Notes on the Problem of Evil

by Ron Rhodes, PhD


What is evil? What is the origin of evil? What is God's ultimate purpose in allowing evil? Shouldn't God do away with all evil IMMEDIATELY? Does the existence of evil prove God is finite? What should our attitude be in the face of evil?


What is evil?

Evil is not something that has an existence of its own; rather it is a corruption of that which already exists. EVIL IS THE ABSENCE OR PRIVATION OF SOMETHING GOOD. Rot, for example, can only exist as long as the tree exists. Tooth decay can only exist as long as the tooth exists. Rust on a car and a decaying carcass illustrate the same point. Evil exists as a corruption of something good; it is a privation and does not have essence by itself. Norman Geisler tells us, "Evil is like a wound in an arm or moth-holes in a garment. It exists only in another but not in itself." [2]

Of course, to say that evil is not a thing in itself is not the same as saying that evil is unreal. Evil may not be an actual substance, but it involves an actual privation in good substances. "It is not an actual entity but a real corruption in an actual entity." [3] Rotting trees, rusting cars, tooth decay, brain cancer -- all these are examples of how evil is a corruption of something good.

It is one thing to understand what evil is. It is an entirely different thing to understand how such evil can exist in a world created by God. The problem of evil may be viewed in simple form as a conflict involving three concepts: God's power, God's goodness, and the presence of evil in the world. Common sense seems to tell us that all three cannot be true at the same time. Solutions to the problem of evil typically involve modifying one or more of these three concepts: limit God's power, limit God's goodness, or modify the existence of evil (such as calling it an illusion).

Certainly if God made no claims to being good, then the existence of evil is easier explained. But God DOES claim to be good. If God were limited in power and was simply not strong enough to withstand evil, then the existence of evil is easier explained. But God DOES claim to be all-powerful. If evil were just an illusion that had no reality, then the problem doesn't really exist in the first place. But evil IS NOT an illusion. It is real.

Today we face the reality of both MORAL EVIL (evil committed by free moral agents, like war, crime, cruelty, class struggles, discrimination, slavery, and various injustices) and NATURAL EVIL (involving such things as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and the like). God is good, God is all-powerful, and yet evil exists. THIS is the problem of evil in its most basic form.

Prominent thinkers like David Hume, H.G. Wells, and Bertrand Russell have concluded, on the basis of their observations of suffering and evil, that the God of the Bible does not exist. [4] Hume put it succinctly when he wrote of God: "Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing: whence then is evil?" [5] If there is a God -- and He is ALL-GOOD and ALL-POWERFUL -- then such things as Hitler's murder of six million Jews would never have happened.

Certainly Christians agree that what Hitler did to the Jews was a horrible crime. But I must hasten to note, before offering a biblical viewpoint on the problem of evil, that the very act of categorizing Hitler's actions as EVIL raises an important philosophical point. As many thinkers have pointed out, if one is going to claim THERE IS evil in the world, one must ask by what criteria something is judged to be evil in the first place? [6] How does one judge some things to be evil and other things not to be evil? What is the moral measuring stick by which people and events are morally appraised? By what process is evil distinguished from good and vice versa?

The reality is that it is impossible to distinguish evil from good unless one has an infinite reference point that is absolutely good. [7] Otherwise one is like a person on a boat at sea on a cloudy night without a compass (i.e., there would be no way to distinguish north from south without the absolute reference point of the compass needle).

The infinite reference point for distinguishing good from evil can only be found in the person of God, for God alone can exhaust the definition of "absolutely good." If God does not exist, then there are no moral absolutes by which one has the right to judge something (or someone) as being evil. More specifically, if God does not exist, there is no ultimate basis to judge (for example) the crimes of Hitler. Seen in this light, the reality of evil actually requires the existence of God, rather than disproving it.

What Is the Origin of Evil?

The original creation was "very good" (Gen. 1:31). There was no sin, no evil, and no death. Yet today, the world is permeated with sin, evil, and death. What brought it about? Scripture indicates that the turn downward came the moment Adam and Eve used their God-given free wills and volitionally chose to disobey God (Gen. 3).

Some people wonder why God couldn't have created man in such a way that he would never sin, thus avoiding evil altogether. The fact is, such a scenario would mean that man is no longer truly man. He would no longer have the capacity to make choices and to freely love. This scenario would require that God create robots who act only in programmed ways -- like one of those chatty dolls where you pull a string on its back and it says, "I love you."[8] Paul Little notes that with such a doll "there would never be any hot words, never any conflict, never anything said or done that would make you sad! But who would want that? There would never be any love, either. Love is voluntary. God could have made us like robots, but we would have ceased to be men. God apparently thought it worth the risk of creating us as we are." [9]

Love cannot be programmed; it must be freely expressed. God wanted Adam and all humanity to show love by freely choosing obedience. That is why God gave Adam and all other human beings a free will. Geisler is correct in saying that "forced love is rape; and God is not a divine rapist. He will not do anything to coerce their decision." [10] A FREE choice, however, leaves the possibility of a WRONG choice. As J. B. Phillips put it, "Evil is inherent in the risky gift of free will." [11]

We may conclude, then, that God's plan had the POTENTIAL for evil when He bestowed upon man the freedom of choice, but the ACTUAL ORIGIN of evil came as a result of man who directed his will away from God and toward his own selfish desires. "Whereas God created the FACT of freedom, man performs the ACTS of freedom. God made evil POSSIBLE; creatures make it ACTUAL." [17] Ever since Adam and Eve made evil ACTUAL on that first occasion in the Garden of Eden, a sin nature has been passed on to every man and woman (Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22), and it is out of the sin nature that we today continue to use our free wills to make evil ACTUAL (Mark 7:20-23).

Even natural evil -- involving earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and the like -- is rooted in man's wrong use of free choice. We must not forget that we are living in a fallen world, and because of that, we are subject to disasters in the world of nature that would not have occurred had man not rebelled against God in the beginning (Rom. 8:20-22). The Garden of Eden had no natural disasters or death UNTIL AFTER the sin of Adam and Eve (see Gen. 1-3). There will be no natural disasters or death in the new heavens and earth when God puts an end to evil once for all (see Rev. 21:4).

What Is God's Ultimate Purpose In Allowing Evil?

The fact that man used his God-given free choice to disobey God did not take God by surprise. C.S. Lewis suggests that God in His omniscience "saw that from a world of free creatures, even though they fell, he could work out... a deeper happiness and a fuller splendor than any world of automata would admit." [12] Or, as Geisler has put it so well, the theist does not have to claim that our present world is the best of all possible worlds, but it is the best way TO the best possible world: "If God is to both preserve freedom and defeat evil, then this is the best way to do it. Freedom is preserved in that each person makes his own free choice to determine his destiny. Evil is overcome in that, once those who reject God are separated from the others, the decisions of all are made permanent. Those who choose God will be confirmed in it, and sin will cease. Those who reject God are in eternal quarantine and cannot upset the perfect world that has come about. The ultimate goal of a perfect world with free creatures will have been achieved, but the way to get there requires that those who abuse their freedom be cast out."

A critically important factor involved in the suggestion that this may not be the best possible world but it is the best way TO the best possible world is that GOD IS NOT FINISHED YET. Too often people fall into the trap of thinking that because God hasn't dealt with evil YET, He is not dealing with it AT ALL. My old colleague Walter Martin used to say, "I've read the last chapter in the book and we win!" Evil WILL one day be done away with. Just because evil is not destroyed right now does not mean that it never will be.

In view of the above facts, the existence of evil in the world is seen to be compatible with the existence of an all-good and all-powerful God. We can summarize the facts this way:

1. If God is all-good, He will defeat evil.

2. If God is all-powerful, He can defeat evil.

3. Evil is not YET defeated.

4. Therefore, God can and WILL ONE DAY defeat evil. [13]

So, God isn't finished yet. In the end, evil will be destroyed. One day in the future, Christ will return, strip power away from the wicked, and hold all men and women accountable for the things they did during their time on earth (Matt. 25:31-46; Rev. 20:11-15). Justice will ultimately prevail. Those who enter eternity without having trusted in Christ for salvation will understand JUST HOW EFFECTIVELY God has dealt with the problem of evil.

Shouldn't God do away with all evil IMMEDIATELY?

Some skeptics may be tempted to rebut that it should not take all of human history for an omnipotent God to deal with the problem of evil. God certainly has the option of doing away will all evil immediately -- but choosing this option would have definite and fatal implications for each of us. As Paul Little has pointed out, "If God were to stamp out evil today, he would do a complete job. His action would have to include our lies and personal impurities, our lack of love, and our failure to do good. Suppose God were to decree that at midnight tonight all evil would be removed from the universe -- who of us would still be here after midnight?" [14]

Even though God's ultimate solution to the problem of evil awaits the future, as I have argued, God has even now taken steps to insure that evil doesn't run utterly amok. Indeed, God has given us human government to withstand lawlessness. God founded the church to be a light in the midst of the darkness, to strengthen God's people, and even to help restrain the growth of wickedness in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit. God has in His Word given us a moral standard to guide us and keep us on the right path. He has given us the family unit to bring stability to society. And much more! [15]

Let us not conclude, then, that God's dealing with evil is ENTIRELY future-oriented. It is not. Yet, Scripture seems clear that God's ULTIMATE purpose in allowing free creatures to engage in evil -- the attaining of the "best of all possible worlds" -- awaits the future. And it is a day the saints of all ages have looked forward to.

Does the existence of evil prove God is finite?

One author who popularized a form of finite godism was Rabbi Kushner, who wrote WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE. In wrestling with the premature death of his son, Kushner concluded that God wants the righteous to live happy lives, but sometimes He cannot bring that about. There are some things God simply cannot control. God is good, but He is not powerful enough to bring about all the good things He desires. In short, God is finite.

Finitism fails to consider that God's timing is not human timing. As noted previously the fact that God has not defeated evil TODAY does not mean He is not eliminating it in the future. As we consult Revelation 21--22 it is quite clear that God WILL deal with evil in the future (see also 2 Pet. 3:7-12).

Finitism clearly goes against the biblical testimony of God. Scripture portrays God as being OMNIPOTENT -- meaning that He is all-powerful. He has the power to do all that He desires and wills. Some 56 times Scripture declares that God is ALMIGHTY (e.g., Rev. 19:6). God is abundant in strength (Ps. 147:5) and has incomparably great power (2 Chron. 20:6; Eph. 1:19-21). No one can hold back God's hand (Dan. 4:35). No one can reverse God (Isa. 43:13) and no one can thwart Him (Isa. 14:27). Nothing is impossible with God (Matt. 19:26; Mark 10:27; Luke 1:37), and nothing is too difficult for Him (Gen. 18:14; Jer. 32:17,27). The Almighty reigns (Rev. 19:6).

What should our attitude be in the face of evil?

Having established that the existence of evil IS in fact compatible with the existence of an all-good and all-powerful God, it is fitting to close by emphasizing that our loving heavenly Father calls us to trust Him with childlike faith in this world of suffering. Sometimes, as a parent, I have to make a decision for my son or daughter that might involve a little pain (like paying a visit to the dentist). From their perspective, they may not fully understand WHY I insist on this visit. I assure them that despite the discomfort (and even pain), it is in their best interest to go to the dentist.

Sometimes we humans wonder why God allows us to go through certain painful circumstances. But just because we find it difficult to imagine what reasons God could have does not mean that no such reason exists. From our finite human perspective, we are often only able to see a few threads of the great tapestry of life and the will of God. We do not have the full picture. That is why God calls us to trust Him (see Heb. 11). God does not make mistakes, and He has a reason for allowing painful circumstances to come our way even if we cannot grasp it.

Geisler gives us something important to think about in this regard: Even in our finiteness, it is possible for humans to discover SOME good purposes for pain -- such as warning us of greater evil (an infant need only touch a hot stove once to learn not to do such things again), and to keep us from self-destruction (our built-in nerve endings detect pain so we won't, for example, continue to hold a hot pan in our hands). If finite humans can discover SOME good purposes for evil, then surely an infinitely wise God has a good purpose for ALL suffering. [16] We may not understand that purpose in the temporal "now," but it nonetheless exists. Our inability to discern why bad things sometimes happen to us does not disprove God's benevolence; it merely exposes our ignorance. [17]

It is good to keep in mind the dimension of time. Just as we evaluate a trip to the dentist in the light of the long-range benefits of such a visit, Scripture admonishes Christians to evaluate present sufferings in the light of eternity. As the apostle Paul put it, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Rom. 8:18; see also 2 Cor. 4:17; Heb. 12:2; 1 Pet. 1:6-7).

And let us not forget that even when we encounter suffering, God has the ability as the sovereign Ruler of the universe to bring good out of it (Rom. 8:28). An example of this is the life of Joseph. His brothers were wrongly jealous of him (Gen. 37:11), hated him (Gen. 37:4,5,8), wanted to murder him (Gen. 37:20), cast him into a pit (Gen. 37:24), and sold him into slavery (Gen. 37:28). Yet later Joseph could say to his brothers, "GOD SENT ME BEFORE YOU to preserve life" (Gen. 45:5), and "You meant evil against me; but GOD MEANT IT FOR GOOD to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today" (Gen. 50:20). Even though evil things happened to Joseph, God has a providential purpose in allowing it.

The apostle Paul certainly didn't like it when he was put into prison. But God had a providential purpose in allowing it to happen. After all, while in prison Paul wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (see Eph. 3:1; Phil. 1:7; Col. 4:10; and Philemon 9). God very clearly brought good out of Paul's suffering.

Sometimes the "good" that God brings out of our suffering involves a positive change in our character. Peter refers to this when he says, "In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith -- of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire -- may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed" (1 Pet. 1:6-7).

All of this is said with a view to emphasizing the need for faith in the midst of this world of suffering. I personally like the way Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland have put it. They say we would should maintain a "top-down perspective": "The God of the universe invites us to view life and death from his eternal vantage point. And if we do, we will see how readily it can revolutionize our lives: daily anxieties, emotional hurts, tragedies, our responses and responsibilities to others, possessions, wealth, and even physical pain and death. All of this and much more can be informed and influenced by the truths of heaven. The repeated witness of the New Testament is that believers should view all problems, indeed, their entire existence, from what we call the 'top-down' perspective: God and his kingdom first, followed by various aspects of our earthly existence." [18]



[1] Rick Rood, "The Problem of Evil: How Can a Good God Allow Evil?" Probe Ministries Web Site, 1996.

[2] Norman L. Geisler, BAKER ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1999), p. 220.

[3] Geisler, p. 220.

[4] Ken Boa and Larry Moody, I'M GLAD YOU ASKED (Colorado Springs, CO: Victor Books, 1994), p. 122.

[5] Millard J. Erickson, INTRODUCING CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1996), pp. 138-39.

[6] Robert Morey, THE NEW ATHEISM AND THE EROSION OF FREEDOM (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1986), p. 153.

[7] Morey, p. 153.

[8] Paul E. Little, KNOW WHY YOU BELIEVE (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), p. 81.

[9] Little, p. 81.

[10] Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks, WHEN SKEPTICS ASK (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1990), p. 73.

[11] Little, p. 87.

[12] Dan Story, DEFENDING YOUR FAITH (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992), pp. 171-72.

[13] Geisler and Brooks, WHEN SKEPTICS ASK, pp. 64-65.

[14] Little, p. 81.

[15] Story, pp. 176-77.

[16] Norman Geisler and Jeff Amanu, THE REINCARNATION SENSATION (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1990), p. 242.


[18] Gary R. Habermas and J. P. Moreland, IMMORTALITY: THE OTHER SIDE OF DEATH (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992), p. 185.

September 25, 2000


A free newsletter featuring "Answers to Common Questions"

Fall 2000 Edition Dr. Ron Rhodes, Editor

This issue of the newsletter focuses brief attention on the problem of evil. It addresses the very important issue, WHY DO BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE? And what does it say about God that such things occur? The apologetic importance of this topic is evident in John Stott's comment that "the fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith." [1]

(NOTE: Bracketed numbers indicate end notes.)


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