The Problem of Evil: Asking the Questions & Living the Questions

How could an all-powerful, all-loving God allow so much evil and suffering? In the world of apologetics, this question is referred to as “the problem of evil.” Through the centuries, philosophers, theologians, and apologists have probed the question from all sides.1 Their explanations include the Augustinian theodicy, the free-will defense, the best of all possible worlds theory, the soul-making theodicy, and many others. Each theory comes with its own set of strengths and weaknesses, but together they offer a range of logical and carefully-reasoned responses to the problem of evil.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking through this question and the various answers that have been proposed. This has been a very fruitful and enlightening exercise, though it hasn’t always yielded the results I would have expected. There was a time when I thought these intellectual solutions would resolve my doubts and support my faith when suffering came into my own life. That’s what I thought… until I read Dostoevsky.

Perhaps the greatest Russian novelist of all time, Fyodor Dostoevsky authored numerous classics including: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and Demons. But, undoubtedly, his masterpiece is The Brothers Karamazov. The plot of the novel revolves around three brothers who couldn’t be more different from one another.

In a chapter titled “Rebellion,” two of the brothers, Ivan and Alyosha, sit down for a chat. Ivan launches into a full-scale assault on the justice of God for making a world with so much suffering, while Alyosha listens in near-silence. Like most of us, Ivan is unable to grasp how a good and loving God could allow so much unjust suffering. In particular, Ivan highlights the absurd and completely unnecessary suffering of innocent children who have done nothing to deserve their plight. He points out several examples of gratuitous evil inflicted on children and wonders what possible meaning any of it could have. Near the conclusion of his monologue, Ivan presents Alyosha with a devastating challenge:

Imagine that it is you yourself who are erecting the edifice of human destiny with the aim of making men happy in the end, of giving them peace and contentment at last, but that to do that it is absolutely necessary, and indeed quite inevitable, to torture to death only one tiny creature, the little girl who beat her breast with her little fist, and to found the edifice on her unavenged tears—would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me and do not lie!2

When I read Ivan’s challenge, I knew that all of my well-reasoned answers were toast. After years of thinking carefully through the problem of evil, my solutions had been completely upset by a fictional character in a nineteenth-century novel.

Actually, it wasn’t just reading Dostoevsky that did me in. My own experiences of suffering have created a similar anxiety. Why does there have to be so much suffering? How can any of it be justified, especially the suffering of innocent children? What possible explanation could God offer?

It is amazing how quickly our carefully-reasoned explanations desert us when suffering hits us personally or when we are confronted with a challenge like Ivan’s. Instead of falling back on apologetics, we instead cry out; we get angry; we want to know why God doesn’t do something. And really, why doesn’t he do something? Maybe he’s asleep at the wheel. Maybe he doesn’t really love us. Or perhaps he’s just too weak to do anything about it. Before we know it, we’re right back where we started, asking the same questions we thought our apologetics studies had already answered for us.

There is a reason that intellectual responses to the problem of evil often feel useless in the midst of suffering. Try as we might, we simply cannot disconnect what we know on an intellectual level from what we experience. We can know something to be true, but when our experience doesn’t match that truth, questioning is inevitable.

This disconnect between belief and experience in regards to suffering pops up a number of times in Scripture. Here’s how some of the biblical characters talked to God about it:

“Are you serious? . . . I can’t believe you’d do that, kill off the good and the bad alike as if there were no difference between them. Doesn’t the Judge of all the Earth judge with justice?” (Genesis 18:23-25).3

“Why are you treating me this way? What did I ever do to deserve this?” (Numbers 11:11).

“Why wasn’t I stillborn and buried
with all the babies who never saw light,
Where the wicked no longer trouble anyone
and bone-weary people get a long-deserved rest?” (Job 3:16-17).

“What’s going on here? Is God out to lunch?
Nobody’s tending the store.
The wicked get by with everything . . .
I’ve been stupid to play by the rules;
what has it gotten me?” (Psalm 73:11-13).

These biblical characters didn’t mince words when expressing their frustration to God about evil, suffering, and injustice. Ivan’s questioning of God’s justice is a similar kind of complaint, with one key difference. What’s vital to notice here is that each of these biblical outcries is actually a movement toward relationship with God. These movements which begin in complaint very often end with trust, in spite of the fact that the questions are almost never answered. For Ivan, the problem of evil remains an intellectual puzzle—he cannot make sense of it, so he will hear no more about a loving God.

What made the difference for the biblical authors? Nowhere in Scripture does God offer a purely intellectual response to the problem of evil. Reasoning through the problem of evil is of course worthwhile and can strengthen our trust in God, but the biblical writers’ trust must have come from something deeper. Their trust in God wasn’t dependent on God explaining everything to them, nor was it a kind of blind optimism that things would just work out.

I would contend that their trust came through the experience of God’s personal presence in their lives. Throughout Scripture, God is not revealed to us as an idea, an energy, or some other impersonal abstraction. He is revealed as a person—Father, Creator, Sustainer, Savior, Lord, Friend, Brother. Living in relationship with God, the biblical characters learned about his grief over human evil, his compassion for those who suffer, and his ability to do something about it. This relationship enabled them to be honest with God, to trust him, and to cultivate “negative capability” in the midst of suffering.

What is “negative capability”? According to the poet John Keats, negative capability is “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact [and] reason.”4 It’s the ability to keep on living in the midst of uncertainty, to be at peace with the fact that we don’t and can’t know all the answers. If we’re going to make it through this world without losing our minds, negative capability is a quality we desperately need—because things don’t always make sense. Sometimes, we can’t understand; sometimes, the answers to our deepest questions elude us.

For myself, I have yet to hear an answer to the problem of evil that is completely satisfying. That doesn’t mean I think the apologetic explanations are worthless. Quite the opposite. It is right that we should use our God-given reason to seek answers . . . but we may not always find satisfying solutions. I have to ask myself, “Even supposing that God gave me a direct answer to the problem of evil, would I be satisfied with it? Or would it just make me more angry? Would I even be able to understand it?”

That is why we must not only seek answers to our questions, but try to live the questions as well

Perhaps a perfectly satisfying answer to the problem of evil eludes us because we are not yet ready to hear the answer. We are not yet fully remade. And until we are fully remade in the image of Christ, we’re never going to grasp it all (and even then, I expect, we’ll still be wondering about some things). That is why we must not only seek answers to our questions, but try to live the questions as well.

What does that mean? I think it means learning to live with mysteries and uncertainties, even as we ask the questions. It means pressing into relationships with God and others, and letting those relationships draw us into becoming people who bear one another’s burdens, people who take an active role in alleviating suffering. In so doing, we make our lives, in the words of author Barry Lopez, “a worthy expression of a leaning into the light.”5

This is arguably one of the themes in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan’s problem is not that he is too bold in confronting God with hard questions, but rather that he is unable to live those questions. Ivan’s intellectual wrestling with the problem of evil distances him from relationships and causes him to become callous. Alyosha, on the other hand, can offer no satisfactory answer to Ivan’s challenge; but instead of moving away from his fellow human beings, Alyosha moves toward them, seeking to alleviate their suffering and bear their burdens.6

On the cross he takes on a whole world of evil and allows it to bring him to his knees.

And isn’t that what God does for us as well? He does not stand aloof or offer mere intellectual solutions; instead, he enters into the pain and suffering of the world, sharing it with us, bearing it with us. On the cross he takes on a whole world of evil and allows it to bring him to his knees. Yet that act becomes the catalyst for the Resurrection and the victory over evil.

One day, God will bring a final end to evil and its destructive influence. In his new creation, all things will be made new (Revelation 21:5, NIV). Will it all make sense then? Will we understand why there was so much suffering? I’m not sure. Perhaps even there, as T. S. Eliot said, “We shall not cease from exploration.”7 But then, we will know God truly, face-to-face (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV); and it will be like knowing him for the first time.