Tag Archives: The Problem of Evil

Pandemics and the Problem of Natural Evil

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The recent Covid-19 pandemic raises the age-old problem of evil and the goodness of God.  How can an all-good and all-powerful God allow evil things to occur?  Considered by many to be the “Achilles heel” of Christianity, how can an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God co-exist with profound and incessant evil?

In an earlier post, I explained how genuine human moral freedom brings with it the possibility that some evil choices will result.  But what about those events deemed “natural evils,” where despite their devastating impact, no obvious human moral decisions are involved?

It should first be acknowledged that the Bible makes it clear that our world is not currently as it should be.  Disease and sickness are some of the tragic marks of a world deeply marred and damaged by sin.  After Adam sins, God tells him, “cursed is the ground because of you,” and Romans 8:22 reminds us that creations groans and longs to be freed from this curse.  Viruses like Covid-19 are just one more example of a world gone wrong because a long time ago in a garden far, far away, our ancestors refused to submit to and trust in the goodness and wisdom of God.  Everyone has been paying a heavy price ever since.

In Christian history, many great thinkers developed responses to this problem of natural evil that have come to be called “theodicies,” or ways of justifying a perfect God in an imperfect world.  Most argue that an orderly creation is a necessary condition for certain divine objectives to be possible.

The idea is this: It would be very difficult for a moral agent to act with intentionality and responsibility in an unpredictable environment.  As Michael Peterson points out in Evil and the Christian God, “If the objects in the world acted in sporadic and unpredictable ways, deliberation and action would be severely impaired if not eliminated.”  For example, if an individual could not predict what would happen when they pointed a loaded gun at someone’s head and pulled the trigger, then how could a responsible moral action be ascribed to that individual?  But the laws of physics as well as past experience (i.e., predictability) clearly inform the event and give the agent at least some knowledge of its moral value.

In addition, the so-called “laws of nature” are a two-edged sword.  As Peterson puts it, “The same water which sustains and refreshes can also drown.”  At this point, it becomes clearer that when people are upset about the way the natural world normally works, they are ultimately asking for is some sort of suspension or alteration of natural law whenever a natural disaster occurs.  But this would only succeed in producing a chaotic and unpredictable universe where the supernatural (miraculous) could not be distinguished from the natural, and where the “normal course of events” would have no real meaning.

Two observations are worth noting at this point.  First, perhaps God really could miraculously intervene every time some natural catastrophe was about to take place.  But again, if God was constantly intervening this way in nature, then predictability and the resulting stability and responsibility of human moral choices (not to mention the possibility of scientific knowledge) would be severe jeopardized, if not rendered meaningless.

The natural universe is constructed such that when an individual’s brain is disrupted by a speeding bullet (for example), the likelihood of survival is greatly diminished.  But if God were to intervene each time a speeding bullet disrupted the brain functions of a human being, then the person who shot the bullet could hardly be held responsible for doing something good or evil.  This would negate all freedom to make a moral choice, for the moral agent could foresee no negative recourse for his or her actions and would therefore never know or have to be concerned about the difference between good and evil.  Consequently, “natural evil” is part of the fabric of the universe for it makes moral decisions possible and everyday life meaningful and predictable.

A second observation is closely related to the previous one.  If God is omnipotent and all-wise, why didn’t He create natural laws that precluded the possibility of natural disasters?  The problem here is that it is extremely difficult to imagine a universe where natural laws that make life possible could have been made such that they exclude the possibility of natural evil.  For example, if water quenches thirst in the human body, it must also have the property of being able to drown the individual who cannot swim.  Exercise is good, but resistance from gravity is a necessary prerequisite to its benefit.  As such, gravity is also the cause of the unfortunate results when someone falls from a tenth-story balcony.  It is extremely difficult to imagine a universe where gravity would operate as it does without also having the potential to be an accomplice to some occurrences of what are termed “natural evils.”

Because the natural order is a highly complex system, even tiny changes in that system will have far-reaching and profound effects upon the rest of the system.  The universe is predictable and functional because of the way it is put together in the current system.  Skeptics and critics consistently fail to provide a workable model for a different system that would have all the benefits of the current system with none of the liabilities.

At this point, Peterson’s conclusion proves insightful: “The whole matter becomes so complex that no finite mind can conceive of precisely what modifications the envisioned natural world would have to be incorporated in order both to preserve the good natural effects and to avoid the . . . evil ones.  And if the desired modifications cannot be detailed, then the further task of conceiving how the proposed natural world is better than this present one seems patently impossible.”

The real objection, it seems, is an objection of both scope and degree.  Given the fact that God is not expected to intervene at every point in which some natural evil might occur, why can’t He at least intervene more often than He already does and so reduce the amount of natural evil we experience?  This has been called the “inductive problem of evil.”  Applied to natural evil, it suggests that God could at least do a marginally (if not significantly) better job of managing natural disasters so that fewer lives would be lost and greater human flourishing would result.

Here again, though, this objection assumes we know better than God about these things.  It is, however, impossible for us to know how much natural evil is already restrained by God in order to make life on planet earth possible.  For all we know, God is constantly holding back the tide of natural hostilities to keep our planet habitable and hospitable.

The sad reality is, we often find it hard to fully trust in God’s wisdom and power because deep down, despite our obvious incompetence and incapacity, we are still convinced we know how to run the universe better than God.  But we clearly do not know what combination of disasters and relief creates the right mix for human beings to be properly chastised for our sin and reminded of our gross inability to control the realities of our own lives, let alone those of the entire universe.

This is where our attitudes and responses to events like the Covid-19 pandemic come most forcefully into play.  Whether we want to admit it or not, part of natural evil’s goal is to humble and remind us that we are severely limited in our power and understanding.  We are decidedly not in control of our own lives and destinies.

In view of this, we can either refuse to submit to and continue shaking our fists at the God who lovingly made and sustains us, or we can beautifully demonstrate to those around us the authenticity and significance of our faith in Jesus Christ by giving thanks, affirming, and resting in His sovereign wisdom, goodness, and grace.

Answering the Problem of Evil

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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.