The Problem of Evil

The problem of evil (POE) is probably the most serious challenge to the rationality of Christian theism. At its core, the POE claims that there is a fundamental contradiction within Christian belief. Christians believe that there exists an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good God. This belief is a necessary component of Christianity such that if proven false would prove Christian theism false. Christians also believe that the state of affairs that has obtained involves evil. This belief is also a necessary component of Christianity such that if proven false would prove Christian theism false. Hence, if Christianity is true, then it is also true that an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good God created a world that includes evil. Every Christian should be able to reconcile these beliefs in a way that they do not lead to contradiction, but more importantly in a way that is also consistent with Christian Scripture. Some Christians attempt to solve the contradiction but end up compromising Christians beliefs about the nature of God. Others attempt to solve the contradiction but end up with a view of man that is also quite out of step with Scripture. Such extremes must be avoided and it is the purpose of this post to help you do just that.

The critic claims that the kind of God that Christians believe exists is not the kind of being that would create a world like this. An all-powerful God is powerful enough to create a world in which evil does not exist. An all-knowing God would know how to create a world in which evil does not exist. Finally, a perfectly good God would not create a world in which evil exists. There is good reason to examine these claims. The argument continues; since evil exists, the Christian claim that an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good God exists is contradicted by the fact that evil exists. Therefore, Christianity holds to beliefs that contradict one another. Either Christianity must deny that evil exists, or it must relinquish its claim that the sort of God it believes in actually exists. Either way, Christianity is irrational for holding to the belief that this sort of God exists, and evil exists at the same time. It seems then, if this argument is sound, that the Christian religion is doomed because without evil Christianity collapses and without it’s God revealed in the Bible, it collapses. As you can see, the argument is really quite powerful and has caused many professing Christians to give up their Christian beliefs. How do you answer the charge?

The Arminian Solution

The Arminian solution to the problem of evil is to point out that God created a world in which libertarian free will exists and that such a state of affairs must allow for the possibility of evil. Libertarian freedom is defined as the freedom to always act to the contrary. This view is based on an indeterministic metaphysic. Indeterministic free will follows from this which means that human free will is incompatible with causal determinism. Regardless of which action an agent chooses, he could have always done otherwise. Evil exists in the world because God created human beings free to choose good or evil. They chose evil. Moreover, a world in which human beings have this kind of freedom, libertarian or indeterministic freedom, is the best of all possible worlds. Indeed, this solution does solve the problem of evil in that it removes the supposed contradiction in Christian theism. But it comes at a very high cost which I will discuss in my summary below.

The Open-Theism Solution

The second solution, one that pushes Arminian theology a little further but focuses its effort on the nature of God is the open view. The open view claims that God does not know the future perfect. God does not know the future decisions of free creatures. This means that God is not all-knowing. The open view agrees with the Arminian position of libertarian freedom. But it also agrees that if such actions are truly free in the indeterministic sense, then God cannot possibly know them because what God knows, he knows infallibly. If God knows that John will eat a ham sandwich for lunch tomorrow, then John is not actually free to do otherwise. If he is, then God’s knowledge is not infallible because John could always choose to have turkey. Since open theists recognize that evil exists but that God is perfectly good with infallible knowledge, the solution to the contradiction must be sought either by modifying its beliefs regarding God’s knowledge or God’s power. It focuses on the former. As a result, open theism does, in fact, remove the supposed contradiction in the argument against God from evil. But the cost is even greater than the one willingly paid by the Arminian approach.

The Reformed Solution

The reformed solution to the problem of evil is, from what I can tell, the least appealing and the least accepted by philosophers. It is a very unpopular response that gets very little attention in the literature. Many believe there is a liability and weakness in the reformed response. However, I think this is a good indication that it is on the right track.

Reformed theology is fully deterministic. This means that the reformed position rejects the view that human beings possess indeterministic freedom. The Second London Baptist Confession states:

God the good Creator of all things, in his infinite power, and wisdom, doth (a) uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all Creatures, and things, from the greatest even to the (b) least, by his most wise and holy providence, to the end for the which they were Created; according unto his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable Councel of his (c) own will; to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness and mercy.[1]

The confession asserts that God controls and sustains all creation. Eph. 1:11 says In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.

From the start, this seems to introduce the problem of moral responsibility. How can human beings be morally responsible for their actions unless they act freely? However, free will, as defined by most Reformed theologians is not the ability to always do otherwise, but rather, the ability to act or choose apart from coercion or force. Man is free so long as he does whatever he desires or wants to do. This view of free will is compatible with the Reformed theology’s view of determinism. This view of determinism is soft determinism. In short, it contends that human free will is compatible with divine providence. If this is the case, then it seems to lead to the inevitable conclusion that Reformed theology is, in fact, a contradictory system since it affirms an all-powerful, all-knowledge, perfectly good God and the existence of evil in the world. But this conclusion is mistaken. The reason this conclusion is mistaken is located in the definition of “good.” When we say that God is “perfectly good,” what do we mean? Christianity means one thing while the opponent of Christianity means something else. There is an element of pagan thought smuggled into the definition of good that is contrary to Christian theism. If the goal is to demonstrate that Christian theism involves a contradiction, one has to use Christianity’s own definitions and not import those definitions as this objection seems to do.

The Reformed answer to this challenge, not to oversimplify it is to say that it is simply not true that a perfectly good God would not allow evil or create a world that would come to have evil in it. That claim, in and of itself, is contrary to Christian theism according to Reformed theology. All that is needed to answer this charge is to say that the existence of evil in the world produces a world that is better than a world that is has no evil. That is one way to remove the contradiction. Another way to remove the contradiction is to hold that God is under no obligation to create the best possible world with the most good. God is only obligated by his own nature to create one of the good possible worlds as opposed to evil possible worlds. This leads us to ask the question, what is the greatest good? It isn’t a problem if we reject the idea that God is not obligated to create such a world. The idea that God has a moral obligation to create only the best possible world is without ground. On the other hand, the world was created, and everything in it, to glorify God. Is it possible that the existence of evil serves to glorify God more than if evil did not exist? I see no reason why it is not possible. If Reformed theology can plausibly deny the premise that a perfectly good God would not allow evil, then this successfully removes any contradiction from its understanding of Christian theism. The fact becomes that a perfectly good God would allow evil to exist if it served his greater purpose of self-glorification. What is a greater good than God being glorified? Or, what is greater than a world in which God is glorified more than other possible worlds?

Conclusion

The problem of evil then as a logical challenge against the existence of the God of Christianity turns out not to be a problem after all. Still, it is the most challenging problem for Christian theism to answer. That much is granted. And there is a lot more to the challenge than any one blog post can address. Arminian theology solves the problem with its “libertarian free will” argument. This is a high price to pay because it places the Arminian in a position of having to solve for a new problem: how can God have infallible knowledge of the future free acts of human beings while also claiming at the same time that those actions are free in the libertarian sense. If God possesses infallible knowledge that John will have a ham sandwich for lunch tomorrow or next week or year, then how is it possible that John could always do otherwise up to the time that he has the ham sandwich? So far, I have seen nothing in the literature that satisfactorily removes the contradiction between divine omniscience and libertarian free will.

For the open theist view, the problem is worse. Scripture is clear that God infallibly knows the future acts of human beings. Jesus’ knowledge that Judas would betray him is a clear example. Jesus said that it would have been better if Judas had never been born. If it were possible for Judas to do otherwise, then Jesus was simply wrong. Jesus could not have made such a statement if it remained a possibility that Judas could do otherwise. But Jesus, acting on his infallible knowledge of Judas’ future act to betray Christ, made a true statement, not a possibly true statement. It was true that minute Jesus made it. And that is only possible if there was no other possibility than that Judas would betray Christ.

The Reformed position says that God has decreed whatsoever shall come to pass. But the decree is not itself the cause of man’s acting to commit evil, even though that act is part of the decree. The decree is not a causal agent. It is the divine plan. A blueprint does not build a house. The agents carrying out the instructions of the blueprint are the cause of the house being built. God created in such a way that man does as he pleases, he acts according to his own desire and he is therefore morally responsible for his actions. Man was created in God’s image and likeness. God does what he wants to do. Human beings, created in God’s image and likeness, do what they want to do. Adam did what he wanted to do. He was not forced against his will to violate the divine command simply because that is what was in the divine blueprint. How can God bring it to pass that evil exists without being the cause of evil in the sense that he is morally responsible for that evil? I think this is where epistemology can be critically helpful. Our knowledge of God is, as Van Til would say, analogical. God can be the cause of something in a way that is similar but different from the way in which human beings are the cause of something. That has to always be kept in mind. God loves like we do, but differently than we do. And that difference isn’t just in terms of degree but in essence as well. God’s knowledge and acts are not only quantitatively greater than ours, but they are also qualitatively greater than ours. Reformed theology then answers the challenge of evil without compromising the divine nature and while also remaining true to sound biblical exegesis. Both Arminian theology and Open Theism error seriously because they are far more rationalistic in their approach to this challenge while Reformed Theology attempts to remain true to the text of Scripture.

[1] Baptist Confession, 1689 London Baptist Confession, n.d.


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