A (Very) Brief, Gospel-Centered Defense Against the Problem of Evil

christ-on-the-cross-1587In brief, the classic problem of evil stands as the greatest, most persuasive, damning, and straightforward objection to the existence of God, especially the Christian one. The classic form dating back to Epicurus and retooled by David Hume runs something like this:

  1. If God exists he is all-good and all-powerful.
  2. If he is all-good he will want to remove evil from the world
  3. If he is all-powerful he can remove evil from the world.
  4. There is evil in the world.
  5. Therefore, God doesn’t exist, or he is not all-good, or all-powerful.

Straight-forward enough, right?

Still, in recent developments in the philosophy of religion, it has been noticed that the strict version just outlined can be evaded by pointing out that if God had a good enough reason to, he might allow evil to exist while being all-powerful and all-good. The skeptical rejoinder, then, is that there is no such reason forthcoming from believers to justify all of the apparently pointless evils we see in the world.

Now, while there’s a great deal of lengthy literature on the subject (some of which I’ve read) about the logical, evidential, and powerful existential forms of the argument, I’ve come to the conclusion that, in nuce, the outlines of a logically-intuitive, and even pastorally-comforting ,defense against the problem of evil are given to us in the simple Gospel story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ itself.

Note, this is not a theodicy--an explanation of why God allows evil to exist–it is only a defense, showing that it is logically possible for God and evil to exist. With that clarification made, here’s my attempt at a Gospel-centered defense against the problem of evil in a nutshell:

  1. If God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, I have good reason to believe both that he exists, and that he is unfathomably powerful.
  2. Furthermore, if he is good enough to send his only-begotten Son to die on behalf of a sinful, rebellious world he loves, he is unfathomably good.
  3. Next, if God is wise enough to use what is objectively the most horrifying, and initially apparently pointless, event in human history–the unjust murder of the Godman–for the salvation of the world, then it is entirely reasonable to trust he has a good enough reason for allowing the evil that he currently does.
  4. Finally, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the promise that ultimately evil will be judged, removed, and made right.There is comfort and hope for the future.

All of these points could be filled out at length, of course; this is a nutshell–and a very small one at that.  And yet, it is enough to set us marveling at the way, once again, all of life’s deepest, most troubling questions find their answer in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

49 thoughts on “A (Very) Brief, Gospel-Centered Defense Against the Problem of Evil

  1. “It is entirely reasonable to trust he may has a good enough reason for allowing the evil that he currently does.” You’re so reformed. It’s never occurred to me to question God’s existence on the basis of evil. I just ask God for help when I need it, which usually has to do with the evil that’s inside of me.

  2. Hey Derek, pursuant to a pastoral approach to the problem of evil, Barbara Duguid’s book, “Extravagant Grace,” runs along these lines. Her argument boils down to this: God does indeed use what he hates (suffering, and our sin) to produce in us what is profoundly good (a deeper appreciation in and reliance on the grace of God, and a weening off of depending on our own strength). In the lives of believers, at any rate, God who is sovereign even over evil, can use it to turn our eyes to Jesus for our own good. It doesn’t address the sin and suffering of unbelievers, but in a pastoral situation, it can be helpful.

  3. This is well-put and succinctly communicated. Thank you for that! Gave me lots to think about.

    Since you’re Reformed(ish), I guess I’d like to pose a general question about the Problem of Evil within Calvinism.

    There are a lot of reasons why I’m not a Calvinist. I think it too often tries to conform Scripture to a theological system rather than the other way around. I think it results in a worldview in which God creates disposable, worthless people, and I can’t (from Scripture or from my conscience) believe that God creates people for no other purpose but to suffer endlessly in an eternal hell. I think it discounts (because it doesn’t fit the system) a lot of this fascinating scholarship around the New Perspectives, perpetuating a far too extreme dichotomy between law and grace. And I think it tends to reduce The Gospel to what happened on the cross, and a single atonement theory, rather than include the life and teachings of Jesus as part of the Good News.

    But perhaps my biggest issue is that Reformed theology *seems* to produce God who not only allows evil, but perpetrates it.

    In this piece, you speak of God “allowing” evil and then “using” it for redemptive purposes. I don’t have a biblical or intuitive problem with that, not really. I tend to think of God as being in the resurrection business: taking all the ugly things that result from sin and bringing them back to life again in His ongoing work to restore and redeem the world.

    But Calvinism, it seems to me, goes from God working to redeem the ugly fallout from, say, the rape of a child, and puts God in the position of *causing* the rape of the child for His glory, working through the rapist to commit the act.

    I’m no expert on the Institutes, but my attention was drawn the other day to this selection:

    “Scripture, moreover, the better to show that every thing done in the world is according to his decree, declares that the things which seem most fortuitous are subject to him. For what seems more attributable to chance than the branch which falls from a tree, and kills the passing traveler? But the Lord sees very differently, and declares that he delivered him into the hand of the slayer.” 1.16.6

    “Let us suppose, for example, that a merchant, after entering a forest in company with trust-worthy individuals, imprudently strays from his companions and wanders bewildered till he falls into a den of robbers and is murdered. His death was not only foreseen by the eye of God, but had been fixed by his decree.” 1.16.9

    “As all contingencies whatsoever depend on it, therefore, neither thefts, nor adulteries, nor murders, are perpetrated without an interposition of the divine will.” 1.17.1

    “I concede more – that thieves and murderers, and other evil-doers, are instruments of divine providence, being employed by the Lord himself to execute the judgments which he has resolved to inflict. But I deny that this forms any excuse for their misdeeds. For how? Will they implicate God in the same iniquity with themselves, or will they cloak their depravity by his righteousness?” 1.17.5

    “Those whom the Lord favors not with the direction of his Spirit, he, by a righteous judgment, consigns to the agency of Satan.” 2.4.1

    This *seems* to put God in the position of making sin/destruction/evil happen. And indeed, we hear from John Piper and others after a natural disaster that God did it to punish people for their sin.

    I’ve often talked with Calvinists who tell me that “not a leaf falls from a tree without God making it fall.” When I respond with, “So are you also saying that not a woman is raped without God ordaining that rape to happen, without God moving the rapist like a chess piece to commit the act?” They tend to either get defensive and say that’s not what they believe, or, without even blinking respond “absolutely,” which bothers me.

    Anyway, since you’re one of the only Calvinists I can talk to without getting angry, and since you brought up the Problem of Evil today, help me out: In Calvinism, does God work through people to commit evil acts against other people? And how is his will, then, distinguished from Satan’s?


    • Okay, so your basic question, as I see it, is around God’s agency in ordaining, decreeing, bringing to pass evil and so forth. So, is God the author of evil?

      Part of the issue has to do, in my mind, with respecting the Creator/creature distinction. God is Creator–absolute, necessary, independent, and so forth. Everything else, including humans and their wills, are creation–dependent, contingent, and so forth. So, for me to even have being depends on God sustaining and upholding my existence and my will. There is is this doctrine of concurrence, where God, in a sense, has to allow my action by sustaining my being. With this in place, you start to realize that God’s activity and my activity are not operating on the same level all the time.

      This brings us to the idea of primary and secondary causality. God is the primary cause of everything. Without him, nothing would happen that does happen and nothing would exist that does exist. God does create anything that can get away from him, in that sense. The natural order, the laws of physics, our wills, etc. are secondary causes. That God is the primary cause of things does not deny the secondary causality of creatures. It just means that language about who caused what, who did what, and in what sense people are responsible becomes complicated. So, take another passage in Calvin that I have commented on elsewhere:

      Theologians, especially those concerned that God not be considered the author of evil, tend to make the distinction between God causing a thing to come to pass directly, or merely “permitting” it to come to pass. While elsewhere Calvin seems affirm a proper place for this distinction, he’s not too keen on those who would try to rob God of his sovereign governorship over all things by using the doctrine of permission to get God off the hook for human wickedness. Although they are fully responsible for their choices (Institutes I.17.2-3), not being compelled by some Stoic fate (ibid, I.16.8), men and women make the choices they make according to the “secret plan of God.” Calvin’s beef is with a permission that teaches “that men are borne headlong by blind motion unbeknown to God or with his acquiescence.” God providence does not admit of a passive permission in which he simply lets things happen, but rather it is active permission according to his own secret plan, for his own good will.

      “Calvin: From the first chapter of Job we know that Satan, no less than the angels who willingly obey, presents himself before God [Job 1:6; 2:1] to receive his commands. He does so, indeed, in a different way and with a different end; but he still cannot undertake anything unless God so wills. However, even though a bare permission to afflict the holy man seems then to be added, yet we gather that God was the author of that trial of which Satan and his wicked thieves were the ministers, because this statement is true: “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away; as it has pleased God, so is it done” [Job 1:2 ]. Satan desperately tries to drive the holy man insane; the Sabaeans cruelly and impiously pillage and make off with another’s possessions. Job recognizes that he was divinely stripped of all his property, and made a poor man, because it so pleased God. Therefore, whatever men or Satan himself may instigate, God nevertheless holds the key, so that he turns their efforts to carry out his judgments. -Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.18.1″

      The reason this passage was so fascinating to me was that it called my attention to a single instance where three wills were at work, each a key component in the action, and all for different purposes. At the human level we see the Sabaeans out of a simple human lust and wickedness pillaging and looting in order to satisfy their own desires. Satan was at work as well, goading the Sabaeans in order to afflict Job and cause him to curse God, thereby proving him wrong. God actively permitted Satan to goad the Sabaeans in order to, well, we don’t have the full reasons, but at the very least, prove Satan’s accusations wrong and vindicate the righteousness of his servant Job. The same event is the result of God’s good divine will and the two wicked wills, demonic and human. God is just in his determinations, and yet Satan and the Sabaeans are utterly wicked in theirs.

      This is not the way we’re used to thinking about things. Regularly we’d try and figure out, “Well, who’s really responsible here? Who caused it? It’s either God, or the devil, or humans, so which is it?” Or we’d try and parse it out and say that this part was God, this part was Satan, and this part was humans. That’s not what we see in the text, though. Instead, it seems to point us to God working out his own will through wicked demonic and human wills at the very same time.

      Calvin moves on to cite the stories of the lying spirit and King Ahab (1 Kings 22:20-22), Jesus’ death at the hands of Pilate and wicked men by the plan of God (Acts 2:23, 4:28), Jeremiah’s declaration that the Chaldean’s cruel invasion was God’s own work (Jeremiah 1:15; 7:14; 50:25), and a half-dozen other instances where human wickedness is also credited to God’s good purposes in history. As Calvin says, “Those who are moderately versed in the Scriptures see that for the sake of brevity I have put forward only a few of many testimonies.”

      I’ve wrestled myself for a number of years as to just how God’s sovereignty and our real, human freedom play out. Of course, the Scriptures don’t resolve this tension for us, nor does Calvin; they just let the it hang there. The conclusion I’ve come to is that both are in the Bible and any solution that too heavily pits the one against the other–either minimizing or limiting God’s control, foreknowledge, & so forth, or those hyper-Calvinists who would call all human freedom a chimera–are reading against the grain of the text. None of this is an answer, of course. I still go back and forth between a more deterministic conception of compatibilism, Molinism, and something I don’t think I really have a name for.”

      In a sense, yes, I think all of history is determined, at one level, from God’s decree–even our free, sinful actions. There are some troubling corollaries to this, I agree. But this is why I think it’s so important to read this all through the character of God through the Cross. God is not arbitrary in his decrees. He is the unfathomably good who decreed to come himself and die for rebellious sinners. I read the rest of his decrees through that decree, then.

      The other thing that I struggle with is, what’s the alternative? A God who just lets things happen? Just because? Like, sure he can fix it, but it seems terrible to me to suggest that a child gets kidnapped, or a woman is terrorized, or a young father dies at 30 just because God is finicky about finagling with free will. I mean, really, God allowed that for no specific reason? It’s just pointless evil? Because that’s the thing–even if he fixes it, if he didn’t have a reason for allowing it in the first place, it’s just terrifying to me.

      There’s another post on the subject using C.S. Lewis and the story of Joseph that is relevant as well:

      “First, it is not that moral evil or evil events are just good not yet understood. We don’t want to deny the evil of evil, especially of sinful human actions. At the human level, we can say of those things that God condemns them as wicked and they ought not be done. Again, Judas is morally blameworthy and an evil individual for betraying Jesus. God disapproves of his actions. They are really and truly evil.

      At the same time, on another level the existence of these evils is morally-justified even if we cannot see the moral justification currently, with respect to God. In the case of Judas and the Cross, God used Judas’ wickedness to accomplish his good divine intention. Judas is evil in his action. God is not because he had a good enough reason for allowing this evil to occur.”

      Though lengthy I know this isn’t a full answer. I think my favorite long take on stuff so far is Tim Keller’s latest book “Walking with God through Pain and Suffering” that tackles some of these issue.

      I hope this helps, Rachel!


      • This is where it seems to me like Calvinists are micromanaging God by making God out to be the micro-manager of the universe. It’s weird because sometimes you guys seem like nominalists, but other times you’re actually in the opposite camp, just with a set of universals that are different than saying God is perfect beauty, truth, and goodness. It’s more of a Nietzschean set of universals like God is perfect power, volition, and glory or something. When it comes to tragedies, I guess I end up being more of a nominalist in saying shit happens and I’m sure not going to try to explain it, but I choose to believe that God hates what hurts the people that he loves and that he uses turns all of our ugliness into beauty through Jesus’ cross. I’m not concerned about preserving the logical consistency of my theology as much as I am about using a theologia crucis to provide pastoral care. I’m not going to pat a person with a terminal cancer diagnosis on the back and say, “Be comforted in knowing that this is part of God’s plan and you’ll understand one day in heaven how silly and myopic it is for you to be sad right now.” I’m going to say instead simply, “Jesus bleeds with you,” because the cross to me is half solidarity, half atonement. Michael Gorman really got me seeing God’s sovereignty over the universe as analogous to Christ’s sovereignty on the cross: a creator who is the initiator of the created reality by which he is being constantly crucified. I think we’ve undermined the message of the cross when we bifurcate God’s presence in the cross into a “strong” God who’s “in control” hiding in the clouds above a “weak” God who has “lost control.” Jesus is in control on the cross; God is in control through Jesus; the nature of that control is “weakness” and “foolishness” to the pagans who want a god that’s in charge the way that Caesar is in charge. I don’t need to defend a God whose sovereignty is cruciform from any philosophical critique of evil existing in the universe because the way that my cruciform God conquers evil is by bleeding on it.

      • This was helpful, Derek. Thank you. I appreciate the nuance you bring to this conversation. I especially appreciate that you acknowledge that Scripture doesn’t resolve this tension for us. I totally agree, and I’ve never in my life heard a Calvinist say that. It’s really refreshing. And thank you, truly, for not questioning my commitment to my faith because of these questions; it can be exhausting and disheartening to be accused of pride when engaging in conversations like these.

        Just a few thoughts in response:

        As you of course know, there are equal number of biblical stories/references in which God is surprise, impressed, grieved by human decisions, and saddened by sin. There are instances in which God tests people and engages with people as though their free will is *real*, not merely an illusion. So, it seems to me, we can load up on Bible verses either way and either fight one another with them, or we can concede that perhaps we’re not dealing with absolute determinism on the one hand or absolute free will on the other, which I think is what you are suggesting here. I love Greg Boyd’s work on a lot of things, but I’m not quite an Open Theist. Not quite. 🙂 But I do like how he frames things as God knowing and responding to all possible outcomes in order to accomplish his ultimate purpose while still preserving the free will of his creation. I don’t see that as a weak or impotent God. (His answers to Christina and Sonja were fascinating when we did “Ask An Open Theist”: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/ask-open-theist-greg-boyd-response)

        That said, (and this is the age-old debate which will likely not be resolved in a comment section), I have a hard time understanding (from Scripture and from experience) how love can be true or real if it does not involve some degree of free will. If everything down to our salvation has been ordained by God, if God chooses who will love Him and who will reject Him, if love does not involve some degree of *risk* and indeed *vulnerability*, it’s not really love. It’s coercion. We are but robots, programmed to do what God wants us to do. Programmed to kill. Programmed to rape. Programmed to accept God. Programmed to reject God. There’s no real relationship there. And I can’t shake the idea – from Scripture, tradition, experience, all of it – that what God wants with His creation is real relationship. And for a relationship to be real, I think there has to be some sort of risk involved, some sort of freedom. And I guess that’s what the cross and the resurrection mean to me: not that God is simply sending people through the motions to accomplish his purposes, but that God loves the world enough to become a part of it and to be rejected by it. And that God can turn even that ultimate rejection into something beautiful, something good, something resurrected and new. It’s about God Himself suffering from evil and overcoming that evil with good.

        So I guess I’m just not convinced that “men and women make the choices they make according to the ‘secret plan of God.'” I can’t get on board with the idea that my friend was raped as part of the ‘secret plan of God’ or that that kid I really connected with through my sister’s ministry in India died of AIDS because of the ‘secret plan of God’ or that, according to some Calvinists, because he was Hindu, that little boy will suffer for all of eternity at the hand of a rage-filled God because of the ‘secret plan of God’ that sealed his fate before he was even born.

        Your position, even with some nuance, seems to suggest that God functions with an end-justifies-the-means morality. In other words, God has a plan and if some people (or entire people groups) have to be raped or molested or exterminated or predestined to hell in order to accomplish that plan, then so be it. They are just collateral damage. That’s probably not what you’re meaning to say, I really struggle with this view when I consider the fact that the “troubling corollaries” to which you refer are actual people – with faces and names. So I guess when I see language about God “meaning something for good,” I interpret it to mean God working within his creation, which has true free will, to make all things work together for good, even the bad things that are result of our sinfulness and rejection of God.

        A more deterministic approach actually seems to weaken God in my mind. It boxes him into his own plan because it seems to assume he not clever or omniscient enough to respond to human beings with actual free will. It assumes sovereignty means control, rather than rule. But what if God can rule the world without controlling it? What if God can maintaing His “sovereign governship over all things” without coercion or control?

        Perhaps I misunderstood. This is complicated stuff. And sometimes I feel we’ve all overstepped our bounds thinking we can figure out exactly how God works. 🙂

        I know I’m no philosopher or theologian…just reporting on how this sounds to someone “sitting in the pews.” Thanks so much for engaging me

      • Rachel,

        Yes, I can see where you’re coming from and I’ve had a number of those same concerns myself. I’ve read Boyd and I know about the “surprise” passages as well–not that you’re saying I didn’t. Umm, I’ll say a couple of things with the understanding that this is a blog comment. 🙂

        1. I think your portrayal of the situation is falling into the either/or that I’m trying to avoid, and I think is denied by Scripture. I don’t think that it’s either God is totally sovereign, OR you and I have “real” free will. I think the Biblical texts tell us we have real freedom and responsibility and at the same time God is sovereign over all things. There are a number of texts that point in that direction, and I think on that understanding you get all of the sovereignty texts AND all of the “freedom”:texts.

        In fact, I think I would say that positions like Boyd’s actually put God into a box. God can’t intervene or he’ll screw up our free will. Either God is in control in a situation or we freely did it. Either freedom works the way I think is intuitive, or God is a wicked puppetmaster. Scripture screws with our categories at this point and says you can’t fit God into your understanding of love and freedom. He’s beyond that. He created and upholds the cosmos. His relation to it is sui generis–unique in kind.

        So, on the Scriptures–I see that language as analogical. It is expressing something real in God–his relational judgment about something–but not literalistlcally. Kind of like language about God’s “arm” is an analogical statement about his strength, language about God’s disappointment or surprise at sin isn’t a straightforward statement about God’s learning some new fact he didn’t see coming. It’s an analogical narrative-depiction of his moral/affective judgment of the situation.

        Again, you go through this list of horrible events–truly horrible–and I want to ask, “So God just let them happen? He didn’t have any purpose in allowing them? She died for no reason? He let her get raped because–*no* plan?” Or, even worse, “Wait, you’re telling me he was waiting to see what would happen?” That’s no comfort to me. That’s tragic in a way that I have a real problem with.

        Again, I can’t quite handle all of these issues in a blog comment, but that’s some of what I’d say.

        On the issue of a Reformed view of freedom and bondage of the will, I’d suggest J. Todd Billings’ “Union with Christ.” I think you’d get a real kick out of that book. He’s really irenic and catholic-minded.

        Thanks for the exchange! Gotta go prep to preach now!

    • I don’t think it’s helpful to frame the discussion in the context of the Institutes. I went to a Calvinistic Bible college, and not one of my professors ever tried to argue for Calvinism from Calvin himself. There are significant portions of Scripture that are rendered nearly unintelligible unless you understand them to teach that God is in absolute control over all the events of history.
      Here’s one thing to consider as well: Regardless of your feeling about “Calvinism,” it’s impossible to escape a conclusion of “God working through people to commit evil acts against other people” when it comes to the Cross and Atonement. The Bible CLEARLY teaches that Christ was condemend and murdered because it was God’s plan and God’s decree that he should die. And the Bible is also clear that Jesus died at the hands of lawless men committing an unspeakable evil. So the question then becomes: Looking at the cross of Christ, is it really impossoble that God can sovereignly ordain a wicked thing to take place for a redemptive purpose? In fact, not only is it possible, it is absolutely essential.

      • I think that the cross is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us. God’s plan was to love the world no matter what it cost. And God knew it would cost Him much. The cross is the inevitable outcome of God becoming flesh and living among His creation. So I think the cross can be part of God’s plan without God coercing people to commit evil acts.

    • Thanks for that Rachel.
      I really struggle with this same issue. Evil is no biggie- but what about those that calvinism tells us are created with NO hope of SALVATION
      I know Jesus so my heart is easy as to God’s Justice and Grace even though certain passages of Scripture which seem to suggest total predestination continue to perplex my simple mind.

  4. A very concise and good initial defense.

    I Your second point brings up two critical ideas:
    1) The world that possesses evil is primarily the human world (not simply the material world)
    2) The human world is evil because humans are sinful and rebellious.

    Because of the whole science vs. religion culture that has emerged, this question has been largely construed in terms of why the Christian God doesn’t exist. But isn’t the larger divide about the nature of the problem?

  5. God made humans in His image–gave us free will.
    For free will to exist, there had to be an option to disobey.
    God warned that disobedience would have terrible consequences.
    It does. What’s so hard to understand about that?

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  7. Have you read or heard of Dr. Bruce Little’s (of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) Creation-Order Theodicy? Although it doesn’t provide an answer to every question (he doesn’t intend it to), it’s an interesting theodicy that stems from his Molinist viewpoints. It at least exposes some of the faults of a pure “Greater-Good Theodicy.” By pure I mean a theodicy that generally proposes that “God only allows those evils that by which He brings a greater good or prevents a worse evil.” It’s a short read, called “God, Why This Evil?” Just throwing out that book suggestion!

    • Hey, thanks for “throwing it out there”! I love book recommends. Sounds interesting. I’ve had long-standing Molinist sympathies, so I’d probably like it even if I end up disagreeing.


  8. To appeal to the reality of evil (bad things) we must appeal to an absolute moral standard. This why Paul said that the Gentiles have written on their own hearts the law of God (Romans 2:14-16). Therefore the moral argument for God is very strong. Also, love must be free, never forced. Every human being must honestly acknowledge this reality in our own relationships (marriage, children, friendship, worship of God). It is a beautiful thing that God would work out His redemptive plan by using human instruments that had free moral capabilities. Because of the gospel (death, burial and resurrection of Christ) those of us who are in Christ know and trust that God can and will ultimately work “all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called to His purposes” (Romans 8:28).

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  11. Bumped into this quote today that made me think of this post and thread:

    “God is all-powerful. God is all-good. Terrible things happen. You can reconcile any two of these propositions with each other, but you can’t reconcile all three. Christianity ultimately offers no theoretical solution at all. It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene – not even this – but that God can turn it to good.”

    – Fred Buechner

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  17. When your emotions are raw from suffering, sometimes the only thing that helps is to intellectual repeat these truths to yourself. At least, that’s how it works for me.

    Thank you so much for this!

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