What about the problem of evil?
Why would a good God create a world like ours, so full of evil and injustice? Many think this is the most important objection to the biblical picture of God. Simply stated, if the Creator of the world is good and all-powerful, why is his creation so often bad? Is it because he doesn’t want to prevent evil? Then he must not be good. Or is it that he cannot prevent evil? Then he must not be all-powerful.
Not just theism
The reality of evil is not just a problem for theists. Non-theists have huge problems here.
Naturalists can’t even explain what evil is, and based on their assumptions, should see nothing wrong with the way our world is. Under naturalism, what is, is right. This is no answer at all. Naturalists must embrace evil as inevitable and really pointless like everything else, including good.
Eastern religion holds that people suffer because they deserve it. This highly implausible view holds that even babies that starve to death deserve their fate because of wrongdoing in a previous life, under the laws of karma. Belief in karma also leads people to ignore suffering in the poorer classes because they deserve what they’re getting.
Animism has no answer for the problem of evil, and in fact doesn’t even acknowledge the problem. In animism and polytheism, the gods are also evil. They lie, kill, and commit adultery. So this complex of religions embraces human evil and suffering. The question why evil exists never comes up. They see world as exactly the way it should be and always will be.
Postmodern thinkers believe that “evil” is culturally constructed, and therefore not real in any objective sense. Each culture has its own evils. At the same time, they press the case that imposing one’s cultural beliefs and values on another is the ultimate wrong-doing.
Against this backdrop, Biblical Christianity stands out as the most satisfying explanation for the ongoing evil in our world.
The biblical view: Free will
The biblical view begins with God building free will into humans. Indeed, morally evil deeds are only possible for free choosing beings. If a kid swats another kid with a stick, we don’t blame the stick. The stick was doing what the kid made it do. Only the free moral agent—the kid—would be guilty of wrongdoing. A free choosing being is a personal being. Beings with high-order consciousness are not subject to natural laws for their decisions. They can be truly free, as we saw earlier.
That means God created the possibility of evil, humans produced the actuality of evil.
Critics argue that God made an immoral decision when he created a world that he knew would result in such trouble. Clearly, God made a decision to create freedom even though he knew it would lead to pain and suffering. That’s a value judgment: freedom was more important than the avoidance of evil. But why should God value freedom so highly?
As already mentioned, personhood requires freedom. There can be no personality where there is no free choice. Suppose you built a robot that could speak and then you programmed it to say “I love you,” when you push a button. You push the button several times when you get home from work, but you feel no pleasure from hearing the statement. That’s because this statement is not the product of a thinking, choosing person. The robot doesn’t love you; it is only repeating what you programmed it to say.
When we say “free choice,” we mean truly free, not some controlled freedom. It is in the nature of free choice that it must be possible to misuse that freedom. Some atheist authors argue that God should have created free choosing people who would always choose to do good. But this is a nonsense statement, just like saying that God should have created a square triangle. Any effort to describe freedom that has only one choice is an exercise in absurdity.
Freedom is part of personhood. So is the larger category of high-order consciousness that comes from having a soul. Without being that non-material soul, humans would be incapable of moral or immoral behavior, just like other animals.
So we see the trade-off between two desirable things: on one hand, personality; and on the other, an evil-free universe. God has rejected the second alternative in favor of beings with personalities like his own. We don’t know all the reasons he may have had for that decision, but he clearly puts a high value on love. Throughout the Bible we see that love is more important than any other value (e.g. John 13:34-35; 15:12-13; 17:22-23; Ephesians 4:1-3; Romans 13:8-9; Colossians 3:14; 1 Peter 1:22; 4:8; 1 John 3:11; 3:16; 3:18; 4:7-8).
Beings with souls can also experience union relationships, where they become joined to another, spiritually. Believers have the joy of becoming one spirit with God (1 Corinthians 6:17). Believers become joined to each other in Christ (Romans 12:4-5). God apparently wanted to have such high level beings, even if it meant some might turn against him.
Why so long?
Maybe God had reasons for risking evil. But why, after people chose evil, didn’t he put an end to the problem and start over? This option seems reasonable enough, but upon more reflection, it turns out to be a simplistic and flawed solution.
First, revolution—the rejection of divine leadership—is based on suspicion of God’s character. In Genesis, for instance, Satan told Eve that the real reason God forbade them to eat certain fruit was that he was unwilling to let humans become like himself (Genesis 3:5). This shows how Satan brings accusations against the character of God, charging that he is not loving and that he is holding out on his creatures.
What would it look like to the citizens of the universe if every time someone revolted, God immediately zapped them out of existence? Then, he could look around at the other creatures and ask, “Are there any other questions?” Wouldn’t that confirm that God is unloving and self-serving? So such a simple solution is not as workable as it seems. It would probably be only a matter of time before another revolt occurred, followed by another purge. This might continue throughout the course of eternity.
God decided to deal with the problem of rebellion once and for all. Instead of immediately terminating the revolution, he let it develop fully. Today, through the futility of human history and through Jesus’ self-sacrificial intervention at the cross, evidence is accumulating that revolting from God is a terrible idea, and that suspicions of God are groundless. God has delayed forceful intervention in our history so that evil can be taken out of the way once and for all, rather than in an endless series of revolts and judgments (Hebrews 9:12, 26, 28; 10:10).
Viewed this way, the value judgment God made must be justified by the larger picture. We don’t know what the full picture is, but we can see how it might explain why God didn’t put an immediate end to evil. According to the Bible, God will eventually put an end to the revolt. This happens when Jesus returns to take over the world again for God. In the meantime, Paul said his job was:
To make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:9-11)
Is it fair?
Why should Adam’s decision still affect us today? Wouldn’t it be fair to let each of us make our own decision?
To answer this, we have to come to grips with the power of free choice. If someone decided to hold you up on the way home and then shot you, that guy’s choice would affect you powerfully. Yes, it’s unfair. But that’s the way freedom works. Anything can happen. What would be the alternative? If God only allowed those choices that don’t adversely affect anyone else, there would be no freedom at all. Free people can choose to be unfair and to harm other people.
The upshot is that we cannot expect fairness in a fallen world. The world would be fair if God were in direct control of it, as he will be when Jesus returns. In the meantime, “The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth,” as it waits the day when “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21-22).
The last word
Critics put the problem of evil this way:
If God was good, he would want to remove evil.
If God was all powerful, he could remove evil.
But evil exists.
Therefore the biblical God does not exist.
Based on the fact that Jesus is coming back and God will take control, it looks this way:
If God was good he would want to defeat evil.
If God was all powerful, he would could defeat evil.
Therefore, God will defeat evil.
As you can see, the difference is the time element. God will get the last word. But he has also let some time pass for key, strategic reasons. We, as humans with limited knowledge, cannot evaluate that decision. We take it on faith that God is good, and he has his reasons for delay.
It’s usually a mistake to attribute illness and death to the wrath of God. Jesus taught that the people killed by the collapse of a tower in his day were no different than anyone else. Why, then, did they die? Because they were standing under the tower when it fell (See Luke 13:1-5).
Jesus resisted the rabbinic theology that attributed illness, poverty, and misfortune to the justice of God. Even though there are times when God may judge people through calamity in this life, this is not the norm. Wicked people often prosper more than the righteous, and innocent babies suffer. The Christian thinker realizes these events are the result of the general fallen status of the world.
God permissively allows cause and effect to carry on, waiting for a time when he will take full control of the situation. In the meantime, he intervenes in life periodically and will intervene even more often when invited to do so by one of us in prayer (James 4:2; 5:16).
The biblical view is much more believable than systems of thought that try to explain everything on the basis of divine action. These other systems try to explain why everything that happens is really fair after all, when it clearly isn’t (and even some Christian theologians make this mistake).
Biblical teaching, on the other hand, agrees with the findings of modern science that natural cause and effect adequately explain most of what we see. At the same time, we differ from scientism in holding that God can, and does, intervene at times.
The mention of secrecy in verse 9 is interesting, but unfortunately the reason for secrecy lies outside the scope of this book. Briefly, God did keep his purpose secret until the last minute, when everyone thought Jesus had failed by being executed on the cross. Suddenly, it came to light that this was the plan all along!
God set up the predictive material about Jesus in such a way that, up to the minute he died, it was hard to say whom these predictions referred to. But one minute after Christ’s death, it was impossible to deny the clear fulfillment! See also Luke 24:44-48; John 12:32-34; 16:25; Romans 16:25; 1 Peter 1:12. See a full explanation in Dennis McCallum, Satan and His Kingdom: What the Bible Says and How It Matters to You, Ch. 4-5.