Home > Apologetics > Objection to Christianity #1: The Problem of Evil and Suffering

Objection to Christianity #1: The Problem of Evil and Suffering

Throughout the years—centuries even—this has probably been the single biggest objection to the Judeo-Christian God. Over time, I’ve learned to acknowledge the power of this line of argument and give it due respect rather than brushing it off as frivolous. I’ll try to be as comprehensive as I can (within reason), but I’m sure the war will wage on regardless. Please feel free to add and contribute in the comment section.

I’ll break this problem down into three main components:

1) Who is God anyway?

2) The Problem of Evil

3) Practical Implications

It’s important to discuss the Christian God as He actually is, rather than relying on the projections of misinformed men. So let’s start there.

1) Who is God anyway?

There are many ways to describe God and a multitude of attributes we could potentially discuss here. But I’ll try to focus on the relevant parts that normally feed into this argument.

First off, God is the creator of everything. He created every living being and the universe, including the laws and systems by which it operates. He also created angels, including those who rebelled against him and became demons.

Second, God prefers free will. Rather than creating automatons, it is clear that God holds free will in very high regard, even granting his angels the ability to leave him before the earth was even created. Likewise, He granted all of mankind free will. The Bible does not indicate whether animals have free will, but if I had to guess, I’d probably say no (judging from stories like Noah’s Ark and other examples where they seem to be controlled directly when necessary). Free will seems reserved for His higher elected creatures, and this is coming from an animal lover.

Third, God is omnipotent, or all-powerful. This point is very important. People must realize that there are certain things that God cannot do, but these “limitations” do not detract from His power and greatness. In a nutshell, God cannot act contrary to his character and essential nature, and He also cannot do some logically impossible things. God cannot lie or conduct evil himself. To say that God created evil is misleading, as evil is not a thing in itself, but rather a privation or lack of good (just as darkness isn’t a thing itself, but a lack of light).

He also cannot make a round square or create a rock so heavy that He can’t lift it. Importantly, God cannot force or ensure that free creatures will choose the right way on their own volition.

Fourth, God is omniscient, or all-knowing. Now, there is some debate as to what omniscience entails. Does it mean God literally knows everything—past, present, and future (classic view and also assumed in Molinism)? Or does it mean He knows the knowable, and perhaps some things are left open and contingent on the decisions of free creatures (open theism)? Either way, it’s safe to say with certainty that God knows every possible thing of the past and the present. He also knows what he will accomplish in the future.

Fifth, God is omnibenevolent or all-good. In Him, there is no evil or darkness.  This furthermore implies that God will always choose the path of the most good, rather than the way of more evil. He is the embodiment of love and wants people to come freely to him.

Finally, God is just and holy. Because God is just by nature, He cannot simply give people a free pass when they do wrong. He cannot tolerate sin. Due to his holy nature, God must remain set apart and separate from sin at all times. Of course, this is why He sent Jesus down to die for our sins, so that it’s possible for us to be clean in God’s sight.

I almost feel blasphemous trying to sum up God in such a short space, but I honestly believe that without this proper understanding of God, talking about things that contradict his nature (evil and suffering) is completely moot. Please know that God is so much more than what I’ve just described. I was also hesitant to start with the above section because much of it might give away the “answers” prematurely, but that’s OK. That being said, let’s proceed.

2) The Problem of Evil

This problem has been stated in a number of ways, but I’ll copy a couple that best describe this position.

Here’s the logical form:

  1. God exists.
  2. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.
  3. A perfectly good being would want to prevent all evils.
  4. An omniscient being knows every way in which evils can come into existence.
  5. An omnipotent being, who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, has the power to prevent that evil from coming into existence.
  6. A being who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, who is able to prevent that evil from coming into existence, and who wants to do so, would prevent the existence of that evil.
  7. If there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being, then no evil exists.
  8. Evil exists (logical contradiction).

David Hume—a prominent philosopher of the 18th century—put it succinctly this way:

“Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”

Now, I’ll save you the suspense and tell you upfront that this logical problem of evil has pretty much been solved already. Many modern philosophers reject the old logical problem as inadequate and accept solutions to the problem, such as Alvin Plantinga’s free will defense. But I’ll rehash some of those ideas here in my own words, as well as infuse some of my own thoughts (may the Holy Spirit keep me from speaking falsehoods).

Basically, what the old philosophers failed to take into account are the fall of man and free will. These change everything. Perhaps in a sinless world, pre-fall, God would always choose to allow the path of the most good, no evil. He might repeatedly run up the scoreboard this way: +10 “good” points, +0 “evil” points. The good column would keep increasing, and the evil column would always remain at 0. This would have been possible.

But because of free will and man’s pride, it is no longer possible for there to be a zero in the evil column. Human beings are sinful, and the only way God could prevent them from conducting evil acts and inflicting suffering on others would be to infringe upon free will. God cannot (actually, will not) force a person to do good at all times, whether through manipulation of the mind or even of surrounding circumstances. Therefore, evil exists and God allows it.

Because there is no possibility of all good and no evil, God in his omnibenevolence chooses the path of the greater good (which by God’s estimation entails achieving good in light of free will). He has to allow some evil and suffering in order to achieve greater good. In order to get those +10 points in the good column, God might allow +2 evil (rather than the alternatives of +3 or +4). There is no option of +0 evil anymore, but even if there were, God might not choose it because it wouldn’t achieve as much good. Hopefully you’re seeing already that some of the premises of the logical argument laid out above are false.

The “best of possible worlds” argument is nebulous and highly speculative. How could a person possibly define such a thing? What is best for one person would be horrid to another. With God’s attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence, it’s not impossible to imagine that this current world is the best that was possible with free will in the picture. Perhaps a world with no troubles would never find the necessary brokenness to come to God.

What about when God himself seems to directly inflict pain and suffering, rather than simply allowing it?

Well, let’s turn to the Bible for a couple of famous examples, shall we?

In Genesis 6, we hear the story of Noah’s ark. Around this time, humans were starting to multiply on the land, but they were also becoming very wicked. God gave mankind 120 years to shape up, but aside from Noah’s family, they didn’t. So God sent a great flood to wipe out the evildoers and to start fresh.

In Genesis 18-19, we see that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were very sinful, turning away from God. God makes known his plans to destroy them, at which point Abraham famously pleads for God to spare them. Abraham asks whether God would spare the cities if even 50 righteous men were found. God agrees. Abraham reverently pushes his luck, and asks, “well what about 45?” (I’m paraphrasing of course.) God again agrees. This goes on repeatedly; 40, 30, 20, then finally 10. God even agrees to a mere 10.

What happens? Not even 10 righteous are found in that city, so God proceeds with destroying them.

In each case, you’ll notice that God displayed great patience. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter, and like a doctor, God had to remove the cancer completely. In the real world, we know that wickedness spreads like a wildfire. Something starts out as the exception, a taboo, but very rapidly it becomes totally acceptable. Eventually, it becomes the norm. With our finite minds, we might disagree with God’s wrath, but we don’t know the whole picture. If God had spared those wicked people, it’s very easy to imagine that our world would be a much worse place today. There would much more evil, and yet people use those examples against God. He just can’t win in some people’s eyes.

Besides, God is the one in charge. Skeptics will cringe at this concept, but who are we to question Him? In Isaiah 55:9, God reminds us: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” If God exists, don’t you think there would be things you don’t understand or agree with? What makes us think everything should agree with our flawed preferences and sentiments?

Don’t count out the Devil!

Oh boy, I can already hear the eyes rolling. But it’s true, if there is a such thing as the God of the Bible, then there is an enemy who we call Satan. You can’t count out the devil in an argument about whether God exists because that’s presupposing the very thing you’re trying to prove. If the idea of evil and suffering bothers you, you can’t hold it against God without first acknowledging the reality of Satan and his demons.

Satan is called many names in the Bible, including deceiver, enemy, father of lies, lawless one, murderer, tempter, wicked one…and most tellingly, “god of this age” and “ruler of this world.” Does this sound like someone who might have something to do with some of the evil and suffering you see today? Perhaps! The devil presents himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), and he is extremely attractive and cunning. He is smarter than you. He is smarter than all of us, and his lies perpetuate and spread, causing more grief and evil.

I’m convinced that Satan has tricked the scientific world into throwing labels at certain maladies and illnesses, when some of it is actually demon-induced. Consider the case of “Emily Rose” (Anneliese Michel…pictures and audio recordings here), whom the doctors tried to fix with every scientific terminology and concept in the book. They called her depressed, epileptic, and couldn’t face the fact that perhaps there was something else at work here. To the world, she looked like a victim of random chance and forces. In spiritual terms, she was attacked by demons. Until Jesus returns to vanquish them once and for all, spiritual warfare is a reality to consider. Not everything is explainable by natural means.

(Who knows? Maybe in 100 years, the devil will convince the world that love is simply a biological and chemical process, when it’s so much more than that.)

Speaking of natural, what about “natural evils” such as earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.?

I need to tread carefully here. I will say cautiously that it is at least possible that God can use these things to punish wickedness or accomplish some greater good, just as He has in past history. But let’s push this line of reasoning aside.

It has been suggested by apologists, and I agree with them, that natural disasters are a way of inspiring reverence and fear of God. It doesn’t necessarily need to target specific people, but it reminds us all that “oh yea, we’re just human…ultimately, there are forces greater than us that even our mighty technology can’t defeat.” Can you imagine a world where there were no disasters, no thunderstorms, no fearsome waves at sea? We would become even more full of ourselves as the masters of this world, and we’re already experts of pride as it is.

Furthermore, the fall of man necessitates that the world no longer functions optimally. Before the fall, we were designed to live forever. It’s hard to imagine now, but the systems and laws in place wouldn’t have been able to harm us. Gravity—a morally neutral force—would not have been able to bring us crashing to our doom from a steep drop. Thorns, if they existed, wouldn’t prick us. Animals wouldn’t carry venom. Childbirth wouldn’t be painful, and women couldn’t have serious complications from it. The plates of the earth would no longer move to create earthquakes, and the seas would probably be calm. But of course, man did sin and that all changed. Once sin entered and gave birth to death, all of the possible harms became an unavoidable reality.

OK, I know I said I would tread carefully, but I can’t help myself. As an example, let’s imagine for a minute (and I have no proof, nobody does) that God created HIV as a judgment or deterrence. Deterrence from what? Bestiality, homosexuality, and promiscuity are three possibilities (in fact, Sodom was known for homosexuality and is where we get the word “sodomy”). We know from numerous examples in the Bible that sexual sins seem very serious to God and are met with severe consequences.

Now, in what logical world would it be practically impossible for a person innocent of these things to contract HIV accidentally through blood? It is rare, but it must be possible. But rather than seeing these people as victims of God’s supposed sloppiness and negligence, we can view it in a number of ways. It is an inevitable result for a few people to befall this horrible fate because of the fall of man and because of logical possibility. It is also possible that God could be using these circumstances for the greater good. And we also know that it saddens God when people are in pain, but like a loving parent, sometimes it must be carried out.

3) Practical Implications

So what possible “greater good” are we talking about here? How could evil and suffering turn out to be good, practically speaking?

Well, the number one “good” that can result is the salvation of souls and drawing closer to God. This is not simple speculation, but rather found in the Bible over and over again. Don’t let the Joel Osteens of the world fool you; we are not meant to live on this earth in complete bliss and prosperity. In fact, even as believers, God ensures us that we will find suffering at some points in our lives. The Bible tells us to EXPECT suffering, which is the opposite of what skeptics believe Christianity should entail. When it comes, we need to have the right approach.

1 Peter 4:12-13: “12Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”

James 1:2-4 (ESV) says: “2Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Trials and suffering make us more complete. Hardships strengthen our character and also provide a testing ground for our faith. If severe suffering never came to us in life, we might never know for certain if we are truly saved in Christ. What is one way to test if a love relationship is real and not just temporary butterflies? See how you persevere through the rough times, whether it’s long distance/separation or even arguments to sharpen each other and clean out the selfishness.

Pastor Lon Solomon of McLean Bible Church shares that having a severely handicapped daughter—who suffered from countless seizures—was the best thing God could have brought upon his life. Lon was angry with God at first, but in the end, dealing with the emergency hospital visits and intense care-taking made him a better father, husband, pastor, and a person. His daughter, who has a mental age of a child, lives a happy life. She will live the rest of her life—and die—as a child, which most believe ensures her salvation. What more could a parent hope for their children and their own lives? Brokenness can become an enormous blessing.

Sometimes, evil can be turned on its head and turn out for good, even in worldly circumstances. Consider the story of Joseph in late Genesis, who was sold into slavery by his own brothers but ended up being enormously powerful and influential. We can’t expect to always see the end result from our very limited perspective, so the best thing is to trust rather than curse God.

And do we, as Christians, believe in an indifferent God who makes us suffer while He sits on his cushy throne? By no means! We have a savior who gave up his lordship in heaven to become a lowly carpenter, to be spit on, whipped, mocked, and crucified on a cross for OUR sins. We have a God who knows first-hand much of the things we’re going through. We have a savior who rather than being a stoic who always said things like, “Oh, suck it up,” he actually wept for the death of Lazarus (John 11).

What’s the opposite of suffering on this earth? Complete prosperity, which is often represented by wealth in the Bible. And what happens to those who flourish, live a very comfortable lifestyle, and avoid the trials that many of us endure? They become lukewarm, only to be spit out of the mouth of God (Revelations 3). Just as a person cannot gain muscle without painful exercise and devotion; just as a person cannot increase in his knowledge without diligent and arduous study; just as a person cannot become patient and strong without first enduring ordeals; a person cannot truly know God without experiencing suffering.

Many of the poorer countries in the world that have experienced great suffering are the most devout and spiritual. James 2:5 says: “5Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” We see this to be true in various studies and surveys. In America, many SAY that they are Christian, but as I’ve made clear in my earlier posts, the actual number of saved are probably few. Our prosperity and lack of suffering have made us soft. We have become like the rich young ruler or the church of Laodicea.

Those who suffer may turn out to be the most fortunate and blessed in the end. Perhaps as we look back on our short earthly lives from heaven, we will envy those who endured many hardships for a relative speck of time, only to be rewarded in eternity.

Matthew 19:30: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

Other Resources

I knew from the get-go that there would be no way for me to cover all possible areas of this topic. There have been entire books written on the subject, and even those focus on particular areas. For further insight, I suggest the following:



Natural evil:

WLC–Problem of evil:

  1. October 17, 2013 at 5:26 pm

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