*As a caveat, I want to note that this is not intended to be used as a means of counseling and consoling after a personal tragedy. This is an apologetically-minded defense against the charges levied by the problem of evil. Christians need to learn when to hold up their sword and shield, and when to hold up a warm blanket.*
Tragedy has a way of ripping attention away from ourselves and highlighting the twisted ugliness of the world. School shootings, church shootings, bombings, murder, hurricanes—every day the news reports another event that leaves us with mouths agape.
After every national or international tragedy, I’ve come to expect a number of people to co-opt the circumstances into an argument against the existence of God and the truthfulness of the Christian message. “If God actually exists, he wouldn’t have allowed something like this to happen!”
The “problem of evil” is one of the sharpest arrows aimed at the Christian. The problem of evil is the seemingly contradictory reality that both the all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God of the Bible andevil exists. Eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume summarized this dilemma well; “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”
However, it’s not just long-dead philosophers who have noticed this seeming contradiction and utilized it to sow disbelief in the Church. From proselytizing atheists such as Richard Dawkins to friends and family on your Facebook feed, the problem of evil has consistently been used as a weapon against the truth of God.
In 1 Peter 3:13-16, the apostle exhorts believers always to be prepared to offer a defense for the hope that is in us. How, then, are Christians to defend the faith against “the problem of evil?”
Responding To the Problem
There are many ways to respond to the problem of evil. One of the most useful responses I have encountered is given by K. Scott Oliphint in his book Covenantal Apologetics.As Oliphint explains it, the problem of evil has two facts that Christians must agree with: first, the God of the Bible exists, and second, evil exists.
As Oliphant notes, our opponents want to make these two facts contradict each other, as if it is impossible that both the God of the Bible and evil exist. However, these facts do not contradict each other, they are merely incompatible if you leave out another, vital piece of information.
Oliphint identifies the potentially neglected, vital piece of information in a third statement, which is, “Adam responsibly and freely chose to disobey God at which time he and all creation fell.” This last statement makes sense of the first two statements. It explains how evil can inhabit a world created by a perfect and powerful God—because man freely chose to disobey God and plunged the world into sin.
It would be like if you are driving down the highway outside of a small town and saw two billboards that read “Rainwaterville” and “Hates,” and pulled off the highway fuming that this small town boasts in its hatred of, seemingly, all things beforereading the third billboard which read “Thievery!” Pulling the first two billboards out of context from the third billboard leads to a wildly inaccurate conclusion as to their meaning.
Thus, Oliphint argues that, according to the Bible, God and evil are not contradictory facts. They are just two aspects of the Bible’s narrative of redemption. God created, man fell, Christ redeemed, and someday, all will be made new. It’s only by removing God and evil from their biblical context that they become incompatible.
Furthermore, it’s not the Christian without an answer to the problem of evil, but the one who denies the existence of God! It’s easy for the Christian to identify cruelty and injustice in the world because we have an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God as an absolute standard of goodness and justice. When someone or something does not line up with God’s nature and character, that person or thing is sinful and evil.
How does the non-believer recognize evil in a world with no absolute standard of good? If everything happens by chance, if this really is the survival of the fittest, then why—or better yet, how—is evil a problem at all? Any standard less than an unchanging God becomes a crooked pseudo-standard which cannot be used to evaluate evilness and goodness!
I bet you can already hear the opponent crying foul to this response. “You’re just using the Bible to defend the Bible, and I don’t believe the Bible!”
But hold on—our opponents are the ones that brought the Bible into this discussion to begin with! Both the idea of a God with certain moral characteristics—such as being all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving—andthe existence of evil are ideas that we get in the Bible! They are ideas that assumethe Christian worldview!
Why should we allow our opponent to pick two Bible truths and exclude a third? If the first two statements assume the Christian worldview, then there is no reason to not introduce that third, logically consistent statement from within the biblical narrative. While our opponents wish to dabble one foot in the pool of Christianity in order to critique us, we must be willing to grab hold of their foot and drag them all the way into our worldview to show them that, actually, the water feels just fine.
The Heart of the Issue
When I first read Oliphint’s response to the problem of evil, I was blown away by his thoughtful, yet, resolute commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. When defending the faith, Christians often feel as though they must put aside their commitment to the Bible and reason with objectors on a neutral field.
This is a grave mistake.
The reality of the situation is that non-believers are never going to want the Christian to maintain the high-ground of biblical authority because they are rebels against God and God’s truth (Eph 4:18; Rom 1:21; 1 Cor 2:14). Yet, we do maintain the high-ground. If we, as Christians, really, truly believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, and authoritative word of God (2 Tim 3:16), why would we agree to give that up and submit ourselves to an unbeliever’s way of thinking?
Oliphint’s response to the problem of evil is helpful not only because it thoughtfully answers a common and powerful objection to the Christian faith, but because it teaches believers to stand firm and confident on the authority of Scripture when we are called to give an account for our faith. Too often, Christians are scared to bring their faith into the public square, but the public square doesn’t need timid Christians that think like non-believers, but it needs Spirit-filled, straight-spined Christians to boldly proclaim and defend the truth which is given to us in the Scripture.
So, the next time someone tries to undermine the hope that is within you with the problem of evil, crack open your Bible, and confidently give an answer for the hope that is in you.
David Hume, Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion, 2nd ed. (London: 1779), 186.
The following section provides a summary of Oliphint’s arguments in Covenantal Apologetics. K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013) 166-176