The Problem of Evil in a Nutshell

by C Michael Patton

The problem of evil is certainly one of the greatest apologetic issues that Christians face today. In a postmodern world, people’s questions, objections, and problems with the Christian worldview are usually connected to the reality of evil in the world, and their attempts to harmonize this reality with the seemingly contradictory notion of an all-powerful, all-good God. So valid is this issue that Ronald Nash, the late evangelical philosopher, said a few years ago (and I quote him loosely), “It is absurd to reject Christianity for any reason other than the problem of evil.”

We must be careful not to relegate this problem exclusively to the intellectual realm. I think J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig have it right when they say we must distinguish between the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil (Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 536). The intellectual problem of evil asks, “Is it possible for a good, all-powerful God to exist in a world where evil is present?” The emotional problem of evil asks, “Why would God allow such a thing as _______?” See the difference? One question is concerned with the objective coherence of God and evil, the other is concerned with the subjective coherence of God and evil.

While I think the primary issue today is more with the emotional problem of evil, I do believe that the intellectual problem is one that must be faced before the subjective problem can be addressed with integrity. Therefore, I believe that while the two can be distinguished, they should not be separated.

The foundation for both comes from this syllogism:

1. If God is all-powerful (omnipotent) and
2. If God is all-good (omnibenevolent)
3. Then His goodness would motivate Him to use His power to eradicate evil.

The intellectual problem of evil is easier to answer since evil’s existence does not, in reality, present the logical contradiction the syllogism suggests. In other words, the conclusion is not a necessary conclusion, only a possible one. While God could use His power to eradicate evil, His goodness does not necessitate such an act. The following will attempt to explain.

There are three possible defenses to the problem of evil:

1. The free-will defense: Many would say that God cannot create a world where there is true freedom, yet determine all that happens. In other words, being all-powerful does not mean that God can do anything. There are many things that God cannot do. For example, God cannot make a square circle, He cannot make a rock so big that He cannot pick it up, He cannot sin, He cannot commit suicide, and He cannot lie (Titus 1:2). In short, God cannot do anything that is inconsistent with His character, and He cannot harmonize logical contradictions (since, by definition, they are beyond reconciliation). According to the free-will defense, it would be a logical contradiction to say that God can create a world where true freedom exists, yet evil is guaranteed not to exist…

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RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:  If God, Why Evil?: A New Way to Think About the Question / Unspeakable: Facing Up to the Challenge of Evil / Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors / More apologetics resources >>>