The Problem Of Evil: Toward A Biblical Solution
The "problem of evil" has bedeviled the Christian witness for centuries. From the days of the early church fathers to modern times a variety of solutions have been proposed. The free will defense,1 the "unknowable" or eschatological defense2 and the belief that God is not in control of all things3 are some of the solutions offered for the problem of evil.
The need for a study of this nature is apparent in the confusion among Christians concerning the issue. The diverse views indicate a necessity to better ground a proposed resolution on the Bible. While it is impossible to satisfy every question, this study will attempt to further clarify the biblical witness concerning evil and base the proposed solution on sound theological grounds. Therefore, this acticle proposes that the solution for the "problem of evil" lies in a reasonable reading of Scripture and is solved in submission to God's Word rather than through philosophical argument.
A Sketch Of Popular Views
The views of selected religious philosophers and popular theologians such as Alvin Plantinga, Gordon Clark, N. T. Wright and Thomas Long will be noted. This investigation will not be exhaustive but will provide information for a proposed alternative solution to the problem of evil.
Free Will Defense
Perhaps the best known modern religious philosopher grappling with the problem of evil is Alvin Plantinga.4 While Plantinga does not claim to have solved the problem he has come to the conclusion that it is logically possible that God allowed evil in order to guarantee human freedom. Moreover, his proposal "shows that the existence of God is compatible, both logically and probabilistically, with the existence of evil; thus it solves the main philosophical problem of evil."5
Plantinga's argument is "a brilliant, highly logical piece of reasoning, laid down plank by plank, and, as such, is not easily summarized."6 Nevertheless, we may start where Plantinga begins, with the three standard points concerning the problem of evil: God is omnipotent, God is wholly good and evil exists.
Plantinga says there are "no nonlogical limits to what an omnipotent being can do."7 Therefore, based on the logic that there can be no true love or service in a world without free will, Plantinga insists that this world is the best possible world God could have created. For Plantinga, it is a world in which there are creatures capable of moral good and therefore capable of moral evil.8 His concludes that, "it is possible that God has a good reason for creating a world containing evil."9 In all of this Plantinga is correct; the problem is that he does not go far enough.
Plantinga claims he is only defending the free will argument as it pertains to the problem of evil. He does not provide a solution to the problem. Yet it seems his defense opens the door to other difficulties. Reliance on a free will defense raises the possibility of a less than omnipotent God. Indeed, it is not uncommon to claim that "the whole world is under the control of the devil" and God is actually unable to control the effects of natural or moral evil.10 While Plantinga does not propose this "solution" to the problem of evil, a reliance upon the free will argument proves to be inadequate, leaving too many unanswered questions.
In addition, a primary outcome of addressing the problem of evil by the free will argument is that it puts God in the position of allowing evil. Yet, "the doing-allowing distinction, even if it exists, has no moral significance when it is applied to God."11 As an omnipotent being, there is no plausible difference between God acting directly to bring an event to pass or allowing it to come to pass.12 Indeed, one might say allowing is the morally inferior behavior since it indicates indifference. It also suggests the inability to exert one's will.
No Free Will
The Reformed philosopher and theologian Gordon Clark rejected the free will defense because "the free will argument concedes that God is not Almighty, for the free will of man can and does frustrate God's will."13 Clark's solution was a simple affirmation of God's sovereignty over all events. While Clark acknowledged "secondary causation" that subtlety was lost in the midst of comments such as "I wish very frankly and pointedly to assert that if a man gets drunk and shoots his family, it was the will of God that he should do so."14 While this is a robust acknowledgment of God's providence it does not do the Bible justice. This is especially evident when Clark asserts that the Bible "unequivocally ...certainly makes God the cause of sin."15
An absolute denial of human free will moves beyond the biblical witness. It seems more appropriate to search for a perspective that takes into account the biblical teaching concerning free will in the context of God's sovereignty.
An answer to the problem of evil proposed by popular theologian N. T. Wright is that there is no answer.16 Wright argues for a "nuanced view of evil" that recognizes human evil and wickedness but chocks much of that up to misguided Western politics.17
Wright's argument can be summarized by saying that evil is real, is evidenced in the wicked actions of human beings, has a supernatural source and provides believers with the opportunity to grow in Christ-likeness.18 However, the only solution to the problem of evil "is to be found in God's creation of a new world, new heavens and new earth, with redeemed, renewed human beings ruling over it and bringing to it God's wise, healing order."19 This is true as far as it goes; it is not really a practical answer for those Christians who find themselves in the midst of suffering.
Similar to this is the belief that God is not responsible for evil - and that evil's origin is a mystery. That, along with the idea that God meets us in our suffering, may provide initial solace,20 but it does not provide an adequate long term answer.
One problem in claiming there is no answer to the problem of evil is to open the door to non-biblical coping mechanisms. For instance, religious fictionalism approaches the worship of God as a "useful" fiction or a means to preserve treasured cultural expression.21 A person who embraces religious fictionalism deals with the problem of evil by sidestepping the issue altogether.22 For, if one's "theistic beliefs" are fiction why not tailor the tale to one's own taste.
The Biblical Data
Before proposing a Bible focused solution to the problem of evil it is necessary to review the biblical witness concerning the relevant components. This section briefly examines the biblical data concerning the sovereignty of God (including human action and destiny), natural and moral evil, second causes and free will. This paper will also touch on the doctrine of the hiddenness of God before proposing a Bible focused solution to the problem of evil.
The Sovereignty of God
In order to develop a Bible based understanding of the problem of evil, we must begin with the witness of Scripture rather than philosophical musing. The place to begin is with God himself. Specifically we need to establish the biblical understanding of God's omnipotence. For, remember, the first point in the typically stated problem of evil is that God is omnipotent.
The first indication that the Bible views God as all powerful is found in the opening verse of Scripture: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."23 Here, and in the following verses, the Bible "claims the sovereign work of God, who maintains and sustains the functions of the cosmos and his own purposes within it."24
Indeed, the sovereignty of God is clearly affirmed throughout the Bible. Thus, "The LORD does whatever pleases him throughout all heaven and earth, and on the seas and in their depths" (Psalms 135:6). That is to say, the will of God is always accomplished. There is no entity in existence that can thwart his will. Indeed, we are reminded that the entire spectrum of events is under the direct control of God: "Look now; I myself am he! There is no other god but me! I am the one who kills and gives life; I am the one who wounds and heals; no one can be rescued from my powerful hand!" (Deuteronomy 32:39).
The truth of God's sovereignty is affirmed by the New Testament. The apostle Paul, in his letter to Ephesian church verifies that God "makes everything work out according to his plan" (Ephesians 1:11). This authority, vested in Jesus the Christ (Matthew 28:18-20), is plainly displayed in the act of creation:
Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can't see - such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him. (Colossians 1:15-16)
The will of the sovereign Lord cannot be thwarted by those who "in him ...live and move and exist" (Acts 17:28). Indeed, "he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command" (Hebrews 1:3).
The catalog of references could continue; the Bible, from one end to the other, confirms that God is the sovereign ruler of the universe. All things find their being in him and are controlled by him on a moment by moment basis.
Human Action and Destiny
Lest we think the sovereignty of God is expressed only on the broad canvas of creation, we must also consider what the Bible says about individual human action and activity within the sovereign realm of God. For instance, the book of Proverbs reminds us that, "we can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps" (Proverbs 16:9). Indeed, it is not only the conscious decisions made by human beings that are under the control of God, matters of chance or fate are also considered: "We may throw the dice, but the LORD determines how they fall" (Proverbs 16:33).
Truly, all things that befall mankind are from the hand of God. Whether it be the free choice that a person makes or the events that they encounter in their life, all things are under God's control. As the prophet Isaiah reminded his hearers,
I create the light and make the darkness. I send good times and bad times. I, the LORD, am the one who does these things. "Open up, O heavens, and pour out your righteousness. Let the earth open wide so salvation and righteousness can sprout up together. I, the LORD, created them. "What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, 'Stop, you're doing it wrong!' Does the pot exclaim, 'How clumsy can you be?' (Isaiah 45:7-9).
Every human being is the work of God's hands and as such are under his authority. Truly, nothing on earth happens apart from God. One might say that the "good bad and the ugly" are all under the dominance of the Lord. In addition, no human being has the right to complain about what God has done or is doing. Paul, writing in the context of the plan of salvation, tells the church in Rome, "when a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn't he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into?" (Romans 9:21). Therefore, the Bible tells us that human action and destiny are under the control of Almighty God.
The Scripture verses considered thus far alert us to the fact that what we call natural evil or human suffering is also under the control of God. In other words, "natural disasters" (commonly called "acts of God") are events within the sovereign control of God. For instance, the famine that came upon the northern kingdom of Israel in the days of Elijah was brought about by the command of God (1 Kings 17:1). That particular calamity was imposed because of the sin of the northern kingdom. Indeed, according to the Bible, a primary reason for famine, plague and other natural disasters is judgment for sin (Deuteronomy 28:15-18, cf. Lamentations 3:37-38). Probably the best-known example of this in the Bible is the great flood (Genesis 6:13-ff). Moreover, death resulting from natural calamity is, again, under the direct authority of God. For, "The LORD gives both death and life; he brings some down to the grave but raises others up" (1 Samuel 2:6).
Evidence that the natural realm is under God's control is reaffirmed in the New Testament. It is God who controls the weather for both the evil and good (Matthew 5:45, Luke 8:24, Acts 14:17). In addition, it is God who controls natural evil even when it specifically impacts a single person.
When Jesus and his disciples encountered a man born blind, the followers of Christ asked if the man had been born without sight due to his sin or the sin of his parents. Yet, "'It was not because of his sins or his parents' sins,' Jesus answered. 'This happened so the power of God could be seen in him'" (John 9:3). While Jesus disavowed a universal connection between sin and suffering, there is no indication in John's gospel that "the occurrence of blindness from birth was outside the sweep of God's control and therefore of his purpose."25 It was God who brought upon the man the "natural evil" of blindness.
Although the example of the man born blind reminds us that not all natural evil encountered in individuals is a consequence of sin, we must not completely disregard the possibility. Sometimes the evil encountered in this world is the direct consequence of personally committed sins (Galatians 6:7). For instance, a person mastered by alcohol may suffer a variety of consequences; physical suffering, economic want, social shame and a familial perpetuation of all these.26
The Bible also says the evil acts of spirits and humans are controlled by God. It was God who "sent a tormenting spirit that filled [king Saul] with depression and fear" (1 Samuel 16:14b, brackets added). It was God who engineered the deception of Ahab by a lying spirit, sending him into battle and death (1 Kings 22:22).
The prophet Amos asks rhetorically, "When the ram's horn blows a warning, shouldn't the people be alarmed? Does disaster come to a city unless the LORD has planned it?" (Amos 3:6). In other words, the armies that invaded Israel were not a matter of fate or mere human decision but where the result of the determined will of God.
Perhaps the most compelling example of God controlling the evil actions of humans is found in God's plan of redemption. According to the apostle Paul,
Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. (Ephesians 1:4-6).
As John Calvin explained, the fall of Adam and the redemptive work of Jesus Christ are both part of the eternal plan of God.27 In other words, the original sin of mankind happened under the sovereign control of God, as the "fall of Adam is not presupposed as preceding God's decree in time, but it was what God determined before all ages."28 Indeed, it could not be otherwise. If the redemptive work of Christ was determined from eternity, then the fall of Adam was as well.
Moreover, as Peter declared to the Jerusalem crowd on Pentecost, "God knew what would happen, and his prearranged plan was carried out when Jesus was betrayed. With the help of lawless Gentiles, you nailed him to a cross and killed him" (Acts 2:23). Later, at a time when the apostles and others were in prayer, they affirmed the responsibility of the human agents who crucified Christ while verifying that "everything they did was determined beforehand according to your [God's] will" (Acts 4:28b, brackets added). Therefore, the Bible tells us that the most evil action ever committed by men was under the direct control of God.
As we have seen, the evil acts of men are exactly that: wicked actions of human beings. In other words, God does not act directly in creation but uses second causes. In the case of the evil perpetrated against Jesus, the second causes were Pilate, Herod and the Jews who rejected Jesus as the Christ (Acts 2:22-23).
Whenever God acts in the affairs of men he uses human agents. In bringing judgment upon Judah, God gathered "together all the armies of the north under King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, whom I have appointed as my deputy. I will bring them all against this land and its people and against the surrounding nations. I will completely destroy you and make you an object of horror and contempt and a ruin forever" (Jeremiah 25:9). When the time came to end the reign of Babylon and bring the sons of Jacob back from exile, God selected another second cause: "This is what the LORD says to Cyrus, his anointed one, whose right hand he will empower. Before him, mighty kings will be paralyzed with fear. Their fortress gates will be opened, never to shut again" (Isaiah 45:1). This reminds us that second causes are held responsible for their actions. Thus, the Babylonians where used by God to bring judgment upon Judah and were in turn judged for their arrogance and cruelty in executing God's will.
In the final analysis, we must accept that "whether willingly or unwillingly, whether conspicuously or inconspicuously, all men, and Satan too, contribute to the realization the purpose of God with man in his universe."29 And this is done in the context of a "real choice" to do good or evil.30 As the Psalmist says, human defiance enhances God's glory because he uses it for his purpose (Psalms 76:10).
Yet, does not the Bible teach that human beings have free will? The answer is yes. Throughout Scripture it is assumed that humans have the capacity to choose (Genesis 2:16-17, Joshua 24:15, Ezekiel 18:30-32, Mark 8:34, John 7:17 etc.). Yet this does not mean that men and women are free to act contrary to the plan of God.
When the apostle Paul writes to the church in Rome about the sovereignty of God in election, he (incidentally) provides his readers with help in understanding human free will in relationship to the sovereignty of God. In his letter Paul asks a rhetorical question: "When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn't he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into?" (Romans 9:21). The answer is obviously, yes, the potter can do what he wants. But embedded in this question-and-answer is the idea of the nature of the created thing. In other words, Paul is talking about vessels who by their very nature are used for decoration or receiving garbage. In the doctrine of election, the nature of a human being is changed, made a new creation. But the point here is that every vessel, every human being, acts according to their nature. Every person has certain characteristics. Every person has inborn or learned likes, dislikes, abilities, particularities and so on. Thus, a person's freedom is "within these limitations."31
Truly, God knows all of the infinite possibilities. He chooses which of these he will actualize. By meticulously selecting the very individuals he brings into existence, individuals who respond to specific stimuli exactly as he intends, by making sure the specific factors are present, he renders certain the free decisions and actions of those individuals.32
Therefore, the free will of the individual is not violated while the absolute sovereign control of Almighty God remains in force. It is in this way that God is sovereign and human beings exercise free will.
Moreover, this understanding of free will eliminates the unwieldiness of the doing-allowing distinction. The sovereign God never merely allows an event to take place.
The Hiddenness of God
A final piece of the biblical puzzle before we propose a Bible-based understanding for the problem of evil is the "hiddenness of God." This refers to the hiding of a comprehensive answer to the problem of evil and indeed to the hiddenness of God himself.33
The hiddenness of God or divine hiding refers to the fact that not all things concerning God are made evident to human beings. For example, at one point Jesus told his disciples, "'Listen to me and remember what I say. The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies.' But they didn't know what he meant. Its significance was hidden from them, so they couldn't understand it, and they were afraid to ask him about it" (Luke 9:44-45). This passage tells us "the disciples lacked a full theodicy in connection with the unjust suffering of their Messiah."34 Hiding the significance of Jesus' words was not an arbitrary decision on the part of the Lord but seems to have taken place because "God blocks understanding for those who are not in a position to respond properly."35 We know the disciples - especially Peter - were not in a position to respond properly to a full understanding of Christ's suffering. Indeed, Peter displayed a "counterproductive resistance to God and God's purpose" when he rebuked Jesus for saying the Christ must suffer and be rejected by the elders (Mark 8:32).36 Peter's resistance to the truth was so severe that it called forth a correction from the Lord Jesus that included calling Peter Satan (Mark 8:33). Peter's resistance did not improve before Pentecost; he eventually did violence against those who were fulfilling the will of God in arresting Jesus (Mark 14:47, John 18:10). Truly, Peter was unable to plumb the depths of God's wisdom and knowledge in using evil to bring about his plan of redemption (Romans 11:33). As Paul Moser suggests, "we must ask whether we typical humans would have a similar problem if God now stated a full theodicy for unjust suffering and evil in human lives. I suspect that we would, given our cognitive and moral shortcomings in comparison with God's perfect moral character."37
Therefore, a final piece of the biblical puzzle used in assembling a proposed Bible-based solution to the problem of evil is the idea of hiddenness. In short, there are things human beings are incapable of understanding and are hidden by God to guard against inappropriate human reactions.
A Bible Based Understanding of the Problem of Evil
Difficulties arise concerning the problem of evil when we use the wrong presuppositions to frame the parameters of our inquiry. Consider the three parts of the problem: God is omnipotent, God is wholly good, there is evil. One who is being transformed by the renewing of their mind according to God's word (Romans 12:1-2), might reply, "so where is the problem?" For, God is sovereign and all of creation is at his disposal. He uses all of creation to accomplish his desired ends. This is the unequivocal witness of Scripture.
Natural evil, while under the control o f God, reflects the consequences of sin in creation (Genesis 3:17, Romans 8:20-22). God uses natural evil to bring his eternal plan to fruition. Moral evil (the actions of wicked men) is also under the control of God in the realization of his will. The most profound example of this in the Bible is the God orchestrated murder of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:22-23, 4:28)
Even though God uses evil to accomplish his will, he does so without incurring guilt. In every case God makes use of second causes. In using natural evil, the phenomena of the non-human created order are directed toward God's desired end. In the case of moral evil, free human agents choose to do evil and God uses their behavior to accomplish his will. At times they bring judgment upon sinners. In other cases their actions bring a desired reaction on the part of another.
Also, created beings used by God as second causes are responsible for their actions. Their behaviors are freely determined from within the context of their individual nature. Nevertheless, no matter their decision concerning any thought, word or action, they do nothing that supplants the sovereign control of God.
Finally, there are limits to human understanding. The Bible provides an overall answer to the problem of evil; it does not enable us to understand the reasons for evil in every situation. Some things are hidden from man. As finite beings, humans cannot fully understand the ways of God and too much much information may prompt inappropriate reactions.
The popular answers to the problem of evil fall short. A free will defense as typically understood, undermines the sovereignty of God. The suggestion that God cannot control evil flies in the face of the biblical witness. The denial of free will in an effort to maintain God's absolute control does not properly align with the witness of Scripture.
Claims of ignorance concerning the origin of evil and the idea that God suffers with the sufferer do not actually address the problem of evil. Neither does the assertion that there is no answer prior to the coming of the new heaven and new earth. It is also clear that religious fictionalism has nothing to offer in seeking an answer to the problem of evil.
On the other hand, the Bible provides answers to every aspect of the problem of evil. Thus we arrive at this conclusion: The sovereign God of the Bible controls all expressions of natural and moral evil, using the agency of second causes within the context of character-bound free will while hiding the fullness of his purposes from his finite creation.
1. Alvin Plantinga, God Freedom and Evil, (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 64.
2. N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of Go, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 164.
3. Mark H. Graeser, John A. Lynn, and John W. Schoenheit, Don't Blame God: A Biblical Answer to the Problem of Evil, Sin, & Suffering, (Indianapolis: Christian Educational Services, 2007).
4. Matthew D. Lundberg, "The Logic and Limits of the Free Will Argument: An Eschatological Reconsideration," Modern Theology 32, no. 2 (April 14, 2015), doi:10.1111/moth.12237, 173.
5. Plantinga, 64.
6. Thomas G. Long, What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, (Grand Rapids: William B Erdmann's Publishing Company, 2011), 59.
7. Plantinga, 17.
8. Plantinga, 30.
9. Plantinga, 31.
10. Graeser et al, 27, 80.
11. Daniel Lim, "Doing, Allowing, and the Problem of Evil," International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 81, no. 3 (May 06, 2016): , doi:10.1007/s11153-016-9569-y, 276.
12. Lim, 276.
13. Gordon H. Clark, God and Evil: The Problem Solved, (Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 2004), 7.
14. Clark, 27.
15. Clark, 38.
16. Wright, 164.
17. Wright, 35.
18. Wright, 133-ff.
19. Wright, 146.
20. Long, 149.
21. Andrea Sauchelli, "The Will to Make-Believe: Religious Fictionalism, Religious Beliefs, and the Value of Art," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 96, no. 3 (2016), doi:10.1111/phpr.12328, 11.
22. Jon Robson, "Religious Fictionalism and the Problem of Evil," Religious Studies 51, no. 03 (2015): , doi:10.1017/s0034412515000281, 355.
23. All Scripture references are taken from the New Living Translation unless otherwise noted.
24. John H. Walton, Genesis, ed. Terry Muck, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 92.
25. Donald Arthur Carson, The Gospel According to John, ed. D. A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 362.
26. This writer was present at the admission of a person to the emergency department of a regional medical center who died a gruesome death "fountaining blood from their mouth and rectum" (the words of the doctor on duty) as a result of many years of the sin of alcohol abuse.
27. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960), 1.469 (Bk 2 ch12.5).
28. Calvin, 1.469.
29. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, Third Edition, (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1967), 154.
30. Van Til, 154-155.
31. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Third Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 329.
32. Erickson, 329
33. Travis Dumsday, "How Divine Hiddenness Sheds Light on the Problem of Evil," International Philosophical Quarterly 55 No. 3, no. 219 (September 2015), doi:10.5840/ipq201572037, 317.
34. Paul K. Moser, "Theodicy, Christology, and Divine Hiding: Neutralizing the Problem of Evil," The Expository Times 129, no. 5 (2017), doi:10.1177/0014524617743183, 193.
35. Moser, 194.
36. Moser, 196.
37. Moser, 194-195.
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