Responding to the Problem of Evil: What Being a Parent Taught Me

One of the most difficult things as a parent is seeing your child in pain. Last year, my wife and I had to take our two-year-old son to have a blood test, and it was quite the ordeal. Unlike an adult, a two-year-old has no understanding of what a blood test is, nor the awareness that they need to keep their arm still. I had to hold my son tightly against me so he couldn’t move while he had the test. From my son’s perspective it would have seemed as if I was causing his pain.

Now imagine that my son had formed the belief in that moment that I didn’t love him. Would such a belief have been warranted? Most would agree that such a belief would be unwarranted because we recognise that there was a good reason for my son’s pain. And yet even though I as an adult had a justifiable reason for permitting my son’s pain, he as a two-year-old did not have the capacity to comprehend it. This has significant implications for how we respond when evil is presented as a problem for belief in the existence of God.


The Assumption Behind the Argument from Evil

The argument from evil is often framed in terms of the incompatibility of God’s existence with the reality of evil. However, there is no incompatibility if God has legitimate reasons for permitting evil.[1] The argument from evil assumes that God could not have such reasons. In my opinion, Christians often fail to recognise this assumption when faced with the argument. Christians often feel that they must provide a comprehensive explanation of why God allowed any specific instance of horrific evil. Instead, Christians should put the onus back upon the objector to demonstrate that God could not have sufficient reason for allowing it. They might respond that they cannot possibly think of such a reason. But just as my two-year-old son’s inability to know the reason for his pain did not mean that I had no such reason, so too our lack of capacity to know the reasons for our pain does not mean that God has none.


The Creator–Creature Distinction

The intellectual gap between me and my two-year-old son is such that it is possible (even likely) that I could have a morally legitimate reason for an action without my son being aware of it. How much more the gap between us and God! It seems likely that the omniscient Creator could have a good reason for permitting evil that we as finite creatures are not aware of. It is unwarranted for us as finite creatures to conclude that the omniscient Creator is unjustified in permitting evil. This conclusion disregards the vast Creator–creature distinction and assumes a level of knowledge that is beyond us.

In Job chapters 38 to 42 the LORD’s response to Job’s complaints follow a similar line of reasoning. God highlights how presumptuous it is for Job to tell him how he should run the universe. He challenges Job:

Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his? (Job 40:8–9)

Any attempt to discredit his righteousness based on suffering assumes a divine knowledge of the world.

Discussions around the problem of evil are complex, involving questions regarding the relationship between the sovereign Creator and the moral agents he has created. The focus of this article is simply to draw attention to the unwarranted assumption underlying the argument from evil, rather than suggest a positive justification for God’s permission of evil. The argument that there is an incompatibility between the sovereignty of God and human responsibility is a different, but related, argument.[2] But it should be noted that my approach in this article is relevant to that question too. The relationship between the Creator and his creatures is sufficiently complex that any assertion of a contradiction between the two assumes an exhaustive knowledge of the Creator–creature relationship. Sceptics often depend upon question-begging analogies to puppets or human relationships that collapse the Creator–creature distinction.[3]


Can We Trust That God Has Good Reasons for Evil?

Can we therefore know that God does in fact have justification for permitting evil? Scripture states that the goal of all things is his glory (see, e.g., Rom 11:36; Eph 1:11). Given that the glorification of God is the greatest good in the universe, we can see that all things (including evil) ultimately achieve the greatest good possible (e.g., Rom 9:16–17, 22–24).[4] Moreover, the Scriptures tell us that the glorious plan of God includes the salvation of his people (Gen 50:20; Rom 8:28–29). This does not mean that we have the capacity to draw a straight line from a given evil to the glory of God, but it does mean that we can know the ultimate end towards which God is working all of history. My son could justifiably believe that I had a good reason for taking him to the blood test even if he couldn’t know or understand it. He has a consistent experience of my love for him such that it would be reasonable for him to conclude that I loved him and sought his good despite appearances to the contrary.[5] God’s self-revelation of his faithful love in the Scriptures is a sufficient ground for the Christian to believe that God ultimately has a righteous purpose in ordaining the reality of evil, even if the Christian cannot fully know that purpose.

Consider the cross of Christ: the greatest evil in human history, and yet predestined by God (Acts 2:23; 4:28). God predestined the murder of Jesus because by it sinners are saved (Heb 2:10) and Christ is glorified (Phil 2:9–11). If God had righteous purposes in ordaining the greatest evil in human history, then there is every reason to believe that he also has righteous purposes in permitting the Fall and all the subsequent evil throughout history.


Concluding Thoughts

We have seen that the proponent of the argument from evil cannot sustain the assumption underlying their argument, that God could not have good reason for permitting evil. As such, the conclusion that the existence of evil disproves the existence of a perfectly good and all-powerful God is unwarranted. Furthermore, we have seen that God’s self-revelation in Scripture gives us reason to believe that he is justified in permitting evil, even when we cannot know what those reasons are in full. Such a perspective is eminently practical, for when faced with suffering we can cling to our Heavenly Father like a two-year-old clings to his father: not having all the answers, but knowing that he is good.

[1] By the term ‘permit’, I do not mean ‘mere permission’, as though there is a class of actions that God does not ordain but merely permits. Rather, divine permission is one of the means by which God ordains that certain things come to pass. It stresses the unique relationship between God and evil. Nevertheless, what God permits, he also ordains. For a fuller discussion of this point, see David Mathis, ‘Does God Permit Sin?’, 31st August 2007.

[2] This degree of complexity warns both believer and sceptic against presumption in setting the terms of the discussion about how God’s sovereign will should be morally evaluated.

[3] For an in-depth, technical discussion of how these analogies fail to demonstrate that God’s sovereignty makes him morally culpable for sin, see Guillaume Bignon, Excusing Sinners and Blaming God: A Calvinist Assessment of Determinism, Moral Responsibility, and Divine Involvement in Evil.

[4] This is not to say that we as creatures can do anything we like and then use God’s glory as an excuse to justify evil. Paul addresses this very issue in Romans 3:5-8. Again, this is where the Creator–creature distinction is vital. God, the sovereign over history, can ordain evil acts without being morally culpable. If we sin and use God’s glory as an excuse, we are morally culpable.

[5] This is not to say that generally trustworthy parents never make mistakes or do the wrong thing; as children grow they must learn appropriate assertiveness and autonomy. But, generally speaking, it is rationally justifiable to trust someone who has consistently proven themselves trustworthy in the past. How much more is such a belief justified with respect to God, who has proven himself completely trustworthy through his faithfulness in the Scriptures and in whom ‘there is no variation or shadow due to change’ (Jas 1:17).