I once attended a debate between two philosophers of religion (who were also philosophers of science). One was an ardent atheist, the other a committed Christian, and, as you’ve probably already guessed by now, the debate topic was the existence of God. When it came time for closing comments, the atheistic philosopher said something like this: “When someone asks me why I absolutely cannot believe in God, my answer is always ‘Anne Frank, Anne Frank, Anne Frank.’ I cannot and will not believe in a God who would allow this little girl to die. She believed in him, she prayed to him, and he let her die for some evil reason. And as long as evils like that exist in the world, and as long as a God who is supposedly good allows them to exist, I cannot believe in his existence.”
And you have to admit: it’s a pretty good argument. And a pretty common one, too. I’d say most atheists I have personally met don’t disbelieve out of a commitment to a particular epistemology or other form or worldview; they don’t believe in God because there seems to be so much evil in the world, all of which functions as evidence to the contrary. As I’ve said before, the God of Christianity is an O-O-G God: omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good (and omnipresent, too). A wholly good God will only do good things. It stands to reason, then, such an entity would seek to eliminate all evil, or at least mitigate or alleviate it somewhat. As the philosopher from the debate said, the very existence of such an incomprehensible evil as the Holocaust must in some fashion be evidence against theism. He reminded me of a quote allegedly found scratched into the walls of a barracks in the Mauthausen concentration camp: “If there is a God, he will have to beg my forgiveness.”
It’s a natural, human response to seeing such an atrocity. For someone or something to have the power to spare millions of lives at will and to not do so . . . surely that counts as evil. Or, at the very least, the ultimate litmus test for its existence — and it comes out negative.
So it goes. The Christian martyrs, the ones of whom the world is not worthy according to Hebrews 11:38, all died believing in the God who let them die. Other people point to more personal evils and sufferings. Why do children have cancer? Why are they born with AIDS, addictions, and terminal illnesses? Why was my daughter raped? Why did he kill my son?
Powerful, emotional questions. Questions which demand an answer. So I’m going to give you the best answer I have:
I don’t know.
No one does. It is, perhaps, the single greatest unanswered and unanswerable question in the world (or at least of which I’m aware). But there are potential answers, and it’s those I’d like to address. But let me begin by making my personal theological convictions crystal clear: I do not believe the existence of evil to be the direct act of God. I don’t think it’s God’s will babies are stillborn and miscarried. I don’t think God looked down one day and said, “You know, I think I need to off a few million of my greatest worshipers.” I just don’t. There’s an entire school of theological thought which does believe such things, which says everything happens because God directly makes it happen. If that’s the God you don’t believe in, let me join you. Because I don’t believe in such a God, either.
I also don’t believe evil is always the result of a great personal sin. When Christ restores sight to a blind man in John 9, the Twelve ask Jesus, “Who sinned, him or his parents, that this man was born blind?” That was contemporary thought in the first century. If something bad happens to you, it was because someone sinned. I’m not convinced that always the case. Don’t get me wrong; I still believe in a God who disciplines His children, because that’s the God we encounter in Scripture (Hebrews 12). I just don’t believe that to be the case 100% of the time, because then you get a God who is responsible for all evil. Again, I don’t believe in that kind of God.
But I do believe in a God who honors the free will of the individual. Probably the best answer to the problem of evil (as it’s known; in theology, everything is a “problem” or a “scandal”; it’s rather disheartening, really) I’ve heard is what is now known as the Free Will Defense. The free will defense runs something like this: God is good; God gave humans free will as part of the image of God which we bear; free will is good; God will not revoke free will; free will can be used for evil; God will not stop evil when to do so would violate free will. It’s possible for almost all evil to be a result of a free will decision at some point in life (I still struggle with a few things, to be totally transparent). But this shifts the blame for evil from God to a fallen people living in a fallen world dominated by the true progenitor of all evil, Satan himself.
If that one doesn’t do it for you, there’s the classic “Greater Good” argument which I find a bit . . . problematic. According to this one, existing evils are permitted because they in some fashion achieve a greater good. It’s a rather utilitarian calculus I’m not sure God buys into, but here we are. So here we have a model wherein God is not responsible for evil, but can use it for His (often inscrutable) purposes.
In any event, it should be noted that God will not allow evil to continue indefinitely. There is a final judgment coming, after which no evil may persist. All things are redeemed and made new; they are sanctified and glorified, and evil will not remain. Everything will be in the presence of God, and a holy God cannot have sin in His presence. Evil will be destroyed, eternally punished. That should give us some comfort, even as live through great sorrow. We serve a just God, and His justice is terrible. (Old school “inspires terror” terrible, not the “eww, that’s rather shoddy work” kind of terrible. Just FYI.)
Again, I don’t presume to know the answer here. I know how I believe, and I can only offer a couple of the classic responses to the question of evil. But I don’t think the existence of evil precludes the existence of God. Both evil and a wholly good God can exist — temporarily. And until evil is destroyed forevermore, until the day when only He of the two of them will live forever, God will be with us, comfort us when we’re broken. Christ will look at his scars, gaze into our eyes so full of hurt, and whisper, “Me, too.”
Ours is a God who has truly felt our pain. And He is a God who will one day wipe the tears from our eyes forever.