jQuery Slider

You are here

Thoughts on The Problem of Evil and Suffering (Part 3) -- Final

Thoughts on The Problem of Evil and Suffering (Part 3) -- Final

By J. Jeffrey Williams
Special to Virtueonline
March 22, 2021

While such thinking is definitely part of many evangelicals' worldview, the fatal flaw is that it is not really an effective theodicy at all. First, it does not in any way vindicate God at all, since man, and not God, is essentially on the throne. Second, it in no way answers any of the various objections many people have to God's utter sovereignty. MacArthur continues,

If God has limited power or doesn't have complete knowledge, the universe is out of control at the most crucial point. And if God is not truly omniscient, how can anyone know for certain whether He will ever accumulate the knowledge He needs to curb the effects of evil and conquer it once and for all? Why would anyone prefer a God trying to get control of evil rather than a God completely in control of it? It's heresy to say the world is full of evil apart from a predetermined plan and purpose of God.
C. S. Lewis well described this situation when he famously wrote, The ancient man approached God...as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being the God who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God's acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God is in the Dock.

So, despite the many Christian features of this worldview, it, too, fails to produce an adequate theodicy, or adequately answer many basic questions.

Divine Mystery. An extremely common evangelical approach to the problem of evil and suffering is to simply say that the causes are unknowable in God's inscrutable ways. This side of the eschaton, that is in fact frequently true; the problem comes when the Evangelical apologist does not dig any deeper, and is prematurely satisfied with that simplistic answer. As John MacArthur says, "They believe the only good option available to them is to punt--to kick the argument as far away as possible. They might quote Deuteronomy 29:29, which says, "The secret things belong to the Lord our God." Even so sagacious a theologian as Mohler seems to fall back on this way of thinking:

We cannot explain why God has allowed sin, but we understand that God's glory is more perfectly demonstrated through the victory of Christ over sin. We cannot understand why God would allow sickness and suffering, but we must affirm that even these realities are rooted in sin and its cosmic effects . . . we cannot speak of God's decree in a way that would imply Him to be the author of evil, and we cannot fall back to speak of His mere permission, as if this allows a denial of His sovereignty and active will . . . There is much we do not understand. As Charles Spurgeon explained, when we cannot trace God's hand, we must simply trust His heart.

This theodicy is good in and of itself, but it still does not get down to the philosophical roots of the situation, as will be shown later in this article. Another good example of the Divine Mystery approach is in British Anglican theologian N. T. Wright's discussion of sin and suffering in Evil and the Justice of God, as reviewed by D. A. Carson: "The Bible gives us very little explanation [emphasis mine] but devotes itself to 'telling the story of what God has done, is doing and will do about evil.' Wright begins with the call of Abraham . . . and works back through the tower of Babel and the flood to Eden. In each case Wright detects severe judgment and a display of mercy. But going forward, the call of Abraham . . . ends in a people who are no less a part of the problem. With the dawn of the new covenant, failures even among the disciples are mentioned, such as Jesus addressing Satan through Peter and the betrayal of Judas. Carson continues to show how Wright explains things:

The Gospels are also the story of how God's long-term plan from Abraham through to the time of Jesus . . . finally came to fruition (83) . . . with the resurrection of Jesus, the destruction of the effects of sin in corruption and death are already being reversed, in anticipation of the last day, when they will be totally reversed--as much in the political and public spheres as in the personal sphere. Already God's people are to participate in that reversal."

Sproul says likewise:

We know that the force of evil is extraordinary and brings great pain and suffering into the world. We also know that God is sovereign over it and in His sovereignty will not allow evil to have the last word. Evil always and ever serves the ultimate best interest of God Himself. It is God in His goodness and in His sovereignty, who has ordained the final conquest over evil and its riddance from His universe. In this redemption we find our rest and our joy -- and until that time, we live in a fallen world.

Despite the relative shallowness of this popular evangelical approach, it can definitely be said that besides providing a moderately satisfying theodicy, it provides a full-orbed agreement with the doctrines of God's omniscience and sovereignty. There is no waffling or equivocation, or vain attempts to explain away God's ontological attributes. In addition, this view gives full faith and credit to the reality of the eschaton, recognizing that God is changing his redeemed people from day to day, and will eventually set all things right.

Some Purposes of God in Suffering in the Believer

Temporarily taking leave of the discussion of various worldviews in accounting for human suffering, it can be said with certainty that there are numerous biblical hints and statements as to at least some of the reasons of God for allowing suffering in the life of the believer. Some of these shall now be briefly discussed.

Suffering as a Test of Fidelity. Answering God's leading question, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is none on earth like him," Satan refuses to accept that Job's motives for serving God are unselfish: "Does Job fear God for nothing?" What follows is a lengthy period of testing and trials (regarding which, more shall be written presently), perpetrated by the malice of the tempter, restrained only by God's will for Job to live. Since God is omniscient and knew all that would happen, including Job's later restoration, it must be that Job was being tested as a display of God's graciousness to the heavenly host, as well as to provide an example and teaching tool for all who would later read the book of Job.

Suffering as a Form of Discipline. The Scriptures make it clear that troubles and suffering can be a means of grace to help us grow. For example, Psalm 119:71, "It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes" (ESV). Also consider the threefold biblical admonition regarding chastening: Job 5:17, "Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty;" Proverbs 3:11, "My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord; neither be weary of his correction;" and Hebrews 12:5, "And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him" (all KJV).

Suffering to Give Believers the Opportunity to Earn Greater Eternal Rewards. The book of Hebrews specifically tells us that sometimes God allows human suffering in order to give greater glory as a reward in the world to come: Heb. 11:35, "others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection" (KVJ) (5 in a purpose clause in Greek). Sproul enlarges on this:

The Christian life is a life that embraces the sacrament of baptism, which signifies, among other things, that we are baptized into the death, humiliation, and the afflictions of Jesus Christ. We are warned in Scripture that if we are not willing to embrace those afflictions, then we will not participate in Jesus' exaltation. The Christian faith baptizes a person not only into pain, but also into the resurrection of Christ. Whatever pain we experience in this world may be acute, but it is always temporary . . . [God] gave a promise to His people that there will be a time when pain will be no more.

Along the same lines, Greg Koukl notes that

Paul tells Timothy that '. . . godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come' (1 Tim. 4:8) . . . conditions in this life affect conditions in the next. Bearing up under evil in this life improves our resurrection in the next. Godliness in this life brings profit in the next. These benefits are not available after this life or there would be little urgency to grow now; all eternity would be left in which to catch up.

If Christians discipline themselves to keep their eyes on the future and not the present, the promise of a "better resurrection" can serve as a great incentive to godly living, and thus a more real Christian worldview, keeping in mind the scriptural admonition that we are "heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together;" "If we suffer, we shall also reign with him." Sharing in the sufferings of Christ is a rarely-taught concept among evangelicalism today, but a critical part of continuing godliness: "But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy" (1 Peter 4:13, KJV).

Suffering to Get Our Attention. God can and does order events and sufferings in his perfect will in such a way as to awaken and engage us. For example, in John 9:1-3, the disciples ask Jesus about a man congenitally born blind: "And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered; Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." Jesus then heals the man, whereupon his neighbors disputed whether and how his eyes had been opened, giving him a glorious opportunity to relate to them that Jesus had indeed healed him. In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus gives two particularly grisly examples from current events (Pilate's butchering of some Galileans, and the fatal collapse of a tower in Siloam) as a means of grabbing his listeners' attention, and warning them to repent.

Suffering as a Means to Ultimate Good, Possibly Including Our Own Personal Good. Michael Horton gives an excellent summary of the meaning of Romans 8:28:

"God works all things together for good" for his people. It doesn't say that all things are good or that trials are always disciplinary. It just says that whatever befalls us, God has a plan . . . sickness, disease, prolonged battles of various kinds--are just the result of living in a fallen world. But these aren't just random accidents. God never allows any trial that he hasn't already figured out how to turn to our profit . . . We might contract a lethal disease, just like anyone else. But the difference is that we have a greater hope: not of prolonging our life as children of the flesh, but of the resurrection of the dead at Christ's bodily return . . . we have the promise that this life is just a vapor, a mist that fades quickly in any case. We have a home with the Triune God forever, in a joyful feast that never ends.

Romans 8:28 is as close to a generic, all-situations-are-covered comfort-text (as opposed to merely a proof-text) as one could hope to find between the covers of the Book.

An Excursus on the Book of Job

Since this article is dealing with the realities of valid theistic worldviews, it might be good to take a brief sidetrack involving some observations on the book of Job before presenting the final recommended apologetic for consideration. Every Bible reader is familiar with Job's "three miserable comforters." These three attempt to defend God's justice, at times running roughshod over Job's motives, feelings, and circumstances. God in the end tells them, "You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has" (42:7 ESV). As Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar used seemingly rational argumentation, it seems that Job perhaps "serves more as a critique of theodicy than a source of theodicy." Why is it that the Almighty is displeased with their evidently sincerely-intended theodicies, whereas Job, who has no answer as to why he is suffering, is commended?

The first one to speak, Eliphaz, assumes Job prima facie must be living in (or covering) sin: "Who that was innocent ever perished?" Starting fairly gently, by the third time he speaks, he harshly insults and accuses Job, going so far as to arrogantly claim that he is speaking for God: "Receive, I pray thee, the law from his mouth" (Job 22:22, KJV). Not surprisingly, God is not impressed with him.

Next, Bildad presents his theodicy, seeking to show through historical examples and other logic that if Job will simply repent, God will restore him: "Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?" Bildad's frustration increases as Job steadfastly maintains his integrity.

Finally, Zophar, like the others, seeks to justify God by maintaining that Job is an unrepentant sinner, making no significant effort to justify God other than his arrogant assertion, which he expects Job to accept, prating on him with hateful words and finally refusing to even answer him in the end.

In striking contrast, Jenkins points out that

The Lord's answer to Job out of the whirlwind could be called autotheodicy. 'Who is this that darkens counsel,' he asks, 'by words without knowledge?" (38:2 ESV). As God begins to question Job, He reveals Job's ignorance and limitations of understanding: 'Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?' (38:4 ESV) . . . God's answer to Job is designed to emphasize man's utter weakness and inability to comprehend the things of God.

Job finally humbly confesses his ignorance and throws himself even more fully upon the mercy of God. In the end, as in the case of Joseph's troubles before his exaltation, it seems that God ordained that Job face his trials for God's own glory, to show forth Job's righteous reactions to suffering before both men and angels.

A Recommended Apologetic

A very full and thorough apologetic is available to the believer which explains evil and suffering, though it will not likely be acceptable to or understandable by any but a repentant unbeliever. As was already explained supra, the Christian worldview seems utterly incoherent and illogical to the skeptical unbeliever: the logic that it is simultaneously true that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and good and loving, yet willingly allows (or causes) evil and human suffering, seems like a contradictory absurdity. As Greg Bahnsen says, "When the unbeliever looks at this unhappy 'vale of tears,' he or she feels there is a strong reason to doubt the goodness of God. Why should there be so much misery? Why should it be distributed in such a seemingly unjust fashion? Is this what you would permit, if you were God and could prevent it?"

Worse, many Christian apologeticians, in their zeal to vindicate God, engage the skeptic on the wrong playing field. In effect, they conceive of their task as counterbalancing the skeptics' arguments against the goodness of God with a setting forth of arguments affirming the goodness of God; as Bahnsen says, "It is as though believers profess God's goodness, but then unbelievers have their counterexamples. Who makes the best case from the facts around us? The problem is presented (inaccurately) as a matter of who has weightier evidence on his side of the disagreement." Sproul in effect concedes the game when he says, "While we cannot explain the existence of evil, that is no reason for us to disregard the positive evidence for good."

At a far deeper level, the profoundly unsettling problem which the skeptic has with the Christian worldview must be resolutely and decisively faced: he thinks it consists of a logically flawed argument. God cannot be good and caring, he thinks, if he is simultaneously (1) omnipotent, (2) omniscient, and yet allows evil and suffering. But this faulty presumption must be turned on its head, for it is the skeptic who is logically inconsistent. In fact, the skeptic cannot even logically present his argument without accepting biblical ontological presumptions.

When the skeptic refers to whether the evil and suffering which God allows is good or bad, he is presuming that he, and he alone, is privileged to define what "good" is. If one begins from a pagan worldview, assuming that man evolved from primordial ooze as an accident of an unchanging universe (or, worse, an unexplained "Big Bang"), then, in effect, all human conceptions of what "good" is are epistemological irrelevancies; no Lawgiver having set ontological realities in stone, and humans being merely advanced evolved animals, there is no standard of right and wrong other than the subjective mind of the unbeliever. As Velarde says,

On what basis is something deemed evil? If there is some moral standard the critic is basing their position on, then the problem of evil becomes an argument for not against the reality of God. After all, in order to call something good or evil, there must be an underlying standard of right and wrong. Theists argue that this standard is rooted in God and His nature. We know His moral law exists so we recognize the reality of evil and suffering. But unless there is a moral standard, we have no real basis for calling anything good or evil.

The communist and the modern American Left think that "good" is the ruthless suppression and gulaging of anything or anyone that interferes with Marxist dreams of the future; the Nazi thought that "good" is the mass murder of Jews and other groups, and the subjugation of all remaining races to the alleged "master race." The modern-day Antifa thugs think that it is "good" to destroy all non-collective and capitalistic civilization, including the random destruction of hard-working poor minorities' businesses. A man without the realities of God written in his heart (or who suppresses the same) has no reasonable means for determining what "good" is, having thus cast away the only ontologically objective measure. If one cannot rationally define "good," then one cannot correspondingly define "evil," whether it be seen as the lack of good or the antithesis of good. "Good" is certainly not what a political movement believes, or a given social group believes, or certainly not what some individual cooks up in their own cogitations, apart from a Lawgiver. Bahnsen observes that in order to be logically coherent,

it is crucial to the unbeliever's case against Christianity to be in a position to assert that there is evil in the world--to point to something and have the right to evaluate it as an instance of evil. If it should be the case that nothing evil exists or ever happens--that is, what people initially believe to be evil cannot reasonably be deemed "evil"--then there is nothing inconsistent with Christian theology which requires an answer.

So, then, if an unbeliever is going to logically criticize the Christian worldview paradigm of reality, he first must explain how and why his opinions as to "good" and "evil" are anything more than random synapses in an evolved amoral brain with no credible moral standards available to guide it. Sproul concurs here:

Augustine argues that though Christians face the difficulty of explaining the presence of evil in the universe, the pagan has a problem that is twice as difficult. Before one can even have a problem of evil, one must first have an antecedent existence of the good. Those who complain about the problem of evil now also have the problem of defining the existence of the good. Without God there is no ultimate standard for the good.

Taking a similar position, Bahnsen states that "Thus the problem of evil is precisely a philosophical problem for unbelief. Unbelievers would be required to appeal to the very thing against which they argue (a divine, transcendent sense of ethics) in order for their argument to be warranted." Bahnsen finally concludes that

When the Christian observes evil events or things in the world, he can and should retain consistency with his presupposition about God's goodness by now inferring that God has a morally good reason for the evil that exists. God certainly must be all-powerful in order to be God; He is not to be thought of as overwhelmed or stymied by evil in the universe. And God is surely good, the Christian will profess--so any evil we find must be compatible with God's goodness. This is just to say that God has planned evil events for reasons which are morally commendable and good.

In other words, all logical incoherence in the Christian worldview comes to an end if we add to our list of propositions: not only is God omnipotent, omniscient, good and caring, and not only do evil and suffering exist, but one more proposition must be added to one's Christian worldview, namely that God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists.

One would think that the horrible evils and sufferings of child abuse, rape, torture, etc. would give even the hardened skeptic pause when alleging that "everything is relative." That is a very slippery, plastic standard on which to build one's logical cogitations, let alone lifestyle; if there is indeed such a thing as "natural" or "intrinsic" good, then whence cometh such a standard? Is there some external ontological source for morality? If so, does not the skeptic have a moral duty to seek after it pertinaciously? God says, "I have not spoken in secret, in a dark place of the earth: I said not unto the seed of Jacob, Seek ye me in vain: I the Lord speak righteousness, I declare things that are right." One need not be a Hebrew scholar or a skilled exegete to read, contemplate, understand, and joyfully embrace Isaiah 55:6-7: "Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon" (KJV). Even a cursory reading of John 5:39 will open God's gracious promises: "Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me" (KJV). Finally, one must consider carefully God's own appointed starting point for faith: "But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him" (Hebrews 11:6, KJV).


1. Ibid.

2. C. S. Lewis, God In the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 244.

3. MacArthur, n.p.

4. Mohler, n.p.

5. Carson, D. A. "Review of Wright, N. T., Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006)." The Review of Biblical Literature, 2007. https://www.bookreviews.org/pdf/5581_5877.pdf

6. "But he turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man'" (Mt. 16:23, ESV).

7. Carson, n.p.

8. Sproul, n.p.

9. "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." (2 Cor. 3:18, ESV).

10. "But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create . . . and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying" "(Isa. 65:1819, KJV); "And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away" (Rev. 21:4, KJV).

11. Job 1:8.

12. Ibid., 1:9.

13. "But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face. And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD" (Job 1:11-12, KJV).

14. Sproul, n.p.

15. Greg Koukl, "Augustine on Evil," Stand to Reason (Blog), December 20, 2012, n.p. https://www.str.org/w/augustine-on-evil-1.

16. Rom. 8:17.

17. 2 Tim. 2:12.

18. Michael Horton, "What Every Christian Needs to Know about Evil and suffering" (blog), September 18, 2018, n.p. https://corechristianity.com/resource-library/articles/what-every-christian-needs-to-know-about-evil-and-suffering/.

19. Jenkins. n.p.

20. Job 4:7.

21. Job 8:3.

22. Jenkins, n.p.

23. Bahnsen, 136.

24. Bahnsen, 138-139.

25. R.C. Sproul, Objections Answered (Glendale, CA: Regal Books, G/L Publications, 1978), 129; quoted in Bahnsen,139.

26. Velarde, n.p.

27. "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth" (Rom. 1:18, ESV).

28. Bahnsen, 140.

29. Sproul, n.p.

30. Bahnsen,144.

31. Ibid.

32. Isa. 45:19.


Augustine, "The Cause of Evil," Summa Theologiae Q. 49, accessed October 1, 2020, https://www.newadvent.org/summa/1049.htm#article1
Bahnsen, Greg L., Always Ready:Directions for Defending the Faith, ed. Robert R. Booth. Texarkana, AR: Covenant Media Foundation, 1996.
Carson, D. A. "Review of Wright, N. T., Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006)." The Review of Biblical Literature, 2007. https://www.bookreviews.org/pdf/5581_5877.pdf
------ . The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Project Gutenberg EBook #28054, 2009.
Geisler, N. L. Baker encyclopedia of Christian apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.
Frame, John M. The Doctrine of God (A Theology of Lordship). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002.
Hall, Amy K. "Would We Know Good without Evil?" (blog), August 8, 2020. https://www.str.org/w/would-we-know-good-without-evil-
Horton, Michael. "What Every Christian Needs to Know about Evil and Suffering" (blog), September 18, 2018. https://corechristianity.com/resource-library/articles/what-every-christian-needs-to-know-about-evil-and-suffering/
Jenkins, David. "The Sovereignty of God: How Suffering and Justice Meet" (blog), August 20, 2017. https://servantsofgrace.org/the-problem-of-evil-in-the-book-of-job/
Koukl, Greg. "Augustine on Evil" (blog), December 20, 2012. https://www.str.org/w/augustine-on-evil-1
Lewis, C. S. A Grief Observed. New York: Bantam Books, 1961.
------ . God In the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970.
------ . The Problem of Pain. New York: Macmillan, 1962.
MacArthur, John. "The Problem of Evil" (blog), September 21, 2020. https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B170116
Mohler, Albert, "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/
Piper, John. "It Is Never Right to Be Angry with God" (blog), November 13, 2000. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/it-is-never-right-to-be-angry-with-god
Robinson, T. Job. New York; London; Toronto: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
Spence-Jones, H. D. M. (Ed.). Job. London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909.
Sproul, R. C. "How Can God Bring Good Out of Evil?" (blog), Oct 07, 2019. https://www.ligonier.org/blog/how-can-god-bring-good-out-evil/
------ . "The Problem of Pain" (blog), June 1, 2006. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/problem-pain/
------ . "Why Does God Allow Evil?" (blog), May 18, 2020. https://www.ligonier.org/blog/the-mystery-of-iniquity/
Velarde, Robert. "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/
Walton, J. H. and K. L. Vizcaino. The NIV Application Commentary: Job. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.

Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Go To Top