God and Evil: A Philosophical Contradiction?
For many, this is a difficult question to answer. Since evil exists in our world, does that mean an omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnibenevolent (all-good) God does not—indeed, cannot—exist? This was the argument brought up by the philosopher Epicurus many years ago when he said,
"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?"1
This is known as the so-called “Logical Problem of Evil.” This argument wants to show that if one were to affirm the existence of evil, then, in all consistency, one could not at the same time affirm the existence of God.
This article will attempt to refute such an idea. We will maintain that one can affirm the existence of evil and still affirm the existence of God—more specifically, the Christian God. In order to do this, we will show that evil is not a result of a cosmic “mishap” that caught God off guard. Of course, an extensive discussion concerning man’s free will is needed, since we will attempt to demonstrate that God, through culpable, moral agents, is accomplishing an overall redemptive plan—namely, to call a people to himself, as well as glorify his son, Jesus Christ.
A Definition of God
Before we get too deep into our discussion of God and evil, we must first define our terms. In Question 7 of the Larger Catechism, we are asked a simple, yet deeply profound, question—namely, “What is God?” The answer follows:
“God is a Spirit, in and of Himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, every where present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.”2
This definition offers a good foundation and starting point in understanding the classical and historic definition of the Christian God, as well as his attributes. Of course, this definition is far from complete, as the orthodox Christian view of God also entails that God is Trinity, which the Larger Catechism, as well as all orthodox churches, affirm.3
A Definition of Evil
Defining “evil” is a bit more difficult. One might be tempted to think that citing examples of evil might be easier than producing a definition of it. But for our purposes, this will not do. In examining the Problem of Evil, we need some sort of definition to run with. What, then, is evil?
There are two types of evil. First, there is moral evil. This is the product of an action (or inaction), which was initiated by a moral agent toward another person, who, in turn, may suffer from such action (or inaction). An example of this would be murder, which could be defined as “active moral evil.” By way of contrast, an example of “passive moral evil” would be watching a person drown in a bathtub, all the while not doing anything to prevent it.
The second type of evil is that of natural evil. This is where a moral agent is not involved. Examples of this could be earthquakes, hurricanes, or tsunamis. Clearly, moral agents are not involved in such natural occurrences.
If, as Christians claim, God does exist, then how can we, at the same time, say evil exists? There are several options up for consideration. However, a warning is needed here. Not all of these beliefs are considered orthodox. Some, no doubt, are clearly heretical and are not real options for the Christian. The following three beliefs fall into this category:
1. God is not all-powerful. One could say that evil exists and so does God. The only difference with this option is to say that God, while all-good and all-knowing, is not all-powerful. That is, God literally cannot intervene in the evil that he hates and knows about. He simply doesn’t have the power to do what he so much wants to do.
Gregory Boyd, for example, claims that we can still hold to the idea that God is “all-powerful,” but that we shouldn’t confuse that statement to mean, “God exercises all power.”4 That is, we can keep orthodox terminology, but we should just reinterpret what it means.
But this is simply misleading. Boyd is correct in saying that God does not exercise all the power that he could. But what he fails to see is that being “all-powerful” does mean the same thing as having all the power and ability to do what one wants to do. Therefore, it is wrong for Boyd to claim God is “all-powerful,” yet at the same time insinuate that God cannot do what he most wants to do, namely, eradicate evil.
2. God is not all-knowing. This idea suggests that God simply does not know about evil. If he does not know about evil that happens to people, then, even though he is “all-powerful” and “all-good,” he simply isn’t informed enough on the happenings of the universe. But this will not square with the biblical text. God does know all things (e.g., Psalm 139; 1 John 3:20). Nothing happens without him knowing about it.
3. God is not all-good. I doubt too many would take this belief very seriously. Furthermore, to say that God is not loving, good, and merciful does not at all accurately represent the Bible, which is replete with such references of God’s goodness (e.g., Psalm 34:8; Nahum 1:7; Matthew 5:45; Psalm 86:5).
“Whence Cometh Evil?”
If God is powerful enough to be able to rid the world of evil, good enough to want to, and knowledgeable enough to know how to, then the question remains: why does God allow evil, and where does it come from?
As mentioned earlier, the three options listed in the previous section are not open to the Christian, since they are heretical and anti-biblical. That is, they run against all that we know about the nature and character of God. So what options are there? Two further options will be listed as possible explanations for the existence of evil and the existence of the Christian view of God. Both are considered to be within the bounds of orthodoxy and are open for interpretation and discussion.
The Libertarian Free-Will Option
The libertarian free-will option is, by far, the most common objection to the logical Problem of Evil. It basically says that God, having decided to create man in his own image, endowed mankind with a freedom of the will. Man could decide to obey God or not to obey God. Man was given libertarian free will so that he could choose to do whatever he pleased. In fact, some proponents of this view will say that, in order for God to be a just rewarder and punisher, he must have given man the option of libertarian free choice. If God had not done this, then man would be, by default, a robotic automaton.
So, when man sinned against God, evil entered into the world, and suffering then ensued. God, no doubt, could have stopped it all from happening by creating man not able to sin. But considering that God is just, he could not have created man this way. Love demanded that man have a say in the matter. In other words, God’s character (i.e., his love and justness) moved him to give man free will.
This view is very compelling. Man has the liberty (hence, the phrase “libertarian free will”) to do as he chooses. His will is uninhibited and free. Having no chains to hold him down, he does as he wants in regard to his will—including choosing God or not choosing God. Though this view is attractive, it would be good for us to consider some problems inherent within this viewpoint.
Problem #1. If this view is right, then ultimately, man is sovereign. Further, what this view implies is that God, in his love, decided to set aside a little bit of his sovereignty in order to create free creatures. In other words, free creatures and God’s absolute exhaustive sovereignty are not compatible. One must go so the other can stay. But will this view square with Scripture?
Within the Wisdom literature of the Bible, we see that “The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps” (Prov. 16:9).5 Likewise, Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many plans are in a man's heart, but the counsel of the LORD will stand.”
For the libertarian, free-will proponent, these verses are quite troublesome. What these passages state is that God, not man, is ultimately sovereign. To be sure, man plans, acts, and chooses, but ultimately, God’s sovereign purposes stand. To say “God set aside a bit of his sovereignty for man to be free” is, at best, an unwarranted assumption. There is no scriptural foundation for such a belief. In fact, the Scriptures seem to report the opposite conclusion.
Problem #2. For God to be just, he does not necessarily have to give man libertarian free will. Free-will proponents insist that God cannot, in all fairness, set up a world where man only chooses good. It would go against his loving nature to create “robots.” At first glance, this seems accurate. But upon deeper inspection, we will see this simply isn’t true.
Think about heaven. Since it is clear that the Bible does not teach a “second fall” of man, once God eradicates evil he will have truly done away with it once and for all. This means that there will be a day when God will set up a world where sinful choices are not even remotely possible. So the question must be asked: Is God unjust, then, to do away with libertarian choice in heaven? In all consistency, the free-will defender would have to say yes. But we know this not to be the case.
Thankfully, we can be reassured and reminded that in the end, “…He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away" (Revelation 21:4). Sin will not even be a possibility in heaven, and God's justness will still have been upheld.
Problem #3. The free-will option cannot explain the ultimate origin of evil. It is a well-known fact within Christian theology that Adam and Eve were not the first sinners. Lucifer, we are told, committed the first sin. His sin preceded that of Adam’s, and he was in fact the tempter of our first parents. But why did he sin to begin with?
The free-will proponent would, of course, say “He had free will, too!” But this does not go far enough. It only attempts to explain how sin entered the cosmos, but it does not even approach the question of why. In essence, the free-will defense says simply that Lucifer chose evil. That is how sin entered the universe. Of course, both sides would admit that much. But what the free-will defender cannot do is explain to us why Lucifer chose evil. Why would a perfectly good creature, all of sudden, decide to turn against his Creator? Therefore, all the free-will argument does is push the question back one step further.6
Problem #4. God, under the free-will thesis, would not even be considered “free.” God cannot sin—indeed, he cannot even be tempted to sin (James 1:13). Is God not free, then? If freedom means that one must have the choice to sin or not to sin, then God must not be free under the libertarian free-will view. But we know that God is perfectly free, in that he does all that he wants (Psalm 115:3).
It can be said, then, that the so-called libertarian free-will option turns out not to be a viable answer to the problem of evil. It simply introduces new problems to the equation.
Compatibilism vs. Libertarianism
What is “compatibilism?” Simply put, a compatibilistic conception of free will states that God’s sovereignty and man’s will are compatible. That is, they can coexist side-by-side concurrently, without any contradiction. The Westminster Confession of Faith states this rather well:
“God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creature; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”7
The fact that God is sovereign does not, in any way, mean “violence is offered to the will of the creature.” Man’s will acts in perfect harmony with God’s sovereign decrees. But notice how the writers of the Westminster Confession maintain that God is still sovereign: “God, from all eternity, did…ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” They still affirm this very important belief. Often times, many modern theologians and thinkers want to give man free will at the expense of God’s freedom. But the Confession affirms both.
A Compatibilistic Definition of Free Will
What is a good definition of free will? Free will is the ability to do what one wants to do. If one were to take away either (1) the ability or (2) the desire, then one does not have free will. In other words, we will never be able to do something we (1) aren’t able to do, or (2) we don’t want to do. (More will be said on the latter shortly.) First, a brief explanation is needed here.
Let’s suppose that I want to fly like Superman. I want to fly, but I don’t possess the ability to fly. Therefore, I am not free to fly. My will is inhibited, not by desire, but by ability.
Not only is ability a factor, but so are one’s strongest desires and inclinations. This article agrees with the assertion that, “We always choose according to our strongest inclination at the moment.”8 But how do we know that we always act on our strongest inclination? Is this an unwarranted presupposition? It seems that it is not. By way of an example, suppose that I am talking to a free-will believer. My goal is to convince him that he is bound to his greatest desire, and cannot choose to do something that he does not want to do. He responds, “Of course I can do what I don’t want to do. I do it all the time.” I kindly ask him to give me an example. “I go to work, and yet I hate my job,” he replies.
“Then why do you go to work?” I ask.
“Because I need to be able to provide for my family,” he responds.
“But you don’t have to do such a thing. You could simply choose not to provide for your family.”
At this point, he acknowledges that he does have two choices. He can either provide for his family or not provide for them.
“But I want to provide for my family,” he says.
“So you are only choosing to go to work—something you don’t really desire to do—only because your desire to provide for your family is the strongest inclination,” I assert.
“But wait!” he objects. “Just to prove you wrong, I will go against my greatest desire and not go to work any more!”
“So now your desire to prove me wrong is stronger than your desire to provide for your family,” I respond. “You are bound by your greatest desire!”
What this fictional conversation attempts to show is that (1) the person’s desire to go to work trumped his desire not to, because he had a reason for his choice—namely, to provide for his family. That desire won out. But then, as the conversation progressed, a greater desire came about; namely, to prove me wrong!
And (2) we don’t make choices in a vacuum. Our choices have a motive, or reason, behind them.9 R.C. Sproul rightly states: “If we have no reason for our choices, if our choices are utterly spontaneous, then our choices have no moral significance.”10 This much is clear. After all, if I accidently pour poison sugar into my friend’s cup of tea, then I would not be guilty of murder. But if I purposely poured poison sugar into my friend’s cup of tea, then I would most certainly be guilty. The reason? Motive.
In summary, free will can be defined as the ability to do what one wants to do. And secondly, we have shown that we are bound to act, or not act, according to our greatest inclination.
As one might imagine, the implications of this type of free will are huge in the overall context of the Problem of Evil. If we reject the notion that evil entered the world through good ‘ole fashioned free will, then how did evil come about? Furthermore, is it even possible to move toward an answer as to why evil came about?
To begin with, it may be easier to show how evil did not come about before we attempt to dive into how it did come about. This article maintains that it could not have come about by libertarian free will for the reasons laid out previously. Simply put, given the aforementioned reasons, free will (of the libertarian flavor) simply cannot be said to exist. It’s both logically incoherent and biblically unfounded.11
Considering we are not robotic automatons who make coerced choices, and likewise considering that we are not libertarian creatures who make motive-free choices, we must embrace a compatibilistic conception of free will. But even more so, considering the fact that the Christian God is real, we must understand that he is a part of the equation. In fact, he is the main player—everything is contingent upon him.
God and Compatibilistic Free Will
Compatibilism gives God “room,” if you will, to do that which pleases him. If, for example, libertarian free will was true, then God would have had no room to advance with certainty his predetermined plans and purposes. God would not have the ultimate say in the affairs of men. Man would be the director and cause of his own destiny.
How does God do this—that is, how does God rule in the affairs of men? For sure, this is a mystery. We may not know how God does it, but we do know with certainty that God does it.
One such example is the crucifixion. Christ’s death, the ultimate act of God’s gracious will, was, at the same time, perpetrated by sinful and wicked men—a gross sin. Luke records these words in Acts 2:23:
“…this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.”
Christ was “delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God.” That is, Christ’s death was a plan—indeed, a predetermined one—of the Father’s.
Some will object here by saying, “Yes, it was a part of God’s plan," only because the Father had foreknowledge of what people would do to him in the future. The problem with this view is that it does not consider the entire text.
For example, if we take a close look at the words translated as “predetermined plan,” we see the words ὡρισμένῃ βουλῇ (ōrismenē boulē). The word ὡρισμένῃ (ōrismenē) can be defined and translated as “to fix determinately.”12 Moreover, the word βουλῇ (boulē) can mean “counsel, purpose, design, determination, [or] decree.”13
So we can see that God determinately “fixed” a “decree” for Christ to die at “the hands of godless men.” Of course, if God were to “fix” Christ’s death to happen sometime in the future, then it would only naturally follow that he would possess divine foreknowledge of it as well.
But we also see in the above passage that man was a willing participant in the death of Christ. The Bible teaches that, though God is sovereign, man is still responsible. Both the plans of God and the actions of man are able to act concurrently. This much is evident.
Evil Is Not Pointless
As we can see from the above example of Christ’s death, God can have a plan and purpose behind evil actions. This is possible since he is sovereign over all things. If libertarians were correct in that man has “free choice,” then when man committed a gross evil against his neighbor, the evil committed would have been pointless.14 That is, if God had no control over what, where, or when evil took place, then it only naturally follows that the suffering produced from the evil was without purpose, and thus pointless.
For example, if someone were robbed and beaten, and yet God had no say in the crime whatsoever (for it was a free, uninhibited action based upon the criminal’s free will), then the person robbed would not have only been unjustly treated, but the evil he endured would have had no point to it. It was just a spontaneous action from a criminal. God is sort of left helpless in the matter. But we know that God is not a “helpless” being. He is the sovereign Lord.
The Christian can be reassured that God is in control of all things, and he will bring about his glory and our good from whatever situation we find ourselves in. The Apostle Paul states: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). What a profound insight into the love and power that God has toward his children!
What About My Suffering?
We all suffer. Some more than others, to be sure. But in the end, we are all in the same boat. The goal of this article has been to dispel the myths and errors that we often make in trying to reconcile God’s sovereignty with evil and suffering by countering them with true, coherent, and biblical representations of God’s written revelation. Indeed, God’s Word is a great source of comfort in the midst of suffering. And we would do well to heed its commands and take to heart its words of grace.
But what do we do with all of this philosophical thinking? In short, we apply what we’ve learned.
This topic, at first glance, may seem a bit abstract and “out there.” But in all reality, this subject has huge practical implications. If God is not in control, there is need to worry. And there is need to fret. And there is need to find an alternative purpose to our suffering. It would be left up to us to try to make sense out of all the evil we endure. But this, in the end, would be futile. For man is “just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). How, then, could mere man add meaning to his suffering if the whole of his life is so fragile?
This is by no means a subject fit for “lightweights.” Evil is real, and evil is present. But how we view evil in the overall plan of God is something of extreme importance. Either evil caught God off guard, or—and I say this with much sensitivity—God allowed evil to enter the world, much like he did with Job, and yet all the while remaining all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing, for one grand purpose—his glory and our good. And this is what gives us hope in the midst of our suffering.
What Satan Means For Evil, God Means For Good
We should be reminded of the words of Joseph, who, having been sold into slavery and subsequently put into prison, endured many years of hardship due to the sin of his evil and wicked brothers. Genesis 50:20 records the words he spoke to his brothers:
"As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”
Only a sovereign Lord could perform such a feat for Joseph and his family. Only an all-knowing God could have foreseen a famine in the land; only an all-good God would have wanted to do something to save them; and only an all-powerful God could have done something to save them.
By seeing to it that a handful of wicked men sell their brother Joseph as a slave, God guaranteed, through his providential plan, that Joseph would one day become a ruler of Egypt in order to save and preserve God’s people from famine.
If Joseph had not been sold into slavery, he would not have made it to Egypt. And if he had not made it to Egypt, he would not have had the kind of power he needed in order to preserve his family from death. And if this family had not survived the famine, there would be no nation of Israel—a people through whom a Savior could come. Thus, all of this was a part of God’s overall redemptive plan.
Sin is willful rebellion against God. Originating within the ranks of the angelic hosts, evil sought its way into God’s image-bearers—mankind. After having chosen to disobey God’s command, Adam and Eve (and the entire human race) experienced suffering for the first time. Sin spread, and so suffering spread—all due to man’s choice.
But was Adam’s choice to sin a direct result of God “making” him sin? This is certainly not the case. If it were, then God would be the author of sin, thus making himself a sinner. But he is not. James reminds us that God cannot even be tempted to sin (James 1:13).
But again, was Adam’s choice to sin a result of some spontaneous, uninhibited will beyond God’s control? This could not have been the case for reasons spelled out previously.
But how do we reconcile all of this? Our goal as Christians should be to learn to affirm what the Bible affirms and deny what the Bible denies, for it is our highest authority. The Bible affirms God’s sovereignty over man’s actions (Genesis 50:20), and yet at the same time the Bible denies that God is the author, or doer, of sin (2 Corinthians 5:21; James 1:13).
So somehow God is able to ordain that evil exist, all the while abstaining from any spot of sinfulness. How all this works is a mystery. But let there be no mistake that it works. And that is what we have attempted to show.
Let there be hope, then. God is in control of all things, no matter the circumstance. This truth should give rise to joy and utter happiness in the heart of the Christian. All things will truly work out for our good and his glory, since “our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3).
Soli Deo Gloria!
2 Joseph A. Pipa, Jr., The Westminster Confession of Faith Study Book: A Study Guide for Churches. (Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd., 2005), 320.
3 Ibid, 320.
4 Gregory A. Boyd, Is God to Blame? Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 57.
5 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible.
6 I am indebted to John Piper for bringing this truth to light.
7 Pipa, 297.
8 R.C. Sproul, Chosen By God. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1986), 57.
9 Ibid, 51.
10 Ibid, 51.
11 Neither time nor space will permit me to go into every passage that supports this view. But see, for instance, the passages of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus. Even more so, see John 6:44, 65.
12 William D. Mounce, ed., Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 1,226.
13 Ibid, 1,109.
14 I am indebted a great deal to James White concerning this insight.
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