The very real existence of evil and pain is a truth that all humanity is unfortunately aware of. Whether one lives in the top percentage of worldly wealth and comfort or well below the poverty line, the concept of evil plagues all men equally. One is left to ask – why is this reality true, and is there a supreme being who knows and cares? Every member of the human race must seek to answer this question for them at some point because all humanity has been touched by evil at some point in their earthly journey. Horrific cancers take lives daily. Car accidents and natural disasters end lives prematurely. Men and women take advantage of one another, denigrating and belittling each other for personal gain and pleasure. Corporations destroy lives for greed. War and famine rage in parts of the world filled with the most vulnerable.
How can such terrible things occur on a daily basis? It is in the asking of this question that the philosophy of the problem of evil becomes a personal problem of evil. For the Christian, it is in the midst of personal suffering that one must look for the answer to the problem of evil.
C. S. Lewis, a Christian philosopher, and writer knew the reality of suffering all too well. After losing his young wife early in marriage, Lewis chronicled his journey through grief in two written works: The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed. In A Grief Observed, Lewis records his feelings and thoughts as he dealt with the loss of his true love. Raising the question at the heart of the problem of evil, Lewis writes, “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be – or so it feels – welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double-bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become…”
With these words, Lewis describes the reality of the struggle of understanding evil personally. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis asked to write the book anonymously because, “if I were to say what I really thought about pain, I should be forced to make statements of such apparent fortitude that they would become ridiculous if anyone knew who made them.”
When faced with the reality of evil existing in a world that a believer sees as created by and through a loving, pure God, how does one understand evil’s existence? If God creates and controls all, and is ultimately good, does the reality of evil deny His existence? The paper will first develop a history and understanding of the problem of evil, and seek to offer an argument against the problem’s assertion that there is no God, while offering a solution that seeks to reconcile a perfect, loving God and the reality of evil.
The Problem of Evil Defined
David Hume, in his work Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, describes the problem of evil this way: “Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent? Is He able, but not willing? Then is He malevolent? Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” The problem of evil, as Hume saw it, is posited as follows: If God is benevolent, then He wants to prevent evil; if God is all-powerful, then He is able to prevent evil; there is evil in the world, and therefore, either God is not all-powerful, God is not all-benevolent, or simply does not exist.
Similarly, author J. L. Mackie, in “Evil and Omnipotence,” summed up the problem of evil more simply by stating, “God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false.” Mackie notes that those three premises do not contradict one another, but adds that one must add additional principles, saying “…good is opposed to evil, in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From these it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists and that evil exists are incompatible.” Mackie’s logical argument of the problem of evil then follows:
God is omnipotent; God is good; a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can; there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do; evil exists; and therefore, there is no omnipotent and good God.
The arguments of Mackie and Hume, combined, could be stated as follows: God is supposed to be fully benevolent and all-powerful, able and desiring to prevent evil; God is all-knowing, knowing of evil and desiring to eradicate its source; and therefore, if an all-powerful, all-knowing and good God exists, then evil cannot, it is evident that evil exists in the world. Therefore, an all-powerful, all-knowing and good being does not exist.
Based on this combined definition, it would seem logically clear that God cannot exist because evil is evident. However, within the premises above, there are clear reasons to still believe that God does exist and does wish to see evil eradicate from the world – and one day will complete that mission through the return of Jesus Christ. Before offering a Christian solution to the problem of evil, a history of thought on good and evil, and a proper understanding of God Himself is necessary.
A History of Thought on Good and Evil
Throughout history and across religions, humans have been coexisting with pain and suffering. Many cultures sought to explain evil and suffering as having been caused by unseen, powerful deities. If one lives well, then one may expect flourishing and success because the gods are pleased. On the other end of the spectrum, suffering, sickness, or failure occurs to someone because one has either displeased the gods or another human has turned the gods against them.
Early philosophers also tried to explain the problem of evil and suffering with logic and reasoning. The mathematician Pythagoras, for example, explained evil with a divine dualism. A good god was responsible for all the good in the world; therefore, an evil god is responsible for all the evil as well. The sophists, known for their ability to use reason in argumentation during the time of Plato and Socrates, denied the objectivity of truth, and therefore, since truth was not objective, then there was no such thing as goodness or evil. Plato, and the subsequent Neo-Platonists, that existed after him believed that good is the ultimate principle of life, similar to the characteristics of the Christian God. Simply put, evil cannot come from something that is purely good, therefore there had to be another source. For Plato and other dualists, matter – that which is from below – was the source of evil as the opposite of what was above – namely, the pure and good god. This dualist nature of understanding of good and evil became the crux of most ancient culture’s understanding of the problem of evil. The philosopher Epicurus is noted as one of the first to doubt the pure goodness of the gods due to the evil he saw in the world. For Epicurus, the existence of evil showed that either the gods did exist but were not completely good, or they simply did not exist.
The eastern religion and worldview of Buddhism answers the question of the problem of evil by completely denying its actual existence. Claiming that by the rejection of all desires we can attain a higher level of being in which we will experience no evil. The fact that so many cultures, religions, and philosophers, have tried to explain the reality of evil shows that it is not only a human problem, but one of the most important human problems. Ultimately, all human history continues to seek how to reconcile this personal problem of evil and the desire to reach out and touch God’s face in the midst of suffering – a God who knows and feels the suffering of humanity on a personal level that one can truly trust.
For one to develop biblical view and argument against the problem of evil, one must begin with a proper doctrine of God Himself. In order to fully comprehend how God is good yet can allow evil to exist in His created world, the ability to describe God Himself is necessary. To do so, a few non-negotiable truths must be posited.
The first non-negotiable truth regarding God is His divine sovereignty. For God to be God, He must be fully in control of the reality He has created. Theologian A. W. Pink said, “To say that God is sovereign is to declare that God is God.” Looking at scripture, the Word states that God is omniscient (Job 37:16; Psalm 90:4; 1 John 3:20), fully wise (1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5); and absolutely immutable (James 1:17). The Bible shows God as being the true “Head above all” (1 Chronicles 29:1), and that He directs all occurrences in the history of mankind as “according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). When reading the Bible from the perspective of the grand meta-narrative, it is clear that God is moving through history to reveal and simultaneously fulfill His redemptive program (Genesis 3:15; Revelation 19-20).
This sovereign grace is seen clearly in the Psalmist’s declaration that God designs each singular day (Psalm. 139:16). Solomon states that the machinations of mankind come about only by the hand of God (Proverbs 16:1-4, 33; 19:21). The prophet Daniel claimed that God always acts within His will and that no power can stop Him (Daniel 4:35).
The same message exists in the New Testament. The apostle Paul writes that “…God works all things together for good for those who love him and are called to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28). Not a single event – good or evil – takes place that God does not fully understand and foresee. Standing before the disciples and leading Jewish authorities, Peter declared, “Jesus was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” (Acts 2:23) Even individual salvation was announced and known before the world was created (Ephesians 1:4). Good or bad events do not depend on man’s actions entirely (Romans 9:16), but on a sovereign God “…who both wills and works for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13; 2 Timothy 1:8-9).
A second truth is that God is fully good. This is definition is imperative for understanding the existence of evil, as seen by the arguments put forward by the problem of evil. Scripture is clear that not only is God the sovereign in His creation, but He rules over all things with an all knowing, loving hand (Psalm 34:8; 100:5; 106:1). The Bible is filled with passages proclaiming God as the ultimate and only source of good (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19).
With God’s goodness in full view, God Himself is the ultimate standard of what is considered good. Theologian Wayne Grudem states that due to His being the definition of good, all that God is and does is worthy of approval. His purity and moral standing is shown by His love (Psalm 63:3; 1 John 4:8), His mercy, grace, and patience (Exodus 34:6), His faithfulness (Deuteronomy 32:4), and finally His holiness (Psalm 99:3, 5, 9; Isaiah 6:3). With this definition in place, it must be true that God simply cannot do anything evil nor be blamed for evil in any way (Job 34:10; James 1:13-18). On the contrary, acts of evil are the primary reason that God is shown to act in anger in scripture, as seen in Moses’s recounting of Israel’s consistent disobedience in Deuteronomy 9.
The Origin of Evil
Once the above truths about God are understood, it is possible to arrive at a biblical perspective of evil. First, it is important to understand the origin of evil. All evil can originally be traced back to the fall and destructive nature of Satan, the accuser. (John 8:44; 1 John 3:8). It was Satan who tempted Eve to disobey God’s direct command to refrain from the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 3:1-5). Not only was Eve tempted, but Adam – the first man and image-bearer of God Himself – failed to stop Eve’s fateful decision. Once Eve believed the lie of the Serpent, she offered the fruit to Adam who ate as well, knowing fully well that he was abandoning the authority of God’s rule to seek his own autonomous sovereignty (Gen. 3:6; 1 Timothy 2:14).
Adam’s sin had a worldwide implication as the head of mankind. In cursing the serpent, God ensured that Satan would be in constant conflict with the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15). Also, women would have pain in childbearing and a broken relationship with man. The ground was also cursed, causing painful work for man (Genesis 3:17-18). Finally, God determined that man would face death, so as to not live perpetually in sinful separation from God (3:19). It is from this point forward that the rest of Scripture describes the effects of sin and evil in the created order. It can be argued then, that with the exception of the effects of God’s divine grace in certain events, all evil is an effect of that moment of failing to obey God. Everything that has occurred and thus contributed to making humanity evil is the result of the fall.
Due to this fall, all of humanity is born with a broken and fallen nature (Romans 5:12). It is clear that there are still men and women throughout Scripture and history that attempt to do good works, but the Bible makes it clear that “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21, Romans 3:9-23, Ephesians 2:1-3). This depravity affects all of entire creation. This is clear in passages such as Job 25:5, when it said that “Even the moon is not bright, and the stars are not pure in his eyes.” Likewise, the apostle Paul says all creation has been affected by sin and is groaning for a day of full redemption and healing by God’s powerful hand (Romans 8:20-22).
Based on this understanding of the origin of evil, it can be clearly understood that mankind has a part to play in the existence of evil, and that its existence exists due to the choices of mankind, not the inability to God to stop it or his nonexistence. This paper will now turn to an argument against the above stated problem of evil, and a Christian response.
An Argument against the Problem of Evil
In working with the logic of what is known as deductive syllogism, if the argument is logically valid, and the premises are true, then the conclusion stands true as well. For one to prove the syllogism untrue, one must prove one of the premises involved to be false. In doing so, the conclusion is then proven incorrect.
In developing an argument against the problem of evil as posited by Hume and Mackie, theologians have developed what is called a theodicy, or an apologetic aimed at arguing the problem of evil. Theologian Allister McGrath has stated that no ancient or modern religion can answer fully the problem of evil argument – one must find a religion or worldview that handles the issue best, and that being a theodicy. One of the greatest contributions to modern theodicy development comes from German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who argued for a theodicy containing three main principles: God predetermines all things, without coercing man’s free will; God could have chosen to create any world, yet chose the current as the best option; and sin and suffering are an inevitable result of man’s finitude.
It is among these premises that Leibniz points out the main idea of the free will defense in theodicy – that the allowance of free will by an all-knowing and all-powerful God necessitates the existence of evil in creation.
Having defined the doctrine of God and the origins of evil coming from man’s free will decisions, it is clear that the premises put forth by Mackie and Hume assume that God is a moral being that can be – and should be – judged based upon what he does or allows to happen. In the argument of the problem of evil, God, a morally pure and all-powerful being would never permit evil to happen. We place human (finite) standards of morality over God and blame Him for allowing evil to happen. It seems that any being who would allow a small child to die of an illness though He could have ended it or prevented it, could not possibly be morally good or exist.
In order to do defend a theodicy and break down the problem of evil, one must humbly begin by understanding that God does not think as man does. In the argument put forth by the problem of evil, God’s thinking and logic is brought to a human standard and level. Author Brian Davies notes that “If you think that evil renders God’s existence impossible or unlikely, you must presumably take yourself to have a fairly good understanding of what God is.” As seen in the above definition of God, He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and holy. Yet God is completely outside the finite comprehension of mankind.
All philosophers agree that humans are rational by nature. When one sees a human doing an act that seems rational given the circumstances, one often sees that decision as good. However, without knowing the rationale behind the acts that God works, it is simply impossible for one to define an act of God as good or evil. However, being perfect, God is ultimately that which is more desirable than anything else that exists. The logic holds then that it is impossible to affirm that because God is good, He would not permit evil. As already stated, this understanding brings the rational of God to human standard. With this in mind, going back to the problem of evil argument, the conclusion begins to fall apart as the arguments are proven incorrect.
When one argues that God is all-powerful, it is meant that God is able to do all things that are absolutely possible to accomplish. Based on this argument, anything that can be done absolutely can be done by God.
In the negative, anything that is absolutely impossible, cannot be done. Therefore, committing an evil act is seen as a lack of power. With this logic, it seems that while God can do anything possible, the inverse is true – God cannot do anything impossible. Therefore, yet another of the premises of the problem of evil is false. Based on these logical understandings, it should be evident that the assumptions behind the argument against God from evil are false, and that the conclusion, therefore, does not follow. It is important to take note of the truth that philosopher Peter Kreeft says in his book Making Sense Out of Suffering, “…there may be one very good argument against God – evil – but there are many more good arguments for God. In fact, there are at least fifteen different arguments for God.”
Evil may not prove that God cannot exist, but how then do we explain it? The final portion of this paper will argue for a Christian worldview and explanation of the existence of evil that should satisfy the questions left open by the refutation of the problem of evil.
A Christian View of the Problem of Evil
As seen above, something that is considered good is defined as something that is desirable for itself. It then follows logically that something is good at the same rate that it is perfect.
With that definition in mind, evil should be seen as a lack of perfection, or a lack of being. Evil is a necessary part of being in the current created world of free-will. Therefore, a thing is good insomuch as it exists and to that degree of which it is perfect and evil is that which is lacking. Evil, therefore, does not have being, or existence, in and of itself; evil does not have positive existence. Evil can only be found in something that exists, in some good. It is like a parasite; it can only exist with a host. Like rust on a car, if there is no car, then there is not even the possibility for rust. Therefore, whenever, and wherever, we find something that does not possess its nature, we will find evil.
There is evil in the world, but only because there is a world for evil to inhabit. Philosophers such as Leibniz and Plantinga argue that the current reality is the best possible world. Humans are limited in many ways, but it is important to note that they are limited in that they, unlike God, do not possess all knowledge, all power, or absolute goodness. Therefore, it seems that in order to create anything at all it was necessary to allow for the possibility of some evil to emerge from the finite creatures created. Many argue that it is a contradiction of terms to create a free creature that always chooses to do what is right. That humans are created with free-will with the ability to choose good, implies that one may choose the opposite as well. Not only that, but, in any created world, the goodness of some being that is flourishing, for example a parasite, will, of necessity, impinge upon the goodness of some other being and keep it from flourishing, for example a human that got the parasite from drinking contaminated water.
Based on this understanding, it is possible that there is no problem of evil. Evil simply exists as part of the necessary existence of good. The reality that evil is present is not proof that God does not exist. Rather, the fact that evil exists seems to be proof that God exists, and that He can and does use the evil in the world for the greater good of His redemptive work, as seen in the writings of Augustine and others.
In the book of Genesis, one reads that evil entered the created world due to the free choice of Adam and Eve. By taking of the fruit of the tree, they made a free-will decision to disobey the one law and command of God in the garden. Thus, it is the free-will choices of mankind that allow for natural and moral evil to exist.
However, God did not leave mankind in their doomed, evil state. It is clear from what God promised, from the very beginning to vanquish all evil. The first place where we find this promise is in Genesis 3:15, where God foretells the promise of a Messiah who would eradicate evil finally and forever. That promise saw its fulfillment when Jesus took on human flesh and experienced the evil of humanity without committing any evil himself. He was perfect, and he treated all creation with goodness, but was subjected to the most brutal evils of the world.
Without sin, Jesus bore the sins of humanity, and took the punishment that was due for evil – the wrath of God poured out in full. If there was truly a problem of evil, God Himself provided the solution. Not only would He allow evil to exist, but He would enter into a world full of evil and experience it as well. His free-will atoning death on the cross would reverse the free-will decision of Adam and Eve to sin, and would finally take away the power of sin and evil for good – dealing a death blow to the problem of evil on the cross once and for all.
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