No one can deny that the world is full of horrific suffering and unspeakable evil. The pages of history are filled with records of war, genocide, murder, sickness, disease and natural disasters. Many skeptics contend that the reality of evil and suffering is evidence that the existence of God is impossible, or at least highly unlikely; because if God does exist and he is all-powerful and all-loving, why doesn’t he intervene and stop heinous acts of evil and times of suffering?
Many Christian apologists have acknowledged that the problem of evil and suffering is the most challenging objection to belief in God. Part of the reason why is because there doesn’t appear to be any logical explanation that fully satisfies the profound emotional cries of our heart when we’re in the midst of pain and suffering. If you or a loved one is in the middle of a difficult time, a pastor or friend will be more helpful than a philosopher. Nevertheless, we do need to think deeply about and respond to this difficult but important question.
Firstly, let’s consider what evil actually is and where it comes from. Most people, when they hear accounts of evil automatically blame God. After all didn’t God create the universe and everything in it? Isn’t He therefore the source of evil and the one responsible for it? It’s important to remember that when God first created the world, it wasn’t like it is today. The Bible describes God’s creation as ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31). There was no sin, no evil, no pain and no death. God created the world and humanity so that we could experience and enjoy a relationship with Him, the very source of love, truth, beauty and goodness. It is true that God is all-loving. This means that when he created humanity He gave us free will. We have the freedom to either choose or reject Him. The first humans, Adam and Eve, rather than love and obey God, chose to reject Him. They chose to go their own way, to follow their own thoughts and feelings about what was right and wrong. Their rebellion bought sin, evil, death, pain and suffering into the world. Such a consequence is to be expected. When they rejected the very source of life, love, truth and goodness, the result was naturally the introduction of death, hatred, deception and all things evil into the world. The Bible explains that at this point humanity as well as all of creation became broken, corrupted and separated from God.
Many people may wonder why God couldn’t have created humans in such a way that we would never sin, thus avoiding evil altogether. However, in such a world we’d be more like robots than humans, programmed to blindly love and obey God. This wouldn’t be love or obedience at all. For example, it would be wrong to say a wife truly loves her husband if she’s been forced or coerced into loving him. Love by definition must be freely given. A free choice, however, leaves the possibility of a wrong choice, which is exactly what happened with humanity.
God did not create evil, nor is He responsible for it. But ever since Adam and Eve rebelled against God and introduced evil, sin, pain and suffering into the world, God has been at work in the mess putting an end to evil, while drawing as many people as possible to Him while not violating their free will in the process.
Many people are outraged that God doesn’t intervene and stop acts of evil from occurring. This raises some important questions: which acts of evil should God prevent? Do we want God to stop all acts of evil or just the ones we choose? It seems most people want to play God rather than stop evil altogether. For example, we naturally and quite rightly want God to stop murders, rape, and natural disasters. But, what about when individuals reject God and His plans and follow their own selfish ambitions, desires and ideas instead? After all, this is the ultimate act of evil, the rejection of the very source of love, truth, beauty, wisdom, justice and goodness. Do we also want God to stop these actions?
Many people believe that the ultimate goal of our lives on earth is happiness. They believe that if God does exist his role is to create a comfortable environment for us, and that He is obligated to keep us happy. Therefore, because we experience pain and suffering and God doesn’t intervene in exactly the way we demand Him to, He mustn’t exist. However, Christianity teaches a radically different view. Christianity teaches that the chief purpose of life is to know God and enjoy a relationship with Him: for if God does exist He is the very source of life, love, truth, wisdom, justice and all goodness. True joy, happiness and fulfilment come by loving God and living according to His ways.
Many people claim that they cannot believe in God because there’s too much evil and suffering in this world. It’s important to remember that evil is not a substance or thing, but rather the corruption or departure from good. Much like darkness is simply the absence of light. Evil is a departure from the way things ought to be.
Follow the logic in the following example to see how the reality of evil actually points us towards God’s existence.
...when you say there’s too much evil in this world you assume there’s good. When you assume there’s good, you assume there’s such a thing as a moral law on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil. But if you assume a moral law, you must posit a moral lawgiver, but that’s whom you’re trying to disprove and not prove, because if there’s no moral lawgiver, there’s no moral law. If there’s no moral law, there’s no good. If there’s no good, there’s no evil…
So, rather than undermine belief in God, the problem of evil and suffering actually points us towards God’s existence.
Let’s now consider the reasons God has for allowing evil and suffering and what He’s doing about it. It’s important to remember that God has not left us to hopelessly suffer and endure the consequences of our rebellion. He is at work in the mess of this world. He is in the process of redeeming humanity and all of creation. He’s bringing an end to evil. He often uses the evil created and committed by man and turns it for good, in order to reach individuals and groups, calling them into a relationship with Him, and saving them from an eternity separated from Him. C.S. Lewis once mused that, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Today in the West, our lives are so superficial, materialistic, comfortable and full of distractions that many can go their entire lives without thinking deeply about the meaning of life or God’s existence. The moments of pain and suffering we experience are sometimes God’s only opportunity to grab our attention and reveal Himself to us.
Many skeptics may ask how can we be sure that God is in the process of defeating evil? The answer is because He already has. God’s solution to all evil and suffering is found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus took the sins of the world upon Himself, died and then rose again. He defeated sin and death, the devil and every kind of evil. Through Christ, God has made a way for each and every one of us to be redeemed and delivered from the curse of our rebellion. God has made a way for us to be restored to right standing and relationship with Him.
As you think about this question more deeply and begin to form an answer for yourself it’s important to remember that every religion and worldview, not just Christianity, must face and answer the problem of evil and suffering. All things considered, Christianity offers the most intellectually and emotionally satisfying answer. For the biblical worldview is the only one that accepts the reality of evil and suffering while giving both the cause and the purpose, while offering God-given strength and sustenance in the midst of it.
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Further reading recommendations
'If God, Why Evil?' by Norman Geisler
'Where is God in all the Suffering?' by Amy Orr-ewing
'Suffering Life's Pain' by John Lennox and David Gooding
'God. Freedom, and Evil' by Alvin Plantinga
'The Problem of Evil' by Jeremy Evans