We come to one of the most difficult questions there is. Not only is it a theoretical question that is raised by unbelievers, it is an intensely personal question, why does God allow my suffering? And we will find that we can give no complete answer, because scripture only goes so far in answering (see Deuteronomy 29:29.) How comforting to know that even the Son of God in the midst of his most intense suffering was heard to cry out, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” And yet He Himself received no answer. Surely we come here to a great mystery and one that requires great care and humility in dealing with. What we hope to do is to go as far as scripture will let us. We must beware of turning speculation into gospel truth. And yet as we look into this great mystery we may be surprised by what we discover, and called not to a place of sitting in judgment over God and His ways, but to a place of worship and humility (as Job was so long ago.) As John Frame puts it, “My own verdict is that we are unlikely to find complete answers to all of these questions – answers, that is, which are not subject to further questions. But I do think we can provide answers in another sense. If what you want is encouragement to go on believing in the midst of suffering, Scripture provides that, and provides it abundantly. If you want help to go on trusting God despite unexplained evil, yes, we can help. And that is what I will seek to provide in what follows.” (We will take insights from Frame and D.A. Carson in what follows.)
Inadequate Solutions to the “Problem” of Evil:
God is not really sovereign: This is the approach taken by many including Rabbi Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He concludes that we must forgive God because he is doing his best, but really is not quite in control of his world. While this may seem to provide comfort at first, it is in reality the first step on the road to despair. It sacrifices more that we can bear to sacrifice. If God is not really sovereign, then we can have no hope of him overcoming it someday. As Frame says, “It would be nice to have a solution to the problem of evil, but not at any price. If the price we must pay is the very sovereignty of God, the faithful Christian must say that the price is too high.” You may end up with a “solution” but you are left with a god unworthy of worship. As Frame explains, “It is possible to live a long and happy and faithful life without an answer. But it is all-important that we worship the true God … Without Him human life is worth nothing.”
The unreality of evil defense: This is the solution proposed by some Eastern religions (like Buddhism) and cults (like Christian Science.) Basically they say that evil is an illusion, that it is not real. Even Augustine (in his early thinking – which he later came to reject) thought that evil was just the absence of good and said that this removed the responsibility from God because while He is responsible for all being, he isn’t responsible for non-being. But this “solution” is surely inadequate! First this answer trivializes evil and suffering by saying it is all in our mind or perception. But even if this is true, the question remains, why would a good God give us such a painful and real-seeming illusion? This “answer” merely moves the question back one step.
The best-possible-world defense: Some argue that this world, even with all its evils, is the best world God could have created, not because of God’s weakness but because of the very logic of creation. They say that certain evils are logically necessary to achieve certain good ends. For example how could there be compassion for sufferers if there was no evil? But this is flawed. First God is not “under” the laws of logic in the sense that they control him, the laws of logic flow from his character. But, as Frame asks, “…does a perfect world require the existence of evil?” Surely not, for God himself is perfect and yet there is no evil in him, and he was compassionate before he created anything. And is God only able to create perfect beings? According to scripture God created Adam and Eve good, not perfect. Adam was created alone (and God himself says this wasn’t good.) As far as scripture goes, we can find no reason why God must create evil for the world to be perfect. As far as we can tell, Frame points out, “…God is free to make things that are either imperfect or perfect.”
The free-will defense: This is the most popular theory among modern philosophers and basically says that evil came form the free choice of rational creatures, which since it is no way controlled or ordained by God, he cannot be responsible for it. There is some truth to this idea. First the scripture does teach man is free in a certain sense (we’ll explore this more later.) Also the Bible teaches that man, not God, is to blame for evil (c.f. Genesis 50:20, Acts 2:23, 4:27.) But as Frame says, “…scripture does not teach – in fact it denies – free will in the sense it is used by the free will defense. For on that view of man’s freedom, man’s choices are not in any way foreordained or caused by God. But scripture frequently speaks of God determining our free choices (in addition to the verses above see: 2 Samuel 24:1, Proverbs 16:9, Luke 24:45, Acts 11:18, 13:48, 16:14, Romans 11:36, Ephesians 1:11.)” And notice that in Romans 9 where Paul is directly dealing with the problem of evil (why don’t the Jews believe?) he does not use the free will defense and actually opposes it. When he raises various questions like was it unjust for God to ordain evil for Esau before he was born, Paul does not say it was because “…God foresaw Esau’s autonomous free choices and therefore determined to punish him…” An examination of verses 15, 16, 18, & 19 shows that Paul actually emphasizes God’s sovereignty! As Frame points out, “Scripture never uses the free-will defense in any passage where the problem of evil is up for discussion. You will not find it in the book of Job, in Psalms 37, or in Psalms 73, indeed, all of these passages presuppose the usual strong view of divine sovereignty.”
Not only is the free-will defense unbiblical, it also fails to solve the problem. If “…our choices are literally causeless, then they are not caused by our character or desires any more than they are caused by God…” and thus they are chance happenings and can “hardly be the ground of moral responsibility” and can hardly be called “free choice.” Usually free will defenders see “free choice as caused by character and desires… factors which themselves have causes in heredity and environment, causes which precede the conscious life of the individual. [They are] substituting an impersonal cosmic determinism for the personalistic “determinism” of biblical Christianity.” This can hardly be called a solution.
The character-building defense: Some (including John Hick) have proposed that suffering is necessary for man to come to full maturity. While it is true that some suffering builds character (Hebrews 12, and Romans 5:1-5) not all suffering builds character, in many (especially unbelievers) it increases bitterness and rebellion towards God. It is the understanding of God and his grace in Romans 5:1-2 that transforms suffering into a character building process. Also, Adam was not created with a need to suffer, “He was created good, and had he obeyed God, he would not have needed to experience suffering. Suffering is a result of the Fall (Genesis 3:17.)”
The stable-environment defense: This is one defense offered by C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain where he says that a stable environment is necessary for human life, which means there are certain natural laws. And God does not suspend these laws to prevent pain, for example the law of gravity is not suspended when I fall down the stairs. As Frame points out, this is true, but does a stable environment necessarily produce evil? “God created Adam (concerning whose literal existence… Lewis had some doubts) and placed him in a stable environment without evil and pain. I don’t know how this worked… [but] there was no pain and suffering until the Fall. Heaven will certainly be another stable environment but one without evil.” This defense is also inadequate for explaining the evil of rebellion in our hearts. It blames creation (and thus God) for evil rather than ourselves (something Adam was blasted for trying to do in Genesis 3:12.)
The indirect-cause defense: This is a common solution proposed in Reformed circles and says that since God is the indirect rather than the direct cause of evil, he bears no blame for it. But does indirect cause remove responsibility? It doesn’t if you hire a hit man to kill your Statistics prof. This defense pictures God as “…some kind of giant Mafia boss who keeps his hands legally clean by forcing his underlings to carry out his nasty designs.” Furthermore Scripture says it is sin to entice another to sin (Deuteronomy 13:6 ff, and Romans 14.) This defense falls short, too.
The ex-lex defense: Ex-lex means “outside of law” and this idea says that God is outside of his law. Therefore God can do many things which are prohibited to us because he is God. As God can take human life so he can cause evil and since he is God, it must be just to do so. The problem with this is that while God isn’t “under” the Law, it does reflect His character. He does act in the way he calls us to act.
The ad-hominem defense: Following the old adage that the best defense is a good offense, this defense turns the question back onto the unbeliever. While Christians may struggle to show the consistency between God’s goodness and the existence of evil, the unbeliever doesn’t even have the right to raise the question because he has no basis for even distinguishing good from evil. There is some truth to this, and we must point out the unbeliever’s shaky philosophical ground but this doesn’t answer the problem. The unbeliever points out the problem of evil and we reply he has a worse problem (that of even defining good and evil) yet we still haven’t answered the question. And it is not only unbelievers but believers who raise the questions regarding the problem of evil. So how do we deal with them?
Is It Really a Problem?
As John Frame points out, “Scripture never assumes that God owes us an explanation for what He does. In a number of biblical passages, the problem of evil arises for the reader, but the text never comments on it.” For example see Genesis 3:12 where Adam raises the problem by blaming God and yet God doesn’t respond and give his rationale for giving Eve to Him, instead God blames Adam for his own wickedness. We see the same thing in the book of Job. Job demands an interview with God because he believes he is suffering unjustly (Job 23:1-7, 31:35 ff) and he does get his interview but on God’s terms rather than his own! God tells him to brace himself (Job 38:3-5) and then blows him away! As Frame says, “The point is that if Job is so ignorant concerning God’s works in the natural world, how can he expect to understand the workings of God’s mind in distributing good and evil?” Job never gets his questions answered, instead he gets a revelation of God’s character and humbles him to dust (Job 42:3-6.) God is under no obligation to give us the reason why things happen, he expects us to trust him and not to challenge his authority. But this Is Not All That the Bible Has to Say about the Problem of Evil! God does just call us to shut up and blindly believe. This is not faith but Stoicism. Instead the Bible teaches what is called compatibalism.
What Is Compatibalism?
D.A. Carson defines it this way: The Bible teaches two propositions,
God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never minimizes human responsibility. (For proof see: Psalms 115:2-3, Psalms 135:6, Ephesians 1:11, Acts 17:26, Matthew 6:26, Exodus 21:13, Ruth 1:13, 20, Proverbs 21:1, 16:9, Jeremiah 10:23, Psalms 105:25, Is 45:6-7, Lamentations 3:37-38.)
Humans are morally responsible – but they never function in a way to make God dependent or contingent. (For proof see: Joshua 24:14-15, Romans 10:9-11, Exodus 19:4-6, Ezekiel 18:30-32)
And the Bible teaches that both of these are true simultaneously! This is not a philosophical system imposed on Scripture, it is the Bible’s own teaching (see Genesis 50:19-20, Leviticus 20:7-8, 1 Kings 8:46 ff, John 6:37-40, Acts 18:9-10, Philippians 2:12-13, Acts 4:23-31.)
This doesn’t mean we know how these two ideas fit together! There is mystery here (like in the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation) but this doesn’t mean these ideas are contradictory. There are unknowns here and the unknowns are big enough for both ideas to be true, there is not enough information to declare them a contradiction.
God stands behind good and evil asymmetrically. As Carson explains, “God stands behind evil in such a way that not even evil takes place outside the bounds of His sovereignty, yet the evil is not morally chargeable to Him: it is always chargeable to secondary causes. On the other hand, God stands behind good in such a way that it not only takes place within the bounds of His sovereignty, but it is always chargeable to Him, and only derivatively to secondary agents.”
But what about free will? The Bible actually doesn’t teach that we have total “free will”, we do not have “absolute power to contrary.” We do have the freedom to do what we want, but we are not absolutely free to act outside of what God has ordained. We never choose something we don’t want, we are never free from ourselves and our nature (which since the Fall is fallen and enslaved to sin.)
The crux of the tension lies in the nature of God. God is one who is both personal and transcendent, one who is not bound by time yet acts within it. He is one who uses secondary causes without being responsible for the evil they commit. There is deep mystery here and we are called to worship rather than figure it out.
How Does Compatibalism Help With The Problem of Evil?
As Carson says, the implications of compatibalism are huge, “the implications of this tension bear so immediately on the way we live, pray, conceive of evangelism, think about suffering, and much more, that we may be somewhat stymied in our Christian growth before we learn to handle the tension responsibly.” As we look at what the Bible teaches we must beware of sacrificing one part of the tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. And we must add one more “given” to the equation – God’s goodness. God is good and yet the fall occurred, how can we hold these pieces together? As we explore this we must be careful to use doctrines the way the Scriptures do, we must ask how do these doctrines function in Scripture?
God’s sovereignty functions to assure us that things are not getting out of control. Romans 8:28! This doesn’t mean evil is really good in disguise, it means the way of the Gospel is to bring life out of death and good out of evil.
God’s timetable is longer than ours. We want relief now! but God often uses our suffering in ways we could never imagine. Many who have suffered grievously have later seen God use it in a way that if they had to go through it again, they would. For some, we will only get this perspective at Heaven and we must beware seeking the answer to our “whys” in how it helps someone else later – this can be a cruel trap because you never know for sure if you are right.
God’s sovereignty should breed trust and confidence and faith. See Hebrews 11 – many of these suffered not knowing why but only knowing Who and that He loved them in the midst of severe pain. Many hate and rebel against the idea that God is sovereign and thus they end up losing one of the believer’s most precious truths in times of trial.
Many think God is only in control of big things, a God-in-the-gaps kind of theory. But this is a lie! He is upholding all things by His Word (Hebrews 1:3, 1 Corinthians 15:25.) God rules all!
Yet the sovereign God is a personal God who responds to us! This is one of the great lessons (and assumptions of the Psalms.) When Paul cries out to God about his thorn, God responds to him (2 Corinthians 12) and Paul finds rest and even can exalt in his weakness. Many Christians would testify that it is in times of trial that we really are drawn to depend on God in a way we have never experienced.
The concern of the Bible is to teach us to trust and obey. The Bible is not so concerned to answer all our questions. As Carson puts it, “… the object of much of the biblical revelation is not to make us comprehend exhaustively… Doubtless God could have told us more… and doubtless we will find out more things in Heaven… But we are sufficiently self-centered that extra knowledge about God would simply pander to our desire to be gods ourselves.”
I can do no better than to quote from D.A. Carson’s excellent book, “Ultimately Christians will take refuge from their questions about evil not in proud theories that explain evil away, but in combating evil, opposing it, especially evil within themselves but also in the larger world as well. Christians will take refuge from their questions about suffering not in bitterness, self-pity, resentment against God, or trite clichés and religious cant, but in endurance, perseverance, and faith in the God who has suffered, who has fought with evil and triumphed, and whose power and goodness ensure that faith resting in Him is never finally disappointed.”
Some Helpful Books:
D.A. Carson, How Long O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil
John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (pp. 149-190)
Edith Schaeffer, Affliction
Dan Allender & Tremper Longman, The Cry of the Soul (pp. 147-161)
C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
RUF Campus Minister
Belmont University, TN