Why did a God of perfect goodness create - or permit - evil?

The existence of evil is a great problem for religion, at least for monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – which conceive of God as both omnipotent and the source of all goodness.  Why would a God of perfect goodness create - or permit - evil? The history of Christianity is defined by the various ways in which this question has been answered.  How we explain evil determines our understanding of sin, salvation and eternity.   

 

The Believer’s Dilemma interviewed theologians, priests, ministers and pastors from six major Christian denominations who offered the following views on the existence of evil.

 

return to interviews

 

Paul Allen - Catholic

Humans were created, as the Psalm says, a little lower than angels and that it why we suffer and die. If human beings had not chosen freely to sin, then we can speculate that in some way, we would have been more angelic. We cannot know how things might have turned out differently, so there is not much more to say about this other than that the failure to choose good, the failure to pursue truth, goodness and beauty is what marks human existence.

 

John Simons - Anglican

If the suffering of sentient beings is an evil, then evil was in the world before the appearance of human beings. But human beings are also capable of evil, and we are born into a world that is marred by past evil, and sadly, we perpetuate it. The doctrine of original sin is probably the most empirically sound of all traditional Christian doctrines. However I do not accept the Augustinian version of original righteousness, nor do I accept his version of original guilt.  I prefer the German term ‘birth-sin’.  

 

Dale Woods – Presbyterian

Evil in the world is part of what we’ve inherited. Sometimes we contribute to it, but sometimes it has nothing to do with us.  We have to believe that God can speak into the midst of that crisis.  However that is easier to be said theologically than personally. When you are comforting families suffering tragedy you can’t offer an easy explanation without causing harm. In some cases you can’t even talk about God. You can listen and comfort, but it is not a time to give answers to things you don’t know anything about. Those things remind us we live in a mystery.

 

Brian Talbot – Baptist

The answer is really not difficult. God did not create robots. We were created with freedom of will, which means we can be kind or cruel, creative or destructive. God permits us to act in ways that are alien to his nature.  Evil was not part of Eden and it will not be part of the new Heaven and Earth. It is a temporary aberration. I would say evil is an ‘unnatural’ consequence of freedom of will. 

 

Jordan Wood - Pentecostal

We have to look at what evil and sin are.  We can understand them by thinking about light and darkness. There is no existing thing called darkness.  It is just a word we use to describe the absence of light.  The same is true of sin. The actual definition of ‘sin’ means missing the mark. Who’s mark?  It is God’s standard of holiness and goodness and righteousness. Anything that falls below God’s standard is sin. When we ask why would God allow evil and sin, it is a default allowance by God, because of love, to allow us to choose His standards or our own.

 

Wendy MacLean – United Church of Canada

It’s hard for me to conceive of original sin and a wrathful God because I’m caught up in the joy of God.  There is an old story about Eden where Satan is furious because he is the one who wanted perfection. God created us human, which is imperfect. The perfectionist nature that Satan demands in this story is a cheap imitation of God—the same arrogance that the Ten Commandments warn against: idolatry.  We are not God. Satan’s temptation is, “You will be like God.”  The distinction is not perfect-imperfect. I am referring more to perfectionism, which is an obsessive striving for control beyond our own field of influence.  God doesn’t intentionally build in imperfection. God creates with perfect wisdom. The freedom to choose was interpreted by Satan as an imperfection.

 

All six of these answers associate the problem of ‘evil’ with human freewill, with the misuse of freewill. All six agree that ‘evil’ is a universal problem which separates us from God and causes immeasurable suffering.  

 

The Bible addresses the problem of evil in the first chapters of the book of Genesis.  Some modern Christians (Brian Talbot – Baptist, Jordan Wood - Pentecostal ) read the story of Eden as a literal, historical event.  They agree with Augustine, Luther and Calvin that Adam and Eve were free agents who had a choice between obedience and rebellion.  Augustine called this first rebellion ‘Original Sin’ and in Augustinian theology it served several purposes.

 

Firstly, it absolved God of all responsibility for the existence of evil.  Satan was a perfect angel and Adam and Eve were perfect humans. They all inhabited a perfect universe. The ‘Original Sin’ committed in Eden was the source of all sin, suffering, evil and death.   Modern disciples of Augustine’s Gospel of Wrath continue to explain all evil as a consequence of Eden. Therefore it is absolutely essential for Adam and Eve to be literal, historical beings who existed in recent history.  Science challenges the ‘Biblical’   idea that no humans existed prior to the creation of Adam and Eve in 4,000 BC.  Scientific dating is in complete conflict with the belief that suffering and death were unknown throughout the entire universe prior to the rebellion of Adam and Eve.   

 

Christian denominations labelled ‘fundamentalist’ (which includes many Baptists and Pentecostals) are determined to defend the ‘Biblical’ idea that evil originated in Eden.  This has led to the creation of an entire industry devoted to proving that dinosaurs coexisted with humans, that massive dies-offs of dinosaurs occurred after Eden and were caused by an even more recent global flood.  One of the most interesting books on the subject by William Dembski makes it quite clear that the Fall in Eden is the foundational ‘truth’ around which all ‘evidence’ must be shaped to fit. This has led to irreconcilable cultural wars between the defenders of Original Sin and the rest of the world, which includes many Christians.

 

Augustinian theology also identified Original Sin as the source of condemnation for all human beings.  Inherited sin from Adam and Eve meant that every baby was born under condemnation.  It was impossible for an unbaptized infant to enter heaven. No modern Christians agree with this aspect of Augustinian theology.

 

Inherited Original Sin also meant that meant that the intellect and will of all humans born after the Fall were corrupt and depraved. For Luther, Calvin and the Protestant Reformers this meant that all humans were born natural enemies of God. The depraved will could only lead to more sin and greater condemnation. The inability of the human will to obey God led to a dark and dismal theology of predestination. God alone chose the elect few by grace alone.

 

Traditional Wrath Augustine interpreted this doctrine of Original Sin in a particularly narrow and nasty way: only Baptised Christians could be saved. Therefore, outside the Church, no salvation.   Luther and Calvin interpreted Original Sin in a way that was more even horrible (as Calvin admitted) because the unelect could not be saved. No amount of prayer, baptism or good works could reverse the predestined judgement of damnation for the unelect. Protestant Wrath was less narrow in that God could theoretically predestine anyone from any nation for election.  In practice, Reformed Protestants were the usual recipients of unmerited grace. There are still a significant number of modern Christians (see James White v Chuck Smith) who reject all notion of freewill as an element in salvation.  They agree with Augustine, Luther and Calvin that only the predestined elect can be saved.

 

Modified Wrath   Many Bible literalists (Brian Talbot – Baptist, Jordan Wood - Pentecostal) disagree with Luther and Calvin that the human will is hopelessly depraved.  They believe that all humans have the freedom of will to choose between good and evil. This creates a thorny theological problem about how Jesus can be accepted as Saviour by people who never heard of him.  This will be closely examined in the questions concerning salvation.

 

Anti-Wrath   As the interviews with Paul Allen (Catholic), John Simons (Anglican), Dale Wood (Presbyterian), and Wendy MacLean (United Church) demonstrate, most contemporary Christians do not believe that Eden was a literal, historical event which was the source of all sin, suffering, evil and death.  They have no problem believing that animals suffered and died prior to 4,000 BC. They do not require a literal, historical interpretation of Eden to recognize that evil is a universal problem, and they do not need to place the entire blame for evil on Adam and Eve.    

 

But why did a God of perfect goodness create - or permit - evil?   Once the Original Sin of Augustine, Luther and Calvin is removed, Christianity can only speak of evil as a mystery or a fact of life.  Evil is something to be endured or something to fight against, but it remains an inevitable part of our flawed human nature. Few Liberal Christians believe that evil can and must be eradicated by exercising our complete freedom of will with divine assistance of the Holy Spirit.  This has profound implications on how Liberal  Christians conceive of Divine Judgement and the Afterlife.

 

Question five examines whether is depraved and condemned or free and responsible. 

 

Comment or Question?