“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Genesis 18:25
The question is a profound and seminal one, and the existence of evil in the world is put forth by the materialist as evidence for the nonexistence of God, or at least, the God of Christian belief. The discussion presented here is guided by the reasoning of Dr. Greg Bahnsen (1948-1995).3 I will also add thoughts of my own.
The materialist objection to the existence of the God of Scripture (the Bible) vis-à-vis the question of evil is that belief in God is illogical if you hold that:
- GOD IS COMPLETELY GOOD (OMNIBENEVOLENT), AND
- GOD IS ALL-POWERFUL (OMNIPOTENT).
- EVIL EXISTS IN THE WORLD.
In the words of atheist George Smith:4
“Briefly, the problem of evil is this: …If God knows there is evil but cannot prevent it, he is not omnipotent. If God knows there is evil and can prevent it but desires not to, he is not omnibenevolent.” Since Christians hold all three premises above, their faith is incoherent. We cannot have it both ways; that God is all good and all-powerful in the presence of evil in the world.
There is, of course, no contradiction between premises 1 and 2. Premise 3 is the fly in the ointment. How to resolve the problem? Premise 1 speaks of “good,” and premise 3 speaks of “evil.” As Bahnsen states, “What are the presuppositions5 in terms of which the unbeliever makes any moral judgments whatsoever?” If the unbeliever cannot point to any transcendent code of morals, then it may be asked, what can be the materialist/unbeliever’s meanings of good and evil that does not reduce to subjectivism? Good and evil do exist; to be human is to acknowledge that this is true. How do any of us, believer or unbeliever6 intuitively know it?
In the unbeliever’s world, logically morals cannot be transcendent and absolute, but relative and malleable. He has no absolute rock on which to stand. No north star to navigate by. And still, he will insist that there are such things as functional good and evil.7 It is ironic that premise 3 above relies on some sort of transcendent moral code that is denied but by which he lives and makes judgments. How can this be? The presupposition of the believer in the God of the Bible, and belief in the Bible itself, is that mankind is created in the image of God.8 As such he is innately aware of God and His moral law.9 John Calvin maintained that an interior law is “written, even engraved, upon the hearts of all,” a law which “asserts the very same things which are to be learned from the Two Tables (Ten Commandments)”.10 Although the unbeliever suppresses God and His moral law, still his moral ear buds play back through static true echoes of God’s moral truth (the first premise of which is that God IS.), which resonates in his own rebellious and defiant heart. The problem of evil in one form or another is a real problem for the believer and unbeliever, such that we can rail against it, but must still live with its effects. For the unbeliever there is no hope but annihilating death. For the believer there is The Hope; the kingdom of God to come.
So how to resolve the paradox of an all-powerful, all-good God, and evil in the world? Again I rely on Bahnsen.
“If the Christian presupposes that God is perfectly and completely good—as Scripture requires us to do—then he is committed to evaluating everything within his experience in the light of that presupposition. Accordingly, when the Christian observes evil events or things in the world, he can and should retain consistency with his presupposition about God’s goodness by now inferring that God has a morally good reason for the evil that exists. God certainly must be all-powerful to be God; He is not to be thought of as overwhelmed or stymied by evil in the universe. And God is surely good, the Christian will profess—so any evil we find must be compatible with God’s goodness. This is just to say that God has planned evil events for reasons which are morally commendable and good.
To put it another way, the apparent paradox created by the above three propositions is readily resolved by adding this fourth premise to them:
- GOD HAS A MORALLY SUFFICIENT REASON FOR THE EVIL WHICH EXISTS.
When all four of these premises are maintained, there is no logical contradiction found, not even an apparent one. It is precisely part of the Christian’s walk of faith and growth in sanctification to draw proposition 4 as the conclusion of propositions 1-3.11
Biblically, it turns out, God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil that exists. Christians are not dualists who hold to the existence of two equally ultimate principles of good and evil in the world.12 Christianity believes in one God Who reigns over all. A sampling of relevant Scriptures would be:
“Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps. He causes the vapors to ascend from the ends of the earth; Who makes lightnings for the rain, Who brings forth the wind from His treasuries. He smote the firstborn of Egypt, Both of man and beast.” Psalms 135:6-8
“also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will,” Ephesians 1:11
“He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11
““The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” Deuteronomy 29:29
We must remember that we are considering God here. He is the uncreated, self-existent, all wise, good, and powerful One. Holy. His ways and thoughts are above and beyond our comprehension.13 Our most brilliant minds cannot comprehend Him nor His ways. In the light of what He has done in Creation, and the outworking of His will in it, we can only say:
“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the LORD, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to Him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” Romans 11:33-36
I conclude with these thoughts.
- “God has created all things for Himself, directs them to His own sovereign ends, and owns everything—in which case, everything in the created realm must serve Him.”14
- Evil in this world is the result of Mankind’s sin, and the testing of Men’s hearts in light of the inward knowledge of the God Who IS.
- God does not allow human solutions that ignore or defy His presence, commands, and glory.15
- God loves us creatures made in His image. The Apostle John put it this way: ““For God so loved the world (that is to say, this is how God loved the world), that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16. Our one recourse and escape from God’s just judgment is the gracious gift that He gave us by the work, life, death, and resurrection of His Son in the flesh on our behalf, Who is the supreme Image of God among us.
- What we name as evil relies in its meaning on the existence of a moral code that distinguishes and sorts conditions and actions according to its standard. A materialistic worldview cannot sustain a rational absolute understanding of right and wrong, but must fall back on a relativistic view of right and wrong that is not grounded in immutable truth, but merely a convenience of the moment. I do not intend to delve there at the moment. [↩]
- Biblically the word evil is of two kinds; moral evil which stems from sinful hearts, and environmental, natural disasters which happen to us such as plague, famine, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, death etc. [↩]
- Referring to chapter 30 in his book Always Ready. [↩]
- Atheism, The Case Against God, quoted by Bahnsen [↩]
- What must be assumed as a basis for arguing something. An “ultimate presupposition” is what must be assumed as a basis for arguing anything at all. A History of Western Philosophy And Theology, John M. Frame, 770. [↩]
- By believer and unbeliever I mean as pertains to the reality of God. [↩]
- The consistent materialist will allow that the universe does not favor conditions one way or the other, but as a machine it grinds along according to natural laws. The cogs of this grind may and do catch human life in its teeth, but all in all, it means nothing in the great “Scheme” of things. Morality then, is a mechanistic human construct meant to lubricate life amongst human beings. [↩]
- “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Genesis 1:27 [↩]
- “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.” Romans 1:18, 19 [↩]
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian religion, 2.8.1 [↩]
- Dr. Greg Bahnsen , Always Ready. 171, 172 [↩]
- The Manichaeism belief of ancient Persia expressed a perpetual struggle between kingdoms of light and darkness. Nor does Scripture support the notion that Satan is God’s equal but opposite doppelgänger. He is but a fallen creature subject to his Creator as are all created things/entities. [↩]
- Psalm 139:17 [↩]
- Bahnsen, 52 [↩]
- The account in Genesis 11 illustrates the defiance to God of a unified Mankind. After Noah’s flood God had told the survivors to “Be fruitful and fill the earth.” Genesis 9:1. Instead they said “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” Genesis 11:4. History attests that God never allows organized rebellion and defiance to endure long. The seeds of its destruction are sown within. [↩]