Is God the Author of Evil?


An Answer to God and The Problem of Evil

I form the light, and create darkness:

I make peace, and create evil:

I the Lord do all these things. ~ Isaiah 45:7 (KJV)

I form the light and create darkness,

I make peace and create calamity;

I, the Lord, do all these things.’ ~ Isaiah 45:7 (NKJV)

The One forming light and creating darkness,

Causing well-being and creating calamity;

I am the Lord who does all these. ~ Isaiah 45:7 (NASB95)

*Question Answered By Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe

What’s the Problem? According to this verse God “creates good and evil” (KJV, cf. Jeremiah 18:11 and Lamentations 3:38; Amos 3:6). But many other Scriptures inform us that God is not evil (1 John 1:5), cannot even look approvingly on evil (Habakkuk 1:13), and cannot even be tempted by evil (James 1:13).

What’s the Solution? The Bible is clear that God is morally perfect (cf. Deuteronomy 32:4; Matthew 5:48), and it is impossible for Him to sin (Hebrews 6:18). At the same time, His absolute justice demands that He punish sin. This judgment takes both temporal and eternal forms (Matthew 25:41; Revelation 20:11-15). In its temporal form, the execution of God’s justice is sometimes called “evil” because it seems  to be evil to those undergoing it (cf. Hebrews 12:11). However, the Hebrew word for evil (ra) used here does not always mean moral evil. Indeed, the context indicates that it should be translated, as the NKJV and other modern translations do, as “calamity.” Thus, God is properly said to be the author of “evil” in this sense, but not in the moral sense—at least not directly.

Further, there is an indirect sense in which God is the author of moral evil. God created moral beings with free choice, and free choice is the origin of moral evil in the universe. So, ultimately God is responsible for making moral creatures who are responsible for moral evil. God made evil possible by creating free creatures, but the free creatures made evil actual. Of course, the possibility of evil (i.e., free choice) is itself a good thing.

So, God created only good things, one of which was the power of free choice, and moral creatures produced the evil. However, God is the author of a moral universe and in this indirect and ultimate sense is the author of the possibility of evil. Of course, God only permitted evil, but does not promote it, and He will ultimately produce good through it (cf. Genesis 50:20; Revelation 21-22)

The relation of God and evil can be summarized this way:

In the sense of sin In the sense of calamity
Moral evil Non-moral evil
Perversity Plagues
Directly Indirectly
Actuality of evil Possibility of evil

*Article adapted from The Big Book of Bible Difficulties by Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe. Grand Rapids, MI., Baker, 2008.

A Lesson on Suffering From the Book of Job


The Problem of Suffering in the Book of Job

By *Dr. R.K. Harrison

It is almost a truism to state that one of the most urgent problems of this day and age which confronts the social responsibilities of Christianity is that of disease and suffering, and that there is an immediate need for a re-interpretation and greater understanding of that age-old problem, and of its spiritual implications. Nevertheless, it still remains true that there is probably nothing which has quite so telling and far-reaching an effect on the religious convictions of an individual than the incidence of personal suffering, whether as a result of disease or not. The annals of history teem with persons of otherwise mature action who have discarded their religious convictions because after what seems to them sincere and honest efforts to evaluate the situation, they have been unable to reconcile the depth, extent and apparent injustice of suffering in the world generally, and in particular as they themselves have been affected.

Against this, however, it is necessary to set the multitudes who have plumbed the depths of human suffering, and who have emerged from that experience with a vastly wider conception of the scheme of things, enriched and ennobled by the dominant spiritual tone which has supplied for them a means of probing the mystery. To arrive at such a frame of mind posits an experience which calls for some explanation, and which will be considered subsequently in this paper. At this stage it is enough to point out that the problem is one of immense proportions, and that it occupies an important place in human life.

Our own generation has witnessed the attack on the problem by a vast concentration of scientific forces, spurred on by the urgency of discovering timely and practicable solutions to the issues involved. Neither money nor material has been lacking, and the question of suffering, particularly that aspect of it which is exhibited in the development and dissemination of disease, has challenged the best efforts of highly skilled men and women. For that reason it is vitally important that we should be able to offer to humanity an interpretation of the situation in terms of Christian experience which is fully cognizant of and sympathetic towards the scientific movement.

This is of particular significance for the clergy, since it is clear that a pastor who has not faced up realistically to the implications of the whole problem of suffering and disease is hardly likely to be able to meet the needs of his people. The sober fact is that in so many cases the incapacity of the minister in this direction produces in his people a conviction that the problem is completely beyond his powers of attack and solution, and in despair they turn elsewhere for advice which should have been his prerogative to give. If they are exploited in the process, the problem is only deepened as far as they are concerned.

We must make clear at this point that in a discussion of the problem of suffering we are not dealing with something which is of passing moment, or which is an isolated concern. We can never come to any understanding of the spiritual significance of the issue of suffering unless we are clear regarding our views of the nature of God, the purpose of life, and the relation between them. So many of the wrong conclusions presented for our consideration from time to time are the result of muddled thinking based on untrue or only partially correct premises.

Because the problem is at once age-old and deeply theological, we can perhaps most conveniently consider it in relation to its profoundest Biblical expression in the Book of Job, where the human and divine aspects of the issue are clearly set forth. That this book is no casual exposition of family fortunes in antiquity, but rather a statement of timeless significance regarding the entire issue, has been recognized by commentators for centuries. What is not always made clear, however, is the precise and apposite manner in which the book deals with a problem which has perplexed man from earliest times, and which we shall endeavor to expound.

We are introduced in the book to a patriarch in the land of Uz, a prosperous landowner with a large, happy family. His performance of those religious duties which are his portion through the call of duty and the prompting of conscience is punctilious and exact. His relationships with his family and friends exhibit marks of love and respect of an order rare in our own day. Life for him is very pleasant, and his righteousness, of which he is very conscious, has indeed been acknowledged by God.

But then we are given a glimpse behind the scenes of this drama, where the adversary is in conference with the Almighty, and where the depth and the sincerity of Job is called into question by being equated with decency and respectability which in reality is designed to further his own ends in life. The prose introduction with which the book opens, depicts God as allowing the adversary to test Job by affliction and suffering without his person being harmed. When all this takes place it is borne with exemplary courage and fortitude, and it makes no appreciable impact upon the faith of Job. So far, it appears, the adversary has failed in his testing. He avows that the “success” of Job was due to the fact that the suffering has not affected his own person, and is granted permission by God to send upon Job acute personal plagues.

Exactly what the affliction was which troubled Job is not clear. The word for “boil” (shĕchin) is elsewhere rendered by “sore” or (inflamed) ulcer, as in the Egyptian plagues which “broke forth with blains upon man and upon beasts”. It may have been the “botch of Egypt”, where the same Hebrew word is used to describe a swelling or eruptive discoloration of the skin, and this may have been similar to the cutaneous symptoms of elephantiasis or “black leprosy”.

At all events we see the formerly happy and successful man oppressed by a series of misfortunes, culminating in personal affliction and intense suffering, happening without any apparent reason and completely beyond human control. As we well realize, this pattern of events is constantly being re-enacted, and this factor gives the book its timeless nature and appeal. One very significant point for our later discussion is that we see clearly depicted in the book the fact that even worse to Job than the incidence of physical agony was the mental distress which he underwent, his agonized grappling with the problem of the rationale of things―why this should happen to him of all people. In the ensuing speeches made by Job and his friends, Bildad, Zophar and Eliphaz, we see the essence of the message which the book has for us regarding the problem of suffering and disease.

The friends whose observations occupy a considerable proportion of the book came in traditional Oriental manner to sit with him and to comfort him in his affliction and loss. As the discourses unfold, they are represented as being sympathetic towards Job, but it becomes increasingly clear that they are concerned primarily in maintaining their own religious position. For them the matter is so simple that it makes further discussion superfluous. Job is a sinner, and as a result is being punished by God for his iniquity. This standpoint is stated with such obvious sincerity by Job’s friends that their remarks smack of self-satisfaction and naive smugness.

Even the opening speech of Eliphaz, which is not particularly controversial, and which presents his views in a mild and generalized manner, seems to indicate that for him also there is no real problem. There is no real “giving” of the self to the situation, no proper appreciation of the tragedy which has beset Job, no real sympathy for the man himself. It is clear that the weight, the mystery and the intensity of the problem escapes them completely. At best they can only assert that the way of the transgressor is hard, and when Job has at last convinced them by voluble protest and reasoned assurance that he is completely innocent of any fault of which he is aware that may have resulted in the suffering and affliction, his friends are hurt and shocked.

The reason for this latter state of mind is not hard to find. The assertions which Job makes evidently threaten the security of their implied confidence and full understanding of the problem which has arisen. The debate becomes more and more heated, which only goes to prove that the real concern of the friends was to alleviate the emotional shock and upset which they themselves had sustained, rather than to help Job in his troubles. For his part, Job speaks in a direct and vivid manner, but there is no direct arraignment of God, even when he is tempted to do so by his wife. In actual fact this standpoint is probably the crux of the entire position which we are studying.

At this juncture a new figure comes on the scene in the person of Elihu. He gives deference to the opinions of the three friends, but rebukes them for their shallowness and lack of feeling. He points out that afflictions are designed for the good of the sufferer, even though they may not be the direct result of transgression. Job is reproved for trying to justify himself rather than God, and the divine character is vindicated. In particular, Job is criticized for his lack of faith and inability to comprehend the nature of the spiritual forces at work in this situation. This is the essence of Elihu’s discourse.

It is followed by a theophany, the judgment of Jehovah on the matter under consideration. Job is upbraided for his preoccupation with his own afflictions and his lack of appreciation of the greatness and magnificence of Jehovah by contrast with the insignificance of men. The comforters, too, come in for their share of criticism because they have exhibited shallowness of thought on the one hand, and yet on the other they have been so presumptuous as to convey the impression that they had final and detailed knowledge concerning the deeper things of God and of human life.

Job acknowledges his shortcomings and intercedes for his friends, who are thereby themselves saved from punishment. It is clear that he has entered into a new and deeper spiritual relationship with God, manifesting itself in a more comprehensive vision of life. The book closes with a note concerning the restoration of the original state of prosperity, with further material blessings added.

From this outline of the contents it is possible for us to draw some inferences which are basic to a discussion of the problems involved. In the first place we must recognize that the book is not merely a tale of human fortitude under affliction, which is the most that some commentators have seen in it. The book in fact constitutes a theodicy, a justification of the ways of God with men. But if the Deity is taken as the dominating figure in the drama, the meaning tends to become obscured. It would appear that the book is more concerned with the intrinsic nature of man than in revealing the inner workings of the divine plan, which it is not usually given to man to know. It is enough for him that the sequences of life should help to shape a true, loyal and submissive spirituality. In short, suffering was shown to be a necessary factor in the development of spiritual maturity, and it has remained so to this day.

It is important for us to realize that the problem which the book presents is depicted as deep and profound, with an obvious element of the mysterious coloring the entire proceedings. For that reason, if for none other, it cannot be effectively dismissed by a smart answer or a knowing wink. It goes to the very bottom of the cauldron of strivings, conflicts and desires which have so profound a part to play in the expression of the human personality. The arguments of the three friends of Job are characteristic of the shallow thought of much contemporary spirituality, and inadequate for the very good reason that they are not based on a discernment of the force of the problem and its implications for humanity.

The basic teaching, then, is quite evident. The suffering inflicted upon Job was in no sense a punishment for sin. God is not whimsical, vindictive or capricious, but acts according to an ordered sequence. The effect of the suffering in this case was a transformation of the entire mental outlook of Job, a new knowledge of God, a new perspective on life, influenced and directed by the realization of the insignificance of man as compared with the greatness and majesty of the Almighty. We might in fact say that the spiritual benefits which accrued to him were nothing less than a complete readjustment of his sense of eternal values, a conversion in the best sense, a profound deepening of his spiritual life.

One of the lessons which we learn from the Book of Job is startlingly modern in its implications. It is evident that there is practically no suffering which can be called exclusively physical, and similarly there is very little which can be designated as specifically mental or spiritual. We are living today in times which are witnessing the exodus of what had been called “machine-age medicine”, in which the affected organ was treated, frequently without reference to the patient as a person, with the obvious tendency of isolating disorders with reference to a particular organ, and then applying either symptomatic treatment or radical surgical procedures, all of which carefully excluded the sense of “wholeness” or unity which the individual manifests in the ordinary way.

In place of this outmoded therapy we see the progress of the psychosomatic concept, the view that there is an intimate connection between emotional conflict and physical illness. Modern psychological and psychiatric investigation has revealed that there is a close link between emotional conflict or derangement and physical illness, and this discovery only serves to reinforce the conclusions reached long ago in Scripture that man is a personality rather than a mere body. It follows that when emotional conflicts exist within the personality, their expression is often in terms of what has been styled “organ language”, that is to say, a particular organ begins to display indications of a pathological condition when at first no somatic pathology is present. Hence the psychogenic factor is a matter of immediate and pressing concern in the vast majority of illnesses, bringing the physical and mental aspects of the affliction into close association.

As a general rule, mental suffering results from the conflict of conscious and unconscious forces, and often this is heightened and brought into clear focus by the lack of integration or wholeness in the personality. It is a startling fact that many disease-syndromes have their genesis in part or in whole within this lack of personal integration. Through organ-language the conflicts of the emotions and the personality may be consciously alleviated, though this development cannot be considered in any sense as an advance, since one form of bad health is merely replacing another one.

Space does not permit us to examine in detail at this point the significance of the above comments for the problem of suffering. Suffice it to say, however, that modern scientific investigation clearly supports the assertion that mental, emotional and often spiritual factors are frequently basic in disease. The clinical demonstration of the unconscious mind and its manifestations by Sigmund Freud has paved the way for extensions of scientific knowledge in this regard, and has thrown new light on the very problem with which we are concerned. The existence of conflict in the individual nature as described by modern investigators is very reminiscent of the Pauline introspection which confessed that “it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me… the good that I would I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans vii. 17 ff.). The conflict here could easily be interpreted as having physical manifestations.

It will be seen from the above that the manner in which spiritual and emotional elements were compounded in the suffering of Job has its counterpart in more recent times. Let us go a step further. The healing of the “disturbance” in the personality of Job and the creation of his new relationship to God, issuing in a more profound state of spiritual mastery, made the reintegration of his personality as a whole possible. Such a step is a necessary prerequisite for successful therapy of much of modern disease which is rooted in conflict and disturbance of the personality.

With this background we may attempt to examine the goal of our efforts with respect to this awesome problem of suffering. Here one must say immediately that such suggestions must be of a tentative nature, since we are very far from proper possession of even some of the facts, let alone of them all. A glib answer one way or the other satisfies neither the sufferer nor the one who is endeavoring to bring treatment to bear upon him, and the problem must be faced up to honestly and sincerely for the best results to be obtained. But if suffering has mental, emotional and spiritual implications along with the characteristic physical manifestations, and if the re-integration of the

personality is the most effective attack upon the problem, we must be careful to draw up the very best method or technique for this renewal of a consciousness of “wholeness”.

In the case of Job, the re-integration took the form of an improvement in his relationships with God through his re-assimilation and consequent revision of the truths of the divine nature as experienced in relationship to the nature of man. This could never have been achieved through a sustained attempt to instruct the intellect alone, as is evident in the failure of his friends’ logic to make the desired impress. For integration to be realized it was necessary for a total redirection of the personality to take place.

Surely this significant fact throws a good deal of light on our modern problem of suffering. Is it not just as true to-day as in the time of Job that this re-integration is necessary? Do not the people of our own day stand in desperate need of a consciously realized power and love which is able to cast out not merely fear―which plays a large part in all mental conflict―but also the repressions, maladjustments of personality, phobias and psychoses which are so common at the present? Though our answer to all these questions may well be an avowed affirmative, there must accompany it the realization that we are not thereby proposing any simple solution to the issue, nor are we by that means dissipating in any way whatever the force, depth and the unpredictable nature of suffering itself. The advantage of this standpoint is that we are presented with a pattern for our efforts at reaching the goal, and we have now arrived at the point where we may conveniently consider the techniques by which this re- integration may be best achieved.

Let us for the first time introduce into our discussion the term “maturity” as being for our purposes an improvement on the term “integration”. Maturity, as we all recognize, refers to the ability of an individual to accept himself for what he is, in full recognition of his own limitations and deficiencies in various areas of life. In a spiritual sense it implies the possession of realistic goals for living, having regard to the fact that man is a child of God, and that the spiritual content of human nature posits a certain amount of reciprocity between man and God. There are a number of other commonly accepted criteria for maturity, but the above general delineation is adequate for the purposes of this article.

Now in order to reach this stage of maturity, the experience of some pattern of suffering is generally necessary. The mental mechanisms of defense which we employ in painful or unpleasant situations must be exposed, and in order to do this some form of suffering, often physical as well as mental, is frequently necessary. Nor is this question of maturity merely personal in its implications. Because man is a social organism, it is necessary for the familial relationships to be examined carefully in order to avoid a lack of clarity between familial and divine allegiances.

On the alleviation of mental suffering, we may observe that the conflict which exists within the individual may be disentangled carefully by a skilled and sympathetic therapist, who will probably employ one or other of the modern counseling techniques to this end. But we must also remark that the very same result can be achieved by the spontaneous sympathy of a warm-hearted untrained friend. If the approach of the sufferer to God is to be mature, this type of thing is usually all that is necessary for a redirection of the personality, and its opening to the healing and consoling forces of God. The majority of ministers who undertake this latter role cannot claim such training as is the lot of the psychiatrist, nor indeed would such be desirable. What is important is the possession of a sympathetic appreciation of the situation, and of the issues involved in the individual personality alone, to say nothing of extraneous factors which are not infrequently concomitants of suffering.

The final consideration is that this maturity or integration must be achieved through a conscious deepening of the relationship with God, and at this point the therapeutic power of the Christian Gospel is very much in evidence. Integration other than on this basis is not really integration at all, and whilst the ills of the personality may be palliated by other means, it still remains true that the climax of maturity must come, as it did for Job, in the deepening of the spiritual life, for which the Gospel of the Risen Christ is the only specific. Upon this step the value and permanence of the whole sequence depends, and it is at this point that the minister can bring his own experience of Christ to bear upon the situation so that a realistic conversion results, thereby opening the way for progressive deepening of the spiritual life in “after-care”. The act of faith or complete reliance upon God is the mark of integration, and prayer will also play a significant part in the entire process.

We have seen something of the vastness of the problem of suffering, the relation which the Book of Job has to it, and the manner in which the basic principles exemplified in that book may be related to modern knowledge and its more practical application to suffering. That this application is of special importance will probably be agreed by all, and it is certainly a challenge to the ministry of the Christian Church to perform more of those works without which its faith is dead.

About the author: R. K.Harrison (1920-1993) studied at the University of London (B.D., 1943; M.Th., 1947, Ph.D., 1952) and taught at Clifton College, Bristol from 1947 to 1949, before his appointment as Hellmuth Professor of Old Testament Studies at Huron College, University of Western Ontario. In 1960 he became Professor of Old Testament Studies at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, where he stayed until his retirement in 1986.

Harrison was best known for his Introduction to the Old Testament (1969) but wrote many other books, including commentaries on Leviticus (ISBN 184474258X) and Jeremiah and Lamentations (ISBN 0830842217). He was on the Executive Review Committee of the New King James Version, and translated several of the Minor Prophets in the New International Version. Together with Merrill Unger, he edited The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary.

In 1988, a Festschrift was published in his honor, Israel’s apostasy and restoration: essays in honor of Roland K Harrison (ISBN 0801038308). Edited by Avraham Gileadi, it included contributions by Clarence Hassell Bullock, Eugene Merrill and Bruce Waltke.

*The article above has been adapted from R.K. Harrison, “The Problem of Suffering and the Book of Job,” The Evangelical Quarterly 25.1 (1953): 18-27. See also:

God’s Sovereignty in Our Suffering


*Sovereignty, Suffering, and Open Theism

By Thomas R. Schreiner

Intense suffering provokes questions about God’s sovereignty and love. When we suffer deeply, we ask the question, “Why?” Why does God allow such pain in the lives of his children, and why is the world wracked with so much misery? Christians have asked these questions for centuries, and philosophers and theologians have reflected on these matters, attempting to provide answers to what is often called “the problem of evil.” I do not want to minimize in the least the importance of such answers, and some of our contributors in this issue help us in this regard. At the outset, however, I do want to point to the crucified Christ. Whatever solution we suggest for the problem of evil (and thinking rightly on this matter is of vital importance), we need to remind ourselves that we worship one who suffered, died, and was buried. We do not know a Savior who is untouched by human misery, who gazes at us from afar and did not share our plight. We worship one who shared our infirmities and weakness (though he was without sin), so that he sympathizes “with our weaknesses” and our temptations (Heb 4:15). He voluntarily took our sin and suffering upon himself, so that we can be free from sin and suffering in the world to come. The crucifixion of God’s Christ demonstrates to us God’s love and mercy in a suffering world.

James Montgomery Boice, who was once the pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when diagnosed with liver cancer (and who died within a few months of his diagnosis) reminded the congregation of God’s sovereignty in the situation, rejecting the idea that God was not in control. But he said that what struck him even more powerfully is the goodness of God. God is sovereign and he loves us. God is in control and he has a tender and ardent love for his children.

Christians have always taught that God foresees what his people will suffer, and that he is sovereign over this world. Recently, however, “open theism” has called this truth into question. Open theists argue that God does not and cannot know the future free will decisions of human beings. If he did, they claim, then human beings would not be truly free. In their view, human beings cannot be free if God knows in advance what we will choose to do. They see another advantage in their paradigm, namely, God is not responsible for the suffering we experience, for he did not know or ordain that it would occur. It is fair to say that open theists think that one of the great advantages of this new paradigm is that it solves the problem of evil.

Some of our readers, perhaps, have not even heard of open theism. If so, they might be surprised to learn that “evangelical” scholars are promulgating it and urging its acceptance. Remarkably enough, even Christianity Today in an editorial (“God vs. God,” Christianity Today, February 7, 2000, 34-35) urged both open theists and their traditional evangelical opponents to study the scriptures carefully before criticizing the other side. What is astonishing about this is not that Christianity Today urged both sides to study the Bible. We all, of course, agree with that injunction. What is surprising is that the editorial begins by speaking very negatively of the classical view of God (ironically quoting Pascal, who had a very strong view of divine sovereignty as a Jansenist!) and a very positive estimation of the benefits of open theism. Indeed, despite some closing words about the importance of church history, we are given the impression that both open theism and classical theology are equally plausible. The bulk of the editorial is written as if there were no context for such a study, as if we do not already have twenty centuries of careful Christian reflection upon the scriptures, as if Christians have not studied issues pertaining to the very questions posed for centuries. It is instructive that no branch of Christendom, whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, has ever embraced open theism.

This is not to say that we have arrived theologically, that everything the church has agreed on historically is true, or that every new idea should be jettisoned from the outset. But a responsible editorial on the matter should say that the burden of proof is strongly against a theological position that has been rejected for all of church history by every segment of the Christian church. The Reformers believed that the scriptures were the final authority, but they often cited church fathers to demonstrate that their theology was not wholly new. When I read an editorial like this, I wonder if some segments of evangelical Christianity are rootless, lacking any sense of the teaching of the church through the ages. We should study our Bibles, realizing that our ancestors were imperfect and may need correction. And yet we do not dismiss lightly the wisdom of those who preceded us, lest we be guilty of what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.”

Some openness theologians claim to be radical biblical literalists, contending that traditional evangelicals have failed to interpret the scriptures in accord with its most likely meaning. Hence, open theists insist that when scripture says, “God repents,” the text means exactly what it says. God really and truly changes his mind. This claim should be examined seriously since we are summoned to review our hermeneutical approach. The biblical strength of their view, however, is exaggerated. The hermeneutical method of open theists would be more convincing if they were consistent. Open theists should argue, if they were consistent, that God does not know the present either. After all, God asks Adam, “Where are you?” (Gen 3:8). A radical biblical literalist would say, “God must not know where Adam is since he asks the question.” Further, the Lord had to go down to Sodom and Gomorrah to know what was happening in those cities according to Genesis 18:20-21. As radical biblical literalists, open theists should say God did not know the present state of affairs in Sodom and Gomorrah since he needed to travel there to discover what was going on. If they respond by saying, “Many other verses teach us that God is omniscient and that he knows the present perfectly,” then I reply, “That is the same answer we give to the verses they cited to prove that God does not know the future.” I conclude, therefore, that the Christianity Today editorial is wrong on another score. The biblical support for open theism is not remarkably strong. On the contrary, they can only advance their cause by being hermeneutically inconsistent. We do not need to begin at ground zero to determine the plausibility of this new hypothesis. Nevertheless, the debate will continue. I am confident that forthcoming work, such as Bruce Ware’s anticipated book on the topic from Crossway, will demonstrate that open theism’s hermeneutic, biblical exegesis, and theology are faulty.

Why is this new movement dangerous and harmful? It is pernicious precisely because it removes the sovereignty of God from suffering. We may not understand why we are suffering, and we know that the pain in this world is staggering. Nonetheless, we do not surrender what the scriptures teach. Our God is good and he is sovereign. Our God cares and he is in control. Our God loves and he reigns. Our Father works everything for good to those who love him and who are called according to his gracious purpose (Rom 8:28). The judge of all the earth always does what is right (Gen 18:25). Our trust in him and love for him will not be increased if we surrender his lordship and kingship. Such an option may be tempting to some, but it is unbiblical and pastorally irresponsible.

About the author: Dr. Thomas R. Schreiner is the James Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds an MDiv and ThM from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary and a PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary. He has published a number of articles and book reviews in scholarly journals, as well as many great books.

*Responding to the Argument from Evil – 3 Approaches for the Theist by Dr. David Wood


A few weeks ago, my five-year-old son, Lucian, came up with his first argument against the existence of God. He reasoned that, since God can’t be seen, God must not exist. Put formally:

  1. If I can’t see x, x doesn’t exist.
  2. I can’t see God.
  3. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

The first premise, of course, is false, and it wasn’t difficult to show young Luke that seeing isn’t the only way to know that something exists. We can, for instance, know that something exits because of its effects. Hence, this argument was easily refuted (and I remain undefeated in debates with five-year-olds). Nevertheless, I doubt my son is going to stop formulating arguments. It’s only a matter of time before he presents me with a much stronger case, based on a crucial piece of data that is always before him.

In November of 2007, my son Reid was born. He wasn’t moving or breathing. The only sign of life was his heartbeat. He was placed on a respirator, and he was eventually given a tracheostomy. We had to wait several months for a diagnosis, but we finally learned that Reid has myotubular myopathy, a rare genetic disorder that makes his muscles extremely weak—so weak that he can’t hold his head up, breathe consistently, swallow when he needs to, or make a sound when he cries.

We teach our sons that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely good. I’m quite certain that, within the next few years, Luke is going to reason as follows:

  1. God, by definition is all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely good.
  2. If God is all-knowing, he would know how to prevent children from getting myotubular myopathy.
  3. If God is all-powerful, he would have the power to prevent children from getting myotubular myopathy.
  4. If God is completely good, he would want to prevent children from getting myotubular myopathy.
  5. My brother has myotubular myopathy.
  6. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

This argument isn’t nearly as easily refuted as the previous argument. How are theists (i.e., people who believe that God exists and acts in our world) to respond?

There are three main approaches we can take when we respond to the argument from evil (hereafter AE). We can point out problems with the argument, we can try to explain suffering, and we can offer additional arguments for theism that outweigh any evidence against theism. Let’s take a closer look at these responses.

Problems with the Argument from Evil (AE)

Since AE is an argument, the burden of proof is on the proponent to show that the argument is a good one. Thus, the first approach we can take is to point out problems with the argument itself, for example, inconsistencies, unproven assumptions, or ambiguous terms.


When atheists present AE, they’re usually guilty of a number of inconsistencies. Let’s consider one that’s quite common. The most popular version of AE goes something like this:

  1. If God exists, there wouldn’t be any pointless suffering.
  2. Since we can’t think of reasons for allowing certain instances of suffering, some suffering is probably pointless (e.g., an injured deer experiencing pointless pain as it slowly dies in the woods).
  3. Therefore, God probably doesn’t exist.

But notice what the atheist is claiming. Since there’s probably no point to at least some suffering (because we can’t think of one), God probably doesn’t exist. The atheist is claiming, then, that we shouldn’t believe something that seems improbable. But what happens when atheists are confronted by, say, the design argument? The theist argues, “Look, it’s extremely improbable that life formed on its own, or that the universe just happened to be finely tuned for life. So life and the world probably have a designer.” Here the atheist responds, “Yes, these things may be improbable, but I’m going to believe them anyway.” This is a clear inconsistency. When one argument is on the table, we mustn’t go against the probabilities; when a different argument is on the table, it’s suddenly perfectly acceptable to go against the probabilities.

Based on this inconsistency alone, I would say that even if a theist has no explanation for suffering, he or she is no worse than the atheist who has no explanation for the origin of the universe of for the complexity of life. If, however, it can be shown that there are other problems with the argument from evil, and if theists can offer reasons for God to allow suffering, theists are on much better ground than atheists.

Ambiguous Terms

Certain words can mean very different things to different people. For instance, if I say to an atheist, “I have faith in God,” the atheist assumes I mean that my belief in God has nothing to do with evidence. But this isn’t what I mean by faith at all. When I say that I have faith in God, I mean that I place my trust in God based on what I know about him.

Ambiguous terms can cause significant problems when they’re used in arguments. Consider a simple word: good. Theists say that God is wholly good. But what do we mean by this? As I examine AE, I find that atheists are using this term quite differently from the way I use it. If we examine atheistic arguments carefully, we find that a “good” being is one who maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. Given this definition, we can see why AE seems so persuasive to some:

  1. If Gd existed, he would maximize our pleasure and minimize our pain.
  2. Our pleasure is not maximized, and our pain is not minimized.
  3. Thus, God doesn’t exist.

If the premises of this argument are true, the conclusion follows. But what if we challenge the first premise by rejecting the claim that God’s goodness implies giving lots of pleasure? Theists believe that some things are far more important than pleasure or lack of pain. Becoming good people, developing virtues, learning that we’re not the center of the universe, seeking God with all our hearts—these are all vastly more important than pleasure or lack of pain. Thus, when theists say that God is wholly good, we’re applying the term good within a framework of Christian values, where pleasure simply isn’t at the top of our priorities.

Unproven Assumptions

When we make an argument, we assume various things. For instance, we assume that our minds are functioning properly, that valid logic preserves truth, and so on. Such things are rarely questioned. Nevertheless, when an assumption is crucial to an argument, and there’s no good reason to believe the assumption, the argument is on very shaky ground. Consider the awareness assumption, which is absolutely critical for most versions of AE: If God has reasons for allowing evil, we will be aware of these reasons.

I cannot imagine how a defender of AE could even hope to show that this assumption is true. God’s knowledge and wisdom are infinite, while even the smartest of human beings knows practically nothing by comparison. Yet without this assumption, most versions of AE cannot get off the ground.

Explaining Suffering

Given numerous problems with AE (and we’ve only looked at a few), I don’t think that theists are under any obligation to explain suffering. Yet if we can come up with plausible reasons for God to allow suffering , this would increase the overall plausibility of theism.

Theists can account for suffering in two important ways: we can account for suffering theologically by appealing to Christian doctrines, and we can account for suffering philosophically by appealing towhead philosophers call “theodicies.”

Christian Doctrine

The most important religious claim to consider when faced with AE is that humanity is in a state of rebellion against God. While an atheist will probably reject such a claim, it’s important to keep in mind that AE relies, to a large extent, on how awful humanity is and can become. When atheists offer evidence of suffering, they typically point to the Holocaust, or to the “Rape of Nanking,” or to children being horribly victimized. But such events fit quite well with the idea that humanity has turned away from God. To put it differently, the more examples of moral evil an atheist presents in support of his argument, the more evidence he’s given that human beings are extremely sinful. And it makes little sense to say, “Human beings are incredibly sinful and are at war with God, but God should give us a world of total pleasure and should rush to our aid whenever something goes wrong.”


A theodicy is an attempt to answer the question, What morally sufficient reason could there be for God to allow evil? Let’s look at two of the most important types of theodicy.

First, there are free will theodicies, which are based on two central ideas:

  1. A world containing free beings is better than a world without free beings, since only free beings can choose the good or genuinely love or be moral in any meaningful sense.
  2. True freedom entails that we are also free to choose the bad or not to love or to disobey the moral law.

On this view, moral evil is a misuse of moral freedom. Freedom itself, however, is a wonderful gift.

Second, there are soul-building theodicies. As we noted earlier, it’s quite common for people to think that, of God exists, his primary goal should be to maximize our pleasure. Such a view doesn’t fit well within a Christian framework, for it turns God into a “cosmic thermostat,” whose job is to keep the universe just the way we like it. Proponents of soul-building theodicies maintain that God has more important things in mind than pleasure or lack of pain. While it’s wonderful to go through times when life is comfortable, it’s a simple fact of human experience that we don’t grow much during those times. So if becoming mature human beings (or mature Christians) is important, then a world with pain is better than a world without pain. 

I don’t believe that such theodicies account for all of the evil in our world. nevertheless, as a theist, I don’t believe that our minds are capable of God’s reasons for allowing suffering. The fact that we can come up with some plausible explanations for suffering (despite our limited knowledge) is itself a serious blow to AE.

Outweighing the Argument from Evil

Since the argument from evil only claims to provide a certain amount of evidence against theism, we must note that, even if we think AE is a good argument, the evidence drawn from it can potentially be outweighed by other evidence. Theists can therefore muster a number of arguments in favor of their position. If these arguments, taken as a whole, provide a stronger case than AE, we must conclude, once again, that AE is not a serious threat to theism. While there are dozens of arguments for the existence of God, we will briefly consider three.

Design Arguments

There are two main versions of the design argument: (1) the argument from fine-tuning, and (2) the argument from biological complexity. Physicists are aware of the fact that the fundamental constants of our universe seem to be finely-tuned for life. If the gravitational force, the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force, and the electromagnetic force were altered even slightly, human beings could not exist. Since there’s no naturalistic explanation for why these values should be just right for life, the fine-tuning of the cosmos provides strong evidence of a designing intelligence.

A cosmos finely tuned for life, however, doesn’t give us life. Additional steps are required to reach living cells, multicellular organisms, complete ecosystems, and especially conscious, self-reflective beings. The complexity of even the most basic living organism (let alone the complexity of more advanced life) is further evidence of a designing intelligence.

Cosmological Arguments

Many arguments for theism attempt to show that the universe must have a cause, or a certain type of cause. One such argument begins as follows:

  1. Whatever begins to exist must have a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe must have  cause.

The first premise is self-evident; the second premise can be known scientifically; thus, the conclusion follows. But we can go even further by examining the nature of the cause of the universe. Since the scientific evidence shows that matter and time began to exist, the first cause must be immaterial and timeless (both of which are attributes of God). The first cause must also be extraordinarily powerful and free to create. These attributes fit in perfectly with theism; they make no sense in atheism.

The Argument from Morality

Third, consider the following argument.

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

The first premise is certainly true. When we say that there are objective moral values, we’re saying that there are moral claims that are true whether or not human beings agree with them. Thus, the claim “rape is immoral” would still be true even if every human being on the planet decided otherwise. But if human beings cannot serve as the ground for objective morality, what can? Only a being that completely transcends humans.

What about the second premise? Interestingly enough, proponents of AE often grant this premise in the course of their argument. By declaring that suffering is evil, atheists have admitted that there is an objective moral standard by which we distinguish good and evil. Amazingly, then, even as atheists make their case against the existence of God, they actually help us prove that God exists!


We’ve looked at three approaches theists can take when we respond to the AE. We must be careful to use such responses at the appropriate time, however. Remember that Job had the best friends in the world, so long as they kept their mouths shut. Job’s time of intense suffering was not the appropriate occasion for a deep philosophical and theological analysis of human pain.

Similarly, when my son Luke comes up to me and says (as I know he eventually will), “Why did God allow Reid to get sick?” the appropriate response is not to charge in and say, “Well, let me explain the soul-building theodicy to you.” To give specific and confident answers is to pretend that we have certainty of God’s reasons for things when we often don’t. Human anguish is powerful, sometimes far more powerful than words.

Nevertheless, at appropriate times, we must respond to AE. Atheists claim that their arguments refute theism. Yet they-re inconsistent in the application of their principles, and they’re smuggling in unproven assumptions and a distorted hierarchy of values. When we combine these problems with the fact that theists can explain a fair amount of suffering (which is all that can be reasonably expected of limited beings) and that we have strong evidence that supports belief in God, it’s clear that the only significant argument for atheism fails on multiple levels.

*The article above is adapted from chapter 6 in the excellent book edited by  Michael A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona entitled: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2010.

About David Wood: He is the teaching fellow in philosophy at Fordham University, where his doctoral work focused on the problem of evil. A former atheist, he became a Christian after investigating the historical evidence for Jesus’s resurrection. He is co-director of Acts 17 Apologetics Ministries, has been in more than two dozen pubic debates with Muslims and atheists, and is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers. David lives in the Bronx, New York, with his wife, Marie, and their sons, Lucian, Blaise, and Reid. You can watch a short testimony of David Wood on YouTube entitled “Why I am A Christian” (34:06); or a longer version: “Dr. David Wood shares his Testimony @ IPC Hebron, Houston” (1:04:03). Both of these videos are highly recommended and will encourage you and motivate you toward using apologetics in your sharing the gospel with those you may think are difficult to reach.

Dan DeWitt on How is Evil Compatible with the Gospel?

Dan DeWitt

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) — “There are man-eating sharks in every ocean. But we still swim. Every second somewhere in the world lightning strikes. But we still play in the rain. Poisonous snakes can be found in 49 of the 50 states. But we still go looking for adventure. A car can crash. A house can crumble. But we still drive. And love coming home.

“Because I think deep down we know all the bad things that can happen in life they can’t stop us from making our lives good.”

The preceding words are from an All State Insurance commercial. The line “People live for good” appears on the screen at the end.

Believers and unbelievers face the fatal force of a cruel and uncaring cosmos every day. Atheist author Alex Rosenberg makes this point: “Reality is rough. But it could have been worse. We could have been faced with reality in all its roughness plus a God who made it that way.”

He’s right. It could have been worse, especially if God really did make it this way. For Rosenberg, the universe was born from chance headed toward certain doom that doesn’t care about what happens on the frail surface of one of its planets.

Rosenberg admits that from a naturalistic perspective there is no objective category of evil. But a critique often leveled against the Christian faith is that the existence of evil is incompatible with belief in a loving and all-powerful God.

I believe God is sovereign. I totally get it when we say that God does all things for His glory. But how does this jive with our day to day encounters with evil?

I’m not sure that I will ever be able to exhaust all of what that means and how all it all works out. I believe God is all-loving and all-powerful. I believe He could stop evil. And everyday reality reminds me that He hasn’t. Yet. I believe there is a timeline, that the Father alone knows, when evil will be extinguished.

But there are some foundational truths that frame the way I think about evil in our world that keep me from despair and actually enable human suffering to point to the goodness of God.

I know that God created the universe as good (Genesis 1). I believe what the psalmist said that to be near to God is our good (Psalm 73:28). And I also know that from the very beginning of time humanity has chosen to go the opposite direction.

We have to see Adam’s fall (and ours) against the backdrop of God’s providence. An all-wise Creator made a creature who possessed the ability to make meaningful decisions. Adam chose unwisely, and so do we.

As John Lennox has pointed out, parents take the same risk when they choose to have children. Kids can choose to reject their parents or to love them. God reveals Himself as Father, and even when Jesus told a story of God’s great love He packed it in a parable about a rebellious son who received astounding grace from his father upon returning home.

So here we are in a fallen and cursed world facing natural and moral evil as we serve a Heavenly Father we can’t see. God never promised it would be easy. But we can experience His goodness even in the midst of the bitterness of this life.

God has promised to bring an end to evil and to reverse the curse. God promised Adam and Eve that one of their descendants would crush the head of the serpent. This was inaugurated by Jesus’ life and ministry but it will not be fully realized until His return.

So we live in the “already — not yet” of this reality.

We should be careful not to too quickly appropriate certain promises that belong to the “not yet” of the Christian faith. A passage we often quote at funerals is that Jesus has removed the sting from death (1 Corinthians 15). In context, this is part of the culmination of history when Jesus destroys all of His enemies, including His final enemy, which is death.

So for now death does sting. For now the grave feels victorious. Consequently, we grieve. But we don’t grieve as those without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). This is the power of the Gospel at work in the life of the Christian.

Dark times may tempt us to doubt the reality of God’s power and goodness. But God expressed His love for us by entering our suffering. In the incarnation Christ took on the form of a servant to be mocked, whipped and nailed to a tree.

And Christ’s resurrection was God’s validation stamp on the expiration date of the grave. Death is not final. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57).

I’m not sure how the problem of evil could be considered incompatible with Christian faith if it is viewed through a biblical framework of creation, separation, incarnation and regeneration.

We rebelled against our Creator, He responded in love when He entered our despair, died in our place and defeated the grave so that we might have new life. This is the Gospel.

Like the commercial, I believe people live for good. I believe this is the image of God stamped on every individual, and I believe it is, in part, a result of the common grace bestowed upon all of humanity.

But I don’t think we can muster the kind of confidence we need to face a shark and snake infested world by placing ourselves in the good hands of an insurance company. I believe our good will be found in the hands of a loving God who will one day crush the snake and kill death itself.

Article adapted from Baptist Press: First Person, July 15, 2013. Dan DeWitt is dean of Boyce College, the undergraduate school of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook ( ) and in your email (

Dr. John Feinberg on “Why I Still Believe in Christ, in Spite of Evil and Suffering”

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.

Preliminary Considerations

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.

The Problem of Evil by Gregory E. Ganssle

“How Can God Have All Power and Be Loving and Yet There Be Evil?”

What philosophers call “the problem of evil” is a family of arguments from the existence or nature of evil to the conclusion that God does not or probably does not exist. The oldest form of the argument is that the mere existence of evil is logically incompatible with God’s existence. If God exists, evil could not, and if evil exists, God could not. I call this argument the “charge of contradiction.” The claim is that there is a logical contradiction in asserting that God is all-powerful, God is all-loving, and that evil exists. Wouldn’t this kind of God eliminate all evil? The existence of God, in this view, is on a par with a square circle. Given the existence of evil, it is impossible for God to exist. The challenge is to show that theism is logically consistent.

Few today, including atheists, think this argument succeeds. If God might have a good reason to allow evil, then it is possible that both God and evil exist. We need not know what God’s actual reasons are, but if it is possible He has one, then the argument is defeated. Most think it is possible that God has good reasons to allow evil and that, therefore, there is no contradiction between God’s existence and the existence of evil.

Today, the most important form of the argument against the existence of God from evil is called the “evidential argument from evil.” The one who presses this argument admits that the existence of God and the reality of evil are not logically incompatible. The argument is that the amount and the kinds of evil we find in the world is strong evidence against the existence of God.

Even though it is possible that God has a reason to allow the evils we find in the world, it does not seem likely that there are good reasons for some of the evils we see. We cannot prove that there is no good reason, but if we have lots of cases in which it seems as though there is none, we will conclude that there probably is no good reason to allow these evils. If it is true that probably there is no good reason to allow these cases of evil, then it is probable that God does not exist. This argument is called the “evidential argument” because we cannot prove that there is no good reason to allow the particular evils we are thinking about. These evils do, then, look like good evidence that God does not exist.

In order to begin to answer this argument, we must think about the claim that it is probable that no good reason exists to allow the evil in question. Why should we believe this is true? The one who puts this argument forward will appeal to cases of evil in which it is difficult to find a reason that might fit. Does this mean we ought to conclude that it is probable that there is no reason? No.

The reasoning here goes as follows: It seems like there is no reason to allow this evil therefore, probably there is no reason to allow it. Sometimes this kind of reasoning is strong and other times it is weak. Let me illustrate. The argument is of the form: It seems like there is no x, therefore, probably there is no x. The Bible has numerous cases where one could mount this argument. Let’s take the case of Lazarus’s death in John 11. Lazarus was likely in the prime of his life. He’s a good man and a close friend of Jesus. Lazarus becomes ill and dies. The citizens of his village, Bethany, could see such an evil and after three days of mourning come to the conclusion that there is no reason for this. Therefore, God doesn’t exist. Then Jesus comes to Bethany. Lazarus’s sisters, Mary and Martha, chastise Jesus for not getting there sooner. As we read John’s account, we see that unbeknownst to Mary and Martha, Jesus had reasons for delaying. Moreover, there were reasons Lazarus was permitted to die in the prime of his life. When Jesus arrived at Lazarus’s tomb, He prayed and then called Lazarus to come out of the tomb four days after his death. The reason for Lazarus’s sickness, death, Jesus’ delay, and Lazarus’s resuscitation was that God’s glory might be seen.

Some of the citizens might have thought they had a strong case against the existence of God the three days after Lazarus died. But subsequent events place the evil of Lazarus’s death in a much different context. In light of this context, Lazarus’s death is seen to be part of a much greater good than anyone in Bethany could imagine.

The pattern that we see in this and numerous other biblical cases shows that there are times when we can’t say, “If God had a reason to allow this particular case of evil, we would probably know what it is.”

There are two reasons we can’t always make this claim.

First, we can figure out reasons that God might have for many (perhaps most) of the evils in the world. For example, both human freedom and a stable, cause-effect universe are necessary for any meaningful action. Meaningful action, then, may be a reason that God allows various kinds of evil.

Second, it is reasonable to think that God will have reasons that we cannot grasp for allowing evils in our lives. In fact, to think that we should be able to figure out God’s reasons for allowing every case of evil implies that we think God is not much smarter than we are. If God is the almighty creator of the universe, there will be evil the reason for which we cannot discern. This is exactly what we should expect if there is a God. It cannot be counted as evidence against God.

So even though it might seem, at first glance, that there are no good reasons to allow certain evils we see, this does not provide strong evidence that these evils are really unjustified. The argument that the kinds of evil we see make it unlikely that God exists has been seen to be pretty weak.

The philosophical problem of evil has to do with what is reasonable to believe. To what degree is it reasonable to believe in God in light of what we seem to know about evil? We have seen that evil does not contradict God’s existence. Nor is it strong evidence against the existence of God. The evil in the world, then, does not make it unreasonable to believe in an all-powerful and all-loving God.

Cabal, T., Brand, C. O., Clendenen, E. R., Copan, P., Moreland, J., & Powell, D. (2007). The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers. The Article above is by Gregory E. Ganssle, 736-737.

About the Author: Greg graduated from the University of Maryland in 1978. He earned a Masters of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Rhode Island (1990) and a PhD. in Philosophy (1995) from Syracuse University where his dissertation on God’s relation to time won a Syracuse University Dissertation Award.

He has taught philosophy at Syracuse and is currently a part time lecturer in the philosophy department at Yale University. Greg is also a senior fellow at the Rivendell Institute. The Rivendell Institute combines ministry to Graduate Students and Faculty with Academic Research.

Greg has spoken on over fifty campuses throughout the USA. Greg’s main interests are in philosophy of religion. He also thinks about the integration of faith and the academic enterprise.

Greg has been married to Jeanie since 1985. They have three children: David, Nick, and Elizabeth.

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