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The Problem of Evil

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The Problem of Evil

If God is all powerful and all good, why is there so much suffering and evil in the world?

Down through the centuries this question has vexed people who believe — or want to believe — in a personal God. The biblical book of Job, written centuries before the time of Christ, centers on this theme. Job is depicted as an upright man who experiences a series of devastating personal tragedies, and cries out to God for an explanation:

"As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice, the Almighty, who has made me taste bitterness of soul as long as I have life within me, the breath of God in my nostrils, my lips will not speak wickedness, and my tongue will utter no deceit. I will never admit you are in the right; till I die, I will not deny my integrity" (Job 27:2-5).

"Neither an impersonal universe, nor a personal God who is indifferent to evil, can plausibly explain the existence of the intrinsic moral sense in the human heart."

The Bible offers only a partial answer to the question of evil. Genesis chapters 1-3 tell of God creating a good world in which human beings, as the crown of his creation, are given the capacity to freely choose to obey or disobey their creator. When our first parents (Adam and Eve) chose to disobey God, they unleashed the power of evil in God's perfect world (Genesis 3). This evil tainted and twisted all creation, including the hearts of all members of the human race that descended from the first couple. Stubborn human hearts, physical death and disease, a natural world that is "out of kilter" — all is the result of this first human disobedience, so the apostle Paul explains in his Epistle to the Romans:

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned (5:12).

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time (8:22).

We may feel that this explanation is far from adequate. How is it fair that an entire race should suffer because of a single act of disobedience in the distant past? Nevertheless, it is not easy to imagine a world in which creatures are truly free without the possibility that this freedom would be used for evil purposes. And if we acknowledge that freedom carries the risk of abuse, it is also not so easy to imagine a world in which the consequences of one person's evil acts can be isolated and kept from hurting others. The biblical story of humanity's creation and fall is profound indeed.

While the Bible does not fully explain the fact of evil in God's world beyond the partial answer of Genesis 3, there are at least two further reasons to believe that God is a good and moral being who cares deeply about suffering and evil. First, there is the reality of a universal human moral sense — the very moral sense that causes us to struggle with the problem of evil in the first place. Ironically, even the act of condemning God as unfair to allow such evil, is an appeal to some universal principle of truth, a higher moral law. An atheist cannot rationally make absolute moral judgments, since on the atheistic view, the universe is simply an impersonal physical system of randomly moving atoms. Where in such a universe is there a basis for making absolute moral judgments about evil and fairness?

Neither an impersonal universe, nor a personal God who is indifferent to evil, can plausibly explain the existence of the intrinsic moral sense in the human heart. Instead, this innate moral sense (conscience) is a powerful clue that points to the moral nature of the one who created us.

There is a second reason to believe that God is a good and moral being who is deeply and passionately concerned about evil and suffering -- in a word, that reason is Jesus. According to the New Testament authors, Jesus is literally the human face of God (John 1:1-2,14; 14:8-9). As we read through New Testament Gospels, we are impressed with the kindness and mercy of Jesus that transcended social class, gender, and ethnicity. Jesus heals outcast lepers (Luke 17:12ff), he weeps at the grave of a friend (John 11:35), he gently touches and heals a deaf man (Mark 7:32-35). Beyond these and many other concrete acts of mercy and compassion in response to suffering, there is Jesus' willing acceptance of a cruel death, which he himself said was to bear our guilt and bring us God's forgiveness (Mark 10:45). And the story of Jesus does not end in death and tragedy. Against all odds, the early Christians proclaimed the message of Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead. Jesus is the tangible evidence of a God who is not only profoundly grieved by suffering, but who entered history to overcome death and evil.

While belief in a personal God leaves us with unresolved moral quandaries, at least we have someone to be angry with and complain to when evil and suffering show their ugly face ... and someone to thank for the good and beautiful things in life!