I have taken a prompt from the explore God discussion series going on simultaneously in over 800 churches in the Chicago area to write up a summary of the problem of evil. More specifically, I was spurred on by the discussion of The Problem of Evil and Suffering on Veracity Hill between Kurt Jaros, the host, and John Peckham from Andrews University.
I think this is the most difficult problem to deal with in the modern western world for the theist, and specifically the Christian who maintains, as Scripture reveals, that God is both all-powerful and all-good.
- If God is all-powerful, why did He create a world in which evil, pain and suffering exist?
- Does that mean He really isn’t all-powerful?
- Or maybe God isn’t good?
- Or maybe the God of the Bible doesn’t really exist?
Many people who can’t resolve this problem in their minds (or maybe their hearts) end up rejecting the idea of God altogether.
I began the discussion in an introductory blog, and I laid some groundwork to address the problem in Another Look at God in Light of the Evil in the World (Part 1). I can’t rehash it all here, other than to emphasize that we should not be lazy in our approach to the challenge. As with science, we need to work through, if indeed there is a resolution to be had.
If there is a resolution the problem, we can’t do it justice by abandoning the premises we are given. We need to work through it.
For the Christian, those premises don’t just include the omnipotence and omni-benevolence of God. We need to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. I have come to believe that, if we hold on to and expand the premises we are given, and fill out the picture, some clarity begins to emerge.
One of the additional puzzle pieces is that God isn’t just good; God is love. In fact, God is love in His very nature.
Some people have trouble with the idea of the Trinity, three in one. We can understand God’s triunal (communal) nature in the context of love. As three in Person and one in Being, God’s very character is love from before time even began. (See The Plurality of God) God has community and relationship (love) within Himself.
And, Scripture says that He made us in His image. If we are made in His image, we are made to reflect His love. This is another of the puzzle pieces.
Love requires freedom. Coercion has no place in a loving relationship. Thus, for us to know love and to love God, we need to be free, and that includes freedom to reject God and what is good.
The Christian, who accepts the premise that God is good, rejects the idea that God is evil or caused evil to exist. Evil is not in the nature of God because God is who He is. Evil, then, must be a byproduct of the freedom God gave His creation. Evil is the rejection of God and what is good.
Pain and suffering aren’t, per se, evil, though evil produces pain and suffering. God created a world in which pain and suffering exist from the beginning. (see Part 1).
Finally, we find that God’s grand plan and purpose is that His creation would enter into a loving relationship with Him, not because it must, but because His created beings want to.
These are the basic puzzle pieces. (If you want to examine these premises more closely, you will have to read the previous posts and do some research of your own.) From here, we will go back to the premise of God’s power (sovereignty) and examine more fully how it can be that an all-powerful God (who is also good) can allow evil to exist.
We read throughout Scripture that God desires all men to be saved and desires that none would perish. (See, for example, John 3:16) That is His desire, but desire and sovereignty aren’t the same things.
We read in a number places that God doesn’t always get what He wants in every circumstance. At one point in his ministry, Jesus wept as he approached Jerusalem, and he said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41-44) Jesus wept because he didn’t desire that Jerusalem would reject him.
In what is perhaps the most ubiquitous statement in all of the New Testament, we read that God so loved the world that He gave his only Son so that whoever believes in would not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16) This is His desire! Paul says it more directly in 1 Timothy 2:4 (God desires all to be saved).
Yet, we know that not all people will be saved. Jesus, himself, said, “the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those that find it.” (Matthew 7:13)
So the Bible is clear that God doesn’t always get what He desires, yet the Bible is equally clear that God is still sovereign (all-powerful). How so?
It has to do with love and God’s purpose. Our ability to reject God is the necessary corollary of beings created in His image with free will and the capacity to love. The capacity to love requires the possibility of rejection.
To create a world in which love is possible, God has to build in the possibility of love’s opposite as part and parcel of the requirements for love. God has built in the capability of His created beings to reject Him in order to accomplish His ultimate purpose, which is to encourage, establish and foster a reciprocal, loving relationship.
In that sense, we might say that God has adopted self-restraint (a limitation on His power) in order to accomplish His ultimate purpose. If He exercised His power to prevent any evil from existing in the world, He would have to override our freedom to choose Him, and that would negate love.
We must be able to reject Him for us to know, experience and reflect God’s love. But this means the distinct possibility, perhaps even the probability, that some (many in fact) would reject Him.
The issue isn’t God’s power, but something else. And this is where we get into some really interesting stuff.
Another premise the Bible introduces is the idea of a cosmic conflict between God and creatures who have rebelled against God. This, again, is the result of beings created with free will, not just people, but celestial beings as well. It’s a cosmic drama. The Devil is the chief opponent to God, and he is a slanderer.
From the very beginning of mankind in the Garden of Eden, the Devil is questioning God’s character. Did God really say you shouldn’t eat the fruit? Look, it’s good to eat! You’re not really going to die. The real reason God doesn’t want you to eat that fruit is that He knows your eyes will be opened; He knows then you will know good from evil; and He knows then you will be like Him! He doesn’t want you to be like Him! (Genesis 3:1-5)
Think about it: God made us in His image. He made us like Him!
The issue isn’t whether we should dare to be like God. The issue is whether we trust God’s character and choose to love Him or reject Him. And God set the stage in the world He created for us to be able to reject Him. The conflict that exists is the outgrowth of the parameters that God set on the world to allow beings that He created to be free – to be able to love.
In one sense, the allowance of the cosmic conflict is another example of a self-limitation on God’s power, but that isn’t the whole story. The conflict isn’t about power; it’s about about character.
If the conflict was about power, it would be game over! An all-powerful God wins every time in a contest of power.
John Peckham makes the point on the Veracity Hill podcast that the drama doesn’t play out as if on a battlefield, but as if in a courtroom. At the center of the courtroom drama, this conflict of character, is love.
God’s character, which is love, is on trial. Peckham calls this view a “theodicy of love”. (Theodicy being the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.)
Unlike a conflict of power against which the divine response would be an exhibition of God’s greater power, a conflict of character can’t be addressed by a show of power. God addresses the cosmic allegations by a demonstration of evidence – a demonstration of His character, a demonstration of His love.
The ultimate demonstration of the character of God, of course, is His voluntary death on the cross for us.
But first, let’s explore the evidence of this cosmic drama. We will do that in the next installment of this series of blog posts, Another Look at God in Light of the Evil in the World (Part 3).