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June 26, 2024

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In-Depth: The Problem Of Evil — A Topic Upon Which You Can Build Gospel Conversations With Anyone

Calvin Smith

To be honest, answering the exact same questions over and over again gets a little bit tedious.

“Could God create a rock so heavy he couldn’t lift it?” “If everything needs a creator, who created God?”

Now, I know these questions are always new for the person asking. I can remember thinking about them for the first time myself and being very thankful that there were Christian apologists (such as Josh McDowell and C. S. Lewis) that helped me work through these and many more questions I had as a brand-new Christian.

I later found the Answers in Genesis ministry, which was a huge help in understanding much more, and I was often amazed at how simple the answers often were once I realized the fallacies contained within them. So even though I sometimes sigh (internally, of course), I’m glad to help when people ask.

“How do you explain dinosaurs? What about carbon dating? How could Noah have fit all the animals on board the ark?” These are all common questions I’ve heard and answered countless times over the years. And I sure am glad someone had answers for me when I asked.

However, the most enduring and weighty questions I (and likely any Christian) have ever received regarding faith and trust in God’s Word almost always have to do with the problem of evil.

It’s not an easy topic and one to take lightly. You can wrestle with it mentally and create frameworks for it philosophically. Still, I want to preface this brief engagement of the topic with the full acknowledgment that suffering through something—even when having the so-called “right answers” regarding it—are two very different things that are often difficult to reconcile.

Having said that, I believe it’s a concept that everyone, especially believers, should grapple with seriously—because it’s a universal topic upon which you can build gospel conversations with anyone.

The Problem of Evil

We all live with both the concept and reality of death and suffering. And while worshippers of various deities may attempt to explain things differently, naturalists can chalk it all up to it simply being the way it is.

It’s a “circle of life” idea. Bad things happen sometimes; everything lives and dies, and it’s natural. However, even though accidents are tragic, diseases are heartbreaking, and the thought that everyone you know will pass away at some point is painfully sobering. Evil is something else.

Even the most committed materialist can feel the tendrils of horror slink through their mind at the thought of someone committing child abuse or torture. And crime scene investigators looking into a string of serial killings don’t experience PTSD just because they lived through something we think of as “natural.”

Even a traumatized soldier suffering after seeing the horrors of war likely won’t view what they experienced as belonging to the same ethical category as what Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, or Jeffrey Dahmer enacted, even though their body count may not have been anywhere near as high as what a war might produce.

Similarly, most understand that a policeman shooting a perpetrator during a violent bank robbery or a convicted murderer being put to death aren’t typically considered evil acts but are justified because of the circumstances.

Although terrible and tragic, the fact that the person killed willingly chose to defy the law and infringe on other people’s rights justifies the actions of the people that destroyed them. No one in their right mind would have wanted such things to happen, but because of the context, most would say justice had been served.

So bad things happening to someone, even when caused purposefully by one person upon another person, are justified under specific moral, ethical, and lawful conditions. It’s understandable to a certain degree.

However, evil impacts us differently; it’s on a whole other level than simply saying something is “bad.” It instinctively repulses us, and the reality of evil has caused many people to turn away from God.

They reason that if God created everything (and if evil is a thing), then he must have created evil—so they blame God for all the evil in this world. Essentially, they feel they could have done a better job creating the world themselves. The Roman Epicurean poet, Lucretius, put it this way:

Had God designed the world, it would not be A world so frail and faulty as we see.

Did the Original World God Create Contain Evil?

However, Scripture is clear that God did not create a world with evil in it, as the world we now live in does.

Genesis 1:31, 2:1 KJV – “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day… Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.”

However, Scripture also says that all things were created by God.

Colossians 1:16 – “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:”

Nehemiah 9:6 KJV – “Thou, even thou, art Lord alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth thee.”

And although many want to blame everything on the devil, even Satan was part of that originally very good world and blameless in the beginning, as Scripture says:

Ezekiel 28:15 KJV – “Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, till iniquity was found in thee.”

So, how can we reconcile this seeming contradiction of some “thing” coming into existence apart from God (who supposedly created all things)? Did God change his mind and add something to the creation later on? It seems unlikely since he clarifies in Scripture that all things were created in six literal days!

Exodus 20:11 KJV – “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.”

When Did Bad Things Come About?

First, let’s discuss when bad things came about. After all, we just read that the original creation was very good.

Scripture says that in the garden of Eden, God gave Adam everything needed for his enjoyment, along with only one negative command. God gave them a clear warning as to the consequences should they disobey him.

Genesis 2:16–17 KJV – “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”

Adam and Eve were fully mature adults who’d been told very clearly what the consequence of their actions would be. And Genesis 3 records the day Adam and Eve willfully rejected God’s generosity and authority and rebelled against him.

Being holy and righteous, God punished them just as he told them he would. And from that point forward, the world was never again called “very good.” So, death and suffering are the consequence of their sin, as Scripture says:

Romans 5:12 KJV – “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:”

So, Adam and Eve suffering the consequences of their willful actions against God certainly falls into the category of just punishment. Of course, the challenge we all face now is that we were all effectively “in” Adam when he fell, and we are part of a corrupted race.

We also sin—we do it willingly and contribute to how bad the world now is, and we can’t overcome our situation or live sinlessly by ourselves, which is why we need a Savior. That is truly bad news, but many people reject the history of the world and want to define good or bad on their own terms.

Where Does the Idea of “Badness” Come From?

People are quick to throw around the notion of good or bad as if it were universally understood. However, many can’t define it beyond a rather simplistic declaration of what makes them feel good or bad, which is rather subjective and completely circular.

The self-described “most reluctant convert” from atheism to deism, and later to Christianity, was, of course, the great thinker—C. S. Lewis. Once arguing that God could not exist because of the evil he saw in the world, he later realized that something bad could only truly exist if there was an objective “good” with which it could be compared. Otherwise, it was all simply a subjective feeling based on individual preference.

Simply put, badness presupposes goodness, and something bad couldn’t exist without good. It’s like light. Darkness is simply the absence of light. You don’t flip a switch and turn on darkness. You shine light into the darkness to varying degrees.

Almost everyone agrees that life is a good thing and that death is bad. Pleasure is a good thing, but suffering isn’t. Joy is good, but a lack of joy is sadness, which we then recognize as bad. But there would have to be something that defines goodness outside each individual’s mind for it to be universally true.

Case in point, we live in a world where some people get joy from hurting others or sometimes themselves. So, if joy is a good thing, doesn’t that mean that hurting someone could be construed as “good” for that person?

Most would say no! Most would say those people’s actions are wrong, bad, or evil. But there must be an absolute standard of right and wrong to refer to for that to be absolutely true. And only the God of the Bible could possibly provide that absolute, unchanging standard.

And interestingly, if you asked most people what they felt God’s ultimate characteristic to be, most would say that God is good! This gives us another important piece of the puzzle in understanding all of this.

Where Does Good Come From?

The Bible is clear that all good things come from God and that he does not change.

James 1:17 KJV – “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”

Although theologians have debated exactly how it unfolds, Scripture states that man has been given some autonomous authority and responsibility over this world.

Psalm 115:16 KJV – “The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord’s: but the earth hath he given to the children of men.”

Which further helps explain where evil comes from:

1 John 2:16 KJV – “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.”

What Is Evil?

So what, then, is evil? We all seem to be able to recognize it—murder, torture, rape, slavery.

When we see a person who has power over others who abuses, humiliates, and denigrates them for no reason, we recognize that it’s evil.

Well, evil can be defined as a combination of three things—an absence of good combined with a will that seeks “less good” to occur to another living being—all in relation to an absolute standard of good that can only come from God.

God created life, and he is our comforter; he blessed people with the ability to produce offspring, gave us freedom, and created mankind with dignity beyond any animal.

In contrast, murder is the willful, unjustified taking of another life. Torture is the total deprivation of comfort. Rape is the abuse of the act of procreation devoid of mutual consent and love, slavery is the unwilling subjugation of man through the denial of freedom, and humiliation and abuse are the removals of dignity.

So evil is a subtractive, leeching, parasitical concept—not an independent entity.

God did not create evil, but he did create human beings with the capacity to choose evil. And while the capacity to choose evil is not evil itself, it provides the possibility for evil to exist. And the absence of good defines evil.

We think of evil as a “thing” because it is brought about by human will, a depraved mind that actively seeks the opposite of what God initially created. But it’s totally dependent upon God’s goodness—so it is really just a way to describe a rebellious mind seeking its own. Evil is the opposite of love.

What Is Love?

The Bible gives a clear definition of love, a description of God.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 KJV – “Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; 7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”

God defines goodness, expressing the innate characteristics of God himself that he has built into every human being, and every human being is responsible for living up to those standards.

However, we all know we’ve failed, have done evil things ourselves, and are guilty according to God’s standards. However, God did not leave all of mankind in this sorry state.

John 3:16 KJV – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

And that is very good news indeed.

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