The philosophical problem of evil lies in the difficulty of reconciling the all-pervading presence of evil in the world we know with the goodness and omnipotence of the God who created that world. Three hundred years before Christ, Epicurus presented the problem in its classic formulation: Either God wants to prevent evil and he cannot do it—in which case he is impotent; or he can do it, and does not want to—in which case he is not good; or he neither wants to nor can prevent evil—in which case he is neither good nor omnipotent; or he wants to and can—in which case no reason can be given for the existence of evil.
Space cannot be taken here to trace out in detail the evils—due both to moral and to natural causes—that plague mankind. This might help us better comprehend the gravity of the problem before us, however, since we all tend to put out of our minds those things that are unpleasant. But whether we want to think about it or not, evil surrounds us on every side. Evil is in fact an inescapable datum that colors the whole of our existence from cradle to grave. Life can be described as a sorrowful vale through which man passes, ending in that apparent cul-de-sac, the last and most menacing of man’s enemies—death. At the end of his moving novel The Plague Albert Camus has one of his characters say: “But what does that mean—‘plague’? Just life, no more than that.” The question before us therefore is not simply “Why evil?” but also, and more perplexingly, “Why so much evil?”
The ubiquity of natural and moral evil in our world on the one hand, and on the other, both the goodness and the omnipotence of the God who created that world—this constitutes the problem of evil. It can be seen to have three essential components: (1) God is omnipotent; (2) God is good; (3) evil exists. Philosophers have termed these three components an “inconsistent triad,” since if any two of them are true the third seems necessarily false; all three components cannot simultaneously be true, it would seem. It is not surprising, then, that the various attempted solutions of the problem have tampered with one of the three components. Although they often touch on more than one of the components, I will summarize some of the proposed solutions under these three headings and then try to show why none of them can be acceptable to the Christian.
1. God is omnipotent (or, God is sovereign). Perhaps the most common attempt to solve the problem of evil is to redefine “omnipotence.” There are many variations in this redefining, but beneath them all is a limiting of God’s omnipotence in the interests of reconciling his existence with the existence of evil. However, if language means anything, the idea of “limited omnipotence” is unintelligible. There is only one thing God cannot do: the logically impossible—that is, that which is meaningless. God cannot, for example, make a four-sided triangle or a dog that is non-dog. Beyond this, however, an omnipotent God is not limited.
The classic solution of the problem of evil that cuts away the omnipotence of God is, of course, dualism. In dualism there is no problem of evil since the principle of evil is said to exist eternally, and God accordingly cannot be held responsible. Thus for the dualist religions of Persia, the Manichaeans and Gnostics, the struggle between good and evil is an eternal one and its outcome remains forever in question. A variation of this can be seen in the finite god of Plato, who has not created ex nihilo but is working with a given material that to a certain extent frustrates his good purposes. Dualism, therefore, saves for us the goodness of God, but at the price of his omnipotence and sovereignty.
Theists, however, often fall into the same trap in attempting to solve the problem of evil. For example, it is occasionally argued that “good” cannot exist without “evil.” While this sounds plausible enough at first, it can be shown that logically the argument does not stand (unless you are content to argue that evil is nothing more than the simple privation of the good). God can create “good” without “evil” as he did in his initial creation. Indeed, this view is really a covert dualism, since before any of his creative acts God himself presumably could not have been “good” without the existence of evil. Moreover, and most importantly, the argument cannot answer why there is so much evil, since only a modicum is needed to make the “good” possible.
Another argument, one that is but a variation of the above, is that evil is necessary as a means to good. But again, and for the same reasons, this cannot be so for an omnipotent God.
Perhaps the most appealing of the arguments of this type, however, is that which claims God purposefully limited his omnipotence and sovereignty by giving man free will. Evil is thereby traced back solely to the exercise of this free will. The question here is whether God could have given man free will and yet made him so he would always freely have chosen the good. My own feeling is that had God chosen to, he could have done so. If man freely chooses good on one occasion, there is no logical impossibility that he could always do so. Moreover, unless in heaven we are reduced to automatons, we will there be able continually and freely to choose the good, as Jesus of Nazareth did when he walked this earth. Further, the notion that man has absolute free will and that God’s sovereignty is thereby limited leads to the appalling conclusion that the world is out of God’s control and we are at the full mercy of evil. But while the Bible makes clear the reality of free will, it makes equally clear the fact that free will never limits the omnipotence or sovereignty of God. And we cannot fall back on the relation of these two realities, which in itself is a mystery, and expect thereby to find a real answer to the problem of evil. Indeed, the one mystery but mirrors the other. Thus it seems wrong to allow that when God gave man free will he limited his own omnipotence.
All these arguments and others that could be mentioned go astray in overtly or covertly compromising the sovereignty and omnipotence of God. The answer given to the existence of evil is this: God is not to be held responsible; he is after all doing the best he can under the circumstances. However, this is not the God of the Bible.
2. God is good. The statement that God is good is an irrelevant one to those who do not believe in the existence of God. For theists, however, it is an important statement. Although they rarely challenge it directly, some of their proposed solutions to the problem of evil do indirectly call into question the goodness of God.
Thus not infrequently one hears it argued that the problem of evil arises from a faulty conception of “good.” We err, it is said, in supposing there is a standard of goodness above or apart from God by which he is to be judged. Since there can be no such standard external to God, the argument runs, the “good” must simply be redefined as that which God does: Whatever God does is “good.” This is, of course, ultimately a true statement. But it cannot be pressed in the present connection (i.e., as an answer to the philosophical problem of evil), since to do so would be to erase the distinction between good and evil as we know it, and thus to land in utter meaninglessness. Another way the same argument is occasionally put is that while we can understand goodness, infinite goodness is necessarily beyond our comprehension. This again may be true, but certainly infinite goodness must qualitatively be the same as finite goodness or else the term has lost all meaning. If God is not good in the sense that we normally understand “good,” our whole theology stands in danger.
We hasten to add that we know what “goodness” is only by revelation. It is from the Scriptures that we really know what “good” means. It is from the Scriptures too that we know what “evil” means. And note that the Scriptures do not flinch at calling evil evil—nowhere do we read or are we led to believe that evil is good. It is ironic that those who sit in judgment upon the goodness of God employ the very standard of goodness that God himself has made known to man, for apart from the Scriptures there is no escape from the morass of relativism.
Other proposed solutions of the problem of evil implicitly or covertly call into question the goodness of God when they are further pursued. Thus to argue that the universe is better with evil in it implicity questions both the omnipotence and the goodness of God. To say that evil is the result of free will implicitly questions the goodness of God in giving man free will. To say that evil is sent to chastise men for the purpose of bringing them to repentance is to question God’s goodness when a hardened heart results. To say that evil is sent to punish sin is to question God’s goodness in allowing the innocent to suffer. If someone retorts that all are guilty because of Adam’s sin, then the establishing of such a system makes the goodness of God suspect. While many of these statements are doubtless true in themselves, let it not be supposed that any of them satisfactorily answers the problem of evil.
From the Bible we know that God is good—not good in some unknown way, but good in the same way Jesus was. By relevation we know what “good” is, and by relevation we know that God is good in this same way. Solutions to the problem of evil that in any way compromise the goodness of God are therefore unacceptable to the Christian.
3. Evil exists. The most obvious way to be rid of the problem of evil is simply to deny its reality. This expedient, however, is the least popular of all, and since not many have the courage to travel down this road, we need not detain ourselves long. The classic solution that denies the reality of evil is, of course, pantheism. If everything is God and if God is good, then obviously there can be no evil. Or, alternatively, the terms good and evil become irrelevant. For Spinoza, reality consists in the order of necessary relations: what must be must be. Just as it is neither good nor bad that a triangle is necessarily three-sided, so all that happens in the world is necessary, and accordingly neither good nor bad. Related to the pantheistic solution is that proposed by Christian Science, in which evil—however real it may seem—is regarded simply as an illusion of the material sense.
Even within theism solutions to the problem of evil have been proposed that implicitly call into question the statement that evil exists. Thus no less a one than Augustine calls evil a negation, the privation of that which is morally good. Others such as Aquinas have similarly argued that evil has no real objective existence; it is instead, according to them, merely the limitation of Being.
But the Christian cannot be satisfied to save the omnipotence and goodness of God at the cost of having to deny the objective reality of evil. What he sees in the world around him confirms what he reads in the Scriptures, and he cannot be lured to this easy solution.
We see, then—to summarize—that Christians cannot resort to the solutions mentioned above (and others like them) for they must fully retain each of the components of the inconsistent triad. We accept on the basis of revelation that God is omnipotent and sovereign, that he is good, and that evil really exists, the latter point being confirmed empirically in our daily life. Because the problem of evil cannot be solved without tampering with the triad of its components, there apparently can be no solution to the problem that is philosophically satisfactory to the Christian.
The Christian thus faces the problem of evil in all its forcefulness, being unable to compromise any of the three components, and thus unable to take refuge in facile solutions. What then can we say of the Christian position? How does the Christian live with a problem he cannot solve?
I will briefly speak to this question under two points: (1) the apologetic, i.e., relating to non-Christians, and (2) the practical, relating to Christians.
The non-Christian sees the problem of evil as an obstacle to believing in the God of the Bible: “When I look at all the evil in the world, I can’t believe that God is a God of love.” Our reply is, I suggest, basically this. First, we insist on our right to accept the omnipotence and goodness of God on the basis of revelation. Secondly, on this same basis we reject any supposition that this is the best of all possible worlds. It is indeed utterly useless to attempt to establish (or refute) the existence of God, or to determine his character, by using the world in its present condition as the primary datum of the argument. We live in a fallen world, for we believe that all evil, both moral and natural, is somehow related to and caused by rebellion against God. It is true that at this point we hold the important reservation that such rebellion, real though it is, simultaneously remains within God’s sovereignty. Our only justification for this point is that it is biblical, and we are content, for the present at least, to allow that philosophically we seem to be confronted with mystery. But the point we want to make is that the world we live in is not what it was originally meant to be, nor is it what it will ultimately be. Christians accordingly do not infer God’s omnipotence and goodness from empirical observation of the world—they accept it from the Scriptures (which, it should be noted, give an account of things that happened in the world). The place to look for the character of God is in the Scriptures, in the face of Jesus Christ. The good news that constitutes Christianity—the foundation of which is that God loves us—is found not in natural revelation but in special revelation.
We further argue that the existence of God is not logically incompatible with the existence of evil—certainly not as four sides are with a triangle. Our intellect may be frustrated, but we have not sacrificed it by believing something that is logically contradictory and therefore meaningless. Even Hume allows that the existence of an omnipotent, good God, once accepted on the basis of revelation, is not ultimately incompatible with the mere existence of evil.
It may be well enough to accept the omnipotence and the goodness of God, indeed the whole of the Gospel, because these things are found in revelation, but on what basis is the revelation itself accepted? We accept the whole of revelation by faith, but we immediately add that this faith is not a blind faith, a leap that bypasses rationality. We do test the revelation (we are under obligation to do so), but we also use our intelligence in framing the tests. We do not send a man up in a space capsule to test whether God exists. Nor do we send a man to a funeral parlor to test whether God is omnipotent and good, any more than we would send him to watch at a cemetery (now) to test whether Jesus rose from the dead. We test the revelation initially by going to the historical phenomena recorded in the New Testament, such as the resurrection of Christ, the birth of the Church, and the mission to the Gentiles. An assessment of the truthfulness of Christianity does not begin with a discussion of the problem of evil; it begins with a discussion of Jesus Christ.
Finally, the practical question of the Christian’s own relation to the problem of evil. (Doubtless the non-Christian will be interested to see how Christians rationalize the problem to themselves.) I have only two brief points to make. First, “Why evil?” is ultimately a question that is unanswerable and hence, for the present at least, meaningless. For what we are really asking is why God created the universe the way he did. But why did he create at all? Why did he create me? Why is God the way he is? Or, for the perennial children’s favorite, “Where did God come from?” There are no answers to such questions as these: we simply don’t know, but we are grateful that we don’t need to know.
But secondly, from what we know of God’s character as revealed to us in the Scriptures, we are convinced that God has a morally sufficient reason for all he does. Our God never acts capriciously. We do not understand his reasons at every point—but there is no cause for alarm, for we know that he is good, as well as omnipotent.
My conclusion, then, is that although we cannot solve the problem of evil, we can live with it. Although philosophically we are frustrated because we can allow no “solutions” that either explicitly or implicitly question any of the three components, existentially, in our hearts, we are at peace. From our finite point of view the fact of evil remains a mystery. However, though we do not understand the whys and wherefores, we look at the God who sent his own Son to the strange contradiction of the cross but raised him up the first-born from the dead—we look at the One who at such great cost has made us his children—and with a full and confident trust we say Abba, Father.
Donald A. Hagner is a candidate for the Ph.D. degree at the University of Manchester, England. he received teh B.D. and Th.M from Fuller Theological Seminary.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingRussell Moore: I Already Miss Tim Keller’s Wise VoiceThe late pastor theologian gave strong counsel to me and so many others in ministry.
- From the MagazineHow One Family’s Faith Survived Three Generations in the PulpitWith a front-row seat to their parents’ failures and burnout, a long line of pastor’s kids still went into ministry. Why?
- Editor's PickO for a Thousand Tongues of FireThe Spirit’s descent at Pentecost is a model for diverse and distributed leadership.