In the past few weeks we have been looking at the problem of evil, which refers to a common objection to belief in God. To some, there seems to be a logical contradiction between the existence of a good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God and the existence of evil. If God is good and knows how to prevent evil and has the power to prevent evil, why does evil exist? For some, the existence of evil represents an impassible barrier to belief in God.
The simplest way to deal with this objection is to show that the problem actually does not exist. Last time, we noted that the Bible does not recognize the existence of God and evil as a problem. Scripture teaches that God is real and that He is good, omnipotent, and omniscient. It also teaches that evil exists and that God is not responsible for it. As far as the Holy Spirit-inspired biblical authors were concerned, there is no contradiction.
We can also show that the problem of evil does not exist based on the logical premises in the classical statement of the problem. The classical problem can be stripped down to the following premises:
1. God exists.
2. God is omnipotent.
3. God is omniscient.
4. God is omnibenevolent.
5. Evil exists.
Many believe that all five of these cannot be true, that they hold an irreconcilable contradiction. Alvin Plantinga, a reformed Christian philosopher and apologist, asks the question, “Where is the alleged contradiction?” A true contradiction is a set of claims that a proposition is both true and false at the same time and in the same sense. For example, “It is true that my office is painted blue and it is false that my office is painted blue.” That is a true contradiction. None of the propositions above contradict any others.
In fact, the only way that a problem can be created is if we make inferences from the above propositions. For example, those who want to discredit belief in God by using the problem of evil usually make the following inferences:
1. If God is all-powerful, He is able to prevent evil.
2. If God is all-knowing, He knows both how and when to prevent evil.
3. If God is loving and good, He wants to prevent evil.
Then a fourth inference is made:
4. An all-powerful, all knowing, and good God will always choose to prevent all evil.
These inferences may sound reasonable, but they do not all necessarily follow from the original premises. There are serious problems with inferences 3 and 4. Those in the reformed tradition would contest both of them. It is true that our good, omniscient, and omnipotent God wants to prevent evil much of the time and does prevent evil much of the time, but the Bible clearly teaches that there are times when God’s higher goal of bringing glory to Himself entails allowing evil. In other words, there are times when God pursues a greater good than the good that would have become of His preventing an evil act.
A great biblical example is the story of Joseph being sold into slavery in the book of Genesis. In ch37, Joseph’s brothers threw him into a pit and sold him as a slave to a caravan of Ishmaelites, who then sold him to Potiphar in Egypt. This was undoubtedly an evil act, and we know that Joseph’s brothers knew that it was evil because they covered up their crime, and they were fearful when Joseph confronted them in ch45.
But Joseph himself gives the God’s-eye-view interpretation of these events. Having ascended from a lowly slave to the second in command over all Egypt, Joseph says to his brothers, “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen 45:5-8 ESV).
God’s intent in allowing Joseph to be sold into slavery was to preserve the family of Israel from the coming famine, and therefore to keep His promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. This played a significant role in salvation history by placing all of Israel’s descendants in Egypt, so that they could be enslaved there, so that they could be saved from Egypt in the exodus, which setup the rest of Old Testament history and provided a picture of the redemption that God would one day accomplish through Christ in bringing us out of death into life.
Clearly, this shows that God does use the evil of men to bring about His own good purposes, both the salvation of His people and the glorification of Himself. It simply does not follow that if God is good and all-powerful and all-knowing, it will always be His greatest desire and plan to prevent all evil.
For the problem of evil to be successful, inferences must be made from the premises of the problem. But as we can see, those inferences are untenable. No atheistic philosopher has ever been able to demonstrate a true contradiction in the problem of evil.
Though many atheists have considered the problem of evil to be the silver bullet that destroys theism, they don’t seem to realize that the existence of evil is a far bigger problem for those who don’t believe in God. We’ll look at that next time.
Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974).
Posted by Greg Birdwell