By Ryan Itzel
A Common Objection
As a street evangelist I hear most of the objections raised against the Christian faith. The most common objection I receive is known today as "The Problem of Evil." Depending on who you talk to, it may be defined differently, however, most people will usually describe it in this way, "How can God be all good and all powerful and allow evil in our world?" They will usually state that God must either not be all good or not be all powerful in the Christian worldview. This usually brings them to the conclusion that since the Bible claims that God is all good (Psalm 119:68; 1 John 1:5) and all powerful (Rev. 1:8), and evil exists, God must not exist.
While this has been understood by some to be the nail in the coffin for Christianity, we can rest assured that God and His Word can handle the weight of the question. Though this question has great depth and is not something that can be exhaustively covered in a blog post, I do believe that the Word of God can sufficiently give us an answer to this problem, and that the study process will encourage our faith. So, let us begin!
When we begin our study, the question people often ask is, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" If we are to answer the question accurately, we must define terms. First, do things just happen in our world? According to the Word of God, the answer is no! Nothing just happens by random chance, but rather, all things are ordained by a sovereign God who made this world and owns this world (Gen. 1:1; Ps. 24:1). Listen to these words from Isaiah 46:9-10, "Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.'" God declares the end from the beginning. Thus, everything takes place because God has ordained it to be so. This is a comforting thought as we realize that though our world is full of pain and suffering, there is a God who is in control. Some often ask the question "Why would God make a world full of evil?" To that we can respond, "He didn't! When God made the world, it was good and free of sin." The Bible gives us what God thought of the original creation in Genesis 1:31, "God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good." Likewise, the Bible says that sin and death were not part of His original creation but were brought into creation by mankind who rebelled against Him. God made the world good because He is good! However, our world is not good anymore. Romans 5:12 explains this reality, "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned." The reality is that mankind brought sin into the world, corrupting God's good creation, bringing sin and death and all other suffering.
Second, we must define the word good. Most people you talk to today will say when asked if they are a good person "Yes, of course I am a good person." However, according to the Bible, there is no one who is good (Romans 3:10-12). Jesus affirms this reality that no one is good in Mark 10:18 where he says, "No one is good except God alone." Some people may seem better than others in our world (not everyone kills as many people as Hitler did), but at the core, all people have the same heart. Jeremiah 17:9 says about the heart of man, "The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?" When compared to others we may feel good about ourselves, but when we are compared to God, we are left empty and without grounds to boast. Listen to what Isaiah said when he saw the Lord high and lifted up, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" This is the reality, no one is good, in fact, all people deserve the very wrath of God, for we have sinned against the holy, infinite Creator of all. All people then deserve an eternity in hell for our disobedience. Some may say, "That seems harsh! I haven't done that much bad stuff!" But it's not what we have done, it's who we have done it against. If I scratch the door of a junk yard car with a key, I won't receive any punishment. But if I scratch a used car with a key, in the least I will receive a fine to repair the damage. But if I go into a Ferrari car parking lot and scratch the door of a Ferrari with a key... you can bet I will have some serious consequences! As I went along, the consequences became greater because my sin was against something of greater value. God is of infinite value, and thus, rebellion against Him is worthy of an infinite punishment. Paul says it this way in Colossians 3:6, "On account of these the wrath of God is coming."
Finally, what do we mean when we say bad? Our world is full of bad things, however, we can only say absolutely that things such as murder, rape, etc. are always bad, because there is an absolute moral standard that comes from the absolute moral Lawgiver. But let's get back to our definition. Do bad things happen to good people? It is true that unjust things can happen to "innocent" people. Meaning, that a person can be punished for something of which they are not guilty, however, ultimately there are no truly good or innocent people. All people are guilty before God and stand condemned (John 3:36). There was, however, one time in human history where a truly bad thing was done to a truly good person. 2,000 years ago, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came into the world, lived among men, and suffered an unjust punishment for the sins of the World (Gal. 4:4; Romans 5:8). Jesus was God in human flesh (Col. 2:9), and thus perfect and without sin (2 Cor. 5:21). But Jesus came as a willing sacrifice to bear the sins of the world (1 John 2:1-2). Jesus suffered for sin that was not His own. The world hated Him, desiring Him to relieve temporal struggles. His own people crucified Him upon a Roman cross... But remember, things don't just happen. Though it was a wicked thing done to Him, God's plan from eternity past was to save sinners through the perfect work of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:3-7; 1 Cor. 15:3-4). But Jesus defeated sin and conquered death on the cross by His resurrection, and He will one day judge the world as a result (Acts 17:30-31).
Why Doesn't He Fix the World Now?
When we give these definitions, the first question resolves! Bad things don't happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people as a result and consequence of sin. However, there is hope in Jesus, the only truly good person who suffered injustice. Jesus, being both God and sinless man, took on the sins of the world, died on the cross, and was raised from the dead. All who call on Him, trusting in the perfect work of Jesus Christ, and repenting their sins, will find eternal life and forgiveness of all their transgressions!
But many will ask, "Why does God not fix everything?" The answer is, "He will!" The Bible makes clear that Jesus will one day return, judge the world, and remake it all free from sin (Romans 8:18-25). Some ask why He does not do it now? In 2 Peter 3:4, Peter acknowledges a variation of that question that was asked during his day, "Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation." In other words, people were asking when Jesus was going to return. They claimed things were continuing the same way they always had, and thus, there was no need to be concerned with a final judgement. While Peter gives multiple answers to this question, his final explanation is vital to our understanding of this objection. Second Peter 3:9 says, "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." In other words, God is not slow to fulfill His promises, but He is being patient so that He might fulfill His will of saving a people for His name. I often tell people on the streets who don't know Christ, "If God came back now and fixed the world, you would be under His judgement! But He is being patient, so repent and trust in Christ, for the time is short."
God will fix the world, but for all of those who have not found forgiveness through faith in the work of Christ alone and repentance of sins, they will be under His just judgement. This brings us to a final and most difficult question…
Why Did He Allow Sin in the First Place?
As we deal with the problem of evil and answer the previous objections, some ask a final question that needs to be dealt with, "Why did God allow sin in the first place?" To answer this question, we must turn to the character of God. First, as stated earlier, God is good. Psalm 119:68 says that God is good and does good. God is morally perfect and without sin. We can trust that everything that He does is good! Second, God cannot do evil. Titus 1:2 makes clear that God cannot lie and 1 John 1:5 tells us that there is no darkness in Him. To some this might be surprising since many believe there is nothing God cannot do. But God cannot sin or do anything contrary to His nature. Third, God is omnipotent, meaning that He is all powerful. God is called the Almighty in Revelation 1:8, thus there is nothing too difficult for God. While He cannot do that which is contrary to His nature, it is clear that God is limitless in power. Next, God is omniscient, meaning that He knows all things. This is vitally important for understanding why God permitted evil in the first place. God is limitless in His knowledge. There is nothing outside the knowledge of God, and thus, nothing can be hidden from Him. Psalm 139 makes this reality abundantly clear. Finally, God is all wise. Some might wonder why this is brought up since it was just stated that God knows everything, however, since God is infinite in His wisdom, we can trust that He knows what is best to do in everything. Isaiah 55:9 describes this in this way, "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."
Now, with this understanding of the character of God, we can rightly address the question of why He permitted sin in the beginning. First, God is the primary agent in all things and as He foreordained everything, He is the primary cause. However, God is not the doer of evil. God can be described as the indirect or remote cause of evil in that He permitted it to pass in His ordering of all things. But God never is the direct/immediate cause of evil. He is good, and cannot do evil, as stated above. We do evil because we want to. No man is ever coerced by God into doing what is wrong, but rather, we do what we want to when we sin. James 1:13-14 is a vital text as we understand this reality.
So, to review, God is not the doer of evil, nor is He morally culpable. To understand this, we must keep in mind certain truths. First, as stated before, God is never the doer of evil. God cannot do what is wrong, and thus He never directly causes evil. Second, God indirectly causes evil in permitting man's sin. Mankind, though a secondary cause (in that we cannot do anything that is not permitted by God), is the direct cause of evil. We do what is wrong, willfully rebelling against God. Third, God never coerces anyone, but people do their wicked deeds of their own volition (James 1:13-14). Fourth, moral culpability is tied to motive. God's motives are always pure and have a greater purpose in mind even when He permits evil (This will be discussed below). God's intentions are always good (Is. 46:8-11), and His good intentions cannot be tied to evil for God delights in good. Psalm 5:4 says, "For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you." Thus, God is the sovereign God over all things, His intentions are for the greatest good (as we will see), and moral culpability lies with us who sin of our own volition, permitted by God in the fall.
Maybe the greatest example of this is seen in the book of Job. Job was a righteous man who lost everything at no fault of his. In Job 1:8 and 42:11, we see that God is the primary agent in the whole scenario. However, in Job 1:13-19 we see Satan, the secondary agent (the direct cause of evil) enters the scene. In this scenario, however, Satan is limited in what he can do (Job. 1:12). God has limits in what He will permit. After Satan brings destruction into the life of Job as the direct cause, permitted by God, Job acknowledges God's sovereignty in the situation (Job 1:21, 2:10). Job knew that ultimately, God was in control of all that took place in his life, and yet, Job did not charge God with wrongdoing (Job. 1:22, 2:10). This example demonstrates the sovereignty of God as the primary agent, the culpability of the secondary agent who does the evil deed, and that God is sinless in His permitting of evil.
But why permit evil in the first place? The answer is found in that God has a greater good which is accomplished through His permitting of sin in our world. We see in the Scriptures examples of where God allows sin and accomplishes a greater good from it. One example of this is found in Genesis 50:20, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." The context of this passage is that Joseph, the son of Jacob, was sold into Egyptian slavery by his brothers. While he went through many great difficulties including time in prison after being falsely accused of a crime, God meant for all of this to happen for He accomplished the salvation of His people Israel through it. Joseph was used by the Pharaoh to interpret his dream of a coming famine. God then used Joseph to organize the storage of food which saved Egypt and Joseph's family from the famine, preserving God's promises made to Abraham. God used good to come from evil which brought glory to Him!
Now, in the situation with Joseph we can clearly see the good that God intended in permitting the wicked deeds of Joseph’s brothers, but it does not always resolve so clearly for us. God is not obligated to give us the reason for every situation. As with Job, he was never told why he went through the suffering he endured (further discussion on Job is below). Deuteronomy 29:29 reminds us of an important truth, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.”Now, as with Joseph, God has done this very thing on a greater level. As mentioned before, there was only one true evil done to a truly good person, and that was when Jesus was crucified on a cross. Clearly God intended this with a greater purpose (e.g. the salvation of the lost and ultimately the glory of God). If God could mean for this evil event to happen so that He might accomplish a greater purpose, we can see that God can permit all the evil in our world if there is a greater purpose.
So, what is the greater purpose in allowing original evil and all evil? It is the glory of God! God receives glory in multiple ways by permitting evil. First, God does all things for His glory (John 17:1, 24). He alone is worthy of glory, and thus, it is good that He works all things for this purpose. Second, God receives glory from saving sinners (Eph. 1:3-6; Ex. 15:2; Ps. 106:47). God's glory is supremely seen in Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection, through which sinners are saved. Finally, God even receives glory in punishing wickedness (Ps. 96:13; Ex. 9:16). Just as a good judge is praised when he brings a just judgement upon the guilty, God is also praised when He judges the wicked. So, God permitted sin and thus brings Himself the maximum glory in saving sinners and punishing the wicked. What is amazing about this is that God has linked the good of those He has chosen to save to His glory (Romans 8:28). Thus, God, who will make His name great and will not lose any of the praise of which He is worthy, has promised eternal good for those He saves by His grace.
We see these truths nowhere displayed as clearly as in Romans 9:22-23, "What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?" In permitting sin, God now receives glory in displaying the fullness of His attributes (kindness toward His own in salvation and severity toward the wicked in condemnation) for all eternity.
The Bible is clear: God made the world good, we sinned and rebelled against God, corrupting His perfect creation. One day God will fix this world by judging the wicked and remaking the world free from sin. For those who repent and trust in Christ, there is hope and eternal life. God is patient in not judging the world now so that many will be saved, but one day it will be too late. God is saving sinners for His glory and for those who are saved by grace through faith, their good will be intrinsically tied to God's glory which is a sure promise. So then, as the Apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:20, "We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God."
In this section I found great help from What About Evil: A Defense of God's Sovereign Glory by Scott Christensen. I cannot recommend this book enough, as it is the most helpful book I have read on the subject of The Problem of Evil.