Apologetics 101 – no. 6 – How Can We Believe in a God who Allows Evil and Suffering

Suffering and evil is often seen as ‘the problem’ – and yet for the atheist it is a bigger problem than for the Christian.  This article in the apologetics 101  series on Christian Today explains why – click here to see the original article

How can we believe in a God who allows evil and suffering?

 

It was embarrassing. The two humanists on the panel were having a collective nightmare. As we discoursed on the nature of evidence, creation and the Bible, they were struggling more and more to make a coherent case for their atheism. Until at last one cracked. Red faced and angry he just blurted out: “How can you believe in a God who allows suffering?” It wasn’t the subject of the evening, but this was his last desperate attempt to justify not believing in the God of the Bible.

For some it is the first and greatest hurdle. The problem of evil, or in its more refined form, the problem of suffering, is probably the number one defeater belief.

The Problem defined

  • God is all-powerful so could destroy evil and prevent suffering
  • God is good so would want to destroy evil and suffering
  • Evil and suffering exist so the good and all-powerful God does not exist.

It is apparently such an overwhelming logical case that anyone who does not accept it is in denial, stupid or themselves evil. Any attempt to answer the problem is considered heartless as well as impossible – but here goes.

The Problem for the Atheist

Let us imagine that God does not exist. Would that mean that evil and suffering do not exist? Would the problem of evil go away because there would be no evil? Let’s ask Richard Dawkins, who is always helpful in explaining these things.

“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going toget hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference”
(River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life).

That is the atheist view in a nutshell. There is no evil. No good. Nothing but pitiless indifference.

And the problem gets worse. For the evolutionary naturalist (the person who believes that there is only ‘stuff’) there is no creation, no life after death, no ultimate foundation for morality, no ultimate meaning in life and no human free will. It’s all chemistry, biology, physics and genetics.

The German atheist philosopher Frederick Nietzsche wrote a brilliant work called Beyond Good and Evil in which he stated:

“We believe that severity, violence, slavery, danger in the street and in the heart, secrecy, stoicism, the tempter’s art and devilry of every kind – that everything wicked, terrible, tyrannical, predatory, and serpentine in man, serves as well for the elevation of the human species as its opposite.”

In other words suffering is good because it weeds out the weak. In fact, according to atheistic evolution, anything that furthers the human species should be deemed as ‘good’.

The problem of evil for the atheist is so overwhelming that they either deny its existence (evil is just a social construct), or if they wish to remain logically consistent they are compelled to become theists. CS Lewis made the journey that many have made from atheism to theism, partly because he realised that evil was a far greater problem for the atheist.

 

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust…? Of course, I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense. Consequently, atheism turns out to be too simple

CS Lewis  (Mere Christianity) 

But the atheist is not quite finished yet. Even allowing for the non-existence of evil they then turn it to the question of suffering and ask the simple question, why would an all-powerful, good God allow suffering?

This for me is always a pertinent question. This week alone I think of a friend who committed suicide, another one who has been taken into hospital suffering from a terrible illness, never mind the ongoing suffering that I see every day in the world.

Of course once you start to think about it you realise that some suffering is necessary. When I go to the dentist the needle in my mouth is suffering, but it is for a clear and better purpose. So the atheist immediately asks, but what about pointless suffering? Tim Keller, whose book on this subject Walking with God through Pain and Suffering is this week’s recommended book, points out the problem with this:

Tim KellerTucked away within the assertion that the world is filled with pointless evil is a hidden premise, namely that if evil appears pointless to me, then it must be pointless… This reasoning is, of course, fallacious. Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be one.”

So the problem of evil and suffering for the atheist is devastating and the solution, just suck it up and see, is inadequate for anyone.

Let’s return to the Christian view and see what our perspective is. For me evil and suffering are reasons to believe the Good News, not to reject it. Because it’s the only explanation and even more importantly, the only solution I know.

The Problem of Evil for the Christian

Here is a suggested biblical solution.

1. God did not create evil because it is not created

Did God create a perfect world and then get it wrong? Or did God create a perfect world that he allowed to go wrong? I love Augustine’s answer to this question.

a. God created all things.

b. Evil is not a created thing – it is the absence of good.

c. God did not create evil, but permits it for the good.

2. God permitted evil but brings even greater good out of that evil

“And, in the universe, even that which is called evil, when it is regulated and put in its own place, only enhances our admiration of the good; for we enjoy and value the good more when we compare it with the evil. For the Almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if he were not so omnipotent and good that he can bring good even out of evil”
(Augustine’s Enchiridion, ch. 11)

“For he judged it better to bring good out of evil, than not to permit any evil to exist(Augustine’s Enchiridion, ch. 27)

I sometimes ask people whether, if I could create them in a world in which they experienced no pain, no suffering, no existential angst, no broken relationships, no cancer, no tears, they would want that. “Oh yes.” “In that case I will create you as a chair.” “Oh no, I want to be human.”

And there is the rub. Maybe in order to be human there needs to be an element of free will, moral choice and love that is not just chemically pre-destined. Maybe for that to happen God created this world to be a ‘vale for soul making’, a physical and moral environment which allows us to live as free moral agents and to learn what we need to learn.

So God did not create evil, but permitted it. Why? For a greater purpose than if had not permitted it. The next step…

3. God alone knows the end from the beginning and how to bring good out of evil.

Sometimes we set ourselves up as though we were the judge and God had to answer to us – a complete reversal of the real situation. Consider how God answered a man who suffered more than most of us: Job.

“Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth? Tell Me, if you know all this. Do you know it, because you were born then, or because the number of your days is great? Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it. Would you indeed annul My judgment? Would you condemn Me that you may be justified?

(Job 38:2-4,18,21; 40:2,8).

The infinite, eternal, omniscient Creator is far more likely to know about good and evil, and its consequences than his finite, limited, ignorant creatures.

But this is not enough. We do not want to be Job’s comforters or to be comforted by Job’s friends. We need to know not just the how and why of evil, but do we have a better solution than ‘suck it up and see’?

God’s answer to evil and suffering – The great writers, poets and thinkers have always wrestled with this subject. Dostoevsky, for example, wrote:

“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth”
(Crime and Punishment).

I was in the National Portrait Gallery in London and came across this extraordinary poem by Ben Okri –

Freedom is a difficult lesson to learn,
I have tasted the language of death
Till it became the water of life.
I have shaped a little my canvas of time
I have crossed seas of fires
And seen with these African eyes
The one light which neither empires
Nor all the might of men obscure.
Man is the sickness, God the cure.

That is God’s answer. He himself is the cure. Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, the Resurrection, the Healer, the Good Shepherd. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” The atheist is compelled to say it’s just luck and there is no answer. The Christian says, “I fear no evil.” There is the fundamental difference between the two worldviews.

The atheist says good and evil are an illusion. The Christian faces up to reality and says there is real evil, real darkness, real despair, but there is a real Saviour, who came to free those who all their lives are held in slavery by their fear of death. The practical consequences of these beliefs are phenomenal. The atheist puts a band-aid on the problem, the Christian gets to the heart of the matter.

In The Lord of the Rings, Sam asks Gandalf if everything sad is going to come untrue. God’s solution to the problem of evil is to work it all out through the life, death and resurrection of Christ and to present the untangled beautiful tapestry on the Day of Judgement. This is the whole story and the whole message of the Bible. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Next week we see just how Christ is the answer. Meanwhile I leave you with one example of how this works.

I think of a woman I met who lived in very poor circumstances. Her partner had died from a brain tumour. She had three teenage daughters. She too had a brain tumour but did not want to go into hospital. I was deeply moved by her suffering and the pain in her eyes. I said to her “Life is ugly. “Yes,” she acknowledged with tears. “What would you say if I told you that even out of the greatest ugliness there can come great beauty?”

I was not offering physical healing, riches or resurrection from the dead – at least just then. She started crying. “I can’t believe that it could be so”. Beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the spirit of praise for the garment of heaviness. That is how we fight the ugliness of evil and the pain of suffering….we bring the beauty of Christ.


 

You can link to the other articles in this series on Christian Today here:


30 thoughts on “Apologetics 101 – no. 6 – How Can We Believe in a God who Allows Evil and Suffering

  1. It’s a well work script to mock belief in God that allows suffering.

    The answer is simple – in order to remove all suffering, God would have to remove the freedom to choose good or evil. Every time. He would be a dictator and no good would be done through human choice. It is because he loves enough not to force his will, just as a loving father does not force his will on his children like some kind of control freak.

    What is not pleasant to admit to is evil, we all like to think we are in essence good. Well, in the sense that when God created humanity he saw it was good, so we have original goodness.

    Though read any newspaper, watch any news programme, Jeremy Kyle, or indeed any soap opera and it’s clear that this God given goodness is not always forthcoming. If we are honest we know the same is true for ourselves.

    Thankfully God loves us in spite of that and we can have joy.

  2. Please note that when i tried to access your blog it was blocked by BullGuard as a malicious site. I have reported this error to BullGuard. I am unsure as to the mechanisms involved in creating this situation. You might be able to make an educated guess.

  3. Goodness is an innate part of God’s nature and it is this that gives meaning and value to it as a concept.

    Thus goodness cannot be a quality that is independent of God. God’s goodness must be logically prior to any particular moral virtues.

    Therefore, in a hypothetical world where God doesn’t exist, the concept of goodness can have no meaning or value.

    To say evil is an absence of good is thus meaningless.

    1. Your last sentence does not make any sense at all. It is a conclusion that does not follow from your earlier premises. Evil is an absence of good is very meaningful – as Augustine pointed out. It is of course also the absence of God.

  4. In beginning, can I state, first and foremost, that the irony of all ironies is displayed when an atheist uses the presence of evil to prove the absence of God – because, paradoxically, the presence of evil actually proves the opposite – that God does exist – and I hope, through this brief apology, to confront the atheists of academe with the perversity of their logic:
    A contrary reasoning which, to reiterate, produces the conclusion that the presence and unrestrained perpetration of evil precludes the existence of a God (of goodness).
    As plausible as this assumption might at first appear – and popular as it undoubtedly is (for confirmed atheists are by no means alone in their thinking) it is not based on rational – or logical argument. Indeed if this line of reasoning was projected into all spheres of life and reality, then the following statements would be true:
    A dirty nappy exists – therefore the clean one can’t exist.
    An uncontested lie exists – therefore the truth can’t exist.
    Cancer exists – therefore healthy tissue can’t exist.
    And not one of these assertions is true, indeed, in each and every case, it is the exact opposite which is true:
    The clean nappy exists – therefore the dirty one can and, under appropriate circumstances, will exist.
    The truth exists – therefore the lie can and, under compelling circumstances, will exist.
    Healthy tissue exists – therefore cancer can and, under conducive conditions, will exist.
    It should be noted that in every example offered above it requires the original, pure and perfect ‘subject’ to be established before its corruption can occur – and furthermore it requires the continued presence of the original subject to uphold and sustain the presence of the corrupted version.
    This principle of an established subject co-existing with, and sustaining its corrupted counterpart is witnessed in all areas, and in all spheres of life.
    An old wreck of a car can only exist for as long as the showroom model remains hidden within, and integral with its battered shell. Remove the reality of the new car from the old car – and the latter can’t exist. It is only the car’s pristine ‘invisible’ form which can give reality, sense and meaning to its corrupted ‘visible’ form. Think about it.
    And consider this – a murder can only exist in the context of the life which it has extinguished.
    And, in a similar way reflect on this – a lie or counterfeit can only have credibility for as long as the original truth or subject remains hidden within – and integral with its deceiving influence. Separate the ‘truth’ from the lie – and the lie, in losing its ‘credibility’ – loses its ability to deceive, and it dies – dead.
    As dead, dare I hope, as the atheist’s case against the existence of God is fast beginning to appear.
    And, there is something else which, I hope, is quickly becoming obvious – that being a universal law which states:
    Nothing of a negative value in this physical sphere can exist without being preceded and upheld by its positive counterpart which, although absolutely real, doesn’t necessarily need to be tangible – or visible.
    Negativity has no independent value of its own – try looking for the reality of minus 6 sheep in a pasture. Negativity in whatever ‘field’ it operates can only exist and have a ‘real’ relevance when coupled with, and set against the positive value which it is opposing and attempting to negate or supplant.
    To reiterate, it is utterly impossible for a negative, corrupting or evil influence to exist and have a reality without the pre-existence of its original, positive counterpart (which might not be visible) – which is why Jesus Christ could say to the self righteous and religiously legalistic (evil) Pharisees of His day – The kingdom of God cometh not with observation; neither shall they say, Lo here! or lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” – Luke 17/20-21.
    Jesus Christ wasn’t complimenting these religious Pharisees on their innate spiritual goodness – anything but – He was confirming the truth that it was a positive and perfect God of goodness working within this world who was upholding and sustaining their ungodly and evil lives.
    The apostle Paul must have been aware that the eternal realm upholds the physical realm when, in referring to Jesus Christ, he wrote: for by him were all things were created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth . . . And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. – Colossians 1/16-17.
    Yes indeed – our Creator (some naively call Him by the misnomer – ‘mother nature’) upholds and underpins the entire universe in a life sustaining state of equilibrium – and upholding all things by the word of his power – Hebrews 1/3.
    So there we have it – this negative, evil world with all of its deceit, misery, cruelty, torment, corruption, murder and mayhem can never enjoy an ‘independent’ reality, or explain itself in the context of itself – because it is negatively orientated and requires a positive value to give it any real meaning.
    There are those who will protest that I have unfairly burdened this planet with a negative value – and that it doesn’t deserve such offence. To those who might so protest I would challenge them to take everything which this (sometimes) wonderful world amounts to and add it all up – and the bottom line every time will be – death, and you can’t get any more negative than that !
    As I have stated, life in this world just doesn’t make any sense on its own – none – absolutely none.
    It needs a pre-existing and co-existing positive value – an underpinning eternal value to give any reality, meaning and sense to its negative, arbitrary and death orientated state.
    To live in this cruel, crazy and evil world – and not believe in a greater being – an absolute life and reality – a divine source of goodness, life and truth is the doctrine of fools, which is why, I suppose, God has said somewhere in the Holy Bible – The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God’.

  5. I don’t think it is being pedantic to say that goodness is innate only to the nature of our triune God. Or does that go without saying?. Perhaps not in the same context – it has needed to be reinforced recently at Wheaton College in USA.

    Mike Reeves book “The Good God”, is excellent.

  6. Again David, please explain which premiss is false and why therefore the conclusion has no validity. Your apologetics, rather like your faith, appears built on sand.

    1. Arguing with someone who thinks they are wiser than God is a bit like arguing with a conspiracy theorist or a flat earther – there really is nothing I can say…your basic premises are false. They are assertions without evidence or reason….but you think they are brilliant!

  7. OK let me help you.

    Premise 1: You must agree as it was the position you stated on 29 Feb.

    Premise 2: This is basic Euthyphro’s dilemma. Please name a Christian philosopher who disagrees, you are in a minority of one!

    Premise 3: I have every right to hypothesize a world where God doesn’t exist. From 1 & 2 above the concept of goodness is therefore empty of any value or meaning as it is God’s existence which provides this.

    Now, simply show me where the error lies. There’s no flat earth, no conspiracy just arguments we can analyse. Use logic and reason to explain why they are false, don’t just make statements.

      1. I don’t grant that you have every right to hypothesize – you just made that up. So your premise falls. And you are just making an assertion based upon your own faith. Thats why its impossible to argue with you. Your faith in your own rights and abilities trumps everything else. You are right in this though – without God there is no such thing as goodness.

  8. Please show why you don’t grant premise 3, otherwise you are just making a statement again. I have every right to hypothesize a world where God doesn’t exist (we probably already have one) and given that, where does the definition of goodness come from?

    1. But you don’t have a case! Are you on the waccy baccy or something?! My definition of God is that he is good. How you get from that to say that God does not exist, is somewhat surreal….I guess its the atheist flat-earther syndrome again!

  9. Oh this is painful! We have already agreed the property of goodness cannot pre-exist God – otherwise where does it come from? What or who gives context to goodness if not God? So if there is no God, from whence does this context come? This argument is not an attempt to show God doesn’t exist, it shows that your whole notion of good and evil is incoherent.

    1. Yes – indeed it is painful….you are trying to argue on the basis of Christian theology and yet you both lack logic and do not seem to understand what the Bible says. Yes God is good, and evil is just the departure from that good. Its perfectly coherent…but I suspect that coherence is not your strong point!

      1. Christian theism posits God as an Omniscient, Omnipotent and Omnipresent being who has existed eternally, before the beginning of the events that the Bible records. Thus there is an eternal period of time about which it is quite legitimate to ponder the nature of his being.

        Any logical argument derived that doesn’t contradict with any of them is perfectly valid in its own right. Adopting the response that “the Bible says God is good and that’s all that matters” is the theological equivalent of closing your eyes, putting your fingers in your ears and shouting “la la la”!

        So try going back to logic and reason, and show where premise 3 is invalid.

      2. You are still not making any sense. What on earth is ‘an eternal period of time’? Is that the same as the square circle? Your premises just don’t make any sense and do not negate the fact that God is good.

  10. Jon.

    What do you believe?

    1 About God.

    2 Which God are you talking about.? Is it the triune God?

    3 Do you believe there is any “goodness”? If yes what is it’s source?

    4 Do you believe there is evil? If yes. What is it’s source?

    5 Who gets to define “good and evil”? Us? God?

    6. Do you believe there is “common grace”?

    7. What are you seeking to show in your argumentation? Is it merely to state that in your view there is an incoherence in a view of goodness and evil. I don’t agree with your contention. It is coherent and cogent and is the basis for my view of God, humanity myself, and the world we live in. and how I live in it.

    8 What then is your “coherent view” of good and evil? What is it based on? Logic? How does that work out in practice? Philosophy?

    9. You seem to be seeking to undermine a case, but not making a/ your case about good and evil.

    10. Down to earth. How do your views affect how you live day to day?

    Why don’t you read the recommended book?

    How about absorbing David’s next post on Jesus.

    Geoff

  11. Geoff

    I am agnostic with regards to supernatural beings as there appears no way to confirm or deny the existence of the supernatural, given how poorly defined the concept is.

    I am an atheist with regard to the God of Christianity, as I believe there are strong arguments against his existence and weak ones for it.

    I would define goodness as those actions of a sentient being that contribute directly or indirectly to the improved well-being of other sentient beings.
    Well-being would encompass such generic areas as sustenance, security, intellectual and physical freedom and the avoidance of unnecessary pain.

    I would define evil as those actions that are contrary to the above but to an extreme degree.

    I accept that the level of responsibility of an individual being may be hard to determine, but I would rather rely on neuroscience than theology to find what answers there may be. As somebody who believes naturalism is probably true, it is an inevitable outcome of being part of an evolved species where conventions of behaviour have developed as humanity has.

    I am genuinely offended by how anti-intellectual theistic arguments are. If anything drives me towards “militant atheism” it is religious dogma used as the basis for social development.

    Whilst I agree some passages of scripture offer a profound insight into the nature of human relationships, I simply think they were inspired by a belief in God, rather than directly informed by him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s