THE PROBLEM OF EVIL – How Could A Good God Allow Evil?
This is not only an excellent question of itself, but it’s the main question of most people today. When a believer asks this question, he or she is almost always questioning God’s moral quality. One line of reasoning goes that if God created everything then He created evil. If He created evil, how can God be all good? So the issue turns on whether the all-powerful God is just playing with human frailty, dangling man at the end of puppet strings we are powerless to overcome.
For unbelievers, the question is about the existence of God. God cannot exist, because there’s no way He would allow evil. An all-good God would not have allowed Hitler. Therefore, since Hitler did happen– and countless other evils happen every day — there is no God.
Often the first question will give way to the second; and people may even wrestle back and forth between both positions. But they are actually two sides of the same coin. For the sake of clarity, however, let’s look at these positions exclusively in the categories of “believers” and “unbelievers.”
The first thing a believer should settle is his or her mind is that God is an infinite being, and humans are finite beings. As finite beings, we do not have the capability to comprehend fully the infinite things of God — in this case, God’s infinite purpose for evil. This is not a cop out to intellectual laziness, nor a concession of defeat to opposing positions. It’s simply a fact. Humans are no more equipped to process fully infinite matters than a radio is to process picture signals of television broadcasts.
We are, however, designed to understand infinite matters to the degree of our finite design. We can, should, and will therefore explore the issue (and others like it) to the fullest of that capacity.
How could a good God allow evil?
The presence of evil does not negate God’s infinite goodness. God as an infinite being is perfect. Anything less than God therefore is imperfect. God’s creations are finite, so they are imperfect. Created things therefore contain imperfections. Scripture supports this view. Notice that at the end of each day of God’s creative work, God assesses His work as “good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) and “very good” (Gen. 1:31), not perfect. That is not to say, however, that created things cannot become perfect — that is the process of salvation to eternity — only that they are imperfect while in a state of finitude.
In this light, evil can be understood as a lack or deprivation of something good God created. God creates things with the intention of good. Therefore, God did not create evil; evil exists because good can be deprived.
Goodness is deprived by disobedience. God designed everything with a certain function. Whatever operates outside that function is disobedient to God’s design. God designed man to freely desire to be obedient to Him. In His infinite goodness, God gave man a commandment, which was to avoid eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. God gave this commandment for man’s well being. Man was to keep focused on God and His order of things.
But once man ate from the forbidden tree, he acquired knowledge of evil — that is, disobeying God’s order of things. Man had formerly known all good, but now he knew both good AND evil. Moreso, he knew then HOW to do what wasn’t good — and the bell could not be unrung.
A new question comes out of this as to why God would allow the possibility for man to choose evil. Why didn’t God make man in a way that he would do only good? Scripture tells us that God made man in His own image and likeness (Gen. 1:26). God Himself has free will, choosing from His free will to create things, and specifically to create certain beings (humans) to have an image and likeness of this capacity. Said differently, in order to be made in the image and likeness of God, man must have the capability to choose for himself — otherwise, man would be a robot, or just another species among the common animals.
Before the fall in the Garden, we see a beautiful example of man’s ability to freely choose things for good at the prompting of God, when God brought all the animals to Adam to “see what he would name them” (Gen. 2:19). Adam had no problem doing this. His free-will nature compelled him to start spitting out names. Here we see a good God interacting with man, driving him to exercise his free will for the purpose of doing good.
If God was not a good, good God, the operation of His creation would reveal so. The universe would not be finely tuned with all celestial objects adhering to regular and stable positions (according to scientists) for billions of years. Instead we would see utter chaos, with stars, planets, and galaxies crashing into each other. (Actually, stars, planets, and galaxies wouldn’t even exist). Earth’s systems, like water, air and food, would not occur naturally all over the planet in forms beneficial to man, but would be poisonous and lethal. While evil does exist and happen in the world, it is disproportionate on the whole to the good in the world. It is in fact man who actually does evil to the environment, distorting his own perspective of it, and then blaming outside forces, like God.
So it depends on perspective. If we look so closely at the circumstances highlighted in the media, evil will always appear dominant to good. For example, murder rates make it appear that murder is rampant, when in fact the overwhelming majority of the population does not get murdered — in fact, the majority people at minimum live decent and productive lives. Look further still to the whole complex scheme of earth’s systems, and we see those systems standing up to the evil inflicted on it. God has in fact made a robust earth, and His good design continues to prevail.
On these points up to now, we can summarize in the following way:
- God is absolutely perfect and good
- God created only good creatures
- One goodness God gave creatures is free will
- Some creatures freely choose to do evil
- Therefore, good creatures can do evil
- Freedom of choice produces the possibility of evil
- God is therefore responsible for making evil possible, but free creatures make it actual
- God produces the fact of free choice, but humans perform the act of free choice
GOD’S MORAL QUALITY
Let’s now clarify our conception of God by examining His moral quality. God is the Supreme Being and Creator of all. He has chosen to make Himself knowable by creating beings in His own image and likeness — that is you and I! Rather than operating as pre-programmed robots, He has given each of us the ability to choose to want to know Him and do good according to His plan and design. By designing man in His image and likeness, God has made Himself knowable. Because He is knowable, God desires for us to choose to know Him, and He desires to reveal Himself in great detail to man.
God reveals Himself in two distinct ways: (1) by general revelation, and (2) by specific revelation. Generally, we see God’s nature in the things He’s created. We can look out into the world and see its intense complexity, and so conclude that God is an intensely complex Being. We evaluate the quality of His creation and assess that it is good, and therefore conclude that God is good. Specifically, God reveals Himself directly to each one of us through the legacy of the Bible, and by the operation of the Holy Spirit in our personal lives. He could just have easily invented the world and man in a detached way — as if watching fish in a fishbowl. But He didn’t. Instead, He chose to be intimately involved in His creation, prompting mankind (as in the example of Adam naming the animals) to do good. We see God covering Adam and Eve with clothing made from animal skin (Gen. 3:21) — and this is the picture of God ultimately covering mankind’s sinful nature in Jesus Christ. God is fully invested and interested in man’s life. He is actively involved in His creation; and this is the act of a good God.
But God is also holy. He does not violate His design to suit a need. God does not, for example, interfere with man’s free will, even if man’s choices are detrimental to himself. God will prompt man, allow man to suffer conditions to get man to cry out to Him, but God will not violate His design. This shows God’s holiness, and that He is worthy of our trust. He wants us to realize this, and to CHOOSE by our free will to acknowledge and trust Him, to engage Him in the kind of relationship He seeks for His glory, which is for our ultimate welfare.
God is good, and we should choose to know and serve Him and to worship Him by adhering to His plan for mankind. The happiness we seek through the eradication of evil is neither our purpose nor our end in life. Rather, our purpose is to engage and serve God on His terms according to His order of things, from which flows happiness and liberation from evil.
EVIL COMPELS GOOD
A good example of how evil compels good is in the fact that you asked the question we’re exploring. And you are looking for a good answer! You are not just repelled by evil; evil actually compels you to do good. Ideally, you will progressively move toward good, not in spite of the presence of evil but because of it. Evil is driving you to do good and to be good.
The fact that evil compels good does not mean that God desires the existence of evil. It does mean that He will permit evil and/or use it for ultimate good. There will come a day (a day already set but not revealed) when evil will cease to exist, and God’s creation will attain its perfect state as He intended — and man for his part will have chosen his destiny by the power of his own free will.
Evil tends to inspire more good than more evil. For example, on 9/11, in the face of horrific evil and uncertainty, people from all over the country were inspired to lay down their affairs and travel to NYC to help people they had never met or thought about until then — without any prompting from civil authorities. It did not inspire the mass flying of airplanes into occupied buildings, though it may have inspired some. Those numbers are few, however, when compared to the millions of people activated against evil by the tragedy. The trend was to good, not evil.
Even the evils inflicted on children in the form of disease or crime tends to spur good. Major donor societies, research centers for cures, international ministries, public awareness and interdiction, and other benevolent groups and actions are born out of these tragic cases.
But even when evil is rampant and accepted by the majority, it turns the minority of good people into better people. A biblical example is Noah. In his time, God saw that the extent of human wickedness was consistently and totally evil (Gen. 6:5). Yet there was Noah, a righteous man in the midst of widespread evil, walking in “close” fellowship with God when no one else was (Gen. 6:9). A modern historical example would be Nazi Germany, which produced a small but dedicated internal resistance of good people who became better people in the midst of rampant evil. And today, we see Muslims in the Middle East turning away from Islam in repulsion to the evils inflicted by radical Muslims against Muslims and other people.
Finally, we know a good purpose for some evil, such as pain, which serves as a warning sign that something is wrong and needs attention. In training the axiom “no pain, no gain” actually champions pain as a sign of progress and refinement. And in the broader sense, evil is God’s megaphone to a morally deafened world.
We can summarize by saying:
- God is the Supreme Creator Who chooses to reveal Himself
- God reveals Himself to man, so man will choose to know Him and do good
- But God is holy and will not violate His design, even if man chooses evil
- God is therefore morally good and trustworthy in spite of evil
- Though God didn’t create evil, He does permit is for good purposes
- Evil compels more good than more evil
- Some evil is good and desired, such as pain
- God uses evil like a megaphone to a morally deafened world
Ultimately, God has a purpose of everything, and it’s man’s job to discover that purpose. Probably the best biblical example is the story of the blind. The disciple try to discover the purpose for the man’s blindness, whether it was caused by man’s own sins or by the sins of the man’s parents. Neither, Jesus said. It was for the glory of God … and Jesus proceeded to heal the man — who went on to publicly broadcast the greatness of Jesus before high Jewish authorities (John 6).
An unbeliever tends to think the presence of evil negates the existence of God. Though there are several variations of the argument, we’ll go to its essence. At the heart of their issue is a question of God’s power and moral character: They cannot understand how an all-powerful, all-good God could coexist with evil. They conclude therefore that there must be no such God. But a close look at this reasoning reveals several fatal deficiencies.
First, the unbeliever presupposes that evil should not exist in a moral world. We might just as well ask them why morals should exist at all. From where do they derive the moral position that only good should exist, or any moral position? It has to come from a source, and the person must admit that they are not the source. So where did it come from? Morals must derive from somewhere.
Often they’ll defer to an evolutionary argument, something to the effect that people have collectively agreed that evil is bad. We have to ask, on what basis? Evil exists, so obviously some people think that doing evil is good. But even doers of good cannot arrive at a consensus. The existence of case law makes this perfectly clear. Homicide, for example, has several gradations, from justifiable (self-defense) to heinous (first degree). In some states murder can be a crime of passion carrying a minimal penalty, while other jurisdictions treat all murders the same. All of this shows only that man left to himself will grade morals according to his preferences under certain conditions. But what is the source? We recognize God as the universal moral-Giver.
Secondly, the unbeliever must then realize that they are actually imposing their moral PREFERENCE (evil shouldn’t exist) on God and others. That moral preference is based on free choice, which means that a moral world is one that contains free choice. God therefore (regardless of His infinite power) cannot destroy evil without destroying free choice, just as the unbeliever cannot destroy either evil or their opponent’s position without destroying free choice. God, however, can defeat evil. He has in fact promised to do so; but has thus far chosen not to.
Finally, the unbeliever must then admit that moral decisions derive from free choice — some people (presumably this unbeliever) choose to do good, while others choose to do bad. A person taking a morally superior position must therefore accept free choice. If they accept free choice, then they must accept evil. Therefore, they are admitting the same position they claim against God, having to allow evil. Their position is completely negated.
At this point, they have to accept that their position is founded on faulty logic, and they must make a decision to believe in God. If they accept, you can take them through the analysis of evil on the other side of the coin. If not, it’s their free choice to maintain their position, faulty logic and all.
I find that those who choose to maintain their flawed reasoning do so because they actually live to some level of moral corruption. They don’t want to own up to their sin, and they don’t want a moral God disrupting their amoral conduct — be it drugs, sex, gambling, crime, etc.
I’d like to expand on this point, because it’s the most relevant point to those of us calling ourselves believers, and also to understanding those we’re witnessing to — and we should always strive to know who we’re witnessing to and what their beliefs are. I know many believers who become overwhelmed by the moral demands of biblical, Spirit-led Christianity. I’ve heard some of them even call it impossible. Even Jesus said, many are called but few are chosen. We know that we can’t do it by our own strength.
In Western music there are only twelve tones. Think about it … just twelve sounds are responsible for all the music in the Western world! But it’s learning the rules of how those twelve tones combine and blend that gives us all the freedom to create such a diversity of music. Freedom results from rules.
People who want to do what they want when they want will bypass existing rules under the faulty logic that that’s the only way to live truly “free.” In reality, they are living worse than a fantasy — they’re living in confusion. Take an anarchist, for example. He claims that true freedom is attained by abolishing government (i.e., rules and rule makers), which supposedly coerces people to do what the government’s wants. But this same anarchist actually violates his very own belief by stating the tenants of anarchism. He demands that every follow his rule, which is adherence to no rules. He has in fact stated a rule. Moreover, he’d have to monitor people more closely than any known form of government ever has (every individual, in fact) to ensure that individuals are living up the standard of anarchy by not following any rules! Anarchy fully realized leads to absolute dictatorship.
The lesson is that we should never fool ourselves about rules and their importance as the foundation of true freedom. In the rule of Christ is ultimate freedom, and we should embrace it — “cling” to it, as Paul tells us (1 Tim. 6:12). We should never allow ourselves to be deceived into thinking that our lives are being hampered by our rule of life; we should embrace it more and more each day, even if we don’t fully understand why at that moment — we trust in a good God who reveals Himself to us, so we further trust that He will eventually show us. We should also approach this subject with care and compassion to those unbelievers who remain enslaved to faulty logic. It is our obligation to at least attempt to lead them to freedom in Christ.