Why Would a Good God Allow Evil to Exist?

Why Does a Good God Allow Evil to Exist?(This post answers question #3 in my “65 Questions Every Christian Parent Needs to Learn to Answer” series. Sign up to receive posts via email to make sure you can answer each one!)

One night recently, I was tucking my daughter into bed after a particularly difficult day. I didn’t have to tell her just how hard it had been. Unsolicited, she wailed, “Mommy, I tried soooo hard to be good today. But I just kept messing up. I don’t know how to be better like God wants!”

Before I could dispense my motherly wisdom on why we’ll never be perfect, however, she took the conversation in another direction.

“Why doesn’t God just stop me from being mean before it happens? Like, right before I’m mean, why doesn’t He just make me be nice?” she asked.

My son, listening with interest from the other room, yelled over, “Yeah, like I don’t understand why He doesn’t just stop bad guys before they do bad stuff! Why wouldn’t He just want good things to happen?”

There it was. My twins had already sniffed out an apparent contradiction in their budding faith: If God is perfect and good, how can there be evil in the world He created? My kids were in good company by identifying the issue. It’s a question that’s been asked for thousands of years and continues to be one of the most significant faith challenges posed by atheists today.


The Problem of Evil


Why is the existence of evil such a difficult problem for Christianity? The heart of the issue is this:

  • If God is all-good, He would eliminate evil.
  • If He is all-powerful, He could eliminate evil.
  • But evil in fact exists.
  • How can the existence of evil possibly be reconciled with the existence of the Christian God? (Atheists answer it can’t be.)

Millions of pages have been written on the problem of evil (literally). This post will introduce you to the framework Christian apologists typically use to address the issue. Of course, there is no way to do justice to such a complex topic in a single blog post. I highly recommend Norman Geisler’s book If God, Why Evil? for a concise yet thorough treatment of this very challenging topic.


First Things First: Did God Create Evil?


There are many aspects of the problem of evil, but the starting point for discussion is typically this: If God created everything, and evil is something, doesn’t that mean God created evil? Because Christians believe God is perfectly good, and that God created only good things (1 Timothy 4:4), that seems like a contradiction.

There’s no doubt from the Christian perspective that God created everything (Genesis 1:1; John 1:3; Colossians 1:16). Christians also believe that evil is very real. (The reason it’s important to state that seemingly obvious point is that there are some religions, like Christian Science, which claim evil is not real.) The tricky part is what we mean when we say that evil is “something.” Christian philosophers suggest that evil is real, but it does not exist as a “something” by itself. Instead, evil is defined as a corruption of a good thing.

That’s not as hard to understand as it might seem at first. Think of rot in a tree. Rot doesn’t exist by itself – it exists only as a corruption of the formerly good tree. Other examples might include a wound in an arm, rust on a car, or holes in wood.  Thinking about evil in this way means that God indeed only created good things (Genesis 1:31)! Evil is a corruption that happens to that entirely good creation. God does not produce it, but he does permit it.


Where Does That Corruption Come From?


So far we’ve established that God didn’t create evil, but evil (the corruption of a good thing) does happen, and He allows it to happen. So where does corruption come from in the first place? For purposes of this post, let’s just address human corruption, or moral evil. (I’ll address corruption in nature – tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. – in another post.) Why didn’t God just make perfect humans who can’t be corrupted?

The answer is free will. Free will is our ability to make choices without external coercion. It’s one of the good things God created! The logic below shows how moral evil can result from the good creation of free will:

  • God created only good things. One good thing He created was free will.
  • Free will makes evil possible since it is the power to choose otherwise.
  • To choose otherwise than good is evil. Therefore, a perfectly created free creature can still do evil.

By this logic, we can see that God made moral evil possible by creating free creatures, but we are responsible for making it actual. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis took this a step further to explain why free will would be so important to God that He would choose to make free creatures despite knowing the evil that would inevitably result from their choices. “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…Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk.”

In other words, God wanted us to freely love him. A forced love, without choice, is no love at all.


Why Doesn’t God Just Stop Moral Evil?


What we just learned was that moral evil is not something that God created, but rather something that comes from the (good) human ability to freely make choices. At this point, many people ask why an all-good and all-powerful God doesn’t just stop the moral evil that is possible before it happens (this is what my daughter effectively asked).

To answer this, we need to be careful in defining all-powerful. Christians often say, “God can do anything!” But that’s actually not true. For example, it’s impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18). Lying would be contrary to God’s nature. In addition, God can’t do anything contradictory, like make a square circle or a stone so heavy He can’t lift it.

Given that God created us with free will, is it possible to destroy moral evil in this world? Actually, no. This is one of those contradictions – like making a square circle – that makes something impossible: God can’t force us to freely make good choices. The only way God could destroy evil in this world would be to destroy our freedom.


The Story Doesn’t End There


It’s important to state that, from the Christian perspective, the story doesn’t end there! Christians acknowledge that this is the current state of affairs, but that one day God will defeat evil by bringing this world to an end and creating a new earth (Revelation 21-22). This new earth will be free from evil, suffering, and death. What a glorious day that will be!

I know this is a tough topic to understand and to deal with on a personal level. But it is such a barrier to belief for so many people that we have to take responsibility for knowing how to respond. Many Christians run to Genesis 3 to answer that we simply live as fallen creatures in a fallen world. While that’s true, there are a couple of reasons why we need to develop our ability to address the problem of evil beyond that quick reply.

First, when the problem of evil is raised by an atheist, that person doesn’t believe in the truth of the Bible. In order for our kids to engage with a secular world on this issue, they need an extrabiblical understanding of how it can logically be possible for God and evil to co-exist. That’s what this post was about.

The second reason is that the problem of evil can be a very emotional one, tied to a tragic personal experience. Even for Christians, it can be difficult to understand how the bad choice of one person – Adam – led to all the evil and suffering in our world. For a nonbeliever who has experienced tragedy closely, it’s all the more impossible to imagine. Gaining a deeper understanding of how God and evil can co-exist helps everyone – believer and nonbeliever – make further sense of this difficult problem.

As I said earlier, this is just an introduction. I highly recommend Geisler’s book as a next step! If you have book recommendations on this topic, please share in the comments.

Have your kids struggled with this question in some form? How did you discuss it with them?

31 thoughts on “Why Would a Good God Allow Evil to Exist?”

  1. Clark Vangilder

    My kids hate spinach in all of its forms. I asked my youngest one day, “is spinach good for you?” Her answer was, “well, yes, but I hate spinach.” I asked, “would it be good for me to make you eat spinach?” The oldest daughter quickly answered, “No. Forcing me to do what I do not like, and almost makes me hurl, would not be kind of you.” So I asked them what the difference was in my use of the word “good” when talking about spinach. Pause.

    The discussion went on for awhile, and we discussed what God meant by “good” in Genesis 1 (good = functionally so rather than morally so), and whether or not it would be good of God to force someone to freely love Him. Both daughters quickly realized that you can’t force someone to freely do anything, and that they can’t imagine why God could or would do that.

    We then had to determine what the term “evil” is all about. My kids were not willing to call me evil for forcing spinach on them, but Hitler and Darth Vader are clearly evil, etc. I got to the notion that evil is privation of that which is good (not in those words though) by poking holes in things like paper, cardboard, and even drilling through a 2×4. I asked them, “would it be evil for me to take this drill and poke a hole in some living thing?” They quickly answered yes. I asked, “why?” So after going through the gory details that come up first, we were able to boil it down to evil is something that makes something or someone less than whole in body, soul, or spirit. When they realized that words are just as powerful as power drills, there was another pregnant pause.

    Anyway … all of that to say: step one is defining the word and its variations in use and concept.

    1. Those are awesome object lessons. My little one is just 15 months old. I hope I can be as creative and logical when it comes time to teach him things like this.

      Maybe a start is in teaching him to touch gently instead of “nice”. “Nice” has a moral quality to it, and it’s not “not nice” to want to touch or to touch something. So we’re trying to teach him “gentle” and alternatives for showing interest and excitement.

      1. Clark Vangilder

        Sounds like a good start Karisse.

        Ultimately, all human logic boils down to the ways in which we describe/explain/understand how things and ideas are “the same”, “not the same”, and “the same but not the same”. One ca start by asking a child with appropriate language skills whether or not two apples (or whatever) are the same, and to get them to express (define) the ways in which they are not the same. This is distinction-making 101, and the failure of our educational system to produce people who are able to articulate such distinction is one of our major problems today.

        For example, no two apples are “the same” (identical) because they are not quite the same weight, shape, color, etc. But they are the same with respect to the technicality of being an apple. Another example is the word/idea of love. “I love cheeseburgers” and “I love my wife” are very different ideas. English allows us to be sloppy linguistically, and that eventually leads to intellectual sloppiness.

        You do not have to teach logic the way that it is shown in textbooks…you can simply talk it out in terms of “the same” (identity), “not the same” (non-identity), and “the same but not the same” (equivalence).

        2 = 2 [identity]
        2 = 3 [non-identity, and false]
        1+1=2 [equivalence]

        The arithmetic example of equivalence is telling the story that 2 groups 1 thing are “the same but not the same” as 1 group of 2 things. They are the same in terms of total things, but not the same with respect to the way that they are structured group-wise.

        1. I definitely see how sloppy language will eventually lead to sloppy logic and thinking. I think it’s happened to me. The strange thing is that I kind of felt it happening as I chose to use sloppy words. Now I’m to the point where I’m frustrated and am working on, basically, getting my mind back. I am really finding this blog challenging in s one respects which is simultaneously embarrassing and refreshing.

    2. As an atheist, I can safely say that this is one of the finish way’s that I’ve seen someone teach a moral lesson.

      As much as I do not agree with the idea of a creator, I applaud you for your amazing creativity in teaching your children 🙂

      1. Ahh, my phone auto corrected some of that, it’ll irritate me if I don’t correct it haha

        Even as an atheist, I can safely say that this is one of the finest way’s that I’ve seen someone teach a moral lesson.

        As much as I do not agree with the idea of a creator, I applaud you for your amazing creativity in teaching your children 🙂

    3. In explaining why God permits evil to occur, it is important to go beyond the fact that God created each of us with free will. As an example, my oldest son had leukemia when he was 4 years old. While in the hospital he was often awakened to have blood taken, chemotherapy and methotrexate administered, etc. His mother was always in the room when this occurred and on several occasions she helped restrain him so the medication could be administered.

      Numerous times, he would scream at his mother that he hated her because of what he was enduring. Thank God he is now cured and several years ago realized why his mother allowed the doctors to do this and why she helped restrain him.

      My point is that we don’t always know why God does what He does or allows what He allows but that does not mean there is not something good to come from it.

      In my experience, most people learn from adversity, not when things are going well….

  2. Thanks very much for this series! I just discovered it tonight and will put it to use with my kids.

    I have made good use of the free will defence over the years. I think it is logically sound. But I do have some reservations – with all due respect to Lewis and Geisler. The Bible tells us that God is perfectly good and does no evil. It also tells us that humans are responsible for evil. But nowhere does it present human free will as an explanation for evil. Instead, it presents hope that God has a leash on evil and is working out his good purposes for our lives in spite of the present suffering and its apparent meaninglessness.

    The free will defence shows us that God is not to blame for evil. (Notice that it is basically past-oriented.) But at what expense? If God is in some sense not able to properly prevent evil because of human free will, does he offer me any protection against such evil in the future? I and my family may be tortured to death tomorrow, but God is not to blame because it is out of his hands … and he will not violate free will. Does this fit with a biblical worldview? We may win arguments against atheists, but is there hope in this story? What does it offer theologically and spiritually? Is our suffering redemptive, or ultimately tragic? God will one day end the evil. But why does he delay as the evil continues?

    Please understand, I’m not trying to pick a ‘fight’ or start an extensive debate. And I agree that evil is caused by human free will. But I don’t think that is a sufficient explanation in itself. I suggest that there may be an element of divine purpose in human suffering that gives meaning not only to life, but even to suffering and death. If you’re interested in an alternative proposal, I invite you to read my post on this (admittedly brief and not meant to be comprehensive): http://theopensees.weebly.com/blog/does-god-will-evil, or otherwise engage in dialogue. If you would like to read more, do let me know by email.

    Please keep writing! I intend to learn much from your blog as I continue the journey of Christian parenting. Blessings.

    1. You might also be interested in the book “Why Doesn’t God Stop Evil” by Dr. Brad Burke. Goes into depth on the topic and is quite thorough.

    2. I would recommend N. T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God. Although it is a biblical theological (rather than constructive/systematic theological or philosophical/apologetic) work, a firm grounding in the Bible is a good place to start. I personally think this is important for apologetics in general, but it is especially important if our aim is to disciple our children.

    3. Hi Elmer,

      Thanks for the comment and for sharing your thoughts/link! It is extremely difficult to address the problem of evil in a blog post. There are numerous shades of the problem and possible “solutions.” I decided to stick with the most common/traditional answer here as an introduction, but I do understand the challenges with the argument. In fact, I just read an excellent book with four views on God’s sovereignty that looks at this issue from various perspectives (one is Greg Boyd’s perspective, which you quoted in your post). Here is a link if you’re interested: http://www.amazon.com/Four-Views-Divine-Providence-Counterpoints-ebook/dp/B003U4UXXW/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1402518215&sr=8-2&keywords=four+views+sovereignty The one thing that really stood out to me after reading the various views is that the problem of evil remains a problem of evil no matter which view you take. Each one uses scriptural and philosophical support and proposes answers to the tough questions, but there is no denying that there remain difficulties with each position (as made clear by each of the rebuttals). I do find it difficult to accept the position that evil is God’s will (beyond just permitting it), but I don’t rule anything out based on what I personally find difficult to accept. I do think the free will defense is most compelling, but I agree that there are difficulties associated with it as well. The problem of evil certainly is a problem!

      Thanks for the book recommendation also – I just added it to my reading list!

      1. I certainly appreciate the difficulty of trying to address complex issues in a blog. And as I said, I have made good use of the FWD in the past. Even my current view requires the free will element, since I believe God permits evil rather than causing it. I agree it would be misleading to say that God ‘wills’ evil. But even that is a complex issue: did God ‘will’ that Judas betrayed Jesus, or that the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem (read Habbakuk).

        I like Michael Patton’s descriptions. But I think the label ‘meticulous sovereignty’ (#1) is misleading. I hold to #2. But I think God can be meticulously sovereign without being the instrumental cause. I.e. I chose to wear black socks, but he could have caused me to choose brown. This is possible because I hold to a type of compatibilist free will. (Familiar with the literature, as I did my masters thesis on this, which you are welcome to read if you like.)

        Blessings as you continue exploring this and many other difficult but important issues in your series.

  3. I so appreciate your blog. I have been reading every post, especially the “65 questions” posts! Yet although it is a popular answer- the “free to love” answer- it honestly still falls short of allowing God to be fully what He is. An even bigger and more profound reason for the evil that is all around is that by allowing mankind to follow the sinful bent in their own hearts, God is able then to display all of His many attributes. He can then completely be able to show His mercy on sinners who do repent, His justice on sin and evil, His compassion on those who cry out to Him, His love by sacrificing His own Son, and His own glory by being fully capable of bringing all of this to completion in His perfect timing. One may say, “How awful of you to say God is allowing all of this sin and evil and pain for the glorification of Himself.” But in the end, when sin is conquered for good, and His justice has prevailed, isn’t that what being God means? He cannot glorify another; to Him be all praise and glory forever. So in short, the “free will to love God” still is more of a man-centered answer that satisfies some of our own pride rather than going to the next level and allowing God to rightfully hold His place in heaven and in the hearts of His children.

    1. Hi Erin,

      Thanks so much for the kind words and for sharing your thoughts! As I just commented to Elmer in the comment above yours, it’s really hard to tackle this answer in a blog post because there are so many shades of the “problem” and so many views on the answer. The free will defense is certainly not without its challenges, as you pointed out. Alternative views of God’s sovereignty and the degree of “willing” evil have challenges as well. This book compares four views on God’s sovereignty and is an interesting read – much of it addresses the problem of evil: http://www.amazon.com/Four-Views-Divine-Providence-Counterpoints-ebook/dp/B003U4UXXW/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1402518215&sr=8-2&keywords=four+views+sovereignty Each view has a rebuttal, so you get to see the best and worst points for each one. There certainly is no easy answer.

      Thanks for the book recommendation – I added to my reading list!

      I appreciate you taking the time to comment – thank you!

    2. There will be nothing as perplexing to the kids when this ‘twisted sovereignty of God’ teaching is used to explain the root of evil. One thing we seem to forget here is d fall of Lucifer in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28. it is clearly exposed in those verses that he fell because his heart was lifted up and not cos God predestined or made Lucifer’s heart to go against him because he wants to prove a point. Why did he give Adam and Eve instructions, or oh, he gave them instructions but he knew they r going to fail or he made them fail so that he can display himself. I believe God is sovereign despite man’s free will and that his sovereignty is not expressed by tweaking our will. I think the pride is when we do not receive the ‘blame’ for the part we have played. You don’t want to have your children going with a passive faith like ‘oh mom, you have a cold cos God allows it or I think i know the reason I had an F, God is trying to teach me something or Fred is addicted to dope cos God is trying to teach him grace or God allowed the abortion of numerous babies cos he was trying to check population or God allows dat man to be gay’ Then verses like ‘Flee every appearance of evil’ will be passivised and interpreted ‘I couldn’t stop punching his face cos God allowed it, Mum’

  4. Thank you so much for having clear answers. We are raising my grandkids in church which is something I did not do for their father. He knew about God and he would say his prayers at night but I just did not take him to church back then. By 14 he was positive there was no God, just scientific facts. Now that I am raising his kids in church he tries to give them questions they are not ready to answer yet. He asked them about God creating us in His image and God is perfect why aren’t we? At least I was able to talk to them about this today. I searched for answers and found your page tonight. I still, after almost 20 yrs of trying, am trying to change my son’s mind about God. I needed more words than what I had and you helped me tremendously. Thank you so, so much! I have now subscribed to your blog.

  5. God created all things and according to theologies angels once had free will and it is the reason why the angel known as Lucifer was able to rebel against that all mighty god and take a bunch of angels with him. It says in the bible that he was thrown to earth with those angels. It is also part of Christianity teachings that the devil is the root of evil. Now he was created by god therefore god created this evil being. That was not enough damage to god that he placed him on earth, the same place he places man. He puts man in a paradise but plants a tree in it that would open man’s eyes to good and evil. Why create that tree in the first place? He then allows the devil to temp man and with what? The trees fruit. So this being said; who created evil? God. After this happens the all loving god punishes man for disobeying. What? Wait a minute you create evil place the temptation and allow man to be tempted, do nothing to stop it and then punish man for doing wrong. Wow that’s a loving god who can do no wrong or bad. The same god who destroyed all of mankind in a flood, except one family. Why? Because man was evil. The same god who told Israel to destroy his enemies and kill men, women, children, elders and animals and leave no one alive. The same god who punished his people for using that precious free will to adore another god. The list of genocides goes on and on. Most of them instructed by that great perfect and loving god. The same god that one day will take his chosen, send those who don’t follow him to hell for eternity, bring the New Jerusalem unto earth and peace upon his people. But for how long? 2000 years and he will once again release his favorite creation the devil unto earth again. This is the god you serve and believe in.
    I was born and raised Pentecostal and until a few weeks ago served this god my father, a pastor, taught me about. I have been a leader in church for years and have been one of the many people in church with doubts about what I believed in but also with fear of leaving because that god would punish me. I have opened my eyes to the fact that I been living a lie and that that god is not real. If god exist so does santa. I can go on and on about biblical contradictions and teachings but I know every rebuttal that will come my way.

    1. Great points David…. I relate to many of your comments of which you articulate very well. I still struggle with these apparent contradictions and the “creation” of evil, however created, which must have existed prior to the creation of man, e.g. “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” as referenced by Paul in Ephesians. Perhaps free will is an explanation for the evil/sin that exists within human nature, but I cannot make the connection with that and the “spiritual evil” that exists in the heavenly realms and instigates evil as well. The genocide you mention makes me wonder why a Creator could allow those things….that said, there is good in the world and I see God in that which gives me hope…. To me, personally, it gets back to faith and the “lean not on your own understanding” theme which is embedded in His word. That said, I do respect and appreciate your views and pray that answers to these and other questions/points are revealed. Thank you.

  6. The way I see it is that EVERYTHING comes from God. “Good” can’t exist without “evil”. There is a purpose for everything that happens, and I think that the lesson for us to learn is that God has everything under control, and no matter what happens, just trust in God and your existence in this life is only temporary, but the soul lives on. I personally don’t subscribe to the heaven and Hell scenario, but I do believe that our essence our soul is on a much bigger journey that what we see here. This could very well be just one “grade” so to speak in an infinitely long school towards Godhood.

  7. Since God has given mankind free will (choices) as He wants humans to be able to live and relate to Him freely, then what happens to free will when the new heavens and earth come? The Bible states there will be no more sin or suffering or evil. Does this mean in the new Jerusalem there will be no more free will? It seems like anytime you have free will, you have the potential of sin, even if Satan’s not around.

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  9. Great article, great blog site all together. I commend you for your passion, diligence, and understanding. I have one question. Please forgive me for posting here, I would pm you, but I’m not sure that’s possible. My question is that if it is of necessity that evil exists but God did not create it how do we deal with Isaiah 47?

    Isaiah 45:7 (KJV) 7 I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these [things].

    I look forward to your response, and for the record I’m a fan of your writing, not trying to be a disrupter. Thanks!

  10. Pingback: Why Evil? - Critically ChristianCritically Christian

  11. Without darkness, there could be no light. Without opposition there would be nothing.
    God created positive protons and negative electrons so there could be atoms without which nothing would exist.

  12. Pingback: How to Get Your Kids to Ask More Questions About Their Faith

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