March 1, 2011

God And Evil Pt 1 - The Christian Story Of Why Evil Exists

A few weeks ago I posted a blog about responding to people in the midst of tragedy. By doing that I left myself with the feeling that I started with the last piece of a rather long and very important discussion. While I mussed over what to do when tragedy strikes I leapfrogged over the two very important questions, why does evil exist, and why do bad things happen to people? This post will seek to address the first question, the following posts will try to address questions around free will, why God allows bad things to happen, and a revisit to how we ought to respond to tragedy.

The problem of pain, and the presence of evil in the world is a common argument used by many in their attempts to disprove the existence of God. In 33A.D. Greek philosopher Epicurus issued this challenge to any who dared to believe in the gods, 'Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?' 

Let's not sugar coat this one; this is a serious challenge to God's goodness, sovereignty, and power. It seems to leave us in a lurch, no matter what we say we are left with a being who ought not to be called God. Powerful, perhaps, good, maybe, but God, no. This question has been kicked around for almost 2 millennia, and it doesn't show any signs of going away. Now I am hardly an expert and I don't pretend to think this will be the end of the argument yet it is worth exploring the Christian explication for the existence of evil.

The first question that Christians have to answer is, does evil exist? It might seem odd for that to be the starting point. You might want to leap over does evil exist and move right to the question of its origins. I can't say I blame you for wanting to do that. However there are a number of faiths that would say that evil is illusionary. Many new age movements and a few eastern religions believe that good and evil are one and the same, that the closer to the divine one gets the more the distinction between good and evil disappears.

In my opinion that position is counter intuitive, and difficult to defend. When we look at the minor hardships we have to deal with daily, this position seems at least plausible. But when we move to something grander, I find this position to be repugnant. How can the slums of Calcutta, or the Rwanda genocide, or WWII be good from any perspective; divine or otherwise? In the face of such events this position crumbles and fails to explain what we know and feel to be true; that there is in fact somethings out there that are rightly called evil.

And that brings us back to the question many of us wanted to start off with anyway, since evil is real where did it come from?

The Christian story starts with God. God who is eternal, God who is all powerful, God who is good. God who creates. God created everything and he called it all good. Two of his creations stand out from everything else, angels and humans. Now the differences between the two are incredibly numerous but we have at least two things in common. We both were granted free will, and we both rebelled.

Some Rebellions Are More Humorous Than Others

It is in these acts of rebellion that we find the genesis of evil in the world. And as a result of these rebellions against God a number of things happened.

First humans inherited a sin nature. This means we now have an inclination towards sin. Just how severely this sin nature has affected us is still hotly debated in Christian circles. Some would say our ability to do real good has been completely destroyed by this sin nature. Others would say our ability to do good is simply marred, which means we are still capable of carrying out acts that are rightly called good. Never the less all Christians agree that once we were completely good but now we have a sin nature that is at odds with God. Our sin nature is incredibly selfish and it is capable of great evil.

What happened to the Fallen Angels is not as well documented in the bible. That should not come as any real surprise as the bible is dedicated to teaching us about God's interaction with humans. What little information we have would indicate that there are now a number of celestial beings which are lead by Satan (literally the adversary) that take joy in disrupting God's creation.

Now it should be noted that this is not the same as dualism. Dualism sets forth the idea that there are two equally powerful, yet different forces at work in the world; one good the other evil. The Christian perspective is that there are two unequal forces at work in the world. One is God who is good the other is Satan who is evil. Satan is not free to do whatever he wishes, he is not all powerful, he is not all knowing and he is not everywhere at once. Also it is important to understand that despite his rebellion Satan cannot take action beyond what God allows (We'll talk about that later). Yes he is a real evil presence in the world, yet God keeps him on a very short leash.

Fallen Humanity and Fallen Angels accounts to most of the evil we see in the world. But not all. There is another category that we must take a moment and explore. It is most commonly called natural evil. Natural evil is the term for when people are afflicted with great suffering, but there is not a moral agent responsible for the event, they are natural occurrences. This would include things like earthquakes, cancer, tornadoes, birth defects etc.

There are two general explications for natural evil. First is that natural evil is another result of the fall of humanity. The first few chapters of Genesis, seems to indicate that had humanity not fallen the world would have been different. Genesis 3 tells us that the natural world (thorns infecting the ground) our anatomy (increased pain in child birth) and the animal kingdom (enmity between us and snakes) are now different than their original design. It seems to me that it is not a large jump include things like earthquakes (natural world), cancer (our anatomy) and illness (virus' and bacteria as an extension of the animal kingdom) as part of this same new reality.

The second explanation is that what we call natural evil may be being perpetrated by some unseen celestial force, like a fallen angel.

There you have it. That is the standard Christian explanation for the presence of evil in the world. Before we move on to talk about why bad things happen to people, we will stop and try to address the common argument against the Christian story, saying that free will and God's sovereignty are mutually exclusive.

Also in case you got lost in all the details, here are the 'Coles Notes' (Cliffs Notes if your American) of everything we covered;

1. God is good
2. Everything he created was good
3. Angels and Humans both were granted free will
4. Angels and Humans both rebelled against God
5. As a result Humans have a sin nature
6. That sin nature causes a lot of harm and evil in the world
7. Fallen Angels seem to enjoy tempting us to do more evil
8. Another result of humanities rebellion is the world is a much less hospitable place to live
9. This is called natural evil.
10. It is also possible that what appears to be natural evil is a result of the activities of Fallen Angels.


  1. Are you saying just that this is the typical Christian explanation, or that this is the typical Christian explanation and you agree with it?

  2. I would say that this is the one that I have heard most frequently and the one that I subscribe too.

  3. The only other two arguments I have heard with any frequency is that;

    a) evil was created in order for us to grow.
    b) evil ought to be understood as the shadow of God.

    However if I take the creation account to be true (though not necessarily literal) God created everything good, and evil was an undesired intrusion.

  4. "and evil was an undesired intrusion."
    God did not intend evil to happen? Did evil slip by Him unnoticed? Read Isaiah 46:8-10
    Also, if God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, (Eph 1:4) then God knew that evil would be part of His plan. No?

  5. Jim,

    I think there is a difference between undesired and unexpected/ caught off guard. God planned to create people to have a relationship with, people that can enjoy him and bring glory to him. To achieve this his creation needed to be free. God knew the outcome of that decision and made provision to rescue Fallen humanity before he even began to create.

    No evil did not slip by, neither was it the desired outcome. But it just may have been the necessary outcome