One of the objections to the Christian faith that most impacts people on an emotional level is the problem of evil: if God is good, why would he allow evil to exist? This objection gains its power because we all experience evils in life.
Type of Evil:Philosophers and theologians divide evil into two types.
-Moral evil occurs when people perform immoral acts (i.e., sins). Adultery is an example of moral evil.
-Physical evil occurs when people suffer, whether or not that suffering was caused by sin. Pain and death are examples of physical evil.
The Problem:Christianity holds that God is all good and all powerful.
-If God is all good then he would want to eliminate evil in the world.
-If God is all powerful then he would have the ability to eliminate evil in the world.
-Yet, evil exists. This calls into question either God’s goodness or his power.
Christians can respond to the problem of evil in a number of ways
- Eliminating Evil:It’s true that God could eliminate all evil. He could have done so from the beginning by not creating the world, and he could do so now if he stopped sustaining the world and let it cease to exist.
- Tolerating Evil for the Sake of Good:If God refused to create or sustain the world, not only would all of the evil it contains be eliminated, so would all of the good. This is not something most people would want. While we all experience suffering at times, we also experience a lot of good things, and most people think that life is worth living. If we can make the choice to tolerate evil for the sake of good, God can also.
- Freely Chosen Love:The two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor (Matt. 22:36-40). Love is the fundamental thing God wants from us. But if we had no free will, we wouldn’t be capable of freely choosing love. We might be able to simulate love, but it would be the programmed “love” of a robot, not the real thing. It seems that one of the goods God is protecting by allowing evil in this life is free will, so we can freely choose to love him and others. For our wills to be free, he must also allow us to misuse our freedom by choosing evil, which is contrary to love. God thus allows moral evil to exist in order to protect our ability to freely choose love.
- The Function of Pain:God also promotes goods by allowing physical evil. The function of physical pain is to alert us to danger and motivate us to get out of it (e.g., the pain of burning your hand on a stove motivates you to get your hand away from it). The same is true of psychological pain (e.g., fear of losing your job will motivate you to take steps to keep it). As long as pain is playing its proper role, it brings about good.
- Non-Functional Pain:Pain doesn’t always perform its intended function (e.g., when we’re suffering from an incurable physical or psychological illness and experience pain with no way of avoiding danger). Why God allows this is a mystery, and we do not want to pretend it isn’t. We do not always see in this life what goods God is bringing about by allowing this suffering.
- Trust in God:However, we can trust that there is a good, even if we do not know it in this life. We may compare the situation to a child being vaccinated. From the child’s point of view, this is a frightening and painful experience, but his parents know that it will spare him even worse future suffering in the form of illnesses. As adults, we know that God knows more than we do, and so we can trust our Father that good will be brought out of the suffering, even if we don’t currently know what that good is.
- The Cross of Christ:The death of Jesus on the Cross is the supreme example of how God can bring good out of evil. From a Christian perspective, this act, which was brought about by moral evil (the sinful choices that led people to crucify Jesus) and led to great physical evil (Jesus’ suffering), nevertheless brought about the redemption of the world.
- Church Teaching:The Church teaches that God would not allow an evil if he didn’t have a way to bring good out of it: “Faith gives us the certainty that God would not permit an evil if he did not cause a good to come from that very evil, by ways that we shall fully know only in eternal life” (CCC 324; cf. CCC 310). “In everything God works for good”—alongside those who love him, who also work for good (Rom. 8:28).
- Future Good:From a Christian perspective, this life is not the end, and God can and will more than make it up to us for the suffering we experience in this life. “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18; cf. 2 Cor. 4:16-18).
- Christian Hope:From the Christian perspective, we at least have hope. This is not true from an atheist perspective, on which non-functional suffering is simply a brute fact of life that will never be redeemed or compensated for after death. At least Christians experiencing suffering have confidence that ultimately it will bring about good and God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
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