Why Is There Evil and Suffering in the World?
The problem of evil has been called the “Achilles heel” of Christianity. Simply put, it claims that the God of Christianity is inconsistent and incompatible with the world around us. Christians claim that God is an all-powerful, loving Being, yet evil and suffering are rampant in the world.
How do these facts mesh? C.S. Lewis puts it this way: “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power or both.”1 In other words, either God wants to prevent evil but does not have the power to do it, or He has the power to do it but does not want to. In either case, He is not the kind of God described in the Bible.
This problem poses a powerful and passionate argument against Christianity, but it is also a very unambiguous and well-defined argument. The problem of evil can be reduced to the assumption that the Christian God is incompatible with the way the world is. So to demonstrate the fallacy of this claim, Christians only need to prove that God is compatible with the way the world is.
In this chapter, I will show that Christianity not only explains the presence of evil and human suffering, but it explains it better than any other religion or philosophy. More than this, Christianity offers the only possible solution to the problem of evil. If this is true, then the God of Christianity not only exists, but He exists precisely as revealed in the Bible, and He is compatible with the world as it is.
Christians recognize that God does not always do what we would like Him to do or, in fact, what we think He ought to do (see Ps. 115:3). Christians also know that it is presumptuous and dangerous to claim that God ought to act in ways which seem good to us, and, if He does not, it will weaken our love and respect for Him. God has the ability to see the whole picture; we mostly see just our immediate needs.
God is sovereign and infinite; we are limited and finite (Isa. 55:8–9). Humans will never fully understand why God chooses to act as He does in many situations or why He allows events to happen that seem inconsistent with His character.
Nevertheless, although much of what God does is a mystery, we do have His assurance that what He does is ultimately in the best interest of those who believe in Him (Rom. 8:28). If we know God, we will learn to trust Him, even if we do not fully understand what He is doing. If we know God, we know that what He is doing is rational and is not contrary to His attributes of love and holiness.
That God is sovereign and never violates His attributes of love and holiness are truths readily grasped and accepted by Christians. However, for many non-Christians, the widespread facts of human suffering, disease, hunger, and oppression, fly in the face of the Christian claim that God is in control and loves us. To unbelievers, this seems to be a meaningless and unsubstantiated rationalization because they think Christians do not have an answer to the problem of evil.
This opinion should not surprise us. Without the Holy Spirit, non-Christians are unable to fully apprehend Christian truths (1 Cor. 2:12–14), let alone find comfort in them. Nevertheless, and in spite of this, Christians can offer a viable solution to the problem of evil. We’ll do this by answering several puzzling questions.
HOW DID EVIL ENTER THE WORLD?
In order to respond to the problem of evil from a Christian perspective, we need to review a subject touched on in Chapter 9: the nature and origin of sin.
When God created the earth and life, He said that it was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). The world was a place free from sin, evil, and human (and animal) suffering. Yet, the world today contains all three. Why? Because of the fall of Adam.
When God created Adam, He gave him a free will to choose to obey or disobey Him by not eating from a certain tree. God also warned him of the consequences of disobedience (Gen. 2:16–17). Nevertheless, Adam disobeyed and became separated from God. Through Adam’s rebellion, sin entered the world.
Now Adam was the corporate head of the human race (the Hebrew name Adam is a general term for mankind; Rom. 5:12–19). Just as the decisions made by the ruler of a nation affect all the people subject to him, so Adam’s decision to rebel against God affected all mankind. Furthermore, when Adam sinned, he not only represented us, he acted in the same manner as any other man or woman would have in his place. Like Adam, we too rebel against God and are equally guilty and deserving of punishment.
The fall resulted in the birth of a sin nature in Adam. Because all people shared in Adam’s guilt, this sin nature was passed on to all future generations. As a result, sin is pervasive in every man and woman (Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22), and it is out of this sin nature that we do sinful acts (Mark 7:20–23). Thus, the presence of evil in the world today can be laid upon man, not God.
Now, the idea that all of mankind is guilty because of Adam’s sin is offensive to many people. “Why should I be punished for something Adam did?” is a common complaint. However, whether or not we should be held guilty for Adam’s sin should not cloud the fact that people today, like Adam, are sinners. We sin enough to be guilty on our own merits. The fact is, sin is real, and mankind corporately sins.
The biblical account of the fall is simply the explanation of how man’s tendency to sin came about. No other religion or philosophy offers a better explanation (more on this shortly). So whether one agrees with the biblical account that sin entered humanity through Adam’s fall or not, the fact remains that sin is real and evil reigns.
The biblical doctrine of the fall of man gives us the answer to why evil exists in the world. God did not desire or will sin to exist; it exists because man rejected God and incurred His punishment. Let me summarize this crucial biblical doctrine by making a few important points.
- It should be clear from this that there are no innocent people. No one is sinless and free from guilt before a holy God (Rom. 3:23). Because of the fall, sin has been charged to all humankind (Rom. 5:12–21).
- Adam had a free choice to obey or disobey God. He knew the consequences of disobedience. Although evil already existed in the person of Satan (who had himself previously rebelled against God), it was Adam’s free choice that allowed sin to affect mankind. When there is freedom to choose between good and evil, there is always the possibility that evil will be chosen. Adam chose sin. With this choice came punishment and human suffering.
- The evil we see in nature (e.g., earthquakes and hurricanes that sometimes kill thousands of people) is also the result of human sin. Nature, in and of itself, is not evil. But the land was cursed because of man’s sin, and violent physical manifestations in nature are a result of the fall (Gen. 3:17–19).
- Evil is not discretionary—it does not choose its victims. Evil is like a bomb thrown into a crowded room to assassinate a political leader. A lot of “innocent” victims are inadvertently hurt. Evil is an irrational thing resulting from the fall.
WHY DOES GOD ALLOW EVIL TO REMAIN?
It is true that God permitted evil to enter the world and that He now allows the consequences of that evil to continue. God is sovereign and all-powerful and could destroy all evil immediately if He chose. The key to understanding why God allows the consequences of evil to continue is bound up with human freedom.
God created Adam (and all people) to worship, obey, and have fellowship with Him—to love Him. Genuine love is inseparable from free will. God could have created Adam, and all other people, to think and act like robots. By divine mandate, God could have caused Adam not only to obey Him but to love Him. Would this have been genuine love? Of course not. Love can’t be programmed; it must be freely
THE ORIGIN AND CONSEQUENCES OF EVIL
expressed. God wanted Adam to show his love by freely choosing obedience. That’s why God gave Adam a free will. A free choice, however, leaves the possibility of a wrong choice. Adam made the wrong choice, thereby allowing sin to enter the world. As C.S. Lewis explains: “The sin, both of men and of angels, was rendered possible by the fact that God gave them free will: this surrendering of a portion of His omnipotence…because He saw that from a world of free creatures, even though they fell, He could work out…a deeper happiness and a fuller splendour than any world of automata would admit.”2
For free will to be meaningful, there must be consequences when a wrong choice is made. God is holy and righteous, and He cannot tolerate sin in any form. When Adam chose disobedience, God had to respond with punishment. If God does not punish sin, sin would lose its moral character. Parents readily use this principle in raising children. If there are no consequences for a child’s bad behavior, there is no reason for that child to stop the behavior. Mankind today is still in disobedience to God, and the consequences of Adam’s fall still persist.
What I am saying here is this. Free will and the moral consequences of wrong choices are compatible with the Christian world view. As Geisler points out in his superb book, The Roots of Evil:
It is important to remember that it may be necessary in a free world to allow evil to actually occur. It may be necessary for God to allow innocent suffering in order to give men full moral freedom. If the choice had been ours, we might have made the same decision. And it may be possible that all cases of individual and presently unjustified suffering are justifiable in view of the whole plan in the long run.3
Geisler goes on to say that God may have allowed evil in the world simply because “there is no better way for an all-loving, all-powerful God to defeat evil and produce a greater good than for Him to permit this present evil world.”4 He draws the analogy of a great football player enduring painful practice so he can excel in the sport.
In other words, “God freely chose to create a world He knew would turn against Him and would bring upon itself and others untold human misery and woe…” because “no other alternative creation plan that God could have carried out would have been morally better than permitting this Morally Fallen World.”5
This may sound confusing, so look at it this way. If the essential nature of God is love, and if in order for love to be genuine it must be freely given, then it is consistent with the Christian world view that the presence of evil is the sad but necessary consequence for achieving the best of all possible worlds—a world where mankind freely chooses to love and receive God and therefore secure a future eternal life in heaven.
WHY GOD ALLOWS HUMAN SUFFERING
DOES THE CHRISTIAN VIEW OF SIN BEST EXPLAIN THE PRESENCE OF EVIL?
Although some religious philosophers claim that sin is an illusion, it is nevertheless extremely difficult to rationally deny the reality of sin. People do not behave as they intuitively know they should. People throughout the world commit what every culture considers to be sinful acts (murder, lying, stealing, physical abuse, and so on). The Bible states that there is not a single human being, past or present, who is free from sin except for Jesus Christ (see Rom. 3:23; 1 Pet. 2:22). In fact, according to 1 John 1:8, if one thinks he is free from sin, he is deceiving himself. It is impossible to ignore the reality of corporate human evil. This fact is self-evident.
But the question remains: Does the Christian view of sin best explain the presence of evil? Yes. Christianity provides the answer most consistent with the world around us. This will become even more obvious after we peruse five other common explanations for evil and sport their inadequacies.
Evil Is an Illusion
To say that evil and human suffering are illusions (as many Eastern religions claim) does not solve the problem of evil because it ignores the problem rather than deals with it. A broken arm still hurts whether one denies it or not. And people still die from the diseases they don’t believe exist.
Evil Is Independent of God
Some people believe that evil is a result of forces independent of God; it comes from a source equal to and not controlled by God. This view is called dualism, but it too fails to solve the problem of evil. As we’ve seen, God is all-powerful and the creator and sustainer of all. Nothing is outside of His control. So, in reality, dualism is an inadequate solution because it takes something out of His sovereign domain, which can’t be done. Also, God would be incapable of ever solving the problem of evil and human suffering.
Evil Flows From Ignorance
To say that evil results from our ignorance of the right choices, as many of the New Age religions claim, is unsubstantiated by the facts. Throughout history, man has had many opportunities to make right choices based on adequate information and yet has willfully made wrong choices. For example, people know smoking causes cancer, fatty foods cause heart disease, pollution destroys our environment, and stockpiling nuclear weapons can result in the destruction of the earth. But this knowledge hasn’t stopped us from engaging in these destructive behaviors.
Evil Is a Product of Evolution
Many secular humanist have maintained that sin is a product of evolution. But this is not consistent with the theory of evolution. If evolution is true, evil should have never evolved because it has no survival value. It should have been weeded out as early as the first animal organism or, at the least, no later than the appearance of social animals. Evil can only cause disharmony and pain among members of social orders, so it should have been eliminated long ago, assuming it ever grew out of the evolutionary process.
Evil Is a Relative Idea
Many atheists argue that evil is relative: cultures or individuals decide what’s right and wrong; no universal standard exists. The problem is, not even atheists consistently live as if it’s true. Let me explain.
Like Christians, atheists make moral decisions based on absolute statements of right and wrong. For example, atheists say murder, stealing, and rape are wrong. However, it is philosophically inconsistent for atheists to claim that ethics are relative and then make moral judgments that apply to other people and other cultures. Without a moral absolute as a universal standard for judging right and wrong, there is no basis for ethics.
Indeed, without an absolute standard of right and wrong independent of man, it is impossible to even define what evil is in any universal sense. Hitler may have been right after all. On a relativistic ethic, there’s no good reason to judge otherwise.
One by one, alternate explanations for evil can be eliminated. The only rational and adequate explanation left is the biblical one. Rather than searching for flaws in the Christian answer to the problem of evil, skeptics need to ask whether any other philosophical systems are valid. And as I’ve briefly shown, neither Eastern religions, the New Age movement, the cults, secular humanism, atheism, or evolutionism can account for the presence of evil in a way in harmony with the reality of human nature and the world as we observe it.
Only Christianity provides a unified and complete (if not fully understood) answer to the problem of evil. People do sin, regardless of how hard they try not to. People sin in spite of knowing what they can do to avoid it. The consequences of evil are real, not illusions. Natural disasters and human suffering exist. Sin is not relative nor a product of evolution. Only God (as the Moral Absolute) can define evil and give meaning to the term. Without the Christian God and human freedom, evil is unexplainable.
WHAT HAS GOD DONE TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM OF EVIL?
GOD CONTROLS THE EFFECTS OF EVIL
Today, people continue to rebel against God. We curse Him, ignore Him, and flaunt our disobedience. Motivated by pride, greed, and selfishness, people destroy one another and willfully abuse and pollute God’s earth. Truly, mankind is as deserving of punishment today as Adam was in his day. In fact, it’s amazing God has not lost His patience and destroyed all of us. Rather than condemning God for allowing evil, we should be thankful that He withholds the punishment we deserve.
God has taken steps to prevent evil from running amok. He has implemented measures that prevent fallen man from literally destroying himself. God institutionalized governments to control lawlessness and promote social order, marriage to control sexual diseases, moral standards to guide the interrelationships of people, and the church to restrain evil by acting as a light of spiritual truth. Most importantly, God prevents Satan from having full sway over the earth.
GOD HAS ALREADY SOLVED THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
The Bible teaches that God has already solved the problem of evil. As we saw, sin entered the world through Adam, and all men are condemned because all men are guilty of Adam’s sin. But the Bible also teaches that Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross paid the penalty for that sin. All who accept Jesus as Lord and Savior are set free from the penalty of sin and will receive eternal life (Rom. 5:12–18).
Furthermore, because of the work of Jesus, we do not have to be in bondage to sin. Through the power of God, we can break away from sin and live a more abundant life (6:4–11). And finally, the Bible teaches that at the end of this present world system, God will create a new earth where the consequences of sin will be put away forever. The new creation will be a place where “there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain” (Rev. 21:4).
Here lies the ultimate answer to the problem of evil. No matter what one’s world view is, whether a humanist, a pantheist, a cultist, a follower of the New Age, or a Christian, one fact is certain. No one gets through this life unscathed. No one escapes this world without experiencing pain, sorrow, sickness, and tears.
God does not promise that if one becomes a Christian, he will necessarily have an easier life with less hardship and suffering. In fact, many Christians come to realize that God often uses suffering to draw us closer to Him in submission and dependence. But God does promise us two things.
First, eternal life. This is the great hope of Christianity. Our earthly life is temporary. We have a future life that will be free of pain and sorrow and one where no evil will exist. Christians are pilgrims on this earth. With this promise and assurance from God, we face the daily sorrows and hardships of life. We even experience real joy in spite of our suffering. No other religion in the world can promise this hope and then back it up by the power of God’s Spirit.
Second, God dwells with us. God does not promise He’ll remove our hardships or make our life more prosperous, but He does promise to lighten our load (Matt. 11:28–30). And Jesus promises to dwell with us, even in this earthly life (28:20). Christians have the joy of daily communion with Christ and the prospect of continual spiritual renewal and growth. We have a strength outside ourselves that helps us endure our suffering. No other religion in the world offers this.
The good news of Christianity is that Jesus died for our sins. Because of this, Christians enjoy a restored fellowship with God. Rather than blame God for the evil and pain we experience, we rejoice in what He has done to remedy the problem of evil through His Son, Jesus Christ.
1 C. S. Lewis, THE PROBLEM OF PAIN (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1962), 26.
2 Lewis, MIRACLES, 121–122.
3 Norman L. Geisler, THE ROOTS OF EVIL, 2nd ed. (Richardson, TX: Probe Books, 1978), 36.
4 Ibid., 45.
5 Ibid., 51–52.