Someone contacted me to ask me questions about the problem of evil for a research essay. There are five questions. I will paste in each question followed by my answer to it. Some Christians would answer these questions differently. So I am not giving the only Christian response to these questions, but one standard Christian response, and that from an Arminian perspective.
Question 1: In the religious text, it appears that God values humanity very highly. If so, why did He allow humanity to go downhill and become corrupt?
My answer: Because free will for created beings requires the possibility of becoming corrupt. C.S. Lewis addressed this question well in his book Mere Christianity:
God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata -of creatures that worked like machines- would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free.
The moment you have a self at all, there is a possibility of putting Yourself first-wanting to be the centre-wanting to be God, in fact. That was the sin of Satan: and that was the sin he taught the human race. Some people think the fall of man had something to do with sex, but that is a mistake. (The story in the Book of Genesis rather suggests that some corruption in our sexual nature followed the fall and was its result, not its cause.) What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could “be like gods”-could set up on their own as if they had created themselves-be their own masters-invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history-money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery-the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.
Question 2: In the explanation of Noah and the Flood, this event seems to be a solution to the problem of humanity becoming corrupt. If God went through the effort of creating this flood, why did he continue to allow humanity to become evil, even to this current day?
My answer: I think this question is addressed in my response to question 1.
Question 3: To you, what is the point of suffering, illness/disease, war, pain, and evil? Is this an act of God’s will? Is it a punishment for how corrupt humanity is?
My answer: That is a complicated question. In fact, it contains multiple questions! Not even all the things mentioned in the first part of your question are the same; so they cannot all be fully answered by the same response.
First, something all of those things (i.e., suffering, illness/disease, war, pain, and evil) have in common is that they are not part of God’s original intention for humanity. They are the result of sin (going against God’s will) in one way or another. So there is no point to them originally in that they were not ideally meant to be part of the world or human experience. But once sin was committed, and brought these things into the world, then God could use these things to accomplish various purposes.
These things normally come naturally as the result of human sin bringing God’s curse on the creation so that the world is now a place where such things can happen. That is, human sin brought God’s judgment upon the creation, subjecting humanity to death and corrupting the ideal order of the world. It is not that each instance of suffering, illness/disease, or pain is specifically inflicted by God. Rather, it is often just the natural result of living in a world that no longer functions perfectly as it was intended, but is sinful and therefore broken. Often, it is the abuse of free will that brings such things, whether people harming one another or even harming themselves by self-destructive choices (take for example, an unhealthy lifestyle that leads to disease). But when these things happen, God can then use them for various good purposes. Suffering can impose justice. It can lead people to turn to God for help and to get into right relationship with him (the most important and best thing for them). It can wake them up to what is important. It can bring growth in their character. It can provide opportunity for virtue both in the person who suffers and others who help the suffering person. Given the sinful state of our world and humanity, suffering can actually be good for a person ultimately, just as difficult medical treatment can ultimately be good for someone by making them healthier (for example, cutting someone open to remove cancer). This point has been made rather strikingly by the famous historian and novelist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was imprisoned in “work camps” under Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union for political dissent:
It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good.
In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel.
In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor.
In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments.
It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good.
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. . . .
That is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me:
“Bless you, prison!”
I . . . have served enough time there.
I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”
—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956, Volume 2, pp. 615-617.
As to your question as to whether these things are an act of God’s will, I have said not normally. In one sense, many of them can be traced back in a general way to God’s judgment on human sin, hut they are often not specifically inflicted by God in specific instances. However, it is also true that God might inflict such things (except for evil; God never commits moral evil) directly as punishment for sin or to accomplish any of the goods mentioned above. I would think God specifically inflicting suffering not to be the norm; so it is not normally an act of God’s will. But it is an option open to God and something that undoubtedly happens at times; so it is sometimes an act of God’s will so as to accomplish greater good given the sinful state of the world. But again these things are not God’s ideal will. He would rather that they never were and that they not occur. But human free will and corruption demands them and even makes their occurrence beneficial overall, given all the factors currently involved.
So, to try and bring some simple focus to my answers:
To you, what is the point of suffering, illness/disease, war, pain, and evil? – There was no original point to them, but once sin occurred, they are for the sake of free will and all the good it makes possible, judgment on sin, and the good that can be made of these things.
Is this an act of God’s will? – Not ideally and not normally, but sometimes
Is it a punishment for how corrupt humanity is? – Partially, but not wholly
Question 4: Why do bad things happen to people who are considered good or relatively sin free?
My answer: Well, from a Christian point of view, no one is fully good or sin free. We are all doomed to eternal separation from God forever in Hell for our sin/evil. Only Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came to save us was sin free. Though all other human beings sin, Jesus never sinned. He lived the perfect life of love toward God and others. And he took the punishment for all human sin when he died on the cross, so that anyone who trusts in him as Lord and Savior will be forgiven and made right with God, and have eternal life, and eventually Heaven, the perfect existence God originally intended for us with him. As the famous Bible verse, John 3:16, says, “For God so loved the world, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
But more directly to your question, bad things happen to good people as a result of living in a sin cursed world of the type I have described in my answers to the previous questions. If people are going to have free will, then they are going to be able to choose to inflict harm on others for example. Human sin brought a corruption of the natural order that unleashed disease and death into the world so that as a consequence of sin, human beings are subject to these things. And that is for good purposes as explained in answer to previous questions. Living in such a world pushes us to face the ultimate questions of good, evil, guilt, eternity, and relationship with God. The natural order does not function perfectly as it was originally designed to do, but it does still function according to its basic design plan, as a world of natural laws, cause and effect, etc. Living in such an environment, in which people have free will and our biology can go wrong and we naturally deteriorate, entails experiencing bad things. But this sin cursed world is not meant to be our final home.
Question 5: Why aren’t these things prevented by God?
My answer: First, let me say that God undoubtedly does prevent many individual instances of these things. However, as to why he does not prevent all of these things totally, I believe my previous answers address this – because of free will and for the good he can work out of these things given the corrupt state of humanity. As C.S. Lewis put it, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself” (The Problem of Pain). It would undermine God’s design of free will if he negated all or most of our negative free will choices. As Lewis puts it, “We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of abuse of free will by His creatures: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when used as a weapon… But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and therefore, freedom of the will would be void” (The Problem of Pain). Moreover, for free will to have meaning, our choices must normally have consequences. If God were to prevent the effect of all of our sinful choices, then our choices would be largely emptied of their meaning. As Lewis puts this too, God made “a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings” (Mere Christianity). God has chosen generally to give us free will and then hold us accountable for how we use it rather than controlling all that happens. And critically, he will eventually put a stop to all evil and bring all evil to justice.
As for natural suffering (suffering not inflicted by a sinful agent, but the order of nature, such as some disease or accidents), in addition to the good that God can put such suffering to (see previous answers; this is not to be missed; it is probably primary), it is a matter of the world running according to God’s design plan. God created a world of cause and effect, and does not prevent every negative effect.
Additionally, as J. Warner Wallace points out:
Some “Natural Evil” May Be the Result of Necessity
God may tolerate some natural evil because it is the necessary consequence of a free natural process that makes it possible for freewill creatures to thrive. Scientist-theologian John Polkinghorne suggests that God has created a universe with particular natural laws that make life on earth possible so that humans with free will can exist in the first place. As an example, the same weather systems that create tornadoes that kill humans also create thunderstorms that provide our environment with the water needed for human existence. The same plate tectonics that kill humans (in earthquakes) are necessary for regulation of soils and surface temperatures needed for human existence. (Why Would a Good God Allow Natural Evil?)
But even here, could God not protect people from natural disasters when they occur? Yes, but that goes back to what I have said about the good that living in a dangerous world of cause and effect provides.
Let me share one more C.S. Lewis quote before ending. It is a little different in focus than your questions. But I feel like it might still add some helpful perspective in addressing why God does not just come immediately and get rid of all suffering. It helps to give some idea of the stakes in all of this and why it is so necessary for us to be pushed by a dangerous world with death and suffering in it to consider God, the meaning of life, and ultimate things. He uses a war-time analogy in relation to God bringing an end to evil, which is headed up by the Devil:
Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force, invading it? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when. But we can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. I do not suppose you and I would have though much of a Frenchman who waited till the Allies were marching into Germany and then announced he was on our side. God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realise what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else -something it never entered your head to conceive- comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing: it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realised it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it. [C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity]