The Problem of Evil

evil-emoticon_318-40171Well, the clear-thinking Christian is back!  After almost a year off, I'm back to blogging with a great deal to share.  In short form, I'm now retired…after 24 years of Active Duty in the Air Force, I'm moving on to other things, one of which I hope to be blogging more regularly.

Shortly after my announced retirement from the Air Force, I was invited to White Sulphur Springs — a Christian retreat center in Pennsylvania — to give eight talks in six days on this extremely difficult topic.  I have an interesting perspective here, since I can speak to the topic both as a theologian, and a brain cancer survivor who has known more suffering than most.  For those who attended that retreat, this blog is for you — essentially the written form of the first lesson or two I taught during the plenary sessions.

So if there is a God, at least the Christian concept of Him, why do we suffer?  Why is there so much evil in the world?  This is classically known as "The Problem of Evil," and an attempt to answer it is formally called a "theodicy."  If God is loving as we claim, then He would want to prevent all evil and suffering.  If God is omnipotent as we claim, then He would be able to prevent all evil and suffering.  Yet, it exists in abundance — so which is it?  Does it exist and He allowed it, so he is not loving?  Or does it exist and He couldn't prevent it, so He is not powerful?  This is traditionally presented in this form as the "logical" problem of evil, often offered by atheists or critics of Christianity as a potential inconsistency or even a contradiction in the Christian concept of God.

But is there a contradiction or inconsistency here?  As Christians, we cannot deny either His sovereignty and omnipotence or His goodness.  Scripture is clear with regard to both.

  1.  God is loving.  We know from Scripture that our God is a loving God.  We can read in 1 John 4:8 that "God is love," and we can read in 1 Corinthians 13 how He defines love.  That means we can take the description of love in Corinthians and actually apply those as attributes of God.  This means God is patient, kind, does not delight in evil, always protects us, hopes, and perseveres.  His love never fails.  Of course, the greatest expression of His love is found in John 3:16 and Romans 5:8, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us — and greater love has no man than this.  Why did He do that?  Because He loves us.  Ephesians 3:18 tells us that even the saints of God struggle to comprehend the width, length, height, and depth of the love of God.  There can be no question that God loves us beyond comprehension.
  2. God is powerful.  This is hardly in dispute, but Scripture is equally clear here.  This is evident from the very first chapter of Genesis — as the One who has created the universe — all space, matter, and time — He is spaceless, timeless, and immaterial, and immensely powerful.  Job tells us in Chapter 42 that "…you can do all things [this is omnipotence], no purpose of yours can be thwarted."   Who can thwart God's plans?  No one.  He is too powerful.
  3. Evil exists.  This is likely the least disputable of the three points normally offered in the "problem of evil" critique of Christianity.  Worthy of its own blog, evil is generally categorized into two "camps" — moral evil (man's inhumanity to man), and natural evil (natural disaster, disease, etc).  In his book The Many Faces of Evil, John Feinberg documents the true extent of man's inhumanity.  Dr. Clay Jones, my professor on this topic at Biola University, also wrote an article several years ago on human evil.  The facts are chilling.  In the 20th Century alone, communism has killed between 20 and 26 million, most in horrible fashion — such as the forced starvation of 6 million Ukrainians.  Under Mao, it is another 30 million, and Mao at one point bragged that he had buried alive 46,000 scholars who disagreed with him.  Read the Rape of Nanking – and we haven't even mentioned the Holocaust yet, with its 17,000,000 dead.  This only scratches the surface — the human capacity for evil is unimaginable.  Natural evil is often more inexplicable, from the Asian tsunami in December 2004 to the Haitian earthquake a few months later, even cancer…if God is good and powerful, how are these things possible?

This is the "Problem of Evil," classically presented.  The world is full of evil, both moral (human) evil and natural evil.  As a five-time cancer survivor, I have seen it and felt it first-hand.  In the next blog, we will work to present a basic theodicy — that is, a basic explanation of how the three facts presented above are not contradictory.  God is good.  God is powerful.  Evil exists.  This is not a contradiction.


16 thoughts on “The Problem of Evil

  1. Have you ever considered that you might have simply mischaracterised the nature of the Creator, and His Creation?

    Why should the staggering amount of evil be source of enormous confusion for believers on God? Is there any legitimate argument to justify the confusion? Is there any plausible pretext or historically compelling observation to rationally feed and sustain the puzzlement? Is there any credible reason to even suspect that the world has somehow gone terribly, drastically, hopelessly wrong, as opposed to it simply performing precisely as desired by its Creator?

    • Good comment, John. The short answer to your question is a resounding yes — there is a great legitimate argument to justify the confusion, which I’ve just outlined in this blog. The reason the staggering amount of evil is a source of confusion for believers is precisely because, as outlined above, they believe God to be perfectly loving and powerful. Given the truth of both of those attributes, the amount of evil is troubling to most. If He allows that much suffering, He cannot be loving — and if He cannot prevent it, the He is not all-powerful.

      The answer to your last two questions makes me think you may not be a Christian, or may not be familiar with the Biblical narrative in Genesis. In short, again the answer is a resounding yes — there IS a credible reason to believe that the world has gone terribly, drastically, hopelessly wrong, and that it absolutely NOT performing as designed by its creator. This is perfectly clear from Genesis 3 and following, where we learn about the fall of man, and how that fall did exactly what you describe. So again, to Christians, this is a huge problem. Hope that helps!

      • Hi Michael,

        You are citing a theodicy, not a historical observation, and it is a failed theodicy at that. By the bibles own chronology of events, the angels were created before the earth, and the earth before man (Job 38:4-7). Evil, however, entered Creation before the earth, and therefore before man… an event witnessed in the fall of Yhwh’s most beautiful creation, Lucifer (Ezekiel 28, Isaiah 14). Creation, therefore, was diseased before the earth was even shaped, and the tumour Christianity blames on Adam was already growing before Yhwh fashioned man. The angels fell before man. Original sin does not lay at Adams feet, but the angels.

        Therefore, by the story’s own chronology, Yhwh brought man into an already infected world, a diseased world, a failed world, a world that was already corrupted.

        That speaks to either a conscious act of evil, or thorough incompetence.

        But I am not litigating the claims made by any religion, as all religions are demonstrably false. They stand only on a forever evolving platform of excuses for why things are not as they should be had matter been persuaded to behave by a benevolent hand, rather than a coherent explanation for why things are as they are in the unignorable presence of a Creator.

        That is why I asked if there were any historical observation to believe the world has somehow gone terribly wrong, as opposed to it performing precisely as desired by a competent mistake-free Creator.

        To open this up, perhaps another question is in order: for what purpose does this artificial world serve? What was it created? Why is there something rather than nothing?

      • Wow, John. A lot more here than I can answer in a simple post, and well beyond the topic at hand (the problem of evil).

        First, I know I’m citing a theodicy, and stated that at the very beginning of the blog. I do not think the free will theodicy fails, at least not until we get to the issue of natural evil — a topic for another post. You claim the theodicy fails, but I disagree. Your chronology of creative events is fine, though I think the conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow, and most Christian theologians would agree. I am not aware of any prominent modern-day theologians who place the problem of sin and evil at the feet of the angels…but you’ve given me a good topic to research further.

        There is a historical observation to believe the world has gone terribly wrong — observing the history as told by Genesis. Most Christians believe it to be a historical narrative, and it tells us precisely that (the world has fallen). The “competent, mistake-free Creator” knew this would happen and allowed for it.

        From there, you diverge into topics well beyond the topic of this blog, but perhaps ones I’ll address in subsequent posts. Your assertion — ad hoc, by the way — is that “all religions are demonstrably false.” That would be a very difficult assertion to prove, but I welcome you to try. Christianity, for example, makes thousands of testable claims, most of which have been evidenced to be true by archaeology, history, geography, geology, and other disciplines of science. How, for example, would you “falsify” Christianity?

        I can answer all of your last three questions, but they are answers you’re likely accustomed to if you’ve engaged Christians in discussion before (it appears you have). In general, those are actually very easy questions for the Christian to answer, and comparatively difficult questions for atheists to answer (unless they hold that it all exists by accident with no purpose). The universe/creation serves the purpose of pleasing God, it was created to serve Him, and there is something rather than nothing because He chose to create.

        So, John — how would you falsify Christianity?

      • Apologies if you think we’re going off topic, but I would argue we’re right on it. You say there is a problem. I am suggesting there is no problem. God exists. Evil (here primarily defined as the ways and means by which suffering can be delivered and experienced) not only exists, but its capacity, variety and potency is increasing as God’s Creation faithfully fulfils its elemental instruction: to diversify and specialise, to migrate, to augment and to grow more complex over time.

        Hydrogen fuses into the heavier and more complex helium, helium fuses into the heavier and more complex carbon, helium and carbon combine to make the heavier and more complex oxygen. Single atoms come together to form simple compounds, simple compounds bind to produce double compounds, double compounds bond to fashion simple molecules, molecules marry to create amino acids, amino acids coalesce to model catalysing proteins and enzymes, and proteins and enzymes experiment to prototype self-replicating systems where, according to the accepted paradigm of evolutionary biology, there is a continuum from simple to more complex organisms.

        This is Creation’s impulse, its outward disposition and core personality. It answers to but one basal command, knows but one timeless commission: to persist and grow more complex over time, and as it tumbles forward, gathering content, so too does the amount and variety of evil (suffering) present in the world.

        That is what 13.8 billion years of history informs us of. That is the actual world.

        By simple but persuasive design the old and the ordinary yield to the new and the exciting, and with the new comes more energetic and capable families of physiological, emotional, psychological and, more recently, economic and technological pain. Indeed, for organisms whose fitness depends only on their own sequence information, physical complexity (be it genetic, behavioural, cultural, technological or economic) must always increase, and as it does so too does that organism’s exposure to an ever more potent ecology of potential suffering.

        That is an established and irrefutable fact, and it does not speak to any existing religious narrative.

        Regarding your theodicy, you might disagree with the conclusion, and you’re certainly free to do so, but it is there in the story’s own chronology. I mean, it’s there in black and white. Creation was already on fire before man was created. Man was cast into an already corrupted world.

        But as I said, I’m not litigating the claims made by any religion. Falsifying Christianity, though, is quite easy. History tells us all we really need to know.

        By the gospel accounts Jesus makes a number of historical claims, but for the sake of brevity let us focus on just one test case: Moses. In total, Moses is mentioned eighty-five times in the New Testament with Jesus directly naming him twice in Matthew (including a rather bizarre face-to-face meeting detailed in 17:3-4), and in John 5:45 where he says: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.”

        Now this is an unambiguous statement; a clear and definitive declaration that Jesus believed Moses was a real person who, we’re told, spent a great deal of time with the god of the Tanakh, who Jesus not only claims to speak for, but also be.

        A century of exhaustive archaeological work conducted across Israel and its environs has revealed that Moses was not a real historical character, rather a legendary motif; a fable which the majority of Jewish rabbis today openly concede was knitted together in the 7th and 6th Century BCE, and whose birth story was, for example, adapted straight from the far older Babylonian tale of King Sargon of Agade:

        “My humble mother bore me secretly. She put me in a basket of rushes and sealed me in with asphalt. Then she put me into the river…. The river held me up, and carried me to Akki, the irrigator who drew water from the river for the people. As he dipped his jug into the river, Akki carried me out. He raised me as his own son.”

        So definitive is the evidence against a historical Moses (and the Exodus he supposedly led) that the second edition Encyclopaedia Judaica concludes that the entire narrative was “dramatically woven out of various strands of tradition… he [Moses] wasn’t a historical character.”

        Indeed, so definitive is the evidence against Moses that the word “myth” has now even penetrated the thought-to-be-impenetrable walls of Orthodox Judaism. In 2012 Rabi Louis Jacobs sent shockwaves through the Orthodox world when he declared in his book, Torah from Heaven, that Moses and the story surrounding him was little more than a “foundation myth;” an origin dream, not a descriptive historical fact.

        The entire Jewish origin tale is known today to be historical fiction, with the only area where there is still a live debate regarding biblical archaeology is whether or not Judah had an urban society in the 9th Century BCE, which relates to the narrative concerning the United Kingdom. That’s it. That’s all there is. The Patriarchs, Egypt, Moses, Exodus and Conquest are dead subjects in the field of serious archaeology. They were dismissed as myth nearly three generations ago now, and nothing has changed in that time to alter this consensus. As Israel’s oldest daily Newspaper, Hareetz, announced in 2014:

        Currently there is broad agreement among archaeologists and Bible scholars that there is no historical basis for the narratives of the Patriarchs, the Exodus from Egypt, and the conquest of Canaan, nor any archaeological evidence to make them think otherwise.

        That last sentence is important: “Nor any archaeological evidence to make them think otherwise.”

        And just to make this point perfectly clear, in 1998, the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), the primary American professional body for archaeologists working in the Middle East, changed the name of its magazine from >Biblical Archaeologist to Near Eastern Archaeology… a change made simply because the bible had been determined to be (beyond all doubt) an entirely unreliable historical source to direct research into the early Jews, pre-Babylonian captivity.

        So, the claims made by Jesus are demonstrably false. His blunder in naming Moses cannot be ignored. It does not speak to his authority if he couldn’t distinguish the difference between inventive geopolitical myth and actual historical fact; a history he, as Yhwh, was allegedly and intimately involved in. Indeed, if Jesus’ claims are to be taken seriously then there can be zero tolerance for even minor bungles in his knowledge of any earthly event, let alone one he supposedly participated in, and yet here is an oversight so outrageous that it is the equivalent of a charismatic preacher three-hundred years from today proclaiming Batman existed.

        You say Creation is to serve Him.

        Thanks for offering up an answer, but that doesn’t really answer anything. Serve Yhwh (an aseitic being) how? For what purpose was this artificial world created? How does this artifical world serve an aseitic being?

        Are you familiar with Paley’s works? He made a remarkably astute observation:

        “Contrivance proves design, and the predominant tendency of the contrivance indicates the disposition of the designer.”

        Know then the disposition, revealed as it must be through the design (through the predominant tendency, or output of the contrivance), and one may know the designer.

        Michael, what is the predominant tendency of the contrivance?

        What does 13.8 billion years of history inform us of?

        What it tells us is that Creation is a complexity machine; a self-enriching engine spilling out from a state of ancestral simplicity to contemporary complexity, where complexity corresponds precisely to a forever expanding ecology of suffering.

        Does that speak to your narrative, or an alternative narrative?

      • John, I’m aware of your blog and your books, and your “Evil God” approach. There remains a problem. Your solution to the problem is to say that God is evil — and if that is the case, then there is indeed to problem with the evil and suffering we see in the world. But this really just moves the problem. Now, we have a new problem — an evil God, which is contrary to the beliefs of nearly all Christians, and contrary to the God of the Bible. I am not prepared to debate your “Evil God” hypothesis here.

        Furthermore, I would argue that you have not falsified Christianity. To do so, you would have to take one of the foundational truth claims of Christianity, and prove it to be false. God exists. Jesus of Nazareth existed. Jesus was God. Jesus rose from the dead. You and I, and even many Christians, may disagree on what constitutes those foundational beliefs of Christianity…those beliefs which, if proven false, would falsify Christianity. But Jesus’ reference to Moses, and the existence (or not) of Moses, does not in my view falsify Christianity. Fascinating post, thank you.

      • No, that’s not my ‘solution.’ I have not concluded the Creator to be evil, rather curious. There is, after all, just one thing an uncreated aseitic being cannot do: an uncreated aseitic being cannot not be.

        Unable to die, powerless to be no more, incapable of even experiencing the thrill of the fear of approaching annihilation, is it not inevitable that an uncreated aseitic being—God—would come, eventually, to focus His impossible powers to contrive artificial environments inside which profoundly ignorant avatars could be cultivated and grown to probe and explore this extraordinary curiosity; evolving surrogates through whom He, the Creator, could taste the fear He alone could never experience, feel the suffering He alone could never know, and meet every pedigree of oblivion denied to Him by dying vicariously?

        Is this no more unreasonable than a man walking to the top of a hill, or traversing a mountain range, or crossing an ocean just to see what was on the other side?

        You do not wish to debate this, I presume, because you can’t.

        I get it, and I can sympathise with your awkward position. 13.8 billion years of history does contradict the Christian narrative so thoroughly that no apologist is truly prepared to address it (the actual world) with anything that could even be confused for intellectual honesty.

        I find that regretful, for many apologists, yourself included, do come across as being quite intelligent people.

        Now, you can certainly say you disagree with my falsification of Christianity, but that’s fairly substanceless unless you address the actual argument presented. You can make all the theological claims you like, but they’re meaningless if actual history falsifies those claims. And history does falsify those claims.

      • Thanks John. Your proposal is certainly one of many possible ones, but anyone can construct a narrative of what God could be like or might be like or might be thinking or could have done.

        I do not wish to debate it, certainly not in this forum. Is that because I can’t? A dangerous presumption, one I’d deny, and the presumption is a non-sequitur. Just because I don’t want to doesn’t mean I can’t.

        My position is not awkward, and if you look at the rest of my blog posts, you’ll see that I agree with you characterization of the universe and its creation, and I would even agree with your estimate of its age (somewhere between 13 and 14 billion years). That’s clear from at least two of my prior blogs, and so I would say that 13.8 billion years of history does NOT contradict the Christian narrative in any way that I can conceive. In fact, I think it’s entirely consistent with it. I am fully unprepared to address the actual world with all the intellectual honesty I can muster…and I would offer that there are many apologists who have addressed this perceived inconsistency. As I re-read your description of how you think the universe and its inhabitants came to be over the last 13.8 billion years, I find nothing that I disagree with.

        I didn’t say I disagreed with your falsification of Christianity, I said that you didn’t falsify it. You may have called into question the existence of Moses, but you haven’t falsified Christianity. History has so far not falsified any of the claims I mentioned — the existence of God, the deity of Christ, the resurrection, and so forth. Of course, atheists like you have tried for many hundreds of years to do so, and have consistently failed, in my view. Enjoying the discussion, thank you.

      • I am fully unprepared to address the actual world with all the intellectual honesty I can muster…

        I’m guessing that was a Freudian slip 😉

        The age of the universe, this artificial world, is not important. What is important is its output… the predominant tendency of the contrivance.

        OK, so you’re fine with Jesus (Yhwh) not knowing basic regional history. That’s interesting. I wouldn’t be, but hey, that’s just me.

        I look forward to reading your future posts.

        Cheers Michael.

      • Thanks John, yes. I’m fully prepared. 😉

        I think the age is important, especially in maintaining the historicity of Christianity, but I also agree that the output is of great importance — though I agree with your “predominant tendency.”

        I don’t think we’ve established that Jesus didn’t know basic regional history. What you’ve said so far, as best I can tell, is that Moses didn’t actually exist, and Jesus used him as a reference or a source. I don’t think that equates to “didn’t know basic regional history,” but I agree it does present a problem if your narrative is correct…though, again, it does not falsify Christianity.

      • Well, if you do indeed think the age of this universe is important for the historicity of Christianity, then I’m afraid your narrative (by the stated genealogies) is about thirteen billion, seven hundred and ninety-nine million, nine hundred ninety-five thousand years out-of-whack 😉

        And no, Jesus did not use Moses as a reference point, whatever that even means. He stated in rather clear terms that Moses was not only an actual historical character, but that he wrote about him [Jesus]. It is even said he met with Moses. Self-evidently, Jesus was either lying (knowing the truth, but not articulating it, which really doesn’t make any sense whatsoever), or he simply did not know the actual early history of the Jews, and blundered terribly in parroting the origin myth that had been relayed to him presumably as a child.

        That does not speak to a capable, competent god incarnate.

      • Good morning, John.

        I do think the age of the universe is important for the historicity of Christianity, but you’re wrong about the rest.
        First, you have assumed that all — or most — Christians believe in a young Earth. This is false. I do not, and many if not most Christians do not. The view that the Earth is very young — between six and ten thousand years old — is actually a very new perspective, and I believe it to be the minority view among Christianity today. Theologians back to Augustine have believed in an ancient universe/Earth, and many (including me) still do today.
        Second, you have assumed (asserted) that the genealogies give us the age of the Earth. This is also false. They do not, this was demonstrated to be incorrect decades ago. Inside this assumption is the assumption that the genealogies are contiguous, and we know that they are not — they contain great gaps, so there is no way to demonstrate the age of the Earth using these genealogies. There is also a hidden (and potentially false) assumption that the ages stated in the genealogies are actual years, whereas many theologians believe they are metaphorical or symbolic. Finally, even if I grant you the genealogies as synchronized by Archbishop Ussher in the 17th Century (which are demonstrably false), that only gets you back to Adam, and we still have all the rest of creation to go. That is, it gets you back to the first man — not back to the beginning of the Earth or the universe. In short, you’re saying my narrative is “out of whack” because it doesn’t comply with the narrative dictated by the genealogies. You’re right, it doesn’t — but not because it’s out of whack, it’s because the genealogies cannot be used to determine the age of the Earth or the universe. Here is a nearly indisputable fact which is actually uncomfortable for some Christians: the Bible simply never tells us how old the universe is. By the way, this would have been clear from reading my other blogs.

        On your second point, I first must grant that your earlier characterization of Moses is correct — I have not researched it, so I have no other source to corroborate it other than what you’ve said. Call be crazy, but I still think it’s possible that Jesus was right, and you’re wrong. 😉
        Beyond that, if I grant that Moses did not exist, then I actually see nothing wrong with the idea that Jesus did not know the actual early history of the Jews. I highly doubt this, but it does not disparage a “capable, competent god incarnate.” We know from Scripture that there were things Jesus didn’t know. However, in Christian theology we must remember that while incarnate, Jesus willingly and readily took on all the limitations of the human body. We know that he got hungry, tired, angry, sad, felt pain, and many other things that you might say “do not speak to a capable, competent god incarnate,” but are perfectly reasonable and even expected for any human being…and Jesus was a human being. He was likely not either omnipotent nor omniscient while incarnate. So although I strongly question your Moses narrative until I do the research, even if I grant it, that narrative does not disparage the incarnate god, and — again — it certainly does not falsify Christianity.

      • Hi Michael

        Yes, I know most Christians today don’t believe in a 6,000 year old earth/universe. Many, though, do, so there’s no universal statement on this. To be honest, I’m often not even bothered to talk about the Creation myth. It’s just so wrong on so many levels that’s it’s just not worth the time of day.

        And yes, I understood you the first time. You’re fine with Jesus (who was Yhwh) not knowing basic regional history… a history he was, allegedly, intimately involved in.

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