Of all the challenges to the Christian faith, the most powerful has been the “problem of evil”—the alleged inconsistency of believing in the God of Scripture while recognizing the occurrence of evil. Why would a good God permit gratuitous suffering? Why cannot an omnipotent God prevent all evil? Why wouldn’t an omniscient God have foreseen evil choices and so ordered history as to preclude them? Surely if God were omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, evil would never occur. But evil does occur. Therefore God must not be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. He might be one or two, but not all three. Perhaps God is all powerful but either doesn’t know how to prevent or ghoulishly delights in evil—or both. Perhaps God knows what it would take to prevent evil, but either hasn’t got it (lacks the power) or doesn’t care (isn’t good)—or both. Or perhaps God really wishes He could have created a world without evil, but either didn’t know how or lacked the power—or both.
In any case, the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God cannot coexist with evil. But evil obviously occurs. Therefore, that God is a figment of our imagination.
The most common answer through the centuries has been the free-will defense. Its essential argument is that God is indeed all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good; that there are certain things that even such a Being cannot do; and that one of those things is to create a morally good world in which no evil occurs.
Proponents of the free-will defense, like C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain and Alvin Plantinga in God, Freedom, and Evil (two of the better presentations of the free-will defense), argue that it would be impossible for God to create a morally good world in which no one would ever sin. According to this argument, it is better to have moral capacity than to lack it. But moral capacity entails the equal capacity to choose right or wrong in any given circumstance—a view called “libertarian free will.” There can be no prior condition that ensures either choice. According to this view, it is better for God to create a world with moral than with only amoral beings; but moral beings by definition are capable of sin. Consequently, if God were to create a world at all, He could not possibly create one with moral inhabitants who could never do evil.
I used this solution in the first edition of my book Answers for Atheists. But then I noticed that if the free-will defense was right in its definition of a moral being as one that could as readily choose evil as good at any given moment, four things followed that the Bible denied. First, either God was not a moral being or God could as readily choose evil as good. Second, Christ must have been able to sin. Third, the biblical doctrines of original (Rom. 5:12 ff.), inevitable (Ps. 51:5), and universal sin (Rom. 3:20) must be false. Fourth, the biblical doctrine that the saints in heaven cannot sin (Heb. 12:23) must be false. Something other than libertarian free will, then, must be the real reason why a being is moral instead of amoral.
As the late Gordon Clark put it in his book God and Evil: “Free will is not the basis of responsibility . . . the basis of responsibility is knowledge” of right and wrong. As Paul wrote, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. . . . For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks” (emphasis mine, Rom. 1:18, 21). Similarly, Jesus said that the “slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready to act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes” (Luke 12:47 NASB).
Martin Luther, in The Bondage of the Will, and John Calvin, in the Institutes of the Christian Religion (2.2.1–7), along with other great Reformed thinkers distinguished between freedom and free will. The Westminster Confession of Faith affirmed that God “endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil” (9.1). In that day this language affirmed not libertarian free will but that the human will is not subject to physical coercion. But the Confession simultaneously taught that
God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (3.1)
God being spirit (John 4:24), the authors of the Confession recognized that the will’s freedom from physical causality did not entail its freedom from His (spiritual) causality. They held that God not only foreknew but even foreordained human acts that, though free (by natural liberty) and sinful (because contrary to God’s law), were nonetheless, because of the infallibility of God’s plan and foreknowledge, absolutely certain to occur. To demonstrate this they cited many biblical texts, such as Acts 4:27–28
For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your plan had predestined to take place.
and 2:22–23 (“Jesus the Nazarene . . . delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men.” [NASB]).
If an act could be both sinful and inevitable, there must, they reasoned, be no contradiction between moral responsibility and inevitability/predestination/foreordination. This insight implies the historic, Reformed answer to the problem of evil: that the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God planned for evil to occur, and He uses it for His own good purposes.
Stated in its most powerful way, the logical problem of evil is this: A God that would create a world containing evil is not the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God of the Bible; but the God that created this world (if anyone did) is a God that created a world containing evil; therefore, the God that created this world is not the God of the Bible. The first point of this argument sums up a longer argument: Christians believe that (1) the God who created this world is the God of the Bible, and (2) the God who created this world is a God who would create a world containing evil. But, say the anti-theists, Christians should also believe that (3) the God of the Bible is not a God who would create a world containing evil, and therefore, (4) the God who created this world is not the God of the Bible. But (4), though implied by (2) and (3) together, contradicts (1). Therefore the Christian must believe either (4) or (1) but cannot believe both. The anti-theist has posed a powerful dilemma: If you believe that the God of the Bible created this world and that the God who created this world is a God that would create a world containing evil, you must deny (4); and if you believe the God who created this world is a God that would create a world containing evil and that the God of the Bible is not a God that would create a world containing evil, you must affirm (4). But (2) and (3) together are true; therefore (4) is true, so (1) must be false, so the Christian must deny (1) and (2) together and believe (2) and (3) together.
Pantheists and Gnostics answer that evil is an illusion; Open Theists answer that God is not all-powerful and all-knowing, even though He is all-good. Neither of those options is compatible with historic Christian faith. Adherents of the free-will defense, mostly Arminians, answer that creating a moral world without evil is impossible, which, as we have seen, is also mistaken. The Reformed answer of Luther, Calvin, the Westminster Divines, and others, answers that while God could have created only moral creatures that would never sin, He instead created a moral world with creatures whose evil He foreordained for His own good purposes—to display His justice in punishing some (Prov. 16:4) and His grace in redeeming and pardoning others (Eph. 1:5–6; 2:7).
If someone objects that this means that God justifies His means by His ends, the Reformed reply that while an end-justifies-the-means ethic is fallacious for finite men (who can neither control nor know all the results of their choices), it is perfectly fitting for the infinite God (who both controls and knows all the results of His choices). And, after all, God being supreme need not justify His choices to anyone:
So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’ On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? (Rom. 9:15–21 NASB).
In short, anti-theists use the problem of evil to argue that Christianity is inherently self-contradictory because while Christianity explicitly affirms the God of the Bible, it implicitly denies Him by affirming both that He would not create a world containing evil and that the God who created this world did create a world containing evil. The Reformed answer is that the God of the Bible would and did create a world containing evil, and therefore the Christian position does not self-contradict.