If God is good, why does he allow evil to exist? The problem of evil is probably one of the most debated subjects in philosophy, as well as one of the most used arguments made by non-theists as a way to prove that God doesn’t exist.
When addressing a subject such as this, it often comes hidden with a lot of assumptions depending on who’s asking it. Is the person asking an atheist who’s looking for ways to disprove God? Did the person just loose a loved one or suffer some tragedy and is just trying to make sense of life? Every person who asks this question is coming into it with certain experiences that shape the way they approach the question and the way they will react to its answer. As a Christian, I must always make love my primary goal, and put the needs of the questioner above my desire to be right for the sake of looking good. Since I am addressing this to a general audience, I am going to try and make this as general and objective as possible. I won’t be able to take into account every person’s personal circumstances, but invariably, different people will ask similar questions and have similar objections.
In this post, I am going to present 3 philosophical challenges for the questioner to think about and consider when asking this question. Before we dive in this, though, we need to define some terms for this conversation. Let’s start by defining what a moral category is. A moral category is a classification of a noun or verb in terms of its moral characteristics, for example good or evil. I believe in moral absolutism, which means that any moral choice can be classified as absolutely right or absolutely wrong. For example, murder (the taking of innocent life) is always wrong, regardless of circumstances. Moral absolutism derives from the belief that Morality is an expression of God’s character. God’s character is absolute and does not change (Hebrews 13:8, James 1:17). Therefore morality is absolute and does not change. Good is that which is in accordance with God’s nature (Luke 18:19). Evil is that which is contrary to God’s nature (1 John 1:5). The physical universe also testifies to the existence of absolutes. There are many physical laws and universal constants that cannot be violated or changed and without which the universe we know could not exist.
Now that we have a working definition for these terms, let’s move on to my 3 challenges.
1. Moral Categories Exist Only if God Exists
In the mind of some, the very existence of evil disproves the existence of God. However, I would argue that one cannot even bring up the idea of evil without proving the existence of God because moral categories cannot exist without God. This argument may be presented as such:
– Moral categories exist only if God exists
– Moral categories do exist
– Therefore God exists.
First, let me defend the existence of moral categories. Categories exist in nature itself, and every concept or thing can be put in some kind of category and/or subdivided into categories.
We see this most prominently in the sciences. Scientifically, we classify organic life (from largest to smallest) into kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. We classify organic life into these categories based on the shared traits that they have. The more traits they have in common, the larger the category they will fall in. This is also done when it comes to philosophy and metaphysical concepts. Philosophy is often divided into categories of study like etymology, theology, soteriology, and eschatology. Philosophy is also divided into schools of thought like monotheism, polytheism, naturalism, atheism, humanism, and post-modernism. This is the very nature of language itself. In language, adjectives exist in order to describe nouns and by doing so divide them into categories: brown hair; beautiful music; delicious food; soft fur; pleasing aroma. Each of these adjectives comes with synonyms or antonyms that divide these nouns into different categories: black hair; crass music; disgusting food; prickly fur; displeasing aroma.
Similarly, the same thing can be done to morality. Morality’s existence can be established through observation. It is something that is common to every human culture. While it does vary from culture to culture, it is irrefutable that the concept of morality exists. So if we agree that morality exists and categories exist, then it should also follow that morality can be categorized and/or sub-categorized. Moral categories do exist. The two most common categories we think of are good and evil. (I would also point out that if moral categories did not exist, then the question of, “Why does God allow evil?” becomes meaningless because evil would not exist as a moral category.)
Next, let’s address the concept of whether moral categories can exist apart from God. To answer that, let me borrow a series of statements popularized by the Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias.
– If there is such a thing as evil, then there is such a thing as good
– If there is such a thing as good and evil, there must be a moral law on which to differentiate the two
– If there is a moral law, then there must be a moral law giver
Most people can accept the first two premises pretty readily, but will have trouble with the last statement. Why does a moral law necessitate a moral law giver?
Ravi Zacharias gives an answer to this question here.
“You may ask, Why does assuming a moral law necessitate a moral lawgiver? Because every time the question of evil is raised, it is either by a person or about a person—and that implicitly assumes that the question is a worthy one. But it is a worthy question only if people have intrinsic worth, and the only reason people have intrinsic worth is that they are the creations of One who is of ultimate worth. That person is God. So the question self-destructs for the naturalist or the pantheist. The question of the morality of evil or pain is valid only for a theist.
And only in Christian theism is love preexistent within the Trinity, which means that love precedes human life and becomes the absolute value for us. This absolute is ultimately found only in God, and in knowing and loving God we work our way through the struggles of pain, knowing of its ultimate connection to evil and its ultimate destruction by the One who is all-good and all-loving; who in fact has given us the very basis for the words good and love both in concept and in language.”
When people ask the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people,” they are making the assumption that people have a worth or value to them that would necessitate a different set of circumstances than they are currently experiencing. Morality such as that can only spring from consciousness and requires a conscious mind to understand and act upon. Consciousness does not spring from unconsciousness and has never been demonstrated to do so. Whether you believe in morality deriving from the individual, the community, or from God, all require a conscious moral law giver behind it. Even if you were to believe morality can originate in an unconscious Nature, it still requires a conscious mind to derive that morality from it as well as make choices based on those principles derived. A moral law requires a moral law giver.
Even more than this, though, is the question: Why does the moral law giver have to be God? (See Ravi’s anwswer here.) In my own words, consider this argument:
– Any meaningful system of morality must be objective.
– Objective morals can only come from God.
– Therefore only God can give any meaningful system of morality.
Any system of morality that exists must be objective in order to have any meaning beyond the individual. Otherwise, what is to say an individual like Hitler has an immoral or lesser moral system than a person like Mother Teresa? Many people will appeal to a group morality of some kind, saying that most people will agree with the morality of Mother Teresa over Hitler – therefore making Mother Teresa’s morals correct. However, that is the equivalent of saying that either power or popularity are the determining factors for morality, which can lead to some very disturbing consequences. Slavery was one of those disturbing consequences. Slavery both existed and was eventually eliminated in Western society because of the culture’s changing majority opinion on that issue. Are we to then say that both societies were correct in their views on slavery? I would certainly hope not. In my other example, if the majority of people were to agree with Hitler over Mother Teresa, it would then follow that Hitler’s actions were moral. Most people will reject that conclusion, and therefore must reject its premise as well. Any system of morality must be objective if it is to have any real meaning.
So why can objective morals only come for God? This because an objective set of morals can only come from an objective source. Anything else would be a contradiction in terms. A subjective source cannot create an objective standard because, by definition, it is subject to something else. People are finite creatures, subject to the laws of nature. There are certain things we cannot transcend. So we cannot be that objective source. Objective morals have to be true regardless of a person’s subjective circumstances. So what are we left with? God is the only entity who is able to fit the criteria of an objective source because by definition, He is the only entity who is eternal, self-existent, and whose reason for existing is in Himself and not to anything else outside of Himself. Objective morality is an outworking of His character and nature, not something that He Himself is subservient to.
Evil cannot exist as a moral category without bringing God into the picture. Moral categories do exist. Therefore, God exists.
2. God Can’t Eliminate All Evil without Eliminating You
The next faulty assumption I will address is: If God were good, he would simply eliminate all evil. I once heard a story of Ravi Zacharias talking with a prominent Chinese businessman, who didn’t believe in Christ, and the businessman’s friend, who was a Christian. The businessman was trying to disprove God’s existence by saying if God existed, He wouldn’t allow evil to exist in the world. After going back and forth about this, the question was raised to the businessman, “You keep complaining about all the evil in the world. What are you going to do about the evil that you see within yourself?” It is a very pointed question. Those who say God should just eliminate evil always speak of it as something external to themselves and fail to consider that by God’s standards, they too do evil things.
The question then arises – if God were to eliminate all evil, whose definition of evil is He going to use? His own no doubt. If you are asking God to eliminate all evil by His standards, then you are essentially asking for every person who has not found forgiveness in Christ to be eliminated. God’s Word, the Bible, is very clear that, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23) and that, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord,” (Romans 6:23). Because God is perfect by nature, anything not in accordance with His nature is considered imperfect and evil. We have all sinned and done wrong by God’s standard. If you don’t think so, then read the 10 Commandments. You won’t even get past the first one without be found guilty. Thankfully, God provided a way for us to be forgiven of our sins by the sacrifice of His Son Jesus on the cross and the surrender of our will to His.
Be careful what you wish for. By calling on God to simply eliminate evil or render punishment, you are only condemning yourself.
3. God Can’t Eliminate Evil and Still Give His Creation Free Will
To build off the second challenge, the concept of free will also needs to be addressed. Someone might raise the question: couldn’t God have created a universe in which evil was not possible? See Ravi’s answer to a similar question here.
The short answer is ‘no.’ God is love (1 John 4:8), and so God created a universe in which love exists. Love is not possible without the freedom to choose (free will). Affection that is given out of coercion is simply that – coerced affection. It is not true love. And so it is out of love that God gives us free will. Who or what we choose to love will be up to us. God desires us to choose to love Him, but the possibility will always exist in this life that we or someone else may choose to love doing evil rather than good.
God cannot forcibly make us always choose to do good without also eliminating freedom and love. God couldn’t have created a universe contrary to His nature.
The problem of evil is one that is well worth raising. However, people fail to realize that we can only call something truly evil only if we use God’s objective standard of what evil is, which means that He has to exist.
Above all, I want to communicate the hope that lies in the Christian message. I don’t know where you’re at right now in life. Perhaps you feel that God is not just because of the evil that has happened to you or that you see around you. Maybe something happened to you or to someone close to you that has caused great pain in your life. I may not know your specific circumstances or why certain events took place in your life, but I do know this – God is the only one who offers redemption, who can turn bad into good.
In the book of Genesis, Joseph is sold into slavery by his own family because his brothers were jealous that he was the favored son. After rising to prominence as a servant at Potiphar’s house, being thrown in jail on false charges, being released from jail after being able to interpret pharaoh’s dream about a coming famine, and again rising to prominence in Egypt in order to prepare for this coming famine, his brothers then come to Egypt in search of food because of that famine. When Joseph had every right to be angry at them and had the authority to repay the evil done to him, he did not, but instead says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:20)
God let the evil done to Joseph be used for good, to save many people from starvation. God is able to do the same with you. God is the only one who can redeem the evil that was done to you and turn it into good. I may not know how that works out in your particular situation, but I know the character and power of God. He is just, and He is the only one who offers us hope through the gospel. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
The gospel offers us forgiveness for our sins and the evil we see within ourselves. The gospel gives us hope that God can use evil circumstances for good. All it takes is to have faith in God and trust in his character. That is done through the acceptance of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for your sins. If you would like to know how to do this, please contact me.