How can a good God allow evil in the world?

An all-powerful, perfectly good God must not exist, because if he did he would prevent all evil.

There are two standard answers to this objection, both of which ultimately fall short. I will examine these answers first before giving what I think is a more complete answer.

The first answer deals with suffering as well as intentional acts of evil. Some suffering actually benefits us, and is therefore not incompatible with a loving, moral God. Physical pain teaches us our limitations and enables us to survive. When we touch a hot stove or fire and experience pain, we learn to avoid doing so in the future. Other forms of pain are the result of discipline, either from human teachers or from God himself, or are simply consequences of poor choices. Without these forms of suffering, we wouldn't learn to be moral, responsible people.

Other suffering can't so easily be viewed as beneficial, but there are reasons for it occurring. Some suffering (e.g. disease and natural disasters) is the result of Adam and Eve's rebellion against God. Other forms of evil are the result of beings, both human and demonic, choosing to disobey God. Finally, it is noted that God is not passive with regards to evil, but deals with evil by bringing good out of it and ultimately punishing it and bringing it to an end.

The second answer is known as the free will defense. God created people with free will, meaning that we can choose to love and obey God or not. It wouldn't be very meaningful if we loved or obeyed God because we were unable to choose otherwise. A computer or talking doll can be made to say "I love you," but it doesn't have the same meaning as when a human freely chooses to love. Thus, in order for anyone's choice to love and follow God to be meaningful, God permits everyone to choose freely what they will do.

The problem with both of these answers is that the skeptic can ask in reply, "Why didn't God create a world in which there was no suffering or evil, instead of the present world?" Or in other words, why didn't God simply create heaven and populate it with beings who had free will but would always choose to love God and do good? There is no suffering in heaven; no one does wrong; there are no physical limitations that would cause us pain. There would be no reason for us to have physical bodies with pain receptors, for there would be nothing that could cause us injury. There would be no reason for us to experience discipline, for we would have all the moral knowledge we needed and would have no desire to do wrong. There would be no reason for testing or other forms of suffering that would result in spiritual growth, for we would be directly in God's presence all the time. There would be no need for God to punish evil at a later date if there were no evil to begin with. Finally, an omniscient God knows ahead of time who will follow him, and so he could create only those people who would choose him. Alternatively, God could have created only the angels who wouldn't rebel against him, and there would still be beings who freely chose to worship him. (In answer to the question of how we can have free will in heaven, see Is heaven contradictory?)

Why, then, did God create Satan, humans who would choose to sin, and everything else in the present world? I believe the answer is that there is good that exists in this world that could not exist if heaven were the only world.

One premise on which this thesis depends is the idea that action is more important than words. It's one thing to imagine something, and another to do the work to make it a reality. It's one thing to tell someone you love them and would do anything for them; it's quite another to actually donate your kidney to them or spend decades caring for them after they've been paralyzed from the neck down.

This idea of action bringing things to completion and therefore being particularly important is also found in the Bible. Abraham had faith in God, but it was not fully expressed or completed until he acted on it by trusting God in a difficult situation.[1] Jesus' incarnation and identification with us was complete because he lived as a human and experienced everything we do, including suffering.[2] Jesus, James and John taught that actions speak louder than words.[3]

Therefore, a universe in which moral acts are performed has more good in it than a universe in which morality is only an abstraction. A universe that contains two beings who love each other has more love, and therefore more good, than a universe which contains a single being who can only hypothesize that it would love another being. This leads us to the reason why the present world exists: some moral acts cannot be performed in a world that has no suffering or evil. Examples of such acts include:

If there were no suffering or evil throughout the history of the world, there would be no instances of any of the above. Some might reply that they'd be willing to make the trade-off and live in a universe that consisted solely of heaven. However, that universe would lack good which this universe contains, and therefore it wouldn't necessarily be a better universe.

Furthermore, a universe that never contained beings who did evil would mean that God would have no opportunity to act justly or mercifully, or to display his love for his creation as powerfully as he did by paying the penalty for their wrongs. If action completes things such as faith, it also completes God's virtues. This completion glorifies God,[4] for not only are his virtues fully realized and put into practice, they are openly displayed.

Why is the glorification of God so important? It's the highest good, and the reason why humanity and the world were created.[5] Skeptics and even some Christians find this objectionable because they misunderstand what it means. It doesn't mean praising someone who doesn't deserve it in order to gratify their ego. Instead, glorifying God is similar to glorifying virtue itself. God is perfectly virtuous and the embodiment of virtue. Therefore, glorifying God means praising someone who is perfectly moral and making his qualities known. This is not only a good in and of itself (for someone who does what is good deserves praise), it furthers morality by publicly calling it desirable, making others aware of God's example and showing them that God will instruct them in morality and enable them to be moral. In short, glorifying God results in the glorification and spread of all that is good.

There are some Biblical examples of this principle. Jesus' miraculous healings caused people to believe in him and demonstrated his compassion for people, not simply his power.[6] If no one had any needs or wants, Jesus could only have displayed omnipotence; love is more powerfully displayed when one meets another's deeply felt needs.[7] Pharaoh and others were allowed to rebel against God in order that God could display his justice and power to everyone in that part of the world[8] - and in fact this formed the basis for Rahab's belief in God.[9] Finally, Paul writes in Romans 9:21-24:

Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath - prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory - even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

It could be objected that God could have created a single person who did evil and displayed his justice by punishing that one person, or he could have created two evil people, one who would be punished and one who would repent and receive his mercy. However, God didn't create just a handful of people, but billions and billions of them, and he wants all of them to know him. Besides, since God allows each of us to abuse our free will by doing evil, he also gives us the chance to experience repentance, forgiveness and mercy firsthand, after which we much more fully appreciate his love and who he is.

God, as the creator of all things, must have created evil.

See Did God create evil?

Since God is omniscient and omnipotent, he's responsible for the evil acts of his creation: he knew they would occur, but failed to prevent them.

If God is responsible for the evil we choose to do, then we in turn are responsible for the evil our adult children choose to do. We know in advance that everyone does some amount of evil - at the very least, lying, insulting people or hurting their feelings, etc. - and that includes our children. We could choose to not bring this additional evil into the world by, say, getting ourselves sterilized. Thus we're in the same boat as God: we know evil will occur by our bringing children into the world, and we are able to prevent this, but we don't. Yet we don't hold the parents of adults responsible for what their children choose to do. (See also Gregory Koukl's statement of this argument.)


Other responses (offsite)

Life stories of people who experienced evil and suffering:

Related articles:


Footnotes

1. James 2:21-23 (Back to article)
2. Heb 2:10 (Back to article)
3. Mt 21:28-31, James 2:14-26, 1 John 3:18 (Back to article)
4. Jn 17:4 (Back to article)
5. Is 43:7 (Back to article)
6. Jn 9:2-3, 11:4 (Back to article)
7. Lk 7:41-47 illustrates the principle that those with greater needs respond in a deeper way when those needs are met by someone. (Back to article)
8. Ex 9:15-16 (Back to article)
9. Josh 2:1-13 (Back to article)