Why Is There Evil and Suffering?
This is part 1 to a 7 part series: Questions About God – Canadian philosopher Michael Horner responds to seven of the most commonly asked questions about God and Christianity.
Question 1: Why is there evil and suffering?
There is no question that the world is filled with an appalling amount of evil and suffering. We are impacted by this reality every day on all levels: emotional, intellectual and practical. As such, it is not surprising that people have a difficult time reconciling this harsh reality with the idea of an all good, all powerful God.
According to Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli’s Handbook of Christian Apologetics, the problem can be summed up by the apparent contradiction between the following four propositions:
- God exists
- God is all good
- God is all powerful
- Evil exists (Kreeft and Tacelli 1994: 129).
If we affirm any three of these propositions, it seems we must reject the fourth. For example, if we accept that God exists, is all good and that evil exists, we must reject the idea that God is all powerful, otherwise he would put a stop to evil. Or, if God exists and is all powerful and yet evil also exists, then God must not be all good, because he wills or allows evil to exist.
Kreeft and Tacelli suggest five possible responses to this problem.
- Atheism solves the problem by denying proposition one, that God exists.
- Pantheism, the belief that God is everything and that everything is God, denies proposition two and allows that God could be both good and evil.
- Polytheism, the belief in many gods, denies proposition three, and reduces God to just one of many gods.
- Idealism, the belief that reality is a product of the mind, rejects proposition four and states that evil is just an illusion.
- Christianity, on the other hand, affirms all four principles and denies that there is any inherent contradiction between them.
How is the Christian solution possible? Because it is always feasible that God could have a good reason for permitting evil; a reason of which we are not aware. And as long as this is logically possible, there is no contradiction between the existence of an all good, all powerful God and the existence of evil. Just because we may not be able to figure out what that reason is does not mean it does not exist.
However, God has not left us completely in the dark. This world is clearly not the best of all logically possible worlds, but it is the best world God could create given his commitment to create genuinely free creatures like us. Free creatures are the only beings who can love and experience love. Since one of God’s main purposes in creating us was to have a reciprocal love relationship with us, God created the best of all actually achievable worlds. God cannot make people freely choose to good or freely love him. If he makes them do it, they are not free. If they are genuinely free, then he can’t make them do it. That would be a contradiction. Therefore, the possibility of free creatures choosing evil is not something God can control without eliminating free will. And a free will is not just a nice addendum on human nature, it is an integral part of who we are. This being the case, if God were to eliminate evil, he would also be eliminating free will. And in doing so, God would be perpetrating the most horrendous evil of all: the annihilation of the human race.
Natural disasters are ultimately also the result of the entrance of evil into the world through human free will. This does not mean that we can see a direct cause and effect connection between a particular natural calamity and a particular human choice (Although that is not as far-fetched as it might seem at first. After all, we of all generations can see the effect on the environment from human behavior with destruction of the ozone and rainforests, pollution of water and other parts of the environment.) The Christian scriptures tell us that all of nature was affected by the initial entrance of evil into the cosmos via the first humans’ free choice. We may not understand how this has occurred, but if it is true, then it means that even natural disasters could be theoretically traced back to human moral evil. In this case as well then, it is possible that God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing each instance of evil that he allows, whether it be moral evil or natural evil.
Moreover, God has done something about the problem of evil and suffering.
For most people the problem of evil is not an intellectual problem, but an emotional one. They want to know why God allows evil and suffering. When they can’t get a satisfactory answer, they become angry. They don’t like a God who would permit them or others to suffer. This is not an atheism of refutation, but of rejection. A child who is hurting needs reassurance, not an intellectual explanation. Atheism cannot supply this reassurance. It does not reduce suffering one bit — it just removes hope. In an atheistic universe, there is no ultimate accountability or justice. Evil people will get away with what they’ve done. But in the Christian world view, God has done something about evil in the person of Jesus Christ. He does not just say, “Okay, I created you. Now prepare to suffer!” He has given us a clue, a deposit, a down payment that he does have good reasons for allowing evil and that he does have a greater good in store. By appearing in human form, he showed us that we could trust him. And what did he do while he was here? He suffered!
Jesus endured a suffering beyond all comprehension. He bore the punishment for the sins of the entire world! For all the evil that everyone of us from the beginning of our species has perpetrated, he paid the penalty. None of us can comprehend that suffering. Though he was innocent, He voluntarily took upon himself the punishment we deserve. And why? Because he loves us. It is like he was saying, “I know you don’t understand why I permit every evil. It’s not possible for you to understand yet. But just to show you that you can trust me, I’m going to suffer with you.”
When we comprehend his sacrifice and love for us, it puts the problem of evil in an entirely different perspective. We see clearly that the true problem of evil is the problem of our evil. Filled with sin and guilt before God, the question we face is not how God can justify himself to us, but how we can be justified before him. And it is through Christ’s payment for our evil by his death on the cross that we can be justified before God. Through him we have forgiveness.
Many Christians will also testify that Christ provides inner resources to cope in the midst of difficulty and suffering. He promises that he causes all things to work together for good to those who love God (Romans 8:28).
Ultimately, he promises victory over death, the ultimate evil. Those who genuinely choose to accept and receive his forgiveness will rise from the dead with a transformed, immortal, imperishable body to be with him forever (1 Corinthians 15:42, 52). Death, pain and suffering have been dealt a fatal blow; they have suffered a crucial defeat.
So paradoxically, God is not banished because of the problem of evil, rather God himself is the solution.