Lesson 10

How could a good, all-powerful God create a world full of suffering & evil?

Often an objection believers hear to the truthfulness of Christianity relates to the problem of evil. Philosophers state the objection at a sophisticated level in logical propositions. But even those without professional training experience the problem of evil. The world is full of suffering, death—babies born deformed, children dying of starvation. Hitlers and Stalins murder millions. How could a good, all-powerful God have created such a universe? Believers may express this objection in a more reverent fashion—How can a good and sovereign God tolerate suffering?

In last week’s Story of the Good Policeman, it is clear that the Good Policeman would have been just to punish the criminals, but why wouldn’t a Good Policeman prevent the crime in the first place? Is God too weak? Or is he just an evil God?

The Argument from Evil: These 3 points are incompatible—We must get rid of at least one of them:

God is all-powerful


God is good  

Evil is real

Three Heretical Answers (Don’t EVER say any of these!):

Heretical Solution #1: Free-will theism (Clark Pinnock)/process theology. God has no power to change things.

Heretical Solution #2: Christian Science, eastern religion. Evil is just an illusion.

Heretical Solution #3: Dualism. There is a dark side to the Force, Luke.

The issue is not that God’s goodness, God’s power, and evil’s reality can’t fit together, but that there are additional pieces to the puzzle that fit between them and hold them together.

1. Free Will is a partial answer.

Free will gives a partial answer to this question of evil and suffering. It goes like this.

Evil, therefore, finds its origin not in the Creator, but in the creature. God receives no blame for evil—we do. We get the credit for evil because we’re the ones who chose to abandon God.

2. As a result of free will, history is discontinuous.

There was no evil in God's original creation. But Adam had free will—he was able to sin or to not sin. And he chose to sin. And Adam's choice affected more than just himself. He represented all of humanity. Indeed, Adam represented the whole world (he had dominion over it), and when Adam was sinning, the whole world was declaring war on God. Thus even the natural world was plunged into suffering—animate as well as inanimate (the ground being cursed in Genesis 3 and thus awaiting full salvation at Christ’s return—Romans 8:19-22). This discontinuity is what Christians call the Fall. The world is good (Gen. 1), but fallen in rebellion against God.

How could God create a world full of evil and suffering? He didn’t. He created a world in which people enjoyed communion with God, intimacy with each other, perfect harmony with the creation, and everlasting life—a world with no suffering, no sin and no guilt. History is radically discontinuous. The world changed at the Fall.

And the fact that the Bible says the world is good but fallen certainly makes sense of life. Human beings are capable of great beauty and kindness, but also great evil. Children are cute, but selfish. Adults are smart, but manipulative. The Bible accounts for both the glory and the shame of being human. We’re God’s image, but an image marred and distorted by our divorce from our Creator.

The Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal spoke of the grandeur and misery of humanity. We are capable of great things, but are always capable of pondering an existence better than the life we now have. Thus we find ourselves in misery precisely because we have the ability to contemplate a better existence. Perhaps the fact that we can imagine a life without suffering is itself a reminder deep within our human consciousness of the life we once enjoyed in loins of father Adam—a life we have lost and can only regain through the redemptive intervention of God in human history. This is a redemption that will only be complete when Jesus Christ returns.

3. If you want God to eradicate evil, you’re demanding that he eradicate us. God’s alternative to eradicating evil people is to redeem them.

Remember the words of Peter: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). You blame God for evil in the world? I assure you he can take care of the problem right now—but you won’t like the way he does so. Is there evil in your heart? He can destroy your heart at any moment. The amazing thing, though, is that God doesn’t do this. He made your tongue, and you use it to speak against him—but he is patient with you. For now.

Redemption is God’s striking alternative to eradication. Rather than destroying his fallen creation, he has chosen to restore a people for himself, a people who one day will live with him in a restored creation (2 Peter 3:13).

4. Evil is not a thing, but a privation of the good.

This was the point that Augustine made in the fourth century when refuting the dualistic Manichean cult out of which he had come when converted to Christ. Mani had taught that there were two eternal creator-Gods, one evil and one good—the evil God accounting for evil in the world, the good God accounting for goodness. Augustine wrote On the Nature of the Good to demonstrate that evil as a created thing does not exist. Since there is no evil thing in creation, and evil creator-God is irrational. Evil is not a thing, but a condition that good things have. God created all things good (Genesis 1), and evil is a condition they have when they have lost some of their initial goodness. Even Satan has no creative power, but is himself just a fallen creature.

Sex, for example, is a good gift of God. Adultery is the perversion of a good thing by robbing it of the good context for which it was designed. People are not evil in the sense that a human liver is a bad thing. Rather, humans are evil insofar as they have fallen from the condition in which God first designed them. Evil, then, is not a thing. Evil is a lack. Evil is a negative. Evil is a privation of the good.

This is even how human language has developed. Injustice, for example, assumes the prior existence of justice. Injustice is a lack of justice. Immorality is a privation of morality, unkindness a lack of kindness. Sin, biblically speaking, is a failure to achieve God’s standard of perfection, falling short of our design, a “missing the mark”. R.C. Sproul makes the observation well: “Our language betrays the fact that to think about and conceptualize evil, we must do it against the backdrop of the good” (Reason to Believe, 127).

Thus a philosopher like Descartes in the seventeenth century could answer the skeptics who argued that if God exists, he must be evil. Descartes agreed that there could be nothing in the effect (creation) that was not also in the cause (God), but added that evil is not a thing, but a lack. The creation’s now having less goodness does not require a reality of evil within God’s nature. It only requires that beings with free will chose to seek a lesser good than the good for which they were created—a seeking of lesser goods that offends God and is therefore called evil.

5. But free will is only a partial answer.

But this still doesn't answer how God could allow such evil to happen. Free will is kind of a lame answer to the problem of evil. Why would God create beings that are capable of making evil choices? The fact remains that if God is good and all-powerful, he nevertheless created millions of people knowing they would sin and thus suffer the wrath of hell forever.

Wrong answer: It is better for God to create beings with free will than beings without free will.

6. God Allows evil to achieve a Greater Good.

This argument has two versions. The more common form of the argument is that God allows evil in order to give us opportunities to love. Without evil in the world, there would be no one needy of compassion, no one we would need to forgive, no enemies to love as ourselves. As Romans 8:28 states, “And we know that in all things God works together for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

But this passage says a little less and a little more than some people realize. Less? God’s good purpose isn’t for everyone here, but only for “those who love God.” More? The good that God brings about here is less about opportunities for us to do greater good, and more about God doing something good for us.

Often the way the greater good argument is presented seems lacking. The good aspects that people usually point to—opportunities for us to show love and mercy, a greater appreciation of goodness through its comparison with evil—may not outweigh the evil in question. Is my opportunity to show mercy really worth some else’s going to hell? I’m not so sure.

7. The Greatest Good is greater than our good.

This is where I’m likely to loose some people. But this is where the rubber hits the road and we find out who really loves God and who just loves themselves and God for their own sake (i.e. fire insurance). This is also where we get deep.

Here we go... (Drumroll)...

For God to plan a universe in which evil exists is a good thing if that evil will be used by God to bring greater glory to himself.

There. I said it. Now everyone can scream about how unfair God is. I’m not sure why, but people always get upset when I present God’s glory as a higher good than our comfort. Hmmm. Does this make God the author of evil? No. Not if human agents choose with their own wills to do the evil acts. Is God making the ends justify the means? No. That would only be a valid concern if God’s actions themselves were sinful, which they aren’t. For God to use someone else’s sinful acts to accomplish a good purpose is not evil. Indeed, it’s making a good use out of events that would otherwise have none.

7a. Joseph as an Example of God’s Use of Evil: The classic biblical illustration of this point is the account of Joseph’s enslavement in Egypt. Joseph’s brothers sought to kill him, selling him into slavery. Joseph was wrongly accused and jailed. Still, all of this evil and suffering was necessary to accomplish a greater plan that God had. Millions of people were spared from famine. Joseph’s wicked brothers had an evil plan, an evil plan that God incorporated into his own good plan in order to accomplish a greater good. As Joseph explained to his brothers, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:19-20). God intended evil to befall Joseph in order to achieve the greater good of saving many lives.

ILLUSTRATION: The story of the Doctor and the Little boy with Heart Failure

7b. The Greatest Example of Man’s Evil overruled for God’s Glory: The greatest evil in history was planned by God to achieve the greatest good in history. We see in the murder of Jesus the most wicked act ever perpetrated by a human being—deicide, the killing of God. Yet in that same act we see the salvation of the world, the defeat of Satan, and the glory of God’s justice displayed for all the cosmos to witness. Was the murder of Jesus evil? Yes. Were the murderers responsible for their evil? Certainly. Why did God plan such an evil deed? For a greater good, so that he might have a people to declare the praises of him who called them out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9).

Examine how God instructs us in Acts 2:23 and 4:27-28.

1. God planned the sin.

2. The sinners were responsible for their actions.

3. God overruled their sin in order to achieve a Greater Good.

4. That Greater Good is our salvation and from that God’s glory.

7c. The Tapestry—dark now, but beautiful someday: Out of all the billions of ways that God could have planned history, this is the plan God chose. God chose to bring about a world full of evil and suffering. If history is a tapestry, there are beautiful stitches full of creativity and beauty. But there are also dark and foreboding stitches.

We will only see God’s purpose for most of the dark stitches at the end of history when we can look back and see the finished product. Then we will see a beautiful image prepared by God himself after thousands of years of work. Then we will realize that nothing was pointless, but that God’s good purpose was at work even when human beings in their sin had wicked plans of their own. Then we’ll see how God was bringing glory to himself all along.

Think back to the life of Job. Job never knew why he suffered. He accepted the suffering as from God, saying, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (Job 1:21). Was Job’s suffering meaningless? No.

Job didn’t know what was going on. God had made a wager with Satan, and Job’s sufferings were a test to see if God was worthy of worship in his own right, or simply because God gave Job wealth. Job’s faithfulness demonstrated that God was worthy with or without his blessings. God was glorified, and Satan was proved to be a liar. Did God do evil? No. Satan and his human agents committed the evil acts. God allowed them to do this evil (just like he allows us to do evil), limiting only their ability to kill Job. God was good. God was all-powerful. The evil was real. (You can ask Job about it someday.) And a greater good—God’s glory—flowed from it all.

7d. The Eternal Display of God’s Justice & Mercy is the Greatest Good: God allows evil, not primarily so that we can do a greater good, but so that he can do a greater good. And that greater good isn’t mainly our glory, but his glory. God’s glory is the display of his perfections—his goodness, his mercy, his holiness, his justice, his wrath, his patience, and his righteousness. That greater good is the display of God's character. Look at Romans 9:19-24:

• God allows our free evil choices so he can make his wrath known. This would be impossible without evil.

• God allows our free evil choices so he can make his mercy known. This too would be impossible without evil.

• A world with evil is thus eternally significant in a way that a world without evil would not be.

8. But is God selfish? Would Divine self-centeredness bring into question God’s Goodness?

This Greater Good argument raises another question. What kind of God would do such a thing? What kind of God would make creatures that he knows will reject him, just so he can put his wrath on display? What kind of God would still create a person when God knows that that person will suffer in hell forever? Is God a monster? Isn't God being just a little bit selfish?