The Problem of Evil

One of the most common objections to Christianity is the problem of evil. While it has many forms, the logical problem of evil often runs along the following lines:
1. If God can’t stop evil, then he’s not all-powerful.
2. If God won’t stop evil, then he’s not good.
3. Since evil exists, God can’t be both all-powerful and good.

This is a logically valid argument – if the premises (1 and 2) are true, then the conclusion (3) follows logically; and the first premise is true by the definition of ‘all-powerful’. However, the second premise has a hidden assumption: that God can’t have a good reason for allowing the evil that’s present in the world.

This is a curious assumption to make. If God is all-knowing, then why would we assume that God can’t know something that we don’t (his reason for allowing evil)? Because of this flaw in the logical problem of evil, “it is now acknowledged on (almost) all sides that the logical argument is bankrupt.” (William Alston, ‘The Inductive Argument from Evil and the Human Cognitive Condition’, Philosophical Perspectives 5 (1991))

This still leaves the evidential (or inductive) problem of evil unanswered: Given the sheer magnitude of evil in the world, what could God’s reason for allowing all the evil in the world possibly be? This is something that the authors of the Bible wrestle with deeply. In particular, the book of Job is concerned with precisely this question. At the start of the book of Job, Satan says to God:

“Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” (Job 1:9-11)

Satan accuses Job, and by implication all of humanity, of having a consumer relationship with God, where the relationship is a means to some other end (like the relationship people have with their supermarket); as opposed to a familial relationship, where the relationship is an end in and of itself (like the relationship people have with their close family members).

But in the face of Satan’s accusation, God determines to create free lovers, and so God gives Satan enough rope to proceed; but in the end, it’s only enough rope for Satan to hang himself. Satan wanted to bring suffering into Job’s life in order to expose him as a hypocrite and a fraud, but the suffering that God allows accomplishes the exact opposite; it demonstrates that Job’s relationship with God is much deeper than the consumer relationship that Satan had accused him of.

One commentator notes that, “because [Job’s friends] encourage Job to repent primarily to escape his suffering and to receive God’s blessing, they unsuspectingly tempt him to use God for personal gain, the essence of sin.” (John Hartley, The Book of Job, 48) But if using God for personal gain is the essence of sin (which is implied in Satan’s accusation), then the only way our obedience to God can be completely divorced from sin, is if it is possible to “fear God for nothing.” (Job 1:9)

If our obedience is motivated by what God will give us for it, then our relationship with him is nothing more than a consumer relationship, and Satan’s accusation would stand: that Job’s obedience, and by implication all human obedience, is inherently selfish (Job 1:9-11; 2:4-5). And so God permits Satan to tempt, Job, Adam, Eve, and us; so that our love for God could be real rather than inherently selfish.

By giving us the ability to choose, God creates the possibility of free lovers rather than mere consumers, and the possibility of family relationships where we don’t use each other, as opposed to consumer relationships where we do. In this we see an answer to the problem of evil in the narrative of Job, and in the meta-narrative of the Bible: what could possibly be worth all the evil in the world? The answer is love, but for love to be real rather than selfish, our actions cannot be driven by selfish motives.

Love requires a certain type of free-will: the ability to “fear God for nothing” (Job 1:9), and the lengths that God goes to in order to achieve this reality, reveals a free-will defence to the problem of evil in the narrative of Job, and in the meta-narrative of the Bible. God allows Satan to bring evil and suffering into the world so that we can be free lovers rather than mere consumers in our relationship with him, and in our relationships with each other.

One of the objections to the free-will defence is that while it accounts for moral evil committed by people, it doesn’t account for natural evil, such as floods, earthquakes and tsunamis. However, when the problem of evil is raised against Christianity, the Bible’s answer is that natural evil is the direct result of our free choice to reject God. According to Genesis 3, our rebellion against God impacts our relationships with each other (moral evil) and with creation (natural evil). As Peter Van Inwagen puts it:

“The expanded free-will defence includes evils in the amounts and of the kinds that we find in the actual world, including what is sometimes called natural evil, such as the suffering caused by the Lisbon earthquake. (Natural evil, according to the expanded free-will defence, is a special case of evil that is caused by the abuse of free-will; the fact that human beings are subject to destruction by earthquakes is a consequence of an aboriginal abuse of free will.)” (Peter Van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil, 90)

The evil and suffering that we see and experience in the world is an extremely high price to pay, but the free-will defence argues that our freedom is worth it, because the reality of love depends upon it. If people weren’t free to withhold love and compassion, then love wouldn’t be love and compassion wouldn’t be compassion, they would simply be the only option available to us – a pre-programmed behaviour that we have no choice but to do.

While a fallen world with all the evil and suffering that we experience makes life incredibly difficult to bear at times, a world without love and compassion would be significantly worse. As one screen writer puts it: “Without love... breath is just a clock ticking.” Ultimately, the reason why God allows evil, is so that love and the good can be freely chosen, as opposed to the mechanics of a clock. As Alvin Plantinga argues, the existence of evil “counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.” (Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil, 30)

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