Why does a good God allow bad things to happen to good people?
Why do tragedies like the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton occur?
Why do devastating natural disasters like Hurricane Maria occur?
The results of these events often call into question God’s love, His power, or both.
Not to mention: September 11, 2001, and the Holocaust of the previous generation, are equally problematic for those who believe God is all-powerful and all-loving.
And each of us bears our own burdens and faces our own suffering and pain. A college professor said to me, “Son, be kind to everyone, because everyone’s having a hard time.”
In this essay, we will confront the most difficult challenge Christianity faces.
What is the question?
In theological language, we are dealing with the issue of theodicy (from Greek words for God, theos, and justice, duke).
Theodicy was coined by the philosopher Wilhelm Leibniz in 1710. He defined his term, “The question of the compatibility of metaphysical, physical, and moral evil in the present world order with the justice and absolute power of God” (Leibniz, Theodicy, my translation).
The Bible is willing to ask Leibniz’s question of its Author.
Habakkuk complained to the God who allowed the devastation of his people at the hands of the Babylonians: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Habakkuk 1:3). Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
The medieval theologian Boethius provided the classic expression of our problem: “If God exists, from whence comes evil?”
The pessimistic philosopher Schopenhauer spoke for many: “The shortness of life, so often lamented, may perhaps be the very best thing about it.”
Christians are especially susceptible to this issue because we believe three apparently contradictory facts to be equally true:
- God is all-loving.
- God is all-powerful.
- Evil exists.
As the Stoic philosopher Epicurus observed, the “solutions” to this dilemma are:
- God wants to remove evil but is unable.
- God is able but unwilling.
- God is both able and willing. Why doesn’t he?
- God is neither able nor willing.
Can we defend the third approach with intellectual honesty? If so, how?
Popular but wrong approaches
The easiest way to “solve” the problem of evil and suffering is to deny or minimize one of its three conditions.
Regarding the love of God, we can agree with the ancient Stoics that everything is fated by God. They claimed that we are all dogs tied to carts. We can trot alongside the cart, or be dragged by it, but we’re going with the cart.
The ancient Greeks saw their gods as capricious and immoral, Zeus throwing lightning bolts at those who displeased him. A common secular viewpoint today is that life is random coincidence, that, if there is a “God,” he has little interest in us. He is a clockmaker, watching his creation wind down.
We can also deny or minimize the power of God.
Dualism argues that evil is coequal with good. From ancient Zoroastrianism to today, it has been popular to see God and Satan, good and evil, locked in a battle for supremacy.
J. S. Mill asserted that God is limited in his power; he loves us, but cannot do everything he would wish to help us. Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his kind and sympathetic bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, agrees that even God is not able to do everything he wants to do.
A third wrong approach is to minimize the nature or existence of evil.
The Hindu tradition views evil as maya, illusion. The ancient Greeks saw evil as the product of the material world, to be escaped through ascetic discipline and philosophical reflection. The Buddhist worldview treats evil as the product of wrong desires. Hinduism likewise believes that suffering results from wrong choices, as the karma we deserve.
One other wrong “solution” is to deny the existence of God altogether.
David Hume, the eighteenth-century “father of skepticism,” proposed this syllogism:
- If God exists, he must be loving and powerful and thus eradicate evil.
- Evil exists.
- Therefore God does not exist.
While atheism says there is no God, “agnosticism” (from the Greek gnosis, knowledge, and a, no) asserts that we cannot know if he exists or not. Alternately, the “soft” agnostic admits that he or she does not (or cannot) know, without claiming that such knowledge is impossible for us all.
The existence of evil and suffering has perhaps motivated more people to question or reject the existence of God than any other factor.
Since theodicy is a problem as old as the Garden of Eden and the Flood of Noah, Christian theologians have wrestled with it all through the history of our faith. Six basic approaches have been proposed most often.
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SOURCE: Christian Post, Jim Denison