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Thoughts on The Problem of Evil and Suffering (Part 1)

Thoughts on The Problem of Evil and Suffering (Part 1)

By Jeff Williams
Special to Virtueonline
February 13, 2021

One of the greatest obstacles to faith for both believers and unbelievers is the problem of the existence of evil and suffering. Albert Mohler rightly says that "The problem of evil and suffering is undoubtedly the greatest theological challenge we face." Some form of this concern seems to be uppermost in the minds of most serious thinkers, in both cynics and atheists seeking reasons to disprove God, and in faithful Christians perplexed as to why an omnipotent, omniscient, good God can allow evil and suffering to exist. In secular literature, perhaps the most famous verbal exchange on this topic can be found in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, between Ivan and Alyosha:

"There was a little girl of five who was hated by her father and mother, 'most worthy and respectable people, of good education and breeding'. . . This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty--shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, . . . They smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child's groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can't even understand what's done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her?"

Even the most hardened cynic cannot help but feel a mixture of indignation and rage upon reading such an account, even though it is from a work from fiction. In the novel, Ivan is the hardened cynic and Alyosha is the man of faith; the context of the book shows that both were raised with, and quite knowledgeable of, the Christian worldview. Before Ivan describes the situation related above, Dostoyevsky takes pains to show, Ivan was seemingly gleeful in anticipation of presenting that and other similar atrocities to Alyosha as his "Exhibit A" why skepticism was reasonable: "'Dear little brother, I don't want to corrupt you or to turn you from your stronghold...'
Ivan smiled suddenly quite like a little gentle child. Alyosha had never seen such a smile on his face before."

Like Alyosha in the novel, the average true believer often finds himself mute, embarrassed, and frustrated because he is unable to efficaciously refute such seeming logic. Before his untimely death in our generation, brilliant apologist Greg Bahnsen said "This is thought by many to be the most difficult of all the problems which apologists face, not only because of the apparent logical difficulty within the Christian outlook, but because of the personal perplexity which any sensitive human being will feel when confronted with the terrible misery and wickedness that can be found in the world."

In the above vignette, we see encapsulated one of the favorite arguments of the unbeliever: (1) The Christian God is alleged to be omniscient, therefore he knows everything; (2) the Christian God is alleged to be omnipotent, therefore he can do or prevent anything; (3) the Christian God is alleged to be good, loving, and caring; (4) therefore, why is it that great evil and suffering clearly exist? Either God is not all-powerful, or he is not all-knowing, or he is not good and loving. According to this faulty syllogism, the Christian worldview, it seems, is logically incoherent. As Scottish philosopher David Hume put the argument, "Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?" This is not just an academic matter for philosophical ratiocination on some trivial point of cosmology; this is a critical, major weapon in the arsenal of Satan in attacking faith in unbelievers, and it must be answered thoroughly and competently.

This misapprehension of the true character of God is not only useful in spreading skepticism; it can be a great hindrance to the faith of believers. Even so eminent a Christian exponent as prolific philosopher C. S. Lewis was initially emotionally devastated by the death of his wife, writing, "Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms ... But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside." Eventually, Lewis came to recognize that God is indeed kind and loving in all of our sufferings. If even such a thinker as C. S. Lewis can have such a reaction to suffering, how much more does that prove that the average Christian is vulnerable to misapprehension, and is in need of our help?

First, believers in Christ with an inadequate Christian worldview may incorrectly assume that evil and suffering in the life of a Christian is unnecessary and unneeded, and that if evil and sufferings come, (1) something has gone wrong, or (2) God is unfair, or (3) God does not care about them. This may even lead them to envy the wicked, supposing that it has been fruitless to follow the Lord and seek righteousness. Second, believers may find this flawed line of logic troubling, if not greatly distressing, leading them to wonder about (or even to doubt) the goodness and kindness of God. So, again, it is imperative that this line of argumentation be refuted, for the sake of believers and unbelievers alike.

The extensive literature available in researching this topic is generally found under the heading of "The Problem of Evil," which includes a wide range of sub-topics, involving such subjects as definitions of evil, ontological justifications for morality, theories of the nexus between moral evil and suffering, whether God is the creator or author of evil, and many more. Due to space considerations, we shall only give a general introduction to the subject of evil and suffering in this article.

Mohler says, "We should note that the problem of evil and suffering, the theological issue of theodicy, is customarily divided into evil of two kinds, moral and natural." He includes the incident of the tower falling mentioned in Luke as an example of both kinds of evil. By "natural suffering" this article has reference to undesirable occurrences not caused directly by human actions or inactions, such as disease, parasites, tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, venomous animal bites, and the like. Robert Velarde says, "What about natural evil? Couldn't there be less suffering? Why doesn't God stop things like earthquakes and tsunamis? . . . this ties into the broad Christian explanation of the human predicament. Paradise has been lost due to human moral shortcomings. As a result, we live in a fallen world . . . 'We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time" (Romans 8:22, NIV).'" Referring to both moral and natural sin and suffering, David Jenkins says that "The reason suffering exists is because we live in a post-Genesis 3 world, where the creation is cursed and people are under bondage to sin." Natural suffering incudes not only situations such as those just mentioned, but also many others, such as animals suffering a torturous death in forest fires, etc. Other than this brief mention, the length of this article does not allow for any meaningful coverage of natural sufferings; hence. it shall not attempt to deal with the category of natural sufferings, but only with human physical and emotional suffering.

Before commencing a discussion of the problem of evil and suffering, an important theological term must be defined. A "theodicy" (from the Greek qeos, "god" + δίκη, "justice"), is an "explanation of why a perfectly good, almighty, and all-knowing God permits evil. The term literally means "justifying God." A theodicy, then, is, in effect, a defense of God's goodness and righteousness in consideration of the fact that evil and/or suffering are present in the world.



1 Albert Mohler, "The Goodness of God and the Reality of Evil" (blog), August 30, 2005, http://www.albertmohler.com/2005/08/30/the-goodness-of-god-and-the-reality-of-evil/.

2 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book V, Chapter 4 (Project Gutenberg EBook #28054, 2009), 264-265.

3 Dostoevsky, 259.

4 Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2011), 139.

5 David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Nelson Pike (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Publications, 1981), 88. Quoted in Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2011), 139.

6 C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Bantam Books, 1961), 4.

7 "For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked" (Ps. 73:3, KJV); "And now we call the proud happy; yea, they that work wickedness are set up; yea, they that tempt God are even delivered" (Malachi 3:15, KJV).

8 "Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency. For all the day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning" (Ps. 73:13-14, KJV); "14 Ye have said, It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the Lord of hosts?" (Malachi 3:14, KJV).

9 Mohler, n.p.

10 "Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:4-5, ESV).

11 Robert Velarde, "How Can God Allow So Much Evil and Suffering?" January 1, 2009, https://www.focusonthefamily.com/faith/how-can-god-allow-so-much-evil-and-suffering/.

12 Jenkins, David. "The Sovereignty of God: How Suffering and Justice Meet" (blog), August 20, 2017, n.p., https://servantsofgrace.org/the-problem-of-evil-in-the-book-of-job/.

13 Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. "theodicy," accessed October 2, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/theodicy-theology.

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