The idea of evil has been a part of humanity as far back as the notion of good has existed. But what is “evil” and does the problem of evil negate a good God? Since the time of the ancient Greeks, and possibly further, it has been thought that the idea of evil existing eliminates the idea of a good and all-powerful God. It seems to make senses that if God can stop evil but chooses not to, then he is not Good. It also seems to make sense that if God cannot stop evil he is not nearly as powerful as we make him out to be. In this post I hope to make it clear why neither of these are necessarily true statements. God can be good and evil can exist at the same time.
First let’s start with the famous Epicurus “Problem of Evil” which goes as follows:
If an all-powerful and perfectly good god exists, then evil does not.
There is evil in the world.
Therefore, an all-powerful and perfectly good god does not exist.
Now for this to be a logically sound argument all the aspects of it have to be true. This is problematic because of several factors. First, Epicurus doesn’t define “good” or “evil.” To show why this is a problem one only needs to look at how different cultures regard good and evil. Epicurus himself had a very different understanding of good and evil than most modern people do. According to Epicurus’ philosophy good is what we find pleasurable and evil is what we find painful. He argued that sometimes a person will go through pain to achieve an even greater pleasure (example: exercising to have a better body) but ultimately all good is simply pursuing the greatest possible pleasure.
I don’t want to deny Epicurus his due respect, but I don’t think I could ever advocate the Epicurus moral system. What bothers me the most is morality in this case lacks any universality. Good and evil are completely subjective to the person. Joseph Stalin had a dream that one day the world would be a communist paradise free from class struggle, racism, poverty, and inequality. In his efforts though somewhere around twenty million people died. Ultimately Stalin is regarded by most as one of History’s greatest villains because after all that pain his dream never came to be. Out of fairness let’s talk about U.S. President Harry S. Trueman’s decision to drop nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hiroshima’s destruction killed between 90,000–166,000 and Nagasaki’s destruction killed somewhere between 60,000–80,000 people. These were men, women, and children who had committed no war crimes. These were people who’s only fault was living in the wrong city in the wrong country. In the end though, this pain ultimately probably saved more lives than it lost by preventing a full U.S. military invasion of mainland Japan.
Was President Trueman’s decision morally good? If Stalin had succeeded would he be seen as a great hero? That’s up for you to decide, but my point is that Epicurus leaves a lot open for interpretation. He assumes that evil exists, that God wants to rid the world of evil, and that if something apart from God’s will or desires exist then he ultimately cannot exist. There’s also a bit of narcissism in this argument since Epicurus defines good as what is pleasurable and he thinks that for God to exist he must ultimately provide nothing but pleasure or else he cannot exist.
Epicurus’ problem of evil is really just the first level of the problem though. The idea has been built upon, improved, and elaborated on many times. From what I can find the most current example goes as follows:
God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.
A perfectly good being would want to prevent all evils.
An omniscient being knows every way in which evils can come into existence.
An omnipotent being, who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, has the power to prevent that evil from coming into existence.
A being who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, who is able to prevent that evil from coming into existence, and who wants to do so, would prevent the existence of that evil.
If there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being, then no evil exists.
Evil exists (logical contradiction).
Ok, let’s break this one down. It starts with the premise being tested, that “God exists.” It then goes on to define God by saying that “God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.” So far this argument is set up well. It has established what it wishes to test and it defines God so that there should be no questions as to what is being tested.
Point three is where the argument begins to fall apart. “A perfectly good being would want to prevent all evils.” This is once again problematic because “evil” is not defined. If we assume that God is all good and evil is the antithesis of good then this point can stand. We assume here that “evil” serves no purpose and that this perfectly good being wants to rid the world of evil at this very moment, but for some reason cannot or is not. Can a perfectly good being allow evil to exist for a time if it ultimately serves a purpose for greater good? By Epicurus’ own logic this is possible and perfectly logical. As you can see, argument is becoming a little shaky, but it hasn’t crumbled completely just yet.
Point four and five are pretty sold, but point six doesn’t work for the same reason point three fails. A being who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, who is able to prevent that evil from coming into existence, and who wants to do so, would prevent the existence of that evil. Once again the assumption is that evil has no purpose and that God is just helpless to prevent it. Point seven and eight follow on point six.
So by this point you are probably wondering what my answer to the problem of evil is. Well, I say that evil exist because God loves us. How’s that for a contradiction! But seriously, I think evil has to exist for love to exist. I’ll explain why soon, but first let’s establish what evil is not.
Evil is not this counter force that is equal and opposite to good. There is no yin-yang thing going on (which by the way doesn’t really have anything to do with good and evil) where there is some balance that exists where the good and evil sides are always in some constant war for the souls of man.
I know that this is a popular theme in what I like to call “pop culture Christianity” where the devil and angel on our shoulders are always tempting us to make good or bad decisions. We love the idea of God and Satan are bitter rivals in some cosmic war for the world, but ultimately that’s not really the case.
For starters evil is not a force to go to war with good. In one way of looking at it, evil is not even a real thing. Now I say evil exists, but only in the same way that cold exists in the absence of heat. Evil (in my understanding) is an emptiness that is left by abandoning good that can be filled up again.
Let’s look at the popular antagonist in the character of Satan. From the few things we know of him through scripture (he’s not as big of a figure as people paint him to be) he is an angel who was created good and beautiful but chose to rebel against God. Satan’s evilness isn’t something that was innately apart of his being, it is an emptiness left by his choice to rebel against what was good.
Choice is the key factor here. Christian theology believes that God created the universe good and perfect. Sin only entered the world when Adam and Eve chose to move away from the good will of God. Evil is nothing more than the absence or perversion of good. Greed is the choice not to participate in generosity, violence and hatred come from a choice not to participate in brotherly love and empathy, it goes on and on…. every sin comes from a choice not to participate in what God created for good.
So why would God give us the ability to choose? Simply put God is love and love requires a choice. If I had no choice at all whether or not I loved someone then it isn’t really love. Love requires that a person could leave or abandon the other. If a wife could never cheat on her husband, leave her husband, or even contemplate loving another then she isn’t his lover…. she’s his slave. The same goes for all types of love. A choice has to exist and God created us to love us and to be loved by us. God is relational and seeks relationships, and yet he will not force love.
Christianity believes that God literally did all the work required for us to join him and be forgiven of our transgressions, we simply have to choose to love him. He couldn’t have made it easier and every moment that he let’s evil run rampant is a mercy shown to us by giving us even more time to come to our senses and return to love. Evil exists because we are allowed to choose between good and not-good, and God allows it because he wants to give each of us opportunity to find and return to him.
Paul, when dealing with people who demanded God be quicker in punishing evil, had this to say:
So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?
– Romans 2:3-4
So to wrap this up my answer to the problem of evil is simply this: Evil exists so that true love can exist, and because God is patient, kind, and willing to give each of us chance after chance to repent. A day will come when no more evil will exist, where God will fill in all the gaps of his creation with his glory and goodness, but until that day let us not ignore the grace and mercy of God. Let us not grow weary in doing good. And let us not forget that the good news we believe and hold true to is for all people, and it is our job to spread the love by pointing and leading others back to God.