The Problem of Evil

(Eds. Note: this is probably the longest post we've ever published on our blog; additionally, it's intellectually dense .  But it's worthwhile.  Joey Phillips addresses the problem of evil -- perhaps the most difficult and challenging conversation we can have.  Joey received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Central Florida).

If I asked you what the biggest problem a Christian faces in defending the faith from a philosophical perspective, what would you say? Is the existence of God a difficult question? For many, yes, but philosophically there have been great answers to that question for a long time now.  (Yes I know Dawkins and the others would have a heart attack if he/they read this, but it really is true. If there is nothing eternal, there is no logical explanation as to why anything would exist. There has to be an eternal uncaused cause. An eternal Being by definition is self-sufficient. Once you establish the existence of a self-sufficient, eternal Being, the atheists and agnostics have already lost, even if the specifics are debateable.) Is big, bad, evolution a big problem for Christianity? Even if you buy into the whole of evolutionary theory, it isn’t a big obstacle to Christianity as long as the historicity of Adam is maintained. (See how easily I dismissed thousands of years of debate over the existence of God?)There are other big issues, of course, but I would argue the most challenging argument against Christianity is the Problem of Evil.

Stated in its basic form, the Problem of Evil is this: If God is omnipotent (all powerful) and benevolent (all good) then why does evil exist? Either God must not be all powerful (so he created and was unable to stop evil from occurring, but fights on the good side) or he is not good. This argument is the root of most attacks on Christianity and the Bible, in my experience. Unbelievers know that if they can demonstrate the inconsistency of believing, in the midst of an evil world, that God is all powerful and all good, then the God of the Bible is unbelievable. That gives them an excuse for their unbelief. So whether the argument comes in the form of ‘How can you believe in a God that orders the killing of people…or a God that sends people to hell?’ or ‘I can’t believe in a God that would allow me to get cancer’, the underlying assumption is that an all-powerful and good God would not allow bad things to ever happen.

That is a basic formulation of the problem. I want to get into it a bit more in depth than that. In most arguments, quick and dirty is the extent of the objection, and so an answer may need to be in kind. But the actual philosophical issue is as deep as it gets, because it gets at our understanding of the nature of God, ourselves, and reality. So I want to present a more thorough description of the problem. Fyodor Dostoyevsky presents the problem in an utterly thorough and searing way. The passage below is long, but powerful and I think it provides the necessary weight to this particular issue.

“This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty — shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to dear, kind God’! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But these little ones! I am making you suffer, Alyosha, you are not yourself. I’ll leave off if you like.”

“Nevermind. I want to suffer too,” muttered Alyosha.

“One picture, only one more, because it’s so curious, so characteristic, and I have only just read it in some collection of Russian antiquities...There was in those days a general of aristocratic connections, the owner of great estates, one of those men — somewhat exceptional, I believe, even then — who, retiring from the service into a life of leisure, are convinced that they’ve earned absolute power over the lives of their subjects. There were such men then. So our general, settled on his property of two thousand souls, lives in pomp, and domineers over his poor neighbours as though they were dependents and buffoons. He has kennels of hundreds of hounds and nearly a hundred dog-boys — all mounted, and in uniform. One day a serf-boy, a little child of eight, threw a stone in play and hurt the paw of the general’s favourite hound. ‘Why is my favourite dog lame?’ He is told that the boy threw a stone that hurt the dog’s paw. ‘So you did it.’ The general looked the child up and down. ‘Take him.’ He was taken — taken from his mother and kept shut up all night. Early that morning the general comes out on horseback, with the hounds, his dependents, dog-boys, and huntsmen, all mounted around him in full hunting parade. The servants are summoned for their edification, and in front of them all stands the mother of the child. The child is brought from the lock-up. It’s a gloomy, cold, foggy, autumn day, a capital day for hunting. The general orders the child to be undressed; the child is stripped naked. He shivers, numb with terror, not daring to cry…. ‘Make him run,’ commands the general. ‘Run! run!’ shout the dog-boys. The boy runs…. ‘At him!’ yells the general, and he sets the whole pack of hounds on the child. The hounds catch him, and tear him to pieces before his mother’s eyes!… I believe the general was afterwards declared incapable of administering his estates. Well — what did he deserve? To be shot? To be shot for the satisfaction of our moral feelings? Speak, Alyosha!

“To be shot,” murmured Alyosha, lifting his eyes to Ivan with a pale, twisted smile.

“Bravo!” cried Ivan delighted. “If even you say so… You’re a pretty monk! So there is a little devil sitting in your heart, Alyosha Karamazov!”

“What I said was absurd, but-“

“That’s just the point, that ‘but’!” cried Ivan. “Let me tell you, novice, that the absurd is only too necessary on earth. The world stands on absurdities, and perhaps nothing would have come to pass in it without them. We know what we know!”...

“Why are you trying me?” Alyosha cried, with sudden distress. “Will you say what you mean at last?”

“Of course, I will; that’s what I’ve been leading up to. You are dear to me, I don’t want to let you go, and I won’t give you up to your Zossima.”

Ivan for a minute was silent, his face became all at once very sad.

“Listen! I took the case of children only to make my case clearer. Of the other tears of humanity with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre, I will say nothing. I have narrowed my subject on purpose. I am a bug, and I recognise in all humility that I cannot understand why the world is arranged as it is. Men are themselves to blame, I suppose; they were given paradise, they wanted freedom, and stole fire from heaven, though they knew they would become unhappy, so there is no need to pity them. With my pitiful, earthly, Euclidian understanding, all I know is that there is suffering and that there are none guilty; that cause follows effect, simply and directly; that everything flows and finds its level — but that’s only Euclidian nonsense, I know that, and I can’t consent to live by it! What comfort is it to me that there are none guilty and that cause follows effect simply and directly, and that I know it? — I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. ...I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them?...If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution, too; but there can be no such solidarity with children. And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension. Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and have sinned, but you see he didn’t grow up, he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years old. Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then...It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

“That’s rebellion,” murmered Alyosha, looking down.

“Rebellion? I am sorry you call it that,” said Ivan earnestly. “One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”

“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.

When I was a freshman in college taking my first philosophy course, this passage from The Brothers Karamazov was our reading assignment one day in class. The assignment was to read that passage, and then write a two paragraph response to this question: If you were a Christian, how would you respond to Ivan’s last question? I remember sitting there for 10 minutes, not having a clue how I could respond.  I had never read or heard the problem of evil presented so powerfully, and the weight of what was being said was hitting me.

How would you respond? How do you answer someone who has been through, or is going through, incredible suffering and is asking why a good God would allow this? What do you feel if, like John Piper had to do, you walk up to a man sitting in the street looking at the tarp-covered body of his daughter who just slipped by him and into a street and was instantly killed, and he is just sitting there, staring blankly saying “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to.” Obviously you feel brokenhearted for him, but how do explain this reality in light of what we believe about God? Here are some possible, but I think ultimately unsatisfactory, answers.


One of the more popular responses to the problem of evil among theists, is to turn the question back on those asking, and ask them how they even justify having a category for ‘evil’ apart a moral code established by the character of God. So the acknowledgement of evil becomes a problem for the atheist, not the believer. This is tricky of us, but of course it doesn’t actually address the problem.


“God gave us the choice of whether there would be evil, and we chose evil. He created the potential for evil when he created being with free will, and that decision was best because otherwise we would have been robots. So he is not responsible for evil, he is simply responsible for giving us free will, and we bring the evil on ourselves.” I think this answer introduces an aspect of the correct answer (our responsibility in all this) but I think it fails on a couple levels. 1) Part of omnipotence is omniscience, so God knew what we were going to choose, knew the evil that was going to result, and created us anyway. So evil and suffering have always been in the plan of God. Ivan understood this, and his question to Alyosha reflects that. Unless omnipotence and omniscience are removed from the equation, introducing free will is only part of the answer. 2) In our efforts to defend God against the charge that He directly created evil, we need to be careful we don’t make him into a God of our own choosing.  Denying God’s omniscience or omnipotence is incompatible with Scripture, and while it would be convenient to say that God elected to curtail his own sovereignty in order to give us “genuine” freedom (which, again, is noble in its attempt to defend God), it simply isn’t an idea found in Scripture and creates all sorts of problems. Not the least of which would be that freedom of the type that releases us from the sovereign control of God’s plan would be simply trading in God’s sovereignty for the slavery to our own sin and the random chance of circumstances. If your perspective is that God’s sovereignty interferes with our freedom, then God would have to remove Himself from our lives for us to be truly free. This isn’t a path we want to go down.


Another way of answering Ivan would be to dismiss the idea of evil as a positive reality at all, and say that evil is simply deprivation of good. Like darkness is simply an absence of light, so evil is absence of the good. In order for God to create anything, it would have to be other than himself, and the separateness from Him would necessarily create a deprivation of His complete goodness. So evil is not a problem for Christianity, it is a logical necessity based on the character of God and the nature of reality. Despite the appeal of this type of argument on paper, it is hard to translate in real life. Is the lord who set his dogs on the serf boy simply experiencing the natural lack that comes with his separation from the good, which is God? Or is he willfully exercising a positively evil will that counts his own amusement and petty, prideful vengeance as more important than the life of a small boy? The beauty of Dostoyevsky is his refusal to let us off the hook with an answer that doesn’t address the horror of sin. Evil isn’t (only) the deprivation of good. It is the corruption, and the willful destruction of good.


I won’t embarrass myself with much of a discussion of this argument in case Joe Anderson happens to read this. The basic idea is that because of the fact that God is all powerful and benevolent we know that he has created the best of all possible worlds, and so any sin or ‘evil’ contributes to this best possible world. This sort of thinking is exactly what Ivan was getting at with his question at the end of the passage I cited. “Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last” Imagine, in other words, you are creating a reality that ultimately is greatest thing imaginable. Because no one argues it’s best right now…no one tries to justify the problem of evil by saying “Evil, what is that? You are making up a problem that doesn’t exist.” Always we are pointing to the bigger picture. The tapestry being woven by God whose beauty is dependent on the different colors of its threads; sorrow and joy, fall and redemption, sin and forgiveness, wrath and mercy, heaven and hell. All working towards a glorious conclusion where God’s ways are revealed and harmony is achieved. But Ivan’s question nags. Is it worth it? Is Alyosha simply wrong?

This is what I wrestled through that day in class. I scrambled for a reasonable Christian answer and was coming up empty. A minute or so before the class was going to end and I had to turn in a two paragraph answer, I thought about the most basic Christian answer to everything. Jesus. I immediately began writing. It wasn’t well written, and it wasn’t two paragraphs. I didn’t have time and I’m not that good a writer. But I remember what I said.

"I could never answer Ivan’s question, because I am not God and cannot see the whole picture. However, I know that the God who chose to create a world in which evil and suffering exists is also the God that sent his own Son to take the worst of that evil on himself, to be tortured himself, to be ravaged himself, so we don’t have to experience the full effects of our sin and we can trust God for what we don’t understand."

At home that night I didn’t sleep. It is the only night I can ever remember staying up all night in bed (not working or studying) and not sleeping. I knew my answer was partially right. I was just struggling to believe it. The problem of evil is the most difficult problem for Christianity because it is unanswerable. Only God knows and understands why evil is necessary. We know parts of the answer. We know that we can trust him because he is sovereign and he demonstrated His commitment to the destruction of evil at the expense of His own Son. We know we can’t approach the question as victims because we choose evil ourselves, and He never has. We know that God did not spare His own Son from the effects of evil, and so accusations of injustice are foolish.

So although we can’t answer the question fully, we can answer it confidently. The funny thing about that class assignment was that the passage ended right before Dostoyevsky gave an answer. Very tricky of the Professor. Here is the part directly after our previous passage ended.

“And can you admit the idea that men for whom you are building it would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim? And accepting it would remain happy for ever?”

“No, I can’t admit it. Brother,” said Alyosha suddenly, with flashing eyes, “you said just now, is there a being in the whole world who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? But there is a Being and He can forgive everything, all and for all, because He gave His innocent blood for all and everything. You have forgotten Him, and on Him is built the edifice, and it is to Him they cry aloud, ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed!’

The next time you encounter someone who is struggling with the problem of evil, whether they are bitterly attacking your beliefs in a blog forum, or brokenheartedly questioning goodness of God at the hospital while a loved one dies…you may not have all the answers…but you have the only one that you, or anyone you ever meet will ever need. His name is Jesus.

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