The Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, will never forget the tragedy of October 2nd, 2006. Charles Roberts, a non-Amish local father of three, entered the single-room Amish schoolhouse, ordered the boys to leave, and opened fire on the girls. He shot ten girls and killed five before taking his own life. The question lingering on many people’s minds was, “Why did something like this have to happen?” What does it say about God that such evil acts occur in His world? If God could prevent such a tragedy, why didn’t He? This same question lingered after 9/11 and the massacre at Virginia Tech.
In the aftermath of the Katrina floods, Dr. Billy Graham was interviewed by Newsweek. He was asked how a loving God could allow such suffering and evil. Dr. Graham’s response was simple, “I don’t know. But God has allowed it, and there is a purpose that we won’t know maybe for years to come.”1
He’s right, of course. None of us can completely know why God allows tragedies. God does not answer the “why” question in the Bible. This side of Heaven we cannot fully understand the origin of evil and the reasons God has for allowing it to continue in the present. But this does not mean, as some have surmised, that evil counts against God’s existence or that God does not have a sufficient reason for allowing it. In fact, the reality of evil may be one of the best reasons to believe that God exists.
What Is Evil?
Before attempting a Christian defense for the existence of evil, it is first important to understand the nature of evil. Evil is not something that has an independent existence of its own. Rather, evil is a perversion of good—a corruption of something that already exists. Tooth decay, for example, can only exist if the tooth first exists. Rot can exist only if the tree first exists. Simply put, evil is when things are not the way they are supposed to be.
Ironically, then, to complain about the problem of evil is to argue that there is a way the world is supposed to be (which only makes sense if God exists). You see, if evolution is true, then the world as we know it is the result of the blind forces of chance, random mutation, and time. The world just happens to be the way it is, but it was not designed to be this way. Therefore, if the world just happens to be this way, then how can someone complain that it should be another way?
Moral judgments (such as claiming that a particular act is evil) can only be made if there is an independent reference standard of good. Otherwise one is like a hiker stranded in a cloudy forest at night without a compass. There would be no way to distinguish north from south without the reference point of the compass. Similarly, there must be an independent reference point distinguishing between good and evil. If God does not exist, then there is no ultimate basis to make moral judgments. Seen in this light, the reality of evil actually requires the existence of God rather than disproves it.
Where Did Evil Come From?
The Bible makes it clear that God’s original creation “was very good” (Genesis 1:31). There was no evil, sin, death, or pain. Yet the reality of evil today is unmistakable. So, where did it come from? Scripture teaches that evil began with the God-given free choice to disobey (Genesis 3). God gave people free will and they abused it. God is not the cause evil, but He does allow it.
Some people wonder why God couldn’t create the world in such a way that we would never sin, thus avoiding evil altogether. If God is all-powerful, couldn’t he create such a world? If God is all-good, wouldn’t he want to create such a world? Thus, the problem of evil is often stated this way:
- If God is all-good, he would want to defeat evil.
- If God is all-powerful, he could create a world without evil.
- Evil is not yet defeated.
- Therefore, an all-good and all-powerful God must not exist.
STATEMENT 1 says that God would want to defeat the present evil and suffering. Since God is good, must He eliminate all present pain? As a parent, I realize the value in allowing some suffering. I don’t put a bubble around my son protecting him from all harm. Sometimes pain can be a means of personal growth and ultimate good. James recognized that suffering produces perseverance (James 1:2-4). Dentists, coaches, and teachers all know that sometimes being good is not to be kind.
Sometimes suffering is a means through which God draws people to Himself. C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”2
Dr. Francis Collins is one of the leading geneticists in the world. As a non-believer, he was intrigued by the peace and faith of Christians who went through seemingly unbearable suffering. With his interest peaked in spiritual things, Dr. Collins decided to investigate the evidence for the existence of God. After a thorough consideration of the evidence, he became a believer. While the evidence convinced his mind, the hope of the suffering believers attracted his heart. God used the suffering of Christians to draw this brilliant scientist to Himself.3 A good person can be good and still allow evil if he has good reason to do so.
STATEMENT 2 says that God could create a world without evil, but since evil exists God must not be all-powerful. The answer to this criticism lies in properly understanding what it means that God is all-powerful. Can God do anything imaginable?
One student asked me, “Can God make a rock so big he can’t move it?” (Bart Simpson would say, “Can God make a burrito so big he can’t eat it?) Although this seems like a tricky argument, the answer is very simple. No, he cannot! You might be thinking that this is a limitation of God, but it is not. A physical object that is so big that an all-powerful God cannot move it is a contradiction—a meaningless idea. There simply cannot be such a thing. It is like a square-circle. Philosopher Gregory Ganssle explains, “To say that God is all-powerful does not mean that God can do any task I can name in words. It means that he can do anything that is not a logical contradiction.”4 The Bible also makes it clear that God, because he is perfectly good in His character, cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18; Titus 1:2).
Just because God is all-powerful does not mean he can do impossibilities. Even God cannot make truly free beings and ensure that they always do right (if he wants them to remain free). All God can do is create the circumstances in which a person is able to make free choices and then, so to speak, stand back and let the person choose. Although we may not completely understand why, God has determined that free will is worth it. One reason often cited is the possibility of love, which cannot be programmed; it must be freely chosen. Yet in giving us the freedom to love, God also gave us the freedom not to love.
What Is God Doing About Evil?
Ultimately, the Bible records the story of God’s personal plan for the world. On one hand, God is confronting, judging, and restraining evil. And for the evil that is unaccounted for in this lifetime, God will bring final justice to the wicked and vindicate the righteous in the life to come. What promise do we have that God is working to bring justice to the world? The answer is the death and resurrection of Jesus. God inaugurated a process in the resurrection of Jesus that will one day be brought to fruition for the entire creation. God will do for the entire creation what he first did for His Son, Jesus. N.T. Wright explains:
According to early Christians, what was accomplished in Jesus’ death and resurrection is the foundation, the model and guarantee for God’s ultimate purpose, which is to rid the world of evil altogether and to establish his new creation of justice, beauty, and peace…God’s future had already broken into the present in Jesus.5We are not called merely to understand what God is doing about evil and then to continue our lives as normal. Rather, we have been called by God to be a part of the solution. God calls us to be His agents of healing and transformation in anticipation of the final resurrection.
1 Jon Meacham, “God, Satan, and Katrina” Newsweek (March 20, 2006), p. 53.
2 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 93.
3 Francis S. Collins, The Language of God (New York: Free Press, 2006).
4 Gregory Ganssle, Thinking about God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 117.
5 N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: 2006), 102.