What reason would a good God have to allow evil?
The argument is simple. If God is all-powerful, he should be able prevent all evil and suffering. If God is good, he should want to. But if God can remove all evil and suffering, and he wants to remove all evil and suffering, then why is there still evil and suffering? Therefore a good, all-powerful God does not exist.
Some Christians have tried to respond by rejecting the first premise, God’s omnipotence. In this case, God really is trying to eliminate as much evil and suffering as possible, but he has his limits. This, of course, is not an option for people who believe in the God of the Bible who “works all things according to the counsel of his will.” (Ephesians 1.11)
The second premise however is on shakier ground. Are we really in a position to know what a good God ought to do? Doesn’t it seem likely that an infinitely wise God would have a fuller perspective than we do? And so, isn’t it just possible that God has a good reason for the existence of evil and suffering in this world, even if we don’t know what that reason is?
The principle is completely plausible. Our daily lives are full of examples where we accept a certain amount of pain in order to bring about a greater good. As a father of five, I’ve spent my fair share of time holding small children as they get their shots. And although I have a very good reason for the pain and suffering that I inflict on them, there is no way at all to communicate that reason to the wailing baby. In the same way, it seems likely that God’s good reasons for our suffering would be beyond our ability to comprehend as mere humans.
It’s important to point out that at this point the atheist argument has already failed. The mere possibility that God could have a good reason to allow evil and suffering invalidates the second premise, and so the atheist conclusion is unjustified. We don’t have to know what the reasons are; there is nothing irrational about believing in a God whose ways are beyond our understanding. If the atheist wants to prove that God does not exist, it’s on him to demonstrate that God’s goodness and human suffering really are incompatible.
With that said, does the Bible give us any indication what purpose God may have in mind for the miseries of this broken world? The answer is yes and no. No, because the Bible nowhere proposes to supply the answer that tells us just what the reason is for any particular instance of suffering. In general we don’t know why a certain person had to die on a certain day, or why a particular injustice was allowed to happen. We walk by faith, trusting that God knows what he’s doing, and that he walks with us, even when the unthinkable threatens to overwhelm us.
The Bible does however give some general answers for how God uses the suffering that we experience. We see that Gehazi suffered a just punishment for his sin (2 Kings 5:27), and that Paul suffered to deepen his reliance on Christ (2 Corinthians 12:9); that Jonah suffered to put him back on the right track (Jonah 3:3), and that Joseph suffered as part of God’s plan to save the lives of thousands (Genesis 50:20).
What’s more, I believe the Bible gives us a glimpse at the ultimate reason for suffering and evil. According the biblical narrative, suffering and evil were not part of God’s original creation, but they came about when Adam and Eve chose to eat the fruit that God had forbidden. The ultimate question then is, why does God’s good plan for his creation include a fall?
The full response to that question is surely beyond our grasp, but there is a biblical line of reasoning that may help us see what tremendous good God ordained to come about through the fall:
What is the greatest virtue?
1 Corinthians 13:13 - “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
What is the deepest expression of love?
John 15:13 - “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
Where do we see the fullest expression of God’s love?
Romans 5:8 - “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
The greatest demonstration of the greatest virtue happened at the cross. And yet, if there had been no fall, we would have had no need for a savior, and Christ would have no occasion to lay down his life on our behalf. This, the most perfect and glorious of all God’s deeds, could only happen in a world with suffering and evil.
The same logic applies to many other virtues. Without fear there would be no courage. Without sin there would be no mercy. If there were no lack, there would be no generosity; if there were no division, there would be no reconciliation. None of the beautiful stories we know of perseverance and loyalty and self-sacrifice would exist if there had never been a fall.
Without presuming to plumb the depths of God’s wisdom, we can at least say that, had God not permitted the existence of evil, we would never have known a God who lays his own life down for the sheep. Jesus would never have touched lepers or forgiven prostitutes. He never would have sweat blood in Gethsemane. He would never have gone into the tomb, nor come out the third day.
If it had not been for evil, God would have been Creator, but not Savior; Sustainer but not Victor; Father but not Redeemer. The existence of evil, far from disproving God, shows us who he really is.