How Can a Good God Be Compatible with Evil and Suffering?

*Old Post from College*

    Today, when I walked into my epistemology class, the words “The Bible is the word of God” were written on the board, presumably by some professor of a previous class. As some in the class meandered in and saw it, several remarks were made. One boy scoffed, “Yeah, except for the fact that it was written by man.” He then apologized if he had offended anyone, but presumed that “it wouldn’t offend anyone in here.”

     Well, I wasn’t offended, but I was troubled as well as deeply saddened. I am perfectly aware that many people look down on Christians and ridicule our beliefs. This is nothing new. However, what troubled me was the assumption that he made, that his statement wouldn’t offend anyone in a Philosophy class because Philosophers are, by definition, “lovers of reason.” Essentially, he was saying that those who really see reason know that God does not exist. What his statement implied is that faith and reason are mutually exclusive. You have to choose one or the other and those in the Philosophy camp have chosen the path of reason.

      Is this really the case? Have we who have chosen to live by faith, in so doing, forsaken reason? Well, being a Philosophy major and a Christian, for my own personal sake, I certainly hope not. At any rate, I do not think this is the case at all. Of course, I do not think that belief in Christ can be arrived at solely through reason. That would defy several aspects of Christianity. But nor do I think that having faith in something excludes reason. The simple truth is that we all put our faith in something, whether we acknowledge it or not. This motivated me to share some of my thoughts about the rationality of belief in God, specifically focusing on the central objection to God, the problem of evil, a subject of great interest to me. Some of this comes from my thesis paper, but it helps me to refine some of my points as well as address the most important considerations in issues such as these.

      The main objection against belief in the existence of God is what is known as “the problem of evil.” The claim that the Atheist poses is that a benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent God would not allow such a horrible thing as evil in His creation. Evil and God are logically incompatible, that is they simply cannot coexist. We know that evil exists. Therefore, God does not exist. That’s the main atheist argument in a nutshell. I’d like to make some comments on the supposed “rationality” of this argument.

     First of all, as a sort of overarching introduction to my response to this argument, I must say that I wonder at the gall of people of making such claims at all. Before even addressing the issue of God’s existence, I think it is healthy and important for us to be reminded of the nature of our own existence. We are finite creatures with finite understanding. We are extremely limited in our capacities. Not only are we limited intellectually, but we are limited temporally. Each of our individual lives is a fleeting moment in the vast expanse of eternity. We are obsessed with what we can know scientifically, infallibly, but the irony is, from where we stand, we can really “know” very little. So, I am amazed at our supreme arrogance in imagining that we, from our incredibly restricted vantage point, have a real handle on any of this at all, especially enough to make claims about what God would or would not do. Let us keep this in mind as we continue.

     As for the argument from the problem of evil, I  have concluded that I am more rationally prepared to concede that the compatibility of God’s goodness and evil is true, but cannot be fully explained than that there is no God. On the face of it, the former seems less rational, but I would argue that, at the root, the latter is far more irrational. The atheist argues that there cannot be a good God and evil. I propose that there cannot be evil without a good God. Now, this seems seems puzzling. To clarify, I do not mean that God causes evil or that evil is in any way entailed by God. What I do mean is that the concept of evil itself is ultimately unintelligible apart from the concept of God. As I have thought about the problem of evil, my instinct has been that the very fact that we do recognize evil as evil and perceive it as being such a tremendous problem, instead of disproving God, is actually evidence in support of God.

     In order to support this claim, I will examine the means by which some attempt to disprove God in the hopes of digging up its roots in absurdity. The claim of the atheist is this: God does not exist because there is evil in the world and the existence of a wholly good, omniscient, and omnipotent God is logically contradictory or at least, probabilistically incompatible with the existence of evil. Notice that one of the key premises in this argument is that evil exists. This means that the atheist has witnessed evil, recognized it as evil, and claims to know that it is absolutely true that it is evil. Thus, they conclude God does not exist. However, it seems to me that if they deny God, they can no longer claim that it is absolutely true that evil is evil, the very grounds upon which they deny Him. As C.S. Lewis, a former atheist, put it in Mere Christianity, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of justice? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line” (Lewis, 38). Yet, if there is no God and the universe and the lives it contains are just meaningless matters of chance, then there is no “straight line” to compare it to. Indeed, if this is the case, the atheist has no grounds for calling anything evil in the first place. For them to do so would be akin to attempting to build a building starting a foot off the ground, an utterly foolish and fruitless endeavor. Evil acts are condemned as evil because they are wrong. However, apart from a “straight line” or standard with which to support why they are wrong, the atheist cannot reasonably declare that something is wrong or evil, a necessity for their argument against the existence of God. 

    So, if it is  true that God does not exist, the more logical conclusion actually ends up being that nothing is really truly evil. Without a standard, all we can be really said to have are private, subjective conceptions of what is good and what is evil. Indeed, this is the hallmark of the post-modern era. In an age of “tolerance” and subjective truth, the only action that can be condemned as wrong is to condemn something as wrong. There is no absolute truth though that is a very absolute kind of statement which, in order to live by, must be believed to be absolutely true. Obviously, the argument is starting to unravel. Lewis sensed this conflict within the atheist’s argument, saying, “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” (38). The problem is that if evil and justice are subjective, there is no reason why man should experience such outrage at apparently evil acts such as the Holocaust or September 11. Perhaps from Hitler’s subjective perspective, it was perfectly good and not evil to exterminate millions of people. On what grounds do we object? For the atheist, it seems that there can be none.

     Yet, we do object. We do claim to know that this is evil and absolutely and inherently so. This existence and recognition of evil is an indication, not that God does not exist, but that He does. Again Lewis seems to capture the argument better than I am able, wondering “if the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did [he], who was supposed to be part of the show, find [himself] in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet” (38). If we are really part of a meaningless world where nothing is really good or evil, we would not have such a profound sense of meaning or adamant belief that evil is evil, but “we should never have found out that it has no meaning just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark  would be a word without meaning” (39) just as evil would be a word without meaning.  So, as shown, the the theist can quite happily and rationally  say, “I do not fully comprehend how a good God allows evil, but that is okay. For, apart from God, I do not comprehend evil at all.”

    Essentially, the atheistic argument fails because it relies on the claim that evil is really evil, a claim that cannot be reasonably supported from an atheistic world view. Indeed, this is the fatal flaw of the argument. It begins in the middle. All of our beliefs that we hold about the world are part of our world view. They are bricks that we lay upon a foundation, our foundation being our core beliefs from which all of our other beliefs stem and depend upon. The most foundational belief that we have is whether or not God exists. The atheist is trying to build his house but he is trying to do it starting from the second floor. He begins with the fact that evil exists and from there tries to “build down” to a foundational belief that God does not exist. I’m no architect, but this seems a pretty foolish way to build.

     Alternatively, I propose a method that from what I understand, is generally architecturally approved and that will build a better “house.” We must begin with the foundation and try to build up from there. If the house does not stand, we have built on a bad foundation and must reexamine those beliefs which we built upon. I have built my house upon the belief that God exists. I do not pretend to understand or know the answer to everything that this entails, but my house is still standing. Like Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Given my foundational belief that God exists, the world is cast into light. I can make sense of an otherwise senseless world and I have of hope of its and my redemption from evil. Sadly, the atheist has no hope of doing this for from their foundation, they cannot even know they are in the darkness let alone have hope of emerging.  Nor can they build anything of substance, but merely try to conjure up meaning out of thin air.

     In closing, I would like to make another point that is really the most important of all. After I got back from my class, I wanted to write this note to show that reason really does support the Christian faith, a good aim indeed. However, I was reminded of something more important. Upon returning home, I found out that a girl who I knew briefly a few years back was killed by a drunk driver. She was my age, beautiful and sweet. What a tragedy. Of course, this was very sobering and I was reminded that no amount of reason or logic can really answer the problem of evil and suffering. What kind of person would I be if my answer to this girl’s mother’s question of why her daughter died was some kind of attempt at a fancy argument? It does not suffice. Logic means little in the face of the reality of evil and suffering.

     This served to remind me that logic and reason are tools, but they are not the answer. Jesus Christ is the answer. This may seem simplistic or like some kind of cookie-cutter Sunday school response, but it’s not. It or rather, He is the true, complete answer to the problem of evil. As Dr. Peter John Kreeft put it, “the answer, then, to suffering is not an answer at all. It’s Jesus himself. It’s not a bunch of words, it’s the Word. It’s not a tightly woven philosophical argument; it’s a person. The person. The answer to suffering cannot be just an abstract idea, because this isn’t an abstract issue; it’s a personal issue. It requires a personal response. The answer must be someone, not just something, because the issue involves someone-God, where are you?”

      We must aim at the issue that goes deeper than reason, the issue of the heart. And oh, in our heart of hearts, we are obstinate and willfully self-deceiving. We suppress the truth and trade it in for a lie. Coming to terms with the truth of God requires that we come to terms with the reality of our humble state before God and that is not something we do willingly. So, it’s not so much that we just can’t see the truth, it’s that we don’t want to see the truth. No encounter with the finest, most convincing argument will change that. Only an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ will change that, for only He can melt the heart of stone.

     So, while I love reasoning and argument and that is a good thing, it must never be the main thing. Our goal should never be to merely solve a puzzle or win a debate, but our goal should be the same as in every other area of our lives as Christians, that Christ may be revealed in us. He is the logos, the Word, the Reason, the answer at every level and in every instance.  So if Christ is not revealed, then we have accomplished nothing, for Jesus Christ is the only answer, the only hope for this fallen world and the only hope for the fallen heart.



2 thoughts on “How Can a Good God Be Compatible with Evil and Suffering?

  1. […] There still remains the question of, “Why, God?”  Intellectually, it is a question of logic.  How may a good and omnipotent God allow evil?  This is no easy question and I do not pretend to have it completely figured out, but I would say that I have come to peace with this question intellectually because the world would make less sense if there was no God.  If God is not real, then there is no higher standard and our objection to evil is unfounded.  We would not cry out as we do. And yet, we do.  I find then that our objection to evil is stronger evidence for God rather than against.  I argue more extensively for this here:… […]

  2. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your posts. You are so well-spoken and present your thoughts so well. I have never followed a blog before, but after seeing one of your posts on fb, I decided it worth my while. Thank you for making me think of Gospel things a little more deeply!

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