As one who has stood before various audiences around the world facing hard questions for over four decades now, I can almost predict one question I will get in nearly every setting, whether in a public forum or private conversation. It is, “How can I believe God exists with so much evil in the world?”
Sometimes the question is asked by an ardent atheist who, in effect, considers the question as the Achilles heel of theism. Other times it is asked by a searching skeptic or a Christian struggling to hold on to his or her faith in the face of enormous heartache or just a sheer disappointment with life itself. Unfortunately, often I do not know a person’s background or struggle and what specifically prompts such a question, and yet every face is a reminder that behind every question is a questioner—and one must always seek to respond to the individual and not merely the question.
There are many approaches one may take. When I am asked this question, invariably one aspect of my answer often involves this line of reasoning. Many are familiar with my approach. But it is worth repeating briefly. I take this approach as a starting point only to point out that denying God’s existence while positing evil as a real category is a self-defeating approach. What do I mean?
When one asserts that there is such a thing as evil, one must assume there is such a thing as good. When one assumes there is such a thing as good, he or she must also assume there is an objective moral law by which to distinguish between good and evil. When you assume an objective moral law, you must posit a moral lawgiver—the source of the moral law.
But, of course, this moral lawgiver is precisely who atheists wish to disprove and so they may retort, “Why is a moral lawgiver necessary in order to recognize good and evil?” Some may even go so far as to add that they believe in objective moral values but don’t need God (the inescapable “moral lawgiver”) to posit that objective values exist.
But here’s where the questioner has to feel the illogical nature of the question without God. You see, the question of evil and morality is always asked by a person and often about a person. The beast doesn’t wrestle with these assuming moral connotations. Only mankind does. Hence, the personal aspect of human worth and moral reasoning is assumed in the question. The objective value of persons is implicit within the question and the object of the question. In a nutshell, positing a moral law without a moral lawgiver would be equivalent to raising the question of values while denying any value to the questioner or the object of the questioner. A moral lawgiver is necessary in order to recognize good and evil for the simple reason that a moral affirmation cannot remain apart from personal worth. Herein is the rub. If we human beings are the random product of time plus matter plus chance, how do we arrive at intrinsic worth? We can only have extrinsic worth—that which is given by some human government or statute.
Naturalism cannot have it both ways. It cannot assume intrinsic worth while assuming accidental causes. Transcending value and justice must come from a person of transcending worth and an ultimate law or value-giver—and the only reason people have intrinsic worth is that they are the creation of One who is of ultimate worth and the perfect lawgiver. That person is God. But in a world in which no person or moral cause brought us into being, as naturalists claim, there can be no intrinsic personal worth and no ultimate moral foundation. The raising of the question as a moral argument against God self-destructs. Morality is value-laden, starting with the value of a person.
In response to this question I would also add that all moral struggles that are existentially inescapable have a personal component to them, whether we think of truth-telling, guilt, or forgiveness. I do not go to my dog and hope to be forgiven for something. I may make an attempt at it but I do not see it as something that the dog can morally do for me. We do it more to appease our own conscience. All the laws that we make in the land, they are not made for how animals should treat each other but how persons should treat each other or how persons should treat animals or the environment. Laws are meant for people. We do not make laws against nature or the environment (“Poison ivy, do not trespass into my yard!”) because, here again, there cannot be a cognitive, personal dimension to such things as trespassing or truth-telling with an abstract or inanimate object; such things necessarily involve a person. When we speak of moral values or the moral law or existential struggles, there is unavoidably a personal component in the equation.
So, whether you approach the question of the existence of evil and God from the essential nature of humanity to the existential experience with which we live, we discover there must be personal intrinsic value and that can only come from another entity. If it is to be objective, that is, true for all people regardless of their belief, that being has to be God. Every life has essential worth and must be considered inviolable.
There is another underlying posture of mind that has to be raised. When I am asked this question in certain settings, in truth I am sometimes tempted to ask the questioner, “Do you really want a solution or is the constant refrain ‘why’ a way of escaping the responsibility of the answer?” In reason, conscience, and revelation, God speaks to the core of human worth and the inescapable mutual moral trust by which we must live. For in fact, the Bible tells us, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Jesus, too, wept over his own beloved city and declared, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42). In instance after instance, the Scriptures reveal that the problem was not the absence of answers, but rather, the suppression of them. This is not to dismiss the very real heartache of pain and suffering, which is another part of this question that I’m not addressing here, but rather to underscore what author George MacDonald once said: “To give truth to him who loves it not is only to give him more plentiful reasons for misinterpretation.” The love of truth and the willingness to submit to its demands is the first step.
And our predicament, I believe, is the same. There are some clues we already have—enough to bring correctives within our reach. But do we really want the truth?
Beyond the question is another implication. Indeed, naturalists claim that “man is the measure of all things” and life is nothing more than DNA. The issue of evil needing a transcendent point of reference applies as well to the question of finding meaning in life. I have heard academics mock the Christian for invoking any transcendent point of reference for life’s meaning. But here again, the contradiction of naturalism plunders a life. I might well counter that if meaning has no transcendent referent and each one may choose his or her own standard, why do we still marvel when evil takes place? Is it because we cannot shake off the soul that speaks from within to say that there must be a sense and purpose to life, otherwise, everything falls apart at the center? That’s why we even try to make sense out of suffering.
J.L. Mackie, a vociferous atheist who challenged the existence of God on the basis of the reality of evil, granted at least this logical connection when he said, “We might well argue . . . that objective, intrinsically prescriptive features, supervenient upon natural ones, constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events, without an all-powerful God to create them.”
You see, however one approaches the question, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that nothing can be intrinsically prescriptively good unless there also exists a God who has fashioned the universe thus. Meaning and suffering are meaningful challenges for every life and we pursue them with moral connotations. The truth is we cannot escape the existential rub by running from a moral law. Objective moral values exist only if God exists. Meaning and purpose are real only if there is an ultimate purpose to life itself.
I can understand why naturalists hesitate to grant the reality of absolutes, because they don’t like where it leads. But sadly, Christians often struggle with its reality as well. The answer to that has to be over and beyond the cause of our existence to the purpose of our existence. That becomes another whole subject. Once we find the purpose, we learn how God conquers not in spite of the dark mystery of pain but rather, how He conquers through it.
It is amazing that the most well-known verse, John 3:16, reminds us how “God so loved the world that He gave his one and only son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” The object of God’s love is “whosoever.” The expression of belief is for “whosoever.” It is for mankind that God sent his Son. Our Savior is personal; our need is personal. Our belief must be personal; salvation is personal. The totality of persons is what makes the world valuable. That’s why persons ask the question and nothing else does. The value of the question is directly related to the value of personhood. The gospel alone gives us supreme value. In a strange way, the question of evil is a compliment to human worth. That compliment is only justified if we have a supreme creator of infinite worth. Our worth comes from Him.
The next time you ask the question, remember why it is a worthy one. In finding salvation through our suffering Savior, we see our worth expressed in the purest of terms for the greatest of destinies and the ultimate purpose: to know Him, love Him, and dwell eternally with Him in communion with Him. We conquer through suffering to be conformed to his image. Sin broke us. He puts us back together.
The story of the gospel is the lawgiver, the reason for the law, the violation of the law, and how God was both just and the ultimate justifier. Love and grace healed what the law alone could not do and was never intended to do. As a person, God loved and God gave. The law is an ideal requirement. God is the perfect being. We come to Him, and as we see the moral framework of life, we find ourselves as the object of his love in the grace He provides. The question will often haunt. But his presence overcomes that pain.