The problem of evil is perhaps the most common objection non-believers have to the existence of God. If God is allegedly all-powerful and all-loving, why does he allow the horrific evil we witness in history or in our daily lives? Is He too weak to stop evil, or simply unwilling? Does the existence of evil negate the reasonable existence of God? Like many short, rhetorically powerful objections to God’s existence, there are sound and adequate responses theists can offer, but few that can be articulated with brevity. Any attempt to answer the problem of evil is called a “theodicy” (from the Greek theos “god” and dike “justice”): “a vindication of God’s goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil”. Like many of the criminal cases I work as a detective, the case for God’s existence (given the presence of evil) is a case made cumulatively.
All of my cold cases are circumstantial cases made by assembling a large variety of evidences pointing to the same conclusion. The cumulative nature of my cases requires jurors to consider the collective whole, rather than any isolated piece of evidence. In fact, no single piece of evidence in a cumulative circumstantial case may be all that convincing when considered on its own. But when it is added to the other evidences pointing to the same conclusion, the totality of the case becomes overwhelming. This is the difficult nature of circumstantial cases. They are time consuming, both in their development prior to trial and in their presentation before a jury.
In a similar way, the answer to the problem of evil is cumulative and often difficult to develop (and time-consuming to present). It requires us to consider a number of evidences pointing the same conclusion, and to prepare for the attack any one of these evidences is likely to experience when skeptics attempt to isolate them from the larger case. Any effort to defend the existence of God from the problem of evil must address and include the following cumulative set of truths:
The Relationship Between Moral Evil and Human Freedom
Our theodicy must articulate the nature of love and God’s desire to create a world in which love is possible. True love requires that humans have the ability to freely choose; love cannot be forced if it is to be heartfelt and real. Freedom of this nature is often costly. A world in which people have the freedom to love and perform great acts of kindness is also a world in which people have the freedom to hate and commit great acts of evil. You cannot have one without the other, and we understand this intuitively.
The Relationship Between Human Suffering and the Nature of God
Our theodicy must also articulate the nature and values of God and the temporary nature of our temporal lives. As difficult as it may seems in times of suffering, our response must at least address several important aspects of God. (1) A good God values character over comfort. Creature comforts are temporary, but character transcends time. (2) A transcendent God understands that ‘love’ is the perfect balance between mercy and justice. We, as humans, often hold a very temporal understanding of love; we think of love as that warm instantaneous feeling, that lustful desire, or that passionate season of romance. But God understands that true love transcends the moment and often requires discernment, discipline and judgment. (3) An eternal God provides humans with an existence beyond the grave. We usually want our desire for comfort, love, mercy and justice to be satisfied in this life (and immediately if at all possible!) But our pursuit of immediate gratification often leads us to do things that are ultimately harmful to ourselves and to others.
The Relationship Between Natural Evil and God’s Existence
Our theodicy must address the sometimes hidden or obscured causes of natural evil (like earthquakes, tsunamis or even birth defects. We must address a number of collective factors: (1) God may tolerate some natural evil because it is the necessary consequence of a free natural process that makes it possible for freewill creatures to thrive. (2) God may also tolerate some natural evil because it is the necessary consequence of human free agency. (3) God may permit some natural evil because it challenges people to think about God for the first time. (4) God may permit some natural evil because it provides humans with the motivation and opportunity to develop Godly character.
The Relationship Between Immoral Christian Behavior and a Moral God
Our theodicy must be prepared to defend the existence of the Christian God, in light of the sometimes immoral behavior of “Christians”. While history may include examples of “Christian” groups committing evil upon those with whom they disagreed, a fair examination will also reveal they were not alone in this sort of behavior. Groups holding virtually every worldview, from theists to atheists, have been mutually guilty of evil behavior. The common denominator in these violent human groups was not worldview; it was the presence of humans. Regardless of worldview, humans will try to find a way to justify their evil actions. The question is not which group is more violent but which worldview most authorizes and accommodates this violence.
The Relationship Between Our Understanding and God’s Actions
Our theodicy must address the nature and actions of God through history, particularly when God has commanded the destruction of particular people groups. It’s easy for us to judge the words and actions of God as if He were just another human, subject to an objective standard transcending Him. But when we judge God’s actions in this way, we are ignoring His unique authority and power: (1) If there is a God, all of creation is His handiwork. He has the right to create and destroy what is His, even when this destruction may seem unfair to the artwork itself. (2) If there is a God, all of us are His patients. He has the wisdom and authority to treat us as He sees fit, even when we might not be able to understand the overarching danger we face if drastic action isn’t taken. (3) If there is a God, He is more concerned about saving us for eternity than He is about making our mortal lives safe.
The Relationship Between Evil and Eternity
Our theodicy must also address our limited view of reality. If the Christian worldview is true, we are eternal beings who will live forever. Our experience and understanding of pain and evil must be contextualized within eternity, not within our temporal lives. Whatever we experience here in our earthly life, no matter how difficult or painful it may be, must be seen through the lens of forever. Our eternal life with God will be a life without suffering, without pain and without evil. As our eternal life with God stretches beyond our temporal experience, whatever suffering or injustice we might have experienced here on earth will seem like it occurred in the blink of an eye.
The Nature of Objective Evil and the Existence of God
Finally, our theodicy must recognize the futility of any objection to evil unless we can first ground the definition of good and bad (right and wrong) in the existence of a transcendent source for such concepts. If evil is simply a matter of personal or cultural opinion, we could eliminate evil by simply changing our minds. If notions of evil transcend each of us personally and apply to all cultures regardless of location or time in history (like the claim, “it’s never OK to torture babies for the fun of it”), we’ve got to discover the transcendent source for our definitions. There can be no transcendently sufficient definition of evil unless there is a transcendent standard of righteousness. Evil, as a concept, ceases to have meaning unless it can be compared and measured against an objective standard of virtue. Those who complain about evil see it as more than personal opinion, but to do so, they must borrow their objective standard from a transcendent, theistic worldview.
Any adequate response to the problem of evil must robustly address the collective, cumulative case. Even in trying to briefly reconstruct the case, I’ve exceeded the word count I typically use for my daily blog. This is the problem with answering the problem of evil. While the objection can be stated in a sentence of two, the response cannot. This shouldn’t surprise us; when a defendant says simply, “I didn’t do it; I wasn’t there,” the necessary response from the prosecuting team will take weeks to articulate. But when we’re done, the cumulative case will be persuasive, even though any one small piece of this case may be less than convincing. This is the nature of cumulative cases, and this is the nature of our theodicy.