Episode #65: The Problem of Evil, Part 1

by Derek Brown & Cliff McManis

In this first episode of a three-part series, pastors Derek and Cliff explain the problem of evil and discuss a few of the most common solutions.


Derek: Welcome to With All Wisdom, where we are applying Biblical truth to everyday life. My name is Derek Brown and I’m here today with Cliff McManis. We are both pastors and elders at Creekside Bible Church in Cupertino, California and professors of theology at the Cornerstone Bible College and Seminary in Vallejo, California. And today we want to talk about the problem of evil—a very challenging topic for Christians and a difficult topic to discuss with unbelievers. And so we hope that this will be helpful to you as you think through this issue on your own, but also as you engage with others. But before we get to our topic, we want to encourage you to check out WithAllWisdom.org, where you will find a large and growing collection of biblical resources that are aimed at helping you grow in your walk with the Lord—grow theologically, grow spiritually, and be able to handle the Word of truth, handle the Bible well, and be able to understand and discern cultural trends and serve others with that knowledge. And so check out WithAllWisdom.org. We also have our podcast hosted there, and you can find all our podcasts that we’ve done in the past along with many articles.

And now on to our topic, the problem of evil. As I mentioned, this is a hefty, heavy topic. It’s been a center of opposition against Christianity for centuries. People use it as an argument against the Christian faith, but it’s also a topic that has challenged Christians as they think about who God is and what he’s doing in the world and how evil fits in with that and how bad things fit in with that and how it is that God, who is good, has allowed evil things to occur in his creation. And so we need to take this topic up and we need to do it thoroughly. We need to do it biblically and we need to do some hard thinking. Because I do think, in the end, if we do think clearly and biblically about this, we’re going to be blessed, deeply and spiritually.

Our vision of God is going to be right. We’re going to not have a kind of cognitive dissonance happening all the time when we think about the goodness of God and the reality of evil in the world. And I think we’re also going to have an adequate and robust answer to offer to unbelievers about who God is. And we’ll talk more about that, because even as we discuss the problem of evil with unbelievers, there are some things we need to know about how that discussion will go and how to handle those kinds of conversations. So we will definitely talk about that. But we need to get right into stating the problem. What is the problem of evil? Well, it is a problem in as much as it’s hard initially to discern some premises that seem to conflict with one another. So here’s how the problem is typically stated. If—first point—if God exists, and 2) he is good, and 3) he is sovereign and all powerful, then here’s the question: how can evil exist?

So let me just state the problem again. If God exists and he is good and all-sovereign and all-powerful, then how can evil exist and what do we mean by evil? Well, a couple of things. Moral evil is evil committed by a moral agent or an image-bearer—evil committed by another person. And then there is something called natural evil, which is harm caused by a sinful, cursed creation. And we would consider this natural evil when the creation that is now in a fallen state brings about destructive and harmful conditions for humans. And so you have these elements within the world, within the creation—moral evil and natural evil. They clearly exist, or at least will go on a show from a Christian worldview. You can say that they (don’t) exist, but these things exist. They’re in the world. And Christians also believe that God is good and that he’s also in control of all things. So when you take all those things into account, you have a bit of a problem because you wonder, okay, how is it that God could allow evil to exist? Does he have good reasons for it? And as we’ve mentioned, unbelievers will take aim at this issue and use it as a weapon against Christianity. So we do need to have an answer. But Cliff, I want to ask you, how would you frame this? Is this an adequate way to frame the problem or would you suggest different ways or add some elements?

Cliff: No, I think you got the essence of it. So critics of Christianity have been arguing for decades, if not longer, from David Hume and other critics of the faith through the years. They think that the problem of evil—they have come up with it—is the silver bullet that undermines and discredits Christianity once and for all, right? And disproves the existence of God as he’s described in the Bible. And they summarize it down into a really simple syllogism, as you just gave. And just to reiterate what you said, the main points there are that they describe the God of the Bible with these two statements: if God is good, or what they mean is if God is truly loving as the Bible says, then he would want to prevent evil.

And then point number two, as you said: if he’s all-powerful, which the Bible says he is, then he has the ability to stop it. So if your God of the Bible truly is loving and he’s all-powerful, he has the ability to prevent evil, therefore he would do it. Yet, as you pointed out, the reality is we look around, and there is evil in the world and apparently there has been for quite some time. Therefore, that discredits the God of the Bible, who we claim is loving and all-powerful. Therefore, because there’s evil in the world, your God of the Bible is either not loving after all or he’s not all-powerful and he can’t stop it even though he is loving. He would like to, but he’s not all-powerful. Therefore, your God of the Bible doesn’t exist. Or they would also say that your God of the Bible is neither loving nor all-powerful. And then so voila! They have just discredited the history of Christianity and biblical religion in a three-point syllogism. Isn’t that amazing? That’s kind of scary.

So that’s the way they summarize it and that’s the way they articulate it. That’s the traditional definition of the problem of evil in that syllogism that, I mean, some would say goes back to Epicurus in 300 BC, the Greek philosopher. But the Greek philosopher—he wasn’t coming up with this syllogism about God to discredit religion. He was just making an observation that, wow, there seems to be a higher deity. And yet at the same time there’s evil in the world. And so his motives for articulating it were very different than these who attacked the faith belligerently, known as the new atheists. You’re familiar with those guys in the early two thousands who wrote just a string of best-sellers and really popularized this whole dialogue like never before, with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stringer—these are some of the guys, and their best-sellers that came out.

The God Delusion. God is not great—just the title is offensive. I remember when those came out. I saw them in Barnes and Noble, and they were all plastered all over the front as you walk in the front door, and people were buying ’em like hot cakes. And they were called the “new atheists.” And they weren’t just philosophers who were agnostics or didn’t believe in God. They had a mission in life to attack the God of the Bible and Christians and God himself. And at the heart of all their arguments in all those books, they are raising the problem of evil and they’re articulating it in this way, in this syllogism, and they think their silly little three-point syllogism validates what they’re saying and discredits Christianity and the truth of the Bible, right? So they brought this issue to the surface at a popular level like never before.

Derek: Well, that’s a helpful—actually brief—history, and it is one of the ways that solutions have been proposed. So I wanted to talk briefly about some of the solutions that have been proposed, and you’ve already talked about one of them. Atheism is a proposed solution. You could say that within the points that I brought up about the components of the problem—God exists, he’s good, he’s sovereign. Then how can evil exist? Well, if you remove God from that equation, then you don’t really have a problem anymore because you can just say you’ve argued that they are stating that the God of the Bible cannot possibly exist given the existence of evil. Therefore, it’s silly. It’s irrational to believe in the God of the Bible or to believe in God at all. And you remove that higher power, that deity, or the God of the Bible from existence, and you really no longer have a problem anymore. And we’ll actually talk about how that comes back to bite the atheist in a little bit. But that is one way that you could solve the problem—simply take God out of the equation.

Cliff: They do that. Yeah. Richard Dawkins would be an example. We can talk about him later, but that’s what he does. He thinks that just by removing God, you’ve solved the problem.

Derek: Another way you could solve the problem potentially is by saying that God is not all-good. And this would be kind of a pantheistic approach—that the good things that people do and the bad things that people do are all in God. And that would be a potential solution. You could suggest that because God is all, and you have within God people who are doing good things and people who are doing bad things, therefore, God is not all-good. You can’t say that he’s all-good, but that seems to present some kind of solution. You’re kind of tweaking the first one. You tweak the first element. You say, okay, that God doesn’t exist. The second proposed solution, you tweak the other element saying that in some sophisticated way God is not good. And that could potentially alleviate some of the problem. But as we’ll see as again, and as we’ll walk through these other issues, it doesn’t solve the problem at all. And those are non-Christian approaches, I would say. Those are clearly non-Christian approaches to the problem of evil. But there have been Christian proposals as to how you solve this problem of evil. And I want to talk about some of those, unless you had anything you wanted to say about either of those two potential solutions—removing God out of it or claiming that God is not all-good and that he’s not a personal deity as such. He’s more of just in everything and encompasses everything, both good and evil.

Cliff: The pantheism view, which is basically that God is one with creation. Creation is God. God is creation. And really what they’re saying is that everything shares the same essence in nature ultimately. And that God is at the top of the totem pole. And then that which is evil is at the bottom of the totem pole. I think [that was] Aristotle’s view, and even Plato. The greatest good is at the top of the totem pole, which he would call the “Good” with the capital G, which was his view of God and which was an impersonal God. But that’s the aspiration of where we want to reach. And at the bottom of the totem pole is evil, and that is the way they defined it. Evil is a privation of the good, but the bottom line is they put God and evil on the same continuum in terms of nature, and so they remove the dividing line of God as the creator versus the creation, which is huge. The problem with that is that Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s adopted some of Aristotle’s view about the nature of evil. He literally defined it as the privation of the good. What he’s doing is he’s getting that from Aristotle, who had a totally pagan worldview. Unfortunately, you’ve then got guys like Norm Geisler, the modern day apologist, who’s buying into a lot of what Aristotle’s saying. So even pantheism has unfortunately crept into modern day Christian apologists and how they’re trying to answer this problem.

Derek: Well, that’s interesting. So even though it’s not a Christian solution, it nevertheless has influenced potential Christian solutions to the problem of evil. That’s interesting.

Cliff: It has, yeah. One thing I wrote in my book in the chapter on the problem of evil is, I quote all these guys like RC Sproul and William Lane Craig and Norm Geisler. I mean, you take your pick of the most popular Christian apologists and see how they define evil. And they, all of ’em, across the board, say evil is the privation of good. Where in the world did they get that, right? They got it from Thomas Aquinas. Where did he get that? He stole it from Aristotle.

Derek: Yeah.

Cliff: So they don’t even have a biblical definition of evil to start their explanation of how to tackle this problem.

Derek: Wow, that’s important. Just for our listeners, the book you’re referring to is Apologetics by the Book, is that right? So we also have a link to that at WithAllWisdom.org.

Cliff: Then we did a rendition with a little book, and it’s just simply called The Problem of Evil.

Derek: Oh, that’s right. Yeah, exactly. So we do have that. You could check out the big Apologetics by the Book or you can check out our Big Truth|little books version, which is a book specifically addressing the problem of evil. Alright, so within the Christian tradition, you do have some attempts at solving this problem of evil. And one is what you would call, generally speaking, a free will defense. And what is the free will defense? Well, the free will defense basically sees God as valuing something very highly, namely man’s free will, and we’ll define what free will is because they’re assuming a particular definition of free will—libertarian free will—in their formulations. But nevertheless, they see that in order for God to have a genuine relationship with humanity, humanity needs to be able to choose God freely out of their own free will and, therefore, he has allowed man to be able to choose his own course, so to speak.

And in choosing evil now, they’re also able to freely choose to believe and to love God. And so the free will defense is that evil has come about because God has given man free will and in valuing free will and valuing that free choice of man to choose God. Evil has come about because man has chosen evil. Some people have chosen evil, and so within this framework you have two general groups. You would have the Arminian free will defense, and you’d have the open theist free will defense. I do want to talk about this issue of free will for a moment though, because this is actually quite a significant point and I don’t think, at least in my discussions, it does not seem that Christians are aware of how significant this issue is—of specifically how you define the freedom of our wills. So just a couple of terms here.

The first one is libertarian free will. So that is how those who take a free will defense would define the freedom of the will. How is our will free? This is how they are free. You are free in as much as you’re able to choose something or its contrary without any internal or external compulsion. You are the prime mover, unmoved, as some have said. And only if you’re able to choose in that way are you truly free. And this view of the will is actually kind of the default. Most people would believe that even if they’re not able to articulate it that way. And it’s kind of just the way philosophers by and large have conceived of free will, this idea of something called libertarian free will. And so within that then, did you, Cliff, did you have anything you wanted to say about this issue of libertarian free will? We’ll go on to define free will differently, but anything that you wanted to touch on with regard to free will?

Cliff: Yeah, just to echo what you’re saying, I think I would just summarize in the Christian world when you’re reading apologetics books, all of which deal with the problem of evil at some point, from so-called Christians, there’s three main views. I think there’s the biblical view, which you and I hold, and then there’s two other popular Christian views. One is a philosophical response, not a theological one. And then the theological one is the free will view that you’re talking about. So just to kind of frame it and put it in people so they could simplify looking at three possible Christian views and definitely the free one is one of the most popular, and exactly what you’re talking about.

Derek: And just briefly before we step into the actual defenses of this position and the way they articulate their solution for the problem of evil, in the biblical view of the human will, we would also say that the will is free, but in which way are we free? We’re free to do what we most want to do and at every moment in every decision. That decision, in the moment of deciding, we’ve done what we most want to do. And when it comes to good and evil, particularly when it comes to believing in Christ and loving God in our natural state, what we most want to do is sin and evil. We don’t most want to seek after the Lord and believe in the Lord and so on. And so we do believe in the freedom of the will, but we believe biblically and even experientially. I’ve done kind of thought experiments with my seminary students to help them see that no, we always at the moment of decision, choose what we most want to choose and to help them to see that this idea of absolute libertarian freedom is a fantasy. It’s not real.

Cliff: Can I comment on that? Derek, just to expound on what you’re saying, this idea of this notion that we have absolute freedom and absolute independence—it’s just practically absurd if you think about it. I mean, I don’t have absolutely absolute freedom about anything in life. My freedom is mitigated by all kinds of factors, and many factors I’m not even aware of. But just from a practical point of view and a biblical point of view, I have freedom, but it’s freedom on a leash. And I think it’s freedom on a really short leash because my freedom is limited by the fact that I’m a finite being. My freedom is limited by the fact that I’m a sinner. And that’s Paul in Romans 7:14-25. He has these desires, even desires he wants to do right, that he can’t do. Why? Because he’s limited from doing what he wants to do because of his own sin.

And it drives him crazy by it. My freedom is limited by other people’s free choices against me when I’m driving on the freeway. I want to do this, I will to go this way, I want to go in the right lane and somebody’s in my way or traffic has come to a halt. My freedom is limited by my responsibilities and accountability I have in life. My freedom is limited by God’s will and desire, which is greater than mine. My freedom is limited by the reality that Satan exists and he seeks to thwart my decisions all the time, even many times unbeknownst to me, and demons that are real. My freedom is limited by this fallen cursed world that I live in. I mean, just go on and on. Just the circle of my freedom actually gets smaller and smaller when you actually consider all those—the limiting forces just crouching in on my so-called freedom. And then you get married and you have less freedom because then there’s your wife and then you have four kids and your freedom becomes even less. And then you’re just sitting there thinking, boy, I don’t have any freedom.

Derek: Well, and that’s such an excellent point, too. And we are clearly influenced by all those factors, but then also our own desires and our history, our background and all those things. And it becomes pretty apparent, I think if you’re open to it, that this idea of libertarian freedom being the prime mover, unmoved is not even close to reality. And what’s important as we talk about God’s sovereignty is all the things that you just explained and listed in terms of limiting factors. God is sovereign over all of those things meticulously, and therefore can sway our lives and wills and moves throughout history in the way that he pleases. And so that’ll be an important point as we continue to talk about this. Well, theologians who find themselves within the Arminian tradition, and that’s just a reference to a tradition that goes back to Jacob Arminius, who lived in the 17th century and who was a theologian who formulated ideas of God’s sovereignty that we believe are subpar and sub-biblical.

But folks within this tradition would say that God was able to prevent evil, but he chose to allow it because the possibility of evil guarantees that humans would have the freedom necessary in order to make what they call meaningful choices. And so by understanding, again, freedom is libertarian freedom. This is the only way that God could allow his image bearers to have meaningful choices and therefore have a meaningful and true and genuine relationship with him. And so he allowed for what they say is the possibility of evil. Now, Arminians would say that God is sovereign, that he even has exhaustive foreknowledge. And that’s an important point because there’s another group that actually comes out of Arminianism called open theists, and they would say that God has actually actively chosen, at the creation of the world, to limit his knowledge so that he can’t know the future.

He’s taking a risk, as it were, and this is the same kind of risk that we take when we love other people. Love is inherently risk-taking. God doesn’t know what his free creatures are going to do, but he continues to respond. And they would say that God’s sovereignty is so amazing that he is able to respond even to the things that he didn’t know would happen. But they would say, because God values human freedom just like Arminians do, he has chosen to limit his control over and knowledge of the universe. And he’s chosen to limit his knowledge of the future so that in the universe he’s created, he can’t know what his creatures are going to do because they have libertarian freedom.

They’re the prime mover, unmoved, and therefore God can’t know what they’re going to do. And therefore God did not actively will evil. It is the result of man’s free choice to sin, but God is able through his sovereignty to bring to pass a redemptive plan in response to man’s sin. And those two are related. In fact, I would say that open theism is just the logical endpoint of Arminianism, even though Arminians would say that they have a stronger view of God’s sovereignty than open. I think once you have bought into libertarian free will, you kind of have to go the open theist route, because I don’t see how God could know the future of free creatures of a prime mover, unmoved, right? So anyways, that’s a little deep theology. But my point is simply to say that within the Christian tradition, you have folks who are trying to make an argument for a solution to the problem of evil that is inadequate because it begins with the wrong view of human freedom, and it’s inevitably going to lead to a wrong view of God and his power and his sovereignty. But nevertheless, this is an attempt to explain the problem of evil and really try to get God off the hook. He didn’t really know.

Cliff: Well, that is the issue of what’s driving this Arminian free will so-called solution to the problem of evil, which didn’t really exist in the way you’re articulating it prior to John Calvin in the history of the church. Because most Christian thinkers throughout the history of the church up until the Reformation just took the Bible at face value.

Derek: Right.

Cliff: And they didn’t have a problem with God’s sovereignty. They didn’t have a problem with the problem of evil. But this Arminian view and this free will view really is a reaction to taking the Bible literally as articulated by Martin Luther and John Calvin. And that is a strong view of God’s sovereignty just as it’s laid out in the Bible. So really they’re trying to rescue what they think is a distorted character of God that is in the Bible if you just read it and take it at face value. And because they have to excuse God or they’re embarrassed by the God that’s portrayed in the Scriptures. And we can look at some of those key Scriptures that say what God is truly like, but at the heart of these people who are holding the free will view that they think solves the problem of evil—the essence of their argument is they’re saying that the greatest virtue is love on God’s part.

And the greatest act of love is that he would create free, independent human beings who could make a choice, either yes or no, for him. In other words, if God just created humans that were robots and always did the right thing all the time and never chose sin, then that’s not loving because God couldn’t have a deep, personal, intimate, real, dynamic relationship with a robot. So God wants the fullness of a personal relationship, and that demands that when he created humans, they had to have the right to choose yes or no; to obey or disobey. And that was God’s manifestation of the greatest virtue, which they say is love. So they say love is driving their view. And I would just say at the heart of it, love isn’t necessarily the highest virtue. I think the highest virtue from God’s point of view in Scripture is the glory of God. And that’s going to be at the root of what we think the biblical solution is. So yeah, it’s not preserving man’s freedom. So he can either choose yes or no, right? Because they’re arguing that they can’t imagine a world in which there are human beings who don’t have the ability to choose wrong. And I’m thinking, well then, what is heaven?

Derek: Exactly.

Cliff: That is heaven. Anybody that’s in heaven, a human being, they will be there for all eternity. They will have free volition and independence, and they will never choose to sin.

Derek: Praise God.

Cliff: Yes. So it is possible. It’s called heaven.

Derek: Yeah, it’s an excellent point. And actually that’s going to be one of our answers to these, what we think are inadequate solutions, particularly this free will defense. So why don’t we do this? Why don’t we wrap things up for this episode, and then in the next episode, dive right into the answers to these common solutions that we just talked about. And that way, there’s kind of a clean break. We can come back and we can talk specifically about the way we’re going to answer these common solutions. But I hope this has been a helpful introduction.

Cliff: Can I just make a quick footnote to our listeners? Because there’s so many books on this issue, it’s like, how do you know who’s saying the right thing? So just some of the greatest proponents of the free will Arminian view today. Some consider Alvin Plantinga as giving the best view of that. He’s still alive. I think he’s almost ninety years old. Norm Geisler, William Lane Craig, and on and on the list goes.

Derek: Those are the guys who are going to make the defense—these free will defenses that we just mentioned. So we hope this has been a helpful introduction to the problem of evil and helping you start to think about it, think about the way it’s presented, the actual problem, and the way that people have tried to solve it in history—and particularly talking about how Christians have sought to understand it and solve it. And so when we come back, we are going to talk about our answers to these common solutions, where they’re inadequate, and where we believe Scripture has given us answers. And so until next time, keep seeking the Lord and his Word, and check out WithAllWisdom.org.

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