We routinely speak of “the problem of evil.” But during the Christian era there have been two main problems of evil, and it is important to distinguish these, as well as how Christians ought to respond to them. Let us consider each in turn.
The Christian Problem
The first—let’s call it the Christian problem of evil—is: How could evil occur in a world made good by God? It has as a fundamental assumption that God exists, that He is the good Creator of all that is, and that what He created expresses that character, and asks: So why evil? Put more biblically, why the fall? And in particular, why has evil occurred in a situation in which it could have been prevented?
This is the question that Augustine wrestled with as he sought to free his thinking from the dualism of the Manichees. Evil occurs because God, who could have prevented it, permits it. The permission of evil is under the control of God. To say that it is permitted is to underline the point because God is not Himself evil and could not be the author of evil (James 1:13). It is vital to stress this. But it is not as if, when evil occurs, God temporarily loses control of the universe that He has created and sustains and governs. The evil that was permitted could have been prevented, and the permission bounds the action in question. It is specific permission, not the sort of permission as when the teacher says to the class: “You may all now choose any book from the library.” There is a vivid instance of this in the book of Job, where the Lord permits Satan to afflict Job, but at the same time bounds his activity (Job 1:12).
Note, however, that the question that divine permission is at least part of an answer to is “Why is there evil in a world created good by God?” and not the question: “How did evil occur in a world made good by God?” I think it is fair to say that a great deal of mystery attaches to the “How?” question, though mystery does not mean logical incoherence, as some have claimed. Mankind was created good, but not as good as can be; John Calvin went so far as to describe unfallen mankind as “weak, frail and liable to fall.”
In saying that the fall was willingly permitted by God, that it could have been prevented, the church is indicating that what occurred was part of some wider purpose that God has. It is vital to remember that in saying this, the church or the Christian is not claiming to have detailed answers to every evil. Much of the character of this “wider purpose” is hidden from us. Scripture indicates that sometimes there is a judgmental reason (as with Pharoah) or a disciplinary reason (1 Peter 1:6–9) why evils occur. But at other times biblical writers are struck dumb in the face of evil. (Ps. 38:13), and the best that a person can manage is to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). We must beware of attempting to put ourselves in the place of God.
Besides appealing to the idea of divine permission, various ways of thinking have been proposed to help us safeguard this goodness of God in the face of evil. The first, of course, is to stress human responsibility for the evil that men and women think and do. If we are to be faithful to Scripture, then its own stress on God’s sovereign control must not be allowed to compromise its equal stress on our accountability and sin. Writers such as Augustine have also underlined God’s goodness with the idea that evil is not anything positive, but rather it is a lack or loss, just as blindness is not something positive but is a lack or loss. To say that evil is not “real” in this sense is not, of course, to say that evil has no real effects, that it is all “in the mind,” as Christian Scientists teach. As we know all too readily, evil has horrendous effects. There is a good deal in what Augustine says. After all, if God, the supreme being, is goodness itself, and if the world was created good by Him, then how could He, supremely good as He is, entertain an evil thought or have an evil intention? So sin and evil are departures from the true goodness of God; we have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).
There is yet another way to approach this. At the end of the story of Joseph in Genesis, after his father Jacob had died, his brothers who had sent him into Egypt pleaded with Joseph for forgiveness. In his gracious reply Joseph said, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). He draws our attention to what we might call two levels of activity. There is the level of human intention, the wicked intentions of Joseph’s brothers. And then there is a higher level, the level of God’s intention, which often does not coincide with the human intention, and in this case most certainly did not. Joseph’s being sent into Egypt was both the result of God’s good intention, His intention to preserve His people during a time of famine, and the brothers’ evil intentions, to do away with Joseph. How these intentions mesh together is a marvel, a mystery, the outcome of divine goodness and wisdom. But Scripture affirms that they do, and that this is one, important way for us to think of God’s relation to evil.
These various ways of thinking about God: The idea of divine permission of evil, of evil as a no-thing and therefore unable to be willed by God, and the idea of “levels of intention” are not rivals. They can all consistently be combined to defeat the idea that, given the occurrence of evil exists in a world made good by God, God is not Himself wicked, the “author of sin.”
The Atheistic Problem
But there is a second problem of evil—let’s call this the “atheistic” problem. It’s the one we are likely most commonly to meet in our secular culture. The argument is: if we assume that God is all-powerful and all-good, how is it that there can be evil? For the existence of evil appears to imply that God is not both all-powerful and all-good, otherwise He would not allow it, or that He would at once eliminate it at its first appearance. But there is evil, much evil. Therefore God cannot be all-powerful and all-good. And since being all-powerful and being all-good are essential attributes of God (features that God, if He exists, must possess), we must conclude that (since evil manifestly exists) God does not exist. This problem is not a product of Christian thought but of the secular Enlightenment. It is an argument for atheism. What are we to say? As Christians we must say that God is able at once to eliminate all evil if He chose to. Is God then not all good? The argument assumes, I think, that by “the goodness of God” is meant His overriding benevolence. God is portrayed, in the argument, as one whose benevolence could not allow Him to tolerate the existence of evil, with the pain and misery it brings with it, for a single moment. So the continued evil in the world is said to show that there cannot be a benevolent God. Behind the argument is the following thought: a kind, benevolent person does his best to eliminate evil; so should God.
But the goodness of God has a deeper and richer (and more mysterious) character than benevolence alone. It comprises God’s entire character; not only His benevolence, expressed in His daily care for us, but also His righteousness and His wisdom. And Scripture teaches us that God has purposes that go beyond the immediate elimination of all evil. Some would give a central place in these purposes to God’s respect for human free will. It is said that He values free will above all else, and in giving us the use of our freedom He is willing to accept the consequences, that we regularly do what is evil. But it is hard to see that this is a biblical position, which portrays the Lord as having the hearts of men and women in His hand, as being able to turn them wherever He wills (Prov. 21:1). God could prevent evil without violating our freedom. And it might be asked: Is the possession of free will such a value as to outweigh the evils that it is said to bring?
In order to come to terms with evil, we need to develop a more God-centered perspective and recognize that God has purposes beyond those that we can presently fathom. Some of these are hinted at in Scripture: “No eye has seen…an eternal weight of glory” (1 Cor. 2:16; 2 Cor. 4:17). And there is a dark side, the fate of the lost, of the impenitent, the God-defying. His judgments are unsearchable. But we do well not to speculate about the future, but to live in the present, to wrestle with the evil of our own hearts, to identify ourselves with those who suffer the effects of evil, and to attempt to do good as we have opportunity, and to live for the day in which the kingdom of the world shall become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ (Rev. 11:15).