is a core attribute of humanity and none of us would be happy without it. But have you ever thought (pt. 2) that “Evil exists because of free will?” For free will to be truly free, we have to be able to choose evil as well as good, and therein lies the great risk that God took when he decided to create us. Nevertheless, it was a risk He was willing to take. The great philosopher of our times, Alvin Plantinga, has written: “It is possible that God, even being omnipotent, could not create a world with free creatures who never choose evil. Furthermore, it is possible that God, even being omni-benevolent, would desire to create a world with contains evil if moral goodness requires free moral creatures.” When Plantinga first published this statement, he got a lot of push back. But the tide has turned, and today, even atheist philosophers such as J. L. Mackie have admitted that his argument is logically consistent and unassailable.

Evil Exists as a Natural Consequence of Humanity’s Choices & Evil is an Opportunity for People to Do Good

(Pt. 3) automatically follows: “Evil exists as a natural consequence of humanity’s choices.” And if that were the whole story life would be too horrible to contemplate. Here’s the upside: (Pt.4) “Evil is an opportunity for people to do good.” We may be impressed by powerful tyrants and wealthy robber barons who seem to conquer and rule with impunity. But we truly love those men and women, who in the face of evil step up to do great good. I’m talking about William Wilberforce, who fought to end the slave trade in England, Corrie Ten Boom, who with her father and sister hid many Jews during the holocaust, and who preached the gospel of God’s forgiveness in Christ to the Germans after the war.

Despite All the Evil, There is Good

In every era there are lesser known people who continue to step up and do good in the face of evil, such as Aki Ra, a Cambodian child soldier who saw the evil of the Khmer Rouge and began to clear and defuse landmines in his country with nothing but a Leatherman multi-tool and a stick. As he did his work, he and his wife (now deceased) ended up adopting 29 children who were abandoned because landmines took their parents. As you can see from these examples (Pt 5): “Despite all the evil, there is good.” If there is no God, the continued existence of good is harder to explain than the existence of evil. Why should anyone be good? Only because there is a good God, and because every human being is made in His image. No matter how marred by indwelling sin, we are still made in God’s image, and that means there is a deep longing for good, and for doing good, in every one of us.

Evil is Necessary to Help Transform Fallen People to be More like Christ

But in our fallen state all of us fall prey to the evil inside. That’s why Christ came from heaven to live and to die for us, and then to rise from the dead in order to be able to grant life-transforming grace to all who believe in Him. And that’s why we say (Pt. 6), “Evil is necessary to help transform fallen people to be more like Christ.” For the Christian, the presence of evil becomes less like an overwhelming destructive force and more like an obstacle course to be run for the purpose of spiritual exercise. You see, God’s main goal is not to help us feel good, but to help us be good. Learning to trust Him and obey Him in the face of evil is how we become stronger in the new life Christ gives us.

Evil is an Opportunity for God to Show His Mercy and Grace

Finally, (Pt. 7), “Evil is an opportunity for God to show His mercy and grace.” The greatest evil ever perpetrated on planet earth was the torture and crucifixion endured by Jesus of Nazareth, the only truly good man who ever lived. Think of the contrast between Jesus’ suffering and death and His words from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” There is much more to Christ’s suffering and death than the demonstrated difference between man’s hatred of God and His love for sinful man. Nevertheless, without the cross, God’s forgiveness would seem shallow, even facile. But with the cross in view, God’s mercy becomes even greater when we hear the Bible say, “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.” Only at this point can we begin to appreciate the greatness of God’s love and grace, and, shockingly, we have the existence of evil to thank for that.