Questions about Evil
Sooner or later I must face the question in plain language. What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, “good”? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite? What have we to set against it?
We set Christ against it. But how if He were mistaken? Almost His last words have a perfectly clear meaning. He had found that the Being He called Father was horribly and infinitely different from what He had supposed. The trap, so long and carefully prepared and so subtly baited, was at last sprung, on the cross. The vile practical joke had succeeded.… Step-by-step we were “led up the garden path.” Time after time, when He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture.1
Those words did not come from an atheist or a skeptic attempting to shake anyone’s faith in God. They came from one of the great defenders of Christianity, C.S. Lewis. He wrote them while he was still grieving over the loss of his wife to cancer. Such a response points out the fact that sooner or later each of us must deal with the problem of pain—that is, the problem of evil.
If God did not claim to be good, then the problem would be simple; but He does. If He were not all-powerful, as the finite godists say, there would not be a problem. If evil were not real, we could escape the problem. But such is not the case. The problem is very real—especially to those in pain—and even if we can’t give an answer for each individual situation, we can find some general principles about evil. We can at least show that the idea of a good and powerful God is not irreconcilable to the existence of evil.
WHAT IS EVIL?
What is the nature of evil? We talk about evil acts (murder), evil people (Charles Manson), evil books (pornography), evil events (tornadoes), evil sicknesses (cancer or blindness), but what makes all of these things evil? What is evil when we look at it by itself? Some have said that evil is a substance that grabs hold of certain things and makes them bad (like a virus infecting an animal) or that evil is a rival force in the universe (like the dark side of Luke Skywalker’s Force). But if God made all things, then that makes God responsible for evil. The argument looks like this:
- God is the author of everything.
- Evil is something.
- Therefore, God is the author of evil.
Augustine vs. Manichaeus
Manichaeus was a third-century dualist who claimed that the world was made of uncreated matter which was, in itself, evil. Hence, all physical existence was evil; only spiritual things could be good. Augustine wrote a great deal to show that all that God created was good, but evil was not a substance.
“What is evil? Perhaps you will reply, Corruption. Undeniably this is a general definition of evil; for corruption implies opposition to nature; and also hurt. But corruption exists not by itself, but in some substance which it corrupts; for corruption itself is not a substance. So the thing which it corrupts is not corruption, is not evil; for what is corrupted suffers loss of integrity and purity. So that which has no purity to lose cannot be corrupted; and what has, is necessarily good by the participation of purity. Again, what is corrupted is perverted; and what is perverted suffers loss of order; and order is good. To be corrupted, then does not imply the absence of good; for in corruption it can be deprived of good, which could not be if there was the absence of good.” [On the Morals of the Manichaens, 5.7.]
The first premise is true. So it appears that in order to deny the conclusion we have to deny the reality of evil (as the pantheists do). But we can deny that evil is a thing, or substance, without saying that it isn’t real. It is a lack in things. When good that should be there is missing from something, that is evil. After all, if I am missing a wart on my nose, that is not evil because the wart should not have been there in the first place. However, if a man lacks the ability to see, that is evil. Likewise, if a person lacks the kindness in his heart and respect for human life that should be there, then he may commit murder. Evil is, in reality, a parasite that cannot exist except as a hole in something that should be solid.
In some cases, though, evil is more easily explained as a case of bad relationships. If I pick up a good gun, put in a good bullet, point it at my good head, put my good finger on the good trigger and give it a good pull … a bad relationship results. The things involved are not evil in themselves, but the relationship between the good things is definitely lacking something. In this case, the lack comes about because the things are not being used as they ought to be. Guns should not be used for indiscriminate killing, but are fine for recreation. My head was not meant to be used for target practice. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with strong winds moving in a circle, but a bad relationship arises when the funnel of wind goes through a mobile home park. Bad relationships are bad because the relationship is lacking something, so our definition of evil still holds. Evil is a lack of something that should be there in the relationship between good things.
WHERE DID EVIL COME FROM?
In the beginning, there was God and He was perfect. Then the perfect God made a perfect world. So how did evil come into the picture? Let’s summarize the problem this way:
- Every creature God made is perfect.
- But perfect creatures cannot do what is imperfect.
- So, every creature God made cannot do what is imperfect.
But if Adam and Eve were perfect, how did they fall? Don’t blame it on the snake because that just backs the question up one step; didn’t God make the snake perfect too? Some have concluded that there must be some force that is equal with God or beyond His control. Or maybe God just isn’t good after all. But maybe the answer lies in the idea of perfection itself.
- God made everything perfect.
- One of the perfect things God made was free creatures.
- Free will is the cause of evil.
- So, imperfection (evil) can arise from perfection (not directly, but indirectly through freedom).
One of the things that makes men (and angels) morally perfect is freedom. We have a real choice about what we do. God made us that way so that we could be like Him and could love freely (forced love is not love at all, is it?). But in making us that way, He also allowed for the possibility of evil. To be free we had to have not only the opportunity to choose good, but also the ability to choose evil. That was the risk God knowingly took. That doesn’t make Him responsible for evil. He created the fact of freedom; we perform the acts of freedom. He made evil possible; men made evil actual. Imperfection came through the abuse of our moral perfection as free creatures.
TWO KINDS OF DEPRAVITY
In intention or will.
Lack of being or powers.
Lack of good purpose.
Affects what it is.
Affects what one does.
Leads to nonexistence.
Leads to wicked acts.
Totally depraved car is a rust spot on the road.
Totally depraved person is one who has no intention to do good.
Defining Free Will
There are several points on which there is confusion about what is meant by free will. Some have said that it refers to the ability to desire. But a better definition is that it is the ability to decide between alternatives. Desire is a passion, an emotion; but will is a choice between two or more desires. Also, some think that to be free means that there can be no limitation of alternatives—one must be able to do whatever he wants. But the opposite of freedom is not fewer alternatives, it is being forced to choose one thing and not another. Freedom is not in unlimited options, but in unfettered choice between whatever options there are. As long as the choosing comes from the individual rather than an outside force, the decision is made freely. Free will means the ability to make an unforced decision between two or more alternatives.
As for the snake, the same answer applies. God made Satan the most beautiful of all creatures with the perfection of free will. Satan rebelled against God, and that became the first sin and the pattern for all sin that followed. Some people ask, “What made Satan sin?” That is like asking what caused the first cause; nothing outside his own free will caused him to sin. He was the first cause of his sin and you can’t go back any farther than that. When we sin, ultimately we (by our wills) are the cause of the evil we do.
WHY CAN’T EVIL BE STOPPED?
The classic form of this argument has been rattling through the halls of college campuses for hundreds of years.
- If God is all-good, He would destroy evil.
- If God is all-powerful, He could destroy evil.
- But evil is not destroyed.
- Hence, there is no such God.
Why hasn’t God done something about evil? If He could and would do something, why do we still have evil? Why is it so persistent? And it doesn’t even seem to be slowing down!
There are two answers for this question. First, evil cannot be destroyed without destroying freedom. As we said before, free beings are the cause of evil, and freedom was given to us so that we could love. Love is the greatest good for all free creatures (Matt. 22:36–37), but love is impossible without freedom. So if freedom were destroyed, which is the only way to end evil, that would be evil in itself, because it would deprive free creatures of their greatest good. Hence, to destroy evil would actually be evil. If evil is to be overcome, we need to talk about it being defeated, not destroyed.
The argument against God from evil makes some arrogant assumptions. Just because evil is not destroyed right now does not mean that it never will be. The argument implies that if God hasn’t done anything as of today, then it won’t ever happen. But this assumes that the person making the argument has some inside information about the future. If we restate the argument to correct this oversight in temporal perspective, it turns out to be an argument that vindicates God.
Pierre Bayle (1647–1706) was one of the most influential skeptics of the seventeenth century. His writings, and particularly his Dictionary which states this argument, had a profound effect on the later Enlightenment writers Hume, Voltaire, Berkeley, and Diderot. In it he attempted to confront every mistake ever made by philosophers, and in doing so, provided grounds for doubting virtually everything. He wished to show that all human reasoning is “big with contradiction and absurdity.” In another series of articles he shows that Christians cannot refute the Manichaen doctrine of two gods, one good and one evil. However, Bayle claimed to be a Christian and a defender of Calvinism. In one of his last messages, he wrote, “I am dying as a Christian philosopher, convinced of and pierced by the bounties and mercies of God, and I wish you a perfect happiness.” It is unclear how he reconciled these beliefs.
- If God is all-good, He will defeat evil.
- If God is all-powerful, He can defeat evil.
- Evil is not yet defeated.
- Therefore, God can and will one day defeat evil.
The very argument used against the existence of God turns out to be a vindication of God in the face of the problem of evil. There is no question here that if it has not yet happened and God is as we suppose Him to be, that we simply haven’t waited long enough. God isn’t finished yet. The final chapter has not been written. Apparently God would rather wrestle with our rebellious wills than to reign supreme over rocks and trees. Those who want a quicker resolution to the conflict will have to wait.
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF EVIL?
The question that roars in the minds of those who suffer is, “WHY?” “Why did I lose my leg?” “Why did our church burn down?” “Why did my little girl have to die?” “WHY?” Unfortunately, we can’t always give an answer that satisfies the souls of those who hurt and makes sense of their pain. But to those who use this as a reason to deny God’s existence or goodness, we can give an answer. Their argument is this:
- There is no good purpose for much suffering.
- An all-good God must have a good purpose for everything.
- So, there cannot be an all-good God.
We can deal with this problem in two ways. First, we need to make a distinction. There is a difference between our knowing the purpose for evil and God having a purpose for it. Even if we don’t know God’s purpose, He may still have a good reason for allowing evil in our lives. So we can’t assume that there is no good purpose for something just because we don’t know what it could be.
Furthermore, we do know some of God’s purposes for evil. For instance, we know that God sometimes uses evil to warn us of greater evils. Anyone who has raised a child has gone through the months of fearing that the baby would touch a hot stove for the first time. We hate the thought of it, but we know that once she does it, she won’t do it again. She will instantly have an existential awareness of the meaning of the word “hot” and will obey our warning readily when we use it. That first small pain is allowed to avoid the danger of bigger ones later.
Pain also keeps us from self-destruction. Do you know why lepers lose their fingers, toes, and noses? Usually, it has nothing directly to do with the leprosy itself. Rather, the disease causes them to lose feeling in their extremities, and they literally destroy themselves. They can’t feel the pain when they touch a hot pan, so they hang on to it until it burns them. Without feeling things that they are about to bump into, they hit them full force without slowing down. Without the sensation of pain, they do tremendous damage to themselves and don’t even realize it.
The Gift of Pain
Dr. Paul Brand, a leading researcher and therapist of Hansen’s disease, expressed significant insights on the problem of pain. Having just examined three patients, Lou—who may lose his thumb to infection from playing the autoharp, Hector—who can’t feel the damage he is doing to his hand while mopping, and Jose—who is unwilling to wear special shoes to prevent the loss of the nubs that were once his feet, Dr. Brand says this:
Pain—it’s often seen as the great inhibitor which ropes off certain activities. But I see it as the great giver of freedom. Look at these men. Lou: we’re desperately searching for a way to give him simple freedom to play an autoharp. Hector: he can’t even mop a floor without harming himself. Jose: too proud for proper treatment, he’s given a makeshift shoe which may keep him from losing even more of his feet. He can’t dress nicely and walk normally: for that, he would need the gift of pain. [From Where Is God When It Hurts? by Philip Yancey (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), p. 37 ]
While it may seem like a high price to pay, some evil helps to bring about greater good. The Bible gives several examples of this in men like Joseph, Job, and Samson. Each went through real suffering. How would the nation of Israel have survived the famine and had a refuge in which to grow if Joseph had not been sold into slavery by his brothers and imprisoned unjustly? Would Job have been able to make his marked spiritual growth had he not suffered first? (Job 23:10) What kind of leader would the Apostle Paul have been if he had not been humbled after his exalted revelations of God? (2 Cor. 12) Joseph summarized the matter when he told his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
Finally, permitting some evil actually helps defeat evil. One of the first steps in some of the substance abuse rehabilitation programs (alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, cocaine) is to give the patient all that he can stand of the substance until he gets sick of it. It’s easier to quit once you’ve had a bad experience. Projects like the “Scared Straight” program at Rahway Prison have stopped many young people from following a life of crime, but the convicts who tell them about prison life have both caused suffering and are suffering. And then there is the ultimate example: the Cross. It seems that there an infinite injustice was wrought on an innocent Man so that good might come to all. The evil that He endured as our substitute allows us free access to God without fear, because our guilt and punishment have been taken away.
On the Cross
Why would God allow His own Son to suffer and die a cruel and violent death as a criminal when He had done nothing wrong and, by nature, had no need to die? This injustice is very hard to explain unless there is some greater good accomplished by Christ’s death which overshadows the evil of it. Jesus’ own explanation was that He had come “to give His life [as] a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) and saying, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for [on behalf of] his friends” (John 15:13). Hebrews 12:2 states the purpose of Jesus, “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame,” meaning that the reconciliation of sinners was worth the suffering. As Isaiah says, “He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed” (53:5). The higher purpose and greater good derived from Christ’s death as our substitute for the penalty of our sins is more important than the evil inherent in the process.
C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”2 In some sense, we need pain so that we are not overcome by the evil that we would choose were it painless. He alerts us to the fact that there are better things than misery.
DOES THERE HAVE TO BE SO MUCH EVIL?
The extent of evil poses a problem. Surely there doesn’t have to be this much evil to fulfill God’s purposes. Couldn’t there have been one less rape, one less drunk driver? That would have made the world better. And, of course, that “one-less” theory can be extended until there is no evil at all. This can even be taken to the extreme case: What about hell? Wouldn’t it be better to have one less person in hell? Since both of these questions have the same answer, let’s deal with the extreme case.
- The greatest good is to save all men.
- Even one person in hell would be less than the greatest good.
- Therefore, God cannot send anyone to hell.
To answer this objection, we go back to the subject of free will. It is true that God desires all men to be saved (2 Peter 3:9), but that means that they have to choose to love Him and believe in Him. Now, God can’t force anyone to love Him. Forced love is a contradiction in terms. Love must be free: it is a free choice. So in spite of God’s desire, some men do not choose to love Him (Matt. 23:37). All who go to hell do so because of their free choice. They may not want to go to hell (who would?), but they do will it. They make the decision to reject God, even though they don’t desire punishment. People don’t go to hell because God sends them; they choose it and God respects their freedom. “There are two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell, chose it.”3
Men Choose Hell
John 3:18—“He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed.”
John 3:36—“He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
John 5:39–40—“You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life.”
John 8:24—“Unless you believe that I am He, you shall die in your sins.”
John 12:48—“He who rejects Me, and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day.”
Luke 10:16—“The one who listens to you [disciples] listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me.”
Now if that is how eternal destiny is decided, then it is not one person in hell that is evil; it is one more than is really necessary (i.e., one who did choose God but was sent to hell anyway). Granted, a world in which some men go to hell is not the best of all conceivable worlds, but it may be the best of all achievable worlds if free will is to be maintained. Likewise, the world might be made better by one less crime, but it must be left to the would-be criminal to make that choice. Whether we are talking about daily sins along the way, or the biggest sin of all (rejecting God), the answer for the question is the same.
COULDN’T GOD MAKE A WORLD WITHOUT EVIL?
The last objection that we need to deal with is that God could have done a better job designing the world in the first place. It is possible that He could have created a world that did not have evil. Here is the argument:
- God knows everything.
- So God knew evil would occur when He created the world.
- God had other nonevil possibilities. God could have:
- not created anything,
- created a world without free creatures,
- created free creatures that would not sin,
- created free creatures who would sin but would all be saved in the end.
- Hence, God could have created a world that did not include either evil or hell.
That seems like a pretty strong argument, since God did have all those options. The question is, “Are those options really better than the world we have?” Let’s examine them one at a time.
GOD COULD HAVE NOT CREATED ANYTHING
This argument wrongly implies that nothing is better than something. It suggests that it would have been better for nothing ever to have existed than for some evil to exist. But that overlooks the fact that the things created were good and it was good for them to merely exist. That good could not have been if God had not created. Besides this, the objection really makes no sense. It says, in effect, “It would have been morally better for God to have made a nonmoral world.” But what has no morality attached to it cannot be either better or worse. It has no moral status; it doesn’t even have any reality status. This isn’t even like comparing apples and oranges because they both exist. Here the comparison is nothing with something.
GOD COULD HAVE CREATED A WORLD
WITHOUT FREE CREATURES
It is possible that God could have inhabited the earth with all animals or robots who would only do His will. But this option runs into the same problem as the first: it is a nonmoral option. That is, a nonmoral world cannot be a morally good world. Again, we can’t compare what is nongood (i.e., morally neutral) to what is bad. There is an insurmountable difference between what has no moral value and what has some moral value, however much it is. Also, even if there were no moral corruption in such a world, there could still be physical corruption. Animals would still degenerate physically and decay. So just because there are no free creatures does not mean that there could be no physical evil. Hence, it would just be trading one form of evil for another.
GOD COULD HAVE CREATED FREE CREATURES
THAT WOULD NOT SIN
It is logically possible to have free will and not sin. Adam did it before the Fall. Jesus did it throughout His whole life (Heb. 4:15). The Bible says that there will someday be a world in heaven where everyone has free will but there won’t be any sin (Rev. 21:8, 27). There is no problem with the idea of such a world, but not everything that is logically possible becomes actually real. It is logically possible that the United States could have lost the Revolutionary War, but that is not what actually happened. In the same way, it is conceivable that free creatures would never sin, but getting it to happen is another matter. How could God have guaranteed that they would never sin? One way would be to tamper with their freedom. He could have set up some mechanism so that just when they were about to choose something evil, a distraction would come along to change their decision. Or maybe He could have programmed creatures to only do good things. But are such creatures really free? It’s hard to call a choice free if it was programmed so that there was no alternative. And if our actions are merely diverted from doing evil, aren’t there already evil motives in the decision that we were about to make? So a world where no one sins may be conceivable, but it is not actually achievable.
Sin is Inevitable
There is an old story about an Irish priest who had just delivered a strong message denouncing sin and was greeting his congregation at the close of the service. Among those congratulating him for his boldness was an old widow who cheerfully clasped his hand and said, “Father, I was so glad to hear your message today and I’ll have you to know that I’ve been living a holy life for some time now. Why, I haven’t sinned in the last thirty years.” The priest, only slightly taken back by this boast, replied, “Well keep it up, Darlin’; another three years and you’ll beat the record!” Sin may be inevitable in attitudes even when it is not evident to us.
Beyond all of this, a world of freedom without evil would actually be morally inferior to the present world. In this world, men are challenged to do good and noble things and to overcome evil tendencies. That could not happen in a world without evil. The highest virtues and the greatest pleasures are impossible to achieve if there is not opposition as a precondition. Courage can only occur where there is a real fear of danger. Self-sacrifice is only noble where there is need and an opposing selfishness to overcome. As the adage says, “No pain, no gain.” It is better to have the opportunity to reach the highest good rather than be confined to achieving lesser goods with no opposition.
GOD COULD HAVE CREATED FREE CREATURES
WHO WOULD SIN, BUT WOULD ALL BE
SAVED IN THE END
This option makes the same error as the one before it in assuming that God can manipulate human freedom to choose good. Some people say that God will never stop pursuing a person until he makes the right choice. But this view does not take seriously the biblical teaching that hell is real for some. Such a view suggests that God will save individuals no matter what He has to do. But we must remember that He cannot force them to love Him. Forced love is rape; and God is not a divine rapist. He will not do anything to coerce their decision. God will not save men at any cost. He respects their freedom and concurs with their choice. He is not a puppet master, but a lover wooing men to Himself.
THEN WHY DID GOD CHOOSE THIS WORLD?
Is this the best world God could have made? This may not be the best of all possible worlds, but it is the best way to the best world. If God is to both preserve freedom and defeat evil, then this is the best way to do it. Freedom is preserved in that each person makes his own free choice to determine his destiny. Evil is overcome in that, once those who reject God are separated from the others, the decisions of all are made permanent. Those who choose God will be confirmed in it, and sin will cease. Those who reject God are in eternal quarantine and cannot upset the perfect world that has come about. The ultimate goal of a perfect world with free creatures will have been achieved, but the way to get there requires that those who abuse their freedom be cast out. God has assured us that as many as possible will be saved—all who will believe (John 6:37). And God has provided for the salvation of all in Christ (1 John 2:2). He waits patiently, desiring all men to be saved (2 Peter 3:9) but, as Jesus said mourning over Jerusalem, “How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” (Matt. 23:37). As atheist Jean-Paul Sartre noted in his play No Exit, the gates of hell are locked from the inside by man’s free choice.
1 C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1976), pp. 33–35.
2 ——, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), p. 93.
3 ——, The Great Divorce (New York: Macmillan, 1946), p. 69.