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The Problem of Evil

The existence of evil poses perhaps the largest logical obstacle to belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, and/or all-good God.

As I have previously written about, the existence of an intelligent designer is, I think, logical and even very probable (and, in any event, everyone believes in the transcendent because everyone believes, even if they claim otherwise, that they have free will).

But the logical case for a creator does not necessarily tell us the nature of that creator.

When we look at the created world, it is both beautiful and brutal.

Looking only at the created order, we would draw very different conclusions about the characteristics of its creator than those of the major theistic religions.

Logical Quandary

Here is the logical quandary:

  • God is all-powerful.
  • God is all-knowing.
  • God is purely good.
  • There is evil in the world.

If God is all-powerful, presumably He could have created the world in such a way that people have free will and yet simultaneously only choose to do what is right (and hence there would be free will with no evil). The only solution to the problem of evil here is to say that God can do anything that is possible, but it is not possible to create agents with free will who will always choose to do what is right (the standard example here of what is impossible despite omnipotence is to say that God could not create a square circle because such a thing cannot exist). Perhaps this is the beginning and end to the problem of evil: God did not have the power to create humans with free will without allowing them to do evil because doing such a thing is simply impossible. But, this solution still puts a limitation on what most people would conceive of as “all-powerful.”

If God is all-knowing, then He would know the future. If God knows the future and chose to create the world as it is, knowing full well all the evil that would transpire, then God chose to create the world as it is even with unbelievable atrocities. That does not sound like a good God. The solution here? To, again, put a limitation on God: perhaps God too exists within time and does not know the future. In which case, all-knowing means knowing all that it is possible to know, which does not include what will happen in the future. Again, this is a solution, but it puts a limitation on God’s knowledge that most followers of the major theistic religions would reject. Or, an alternate solution: God does know the future, saw all the atrocities that did, do, and will occur but sees that there will be goods beyond our comprehension that could not be brought about without the existence of those atrocities and thus justify the permission of such atrocities to occur. The latter, however, is stomach-churning and sounds more utilitarian (in the sense that the ends justify the means) than we are used to seeing in the major theistic religions.

Or, perhaps God is just not what we would conceive of as “good.” Certainly many religions across time have seen gods as more powerful versions of humans, flaws and all. But that, more than any of the other premises, is rejected by the major theistic religions. God’s goodness is least up for serious inquiry.

And yet there is evil, so the existence of evil poses a serious logical problem to everyone who would believe that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good.

As a Christian, this conundrum has deeply troubled me and has consumed a large portion of my thoughts, particularly over the last year. The most impactful resources with which I have engaged have been “The Problem of Evil,” “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” and innumerable lectures from those of every philosophical and religious persuasion. I have not struck upon a solution but upon a conclusion.

A Conclusion

If you are not a Christian, you can stop reading here — or carry on with the understanding that I am going to be pre-supposing that Christianity is correct (I have both personal reasons and researched justifications for firmly believing in Christianity, but those are not the topic of this post).

So, with the presumption that Christianity is correct, how is a Christian to reconcile the above quandary with their belief that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good?

Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus in John 3:9-12 offers some insight.

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 

John 3

I think Jesus’ response to Nicodemus would likely be His answer to us as well. How can we make sense of the logical quandary? We can’t. We lack the ability to comprehend its solution, and we might never comprehend it, even for all of eternity.

That conclusion (that we can never understand) might feel unsatisfying. But the truth need not be satisfying, at least not in the way that we would expect or desire.

Try explaining a black hole to a 2-year-old and that, past the Schwarzschild radius, gravity becomes infinite. With sufficient explanation, most adults can comprehend this. With infinite explanation, a 2-year-old never will. It’s simply not possible for a 2-year-old to do so.

If God is omniscient, then the difference between God’s ability to reason and understand and our ability to do so is perhaps literally infinitely large. As such, the difference between our understanding and a 2-year-old’s and between God’s understanding and ours is incomparable: the gap between us and God is inconceivably greater.

If a 2-year-old cannot understand what we can, then why would we necessarily presume that we should be able to understand what God can?

Thus, if there is a solution to the logical quandary, it’s not only possible but potentially even likely that we will never be able to grasp it.

What Then?

In the Garden of Eden (I don’t believe the story literally, but I believe it conveys many important truths), Adam and Eve were told not to eat “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” That is a very confusing statement. And the confusion continues: Eve saw “that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (or so she thought).

We are told repeatedly throughout the Bible to seek truth, to turn away from falsehood, to value and pursue wisdom, etc.

So why would the only thing that God forbid be to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?

I think it is because, above all, God requires trust and obedience from us.

Returning to the analogy of the child, there are many things that you would not explain to a child. First, the child would not understand. And, second, partly because they could never understand, you would only scar them by explaining it to them (such as the knowledge of good and evil, because knowledge of evil could do great harm to a child, and so no loving parent would ever impart that knowledge to a child). Thus, knowledge can be harmful. A good parent would keep harmful knowledge from a child. And, if that knowledge was accessible, a good parent would instruct the child not to seek it out. (And God warned that “in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.”)

Don’t get caught up diving down the rabbit hole of the analogy. The point is that a good parent requires the obedience and trust of a child for the benefit of the child. There is no possible way for the child to know why they must do as instructed. But, if a child follows a good parent’s instructions, the child will be better off.

It is possible that we will never understand the existence of evil. The question remaining is if we will trust and obey regardless.

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