The Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil comes in many forms, but is often asked in the form of the question, “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?” or something to this effect. A classic formulation of the apparent as put forward by the Greek philosopher goes as follows: “Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?” Epicurus’ formulation embodies the problem that most people have, which is the apparent discrepancy between a loving God who can remove evil and the existence of evil.  When we look at this more carefully though, we can find two incurable problems with it. First, it assumes God is obligated to do something he isn’t necessarily obligated to do and second it assumes that there is not a good reason for evil.

To assume that God is morally obligated to do anything at all is problematic at best. Consider the following: If Bill Gates gives a part of his fortune to a foundation is he obligated to give it to another foundation, even if he is able to do so? If one answers yes, then as philanthropic as Bill Gates’ intentions are, he could never overcome the moral disparity by giving to one entity and not giving to another. In other word, he is “wicked” for giving to one foundation rather than another. On the other hand, if one answers “no” then Bill Gates is free to do with his fortune as he chooses. The latter is a more accurate picture of God’s love. Matthew 20:1-15 teaches that God’s blessings are his to give as he chooses. Hebrews 12:7-12 describes God’s love as a paternal love, in which he disciplines his children rather than removing their every hurt and giving them everything they want.

The second assumption – that there is not a good reason for evil – is addressed in what is called “theodicies.” Theodicies attempt to offer reasons for suffering. Here are four possible theodicies, all which can be found in scripture:

  1. Evil is the result of freewill. God hold each accountable for his or her sin (Romans 3:10-23).
  2. Evil exists for the greater good (The life of Paul  — 2 Timothy 1:8-12, Philippians 1:21-24; Early Christians — 1 Peter 3:17; The life of Joseph Genesis 50:20)
  3. Evil exists for the purpose of soul-building. (1 Peter 5:8-10, Romans 5:8, Hebrews 12:7-11)
  4. One day, evil will be fixed (an eschatological theodicy) (Romans 8:18, Revelation 21:1-5)

The difficulty with theodicies is that it is virtually impossible to say that anyone of these are indeed why God is allowing for evil in any given situation. While we can speak of evil in general, we live in a world of particulars. Consider Joseph – he lived his entire life and endured suffering throughout his entire life, and it wasn’t until the end of his life where he was able to make the marvelous declaration from Genesis 50:20, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” But the reason for suffering is not always revealed. Consider Job – while we see what is going on in heaven, Job never gets this picture. And after much debate as to why Job is suffering, Job never gets an answer. Rather he repents in Job 42:2-6.

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