There’s a question that Atheists love to parade as the definitive proof of the nonexistence of God: “If there is a God, why is there so much evil in the world?” There are a few assumptions behind that question which need to be teased out if we’re really going to understand why this is a problem for Christians (or for anyone who believes in a benevolent god). Putting them into philosophical propositions, the question looks like this:
- God is (He exists).
- God is good.
- God is omnipotent (all-powerful).
- There is evil in the world.
How can we hold all of those to be true simultaneously? The final proposition, that there is evil in the world, is experientially true. Less than ten minutes of reading news headlines on any major media website will confirm that fact. So we are left with the first three propositions: there is a good and all-powerful God. This is central to the Christian faith, for we worship the one triune God who has revealed Himself to be good (1 John 4:8), and omnipotent (Job 37:23).
It is not difficult to see the problem. If God is truly good and all-powerful, why does He allow evil to go on in His world? The attempt to answer this question logically must involve jettisoning one of the propositions. For the atheist, the answer is easy. There is no God who can do anything to stop evil in the world. But this is ultimately unsatisfactory for the atheist as well. Without God at the center of the universe there is really no basis for distinguishing good and evil, but that is a topic for another time.
The theist is tempted to discard a different proposition. I suppose someone might conclude that God is not good (a horrifying prospect). So, the only other option to solve this problem logically is that perhaps God is not all-powerful. This is the approach taken by Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the popular book on the problem of evil and suffering called When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner claims, “God would like people to get what they deserve in life, but He cannot always arrange it” (42). But to solve the problem of evil by limiting the power of God over evil is ultimately to make God not God.
In the end, the problem of evil is not a problem we can solve. This may leave the atheist satisfied that he has won the argument; our interest is not in winning arguments but in holding on to hope. God has revealed that He is indeed both all-good and all-powerful, and that there is evil in the world. How these things can all be true is not for us to figure out. God has no need of us to justify His ways. That’s actually a good thing, because solving the problem of evil doesn’t make pain and suffering go away.
Instead of presenting evil to us as a problem to be “solved,” God reveals Himself to be the one who takes on evil and overcomes it through the cross. The comfort we’ve been given in our pain and suffering isn’t an answer to why it’s happening, as much as we might want that. The comfort we’ve been given is that the Lord Jesus Himself became a human being precisely for the purpose of suffering evil and sin and death on our behalf. Our hope isn’t found in evil’s explanation, but in its expulsion. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in Christ Jesus!
The Scriptures teach us to run to Christ when we suffer. Perhaps the most comforting gift we’ve been given in the face of evil are the psalms of lament*. Consider, for example, the famous Psalm 22. This was the psalm Jesus prayed (lamented, we might say) when He suffered the full weight of evil on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) In the midst of suffering, Jesus did not provide an explanation for the evil He was suffering but turned to the promises of God. Psalm 22 goes on to say: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him” (Psalm 22:24). Indeed, the whole psalm directs the sufferer toward the promise of God to hear us, suffer with us, and overcome evil.
By giving us the psalms of lament, God invites us to join our voices with Jesus in crying out to him when we suffer evil, with the promise that He hears us and will bring our suffering to an end. That’s the promise He has made to us in Jesus. And that alone brings us true comfort and hope in the face of evil.
*Note: The psalms of lament include, but are not limited to: Psalms 6, 13, 22, 51, 77, 102, and 130.
Rejoicing with you in the hope of Christ Jesus,