The problem of evil could be the most difficult and thorny issue in all of theology and philosophy. How can we explain the existence of evil without saying that God is to blame for evil, or that God is unable to do anything about it, or that God cannot predict the future?
I want to start by pointing out that the problem of evil is a problem for everyone, not just Christians. No matter what your worldview is, you will find it difficult or impossible to explain the existence of evil. Worldviews, like Christianity, that claim that there is an all-powerful (or even only very powerful) force of good have problems explaining why such a force would create evil or allow evil to exist. Worldviews, like some eastern worldviews, that see good and evil as equal and opposite forces have a hard time explaining why we consider one to be good and the other evil. And worldviews, like scientific materialism, that claim there are no supernatural forces at work in the universe have difficulty explaining why people even think in terms of good and evil.
I also want to point out that pretty much every quick and easy solution that is passed around in Christian circles is insufficient. What are some common Christian “pat answers”?
- God doesn’t cause evil; he just allows it. This idea does not really help anything. Since God is all-knowing and all-powerful, the difference between allowing and causing is a very fine line. Furthermore, it introduces another ethical quandary. How can a good God stand by and allow evil to happen when he has the power to stop it? It’s like a doctor who stands by and watches someone die.
- God doesn’t want there to be evil, but people (and fallen angels?) cause evil by the choices they make with their free will. Again, this idea doesn’t really help anything. Did God not know what people were going to choose before he created them? Did he not know the horrors of the Holocaust before he created the world? Is God a slave who exists only to serve the free will of his creations? Would we accept this excuse from a police man? “I could have stopped the robbery, but I did not want to interfere with the robber’s right to choose…”
It’s not just that Christian “pat answers” are unhelpful, but also that they generally do not account for all of the biblical evidence. For instance, passages like Exodus 4:21; Proverbs 21:2; Romans 9:17-18 show that God is willing to interfere with the choices of man, so God is not as anxious to preserve the freedom of man’s will as we are led to believe. Furthermore, other passages (Genesis 50:20; Acts 2:23) show that God can in some way be considered to be “behind” the evil actions of others, so saying that God only allows evil is not biblically accurate either.
The main issue is that the problem of where evil comes from is not a question that the Bible seeks to answer. Clearly the serpent in Genesis 3 is already evil, so evil begins some time before the Fall. Apparently the serpent is Satan, so Satan appears to have fallen before human beings fall. Certainly God did not create Satan evil, so how did Satan become wicked? It must have been through some choice of his own. Where did he come up with the idea? The Bible never says. Perhaps this is when we must resort to the idea (I believe it was popularized by C. S. Lewis) that evil does not exist on its own, but rather is only a perversion of the good. So Satan must have taken something good and twisted it. We don’t know why he made that choice, and we don’t know how he was able to make it.
So it still seems hard for God to avoid blame. Why would God make Satan able to be evil? Why would he make Satan knowing that Satan would turn evil? And then why would he make human beings, knowing that Satan would turn them evil as well?
I really only have two points to make as steps toward a solution to the problem of evil.
- According to Romans 9, God can be sovereign over the evil choices of human beings and yet not be the one to blame for their evil choices. Romans 9 uses Pharaoh as an example of how God hardened someone’s heart in order that Pharaoh would do something wrong (9:17-18). Paul raises the question of how God could blame Pharaoh for the wrong choices if God is the one who hardened his heart (9:19). Paul never really answers that question. Paul just says that we do not have the right to question God (9:20), and God has the right to do with people whatever he wishes (9:21). Romans 9 teaches that God is sovereign even in people’s bad choices; God can have an ultimate purpose in those bad choices; and human beings still make independent enough choices that they are the ones to blame, not God. Romans 9 does not try to explain how all of this could be possible.
- There are multiple examples of how God sovereignty over evil is compatible with God’s goodness. One of the most famous is the story of Joseph, in which Joseph’s brothers sell Joseph into slavery. Joseph says that they meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. (Genesis 50:20). Somehow what was an evil action for Joseph’s brothers was a good thing for God. The greatest example of this is the crucifixion (Acts 2:23). It is the worst sin ever committed by human beings, and yet it is the most loving and good thing that God ever accomplished. What was evil for people, was good for God.
These two points can be applied to the origin and existence of evil itself. Somehow God can be sovereign over evil without being blamed for it, and somehow God can do something good through the existence of evil itself. How else would God be able to display his fearsome justice and his rich mercy (Romans 9:22-23)?
These two points do not really solve the problem of evil. They just frame the question properly. They let us see what we can and cannot understand about God and evil.