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July 31, 2012

Rapid Response: Responding to the Problem of Evil

Sometimes a pithy answer or intellectual zinger won’t do. That’s the case right now for the entire state of Colorado. In the last month, the state has faced both natural evil and moral evil. Wildfires have ravaged the state and destroyed hundreds of homes, and a gunman has killed twelve people and injured another fifty-eight in the Aurora movie theater shooting on July 20.

How do we react to such evil? What explanations do we give to those grieving and questioning? What does the existence of such evil say about God?

In light of how many Coloradans are facing evil of different sorts, we wanted to provide some succinct thoughts to keep in mind and resources you can turn to as you wrestle with the problem of evil.

Two Sides of Evil: Intellectual and Experiential

We need to talk about the problem of evil on two levels: the intellectual level and the experiential level.

The focus of the intellectual side of the problem of evil is the existence of evil itself. Namely, how can an all-good, all-powerful God allow evil? This is where we recognize, as Cornelius Plantinga did in Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, that evil — both moral and natural — is a result of the fall.

The focus of the experiential side of the problem of evil is on the pain of personal suffering. Here, the question is, “Why did God allow that evil in my life?” For the families displaced by the wildfires that have burned through Colorado, or those who lost someone dear in the Aurora shooting, a seemingly-static intellectual conversation will not be the balm for deep wounds.

What We Can Say

  1. The existence of evil and the existence of God is not illogical. Recognizing the appropriate times for a discussion of the intellectual side of evil, there are discussions we can have to further explain evil. As Greg Koukl aptly wrote for Stand to Reason, it is not — as many like Bertrand Russell claimed — illogical to believe in a good God and the existence of evil. Paraphrasing Augustine’s views on the problem of evil, Koukl writes that evil is not actually a “thing.” Rather it is the absence of a “thing,” in this case good — much like a shadow is the absence of light or cold is the absence of heat. Therefore, since evil is not a thing, it could not have been created by God. Rather, it was the rebellious actions of man that created evil — circumstances void of that which is good. Koukl’s synopsis of Augustine’s explanation is a must-read.
  2. Christianity explains the existence of evil far better than any other worldview. Evil could actually be considered one of the strongest apologetic arguments for the Christian worldview, as C.S. Lewis argued. The fact that we are universally able to see evil as evil — even atheists acknowledge what happened in Aurora was a tragedy — reveals that we all share some notion of what is good. As Lewis put it, how can we know if a line is crooked if we have no notion of what a straight line is? On the other hand, those who deny the existence of God cannot explain why humanity recognizes evil when it sees it. Nor can they explain why some things are universally recognized as good or beautiful.

And the presence of evil reminds us that we are still in the midst of the narrative outlined in Scripture. The biblical worldview is the only worldview that both explains why evil exists and offers a realistic solution to evil: Jesus Christ — the Savior who suffered and wept both for us and with us.

What We Can’t Say

  1. We shouldn’t try to explain particular evils. As John Stonestreet recently explained, we shouldn’t try to reason ourselves into explanations for people’s specific actions. As he states it: “Applying logical answers for the existence of evil to the emotional and personal struggles associated with a particular evil is to miss how Jesus Himself confronted it.” As finite beings with limited perspective, we also must admit, as Lee Strobel did while addressing a Denver-area church two days after the Aurora shooting, that sometimes we simply don’t know why certain things happen.
  2. We can’t say it doesn’t matter. Natural tendencies often push us to be angry, sad, or bitter in the face of evil. Depending on circumstances, those reactions may be right or wrong. But one reaction to evil is always wrong: indifference and the tacit belief that evil does not exist — that evil is unimportant. To deny the existence of good or bad is to adopt the claims of naturalists and atheists. In a world created by physiological processes and blind chance, good and evil cannot exist. To ignore particular evils or evil in general is to deny the law, the Lawgiver, and the Savior.

What We Must Say

So where do we turn to find answers for those experiencing evil in the here and now? We turn to the example of Christ. In John 11, when Jesus is first approached with news that his friend Lazarus had died, He didn’t turn to offer a philosophical lesson. He didn’t resort to clichés to his grieving friends. Instead, he wept with them and shared in their grief. Furthermore, the cross is the ultimate example of God stepping into history to stop evil. Rather than allow evil to continue unchecked, Christ left His seat at the right hand of the Father and suffered horrible evil. The power here is not merely in Christ’s example, but in the consistent habit of God throughout Scripture to join humanity in its suffering, that God is not aloof from the world, and that even though Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus and transform a funeral into a party, he wept with his children.

Other Resources on Evil

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  • August 01, 2012 // 06:48 am //  # 
    Carrie's avatar Carrie

    How do we explain why God created Satan to unbelievers? If he didn’t create evil because it’s not a thing but the absence of a thing. He did create an angel that would fall. And He knows all things so He knew Satan was going to fall.

  • August 01, 2012 // 07:42 am //  # 
    Summit Ministries's avatar Summit Ministries

    Hi Carrie, thanks for your question. This is essentially the same question one asks when he wonders why God allowed man to fall in the first place. The first link in the Rapid Response — a piece by Greg Koukl — addresses this question well. It comes down to free will. God created his beings — both angels and man — with free will so that they could choose to love, worship, and be in relationship with God. Without that, we would be robotic order-takers, incapable of true love, communion, and relationship with God. Since love is an active choice, the alternative choice must also be available. The question then becomes: was it worth it for God to knowingly create beings that would fall? Again, Koukl handles this question in the same piece. Here’s the link:

    Thanks for the question and for reading!

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