Why does God allow evil? It’s not a mystery

Clay Jones debates the problem of evil and suffering.
Clay Jones debates the problem of evil and suffering.

Fresh on the heels of yesterday’s widely read and discussed post about The Issue, which came by way of a debate on the Unbelievable? podcast, is this timely debate on evil and suffering, between Clay Jones, a professor of apologetics at Biola University, and atheist philosopher Richard Norman.

The discussion begins with Norman’s conceding that the logical problem of evil doesn’t hold. The logical problem, popularly formulated by David Hume, is this: “Is he [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?”

No, Norman agrees that if God has good reasons for permitting evil—in spite of God’s goodness and power—then there is no logical problem. But, he says, the only justification that a Christian can give for those reasons is to appeal to mystery: we trust that reasons exist, but we don’t or can’t know what they are.

This appeal to mystery is very popular in mainline Protestant seminary: “Don’t even go there,” we’re told. “Don’t even try to explain evil and suffering. It’s all a mystery.”

Oh, please! I am weary of these platitudes. Aren’t you? We don’t want to be glib about it. But we can articulate some reasons, in general, for evil and suffering, even if we can’t say with certainty why God allows a particular instance of evil and suffering. While there are many things we can’t know about evil and suffering, this isn’t to say it’s a mystery as to why God allows them in the first place.

Be that as it may, in his defense of God’s goodness and power, Clay Jones doesn’t appeal to mystery:

We know why God allows evil. The Bible tells us, and I’m going to be presenting the biblical case for why God allows evil. But some listeners… may go, “Well, I don’t agree with the things taught in the Bible.” I understand that, but that’s an entirely different debate. If you want to know why the Christian thinks God is right to allow the evils he allows, then the Christian is going to have to appeal to the Bible. And the fact the skeptic doesn’t agree with that explanation isn’t relevant. They say, “Yeah, but I don’t agree with the Bible.” But that’s not the point. The Christian isn’t trying to defend a God the skeptic will agree with.

To convince the skeptic that the Bible is right about the God revealed therein is a different task, he says.

Here are Jones’s seven reasons that God allows evil:

  1. “God chose to create beings with free will. And it is impossible even for God to create free beings without allowing those free beings to use their free will wrongly.”
  2. God created humans with free will, warned them that death would follow as a consequence of using their free will wrongly. When they did so, God cursed the ground, enabling all kinds of pestilence, and then removed their access to the rejuvenating power of the Tree of Life, “and we’ve been attending funerals ever since.”
  3. “Natural” evil—tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, cancers, etc.—is largely a result of living in a cursed world.
  4. Although God could intervene regularly to stop suffering, he wants humans to learn the consequences of rebellion and their own actions, which is life without his constant protection.
  5. Natural laws must work in regular ways if our actions are to mean anything at all.
  6. “The knowledge we are learning about the consequences of rebellion against God is preparing us to be fit citizens of God’s kingdom—where we’re going to have free will, but choose not to sin because we’ve learned that sin here is stupid.”
  7. “Those who learned that rebellion is stupid and trust Jesus will be given eternal life, and that eternal life—very important point—will dwarf our sufferings to insignificance.”

He goes on to caution that he would normally spend 24 hours unpacking each of these points.

I largely agree with each of these. I would emphasize in points 2 and 3, however, that the creation of free beings capable of rebelling against God extends to the spiritual realm, where free angelic beings also chose to sin. They have a causal relationship to natural evil in our world—even if we can’t say with certainty what that relationship is.

I also wonder to what extent so-called “natural evil” existed from the beginning—with the understanding that we humans ascribe “evil” to an otherwise neutral, natural event—and humanity’s expulsion from the Garden meant that they were now exposed to what was already in Creation.

In other words, could it be that life outside the Garden was always harsh, and the Fall meant that Adam and Eve were no longer protected from this harsh reality? If humankind had remained in a perfect relationship with God, God would have ensured that they not be caught within the path of a tornado, for example—not that the tornado didn’t exist. Do you see the difference? This is all speculative, of course, and it doesn’t matter for Jones’s argument.

Most of the debate centered on points 1, 4, and 5, which form the heart of the “free will defense.” Norman conceded that, to some extent, God couldn’t create beings with free will who couldn’t be free to misuse that freedom. Nevertheless, why couldn’t a benevolent and all-powerful God create a world in which my misuse of free will wouldn’t cause the suffering of others? Why not simply allow my sin to affect me and not others?

For one thing, Jones said, if we possess love for others, then other people’s suffering—even if they bring it on themselves—would cause suffering for the people who love them.

For another, if God intervened every time one person’s actions would harm someone else, God would be intervening in our world literally millions of times a day. What then becomes of a world governed by predictable natural laws? Point 5 would go out the window.

Yes, Norman said, but Jones was still thinking about life in this world. Couldn’t an omnipotent God have created another kind of world in which we don’t suffer consequences from other people’s evil actions?

When Jones challenged him to explain what that world would look like, or how it could be different from ours, Norman said that wasn’t his problem: he isn’t an omnipotent God. But there’s no logical reason why God couldn’t make such a world happen.

Perhaps, Jones said, but it couldn’t be world in which we are as free as we are in this one. And God wanted us to be as free as we are in this world. Even Norman conceded the point.

Jones’s defense is nothing short of brilliant. Listen for yourself, and I think you’ll agree.

15 thoughts on “Why does God allow evil? It’s not a mystery”

  1. Great post. If I might posit a proposed answer to your natural disasters suggestion, I think there were no tornadoes in the “outside the Garden” world. Paul says, “The whole creation groans and travails until now.” There were no “thorns and thistles.”

    Also, I totally agree that allowance of disasters is a predicate for showing certain aspects of love that we would not otherwise have. God created mankind knowing they would sin, and had a plan for that–including particularly the death of Christ, who was “slain from the foundation of the world.”

    1. I guess I’m wondering if Creation’s “being subjected to futility” might have more to do with the ways in which humanity has messed it up by failing to live in harmony with God. And maybe the thorns and thistles existed, but they weren’t previously a part of Adam and Eve’s experience. But I take your point.

      1. Grant makes a great point. The Creation narrative should be the first place we start when thinking about natural disasters. The shutting off of Adam and Eve from God’s garden/presence and the curse that comes upon them and the creation that were given to care for should be the starting point for thinking about natural disasters.

        We are looking forward to a time in which the lion will lay down with the lamb and the bear will eat straw like the ox. A day when Jesus, the King of Kings, reigns over all creation – the one who can say to the storm, “Be still!” and it will obey him. He is the only one who can guide us, care for us, and protect us as we spin around on this giant mud ball that is revolving around a raging furnace at billion, trillion miles an hour.

      2. My only pushback to this assertion is that natural disasters aren’t necessarily “disastrous” except inasmuch as we humans get in the way of them. A forest fire, for example, is good for the ecosystems affected by them. It makes them stronger and healthier than they would otherwise be. Other types of disasters may be equally beneficial for all I know. I guess what I’m suggesting is the possibility that in the fall what changes is not nature, per se, but humanity’s relationship to it.

        For example, suppose we humans could live in a relationship of perfect trust with God, such that we had no fear whatsoever—even in relating to nature, including wildlife. Who knows what impact that would have? Who knows whether that could change the way wild animals relate to us?

        Just pure speculation on my part. Old Testament scholar John Goldingay, an English evangelical scholar who retired from Fuller Seminary, argues that the Garden itself was a place of special protection, not what’s outside of it—and that God deliberately leaves Creation “unfinished,” intending for us to finish it and tame it in some way.

      3. But your illustration of Jesus calming the storm is an interesting one. Perhaps in a pre-Fall world, we too could have such faith in our Father that we could still the wind and waves.

      4. We will not need ecosystems when the New Jerusalem and “God lives among men again” – the good news of the Book of Revelation.

        My point is that, when our ancestors disobeyed God, and were thus cast out of His presence, they entered into an existence of not being in a Creation that was designed for them but not having the ability to “subdue” that creation – a power that is only found in walking in their good Creator’s ways and walking with Him in a right and truthful relationship. The return of Christ will right this wrong and, in turn, bring healing to all creation.

        I’m glad you guys are having a conversation about these things. Grant and Brent, you are some of the best theological conversing partners. As Grant said recently, we would make a great Bible study group.

        The recent earthquake in Nepal really bothered me. So many lives lost. I’m sure glad that I have a better answer than the Calvinists. But it still bothered me. In college, about 7 years ago, a huge tornado hit our campus and was feet away from the family dorms that I lived in. Me, my wife, and my little 4 year boy could have been crushed. Praise God, none of the students were killed – and man, it looks like a disaster zone. It was a miracle that everyone survived – a real miracle. I got down and prayed when I heard the sirens go off. And then, like a big dumbass, went out to the store across the road. All I can say is that God is merciful. Sorry for rambling but this issue of natural disasters is something that I’ve been wrestling with God a bit this week.

  2. Paul J. Griffiths (Duke) in “DECREATION: The Last Things of all Creatures” is helpful here.

    We live in the devastation. “The damage effected by these falls (by angels, and then Eve and Adam) these turnings away from the LORD’s face and toward the void, is deep and universal; it is evident not only in the animate creatures who initiate it (angels and humans), but also in all others, animate and inanimate. Its principal sign is death; its associated indicators are chaos and violence. . . . . their effect is to turn a transcendently beautiful cosmos into a devastated world in which there are only traces of glory.”

      1. Its Griffiths’ very recently published (Baylor) speculation concerning the last eschaton, the “novissimum.”

        Catholic theology makes so much sense. There’s dogmatic theology and speculative theology.

        In United Methodist circles, all theology is speculative. It’s the devastation.

      1. The UMC has no center, no true teaching (dogma) concerning either God or man that we all take as true. Sure, we have the thirty-nine articles, the sermons, and even the Apostles Creed; we cannot agree even on whether or not we are confessional. Therefore all of our theologizing is speculative–personal opinion or”interpretation.”

      2. I hear you. If we were truly evangelical, with a strong commitment to the authority of scripture, the extent to which we were confessional wouldn’t matter. But we can’t agree on the kind of authority that the Bible represents. Nearly every argument about sexuality, for example, is really about our view of scripture.

  3. Exactly. If you haven’t read Bp (Retired) Timothy Whitaker’s essay on Homosexuality and the Church (it’s at flaumc.org, but I can’t access it right now for some reason) I recommend it. A biblical anthropology would provide tremendous light on all of our sexuality issues. Consulting John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (you can find Paul J. Griffiths’ lectures to NCConference UM’s at the lifewatch.org website) would be even better.

    Evangelical (to plegarize Thomas Howard) is not enough (Adam Hamilton, and many others demonstrate that) but it would be a good start. We need to be evangelical and catholic.

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