The Problem of Evil
Written by Ian Macleod
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Reformed Worldviews - Environment


The following article is a speech that was given to a Reformed youth group in May 2012.

As you know, many nowadays deny the existence of God.  Universities and colleges are full of professors who equate belief in the God of the Bible with belief in Santa, or a tooth fairy.  But whether it is at college or school, the workplace, or with the next-door neighbor, most of us are going to be confronted at some stage with our belief in God.  Now, arguably the most common and the most difficult question for a Christian to answer is what is often referred to as the Problem of Evil.  Now this may come in several different forms, but basically it can be summarized using this argumentation:

Premise 1: Evil and suffering exist in the world.

Premise 2: If God is all-powerful, then he is able prevent evil and suffering.

Premise 3: If God is all-loving, then he would want to prevent evil and suffering.

Premise 4: If there is an all-powerful, all-loving God, there would be no evil and suffering in the world.

Conclusion: God is therefore either powerless, loveless or non-existent.

Well we certainly hold to the two premises that God is all-powerful and that He is a God of love. 

Rev. 19:6 “the Lord God omnipotent reigneth,” and 1 John 4:8, “God is love” 

So then the question becomes – How do we as Christians reply to this argument?  My intention is not to give any exhaustive answers, but I just want to make several suggestions to you, which may be of some help if you are confronted by this question.  

But before we address the problem, there is a very important preliminary that we have to consider.  It is very important that we are sensitive to the audience we are addressing.  Remember that a lot of people that come with this question have suffered, many of them are hurting – perhaps from the loss of a loved one in a tragic accident, in a tsunami, have lost a child to cancer, a loved one in 9/11. These people are hurting.  Obviously, when dealing with such people, it is not the time or place to hit them with cold logic.  What we have to realize when we are dealing with this question is that there is, yes, a logical problem, but in most cases it is first of all a psychological problem. 

1.  Take evil seriously

It is important for the Christian to recognize - indeed, to insist upon the reality and serious nature of evil.  Evil is a very real and ugly thing.  So what do we say about the natural disasters, the acts of God- typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis that wipe out entire communities in a moment?  What about children born with defects, what about parasites, attacks of violent animals, radioactive mutations, debilitating diseases, deadly cancer, starvation and crippling injuries?  And then how do we account for the savagery and inhumanity of man to man – rape, theft, murder, and so on and so on. 

Well, as a Christian, I am in fact happy to hear that an atheist is positively angry at what he/she perceives to be evil.  I am happy that they are prepared to admit the fact that evil does actually exist, it is a real, objectively evil thing. 

Well, why do I say that?  Well, I say that for this reason – because I want to ask this question….. 

2. For whom is evil logically a problem?

My contention is that the atheist has no basis for even speaking about the term “evil.”  If the atheist is being consistent with his/her atheistic worldview, then he/she has no right even to use that term.  Let me try and demonstrate.

I want to ask the atheist this question.  I’m going to say: “You believe in evil, well, what is evil?  And for that matter: What is good?  By what standard are you judging between good and evil?  You are coming to me asking why a good God would allow evil, well tell me what makes something good and what makes something evil.”

Now, at this stage, you must not let the atheist of with any arbitrary statements. [Important word - an arbitrary decision– a decision based solely upon someone’s own judgment.]  Don’t let them off with saying something like: “Well we all know that this is evil, or everybody knows that is evil, it’s obvious that that is evil.”  You would reply: Yes, I too believe that it is evil but I can also account for why it is so, but you Mr. Atheist, I want you to tell me by what standard you are calling it evil?

Here the atheist will likely appeal to human reasoning or choices – humans, either as a society or as an individual must then decide what is good or evil.  Utilitarian, society in general – consensus, individual choice.  And at that point you must press home the logical incoherence within the atheist’s worldview. 

If society decides then what do you say to some tribe in the jungle who unanimously decide that it’s ok to sacrifice their children?  Oh, that’s obviously wrong!  Why?!  You said society decides!  Yes, but our culture is more advanced.  Oh so now you are saying that not just any culture but your culture decides.  How then do you know that you are more civilized or moral??  Perhaps in point of fact, they are the ones who are more advanced – how do you decide?  Who determines?

So you see that without a transcendent God who has a perfect rule of righteousness beyond which there is no further appeal, the atheist can’t make any sense out of morality, out of right or wrong, good or evil, and therefore his question is not even valid!  The problem of evil is therefore more of a problem for the atheist. As a Christian, I can make perfectly good sense out of my moral revulsion and condemnation of child abuse. But as a non-Christian I cannot.

3.  What does a Christian say? 

But the atheist may then turn round and say that even if he/she cannot make sense of evil, there is still a problem for the Christian to answer. 

1. God is all good. 

2. God is all-powerful. 

3. Evil exists. 

Is there not a logical inconsistency here? 

Well, of course, we are going to direct them to the fact of sin.  Solomon says: “Lo this only have I found…”  We will tell them that the Bible says: “From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?” (James 4:1) 

But - Why did God not create man in such a way that he could not sin?  Well, are you not then asking why He did not create man as a robot?  Are you saying that he should have forced him to love God?  Is forced love, love?  If man doesn’t have the free choice to choose evil, then he does not have the free choice to choose good and the free choice to love. 

But the atheist will still object, “Okay, but nevertheless why do evil people prosper and good people suffer so much? There is so much unfairness in the world.”

Well, as a Christian, when I take the whole Bible as my guide, I can add a fourth premise here, one which takes away all logical contradiction. “God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists.”  Now the atheist is not likely to accept this, but that is no longer on the grounds of logic, but simply on the grounds of his own unbelief. 

“Think of Abraham when God ordered him to sacrifice his only son. Think of Job when he lost everything that gave his life happiness and pleasure.  In each case God had a perfectly good reason for the human misery involved. It was a mark or achievement of faith for them not to waver in their conviction of God’s goodness, despite not being able to see or understand why He was doing to them what He did.

Indeed, even in the case of the greatest crime in all of history—the crucifixion of the Lord of glory—the Christian professes that God’s goodness was not inconsistent with what the hands of lawless men performed. Was the killing of Christ evil? Absolutely! Did God have a morally sufficient reason for it? Absolutely! With Abraham we declare, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). And this goodness of God is beyond challenge: “Let God be true, though and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4).

In conclusion then we practically ask – who can give comfort to a mother grieving at the loss of her firefighter son who died at September 11?  What will the atheist say?  If all we are, and all that her son was, and all that the suicide bomber was, was evolved pawn scum or evolved cosmic soup, then what’s the problem?  If our minds simply consist of billions of neurons firing about, if all we are is the sum of our biological parts, then why be upset – this was just fate running its course.  Why is the slaughter of highly evolved humans so painful and sore, and yet the slaughter of billions of insects every year goes unnoticed every year?

You see it is the Christian alone who can truly come along side of a suffering person.  No, we may not have all the answers, but we can tell them that what happened was evil, and we can therefore grief and weep with them.  And above all we can share with such people the gospel of grace – the story that speaks, yes of man’s misery on account of sin, but also of the One, who though he was God and had done nothing worthy of sin and misery; he became man so that he could suffer and die for a countless number.

We can also tell them that this same Jesus is coming again to judge the earth in righteousness and that the wrongs will be put right.  Evil will not go unpunished.  The atheist is wrong to say the suicide bomber has either been reincarnated or passed into oblivion, but will in fact have to appear before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of the deeds done in the body whether they be good or evil.  The wrong will be put right!

And on that day, everyone who believes in Jesus Christ will pass into a new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness, where there will be no more suffering, no more pain, but where the former things will have passed away.  Then God’s people will understand perfectly all the evils that God permitted in their providence.  And so now by faith they can sing in the fire, in the words of a famous poem - Not till the loom is silent….

Well I understand that there may be a lot of new information for you to digest, but I hope that these few thoughts will help you somewhat if you are confronted with this problem of evil.  And what a great wonder it ought to be to us, that whatever we suffer in this world, if we are Christians then we have in Jesus Christ one who suffered for what we deserved – in the words of the psalmist: thou hast delivered my soul from the lowest hell (Psalm 86:13).

Mr. Ian Macleod is a student for the ministry at Purtian Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.