Undoubtedly, the greatest intellectual barrier to belief in God and faith in Christ, Christians and non-Christians alike, is the "problem" of evil. As the 18th century skeptic, David Hume summarised: "Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?"1
Before proceeding further, it is perhaps important to distinguish between the emotional problem of evil and the intellectual. The former concerns how to comfort or console someone suffering, or to dissolve the emotional dislike they have towards God who permits evil. Such generally lies in the realm of a counsellor, and we make no attempt to provide glib comforting remarks. Rather, our response here will contemplate the problem of evil on an intellectual level. Therefore, it may appear dry, emotionless, and even uncomforting, however, it better answers the objections from those who abstractly contemplate this issue.
Now, as Christians, we affirm that God does not do evil (James 1:13), and that love is rooted in God's character so that it can be said God is love (1 John 4:8,16). Thus, we affirm that God would not be malicious or take pleasure from the suffering of others. Secondly, we believe God is able to prevent evil (Revelation 21:1-4), as God almighty (Genesis 17:1) would not be almighty if God did not have power over all things. Therefore, those who accept these characteristics as belonging to God appear to face the difficulty made apparent by Hume above. This difficulty seems to be comprised of two assumptions: (1) if God is all-powerful, then He is able to create any world He chooses; and (2) if God is all-good, then He would prefer a world without evil over a world with evil. We believe these two assumptions are not necessarily true, and so aim to provide compelling reasons for rejecting them. If successful, Kant's argument that the Christian God is inconsistent with evil would become unsound.
It is often thought that being all-powerful entails being able to do anything, including contradictory feats. Yet, C.S. Lewis rightly points out: "the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God."2 Therefore, God can not make a round square, or go against His own nature by lying (Hebrews 6:18), or make someone freely choose to do something. So if God grants people genuine freedom to choose as they like, then it is not possible for God to determine their choices unless He takes away their freedom. And suppose that in every possible world where God creates free creatures, that those creatures freely choose to do evil. Unless God removes free will, all God can do is create the circumstances that enable a person to make free decisions, and then stand back and watch.
But what of natural evil? Could God not have created a world wherein natural evils did not exist? If Christianity is true, it teaches of our struggle in this world being against spiritual forces in the heavenly realms who freely chose to set themselves against God (Ephesians 6:12). Natural evils could therefore be the result of demonic activity in the world, and so it is possible that God could not prevent natural evil without first removing the free will of demonic beings. Some might think this solution to the problem of natural evil is ridiculous; however, all we wish to demonstrate here is that the first assumption, that an all-powerful God can create any world He so desires, is not necessarily true.
Refinement Through Suffering
Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 202 AD), an early Christian Father, saw two stages to God's creation of human beings. In the first stage, Irenaeus saw human beings as being brought into existence as immature intelligent creatures with the capacity for immense moral and spiritual growth and development.3 The second stage of creation was believed to consist of gradually being transformed through their own free responses from human animals into "children of God."4 Accordingly, God's purpose in creating this world was not to construct a hedonistic paradise whose inhabitants would experience a maximum of pleasure and minimum of pain. Rather this world is to be viewed as a place of "soul making," where free beings can still enjoy life's pleasures, while having to grapple with life's pitfalls in order to become be furnished into "children of God."
For brevities sake, we will not go further into Irenaeus' theodicy, however we wish to highlight an important point. Spiritual growth and maturing appears to be possible because of pain and suffering. As a parent would know, there are many cases where allowing pain and suffering to occur in their child's life is beneficial in order to bring about some greater good, or because there is some sufficient reason for allowing it. In James 1:2-4 we are told perseverance through trials matures us and makes us complete. Additionally, 1 Peter 1:6-7 acknowledges some as suffering all sorts of grief, because they are being refined as though by fire, to prove their faith is pure and genuine towards God.
God may therefore permit the process of suffering in our lives to mature us or to test us, or for some overriding end. C.S. Lewis on the death of his wife discovered this process can be very painful, and reflecting upon these concepts of a good God allowing pain and suffering mused:
CS Lewis wrote:The terrible thing is that a perfectly good God is hardly less formidable than a Cosmic Sadist. The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness. A cruel man might be bribed, might grow tired of his vile sport, might have temporary fit of mercy, as alcoholics have fits of sobriety. But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless.
What do people mean when they say, "I am not afraid of God because I know He is good"? Have they never even been to a dentist?5
Within Christianity, it is believed this process of maturing and testing will come to an end when this temporary world passes away. Yet, God promises to set up a new world wherein He will dwell with His people, and "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:4) Bearing all this in mind, the second assumption that an all-good God would prefer a world without the evils of pain and suffering, is far from obvious. God may very well have sufficient reasons for allowing pain and suffering, and so consequently, this second assumption is not necessarily true.
To conclude this writing, we see strong reasons for 1) rejecting that an all-powerful God could create a world wherein every creature would freely choose to do good; and 2) denying that an all-good God would not allow pain and suffering to serve some better purpose. Thus, there seems to be no compelling reason why an all-powerful and all-good God can not be compatible with the existence of evil.
1. David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1980), part 10, 198.
2. C. S. Lewis, Selected Books: The Problem of Pain. (Great Britain: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1999), 482.
3. John Hick, Philosophy of Religion. (Eaglewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall, 1990), 44.
5. C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London: Faber & Faber, 1985), 55-56.
The structure of this response followed that of William Lane Craig's in his book, Hard Questions, Real Answers—so a special thanks to this work.