A Letter on the Problem of Evil
I really enjoyed listening to you this afternoon as you were filling in for Geno. I was very impressed with you straight answers and just felt compelled to contact you. Mr. Honsberger I have a friend I have been sharing my faith with the last three weeks. We have had some very good and intense discussions on a number of issues including salvation, why I believe in Jesus Christ, Christianity in general and as it compares to other religions, eternal life and many other topics. I really felt things were going well, and thought he might be ready to make a change until the last couple of days. I received an email from my friend yesterday that I am struggling to answer. If you could give me some insight I would really appreciate.
He asked me the following:
It is my understanding that, according to the teachings of the Bible, that God has a ‘plan’ for all of us. And if so, that speaks to destiny. In other words, we all have a path that we’re destined for, according to His plan. If that is true then my simple question is why would God choose a destiny for a young child to be sodomized and beheaded by a crazed man. If the man’s destiny was to be crazed, OK fine. But why we would He choose such a horrifying destiny for a young child? The horror that happens to innocent, unsuspecting, and undeserving children makes me question God and His intentions Sander, I’ll be honest with you. If he is all knowing and infallible, then help me understand why children suffer such horrors as being kidnapped, raped, then brutally murdered and left in the woods to be eaten by animals.
I’m sure there is a patented answer for this, such as “it is not God’s will to step in and interfere with the workings of mankind…God let us choose to act on our own free will, and maybe, through the grace of God, human kind will accept in totality and therefore God may then choose to come take his children back to heaven. In the mean time, horrors like I have described are perpetrated upon the most innocent and God like of our kind every day. I’d hate to think that is God’s plan for even one child, let alone the thousands that are abused or worse each day?
I can’t reconcile a God that is loving, pure, good and infallible allowing things such as this to happen. Why would God not carry a child out of danger? You said he is omnipotent, so it’s not a timing thing. If there is hard evidence of His existence as you describe, then where in the Bible does it answer these kinds of questions?
Mr. Honsberger, this is hard for me to answer. There are a lot of things we don’t know right now, because God is God and we are not, but what is the best way to approach this question.
Thank you so much for your help, I have been bouncing this question off of my pastors at church and friends, and would appreciate any insight you could give me.
Have a wonderful evening!
Hi Sander. This IS the really important question that all human beings must answer, regardless of belief system or lack thereof.
I have always felt that the problem of evil (what your friend laid out) is really critical for all Christians to wrestle with and have answers to.
To be honest what I am going to say will not necessarily be much comfort at a funeral, but nothing but love helps there.
First let us look at the major options to see if they have answers for this dilemma. Let us suppose that the atheists/naturalist have the truth. There is no god, no purpose, no meaning. We are all on a dirt cloud out in space and all we have is what we make. To quote famous atheist philosopher Paul Kurtz, the only meaning our lives can have is whatever we make of them. So if that is the case then the child who is raped and murdered just lost at their chance – the dice came up snake eyes. No purpose, no meaning, no real way of calling it wrong/evil (other than emoting – the ethical position of choice for most prominent atheists and evolutionists). If you take this perspective seriously, then all we have is the jungle and the only consistent thing to say in the face of “evil” (whatever that is) is tough luck. This leads to fatalism or to warmed over depressing thinkers like Sartre, or Heidegger, or other atheists with lame claims to be “resolute” in the face of death – precisely because there is no meaning to it. So no way to ground even the definition of good and evil and no way to provide real meaning in the face of it – there is the atheist’s dilemma. This is I think the primary reason why atheism has always been a tiny minority of the world’s population. Even “atheistic” religions like Theraveda Buddhism try to give meaning to the experience of evil/suffering. What I find is most people who are atheists are such for a while, but ultimately atheism cannot give answers to the kinds of questions that most people have about life, and they look for something else.
So if your friend is an atheist – how does he answer why these things happen? Is it evil, other than just his emotional feelings about it, and is there any way to redeem or find meaning in it?
Now lets look at the historical majority religious view. Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism and so on, and all their western counterparts, gnosticism, Wicca, New Age all have some basic commonalities. Most important here is that of Maya – the dream or illusion, This is the central teaching of the Bhagavad-Gita – probably the most popular book in India, and of many of the other eastern related books. The idea of Maya is that none of us see the “real” state of reality, in that we are all actually one or the same thing. In most eastern schemes Maya is “hiding” the reality of the oneness of Brahman/god/Vishnu/the force/ so on. In some Buddhist schemes Maya hides the nothingness/void/sunyata of everything. In all these schemes the ultimate reality is the oneness of all and the illusory status of the world we all “perceive” to live in. In other words we don’t really exist as separate beings – we just think we do. And therein lies the problem – we think that we are separate. So we “kill”, “steal”, “rape” and so on, not realizing that none of this is actually happening, and it is this understanding that is the key to rising above the illusory state and achieving moksha/liberation/”salvation” etc. So good and evil are also part of the illusory world and the enlightened realize and teach this. I could quote you dozens of gurus and other enlightened masters who teach this and have talked to many, and yes, they really do believe it. So how does this view approach the problem your friend has? If all is an illusion, then the young child being raped and murdered is also an illusion and the “true” reality is that nothing ever happened in the first place. Or if one takes karma/reincarnation seriously, then in the classic view this child was a rapist in a previous life and therefore nothing evil (or good for that matter) happened, rather it was a “balancing” of karma/action. Or if you take the “happy face” New Age version, then the child CHOSE to be raped and murdered, for its PERSONAL GROWTH!
If your friend is into some version of eastern thought, does he understand the implications of this view? It washes out good/evil and leaves one struggling to mentally justify (“Right consciousness – the Eight Fold Path) what apparently instinctively he knows to be wrong!!! One does not have to be an ethics professor to know that the murder of innocents is wrong, but in this view, ultimately, there is no wrong and all meaning is washed out as well in the oneness of all.
So if one takes either of the major world view competitors here, I think it quite clear that neither can even identify the problem (why evil things happen) nor can they give any real meaning to the situation. I would also argue that on a psychological level no human being can actually live within these options. The atheists philosophers (such as Nietzsche and my own professor Michael Tooley) bemoan the lack of meaning – Sartre gives in to Nausea, Camus to absurdity – but they do not rejoice in this “fact” rather they weep over the loss of meaning. Nietzsche knew that once God was removed from the situation, then all ethical norms and more critically perhaps all possibilities of meaning are also removed. Then you turn to the east and find no solace there either – all is an illusion and nothing, I repeat, nothing ultimately matters. Both of the competitors come up short.
Now about the Christian option. It is hardly a patented answer that I or anyone else is interested in. We all want sense or meaning to this issue. Our soul screams for meaning, for significance in this horrible situation. Our answers must be both intellectually coherent and emotionally satisfying. Lets look at both of these.
The way the problem is formally stated is something like:
God is all powerful – therefore he could stop evil.
God is all loving – therefore he would stop evil.
Conc. – God does not exist.
Literally hundreds of books and articles have been written both pro/con on this argument by professional philosophers, so I will try and not overwhelm you with the possibility’s here. Simply put the line that is most problematic is that God would stop all evil because of his love. The Biblical record here is that God often allows suffering for other, perhaps larger, purposes. The example of the man born blind in John chapter 9 or what happened to Joseph in the OT are examples of this. The entire book of Job addresses the question, but interestingly enough does not give us clear explanations for what was happening. We are reminded that God is in charge, and that our presumption of “understanding” such as Job’s friends had or eastern religions offer (karma) is not only problematic but clearly pathetic. Which one of us claims to have real understanding why this or that happens? Sometimes it is simple, e.g. a drunk runs his car into a tree and dies and we usually feel quite comfortable in saying that we know why that happened. But what about when the drunk runs his car into the car of a soccer mom returning home with her kids? Not so neat then. So how do we answer this?
One answer that is part of the issue, is freedom, which your friend mentioned. In the movie “Bruce Almighty” they make a point of saying that Bruce (in taking over for God) is allowed to do whatever he wants but not violate free will. While this is not completely consistent with the Christian view, it does bring up the real questions. Does God value freedom and why so much? Christians do believe that God has a “plan” but it is not a plan for everything to go right for you and for you to be allowed to do whatever you want. The Bible speaks against both ideas. Rather it argues that God’s plan is to take believers and make them into the image of his son, more loving, kind, patient and so on. Unfortunately for us, that plan necessitates suffering because we don’t seem to learn without it. I wish that I would be more loving and more forgiving and that this could happen in a vacuum, but I know that unless I am pressed, I won’t change. I don’t know of anyone that is any different. Included in this scenario as well is the idea that God’s plan includes our freely choosing to respond to his love and mercy or to deny it. This is where the freedom question comes in. If God wanted to, he could easily force belief, but we can’t think of an analogy where that would be worthwhile in this life, so why would it be in heaven? I can beat my child into compliance on all things, but when my child is forced to tell me that she loves me – any thinking person with a conscience knows that this is a sham. God values our freely loving him so much, that he allows for the hard choice of rejection to be real as well. This is why C.S. Lewis argued that the prison of Hell was the only prison where the gates are locked from the inside! As someone as said – Hell is a monument to the freedom of man! But some have responded that ok – nice of God to allow freedom but did he have to give us so much? Couldn’t we have chosen for God or not without the option of mass murder as part of the package? Lets look at this – lets suppose that we lived in a universe where mass murder was off the table – you could still murder but only once and only one other person. If we had grown up in that universe then most likely we would see that singular murder and we would ask the same question – Couldn’t God have given us freedom without the possibility of anyone murdering anyone else. You can see where this goes – pretty soon no freedom is left, because each successive “greatest” evil is ruled out by each successive possible world.
Another critical part of the equation is the reason for death and suffering in this world. The atheist can only point to natural causes and the eastern religionist can talk about the dream, but as I argued before neither of these options can even honestly ask the question let alone give an answer that makes sense. Christians say that the reason for this is our sin. It is not God or Martians who are raping and killing little children – it is us. We point back to Adam and Eve and the whole concept of original sin to explain the empirical reality that every in this world, and throughout all times, that people behave in the exact same disgusting ways. We kill, we rape, we lie, we steal, etc ad infinitum. Because of this – we all die. Now perhaps your friend doesn’t want to buy the Bible’s explanation at this point – ok fine – please give another explanation for the universal experience of evil being perpetuated by people of all background, religions, cultures and so on. We know that it is generally the case that with most of the evil that we are all so frustrated by, is done by us. Natural disasters aside for the moment, our experience is that human beings slaughtering each other, not God or others. The Bible’s understanding of natural disasters is that in the fall of Adam and Eve, the creation also “fell”. Again perhaps this doesn’t make sense for your friend, but it is part of the comprehensive approach that the Bible takes to this question, and certainly makes more sense than the options we discussed above.
It is quite interesting that in all religions and differing philosophies, we see at least some semblance of a wish for something better than what we have. Even atheistic philosophers know that things should be better, as seen with Nietzsche and Marx for example. All religions point to the frustration in some way with this world and wish for a better one. All have come at the same problem with different explanations as seen above. The very fact that your friend could express the thought that he can’t reconcile the idea of a loving God with the horror in this world is an expression of the same sentiment. The Christians I believe are the only ones that can truly and honestly frame the question and the only one that have coherent and meaningful answers. The atheist cannot consistently even define good and evil and the eastern thinkers denies that they are real categories. So then what is the Christian solution?
Christians believe that the only solution is that given in the Gospel – in that God took our behavior/sin so seriously, that he sent Jesus to die for our sins. That this incredible act of love was necessary points to just how seriously God takes sin. God is not only all powerful, and all loving, but he is also all Holy/just. We would not like a world where murderers get off scott free, and we scream out for justice when we see this – this is why I rejoice over God’s holiness/justice, even though I stand condemned in the face of it. Jesus took our sins and our death in our place. This is what we call the atonement – that Jesus himself paid the price for our failures. He was killed and buried in this payment of love. But we believe that the story didn’t end there. The Bible points to the fact that Jesus, who was killed and buried, came back to life in front of hundreds of witnesses, both believers and non-believers. This resurrection from the dead validates all that Jesus did and said. His immediate disciples then went out to spread the message of what they had seen. If they just made it up – why would they die for something they knew to be a lie? People die for causes, and innumerable other things, but I can’t think of a single analogy of why people would die for something they knew to be a lie.
In summary, Christians take the question seriously, and we have general answers for the phenomena of death and suffering, but neither I or any other Christian can with integrity give specific answers for even most specific examples. I worked in a jail for three years with mass murderers, rapists, baby killers and the rest. I don’t pretend that I can possibly explain the specifics of each scenario, but I do know that all of us are born into a fallen world (thrown into it in Heidegger’s language) and face the reality of death and suffering. Into this mix Christians are called to trust God with details that we can’t possibly comprehend in any total way. The Bible tells us that the response God is interested in is not our knowledge, but rather our faith in Him, as the one person who knows the whys and wherefores. This is not a dodge, but rather the honest statement of a created, finite being, who makes no claims at universal knowledge about any of the particulars. But the God the Bible describes does not allow evil for arbitrary reasons, and is both holy/just and loving. As the scriptures say – “Shall not the God of the universe do what is right?” This allows, just as seen in John 9, for the very real possibility of meaning in the midst of our suffering. We have an autistic son, who through most of his life has been incredibly violent and destructive. He would put his head through windows and walls and pound his head on concrete sidewalks and once in a while on somebody’s nose. It is hard to describe what this was like for our family. And I would love to point to my wife and I as strong people who could rise above and deal with it but that would be a terrific lie. Only by God’s grace and mercy did our marriage survive, and God made us grow up in ways we did not want to. Our experience with this was very painful, but it was not meaningless. We have experienced the death of people we love and we think the same way about that. We choose to believe that there is meaning even in “senseless” and evil acts. This is not a blind leap, but rather trust in our heavenly Father, that he is in charge and someday will make sense of what we perceive. So no this is not a pat answer, it involves both reasoning and faith, but it does take the question seriously and it does off meaning and hope, whereas the options offer only desperation, fatalism, and meaninglessness.
I hope that this is helpful. Please let me know what he thinks.
God bless you,