This famous photo of a starving Sudanese child won a Pulitzer Prize for photographer Kevin Carter. One of four photographers known as the Bang Bang Club who documented through photography the atrocities of apartheid in South Africa in the early ’90’s, Carter took his own life soon after winning the award. He was haunted by the images he saw in Sudan.
Images such as these, along with continuous news coverage of natural disasters, health tragedies, and unimaginable brutalities have led many to either doubt the existence of God or write him off altogether. Thus, the New Inklings take up the following question for discussion this week:
Does the existence of evil invalidate the existence of God?
Let’s acknowledge that oceans of ink have been spilled over this subject. Two blog posts won’t adequately address it. We will, however, do our very best.
The atheist/agnostic argument concerning God and the existence of evil looks similar to one of the following.
Since evil exists:
a. God does not exist.
b. If God exists, he is not good and loving.
c. If God exists and is loving, then he is not able to do anything about evil.
Option A is, to me, philosophically dishonest. One cannot prove that God does not exist. One may conclude for themselves that God may not exist, but it is not possible to conclude that there is no God. Option B is a possible conclusion to draw, especially if God has done nothing to prove otherwise. In many circles, Option C is just taking the scenic route to Option A, because a God who is not all powerful is not God at all (there may be some disagreement with that, but we won’t chase this one). The most honest conclusion one can draw, to me, is that because evil exists God may not exist. If he does, he may not be a good, loving God.
But there’s another possibility: What if God does exist and is good and is all powerful?
Before we examine that question, let’s acknowledge the different types of evil in the world. There is personal evil, which would be evil inflicted by people. Such things would be genocide, rape, sex trafficking, etc. There is natural evil, which would be natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. There is also health-related evil (I couldn’t think of a better term), which would be diseases like cancer, ALS, dementia, diseases which we consider evil because they limit life or functionality.
So if God is all good and all powerful, as Christians claim, why does evil exist at all? Some in the non-believing camp say that if God is good and is powerful, then he would have created a world where evil was not possible. He could certainly have done this. The problem is that he would have created a world with people programmed to love. Forced or programmed love really isn’t love. And a world without choice is a world without love.
The argument then goes that since we live in a world where evil is present, if God is all-loving and all-powerful, why does he not do something about evil? My question is this: what exactly do you want him to do about it? I would assume get rid of it. And since he hasn’t yet done so, then he’s either incompetent or unwilling or both.
Yet, who are we to demand how God takes care of evil?
I contend that Scripture shows that God does take care of evil – we just don’t like how he does and has done so.
Consider the ancient Neo-Babylonian empire. They were known as a ruthless and aggressive people in their empire building. The Bible tells of the capture of King Zedekiah, whose sons were killed in front of him by the Babylonians who then took out his eyes. The Bible book of Habakkuk tells us that God used the Babylonians to wipe out the evil of the Israelites that had accumulated for hundreds of years as they participated in the worship of idols like Chemosh and Molech (the worship of whom included horrific child sacrifice). The prophet Habakkuk complains, essentially saying, “The Babylonians? Seriously? They’re worse than the Israelites are!” God tells Habakkuk that he’s going to take care of them as well. Habakkuk was written around 609 BC, during the first Babylonian siege of Jerusalem. The Neo-Babylonian empire fell seventy years later, as Habakkuk had predicted. The point is this: God did something about the evil of the Israelites–he used the Babylonians. And God did something about the evil of the Babylonians–he used the Medes and the Persians. There are multiple other examples in Scripture of God doing something about personal evil.
Here’s the rub: most nonbelievers don’t like the way God takes care of evil. In the case of God using one nations to carry out judgment on another, nonbelievers accuse God of being a bully. So if he does nothing about evil, he’s uncaring. If he does something about evil, he’s a bully. You can’t have your theological cake and eat it, too.
It seems like that atheist or agnostic wants God to wipe out evil without any consequence. We don’t operate that way. When our children do something wrong, there are consequences. When people break the law, there are consequences. We may disagree with whether certain forms of consequences are just, but we still long for justice. And yet, the nonbeliever wishes God to wipe out evil without justice.
Some would object that we don’t see this today. We may, or we may not. For whatever reason, we’re not given the insight of the Old Testament prophets to see how God works among the nations today. I realize that this is a potential weakness of this argument. At this point, I’m content that God is at work, and that we may not see every detail with crystal clarity.
Obviously, this requires a belief in providence–that God is active in the affairs of humanity. If you don’t buy into providence, you won’t like this explanation of how God often takes care of personal evil.
This one is admittedly difficult to accept, because we see so much natural disaster taking place in the world. This year is now officially the most costly in regards to tornadoes that the United States has ever seen. With the 62 confirmed tornadoes that rolled through NC in one day in April to the most destructive tornado in our history with the EF-5 that destroyed thirty percent of Joplin, MO, I often wonder why God allows such things to happen.
Scripture, however, shows the Christian that God does have control over nature. He has withheld rain and brought rain. Jesus once calmed a storm in the midst of the Sea of Galilee.
Once again, I realize this requires an openness to the supernatural for one to accept this view.
We’re all affected by this. People we know get sick and die. I see it everyday in my work as a hospice chaplain. We see God doing something about health-related evil often in Scripture. Jesus healed many people, even raising a few from death. Jesus himself was raised from death. Today, I hear stories of people with terminal illnesses who go to the doctor and no trace of the illness is found. It could be a mistake by the doctor, or it could be something much greater.
As with natural evil, this requires an openness to the supernatural for one to consider it a possibility.
The Ultimate Doom of Evil
The ultimate example of God doing something about evil is the cross of Jesus. So much was accomplished on the cross. For the Christian, the cross provides:
- Expiation of sin – it took sin away from us and cleansed us from sin.
- Propitiation of sin – it took God’s holy anger way from us (because of our sin) and placed it upon Jesus.
- Redemption from sin – it freed us from sin’s power.
- Sacrifice for sin – the death of an innocent victim was necessary for forgiveness of sin.
- Righteousness – Jesus’ perfect sacrifice on the cross allows God to see Jesus, not us or our sin.
- Justification – it allows God to declare us innocent of sin, even though the evidence screams of our guilt.
- Atonement – it unites us back with God through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
- Ransom – it paid the debt we owed to God because of our sin
- Reconciliation – it reunites us with God and provides what is needed to be brought back together with others.
In the cross and the resurrection, God’s holiness was satisfied and his grace and love poured out, as well as a preview of the life to come, when all evil will be expunged from the universe.
Evil Compared to What?
The existence of evil was one of the main reasons that C.S. Lewis moved from atheism to theism and then to Christianity. If one argues that there is a problem of evil, then one must admit that evil exists. And if evil exists, then good must exist. But where do we derive our sense of good?
If the material universe is all there is, then there is no universal standard for good. Good, then, is up to the individual. Thus, one person’s sense of right isn’t binding on another. Even when society decides what is right and wrong, that sense of good can be changed. We cannot tell one culture what is good or not. Many say, “But we just know what is good, and we have governments in place to tell us what’s good so that we have an orderly society.” If the material is all there is, then what right do we have to judge the dictator who commits genocide because he thinks it is good for his country? The fact is, we have no right to do so. Yet, we cry for justice when we hear of such atrocities. That’s a pretty good hint that there may be a universal standard of good. Christians say that God reveals that standard. Atheists and agnostics must come up with another explanation. But as long as that standard for good stops with humans, it is flawed and subject to change. But if there is an Ultimate Lawgiver (as Lewis put it) who has revealed and even “wired” us with a sense of right and wrong, then there may be an absolute standard of good and evil, and thus we can really compare evil to good.
There’s one last thing to consider. Scripture indicates that evil isn’t from God, but us. Our sin introduced evil into the world. The atheist and agnostic say God may not or does not exist because of evil. Either way, it’s our fault.
Maybe we should spend less time blaming God and more time doing something about evil, regardless of our belief.