Why does evil exist? If God is all-loving, wouldn’t he want to protect his creatures from any and all suffering? Human parents try their best to keep their children out of harm’s way, so we should expect nothing less from our divine father. This is the age-old problem of evil, and it has haunted the human race for as long as we’ve been on this earth. It is the best argument against the existence of God (and, I would contend, the only good one), so as believers, we have to know how to respond to it. Unless we can give a good answer to the problem of evil, our faith will remain unconvincing to an increasingly secular culture, and people will feel justified in their continual rejection of their creator.
The Easy Answer
In response, believers in God often argue that he allows evil in order to bring forth a greater good. For example, our free will entails the possibility of sin and evil, but God allows it because without free will, we wouldn’t be able to love. True love requires a free choice without coercion or force, which means that truly to love, you also have to be able to choose not to love. In other words, if love is possible, then sin and evil must be possible too. Consequently, God allows us to choose evil for the sake of a greater good, the ability to love.
That shows that the existence of God isn’t incompatible with the existence of evil, but the case is not closed just yet. Atheists still have another card up their sleeve. They argue that while we can imagine why God would allow certain evils, there are some in our world that simply do not have legitimate explanations. For example, think of babies and severely intellectually handicapped people who suffer terrible diseases or are tortured and then die tremendously painful deaths. What good could possibly outweigh those evils? More specifically, since these people cannot grasp the concept of good coming from evil, what benefit could they gain from their suffering? As far as we can tell, absolutely nothing, and that does not bode very well for our belief in God. Even though evil in general is not incompatible with his existence, these kinds of terrible, seemingly inexplicable evils definitely are. Since these things do happen, God cannot exist.
This version of the problem of evil is much stronger and much harder to refute, but I would suggest that it is still not decisive. To see why, let’s look at the book of Job, a book of Scripture that is pretty much entirely about this very issue.
The Answer in the Book of Job
When the book starts out, Job is a rich man with a seemingly perfect life (Job 1:1-5), but things quickly take a turn for the worst. He loses everything he has, including his children (Job 1:13-19). Then he is afflicted with terrible sores from head to toe (Job 2:7). For basically the rest of the book, Job and his friends talk about what happened, and they try to explain why God allowed it.
At the end of the book, after all the human characters have had their say, God appears and gives a long speech filled with strange questions like these:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7)
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads his wings toward the south? (Job 39:26)
Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?
He who argues with God, let him answer it. (Job 40:2)
After all this, Job acknowledges God’s infinite superiority over him and his own lack of understanding of the things about which God questioned him (Job 40:3-5, 42:1-6), and then God fixes all of Job’s problems and gives him back even more than he had before (Job 42:10-17).
God and Chess
At this point, you might be wondering what this all means. Why does it matter that Job wasn’t around when God “laid the foundations of the earth” or that he does not make hawks fly? What does any of this have to do with the problem of evil? In a nutshell, the point of it all is that while we may want to know why there is so much suffering in the world, God is so far above and beyond us that we cannot even begin to fathom his reasons for allowing it. He is infinitely smarter and wiser than we could ever hope to be, so we are simply incapable of understanding why he allows such suffering and evil. Nevertheless, because he is God, we should trust that he does in fact have his reasons.
Now, that might seem like a cop-out, and in most cases, that kind of answer would be. However, I would suggest that in this particular case it’s not. Rather, in this instance, it is actually the correct answer. To understand what I mean, consider an analogy. Imagine that you are watching a chess game between the two best players in the world. One of them makes a move that initially seems very silly; let’s say that he allows his opponent to capture his queen, the most powerful piece in the game. At first, this seems like a terrible move, and you do not immediately see any good reason for it. Would you be justified in thinking that it was just a blunder? I do not think you would. Since these players are both much better than you could ever hope to be, there is no reason to think that you would understand every move they make. Instead, you should expect to be baffled by some of their moves because they are just that much better than you.
And let’s say that after the game, you talk to the player about his seemingly bad move, and he explains that he was able to see fifteen moves ahead. After looking at every possible fifteen-move combination, he realized that no matter what his opponent did, even if he took the queen, he would inevitably be worse off. Then, to top it all off, the player starts explaining every possible-fifteen move combination from that position. After just a few moves, your head would most likely start spinning (I know mine would!). The vast, vast majority of people cannot hold fifteen chess moves in their heads, so most of us simply cannot understand why he made that move.
Simply put, in chess, we are not justified in thinking that a move is bad simply because we don’t see a reason for it. In fact, if an apparently bad move is made by a world-class chess player, we actually have reason to think that it is a good move no matter how much it may baffle us. And even world-class chess players can have this kind of experience. It is likely that chess computers will eventually get so sophisticated that they outclass the best humans the way the best human chess players outclass normal people like you and me. If that has not happened already, those computers will then baffle world champions the way those champions baffle us. Simply put, it is possible for a move to be a good one even though no human could possibly ever imagine why it is good or imagine the full extent of the good that can come of it. Consequently, while it is usually true that we are justified in concluding that there is no reason, if we cannot find one, that’s not always the case.
The Omniscience of God
Getting back to the problem of evil, the example of a baffling chess move is child’s play compared to what an all-knowing being would have to calculate and take into account when deciding whether to allow certain evils to occur. The world and all the possible circumstances and effects that could result from one event are way more complicated than a chess board could ever be. God’s omniscience dwarfs our limited intelligence in a way that no super chess computer ever could. We can’t possibly fathom all the reasons why God might need to allow certain evils in order to achieve greater goods. Thus, much like a person watching a world-class game of chess, we are not justified in thinking that there is no good reason why God would allow all the evils we see in the world around us just because we do not understand why he would do so.
As a result, the problem of evil doesn’t disprove God’s existence, and the answer given in the book of Job is actually correct. God is so far above and beyond us that we simply cannot fathom why he would allow certain evils to occur, and we should not be surprised at that. We should not expect to understand all the reasons behind what an omniscient being does. It should come as no surprise that the ultimate answer to the problem of evil is that we just have to trust that God has his reasons. That may not be the most comforting answer, and it may not be the answer we thought we would find, but it is the answer nonetheless.