(This post answers question #3 in my “65 Questions Every Christian Parent Needs to Learn to Answer” series. Sign up to receive posts via email to make sure you can answer each one!)
One night recently, I was tucking my daughter into bed after a particularly difficult day. I didn’t have to tell her just how hard it had been. Unsolicited, she wailed, “Mommy, I tried soooo hard to be good today. But I just kept messing up. I don’t know how to be better like God wants!”
Before I could dispense my motherly wisdom on why we’ll never be perfect, however, she took the conversation in another direction.
“Why doesn’t God just stop me from being mean before it happens? Like, right before I’m mean, why doesn’t He just make me be nice?” she asked.
My son, listening with interest from the other room, yelled over, “Yeah, like I don’t understand why He doesn’t just stop bad guys before they do bad stuff! Why wouldn’t He just want good things to happen?”
There it was. My twins had already sniffed out an apparent contradiction in their budding faith: If God is perfect and good, how can there be evil in the world He created? My kids were in good company by identifying the issue. It’s a question that’s been asked for thousands of years and continues to be one of the most significant faith challenges posed by atheists today.
The Problem of Evil
Why is the existence of evil such a difficult problem for Christianity? The heart of the issue is this:
- If God is all-good, He would eliminate evil.
- If He is all-powerful, He could eliminate evil.
- But evil in fact exists.
- How can the existence of evil possibly be reconciled with the existence of the Christian God? (Atheists answer it can’t be.)
Millions of pages have been written on the problem of evil (literally). This post will introduce you to the framework Christian apologists typically use to address the issue. Of course, there is no way to do justice to such a complex topic in a single blog post. I highly recommend Norman Geisler’s book If God, Why Evil? for a concise yet thorough treatment of this very challenging topic.
First Things First: Did God Create Evil?
There are many aspects of the problem of evil, but the starting point for discussion is typically this: If God created everything, and evil is something, doesn’t that mean God created evil? Because Christians believe God is perfectly good, and that God created only good things (1 Timothy 4:4), that seems like a contradiction.
There’s no doubt from the Christian perspective that God created everything (Genesis 1:1; John 1:3; Colossians 1:16). Christians also believe that evil is very real. (The reason it’s important to state that seemingly obvious point is that there are some religions, like Christian Science, which claim evil is not real.) The tricky part is what we mean when we say that evil is “something.” Christian philosophers suggest that evil is real, but it does not exist as a “something” by itself. Instead, evil is defined as a corruption of a good thing.
That’s not as hard to understand as it might seem at first. Think of rot in a tree. Rot doesn’t exist by itself – it exists only as a corruption of the formerly good tree. Other examples might include a wound in an arm, rust on a car, or holes in wood. Thinking about evil in this way means that God indeed only created good things (Genesis 1:31)! Evil is a corruption that happens to that entirely good creation. God does not produce it, but he does permit it.
Where Does That Corruption Come From?
So far we’ve established that God didn’t create evil, but evil (the corruption of a good thing) does happen, and He allows it to happen. So where does corruption come from in the first place? For purposes of this post, let’s just address human corruption, or moral evil. (I’ll address corruption in nature – tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. – in another post.) Why didn’t God just make perfect humans who can’t be corrupted?
The answer is free will. Free will is our ability to make choices without external coercion. It’s one of the good things God created! The logic below shows how moral evil can result from the good creation of free will:
- God created only good things. One good thing He created was free will.
- Free will makes evil possible since it is the power to choose otherwise.
- To choose otherwise than good is evil. Therefore, a perfectly created free creature can still do evil.
By this logic, we can see that God made moral evil possible by creating free creatures, but we are responsible for making it actual. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis took this a step further to explain why free will would be so important to God that He would choose to make free creatures despite knowing the evil that would inevitably result from their choices. “Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata – of creatures that worked like machines – would hardly be worth creating…Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk.”
In other words, God wanted us to freely love him. A forced love, without choice, is no love at all.
Why Doesn’t God Just Stop Moral Evil?
What we just learned was that moral evil is not something that God created, but rather something that comes from the (good) human ability to freely make choices. At this point, many people ask why an all-good and all-powerful God doesn’t just stop the moral evil that is possible before it happens (this is what my daughter effectively asked).
To answer this, we need to be careful in defining all-powerful. Christians often say, “God can do anything!” But that’s actually not true. For example, it’s impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18). Lying would be contrary to God’s nature. In addition, God can’t do anything contradictory, like make a square circle or a stone so heavy He can’t lift it.
Given that God created us with free will, is it possible to destroy moral evil in this world? Actually, no. This is one of those contradictions – like making a square circle – that makes something impossible: God can’t force us to freely make good choices. The only way God could destroy evil in this world would be to destroy our freedom.
The Story Doesn’t End There
It’s important to state that, from the Christian perspective, the story doesn’t end there! Christians acknowledge that this is the current state of affairs, but that one day God will defeat evil by bringing this world to an end and creating a new earth (Revelation 21-22). This new earth will be free from evil, suffering, and death. What a glorious day that will be!
I know this is a tough topic to understand and to deal with on a personal level. But it is such a barrier to belief for so many people that we have to take responsibility for knowing how to respond. Many Christians run to Genesis 3 to answer that we simply live as fallen creatures in a fallen world. While that’s true, there are a couple of reasons why we need to develop our ability to address the problem of evil beyond that quick reply.
First, when the problem of evil is raised by an atheist, that person doesn’t believe in the truth of the Bible. In order for our kids to engage with a secular world on this issue, they need an extrabiblical understanding of how it can logically be possible for God and evil to co-exist. That’s what this post was about.
The second reason is that the problem of evil can be a very emotional one, tied to a tragic personal experience. Even for Christians, it can be difficult to understand how the bad choice of one person – Adam – led to all the evil and suffering in our world. For a nonbeliever who has experienced tragedy closely, it’s all the more impossible to imagine. Gaining a deeper understanding of how God and evil can co-exist helps everyone – believer and nonbeliever – make further sense of this difficult problem.
As I said earlier, this is just an introduction. I highly recommend Geisler’s book as a next step! If you have book recommendations on this topic, please share in the comments.
Have your kids struggled with this question in some form? How did you discuss it with them?