The “problem of evil” has been an issue that has been encountered by every single human being that has ever lived in this world. Whether it is viewed as a philosophical problem or an experiential one, it is faced by us all. Here is a summary of the basic philosophical problem, which, as I see it, is based upon at least four undeniable facts:
- God is a supremely good and just.
- God is omniscient.
- God is omnipotent.
- Evil is in the world.
The problem that is proposed for Christians, who agree with each of these four assumptions, comes in pointing out the apparent inconsistency of asserting these attributes of God while facing the truth of the existence of evil in the world. For example, since evil exists in the world, and God has the power to deal with it, then it is thought that He must not be truly good or else He would deal with it. Or, since evil exists in the world, and God is supremely good and just, then He must lack the power to deal with it. Or, perhaps God is supremely good and has the power to deal with evil, but He either doesn’t know about it or simply doesn’t know how to deal with it, in which case He would not be omniscient.
The eighteenth century philosopher David Hume, citing the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, set forth the problem of evil succinctly by asking three questions about God: “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part 10, 1779).
That, in a nutshell, is the philosophical problem of evil. It is an age-old problem with which philosophers and theologians have struggled for millennia. But even if many have not taken the time to think much about the philosophical problem of evil, I am certain that there has never been a person who hasn’t dealt with it as an experiential problem… at least to some extent. After all, the experiential problem of evil stares us in the face in one way or another every day. John Frame has described the experiential problem of evil this way:
For many today and throughout history, the problem of evil has represented the most serious objection to the Christian faith. Some very brilliant philosophers have thought that this problem conclusively refutes belief in the Christian God. But not only professors of philosophy – ordinary people, too, often feel this problem deeply. You don’t have to be a sophisticated philosopher to doubt the reality of God when a loved one is going through terrible suffering. At such times the “problem of evil” is not so much a learned argument as it is a simple cry of the heart, “How could a loving God allow this?” (The Bible on the Problem of Evil: Insights from Romans 3:1-8,21-26; 5:1-5; 8:28-39)
Does God give us an answer to this problem in Scripture? Well, that is what I would like for us to consider in this brief article. Although we do not have time to examine all of the pertinent passages of Scripture on the matter, I hope to focus our attention upon a number of key texts that show us something about God’s relationship to evil. In the process I hope to show what a Biblical response to the problem of evil really is, even if it is not the kind of answer that many would like or that many might suspect. We will look first at some key Old Testament passages and then at some key New Testament passages.
Old Testament Passages
We will look first at Joseph’s response to the evil actions of his brothers in selling him into slavery:
NKJ Genesis 45:5 But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. [See also: NKJ Psalm 105:17 He sent a man before them – Joseph – who was sold as a slave.]
Joseph acknowledged that through the evil action of his brothers God was working His own good purposes. He clearly saw God as in sovereign control even over their evil actions. In fact, he later asserted the same point even more forcefully:
NKJ Genesis 50:15-20 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him.” 16 So they sent messengers to Joseph, saying, “Before your father died he commanded, saying, 17 ‘Thus you shall say to Joseph: “I beg you, please forgive the trespass of your brothers and their sin; for they did evil to you.”’ Now, please, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph wept when they spoke to him.18 Then his brothers also went and fell down before his face, and they said, “Behold, we are your servants.” 19 Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? 20 But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.”
Once again Joseph acknowledged God’s sovereign control over evil as a part of His own good plan. He also clearly distinguished between the evil intentions of his brothers and the good intentions of God, even in the very same act. This much Joseph understood, even if he could not explain to his brothers how it could be so. Apparently he knew that, whatever else was true, he could not deny either God’s sovereign control or His goodness.
So, whatever our response to the problem of evil, it cannot be a denial of God’s sovereign control even over evil events. Nor can it be to make God the author of sin in any way. A proper response to the problem of evil always places the blame for sin upon wicked human beings and never upon God. We will see this approach reinforced several more times as we examine a number of other key Scripture passages.
Next, we will need to take a rather lengthy look at Job’s response to the evil against him, together with his interaction with God that followed. After all, if there is one book in the Bible devoted to wrestling at length with the problem of evil, it is the Book of Job. The book begins with God pointing Job out to Satan and permitting Satan to do evil against him. He permitted Satan to work both through natural disasters and through the instigation of evil acts by human beings in order to destroy Job’s family (except for his wife) and all that Job possessed, as well as to bring a terrible disease upon Job. With this background in mind, look with me at Job’s response:
NKJ Job 1:20-22 Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped. 21 And he said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” 22 In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.
Even though he had suffered many evils against himself – evils that the reader knows that Satan was ultimately behind and that had been permitted by God – Job still did not accuse God of any wrong. He clearly recognized that God is sovereign even over these evil things and that they could not have occurred except as a part of God’s plan, but he also knew that this does not mean that God is to be blamed for the evil.
So, again, we see that a response to the problem of evil must not rob God of His sovereignty over all things, but neither may it accuse Him of any evil. Rather, in responding to the problem of evil, we must acknowledge that God is sovereign over it and permits it as a part of His plan in such a way that He is never to be blamed for it. John Frame is helpful here when he observes that:
It would be nice to have a solution to the problem of evil, but not at any price. If the price we must pay is the very sovereignty of God, the faithful Christian must say that the price is too high. After all, it is of little importance whether any of us discovers the answer to the problem of evil. It is possible to live a long and happy and faithful life without an answer. But it is all-important that we worship the true God, the God of Scripture. Without Him, human life is worth nothing. (Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 154)
Such was the attitude of Job. However, as his suffering the effects of evil continued, he did get upset with God and challenge Him to explain Himself. In fact, we might say that Job demanded an answer from God to his own experiential problem of evil. Consider, for example, the following statements of Job:
NKJ Job 10:1-3 My soul loathes my life; I will give free course to my complaint, I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. 2 I will say to God, “Do not condemn me; show me why You contend with me. 3 Does it seem good to You that You should oppress, that You should despise the work of Your hands, and smile on the counsel of the wicked?”
NKJ Job 19:6-7 Know then that God has wronged me, and has surrounded me with His net. 7 If I cry out concerning wrong, I am not heard. If I cry aloud, there is no justice.
Sadly, although he initially – and correctly – refused to blame God for the evil against him, at this point Job’s suffering, grief, and anger got the best of him. But, as we shall see, he will end up repenting of having spoken such things. First, however, let us notice one more brash statement by made by Job:
NKJ Job 31:35-37 Oh, that I had one to hear me! Here is my mark. Oh, that the Almighty would answer me, that my Prosecutor had written a book! 36 Surely I would carry it on my shoulder, and bind it on me like a crown; 37 I would declare to Him the number of my steps; like a prince I would approach Him.
However, when God did manifest His presence to him, Job started singing a different tune! God declared that it was not Job who would do the questioning, but that He Himself would question Job. Let’s take a look at God’s confrontation of Job in order to see what I mean:
NKJ Job 38:1-5 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: 2 “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me. 4 Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?”
God then went on to speak of many of His great works, and He challenged Job to explain them and asked Job if he himself could do them. In other words, God did not respond directly to Job’s demand for an answer to the problem of evil. Instead He rebuked Job for having demanded an answer from Him in the first place! Listen to God’s challenge to Job:
NKJ Job 40:1-8 Moreover the LORD answered Job, and said: 2 “Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it.” 3 Then Job answered the LORD and said: 4 “Behold, I am vile; What shall I answer You? I lay my hand over my mouth. 5 Once I have spoken, but I will not answer; yes, twice, but I will proceed no further.” 6 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: 7 “Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me: 8 Would you indeed annul My judgment? Would you condemn Me that you may be justified?”
God then challenged Job in much the same way that He had already challenged him. But still God did not give any answer to the problem of evil. Once again He simply rebuked Job for his arrogance in demanding an accounting from Him in the first place. John Frame is again helpful when he writes:
This is hard to take. Like Job, we usually expect something else when we ask for an explanation of the problem of evil. This doesn’t even seem like an explanation. It is more like that old gag line, “‘Shut up,’ he explained.” But in this case, this is bitter medicine that we need to take. When we are faced with the problem of evil, we need to remind ourselves who we are and who God is. We are in no position to judge him, we have no right to demand an explanation from him. He is Lord. That is our first answer to the problem of evil. (The Bible on the Problem of Evil: Insights from Romans 3:1-8,21-26; 5:1-5; 8:28-39)
But what was Job’s final response? How did he react after God rebuked him? Let’s take a look at his response before moving on to some New Testament passages:
NKJ Job 42:1-6 Then Job answered the LORD and said: 2 “I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You. 3 You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4 Listen, please, and let me speak; You said, ‘I will question you, and you shall answer Me.’ 5 I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. 6 Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
So, in our response to the problem of evil, we must never forget that we are fallen creatures and that God does not owe us any explanation at all for what He does. We must learn the lesson of Job’s life and of the book that bares his name, namely that God is aware that we struggle with the problem of evil and that He has chosen not to give us the kind of answer that we often think we need or deserve. Instead, He expects us to trust Him and to worship Him on the basis of His previous works and revealed character. He expects us to trust that He is good even if we can’t understand all that He does. And, when we become angry and begin to think that He owes us the kind of explanation we so often think we need, then we must do as Job did and repent of our sinful attitude towards Him. For it is always wrong to be angry at God, since God can do no wrong that could ever justify anger towards Him.
New Testament Passages
Now that we have interacted with some key Old Testament passages, let’s turn our attention to the New Testament and to what I believe to be God’s ultimate response to the problem of evil, His beloved Son, Jesus Christ. Listen to the way Peter preached about the cross of Christ:
NKJ Acts 2:22-24 Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know – 23 Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; 24 whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it.
Once again we see that God intended good even through the most evil event that has ever occurred – the murder of His one and only Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Peter knew this, and he was very careful to attribute the evil to the “lawless hands” of the men who killed Jesus, even while he described the action as the fulfillment of God’s divine plan. Such an understanding was also reflected in a prayer of praise offered by the early Christians:
NKJ Acts 4:27-30 For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together 28 to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done. 29 Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, 30 by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.
These early Christians were suffering for their faith in Christ, but they did not blame God for the evil that was being done to them any more than they blamed Him for the evil that had been done to Jesus, even though they clearly saw these evil events as a part of His sovereign plan. Instead, they looked to the cross as an encouragement that God could work good through the evil that was being done to them just as he had worked good through the evil that had been done to their Lord and Savior.
Thus again we find that, in our response to the problem of evil, it will not do to say that God has no control over it, for God is sovereign even over the evil things that happen in the world. Nor may we imagine that those who commit evil are acting as if they are robots who cannot then be held accountable for their sin. Their evil acts are a part of God’s plan in such a way that those through whom the evil acts are committed are to be blamed, but God is never to be blamed. We also see once again that, in our response to evil, we must never forget that God works His own good purposes through it. This encourages us that, even when we cannot see His good purpose, we can nevertheless be assured that He has one. The Apostle Paul embraced the same view, as may be seen in his Epistle to the Romans:
NKJ Romans 3:1-4 What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision? 2 Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God. 3 For what if some did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect? 4 Certainly not! Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar. As it is written: “That You may be justified in Your words, and may overcome when You are judged.”
Whatever our response to the problem of evil, it must never call into question the righteousness of God. We must never forget that it is we who are sinners!
NKJ Romans 3:21-26 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, *because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. [*This solves a part of the problem of evil from the Old Testament perspective: How could a just God, who never acquits the wicked, do just that!?]
So, when we consider the problem of evil, we must never forget that God Himself is not untouched by it. Far from it! Indeed, we may say that God the Son has endured the effects of evil far more than any of us Christians ever will! So, when we struggle with the problem of evil, we can be encouraged that God cares about it more than we ever could. But for Him it is obviously no problem at all, for it is somehow a part of a great and good plan that He has for His own glory. When we are tempted to wonder, as Job did, whether or not God still loves us or is being fair with us, let us do as the early Christians did and turn our eyes to the cross!
NKJ Romans 5:1-5 Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; 4 and perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
NKJ Romans 8:28 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.
When we consider the problem of evil, isn’t it comforting to know that God is in control and will work even the evil things that happen to us to our ultimate good?
NKJ Romans 9:14-20 What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! 15 For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” 16 So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” 18 Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. 19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” 20 But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?”
So, we are back again to the “’Shut up!’ He explained” answer. And that is where, I believe, the Bible ultimately leaves us on the matter.
In conclusion, then, I believe the ultimate answer to the problem of evil is to say that, logically, we cannot give an answer, at least not the kind of answer that philosophers so often seek. God simply doesn’t give us the kind of explanation philosophers such as David Hume have been after. And He is under no obligation whatsoever to do so. The real question for us, then, is not, Given that God truly is both supremely good and supremely powerful, “whence then is evil”? Rather, we must each ask ourselves, Do I trust Him? Can I bow before Him and admit my ignorance and be content with what He has in His wisdom revealed to me? Can I accept what Moses taught the people of God so long ago?
NKJ Deuteronomy 29:29 The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
I would suggest to you that the logical answer to the problem of evil is among those things that God has not revealed to us. It is not that there is no such answer; it is simply that He alone knows what the answer is, and He has not told us. Instead, He has repeatedly and lovingly assured us that He is omniscient, that He is omnipotent, and that He is supremely good and just. He has also demonstrated to us that no one cares more about the problem of evil than He does, and He has asked us to trust Him.