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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Dealing with the Problem of Evil

Perhaps the greatest objection to belief in the existence of God is the "problem of evil."  There are a number of essential Christian beliefs about God that seem to many to be incompatible with the existence of evil in the world.  Orthodox Christianity teaches that God is good, all-knowing, and all-powerful.  Some would say that it is impossible for a God like this to exist and for there to be evil in the world.  How do they arrive at that conclusion?  Like this:
“If God is good, it is reasonable to believe that he wants to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering.
If God is all-knowing, it is reasonable to believe that he knows how to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering.
If God is all-powerful, it is reasonable to believe to he is able to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering. 
…But evil exists.”[1]
The existence of evil seems incompatible with a God who is good, omniscient, and omnipotent.  If God exists and allows evil, they argue, he cannot be good, omniscient, and omnipotent.  He could have any two of those three attributes and it would make sense that evil exists; but he could not be all three and allow evil to exist.  We could have a God who wants to deliver his creatures from evil and knows how, but who does not have the power to do so.  Or we could have a God who wants to deliver his creatures from evil and has the power, but doesn’t know how.  Or – most concerning – we could have a God who knows how to deliver his creatures from evil and has the power to do so, but who is not good and does not want to deliver them.  Any of those conceptions of God would be compatible with the existence of evil in the world.  But not a God who is good, omniscient, and omnipotent. 
Many have found it natural to simply take the extra step of saying that the existence of evil makes it unlikely that God exists at all. 
This is not just a philosophical and theological conundrum with which professors busy themselves on a theoretical level.  Though many books have been written on a scholarly level, the problem is painfully real where the rubber meets the road.  4-year-olds die of Leukemia.  Innocent people lose their lives in acts of terrorism.  The weak are victimized and abused by bad men.  Tsunamis, earthquakes, car accidents, serial killings, and suicide bombings testify to a world where evil runs rampant.  We have all experienced it in some way.  We have all seen it with our eyes.  It is real.  No one in his right mind denies the existence of evil.
It is much easier to deny that God is good, all-knowing, or all powerful…or that He exists at all. 
So how are we to make sense of this?  Is this an insurmountable problem?  Does the Christian armed with Scripture have a meaningful reply?  Or should we just ignore the dilemma?
I don’t think we can ignore it.  Sooner or later, we will all be confronted by someone struggling with this issue.  And we need to be prepared to answer the question biblically and without fear. 
The first thing we need to consider is whether or not those three attributes of God – goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence – are essential truths of the Christian faith.  Can we afford to sacrifice one of those in order to deal with the problem of evil? 
First, is God good and if so, is that essential?  Certainly the Bible testifies that God is good: “The LORD is good” (Nah 1:7; cf. Ps. 34:8, Ps. 100:5, Ps. 135:3, Ps. 145:9, Jer. 33:11, Lam. 3:25, 1 Pet. 2:3).  This is goodness in a moral sense.  He is the very standard of goodness.  Jesus said in Luke 18:19, “No one is good but God alone.”  The psalmist instructs, “O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good” (Psa 106:1).  The psalmist also connects God’s inherent goodness with the goodness of His deeds: “You are good and you do good; teach me your statutes” (Psa 119:68).  We also know that God is the source of all good things:  Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17).
So clearly, the Bible affirms that God is good, so we must believe it.  But for the sake of argument, let’s consider whether or not His goodness is an essential doctrine of the Christian faith. 
It is not too bold to assert that if God is not good, Christianity cannot exist.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is founded upon the goodness of God.  Consider the role that God’s goodness plays in our salvation according to Titus 3:3-7:  
  3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.
 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,
 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,
 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
If God were not good, He would not have made any effort to save sinners.  We should back up even further and note that without God’s perfect goodness as the standard for human conduct, there would be no way for us to know sin.  Further, if God were not good, there would be no punishment for sin, since the justice of God arises from His moral perfection.  If God were not good, Christ would not be good and would therefore be unable to atone for our sins.  In short, if God is not good, we lose every part of the gospel – there would be no sin, no judgment, no Christ, and no salvation. 
We simply cannot afford to sacrifice the doctrine of the goodness of God in order to deal with the problem of evil.  But what about God’s omniscience and omnipotence?  We’ll address those in our next post in this series.
Until then, I would encourage you to take some time to meditate on Psalm 16, in which the psalmist writes, I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” 

[1]Ronald Nash, Faith & Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988) p178.
 Posted by Greg Birdwell

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