Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.
One of the most troublesome questions Christians face when engaging in evangelism or apologetics is the problem of evil. This difficulty relates to two likely causes: lack of sufficient biblical knowledge on the topic; and, a pervasive spirit of empiricism, secularism, and militant atheism in Western civilization today. What is meant by “evil?” In a general sense, evil is the opposite or absence of good. The narrower scope signifies profound wickedness or immorality. Relative to the more specific definition, Merriam-Webster defines evil as “morally reprehensible: arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct.”
At the heart of Christianity is God’s love and benevolence. Alvin Plantinga writes, “Perhaps the most widely accepted and impressive piece of natural atheology has to do with the so-called problem of evil” (italics mine) (1). Many secular philosophers and atheists believe the existence of evil constitutes a problem for the theist. They think the presence of evil makes belief in God unreasonable or rationally unacceptable. Much ado is made about “natural” evils, such as disease, earthquakes, tsunamis, famine, and hurricanes. In addition, there are evils that result from human cruelty, arrogance, avarice, the savagery of war, and stupidity.
Clearly the world contains a great deal of evil. If God is as benevolent as Christian theists claim, He must be just as appalled as we are at all this evil. But if He is also as powerful as they claim, then presumably He is in a position to do something about it. Why doesn’t God orient the world in a manner that eliminates evil? How could evil be a part of His design for creation and for mankind? Groothuis says, “The presence of evil in the face of a good God has classically been called the problem of evil” (italics added) (2). Epicurus said, “God either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or he is able and unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able; or he is both willing and able.
Jeremey Evans writes, “Christians have generally agreed that evil is not a substance or a thing but instead is a privation of a good thing that God made” (3). Evans presented the proposition that because God created only actual things (of substance), and because evil is not an actual thing (substance), then God did not create evil. Groothuis speaks of the importance of definitively addressing the problem of evil. He says believers must stand firm in the gospel and refuse defeat of their faith based on one problem. God never does evil and is never to be blamed for evil.
Grudem notes the following from Scripture: “Jesus also combines God’s predestination of the crucifixion with moral blame on those who carry it out: ‘For the Son of man goes as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed’ (Luke 22:22; cf. Matt. 26:24; Mark 14:21)” (italics in the original) (4). This verse is critical for confronting misconceptions from New Atheists regarding the crucifixion: e.g., Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), who espoused that the crucifixion was an unnecessary and barbaric form of human sacrifice: what he called “propitiatory murder” (5).
What is the Free Will Defense?
Plantinga is perhaps the first prominent theological scholar to state that not even God can bring about a good state of affairs without bringing about an evil state of affairs. He calls this the Free Will Defense. Specifically, he says being free with respect to an action must mean a person is free to perform an action and free to refrain from it. It is within his power to choose (6). Emphatically, a world wherein man is significantly free (and freely performs more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world devoid of such freedom.
To create creatures capable of moral good, God must create creatures also capable of moral evil. Moreover, He can’t give such creatures freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from choosing to do evil. Sadly, of course, man has proven himself capable of choosing to do evil as much as to do good. Our first parents made a conscious decision to disobey God’s one and only commandment and eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This choice is highly significant in that it demonstrated man’s choice to look within for morality and purpose rather than heavenward.
The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong cannot be counted against God’s omnipotence nor against his goodness. Plantinga says God cannot be expected to do “literally everything.” Sentient beings with free will, no matter the circumstance, will likely make at least one “bad” decision; one that might have the potential to be egregious. If God, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, created the world—a good world wherein evil was possible and which became actual—then the proper conclusion would not be “God created evil,” but “the world contains evil” (7). To say, for example, that I act freely on a given occasion is to say only this: if I had chosen to do otherwise, I would have done otherwise. It is paramount that we have the freedom to choose A (a good deed) or B (an evil deed). Anything less is devoid of the freedom to choose.
Groothuis says we cannot take up the problem of evil in a philosophical vacuum. The Christian faith is multifaceted and cumulative, as we learn from the progressive thread of redemption in Scripture. If so, then the biblical worldview cannot prima facie be refuted by one particular problem. Augustine believed evil is “privation” of the good; it is parasitic on the good, and not a substance in and of itself. Good itself is rooted in God’s eternal character, and cannot exist otherwise.
Groothuis astutely writes, “Since evil is a defection from good and parasitic on an antecedent good… it is impossible that God could defect from the good” (8). C.S. Lewis observed that no one does evil simply because he or she takes it to be evil. The “badness” of an action consists in pursuing [good things] by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much. He writes, “Goodness is, so to speak, itself; badness is only spoiled goodness” (9). He provides the example of sadism as a sexual perversion, noting we must first have an idea of normal sexuality before we can talk about it being perverted.
A Final Thought
In light of God’s goodness and sovereignty, it must be noted that evil might be used in accord with God’s infinite wisdom to bring about His desired ends. Groothuis calls this evil’s “secondary status in the universe” (10). Despite the fact that God created all that we see, evil is not a direct “creation” of God. Evil comes about due to human mismanagement of people and of the environment. Consider this: the Fall (while based on human rebellion) opens up possibilities for virtue not otherwise attainable. Evil serves an instrumental purpose in the providence of God. This has been called the Greater Good Defense. In other words, evil is logically necessary to some good; this good outweighs the evil, and there are no alternative goods not involving those evils that would have been better.
Irenaeus called this the soul-making strategy. Origen joined in, saying, “Virtue, if unopposed, would not shine out nor become more glorious by probation. Virtue is not virtue if it be untested and unexamined. Apart from evil, there would be no crown of victory in store for him who rightly struggled” (11). Augustine noted God’s supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, stating God would not permit the existence of evil among His works if He were not able to bring good even out of evil (12).
(1) Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, 1977), 7.
(2) Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2011), 492.
(3) Jeremey A. Evans, The Problem of Evil (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishing, 2013), 1.
(4) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MN: Zondervan, 1994), 328.
(5) Christopher Hitchens, The God Delusion (New York, NY: Hachette Book Group USA, 2007), 208.
(6) Plantinga, Ibid., 30.
(7) Groothuis, Ibid.,503.
(8) Ibid., 620.
(9) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 44.
(10) Groothuis, Ibid., 637.
(11) Origen, quoted in Henry Bettenson, ed., The Early Christian Fathers (London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1956), 264.
(12) Augustine, Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love, trans. J.F. Shaw (Chicago, IL: Henry Regnery, 1961), 11.