by Craig Branch – Introduction to Areopagus Journal Volume 5 Number 3 (May-June 2005)
The general perception of apologetics is that it answers the objections of unbelievers and gives proofs for the truth of Christianity. In its most general sense, apologetics serves to give a reasoned answer for why we believe. But apologetics is for the believer as well as the unbeliever. Believers have questions, too, even doubts sometimes, about our faith. This issue of Areopagus Journal addresses one such issue that resonates with both believers and unbelievers. I believe it is also one of the most difficult of all apologetics issues – the problem of evil.
The Problem of Evil
It often comes up by way of questions such as, “Why, Lord?,” or more specifically, “If God is all good and all powerful, how can there be such evil and suffering in the world?” The classic way the second question is usually framed by atheists, agnostics, and even some misguided Christians is this:
Premise 1 – If God were all powerful, He would be able to prevent evil.
Premise 2 – If God were all good, He would desire to prevent evil.
Conclusion 1 – So if God were both good and all powerful, there would be no evil.
Premise 3 – But there is evil.
Conclusion 2 – Therefore, there is no all powerful, all good God.
Conclusion 3 – There is no god at all.
While the problem of evil is a deep philosophical conundrum, it can also include a significant emotional component as well. When an unbeliever or a believer experiences a significant or tragic loss, the death or torture or horrendous malady to a loved one, or some crushing injustice, there can follow a great temptation to be angry with, doubt, or reject God. Many examples of troubling, doubt-raising evils can be noted. Consider the Spanish Inquisition, Hitler’s holocaust where six million Jews and others were slaughtered, Cambodia’s Pol Pot, the Twin Towers on September 11th, the Tsunami in Indonesia and Thailand, Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, babies born with deformities, earthquakes and tornadoes that kill and devastate people’s homes.
The Bible itself raises many thorny questions regarding the existence of evil: to vindicate Elijah, God sends a bear to tear apart forty jeering children; He commands the extermination of every Canaanite and Amalekite man, woman, and child by the Israelites, along with six other tribes (Deut. 7:1-2; 1 Sam. 15:3). And there is the revelation that it is God who makes the deaf unable to hear and the dumb unable to speak (Exod. 4:1 1). There is also the regular accusation from the nonbeliever questioning the fairness of God for sending all those who don’t accept (or have never heard about) Jesus to the everlasting torture of hell.
The Question of Theodicy
There is a special theological and apologetic term for dealing with the problem of evil. It is called theodicy, which means the attempt to vindicate God in the face of evil. That is, a theodicy tries to explain how an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God could have permitted such evil and suffering to be part of His creation.
Most people seem content to advocate a relatively simple theodicy, namely, that many bad things are wrought by the choices of other human beings (Hitler, Stalin, drunk or careless drivers, pedophiles, etc.). Even “natural” disasters are seen by some as not an incrimination of God, but simply “accidents.” But those responses provide no answer to the classic premises of the problem of evil listed above. And they are not valid answers when considering the sovereign God of the Christian scriptures who “ordains whatsoever comes to pass.”
When one comes to the Christian community for answers, it can get confusing and perplexing. The Christian community has more than one theological perspective. These perspectives, though they do not differ in the essential doctrines of the faith, they do differ in the nonessentials. Yet, these variations can significantly impact how one provides an answer to the problem of evil. Thus, ones theology has a determining role in constructing a theodicy. And everyone has a theology, some good, some poor, some shallow, and some deep. Because of the deep complexity of these issues, it is crucial that one carefully weigh the Scriptures to understand what God reveals. The weaker ones view is of the sovereignty and the goodness of God, the less adequate one’s understanding of evil and its solution will be. At the same time, if the reality of human choices is not accounted for, ones conclusions will also be inadequate.
There have been a number of inadequate attempts to provide a theodicy. John Frame responds to some of these in his book, Apologetics to the Glory of God.1 For example, he points out that Eastern religions (e.g., Buddhism) and some Western cults (e.g., Christian Science, Unity) posit the belief that evil is really an illusion based upon subjective perceptions. While it is true that our perceptions of things will guide our responses (wills and emotions), it does not follow that our perceptions are purely subjective. Frame point s out that, if pain and evil are illusions, then they are “terribly troublesome” illusions and the theodicy is not solved. For all one needs to ask is “why does God give us or allow such a terrible illusion of pain?”2
Another popular attempt to answer the problem comes from process theology. Liberal Rabbi Harold Kushner exemplifies this approach in his best seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.³ He presents a “Divine-Weakness Defense’ which holds that God is good but neither omnipotent nor omniscient, and thus cannot overcome all evil although he tries His best. Of course, this contradicts the Scriptural revelation regarding God’s providence and sovereignty. Moreover, it leaves man with no assurance of an ultimate meaning to suffering, and with the real possibility that evil will triumph.
Frame discusses several other inadequate theodicies such as the Free-Will Defense, the Character-Building Defense, the Indirect Cause Defense, and the God Outside the Law (ex Lex) Defense. One that he does not mention is Open Theism (though it bears some similarity to process theology). Scholars such as Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd, and John Sanders, try to resolve the problem by claiming that God limits Himself in His interaction with the human race in order to preserve human autonomy and free choices, and to make a real, loving, and interactive relationship with God possible. Because God is limited (especially in his knowledge of the future), evil sometimes takes him by surprise. For an understanding of this movement, its errors and implications, I invite you to order our back issue on Open Theism (March-April 2004).
Man’s Glory or God’s?
I believe that there are two major reasons why we find this issue so perplexing. The first is that pain and suffering is bad. It is evil. It is right to be up set over these things. God agrees. He understands. In the incarnation He identifies and has defeated it.
The second reason is that most of our approaches to solving the problem of evil are disproportionately anthropocentric (man-centered) rather than theocentric (God-centered). Yes, we are image-bearers of God and God so loved the world that He sent His Son to redeem the elect. But many approaches to evil and suffering focus on man’s happiness rather than on God’s glory. We tend to want solutions to the problem of evil that elevate human beings, make us feel good, and/or provide us with a rational certainty that satisfies our curiosity.
If our answer is connected to human reasoning, even framed by Scripture, with the goal of achieving certainty, we will ultimately fall short. W e will fall short as well if we seek a solution that exalts man rather than God. The ultimate answer to the question “Why, Lord?” is found in faith in God’s sovereign mind, will and character.
God’s revelation is consistent with this. He says the gap between our ways and thoughts and His are as distant as the heavens from the earth (Isa. 55:8-9; Rom. 11:33-36). When theodicy is directly addressed in Scripture, God rightfully reveals that He does not submit to man’s judgment. Job best encapsulates the issue. When finally Job calls upon God and demands vindication and an explanation for his suffering, God in turn Socratically questions Job, pointing out His sovereignty and man’s frailty (chapters 38-42). Job concludes, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:3-6).
This truth is echoed by Paul, ‘For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then [in heaven] I shall know fully just as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). Indeed, we are promised that God will wipe away every tear on that day (Rev. 7:17; cf. also Rom. 8:18-25). Two “parts” which have been revealed to us are described in 2 Cor. 1:3-11 where God teaches us that He is the source of comfort in affliction and that through our painful experiences we are prepared and motivated to come alongside others who are suffering as well with empathy and understanding.
Finally, when the question is raised as to how the presence of evil and judgment is consistent with God’s absolute sovereignty, like he did with Job, God reveals that He alone is the standard of His actions and purposes, not us (Rom. 9:8-23). We can therefore know (even when we cannot see it) that His overall plans and purposes will involve the revealed attributes of His Being – righteousness, justice, mercy, compassion, love, and grace.
In this issue of Areopagus Journal, we offer four articles which deal with the problem of evil in four dimensions. The first offering is “What is the Question? A Look at the ‘Problems’ of Evil by Jim Beilby, Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Bethel College. Perhaps you have seen the cartoon caption of a man holding a sign saying, “Jesus is the Answer,’ and a man staring at it asking, ‘What is the question?” Beilby frames the issue by asking, ‘When Christians seek to answer the problem of evil, what question or questions are they actually answering?” Beilby warns that we may appear to be answering the objections adequately “but in reality miss the mark completely.”
Dr. Beilby challenges the Christian to both make sure he listens well and understands the issue so that he is answering the right question(s). Also, he exhorts us to recognize that the questioner’s pain and loss may be so deep that “it defies being dismissed with easy answers.” In helping us understand the issues, Beilby argues for “not one but three distinct problems of evil.” They are the (1) philosophical problem; (2) the existential problem; and (3) the emotional problem.
The remaining contributions elaborate on these three problems. ARC’s own Steve Cowan addresses the philosophical and existential problems of evil in his article “Peering Through a Glass Darkly.” Jason Thompson, pastor and scholar, gives us “A Biblical Perspective on Evil.” Finally, Howard Dial and Howard Eyrich offer a counseling perspective on suffering, responding to the emotional issues in “Coping with Evil in Real Life.”
Read on in the Areopagus Journal and learn some important things in order to be more equipped, effective, and in submission in the worship of God as we engage a fallen world of fallen people.
Craig Branch is the Director of the Apologetics Resource Center, Birmingham, Alabama.
1 John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (Phillipsburg, PA:P&R, 1994), 149-170.
2 Ibid., 156.
3 Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schocken, 1981).