The Question of Evil, Part 1

Intellectual Responses

Grieving(First in a series of three articles.)

When horrible events like the Sandy Hook shooting, the tsunami in Japan, and the 9/11 attacks happen, many people start asking the Question, in one form or another. “If God is a God of love, why doesn’t He do something about the evil in the world?” Or “How can you say a loving God exists when the world is in such a horrible state?”

The Question is rarely, if ever, an idle one. It’s asked by people wanting to make sense of a painful world. It’s asked by people wanting to attack a God they believe has let them and the rest of humanity down. It’s asked by people wanting a reason to believe in Him. It’s asked by people who have compassion on others’ suffering and by people who have suffered themselves. It’s asked by people honestly trying to reconcile what they have heard about the Christian God with what they see going on in the world. And it’s asked as a reason for an angry person to stay angry, as a way to logically deny God’s existence.

However and whyever it is asked, many of us will be confronted with it. People will ask it of us, and we may ask it of ourselves. How can we answer people who see us believe that God is love despite the pain and evil in our world? How can we address our own niggling doubts after terrible things happen?

There are three different kinds of responses to the Question: intellectual arguments, theological exploration, and faith-based action. A Christian addressing a questioner could use any or all of them. The one thing we must remember is to be sensitive to all the emotional and cultural components of the Question. Emotions are hard to deal with and require delicate handling. The Question should never be considered merely a philosophical debate, nor should a Christian always view it as an attack on Christian beliefs, though it may indeed be. The Question is, in fact, a way for Christians to witness lovingly to the love of God and His good plan for the world He created.

Some ‘Answers’

Some people ask the Question wanting a philosophical or theological debate with intellectually satisfying answers. When that is the case, we ought to be prepared to at least offer something that provokes honest thought and is backed up by sound biblical doctrine.

Human Responsibility for Evil

One of the answers I as a Christian find most compelling is to speak of human sin. From the moment Adam and Eve first sinned in the Garden of Eden, humanity has had a propensity to choose evil rather than good. A sweeping survey of history reveals the continuous tendency of humans to make one another suffer, from Adam and Eve betraying each other by blaming their own sin on each other, to the present problem of human trafficking. One person might ask, “Why does God allow people to be killed in wars?” The question to go along with this is, “Why do people choose to kill each other in wars?”

God created humans with freedom, the power to choose whether they will love or hate one another, to treat one another like people of value or like animals to be bought, sold, and used. As C.S. Lewis wrote in “The Problem of Pain,” “It is men, not God, who have produced racks, whips, prisons, slavery, guns, bayonets, and bombs.” How much of the evil that we demand God eliminate is our own choice and responsibility?

The Elimination of Human Freedom

To ask God to halt the evil that people do to each other would be to ask Him to remove their freedom. What would it mean to ask God to force all people to never do evil? If we demand that He cause child abusers to never hurt a child again, what will He do when we hurt our own children with an unjust accusation? If we wish Him to keep a drunk driver from getting into a car, will we simply accept it when He keeps us from speeding? God could remove all evil caused by people, but would we truly want Him to? To remove any person’s free will would be to remove all persons’ free will. Would we then be humans any longer?

One example of God wiping out evil with a single blow is the story of Noah in Genesis chapters 6-8, where God’s response to the evil in the world He created was a flood that wiped out all humanity except one family. Do askers of the Question really want this kind of drastic action? Can any of us say we are truly without sin, that we don’t deserve to be wiped out along with the “evil” people?

What Does God’s Love Mean, Anyway?

Americans can easily assume that a good God would want everyone to be happy. Not everyone is happy, and so people question God’s goodness and love. When questioners say, “A loving God would not let evil exist,” what do they mean by “a loving God?”

C. S. Lewis points out that people tend to see love as constant kindness, like a favorite grandparent who leaves discipline of the grandchildren to the parents and never has to do anything but give gifts and make cookies.

We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence . . . whose plan for the universe was simply that it might truly be said at the end of each day, “a good time was had by all.”
Often, the Question is a demand for God to be what humans want Him to be. We want Him to conform to our idea of what reality should be. We say a loving God should fix all the world’s problems. But since He is God and He is loving and He has not fixed all the world’s problems, then perhaps a loving God should not fix all the world’s problems.

Love is not only kindness. The sort of kindness that would allow anything except suffering is no true love at all. Love at times needs to rebuke and punish; at other times it needs to let willful people go their own way and learn their own lessons. Love allows people to mature and grow into relationship, often through hardship, rather than rushing to prevent every bump and bruise as a parent would do for a toddler. Love must be far more than mere kindness, and there are even times when true love does not seem like love at all, as any teenager who fights with his parents can testify.

What the questioners really need to see and understand is the true, terrible love of God that deals with the evil of the world in a way no one could ever have imagined. God does not just stand by and watch us suffer. In the next article in this series, I will address a loving God’s response to evil and pain.

For Further Reading:

John Swinton, “Raging With Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil” (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007).

Douglas John Hall, “God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross” (Augsburg Publishing House, 1986).

N.T. Wright, “Evil and the Justice of God,” (IVP Books, 2006).

C. S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed” (HarperSanFrancisco, 1961).

Christy McDougall is a Web developer, writer, and aspiring missionary with bachelor's and master's degrees in Christian theology.

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