The Problem of Evil and Suffering

Christianity, like all other religious beliefs systems, is plagued by difficult questions. One difficult question that permeates all religious belief systems is the “problem” of evil and suffering in the world. Where does evil come from? And how can a good God allow suffering in the world He created? While Christians and non-Christians alike still struggle with the “problem” of evil and suffering today, it is a query as old as religious thought itself.

  • In Augustine’s Confessions, he stated this conundrum as such: “Either God is not able to abolish evil or not willing; if he is not able then he is not all-powerful; if he is not willing then he is not all-good.”
  • Before Augustine, Irenaeus – also from Christian thought – posited that humanity was not created perfect, but required a progression toward perfection… evil and suffering becoming part of the path to this end. For God to intervene, according to Irenaen theology, would be an infringement on human free will, and a stumbling block toward the desired end of perfection.
  • Tracing backward further, Greek mythology proposed a system of polytheism, where many gods and goddesses competed for power and privilege while using humanity as their spiritual playground. Evil and suffering in the human world existed because of the gods’ inability to rule absent power-hungry narcissism. Other forms of polytheism with their variations of this same answer to the proposed “problem” of evil and suffering existed before the Greeks (ie: Canaanite gods, Babylonian gods, and other ancient Mesopotamian religions belief systems) and some still exist even today (ie: Hinduism, Native American spirituality, and even the proposed humanism [we are all our own gods] of our postmodern culture, in some ways).
  • Greek Philosophy (not Greek mythology) also had the same questions as we do today. Epicurus wrote in the 3rd Century B.C, “God either wishes to take away evil, and is unable, or He is able, and unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils or why does He not remove them?” 
  • Around the same time as the Greeks, we encounter Siddhārtha Gautama (founder of Buddhism) proposing his Four Noble Truths, which simply start with the reality of evil/suffering and proceed from there. The goal of Buddhism is to escape the reality of suffering by emptying oneself of all desire and want.

The “problem” of evil and suffering is not a question that has surfaced under postmodern enlightenment; it has existed since the world began. But that simple reality does not suffice when the honest inquirer searches for truth, hungering for answers and thirsting for spiritual rest. So what is the Christian response? From where did evil come? And how can the reality of suffering be reconciled with a biblical worldview? How can the “good, all-powerful God of Christianity” allow the presence of evil and suffering in His world?

Before delving into scripture, let us consider an equally intriguing query… why are we not asking where “good” comes from? If God is not gracious and all-powerful, or if He is nonexistent altogether and if natural humanistic philosophy or Darwinian evolution supersedes biblical theology, then who can justify altruism, philanthropy, and self-sacrifice? Why are we willing to accept that absent the God of the Bible, good might exist in the world but not willing to accept that with the God of the Bible, evil might exist in the world? We cannot attempt to answer the question of evil and suffering without also considering the questions of good and altruism.

I. First Creation. 

The very first verse of the Bible establishes the biblical worldview with reference to the Christian God: “In the beginning, God…” God is the uncreated One. He always has been, and always will be. Everything else is His creation, His workmanship.  The Bible tells us that God’s creation was perfect. In the original creation, there was no “sin,” or “evil.” But God created all beings with the freedom of choice. A free will. The immediate question would be, if God created us with the capacity to choose evil, then did not He actually create evil?

First of all, if God had not created beings with the freedom of choice, this would be the opposite of good. The beauty in relationship is not that we cannot do wrong to each other. It’s that we choose not to do wrong to each other. We are not pawns on God’s cosmic chess-board. We are free creatures with whom He desires an intimate, good relationship. Secondly, God’s creation of beings with the freedom to choose evil is as equivalent to creating evil as is my baking a cookie is equivalent to me giving you a sugar-rush. I could have made that cookie with the purpose of being a paperweight. What you chose to do or not to do with it will determine its effect on you.

So God created beings who would have the freedom to choose evil and the capacity to choose good.

II. Fall of Satan.

One of the leaders in the Angelic realm (angels being such creatures whom God endowed with the freedom of choice), Lucifer, decided rather than being submissive to the Creator he wanted to be like the Creator (Is. 14:13-14). Whereas before his treachery, Lucifer was a “Shining Morning Star” (14:12), after his prideful attempt to dethrone the Creator, he became “weak” (14:10), “laid low” (14:8), and altogether “worthless” (14:16-21). Whereas God created Lucifer with the inclination for and capacity toward all that is good, he freely chose to defy God’s authority, thereby producing for the first time good’s opposite – “evil.”

III. Fall of Man.

Man, in the same way, though created with the inclination toward and the capacity for good, freely chose to defy God’s standards. The forbidden tree from which they ate was not an evil tree. It was a tree of the “knowledge of good and evil” (good having existed from eternity within God’s very nature, and evil having entered creation as a contradiction to God’s design because of Satan’s choices). The nature of humanity’s sin is the same as that of Satan’s in that they believed they would become “like God” if they ate the fruit of the forbidden tree (Gen. 3:4). Adam and Eve decided to trust Satan instead of God. They were tempted yes, by Satan’s lies, but more appropriately by their desire to be “like God.” Whereas up to this point, they had lived in harmony with God, suffering no evil, and not even knowing that it existed, the byproduct of their free choice to defy God was the same as Satan’s… evil entering their world. 

When evil entered the world, catastrophe followed. Great pain in labor (Gen. 3:17) and in childbirth (3:16). Tension between relationships (3:16). Death and ruin (3:19). Hostility between man and the demonic realm (3:15). Romans 8:19-22 explains that creation itself has been in bondage since that awful day – “crying out” and “groaning” for restoration to its once glorious state.

IV. The Solution for Sin.

But God, being omniscient from before time ever began, already knew the decisions of His free creatures (unaffected by the limitations of His creation, He sees time as kairos [the whole picture] while we see time as chronos [chronologically]). At the very point of betrayal, He revealed His solution for the problem of sin (and evil). It is known as the protoevangelion, or the first expression of the gospel: Gen. 3:15, “I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike His heel.” While on the cross, Satan did inflict a painful blow to Jesus, Son of Mary – daughter of Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, and Adam/Eve – Jesus is the one who delivered the fatal blow, crushing the head of Satan… that those found in Christ Jesus, redeemed by His blood, having been given the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ… those who freely choose to accept God’s remedy for the problem of sin, (which naturally led and still leads to evil and suffering)… they would be partakers with Christ in the heavenly gift of salvation – defeating both their own evil and the evil of Satan himself.

V. The End of Evil and Suffering.

But while the world continues on its increasingly godless, evil course of chronology, winding ever farther away from God’s initially perfect creation (because the effects of sin are degenerative and degrading), there will come a day when God creates a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1) in which there is no evil or suffering (21:4, 27). This new creation will once again restore perfect communion between man and God, as was initially intended, by eradicating evil and suffering (sin/evil’s side effect). Where sin rules our hearts, scarred by our own evil, suffering is a natural byproduct. But when God’s presence and righteousness rules our hearts, glory and peace are present.

PRACTICALITY:

I realize this sounds overly theological… But it is also very practical. Where does evil come from? Sin, and its effects. “Natural disasters?” – an effect of sin’s entrance into the world. Hate crimes? – an effect of sin’s entrance into the world. Injustice? Mistreatment? Degradation? Suffering? – all effects of sin’s entrance into the world.

Why doesn’t God just intervene and stop evil and suffering? – A good God is one who is just. The “wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Death in the Greek means “separation” (both body from the soul, and the man from God). A wage is something earned. All are sinners (Romans 3:23) and that means all have earned separation. But Jesus Christ willingly took that wage for us. He offers us restoration with God on the basis of grace through faith. Separation from God is something we give ourselves (John 3:17-18). Reconciliation with God is something we must receive from Him by trusting Jesus as Lord (John 3:16).

What does this mean?…

1. He HAS intervened. This life is not all their is. The next is preeminent. God woos us and pursues us passionately that we might be restored unto Him. This is possible because of His love for us, shown forth in the truth that “While we were yet in sin, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). The solution/intervention has already occurred. But if we refuse His love, we refuse His intervention.

2. He DOES intervene. There are millions of stories in chronos where God has miraculously intervened for someone or some cause. I’ll bet you even know of some. But sometimes, it appears as though He is absent. This is not true. Remember that God sees the whole picture, where we only see an event. What we think best may be in opposition to what He knows to be best. And even at that, we must remember that God is not the causer of evil. We are. When someone murders a group of individuals heartlessly, it isn’t God’s fault. It’s that person’s sin which has produced evil in his heart. When “natural disasters” destroy homes and families, it isn’t God’s fault. It is the destructive effect of sin in our world. For the Christian, comfort can be realized in even the most difficult of these situations, understanding that somehow, “all things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to His purposes” (Rom. 8:28). All that we experience now is not the whole story. It is only a part. And God is watchfully guiding that story, reaching down in time and space to offer us the only solution to the problem of evil and suffering: rebirth through faith in Jesus Christ (John 3).

3. He WILL intervene. And I would imagine that when He does bring all things to His predetermined conclusion, most of us at that time will still not understand. But trusting His omniscience and eternal goodness, we can look forward to the day when evil and suffering will be eradicated once and for all, and those who accept His gift of deliverance are ushered into the very presence of God for eternity, absent the things which plague and confuse us in this life.

Grace and Peace,

Tony