Considering Evil and God’s Goodness

Since writing for school has taken over writing for the blog, I thought I’d pass on a couple projects that would benefit more than one (professorial) reader. I wrote this paper last semester for my Evangelism and Discipleship class at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and titled it, “A Theory of Evil.” I need to thank my friend Alex Bennett for his critical feedback on this paper: I know that we still disagree on many of my claims, but your input was insightful, was gracious, and pushed me to think more deeply this semester.

Considering Evil and God’s Goodness

Three Moves

Given the apparent evil in our world, how can anyone believe there is a good god in this universe with any amount of control over the situation? At first, this seems like a question particular to theists, but all worldviews are challenged to account for the apparent tragedy in our world.

Theists are hard-pressed by this specific question. As one reporter wrote in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, “If God is God, he’s not good. If God is good, he’s not God.”[1] This is an elegant statement of the theist’s problem. However, I think that Tim Keller (who brought this quote to my attention in his book The Reason for God) makes a strong response when he comments, “If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have (at the same moment), a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know.”[2] Thus, theists have a lot on their plates. Christians, at least, have a major problem of evil to explain, but also have a clear basis for calling evil “evil,” and a higher intelligence to defer to for the parts they cannot fully explain.

Conversely, atheistic worldviews are also challenged by the existence of evil. Secular humanists, for example, have no obligation to reconcile god and evil, but are hard pressed to rationally establish “good” and “evil.” Just as many non-theists scoff, “Only blind faith would think there’s a good god over this evil world,” many theists chortle with equal dismissiveness, “Nihilism is the only logical end of atheism.” These hasty caricatures are unhelpful. We need to acknowledge that the existence of evil is the biggest stress test of all our worldviews, and none can pass it without breaking a sweat. I know my Christian theodicy isn’t simple or obvious, but no satisfactory response to evil, from any worldview, is.

Given this philosophical context, I don’t believe that any worldview can prove itself, particular its theory of evil. Taking it one step further, I doubt whether any worldview can make its theory of evil palatable. Yet, it must at least be edible. Evil has not been “solved.” Thus, a theory of evil need not be obvious (in fact, it seems that after all these years, it is more than likely unexpected), but it should be coherent. We should not expect proof, but we can demand clear thinking.

(Source)

Christian thinkers are faced with a three-piece puzzle. It’s a bit like this “burr cube” (as they’re apparently called in the puzzle industry), designed by Osanori Yamamoto.[3] Christians have to fit three seemingly incompatible propositions into our philosophy like the blocks that are supposed to somehow fit into the cube. First, that evil exists. Second, that God is good. Third, that God is powerful. Any two blocks fit easily. Like Hindus or Buddhists, we can say that nothing is really evil. Like atheists or Manicheans, we can say there is no all-powerful god. Like the ancient Greeks, we can say that the gods aren’t all good. However, Christians believe that we can fit all three and, in fact, that we must. On the one hand, we do not take it upon ourselves to justify our transcendent God (and we should not be surprised if we are surprised by our own misunderstanding in the end). On the other hand, we want to make a persuasive case for our faith, because we believe that we have found true life in this concept of the world.

What moves do Christian thinkers make to fit all three pieces into the puzzle? First, we think critically about the idea of evil in our world. We recognize that there is genuine evil in our world, unlike new age philosophies that, in their all-encompassing oneness, preclude any distinction between the essentially good and the essentially bad. However, not everything distasteful is evil. A burst of pain can compel me to take my hand from a hot pan. Three months with nothing but Dunkin Donuts makes me excited to get back to Top Pot. Childbirth is a process we wouldn’t choose for a result who we then cherish. However, when a boy two towns over killed his teacher last month, we saw evil. When immigrants are essentially enslaved in Florida tomato fields, we see evil.

A First Move

Oftentimes, we blame God for everything unpleasant, saying, “how could a good God allow a world like this?” Yet, we should stop and divide the first category, the things we dislike, from the second, evil, since a good God could conceivably be responsible for the former and not the latter. Most would say rush hour traffic is the former, but violent road rage is the latter. A falcon eating a mouse may be gruesome, but a man beating a woman is evil. The line separating the two is human intention. Despite the inherent suffering, we don’t see evil in Mufasa’s description of “the circle of life,” but we decry it in the greed and deception of Hamlet. Indeed, the Bible asserts that the first human-enacted evil is what corrupted all creation. Thus, Christians talk about “sin,” not because we like being prudes, but because we believe that God created a good world now cleft by human evil. Thus, the question isn’t generally how we could live in “this world”—a world could very well include earthquakes without being evil if it didn’t include looters, selfish neighbors, and corrupt power structures—but specifically, how human evil can be tolerated. It is with this nuance that the block of evil’s existence is placed in the cube.

Admittedly, this first move almost begs the question. Saying that the real problem is human evil does not explain why a good, powerful god wouldn’t put a stop to such a thing. Knowing the dreadful effects of human sin, it initially seems that a praiseworthy god would have to stop a so-called “first sin” and most other sins thereafter. Yet, this is like telling a mother that she “has to” make sure her 6th grader gets an A on her science project. I agree that she must value her daughter’s grade, but not that it must be her highest value. God does value goodness and peace, but the God of the Bible also values human freedom. Our second move is to affirm that like the mother who lets her daughter fail for a higher parenting purpose, God values freedom enough to risk giving humans real—not merely perceived—freedom to choose.

A Second Move

C.S. Lewis, a 20th century classics professor who became a Christian fairly well into his academic career, drastically addressed my own angst about this set-up in his book Mere Christianity. I hope you’ll indulge me a long quote, since I can’t bring myself to cut off any section of it.

Of course God knew what would happen if [humans] used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk. Perhaps we feel inclined to disagree with Him. But there is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on. If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will—that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when he pulls the strings—then we may take it it is worth paying.

When we have understood about free will, we shall see how silly it is to ask, as somebody once asked me: ‘Why did God make a creature of such rotten stuff that it went wrong?’ The better stuff a creature is made of—the cleverer and stronger and freer it is—then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong. A cow cannot be very good or very bad; a dog can be both better and worse; a child better and worse still; an ordinary man, still more so; a man of genius, still more so; a superhuman spirit best—or worst—of all.[4]

This free will is a major claim of Christianity. Though the Bible starts out with an all-powerful God, it quickly claims that humans make real decisions, and that God, even when he does not find their decisions good, affirms their ability to make them. Now, as much as I admire C.S. Lewis, I think that he and many others do poorly to stop here. They affirm that not all distasteful things are evil (talking about pain and fire or broccoli and chocolate), that human evil is the real problem and that God, in his providence gave us genuine free will. This is all true and important. But I think this leaves our wood puzzle with one of the three pieces, “God is good,” awkwardly jutting out the side. It is an incomplete solution, particularly because the Christian account for evil is not merely explanation, but expectation.

A Third Move

Indeed, if 2013 were the final act in this drama, it would appear that the writer is not good, but the third move in our puzzle solution rests on two central, future-oriented teachings of Scripture. The first is faith, faith that this is not the final act. The Bible makes bold promises, which we must desperately trust or laughingly reject. The prophet Isaiah (7th c. AD) promised:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
Because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
And the day of vengeance of our God,
To comfort all who mourn,
And provide for those who grieve in Zion—
To bestow on them a crown of beauty
Instead of ashes
The oil of joy
Instead of mourning
And a garment of praise
Instead of a spirit of despair
They will be called oaks of righteousness
A planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.[5]

Several hundred years later, Jesus chose to read this passage in his local synagogue. When he closed the book and people got ready for his commentary, he simply said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”[6] Jesus taught that his coming set this promise in motion. Yet, his ministry was not the finished work heard in a eulogy; it was the burgeoning excitement of an election-night acceptance speech. There was and is a lot left to do, and his was a ministry of further promises. His most essential response to evil and suffering is the start of his most famous sermon:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The Bible depicts a great future in the book called Revelation:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
…Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they and where did they come from?”
I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”[7]

Externally, Christians are supposed to oppose evil, but we are only able to do so in hope because inwardly, we endure evil with faith in God’s promises. Indeed,

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.[8]

Is present evil a proof against God? We don’t think so. We believe that the present evil is what makes our faith require faith. We don’t maintain this faith based solely on our theory of evil—we are persuaded by the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and our own experience of the Spirit of God in our lives—but like two friends leaning against one another, our theory of evil enables our faith while our faith enable our theory of evil. At some level, this is true of all worldviews.

The other central teaching of Scripture in this last move is grace. We believe that humanity got our world into this mess, but that God will graciously go above and beyond to get us out of it. In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, God berates the priests for wickedly taking advantage of the people. Then he goes on to promise,

I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land…I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.[9]

We have faith, not only that God will restore justice, but that God will restore justice graciously. In fact, true Christians acknowledge that we would be the ones judged sternly at the final restoration, were it not for the exceeding grace of God.

Three Moves

These are the three essential moves of Christian theodicy. First, we do not consider all that is unpleasant “evil,” but we do acknowledge that there is real evil in the world, set in motion by humans. Second, we believe that evil exists because God chose to give humans true freedom to make real choices, doing real good and real harm. Finally, we maintain God’s goodness and power, not by sugarcoating our present state, but by trusting in a future when they will pour forth like the dam breaking over Isengard. Our theory of evil is both explanation and expectation. This present age is the second-to-last note of a masterful concerto; it doesn’t seem to fit together, but we believe that the maestro is preparing us for a soul-satisfying resolution.


[1] Ron Rosenbaum, “Disaster Ignites Debate: Was God in the Tsunami?” New York Observer. January 10, 2005.

[2] Tim Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Penguin, 2008), 23.

[3] This picture is from Brian Pletcher’s blog, accessible at http://mechanical-puzzles.blogspot.com/2011/08/2011-puzzle-design-competition-part-1.html

[4] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), 48-49.

[5] Isaiah 61:1-3. All Bible quotes are from the New International Version translation.

[6] Luke 4:14-30.

[7] This whole quote is from Revelation 7:9-17. The last part that the elder says is actually a song made up of promises made from earlier parts of the Bible, including Isaiah 4:6, Isaiah 25:8, Isaiah 49:6, John 4:10, and John 4:11.

[8] Romans 8:22-25.

[9] Ezekiel 34:1-16.

0 thoughts on “Considering Evil and God’s Goodness”

  1. Thanks for your sharing this, Alex – I suppose we’d differ on point #2. Have you read Jonathan Edwards’ Freedom of the Will? He basically dispels, the notion that the will can in any sense be free, except in that it legitimately chooses what it is already PRE-DISPOSED to choose – there can’t be a third, “nuetral” process behind all of this, as that would leave us unable to choose anything…complicated stuff, but it makes me doubt move #2. I’d also be careful setting God up as the one whose ultimate value, in some sense, is “Freedom of the Will”, since that’s not once given as any kind of theodicy in scripture – NOR is it present in the third move you present, the eschaton. If God values our freedom to choose so highly, why is it not present in eternity?

    Food for thought.

    1. Hi Nick–You raise a fair point. I certainly don’t want to suggest that free will is an “ultimate value” for God. If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have told you that I categorically do not believe in free will. However, I’ve come to believe that God has created something we call “free will” that falls within his sovereignty, but stands on its own two feet. There is some sort of choice implicit in the command not to eat from the tree (Gen 2:16-17), in the offer to “choose this day whom you will serve” (Josh 24:15), in the rebellion of Romans 1, and the “purposes of the heart” (1 Cor 4:5) that will be revealed and rewarded. It is unsettling to combine sovereignty and authentic human action in the world of abstract reason, but it is equally unsettling to reconcile divine determinism with the rape of a country or a child. I question whether the Scriptures really push us to do either.

  2. Alex, this is quite well done. I enjoyed it very much. Have you had occasion to read Augustine’s “Grace and Free Will” ? I read portions of it for the Church History class I’m teaching at CBC. He was an amazing thinker on this subject.
    Keep up the good work!

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