The coronavirus crisis is just the latest and perhaps largest example of a problem with which skeptics have been challenging Christians for a very long time. It’s called the problem of evil, and it comes in two primary versions.
Version 1: The Deductive Problem of Evil
One of them, you may be surprised to hear, has been solved to just about everyone’s satisfaction. Called the deductive problem of evil, it’s been expressed like this:
- If God were perfectly loving, he would want to prevent all evil and suffering.
- If God were perfectly powerful, he would be able to prevent all evil and suffering.
- Evil and suffering exist.
- Either God is not perfectly good, or not perfectly powerful, or he doesn’t exist at all.
This one’s been settled. Alvin Plantinga published a book in the mid-1960s that showed it’s false, and pretty much every philosopher since then, atheistic or otherwise, has admitted he’s right. That’s extraordinary, by the way. Philosophers aren’t easily persuaded.
Plantinga showed a major flaw in this reasoning: It only works if the atheist can prove it’s impossible that God could have a morally good enough reason to allow evil and suffering. Plantinga showed that it’s at least possible, whether you believe the Scriptures or not, that God human free will is that good enough reason. Without free will we wouldn’t be fully human. That means specifically that we have freedom to choose either right or wrong. Otherwise it isn’t really free. If we could never choose anything but good, then “good” wouldn’t actually be a choice, would it? It wouldn’t be a free will decision at all.
Plantinga’s answer is called the “free will” explanation or defense. Of course, the account in Genesis 3 tells us that this is very much what happened.
Again, just to review: The atheist argument depends on its being impossible for God to have a morally sufficient reason to allow evil and suffering; Plantinga proved it’s not impossible. The atheists thought they had disproved God completely; Planting showed they hadn’t proved a thing. This version of the problem of evil has been solved.
Version 2: The Evidential Problem of Evil
Still the skeptics push back: “Okay, we haven’t shown that evil proves that God couldn’t possibly exist. We admit that. But look at how much evil and suffering there is! Doesn’t that tell you it’s incredibly unlikely that there’s a perfectly good and powerful God?”
The challenge only gains force in a time of worldwide pandemic. But does it do what the atheist wants it to do? Does it really tell us God is so unlikely, we shouldn’t believe in him?
Character Growth as One Purpose for Allowing Evil and Suffering
Remember the previous page in this session. Christians hold that God has good purposes in mind that are beyond our understanding at this time. One of them is soul-building, which we could also call giving individuals the opportunity to grow in faith and character.
Such growth comes by the grace of God, but Scripture also makes it clear that it’s our privilege to participate in the process, and to reap the rewards of doing so. Part of that reward is the simple — yet eternal — satisfaction of maturity, virtue, character, and the closeness to Christ that comes with it.
But experience shows us that growth comes through hardship. We grow in faith and in character strength through our own response to difficulties; we grow in love through helping others in trouble; we grow in hope through seeing God bring us through these difficulties. We grow especially in our love for God through the discovery that he’s great enough to bring joy and life into the most difficult circumstances.
Other Reasons God May Allow It
This is but one of the many possible reasons God might allow evil and suffering. We can’t forget that we bring a lot of it on ourselves, and that God is simply allowing humanity to experience the consequences of its own actions. He will judge evil in the end, so injustice will not finally prevail. That, too, is good.
Our session here has in fact covered several answers to this version of the problem of evil:
- God allows it so we can have free will, which is essential to being human.
- God uses it for the good purpose of building souls for eternity.
- God will judge evil in the end, so that justice is ensured.
- God has purposes and plans in mind that are far beyond our ability to see or understand.
These answers should satisfy the person who’s willing to accept the possibility, or better yet the reality, that God is God and we are not. Obviously, not all skeptics are willing to go there; some have trouble even understanding what it would mean to go there.
Most skeptics don’t even understand they’ve got their own “problem of evil.” Read on!