That is a very important question, one that, if it is not the hardest, one of the hardest questions that people have to face. Especially if one were to deal with someone who has suffered, for example, cancer that took a loved one, a daughter who was raped and brutally murdered, or a husband who find himself disabled and unable to provide for his family.
This question comes in many forms, variations, and nuances. Perhaps the most difficult way to present this question is the following:
If an all-powerful, all-loving, benevolent God exists, why does He allow so much evil and suffering in the world?
Epicurus, a 3rd to 2nd BC Greek atheistic philosopher, wrote the following about God and evil:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
Is Epicurus right? Should we conclude that God is not powerful enough to stop evil, benevolent enough to stop it, and thus, cannot be called God? Are there good reasons why God allows evil to occur on earth?
When I deal with question of evil and suffering, I do so with enormous sympathy, because although this question has an intellectual side, it also has a very deep, personal and powerful emotional side as well. I understand that many people are suffering as a result of evil. Because of that, I treat this subject with extreme sensitivity.
Bear in mind that any response I give to this question will not undo any act of evil that you, or someone you know, experienced. Any answer I give will not explain every single act of evil; however, it is my hope that I can explain why God might allow evil to occur.
There are two ways to look at this problem: one as the observer and the other as the participant. Cancer looks very different to a professor of oncology than a 20-year old woman who has been told she has three months to live. Either way you look at it, I hope that my answer helps you sort out any issues you have regarding the problem of evil and suffering.
There are three reasons why I believe God might allow evil and suffering to occur:
1. Love requires freedom
Upon observing the world as it is, it seems reasonable to me that love is the supreme ethic. Our music artists often sing about it. Our poets often write about it. Societies champion it. Indeed, even Jesus, when answering a Jewish lawyer on the greatest commandment, Jesus responded with the following:
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.
In regard to good and evil, there are four possible ways that God could have decided to create the universe:
- No creation
- A world in which only evil exists
- A world in which only good exists
- A world in which good exists, but with the possibility for evil
The question is this: of which of these possibilities allows for the existence of real, genuine love? Let’s explore the options
The first option is no creation. Without a creation, there can be no love in it.
The second option is a world in which only evil exists. If love is the supreme ethic, and God created a world in which only evil exists, then in this world, there is nothing ethical, only unethical. The supreme ethic, love, cannot exist in a world in which ethics do not exist.
The third option is perhaps the most popular. This is a world in which only good exists. Can real, genuine love exist in this world? I would like suggest that the answers is no. You see, in order for real, genuine love to exist, it requires freedom of the will. It requires the possibility of rejection. For example, my love for my wife is genuine only because, despite my option to reject her, I have decided, in my own freedom, to love her. Without my freedom of rejection, I would become more like a robot, programmed to “love” my wife. Sure, I could comply, in a mechanical way, but pre-programmed, forced love is not genuine.
This only leaves one option left. It is a world in which good exists, but with the possibility of evil. Only in this world can real, genuine love exist. God has given us the freedom to either choose to love Him, and obey His commandments, or to reject Him, and to do what we want instead. When we reject God, and choose to disobey Him, we often make bad, immoral, unethical, selfish choices. We do evil and often hurt other people as a result of our bad choices. Yet real, genuine love, if it is to exist, God must allow us the possibility of rejecting Him, to go our own way, and to do evil. It is an unfortunate consequence, and a high price to pay for love to exist.
Suppose my wife and I were to bring a child into this world. We know full well that our child could grow up to love us, and having a loving relationship with us. We also know that our child could grow up to reject and hate us and do all kinds of horrible things. We believe that, despite the possibility of rejection, it is worth the risk to bring a child into this world. In the same way, God thought we were worth the risk of bringing people into this world, with the freedom to love Him or to reject Him. God’s greatest desire is to have a personal, loving relationship with us. This cannot occur if God does not allow us the freedom to do evil.
2. Evil builds character
Think about the greatest lessons you learned in life. The lessons that you will carry with you your entire life and will bestow upon your children, should you choose to have any. Were they learned from times of joy, or times of pain? From doing right, or doing wrong? From success, or from failure? While I cannot speak for other people, for myself, the latter is true for each of these. The greatest lessons I learned in life are when I was hurting, when I did wrong, and when I failed. There are certain characteristics that I could not develop had there been no evil in the world.
If there was no pain in my life, I would not learn to forgive others. If others were not suffering pain, I would not develop empathy, sympathy, or compassion. if I did not make mistakes and failed, I would not grow as an individual. If there was nothing to be afraid of, I could not develop courage. There are certain characteristics that we simply cannot develop if there us no evil or suffering in the world.
Please do not misunderstand. I am not condoning that we ought to cause pain, to do wrong, or to fail. Clearly, we ought not do these things and should avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. My point is that there are certain characteristics that God wants us to develop that cannot be developed through times of joy, from doing right, or from success.
3. Evil in the context of eternity
Evil and suffering, from an atheistic/naturalistic perspective, are typically experienced and understood within the context of our lives here on earth. According to this perspective, life only occurs between the day we are born to the time we die. Nothing happens after we die. One can think of life as a line segment, the “dash” on a gravestone, connecting two important events in history: birth and death. During this time, the best we can hope for is a long, healthy life, with minimal suffering and filled with much joy and personal pleasure. We may be right to become angry if, given a life expectancy of 80 years, we develop cancer at the age of 39 and 6 months, with only 6 months to live. Our death will effectively cut half of the potential of our lives. We will have been cheated 40 years of life because of evil.
Suppose the Bible is true, and there really is life after death. How does this change the way we view evil? In the context of eternity, how significant is our 80 year lifespan on earth? I would like to suggest that, the longer one lives after death, the less significant evil becomes. If one lives 10,000 years with God in heaven, the temporary suffering in one’s 40 year life will become so insignificant, it might as well be forgotten!
If God has eternity in mind in His attempt to have a loving relationship with us, allowing us the freedom to choose Him or to reject Him, and to use evil as a means to develop certain characteristics in us that we otherwise could not develop, one may begin to understand why God allows evil to occur in this world.