The Problem of Evil Is A Problem For Everyone
Probe an atheist or agnostic deeply enough about why they doubt God’s existence, and he or she will likely recount for you the problem of evil. This problem keeps many from faith in God altogether and rattles the faith of even the staunchest believers. It is an intellectual problem that has occupied much of my attention for all of my adult life. Even more, for the last thirteen years, wrestling with the reality of evil has been a personal challenge for me and my family. Things have happened that I must deal with every day for the rest of my life.
Though many religious believers and nonbelievers struggle with this problem, it is especially acute for adherents of a religion such as evangelical Christianity, which believes in an all-powerful and all-loving God. How can a God with those traits allow evil to beset his creatures? If evil is retribution for some horrendous sin, then perhaps its presence in the world is understandable. But even in cases of the most egregious sinners, some punishments seem to exceed the crime by quite a bit. For those who live a godly life, suffering from certain afflictions seems especially unjustified. In light of these things and my own experiences with suffering, you may wonder why I still believe in God at all, let alone remain a Christian. In the pages that follow, I want to explain why, but before I can, I must raise several preliminary items.
I have argued at length elsewhere that the usual conception of the problem of evil is too simplistic. Traditionally, this problem is portrayed as a dilemma centering on the logical consistency of three propositions: (1) God is all-loving; (2) God is all-powerful; and (3) evil exists in a world created by this God. Philosophers and theologians have assumed that this problem is the only problem of evil and that it confronts equally all theological systems that believe in an omnipotent and all-loving God. I have argued that this is not so, for there are many different problems of evil. I needn’t recount all of them here, but I should distinguish several of them.
First, there is a difference between the strictly intellectual questions that evil raises and the more personal crises of faith it precipitates. Those dealing with the intellectual questions of evil usually question whether evil’s existence is logically consistent with Christian doctrine about God. One could pose such questions in complete abstraction from actual evils being suffered. One could even ask these questions if one didn’t believe there is a God or that evil exists in our world. These are the problems that professional theologians and philosophers write about and debate. There are distinct intellectual questions raised by the existence of any evil, the amounts of evil in our world, the intensity of certain evils, and the apparent purposelessness of some evils. If theists cannot successfully answer such questions, continuing to believe in God (and holding to theologies that cannot solve these problems) seems unwarranted.
In contrast to the intellectual questions is the personal struggle that people have with suffering and affliction. Such experienced evils precipitate a crisis of faith. The afflicted person asks how a God of love can allow this to happen when he or she has faithfully followed God all of his or her life. Since God doesn’t remove the evil, it is difficult to worship him and even more difficult to serve him. Clearly, the relationship this person has with God is strained, and it isn’t likely that it can be restored merely by offering the afflicted information about how the experienced evil is consistent with an all-loving, all-powerful God, let alone simple platitudes about how God knows that this is ultimately for the best.
A further distinction relates to the intellectual problems. In recent decades, philosophers have argued that these questions can be posed in either a logical form or an evidential form. The former is the more traditional way the problem of evil has been conceived. In that case, the critic accuses a theistic system of containing views that collectively contradict one another. If any two of the three key propositions for theism mentioned above are true, the third must be false. Of course, any set of ideas that is internally self-contradictory cannot as a whole be true. Hence, if theistic systems are guilty of this error, they are false and should be abandoned. Since the charge of contradiction means there is no possible way the set of propositions can all be true, the theist needs only to show that there is a possible way for the three central propositions about God and evil to be true. Thus, it hasn’t been shown that the theist contradicts himself.
In recent years, largely because of the work of Alvin Plantinga in elaborating and defending the freewill defense, many atheists as well as theists have agreed that it is possible to hold the three propositions central to theism without contradicting oneself. However, critics have launched the attack on a second front. Even if a theological system isn’t guilty of contradicting itself over its views on God and evil, critics still argue that the mere facts of evil in our world make it unlikely that theism is true. Because instances of evil are seen as evidence against theism, this form of the problem of evil is called the evidential problem. Moreover, because the evidential problem claims that evil makes theism improbable, this form of the problem is also called the probabilistic problem of evil. In contrast to the logical problem of evil, one doesn’t explain why one’s theology is self-consistent. Instead, the theist must explain why, despite the evil in our world, theism isn’t improbable.
As shown elsewhere, the kind of answers appropriate for the logical problem are different from those needed to solve the evidential problem. Due to space limitations, I cannot respond to both forms of the problem in this essay. Since the logical problem is the one with the longest history and is most frequently discussed, I will focus on it. Moreover, the problem most frequently raised throughout the history of this discussion is the problem of moral evil. That question asks why an all-loving and omnipotent God allows moral evil, sin, in our world. Exactly how this problem confronts a given theological system depends on its account of metaphysics and ethics. Before turning to that matter, however, I should pause to clarify the basic strategy that most defenses and theodicies follow when attempting to solve the various intellectual problems of evil in their logical form. It is a fourfold strategy.
Strategy of Defenses and Theodicies
First, for the theist divine omnipotence means that God has power to do all things logically possible for a being with his attributes. Actualizing contradictory states of affairs isn’t logically possible. Moreover, given God’s nature, he can’t sin, catch a cold, fail a test, and so on. But the crucial point in defining omnipotence is to exclude the logically impossible. If a theist believes that God can actualize contradictory states of affairs, then the language used to describe our world (the theist’s theology) will, of course, contain contradictions, but that will in no way prove that his system succumbs to the problem of evil. Hence, in order for the logical problem to be a significant challenge to the theist’s views, the theist must hold that no one, including God, can do the logically contradictory.
Second, the theist appeals to a commonly held moral principle: No one can be held morally accountable for failing to do what they couldn’t do or for doing what they couldn’t fail to do. That is, moral praise or blame can be correctly assessed only to someone who acts freely. In God’s case, if he can’t do something, he can’t be held morally culpable for failing to do it.
Third, the theist offers an explanation as to why God can’t (isn’t free to) both remove moral evil and accomplish some other valuable goal in our world. In other words, when contemplating which world to create, God could have chosen either a world with no moral evil or a world with some other value. According to the theist, God couldn’t have done both conjointly without generating a contradiction. The two options were mutually exclusive. Therefore, God could have done one or the other but not both. Depending on the theology in question, this other value might be creating the best of a possible world, making creatures with libertarian free will, or building the souls of his human creatures so that they grow from mere creaturehood to children of God.
The definition of omnipotence excludes the logically contradictory. God can’t actualize both of these values (removing moral evil and the other value) at the same time. But the ethical principle says that if one can’t do something, one isn’t guilty for failing to do it. It appears, therefore, that God is justified, but not quite. Critics may grant that God couldn’t conjointly remove evil and put some other value in our world, but they may complain that God chose the lesser of the two values for our world, and hence, he still isn’t justified. At that point, the theist adds the final element in the strategy. He argues that the item God put in our world is a value of such great magnitude that it either counterbalances or outweighs the moral evil that accompanies that value. Hence, God has done nothing wrong in creating our world; it is a good world.
Answers to the Logical Problem of Moral Evil
Given this strategy, how might one solve the problem of moral evil in its logical form? As suggested above, the problem confronts each theology differently. There are as many of these problems of moral evil as there are theological systems committed to the ideas that God is all-loving and omnipotent and that evil exists. Each theology has its own account of God and evil, and since the problem in its logical form is about whether the theist’s system contradicts itself, we must first clarify the system’s views on God and evil (i.e., its metaphysic and ethics).
While many distinct theologies fall under the rubric of evangelical Christianity, for our purposes I want to show how a traditional Arminian system and a moderate Calvinistic system (my own) would solve the logical problem of moral evil. Both theologies have the same general metaphysic and account of ethics, which I have elsewhere labeled modified rationalism, though they do differ in their understanding of free will.
Modified rationalism holds that God’s existence is the highest good in and of itself. Hence, by creating a world, God in no way enhances his value, for he is already the supreme value. On the other hand, God is free either to create or not create a world. Creating is a fitting thing for God to do, but not the only fitting thing; a decision to create nothing would in no way have decreased God’s value. In addition, modified rationalists believe that there is an infinite number of contingent, finite, possible worlds. Some are inherently evil, and God had better not create any of them, but more than one of those possible worlds is a good world. God is free either to create one of the good worlds or refrain from creating altogether. Modified rationalists reject the idea of a best possible world. Finally, according to modified rationalism, some things can be known by pure reason alone, whereas others can be known only by revelation. Many forms of evangelical Christianity incorporate a system of modified rationalist metaphysics.
As to ethics, modified rationalist systems hold one of two broad kinds, consequentialism or non-consequentialism. Consequentialist theories determine which acts are right or wrong on the basis of the results of the action. Non-consequentialist theories hold that something other than consequences (e.g., God commands it; therefore, it is our duty) makes an act morally right or wrong. As this relates to the problem of evil, a consequentialist theory says that the world as created had evil in it. However, that produces no moral stain on God, for he will ultimately use evil to maximize good. Non-consequentialism demands that the world as created contained no evil. Evil was introduced instead by the actions of God’s creatures.
Given such a metaphysic and an account of ethics, we can now specify exactly how the logical problem of moral evil would arise for a modified rationalist theology. The problem can be posed as the following question: Is the evil in our world (“evil” as the modified rationalist defines it) such as to refute the claim that our world is one of the good possible worlds God could have created? If the answer is yes, then the theological system is guilty of contradicting itself. On the other hand, if ours is a good world, despite the evil in it, then God’s goodness and power are consistent with the existence of evil.
Modified rationalists defend their theology by pointing to some feature of our world that shows it is one of the good possible worlds God could have created. In line with the four-step strategy already described, the modified rationalist argues that the aspect of our world that makes it a good world also makes it logically impossible for God to remove moral evil. Since he can’t both remove evil and create a world with the positive value to which the theologian points, he isn’t guilty for failing to do so. In what follows, I will present two such defenses to show that modified rationalists can in fact solve this problem in its logical form. One will be a defense a theological Arminian could use, and the other a defense a Calvinist could use.
The Freewill Defense
Perhaps the most frequently used Christian defense is the freewill defense. In contemporary discussions, its ablest defender has been Alvin Plantinga. Though this defense has its detractors, it successfully answers the problem of moral evil that confronts an Arminian theology. Many Calvinists have also invoked the freewill defense, but its notion of free will doesn’t fit Calvinistic systems committed to a strong sense of divine sovereignty.
The freewill defense presupposes a modified rationalist metaphysic and is nonconsequentialist in its ethics. Hence, it holds that God didn’t originate evil—the introduction of sin into our world is entirely due to God’s creatures, human and angelic. These evil deeds weren’t done or caused by God but were performed by the free acts of his creatures.
Some critics complain that even though humans in particular are responsible for sin in our world, God must also bear some responsibility, for he must have foreseen that we would abuse our free will to do evil, and yet he gave it to us anyway. Freewill defenders have a ready reply. For one thing, it is possible that free creatures will use their freedom to choose good, but there are no guarantees with creatures who possess genuine freedom. Good or evil acts must always be possible, and sadly, humans have frequently chosen to do evil. However, God knew when he gave us freedom that we could also use our freedom to do good. God reasoned that it is better to have creatures who do what is right (including love and obey him) freely because they want to, rather than doing right because they are forced or determined to do what is right. Hence, free will is a value of the highest order, one that God was surely right in putting into this world. Free will makes ours a good world, but, of course, if humans are genuinely free, there are no guarantees that they will never use their freedom to sin. God, therefore, cannot both give us free will and guarantee that there will be no sin, and since he can’t do both, he isn’t guilty for failing to do both.
Atheists such as J. L. Mackie aren’t convinced that the freewill defense succeeds. Since Mackie’s objection helps us understand the freewill defense better, it is worth raising. The freewill defense rests on the idea that there are no guarantees that humans will not sin if humans have genuine freedom. Mackie thinks otherwise. It is possible that someone will do moral good on one occasion. Freewill defenders grant this, but Mackie adds that it must also be possible that someone will use his or her free will on every occasion to do moral good. This is also possible, but then Mackie adds that this is possible for all human beings. If so, however, then an omnipotent God should be able to make it the case that all of us always freely choose to do what is morally good. The freewill defense says that if humans are truly free, there are no guarantees that they will do only good. Mackie’s objection says otherwise.
Though the answers to Mackie offered by Plantinga and other freewill defenders are quite intricate, they rest on a fundamental idea that seems difficult to resist. If God makes it the case or brings it about that we do anything, then we don’t do it freely. In essence, this suggests that Mackie’s proposal doesn’t incorporate “real” freedom (or that somehow he has misunderstood what freedom means). We might be inclined to leave the matter, merely thinking that Mackie has incorrectly defined “free will,” but the issue is more subtle than this. The fact is that Mackie’s notion of freedom differs from the freewill defender’s concept.
The concept of freedom espoused by the freewill defense is known as libertarian, contra-causal, or incompatibilistic free will. This notion of freedom holds that genuine free human action is incompatible with causal determinism. Hence, in spite of the direction causal forces point in a given situation, and in spite of how strong or weak the causes are, the agent can always do other than he or she does. The only way to guarantee a particular outcome is to causally determine the agent to do one thing or another. Since determinism rules out libertarian free will, however, no one, including God, can guarantee that someone will do moral good freely. Therefore, assuming that God gave us libertarian free will, without overturning our freedom, he can’t also guarantee that we will never sin. Did God do something wrong in giving us this kind of freedom? Not at all, since we can use it to love and obey him. Further, since nothing moves us to do good but ourselves, we know that our good deeds are what we really want to do. They aren’t forced upon us.
In contrast to libertarian free will, Mackie’s brand of freedom is known as compatibilism or soft deterministic free will. According to this definition of freedom, genuine free human action is compatible with causal conditions that decisively incline the will, so long as those conditions don’t constrain the will. To act without constraint means that one acts in accord with one’s wishes or desires. Acting under constraint means that one acts contrary to one’s wishes. It should be clear now why Mackie thinks God could bring it about that humans freely do good. According to compatibilism, factors decisively incline the will in one direction or another; there can be guarantees about what we do. But as long as we act in agreement with our wishes or desires, our act is free even though causally determined.
Based on the preceding, several things should be clear. First, compatibilism and incompatibilism contradict one another. Second, any theological position that holds that God is absolutely sovereign and exercises that sovereignty to decree and accomplish whatever he wills cannot at the same time hold that our actions are done with libertarian free will. If God exercises his sovereign power to guarantee certain outcomes, then many actions must be causally determined, which rules out libertarian free will. Most typically, Calvinistic theologies hold this strong notion of divine sovereign control over the world.
This discussion of different notions of free will raises another issue, and it is crucial for the logical problem of evil. Since the logical problem is about whether the theist contradicts himself, we must ask what views freewill defenders hold. Do they hold Mackie’s compatibilistic free will? Not at all; they are incompatibilists. But then it should be clear that if one defines freedom as freewill defenders do, Mackie’s objection has broken the ground rules for handling the logical problem of evil. Mackie attributes his notion of freedom to the freewill defense and then accuses it of failing. Indeed, if freewill defenders are compatibilists, their freewill defense doesn’t work for precisely the reason Mackie stated. But since Mackie’s view of freedom isn’t the same as that of the freewill defender, Mackie hasn’t shown that freewill defenders contradict themselves. The message is clear: If one holds incompatibilism and offers the freewill defense as the answer to the logical problem of moral evil, one’s system is logically consistent. The freewill defense solves this problem for systems committed to libertarian free will.
Integrity of Humans Defense
The freewill defense answers the logical problem of moral evil for theologies that incorporate libertarian free will, but what if one’s theology is Calvinistic and/or incorporates compatibilistic free will? My Calvinistic theology presupposes modified rationalism and non-consequentialist ethics. There are three stages to this defense.
I begin by asking what sort of beings God intended to create when he made humans. Here I am referring to the basic abilities and capacities God gave human beings. At a minimum, I believe he intended to create beings with the ability to reason, with emotions, with wills that are compatibilistically free (although freedom isn’t the emphasis of this defense), with desires, with intentions, and with the capacity for bodily movement. God did not intend for individuals to be identical in respect to these capacities. God also intended to make beings who are finite both metaphysically and morally (as to the moral aspect, our finitude doesn’t necessitate doing evil but only that we don’t have God’s infinite moral perfection). Thus, human beings are not superhuman beings or even gods. Moreover, God intended for us to use our capacities to live and function in a world suited to beings like us. Hence, he created our world, which is run according to the natural laws we observe, and he evidently didn’t intend to annihilate what he had created once he created it.
None of these features were removed by the race’s fall into sin, but because of our fall into sin, these capacities don’t function as well as they would have without sin. Likewise, the fall didn’t overturn the basic laws of nature and physics by which our world runs. The fundamental features of humanity and the world are still as God created them.
How do I know this is what God intended? By looking at the sort of being he created when he created us, and by noting that the world in which we live is suited to our capacities. Some might think this same line of thinking could be used to show that God also intended to create moral evil, because it exists. However, that is not so. Moral evil is not something God created. God created substances, including the world and the people in it. God intended for us to act, for he made us capable of acting. But he neither created our actions nor does he perform them. Hence, we cannot say God intended for moral evil to exist. God intended to create and did create agents who can act; he didn’t create their acts (good or evil).
How do we know, though, by looking at what God did that he really intended to do it? Don’t people at times act without fully understanding their intentions? While human beings don’t always know what they intend to do, that is not true of an omniscient being. By seeing what God did, we can be sure what he intended to do.
If humans are the type of creatures I have described, how do they come to do moral evil (sin)? This brings us to the second stage of the defense: consideration of the ultimate source of evil actions. In accord with James 1:13–15, I hold that morally evil actions stem from human desires. Desires in and of themselves aren’t evil, nor do they perform the evil. James says, however, that desires (epithumia) are carried away (exelkomenos) and enticed (deleazomenos) to the point where sin is actually committed (conceived). Many moral philosophers would agree that the point of “conception” is when a person wills to do the act if he or she could. Once that choice is made, it remains only for that person to translate the choice into overt public action.
Morally evil acts, then, ultimately begin with our desires. Desires in and of themselves aren’t evil, but when they are aroused to lead us to disobey God’s prescribed moral norms, then we have sinned. Desires are not the only culprit, however, for will, reason, and emotion, for example, also enter into the process. But James says that individual acts of sin ultimately stem from desires that go astray.
If humans are the sort of creatures described, and if moral evil arises as suggested, what would God have to do to get rid of moral evil? This brings us to the final stage of the defense. Clearly, if removing moral evil is God’s only goal, he can accomplish it. However, my view of divine omnipotence doesn’t allow God to actualize contradictions. Hence, if by removing evil God contradicts some other goal(s) he wants to accomplish, that explains why God can’t remove evil.
It is my contention that if God did what is necessary to remove moral evil from the world, he would (1) contradict his intentions to create human beings and the world as he has, causing us to wonder if he has one or more of the attributes ascribed to him, and/or (2) do something we would not expect or want him to do, because it would produce greater evil than there already is. To see this, let’s consider how God might get rid of moral evil.
Some may think all God needs to do to remove moral evil is arrange affairs so that his compatibilistically free creatures are causally determined to have desires only for good and to choose only good without being constrained at all. For each of us, God should know what it would take, and he should be powerful enough to do it.
However, this isn’t as simple as it sounds. If people are naturally inclined to do what God wants, God may need to do very little rearranging of our world to accomplish this goal. If people are stubborn and resist his will, it may take a great deal more rearranging. God would have to do this for every one of us every time we resist his will. But changes in circumstances for one of us would affect circumstances for others. What might be necessary to get us to do good might disrupt others’ lives, constrain them to do something that serves God’s purposes in regard to us, and perhaps even turn them toward doing evil. Upholding everyone’s freedom may be more difficult than we suppose. It is likely that the free will of many will be abridged as a result of God’s attempts to convince certain people to do good.
There is another reason why it may be more difficult than we think for God to get us to do right. God didn’t create us with an inclination toward sin, but even Adam in ideal surroundings and circumstances sinned. According to biblical teaching, the race inherited from Adam a sin nature that disposes us toward evil. In light of that sin nature, it isn’t likely that a minimal rearranging of events, actions, and circumstances would achieve the goal of getting us to do good without constraining us. God would have to constrain many people in order to rearrange circumstances to convince a few of us to do the right thing without constraining us. Of course, that would contradict compatibilistic free will. We may begin to wonder how wise this God is if he must do all this just to bring it about that his human creatures do good. Why not make a different creature who would be unable to do evil? But, of course, this would contradict God’s decision to make humans, not subhumans or superhumans.
There is yet a further problem with this method of getting rid of evil. It assumes that if God rearranged the world, all of us would draw the right conclusion from our circumstances and do right. Our desires, intentions, emotions, and will would all fall into place as they should without abridging freedom at all. This is most dubious, given our finite minds and wills as well as the sin nature within us that inclines us toward evil.
Perhaps there is a simpler, more direct way for God to get rid of evil. First, he could remove moral evil by doing away with humankind. Not only is this a drastic solution none of us would think acceptable, but it would also contradict his intention to create humans who aren’t annihilated by his further actions.
Second, God could eliminate all objects of desire. Without objects of desire, humans would not be led astray to do moral evil. However, to eradicate all objects of desire, God would have to destroy the world and everything in it.
Since sin ultimately stems from desires, a third way for God to remove moral evil would be to remove human desires. Problems with this solution again are obvious. God intended to create creatures who have desires, but if he removed all human desires, such an act would contradict his intentions about the creature he wanted to create. Moreover, removing desires would also remove the ultimate basis of action so that people wouldn’t act. This would contradict God’s intention to create beings who perform the various actions necessary to remain alive.
Fourth, God could allow us to have desires but never allow them to be aroused to the point at which we would do moral evil. If God chose this option, he could accomplish it in one of two ways. He could perform a miracle to stop our desires whenever they started to run rampant, or he could give us the capacity to have desires that can be aroused only to a certain degree, a degree that would never be or lead to evil.
I shall address the former option when I discuss in general the option of God removing evil by performing a miracle. As for the second option, there are several problems. For one thing, it contradicts God’s intention to create people who aren’t stereotypes of one another. Whenever someone’s desires would be allured in regard to something forbidden, those desires could be enticed only up to a point that would not be or lead to evil. What would be true of one person would be true of all. In every case, we would have to be preprogrammed to squelch the desire before it went too far.
There is another problem with God making us this way. When a desire would start to run amuck, one would have to stop having the desire (or at least not follow it), change desires, and begin a new course of action. A person’s daily routine would be constantly interrupted (if not stopped altogether) and new courses of action implemented only to be interrupted again. Life as we know it would come to a standstill, contradicting God’s intention to create us so as to function in this world.
Perhaps the greatest objection to this option is that for us to function this way God would have to make us superhuman both morally and intellectually. We would have to be willing to squelch our desires whenever they would lead to evil, and we would also need to know when desires would lead to evil so that we could stop them from being overly enticed. To do so, we would need to be more than human. Of course, such a situation would contradict God’s intention to make non-glorified human beings, not superhuman beings.
Fifth, God could remove evil by removing intentions that lead to evil in either of the ways mentioned for handling evil-producing desires (by miracles or by making us so we would never develop intentions that lead to evil). However, this option creates the same problems raised with respect to desires.
Sixth, God could eliminate evil by removing any act of the will that would produce evil. We could will good things freely, but whenever we willed evil, the willing would be eliminated. God could do this either by miraculous intervention or by making us so we would never will evil. However, this option again faces the same objections that confront the desire and intention options.
Seventh, God could eliminate moral evil by stopping our bodily movement whenever we try to carry out evil. He could do this either by a miracle or by making us in such a way that we would stop our bodily movement when it would lead to evil. The same problems result as with the desire, intention, and will options.
If all of these options are problematic, perhaps God could remove evil through miraculous intervention. Several problems beset this method, however. First, if God did this, it would greatly change life as we know it. At any moment, God could miraculously stop desires, intentions, acts of the will, or bodily movements if he knew they would lead to evil. Since we wouldn’t always know when our actions would lead to evil, we wouldn’t always know when to expect God to interfere. We might become too afraid to do, try, or even think anything, realizing that at any moment our movements or thoughts could be eliminated. Under those circumstances, life as we know it would come to a standstill, contradicting God’s desire to create people who live and function in this world.
Second, it is one thing to speak of God miraculously intervening to prevent evil, but it is another to specify exactly what that means. Take bodily movement, for instance. God would probably have to paralyze a person as long as necessary to stop bodily movements that would carry out an evil act. Of course, such an act would alter the nature of life altogether and again contradict God’s intention to make creatures who can live and function in this world.
In addition, it is difficult to imagine what miracle God would have to perform to remove a desire, an intention, or an act of willing that would lead to evil. Would God have to knock us unconscious or take away our memory for as long and as often as needed to remove evil-producing thoughts? Such acts would bring life to a standstill and be inconsistent with God’s intention to make us so that we can live and function in this world.
A final objection to removing evil miraculously is that it would give us reason to question God’s wisdom. Would a wise God go to all the trouble to make human beings as they are and then perform miracles to counteract them when they express that humanness in ways that would produce evil? Of course, had God made us differently so that he wouldn’t have to remove evil by miracles, that would contradict his intention to make the sort of beings he has made. So either God must perform miracles and thereby cause us to question his wisdom, or he must change our nature as human beings. But that would contradict his goal of making humans rather than superhumans or subhumans.
This discussion about what God would have to do to remove moral evil shows that God cannot remove it without contradicting his intentions to make the kind of creatures and world he has made, which would cause us to doubt his wisdom.
Someone may suggest that God could avoid these problems if he made creatures without desires, intentions, will, and bodily movement. This would likely remove moral evil, but it would also remove human beings as we know them. Anyone who thinks there is any worth in being human would find this option unacceptable.
Someone else might suggest that moral evil could be avoided if God made us superhuman. But humans as we know them are a value of the first order. Scripture says humans are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–27). When God finished his creative work, he saw that all of it, including human beings, was very good (Gen. 1:31). Psalm 8:5–8 speaks of God crowning us with glory and honor and giving us dominion over his creation. In light of this evaluation by God, who are we to say that human beings as created by God aren’t valuable?
As a modified rationalist, all I need to show is that our world is one of those good possible worlds God could have created. It seems clear that a world with human beings in it is a good world. Neither I nor any other modified rationalist needs to show that our world is the best or even better than some other good world God might have created. We need only show that ours is one of those good worlds God could have created. I have done that by pointing to human beings and arguing that God cannot both create them and remove evil. Hence, I have solved my theology’s logical problem of moral evil.
Can God remove moral evil from our world? I believe he can, if he creates creatures different from human beings. He also can if he creates humans and then removes evil in any of the ways described above. But we have seen the problems that arise if God follows any of those options.
Has God done something wrong in creating human beings? Not at all, when we consider the great value human beings have and the great worth God places on us. We can say that moral evil has come as a concomitant of a world populated with non-glorified human beings. Still, it is one of those good possible worlds God could have created. God is a good God. Our world with human beings demonstrates his goodness.
The Religious Problem of Evil
In the preceding pages, we have seen that it is possible to solve the intellectual problem of moral evil in its logical form and to do so for more than one theology. Because this and other intellectual problems of evil are capable of solution, I see no reason to reject Christianity on the grounds that it succumbs to these intellectual problems. However, that isn’t the end of the story. What about the experience of evil? Is Christianity sufficient to see someone through even the most difficult of trials? Is Christianity religiously bankrupt at a moment of personal crisis?
These questions have confronted me in vivid and unpleasant ways over the last ten to fifteen years. I have been interested in the problem of evil for much of my life, and in various degree programs I wrote theses and dissertations addressing the intellectual problems evil raises for a theist. For many years, I thought the intellectual answers I had constructed would be sufficient for someone in the midst of trials and afflictions. All of that changed for me in 1987 when my wife was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease.
Huntington’s disease is a genetically transmitted disease that attacks both mind and body and involves the premature deterioration of the caudate nucleus of the brain. On the physical side, the symptoms involve a growing inability to control voluntary movements. Among other things, this results in a loss of balance, difficulty in swallowing, slurred speech, and involuntary twitches in various parts of the body. Psychological symptoms can include memory loss, deterioration of attention span and mental function, depression, hallucination, and finally paranoid schizophrenia. The disease develops slowly, but over a period of decades it takes its toll, and it is fatal. In my wife’s case, symptoms first appeared when she was twenty-eight. As bad as this is, however, just as bad is the fact that Huntington’s is controlled by a dominant gene, so each of our children has a 50–50 chance of getting the disease. At the time we received this diagnosis, we already had three children. Since that time, progress has been made in research about this disease, but to date there is still no cure.
When news of this disease came, a host of emotions came with it: bewilderment, a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, a feeling of abandonment, and anger. As a Christian, I knew we aren’t promised exemption from problems and trials, but I never expected something like this. With one diagnosis, a dark cloud had formed above my family that would not dissipate for the rest of our lives. At that point, the problem of evil moved from an intellectual problem that I could calmly reflect on in the solitude of my study to a real-life trauma that has to be confronted every day of my life.
One of the reasons for my confusion over what was happening was the previous thinking and writing I had done about the problem of evil. If anyone should have been ready for this crisis, it was I. But during this time of emotional and spiritual turmoil, none of the intellectual answers proved to be even the least comforting. As I thought about that, I came to an important realization. The religious problem of evil, the crisis of faith precipitated by suffering, at rock bottom is not primarily an intellectual question but an emotional problem. There are, of course, intellectual questions that the sufferer asks, and at an appropriate point in the grieving process when the afflicted is ready to hear the answers, it is appropriate to offer them. However, that point rarely comes during the shock of the terrible news. At that point, the sufferer needs comfort and care, not a dissertation on the logical consistency of God’s existence and evil.
While there are many things one can say and do that won’t help the afflicted cope with trials, other things can and do help. In what follows, I will present what helped in my case, not as a how-to for comforting the afflicted but rather as a personal testimony and explanation of why I am still a Christian in spite of the evil that has befallen my family.
One of the first things that helped came in a conversation with my father. I was bemoaning the fact that this had happened and that I had no idea how I would be able to cope as my wife’s condition became progressively worse. My dad responded, “John, God never promises us tomorrow’s grace for today. He only promises today’s grace, and that is all you need.” Though at the time I wasn’t handling well the reality of my wife’s situation, I hadn’t completely collapsed. More importantly, my wife was still quite capable of functioning. Part of the grace for those early days was finding out the diagnosis at a time when the full burden of my wife’s care didn’t fall on me.
With this reminder from my dad, I began to readjust my focus from imagining what the disease would be like in the future to dealing with it in the present. I began to ask God each morning for the grace I would need to make it through that day. As I saw those prayers answered each day, I became more confident that when things got worse, I would still need only one day’s grace at a time, and it would be there.
At other times during my struggles with this disease, I am reminded that despite what is happening, God has been gracious to us in other ways. First Peter 5:7 tells us to cast our problems on God, because he cares for us. At times it doesn’t seem this is true, but it is. In our case, I realize that despite my wife’s disease, there are other problems that God has kept from us. Some people lose their spouse to cancer or a heart attack or in an automobile accident, but that has not happened to us. God doesn’t owe us such protection, but he has graciously given it to us. That is a sign that he really does care.
There is another realization that is difficult to swallow, but it is true. When tragedy strikes, we often blame God, but God didn’t give my wife this disease. In Romans 5:12, Paul explains that through Adam sin entered the human race, and death resulted from sin. In other words, people die as a consequence of sin. I am not suggesting that this has happened to my wife as recompense for being a horrendous sinner. Rather, we live in a fallen world, and death is a consequence of sin. The particular death that befalls a person doesn’t come from a specific sin he or she commits, but rather from the fact that the human race as a whole has fallen into sin. But if people die because of sin, they must die of something. One of the causes is disease, and some of those diseases are genetically controlled.
So while it is human nature to blame God for what happens, Scripture is clear that these things happen because we live in a fallen, sinful world. If we are going to be angry, our anger should be directed toward sin, not God. Our problem ultimately stems from not seeing the gravity of sin. But when we stand at the graveside of a relative or friend, or when we receive a diagnosis, we begin to see just how serious a matter sin is. The realization that something bad has happened because we live in a fallen world is not likely to comfort the afflicted, but it can help to assuage our anger at God, and it should help us redirect that anger to the proper target.
Some may grant the point about the cause of affliction but still object that an all-loving, all-powerful, all-gracious God should prevent evil from happening. Such a suggestion reflects a misunderstanding of what God’s attributes obligate him to do. Many think that because God is all-loving, he is obligated to do every loving thing possible. His grace obligates him to do every gracious thing possible, and so on. However, this is an incorrect assessment of God’s obligations. In my judgment, it would be very loving for God to make us all multimillionaires, but I can’t think of anything that obligates him to do so. God’s love doesn’t obligate him to do every loving thing possible. Rather, everything he chooses to do (though he isn’t obliged to do everything he can do) must exhibit his attribute of love. As to God’s grace, at most it means that the things he chooses to do will exhibit his grace, but even here we must be careful. Grace as undeserved favor is by definition never owed, so we can hardly demand that God act graciously toward us. The key point is that before we mount a case against God for failing to do what his character requires, we must be sure that we understand what he is obligated to do.
In spite of this point about God’s attributes, I still felt something was amiss. Granted, my wife’s disease resulted from the sinfulness of the human race, and granted, God didn’t owe us exemption from this problem because of his attributes, but still, not everyone has to deal with such a burden, so why should we? It seems God has been unfair in letting this burden fall on us when others escape such problems.
I believe this complaint is at the heart of why many believers and nonbelievers alike turn from God in the midst of affliction and feel justified in doing so. God hasn’t treated them fairly, so he doesn’t deserve their worship and devotion. As I reflected on this matter, several things came to mind. First, as I reflected on God’s fairness or justice, I began to think of my philosophical training about matters of justice. Philosophers often distinguish between distributive and egalitarian justice. Distributive justice gives to each person exactly what they are owed, reward or punishment. Egalitarian justice requires that each person receive exactly the same thing.
With this distinction in hand, I realized the nature of my complaint. I was angry because God gave me something different from what he gave others. Egalitarian justice requires that each of us get the same thing. Others escape such problems, so we should have too. As logical as this sounds, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t think of any biblical or nonbiblical principle that requires God to deal with us according to egalitarian justice.
In contrast, Scripture teaches that God functions in his relations with us in accord with distributive justice. Distributive justice is about what we have earned—what we deserve and what is owed to us. If we want God to treat us justly, that means we want what we deserve. But what do we deserve? Given God’s moral governance of our world and the fact that we have broken his laws, we deserve punishment. None of us deserves exemption from problems and punishment for sin, for all of us have sinned against God. We may chafe under this system of moral government, but God as Creator has a right to set things up this way. And given this setup, he has done nothing unjust by not exempting my family from this affliction. If we are speaking in terms of justice, God owes none of us egalitarian justice, and in terms of distributive justice, he owes none of us blessing.
Still, I harbored residual anger toward God. Though I came to see that my desire for egalitarian justice was wrong and that according to distributive justice I didn’t merit exemption from affliction, it seemed unfair that others who don’t deserve exemption from problems have not been asked to bear this burden. Eventually I came to see that my complaint was that God has dealt with others in grace, and I felt that I should get the same grace.
As I pondered such thoughts, however, I came to see how wrong they are. I was demanding grace as though God owed it to me because he gave it to others. But grace is unmerited, undeserved, unearned favor. That is, you get something good that you don’t deserve, haven’t merited, and aren’t owed. Grace is not given to reward good deeds or upright character; it’s not a reward at all. It is given out of the generosity of God’s heart. As unmerited blessing, grace is never owed—that’s why it’s grace and not justice. So God has done nothing wrong if he gives you grace that he doesn’t give me.
One of Jesus’ parables beautifully illustrates this principle. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1–16), a landowner hired workers at various times in the day. Those hired early in the day were promised a denarius for the day’s work. Others were promised only that the owner would do right by them, and still other workers were simply told to go to work. At quitting time, those hired last were paid first. The landowner paid them each a denarius, even though they had been hired a mere hour or two before the end of the day. In fact, he paid every worker a denarius. When the landowner paid those hired first the denarius he had promised, they were angry. They had worked the entire day, but those hired near the end of the day had received the same wage. Their complaint amounted to the following: Somebody got a better deal than I did, and that’s not fair!
The landowner replied that he had not treated them unfairly. They had made a deal, and he had given them exactly what he had promised. Justice says you give people what they earn and what you owe. But if the landowner wanted to be generous with the others, what’s wrong with that? If he wanted to extend them grace, why is that wrong? Whose money (whose grace) is it anyway? The message of the parable is clear: Our standing in the kingdom of heaven depends on God’s grace, and God has a right to give grace and withhold it as he chooses. Never begrudge someone the grace that God gives them, especially when he doesn’t give you the same grace.
Coming to this realization about whether God owed me exemption from this trial was a major breakthrough in my experience. It made me realize that if I were to mount a complaint against God over what he had or hadn’t done, I had no ground for such a case. I had been angry at God without adequate reason. While this realization did not remove the affliction, it made me feel more comfortable with God. After all, he had not caused the affliction, and he didn’t owe me release from it. But he hadn’t abandoned me either. He gives me grace to sustain me through each day. I don’t deserve that either, but it is there!
A final major factor in helping me adjust to what had happened and removing my anger were the many tangible signs of God’s love and care for us. Many people displayed generosity and kindness, showing us that there are people who care and who will help when things grow worse. But why do these people show us this love and concern? I know it is ultimately because God moves them to do so, and hence, we have periodic reminders that God cares for us and loves us.
There is much more to our story and many other things that also helped me cope with this affliction. I would not delude myself into thinking that everyone’s situation is like mine or that what I have said will solve the personal crises of faith others confront. However, much of what I have said touches on very common, human themes, so others may find it helpful.
Though the intellectual problems of evil and the experience of affliction can be major detriments to belief in God, they needn’t be. Of course, one can choose to remain angry at God, but I hope this chapter will help you to see that in the face of the intellectual and personal problems of evil, one need not sacrifice intellect to continue believing in God, nor does one need to hold on to God in blind faith without any explanation as to why afflictions happen and without any comfort or relief of the pain. Undoubtedly, it is easier to write about these things than to live them, but through God’s sustaining grace, it is possible to cope with evils and to do so in ways that are pleasing to God and a positive testimony to others.
About the Author: Dr. John S. Feinberg is Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology and Chairman of that department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of several books, including Crossway’s No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God; Ethics for a Brave New World (with Paul D. Feinberg) and The Many Faces of Evil (For a more thorough treatment of what is covered in this article see this EXCELLENT BOOK – pictured above), and is general editor of Crossway’s Foundations of Evangelical Theology series. The article above was excepted from the book edited by Norman L. Geisler and P.K. Hoffman entitled Why I am a Christian: Leading thinkers explain why they believe (237-254). Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006.