By Bruce A. Little
It was a clear autumn morning and I was straightening up my office, having moved in only a few days earlier. My small desk television was tuned to the Today Show when a news flash announced that a plane had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center Towers. I, along with millions across America and around the world, watched helplessly in disbelief as the horrific events of September 11, 2001 unfolded. Those events, now collectively referred to as 9/11, left an immeasurable swath of human suffering and left millions more with troubling images burned indelibly on the fleshy plates of their memory banks. In a most unimaginable and unpredictable event, America was abruptly confronted by the truth it had so desperately endeavored to deny, that is, that evil does exist. Stunned by the incredulity of the act and the uncertainty of its scope, America briefly acknowledged another questioned truth-the existence of God. During the unfolding of the event and in the days following, much of America acknowledged the existence of evil and affirmed its need for God. The first was undeniable and the second seemed indispensable, for the event startled the hearts of millions with a renewed sense of human finiteness and impotency resulting in an intuitive reaction to call out to God. Yet, these two realities once again raised the age-old question: If God is all-powerful and all-good, how is it that such horrific evil would be permitted in this world created and maintained by this God?
In the days that followed, a national inquiry was conducted in the public square to see what answer might be given to this seemingly contrary set of realities (God and evil). Talk show hosts invited religious leaders from across the religious spectrum to respond to the question. Within weeks, however, the intensity of the questions waned, not because of the efficacy of the answers, but simply because of the anesthetic effect of the passing of time. Then, in December 2004, the scene was repeated immediately after the tsunami slammed into southeastern Asia. The answers given then followed the same explanation. For the most part, the reason given by the Christian community was that God was morally justified in allowing the horrible suffering and destruction because He would eventually bring some greater good from it. Unfortunately, others claimed it was the judgment of God-a claim without a shred of support.
The regrettable fact is that the most often heard Christian response to the problem of evil entails some form of the greater-good explanation. This explanation, known as the Greater-Good theodicy, maintains that the only evil God allows into this world is that evil from which He can bring about a greater good or prevent a worse evil. Within this explanation, evil becomes the means whereby God achieves a “good” in the world that could not have been achieved by other means. Therefore, because of the “good” that obtains, God is morally justified in allowing it to touch humanity. This response, however, fails when applied to horrific evils such as the Holocaust, 9/11, and the tsunami as well as the suffering of children. And yet, it is precisely at this point that the world is most anxious to have an answer.
The fact is, the greater-good explanation tends to raise more questions than it answers. Questions such as: “If the ‘good’ obtains, where is it, and who is the recipient?” “How would we know when enough ‘good’ had obtained morally to justify God’s allowing it?” “What if no one can see the ‘good’, how do we know it is there?” “If evil/suffering is allowed by God for some ‘good’, would it not be reasonable to conclude that once some evil/suffering has entered the human experience that one should not stop it, for to do so would be to eliminate the resulting ‘good’?” Such probing questions seem reasonable and must not be ignored. In the end, the weakness of the Greater-Good theodicy seems to be located in its promise of the ‘good’ and the denial of gratuitous evil/suffering (that which serves no greater good purpose-it is just part of a fallen world). On what grounds could such claims be made? One possibility would lie in an evidential demonstration that the ‘good’ obtained. The other would be to find a propositional statement in the Bible that affirms this to be the case. Unfortunately, the possibility of either remains highly questionable, if not impossible. Consequently, the lack of unambiguous support leaves the Greater-Good theodicy without a convincing foundation. Therefore, if this is the only response the Christian has to the problem of evil, one could understand why the world might conclude that it is more probable that the omni-benevolent, omnipotent, loving God does not exist than that He does exist.
Of course one can successfully argue that there is more to Christianity than answering the argument from evil. Nonetheless, if Christianity provides meaningful answers to the unavoidable questions of life, then surely the problem of evil cannot be ignored. This is true whether one is responding to those who use evil/suffering as an occasion to argue against God’s existence, or trying to answers questions from the one suffering who is questioning his or her faith. In the end, the integrity of Christianity in the eyes of the world and the practical implications for Christian ministry require a more adequate response to the problem of evil than is offered by the greater-good explanation.
The search for an alternative response to the problem of evil must first acknowledge that it is a complex issue. Furthermore, what one deems as an acceptable answer undoubtedly rests on one’s prior beliefs about God. Recognizing the first and respecting the second, instructs us to proceed with humility. The complexity of the issue, however, can be minimized to some degree by clarifying particulars of the task. First, whatever answers Christians give regarding the problem of evil, such answers must reflect consistency with the larger Christian theological framework. That is to say that they must not subvert other doctrines of the Faith. This point should not be lost on us, nor should we judge it an unnecessary reminder, because how one answers the question of evil impinges on every major doctrine of the Faith.
Second, we must avoid confusing what God might do (has done) in particular cases of suffering with why God allows it in the first place. These are two separate questions and one should not think that he or she has answered the why question by answering the what question. It is unacceptable to argue from consequences to motive. Third, biblical texts reporting God’s providential work in certain situations (such as with Joseph in Genesis 50:20), only tell us how God did work, and not necessarily how God must work. This means we must not rely too heavily on narrative texts for universal principles. Fourth, the main question is not how evil made its way into the world, but why the all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful God continues to allow evil to ravage humanity and, in particular, why He allows the widespread horrific evils within the human experience.
What follows here is an attempt to sketch out a framework for an alternative explanation to the problem of evil. It begins with the assumption that the drama of the human experience is more than a piece of theater where humans are simply actors that read a predetermined script. Quite the contrary, God created man in His image (see Gen. 1:26) with a mind that could think God’s thoughts after Him. From all indications, this means God and man can enjoy a meaningful relationship through direct communication and mutual understanding. Of course sin has greatly diminished the scope of this understanding; nonetheless, it is possible on some level, particularly as aided by common grace and the ministry of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 17: 26-28; Rom. 1:19-20). Part of imageness includes man having the power of moral choice. His moral choice was placed within the larger created framework of what might be thought of as a creation order. That is, not only was creation structured with a physical order, but God, in His sovereignty, established a moral order within which man would have a certain freedom within a prescribed range. Moreover, God structured the moral ordering in such a fashion as to make it possible for Him to work providentially within creation according to His moral perfection, guided by His determinate counsel. Once this order was in place, however, God, as the faithful Creator (see 1 Pet. 4:19), deals with man in light of that order. For example, there is the law of the harvest (see Gal 6:9) and the law of repentance (see Acts 17:30; 2 Cor. 7:10). In part, this moral ordering is what stands behind the promises and commandments of God that give man both possibilities and responsibilities.
Part of God’s moral order for humanity was that disobedience to God’s communicated directives would result in death (see Gen. 2:17). When man disobeyed God, the resulting death brought serious corrupting consequences not only for man, but nature as well. It is from this corruption that all moral and natural evil flows. There was no promise by God that when death came the He would protect the world from all resulting evil unless He could bring good from it. What He did promise was redemption from evil (see Gen. 3:15). In fact, what is recorded in the exchange between God and man on that day in the garden was that disobedience would exact a terrible price on all of creation. The immediate effect of disobedience on man can be seen in his hiding from God (see Gen 3:8). God also revealed that as a direct result of man’s disobedience there would be human pain and suffering (see Gen. 3:14-19). The latter would, in part, be as a result of the change in nature itself, a change that would mean periodic convulsions within nature, often causing serious injury to man and damage to nature. Paul later spoke of this change as the whole of creation in bondage to corruption (see Rom. 8:20-22) which waits (with the redeemed) for the day of redemption. Until that day, God has granted man understanding by which many of the negative effects of the fall on nature can be minimized. There is no promise, however, that all suffering resulting from this pervasive corruption will be used by God to bring about some greater good. What God does promise to those who believe in Him is comfort, mercy, and sustaining grace to endure patiently the difficult times.
Furthermore, when moral agents choose to do evil, usually suffering follows. It is possible God may intervene because of His wisdom, compassion, or any number of justifiable reasons, including a response to the prayers of His people. However, there is no promise that this will be so in all cases. Humanity continues to feel the effects of the brokenness of this world. This fact underscores the real possibility of gratuitous evil. As Ronald Nash points out in response to Michael Peterson: “If Peterson’s observation is correct and if the arguments concerning gratuitous evil in the last few pages are sound, there would seem to be good reason to believe that the stalemate is over and that the probabilities favor theism. The presence of gratuitous evil in God’s creation is consistent with God’s purposes for creation.” If there is the possibility of gratuitous evil, then the Christian no longer has the burden of justifying evil/suffering on the grounds that God will bring about a greater good. Affirming the real possibility of gratuitous evil does not subvert God’s moral perfection or His providential management of creation when seen in light of His creation order.
The point here is that much evil in this world is just that-evil. Can God work in it to accomplish something good? Of course He can (and will) when the believer suffers for righteousness (see Matt. 5:11-12). Has He promised, however, to do so in every instance of general suffering? No. Furthermore, it seems beyond the warrant of scripture to claim He will. All the evil, both moral and natural, is a serious reminder that we live in a broken world. It is a fragile place. If the possibility of gratuitous evil exists, then the Christian is not responsible for trying to demonstrate some good and he or she is not responsible to defend God on the basis of the ‘good’ obtaining. In fact, it is not the “good” God wants us to focus on, but on Him who is the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort.
Published March 30, 2016