Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens often attack religion on the basis of the problem of evil. Why do good people suffer? Why do bad people prosper? What kind of God doesn’t intervene to deliver the righteous and punish the wicked? Their answer is, God is either cruel, or doesn’t exist at all. For many, this is an insurmountable barrier to belief in the Almighty. Admittedly, it is a difficult and uncomfortable question for believers. It is not, however, an impossible question to answer.
Let’s start by defining the Problem: How can we say there is a good God who rules the universe when there is so much evil and violence touching innocent people, while allowing evil people to continue committing unspeakable acts of wickedness?
There are five traditional answers:
1. You’re suffering because you did something to deserve it.
2. God does not exist so it is foolish to expect justice in a mindless universe.
3. God would really like to help, but is just as bound by the laws of the
universe and of cause-effect as we are.
4. God is beyond good and evil: essentially, he doesn’t care anymore than you do when you spray for roaches.
5. Evil doesn’t really exist, it’s a figment of the collective imagination—cue Twilight Zone theme music.
The problem can be illustrated by William Hendricks’ “Triangle of Reality,” seen above.
The problem is, how can God be great and good while evil exists? Many people try to resolve the problem by taking away one or more sides of the triangle. God is not great, God is not Good, evil is not real. But the perception of the problem remains because deep down mankind believes in God and the experience of our lives tells us that evil indeed exists. The triangle does not explain the problem of evil; it illustrates why there is a problem.
There are actually two reasons for our perception of a problem. The first is obvious, we question why God allows suffering. The second is a bit more subtle, for some reason we expect justice despite the experience of our lives. That’s odd. Okay, it makes sense that believers should have a problem, but aren’t we westerners living in a “post Christian,” secular society? Why do unbelievers persist in a belief in ultimate right and wrong, justice and injustice?
“But wait,” you say, “they don’t.”
To which I reply, “bologna!”
If there is no God, there is no problem. Without God there is no reason for an expectation of cosmic, external, transcendent right and wrong. Nonetheless, everybody and his grandmother persists in recognizing that there is a problem.
We are often told that "right" is subjective and everyone decides what is "right" for themselves, right? That’s what I keep hearing. Yet, the same people who claim there is no such thing as objective truth—and therefore right or wrong—are the very ones who turn around and demand that everybody else accept their standard. We ought to help the poor, we ought to feed the hungry, we ought to stop global warming. Why? Sounds like they believe some things are morally right and others wrong.
This is why there is a problem with the concept of evil. Animals don’t cry and whine about injustice. We do. The human race, whether we admit to belief in God or not, believes in objective right and wrong. In his letter to the Roman Christians the Apostle Paul said that the knowledge of God is written on human hearts. Our persistent belief in right and wrong is evidence of that statement.
That said, its time to move toward a resolution of the problem: If you think about your own experience, there is no answer that completely satisfies when you personally are hurting. Even when the answers are logically consistent, they fail to satisfy on an emotional level. When a grieving person cries, “why me O God?” they are not necessarily looking for an answer. They are seeking comfort. They are, in fact, crying out that they don’t deserve it.
The Christian answer is that freewill carries the necessary corollary of the possibility of evil. Since God created mankind as free moral agents, able to make moral choices, than the freedom to choose evil is a possibility. In fact, it is a reality. In other words, it is more important to God that humans be free, than that humans be good. Yes, I know you don’t like that. Put it on the back burner to simmer for a while. It makes sense on further reflection.
But how can God be omnipotent if man has freewill? In every philosophy class I ever took this was a major question, eliciting great awe and mystery. Nuts. Lets ignore the point that omnipotence is a Greek philosophical concept, rather than a Biblical term. The Bible would simply say God is almighty. Fine, I wave the objection; God is "omnipotent." I point out that Being omnipotent is not the same thing as exercising omnipotence. God, in omnipotence, allowed mankind limited freewill so that our response to him (love or hate) would be genuine. Therefore, from the divine perspective, the suffering of this life is somehow justified by freewill played out through eternity. That is the Christian answer.