The Problem of Evil

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The problem of evil is a formal category in classical philosophy. The question seeks to reconcile the reality of evil and suffering with the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient God. The Bible claims the existence of such a God—a God who is all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing—and yet the existence of evil seems to contradict this claim. The Scottish philosopher David Hume expressed it this way: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then from whence comes evil?”

Harold Kushner, an American-Jewish rabbi, wrestled with this question in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which he wrote after the premature death of his son, Aaron, at age 14, from the incurable genetic disease progeria. He concluded that God does his best to prevent suffering, and is with people in their suffering, but is ultimately incapable of fully preventing suffering.

Christians sometimes tend to quickly dismiss the problem of evil as if to even entertain it is somehow an affront to God. These Christians might consider the question as nonsense or claim that it is merely the product of a sinful, unbelieving mind. They might tend to delegitimise the pain of those asking the question by tritely assuring them that God will ultimately right all wrongs in the end. That truth is certainly taught in Scripture, but not as a means to dismiss the pain of those wrestling with the problem of evil.

The Psalms do not quickly dismiss the problem of evil. Instead, many of the Psalms lament the existence of evil and suffering in the light of biblical revelation concerning the existence of God. Psalm 10, for example, laments the mistreatment of the vulnerable by the powerful and wicked. It recognises the existence of rampant injustice in the world and wonders why a good and powerful God does not intervene to stop it.

Atheists, who believe that the problem of evil disproves the existence of God, consider the Bible to be a book of fantasy, which is completely disconnected from reality. Texts like Psalm 10 put the lie to that claim. They show that the Bible does not ignore the realities of the fallen world. Instead, Scripture wonderfully articulates the honest struggles of human existence and faith in God. Scripture does not—as we so often do—shy away from human doubts, fears, and questions. Texts like Psalm 10 reveal the honesty of human struggles, an honesty that, if openly expressed, has the potential to transform our churches into messy but life-giving communities that the New Testament envisions.

Texts like these teach us that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but unbelief. Faith does not ignore doubt; faith wrestles with doubt in the light of divine revelation. Consider, briefly, three lessons we can take from Psalm 10 as we face our own doubts about what God is doing in our world.

First, Psalm 10 teaches us that suffering and injustice are a real part of life in a fallen world—and that God does not always immediately intervene to stop it. “Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (v. 1). The psalmist goes on to express the prosperity of the wicked as they oppress the vulnerable and honestly wrestles with the fact that God seems to be standing aloof. Indeed, he cannot understand how God does not intervene while the wicked oppressor shakes his fist at God (v. 4).

Second, Psalm 10 teaches us the folly—indeed, the wickedness—of thinking that we can go through life without facing adversity. The wicked, writes the psalmist, believes that he will always prosper and, even in his wickedness, will escape God’s judgement. “He says in his heart, ‘I shall not be moved; throughout all generations I shall not meet adversity’” (vv. 5–6). It is utter folly to sit back in our ease and prosperity and claim that we will never face adversity.

Third, Psalm 10 teaches us that prayer is proper in times of affliction. Unbelievers mock Christians (and other theists) for offering prayers in time of suffering, claiming that it is useless for Christians to offer prayers while doing nothing more to alleviate suffering. (By the way, if all we do is offer prayers and ignore acts of mercy, the unbeliever may have a point! See James 2:15–16.) The psalmist does not throw up his hands in despair and resign himself to wait until the end of time when God will right all wrongs. Instead, he cries out for God’s intervention right now.

Will you honestly share your doubts and fears with God? Will your heart cry out for relief from your affliction? Don’t bury your doubts. Join the psalmist in lifting them to God.

Stuart