Ministry Training Paper: The Problem Of Evil and Suffering
Adapted from the School of Christian Ministry.
29th March 2011
Return to the articles index.
One of the most common objections to Christianity is the problem of evil. It can come as a cry from the heart, when somebody in agony, calls out “where is God?” It can come from a philosophical discussion about the existence of God. It can come from the fool who says in his heart “there is no God”.
Classically and logically the problem can be set out in the following statements:
God is omnipotent;
God is benevolent;
So if evil exists God must either not be benevolent or not omnipotent; but as God is both these things and evil does exist then God cannot exist.
Before answering this question it is important to discern the source of the inquiry. If the motivation of the inquiry is some suffering that a person or their family has endured recently, then a logical and argumentative answer will not be helpful. If on the other hand, this is the fool disparaging God, then compassionate and gently answering which does not take account of the logic of the argument, will only feed the fool’s folly.
Three types of answers
1 For those who suffer
For those who sufferthe evils of this world it is important to answer with the sympathy and kindness of God. Not that we necessarily will try and teach God’s sympathy and kindness but will demonstrate it in our listening and care. Often the content of their angered outburst does not require an answer. Usually we need only to cry with those who cry, to accept the world as fallen and to acknowledge the rottenness of what has happened to them. We may care to point to the death of Jesus as an illustration of God’s understanding of suffering. We will need to reassure them of God’s sovereignty and His love, for their suffering can hold that in question. However, the reassurance may not be by argument or discussion as much as by acts of kindness and care.
2 For those with intellectual difficulty
For those with intellectual difficultywe need to give a more reasoned argument about the problem of suffering. For some, this can be a red herring to avoid the issue of God though they fall into the third category that will be dealt with in a few moments. For others there is a genuine intellectual problem here. It is a problem only for those who accept the existence of God. For what makes evil or suffering evil, is that there is such a thing as good and evil. In a godless, meaningless world there is no such thing as good or evil. Therefore there is no problem of evil for the atheist. It is only the believer in a god who gives moral values to his creation that there can be a problem of evil. That people feel acutely the problem of evil is an indication that they have accepted our presuppositions that there is a god. However, they have not accepted the whole teaching of the Scriptures about this god but rather have a watered down sentimentalist - the liberal god - who is totally benevolent and would never harm a flea. They do not have a truly omnipotent god who is able to overrule good and evil but a god whose ability is limited by the evil of the world.
When we look at the world with the value system of the Scriptures in mind, we see it as a morally ambiguous place. There are signs of love and truth, beauty and provision as well as sickness, destruction, death and hatred. Some of these things are the direct result of man while others seem to be random and irrational. From this world it could be concluded that there is a good god who has lost control or that there is a bad god who is not fully in control. The benevolent god would have the problem of evil and the malevolent god the problem of good.
The simple syllogism of omnipotent, benevolent god and evil existing will not do as an account of the Bible’s teaching. It is not a simple but an simplistic expression of the God of the Bible. God has not created this world as his ultimate expression of goodness, but rather has promised to destroy this world and with it the death and disease that reflect his judgement. This is the world of man’s sin and God’s wrath. Man has requested God to leave him alone, to leave him to rule the world by himself. This has created a universe which is built on a lie and is fundamentally irrational and evil. God has respected man’s wishes and withdrawn himself in anger. The consequences of God’s withdrawal are man’s continued immorality and evil, as well as a world gone amuck, frustrated to bondage and decay. God has not totally withdrawn from this world as the universe still reveals his existence, power and goodness and as he sets about to redeem his people. Thus God has revealed himself in creation, in the people of Israel and lastly in his Son, and people can turn back and submit to his rule in their lives.
God’s ultimate plan involves the destruction of this world and its evil in order to create a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness will dwell. Thus this world is not an expression of God’s ultimate plans and purposes, and it is erroneous to assume that we will be able to draw the conclusions of his omnipotence and benevolence from what we see here.
3 For those who scoff
For those people who wish to scoff at God’s existence the answer can be made both rudely and evangelistically. To answer rudely, one only needs to enquire whether these people would want God to put the world right. If they do then we call upon them to see that God being God would have to put the whole world completely right. It would not do for God to fix up the mess in Iraq and leave the mess in Libya. Thus God must fix up the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere. Thus God must fix up every part of the Southern Hemisphere including Australia and Sydney and the people in the room where we are at the moment. That is, if you want God to clean up the mess the world is in, there is no reason why he shouldn’t start with you. Rest assured God will come and clean up the mess but before you start demanding it, it would be wise to make sure that you are right with God and not part of the mess!
Evangelistically it may be good to accept the truth that the world is evil which reflects that the world is a moral place. The question then is: What is God going to do about a world that is evil? The answer lies in the person of Jesus who came into the world to destroy the works of the devil and to overcome him who has the power of death - that is, the devil. Thus rather than this being a problem to Christianity it is the introduction to what the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus is all about. It will then bring in the coming judgement when God will clean up the mess the world is in starting with you.
1 Is this the best of all possible worlds?
2 Why didn’t God create the world good and perfect from the beginning?
3 What evidence have I got that God is good or loving?
4 What should a consistent atheist say to the suffering of mankind?