Any number of recent world events could serve as an example of a situation where something truly evil occurred. For example, not long ago, my wife returned from a tour of the infamous death camp in Auschwitz, Poland on the 70th anniversary of its liberation from Nazi forces. Before the end of World War II, in this camp alone, well over one million people died for no justifiable reason.
This (and other tragedies like it) raises one of the most difficult questions for the Christian faith, the so-called “problem of evil.” In the wake of such a horrendous event, many people were left to ponder this perplexing dilemma: “How could a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good allow something like this happen?”
It’s a fair question and one that is not new. Many great minds across the ages have wrestled to find an adequate answer. Is there really a satisfying solution to this problem of evil in the world? I believe there is.
Two Inadequate Answers
Before endeavoring to give a good answer, it might be helpful to survey two inadequate answers repeatedly offered through the centuries. One, articulated by the late Rabbi Harold S. Kushner in his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, is that God is not really all-powerful. He feels for and with us, and weeps with us in our pain and loss, but He is essentially powerless to prevent these or any other types of tragedies. In my estimation, this is not true to God or His word, and makes Him into a God who is less than worthy of worship. Here, God is empathetic and compassionate, perhaps, but He is certainly not Almighty God, able to bring about genuine change in the situation.
Another answer is given by the atheist. He or she simply says that since there is evil in the world, God does not exist. Otherwise, if He did exist and as truly good, wise, and powerful, He would, by necessity, prevent it and make this world a perfect—or at least a little better—place.
In opposition to this position, however, it can be argued that the atheist has a deeper problem with evil if, in fact, God does not exist. Without God, it is virtually impossible to find an objective standard to determine what is actually evil and good. The atheist may express personal aversions to certain so-called “moral” activities and actions, but these emotional expressions have no transcendent or logical reference point to stand upon. The act may violate the atheist’s own moral sensibilities, but if all that life is comprised of is non-moral matter and energy in their various forms, then there is no adequate way to independently judge between what seems right and wrong. And so for the atheist, the problem of evil becomes this: why am I so offended by so many things when the whole of the material universe is inherently non-moral? Atheists have yet to articulate a good answer to this formidable dilemma.
But since it is easier to refute a position than to present and defend one, I will proceed to the more difficult task of providing a preliminary answer to the problem of evil.
Are we good or are we bad?
First, it must be noted that part of the problem our world has today with understanding such realities as the Auschwitz death camp is that we do not always possess an adequate view of human nature. There is a deeply held humanistic assumption that human beings are essentially good, and that faulty socialization and similar factors produce evil in the hearts of basically good people. Biblically, nothing could be further from the truth. Romans 3 (and other scripture passages) clearly teaches there is sin in the heart of every person, even from the very earliest stages of life. And while our personal pride wants to deny and ridicule this fact, history—our personal history included—is full of confirming examples of this sad reality. As it has been said, in light of humanity’s sin nature, what is remarkable is not that such atrocities occur. What is more amazing is that they do not happen with greater frequency.
Thankfully, I think this is the case because although we are fallen and corrupted, the moral image of God in human beings has not yet been destroyed. And the vestiges of it, along with God’s Spirit in the world and in the church, restrain and limit us from doing even worse things to our world and to others than we could do and already have already done. Human beings are not as bad as they could be, but they are still very bad indeed. And some, by the nature of our free choices, are worse than others.
Are we free or are we slaves?
This raises another important issue in the problem of evil discussion. God has made us, to a limited but real extent, both morally free and therefore morally corruptible. The ability of human beings to choose to do good or evil did not bring about the necessity of evil. After all, Adam and Eve were not required to sin. But free will did bring about the possibility of evil. And so, as we read with sadness in Genesis chapter 3, Adam and Eve did sin. In a world where we are really free, evil is not necessary, but it is possible. And sadly, in the case of Adolf Hitler and his evil network, this possibility once again became a reality.
Could God have prevented what happened at Auschwitz? Theoretically, yes. But if God were to prevent all evil from happening, He would be removing something far more valuable. First and foremost, He would be removing human freedom. And a world where freedom is real is better than a world where we are essentially slaves or robots. I would rather love and be loved freely than to love and be loved by obligation, for then love is no longer love, but merely a pretentious and subtle form of manipulative coercion. And the tragic irony of living in a world which openly rejects transcendent moral standards is painfully clear. We expect goodness from free individuals, but we reject the foundations upon which moral restraints are both built and maintained. C. S. Lewis put it this way: “And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. . . . We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful” (The Abolition of Man, 35).
Making Good from Evil and Setting the Wrong to Right
Beyond these prior thoughts, a world where there is some evil also allows for certain “higher” moral virtues that could not be exercised in a world without it. For example, praiseworthy things, like moral development, courage, and self-sacrifice, can hardly be imagined in a setting devoid of evil, challenges and hardships. This maturing process is what John Hick calls “soul-making.”
Two more thoughts can be raised. First, God is able to take any situation and cause it to work together for good (Romans 8:28). While the action may be evil, God is not overcome by it, but can overcome it by the power of His will working in and through the reality of life in a fallen world. Nowhere is this idea more evident than in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. In a strange and wonderful twist of reality (what C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien call a “eucatastrophe,” or “good tragedy”), God takes the ultimate act of evil and makes it into the triumphal moment of greatest good in all of human history! By means of a hideously evil act, God brings about the final forgiveness and righteous reconciliation of all who will trust in Jesus.
One final note should be shared. Our ultimate hope and cry for justice will not be wholly fulfilled in this life. The Bible is clear: Jesus Christ will return someday in glory and will, once and for all, right all wrongs (Matthew 16:27). Justice will be served. But until then, we labor and strive for goodness and justice in a free and fallen world, seeking to know Him and make Him known to those in desperate need of a Savior from the problem of evil that still lurks in the heart and mind of every individual—yours and mine included.