The Greatest Challenge to Christianity
By: Jonathan Harris
Most arguments leveled against the Christian worldview end up being red herrings. For instance, the “god of the gaps” argument is really a distraction because it doesn’t address the central question of whether or not God exists- it merely accuses believers of having less than desirable motives in their belief. The argument that “more intelligent people are nonreligious” commits the logical fallacy of an “appeal to authority.” Just because a certain group of people happen to believe something doesn’t have any bearing on the belief’s alleged truth. One argument that I do tend to take seriously however (and it may be the only argument) comes mainly from skeptics and it goes like this: “If God is both all-powerful and all-loving why does evil exist?” Stated in a more formal way the argument looks like this:
1. God is completely good
2. God is completely powerful
3. Evil Exists
In our day the argument has taken on a more emotional component. I’ve been asked about the “contradiction” in this simple series of questions. “Was what the terrorists did on 9-11 evil?” Of course a Christian must say, “Yes.” The antagonist then follows, “If you had the power to stop them would you?” Again, the Christian must say yes. The nonbeliever then asserts, “You must be nicer than God then!” It’s the same argument, but stated in a much more emotionally charged way.
To respond to this criticism, we as Christians must first understand the basic assumptions the unbeliever is making. We should really throw the question back on them when they ask, “Was what the terrorists did on 9-11 wrong?” We of course can easily say that it is wrong because we have a transcendent standard to appeal to. Our God says it’s wrong because it’s murder. However, what does the nonbeliever have to stand on? The majority of the time this objection to God’s goodness and/or power is made by atheists. As Ravi Zacharias points out: “To assume evil you must assume good. To assume good you must assume a moral law. To assume a moral law you must assume a moral law giver.” Here’s a clip of Ravi making this point.
Ravi ends his line of questioning with the inquiry, “What is the question than?” In other words, you can’t even raise the question of the problem of evil without first presupposing the existence of God. For the majority of critics who raise this point, they will be confounded at this point. They are shown to have the bigger problem because they can’t even arrive at a proper definition of good, yet they must have one in order to perform an internal critique of Christianity. While it’s important to bring this point up, we must also remember that many who challenge us on the problem of evil will not expose their presuppositions, and in fact there are some who will levy the objection while trying to maintain their own theological framework of open-theism (i.e. denying the sovereignty of God in order to solve the problem). It should be noted that the open-theistic perception of God actually creates more problems than it solves, however what I’m trying to communicate is not why open-theism is wrong, but why we as Christians need to be able to answer this question despite the unbeliever’s greater philosophical quandaries. An unbeliever may say, “Yes you’ve shown my view to be wrong, but that doesn’t mean you’re not wrong at the same time.” However, I’d like to suggest that if we add an additional step to our 3-part dilemma, as Dr. Bahsen does, the logical problem is solved.
1. God is completely good
2. God is completely powerful
3. Evil Exists
4. God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists.
Notice, I don’t have to provide a detailed reason or really any reason (though we could find some in Scripture) at all to make this rescuing device work. All I have to do is raise the possibility that there exists a morally sufficient reason, and the logical tension no longer exists. However, I must caution, this does not solve the problem usually. Why? Because the problem is really not a logical one after all. It’s more of a psychological or emotional one. People go through tragedies and are generally upset at God for their losses and pain. They look around them and see horrible things taking place and wonder, “How can God possibly have a morally sufficient reason for such horrendous atrocities.” As Bible-believing Christians we can really only go so far in our explanation. We can talk about how “all things work together for good for those who believe God and are called according to His purpose.” We can talk about trials being for our benefit and the “testing of our faith.” We can also talk about original sin and how man doesn’t deserve anything but God’s wrath, yet God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” In the end however, “The secret things belong to the Lord.” Ultimately, the sections of Scripture (Job, Romans 9, Luke 13) that deal with this problem don’t give an answer other than to assert that man has no standing or right to question God. Actually though, this is a satisfying answer in many ways because it causes us to “flip the script” and approach the whole challenge from a different angle. The psychological/emotional aspect of the problem of evil makes the assumption that man is good. After all, those raising the argument aren’t concerned about fallen angels or the death of distant galaxies. They’re concerned with the suffering mankind (usually themselves) endures. They become the cross-examiner and God the one on trial. If we instead take the Bible’s advice, “Who are you oh man to judge God,” and apply it to the situation, the roles are reversed. The question then becomes, “If God is all-good, and all-powerful, Why does He not punish us all now?” You see, open-theism doesn’t solve the problem nearly as well as the Biblical doctrine of human depravity (i.e. that we all have an “Adamic nature” and are thereby sinners). So why do bad things happen to good people? The response is really, “What good people?” Listen to how Voddie Baucham addresses the problem of evil using this very tactic.
As hopefully most of us can see, the problem of evil really isn’t a problem logically speaking. It can be a difficulty- something we struggle with emotionally especially- but it’s not a valid argument against God’s existence or Christianity’s worldview. I would like to conclude by briefly offering up a couple other arguments apologists have used and why or why not I think they are valid or invalid, and then give what I think is the ultimate focal point in answering this important question.
First of all, the “other” arguments used to counter the “problem of evil.”
1. The Unreality of Evil Defense
This defense basically says, “evil doesn’t actually exist, it’s just an allusion.” Eastern religions and Christian cults may use this, but for a Bible-believing Christian it’s not an option (plus it creates way more problems than it solves).
2. The Divine Weakness Defense
This is one and the same with the open-theist claim that God doesn’t have the power to control evil. In other words, He’s not “all-powerful.” Again, this is unthinkable for Bible-believers.
3. The Best Possible World Defense
This is an interesting defense, and one I’ve actually used in the past. As John Frame says, it goes like this, “Certain evils are logically necessary to achieve certain good ends. For example, there must be suffering if there is to be compassion for sufferers. So the best possible world will include some evil.” The problem I have with this response now is that it almost seems to say, “The perfect world is one in which there exists imperfection.” This as you can see is a self-refuting statement. I tend to shy away from this defense now, although there is a ring of truth in it. Evil will achieve a “good” end when God righteously punishes evil-doers.
4. The Free Will Defense
This is by far the most common defense, yet I believe it’s among the least Biblical ones. Adam perhaps had a “free-will” as we Christians do too. However, unregenerate man is not free to choose good, but only evil. He is restrained by his sin nature. So to say that God created a world in which evil was possible, because without a “choice” there would be no “love” is to say that man is capable of choosing God, which we know is not the case from Scripture. God is the one who draws His elect, and He gets the credit for it. This is a rather Arminian argument, and you won’t find it being made in Scripture; in fact I think it can be demonstrated that Scripture opposes such a notion.
5. The Character Building Defense
God’s intention in allowing evil is to build our characters, or so the defense goes. According to the book of James, for Christians this is perhaps a legitimate defense. Yes, trials do make us stronger. However, for the nonbeliever, this rule does not apply, and generally it’s the nonbeliever raising the question.
6. The Stable Environment Defense
This defense asserts that the laws of physics inevitably will lead to pain (i.e. you fall down the stairs, etc.). In order to make this argument though you would have to assume that conditions in the Garden of Eden were different. Either humans didn’t get hurt, or physics was different, or something. This is mere speculation however. Also, it doesn’t answer the whole question. It tries to account for pain, but what about evil inflicted by other humans? I don’t see this as any kind of satisfactory answer.
7. The Indirect Cause Defense
God is not responsible for evil because He is its indirect cause. He created the Devil and Adam and Eve, yet they were the ones who rebelled, not Him. So they bear the responsibility even though they were created by him. On a human level indirectness does not mitigate responsibility. Does it work on a cosmic level? I find this argument debatable. It doesn’t really “solve” the problem though even if it is a valid argument, because all it does is refer back to the creation of evil. It doesn’t explain why God doesn’t intervene currently.
8. The ex Lex Defense
This defense says that God is outside or above the laws He prescribes for man, therefore he isn’t responsible to react in the same ways man is expected to (remember the 9-11 scenario?). This is a true in one way, but let us not forget that the laws that God has given man reflect His nature. So while He is above them, He is not “outside” of them. I’d say this is valid, although again it doesn’t answer the entire question. It does explain however potentially why God doesn’t intervene currently. He has a higher purpose man is perhaps incapable of understanding and the right thing for Him to do is to allow evil to exist in certain vicinities.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that our “theodicy” (realm of theology dealing with defending the existence of God’s goodness and power in light of the existence of evil) needs to have Christ at the center. The nonbeliever has no hope. He or she has no way to deal with evil. No way to cope with it. We do. When God entered human history He did so as a man “tempted in all points as we.” He was a “man of sorrow acquainted with grief.” The ultimate pain was placed on Him, yet He defeated evil “for the joy set before Him” enduring the cross and rising on the third day. He then promised to send us the “Comforter” (Holy Spirit) to illuminate Scripture and intercede for us with the Father. As a result of His substitutionary atonement for our sins, we have hope that one day we will be in a place devoid of evil and pain for eternity. It’s a privilege we don’t deserve, but one which God freely gives us. Please, take a moment to watch John Lennox as he expands on this last point- that Christians have a way to cope with evil, whereas the nonbeliever does not.