In one of the world’s most famous books, The Brothers Karamazov, by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the main character, called Ivan, railed against the idea of God’s goodness on a planet that’s filled with evil. To buttress his point, Ivan told story after story (based on true accounts) of atrocities—torture, murder, abuse by parents—perpetrated against children. Evil is bad enough, Ivan lamented, but when it happens to children? “It’s beyond all comprehension,” he declared, “why they should suffer.”
Though Ivan was a fictional character, his complaint was all too real. One must have a heart made of steel, with lighter fluid, not blood, gushing through one’s veins, to endure the evil that wreaks havoc on our planet. And though the question of human suffering is difficult for anyone, the problem can be excruciating for Christians, because we not only believe in God; we believe in the God of the Bible—a God of compassion, love, and infinite power. Hence, the dilemma: how does one reconcile God’s infinite power and goodness with the reality of evil?
The attempt to answer this question is what theologians call “theodicy,” and this article is my attempt to explain how evil can exist since the loving God of the Bible exists as well.
The limits of power
Let’s begin with a story. Some Christian missionaries approached a young man on the street and began witnessing to him about God.
“Your God is omnipotent?” the skeptical young man asked.
“Yes, sir, He is,” they responded.
“Oh, yeah,” he continued. “If so, can God create a rock so big that He cannot lift it?”
However silly on the face of it, that question does raise an interesting issue about omnipotence. Yes, God is omnipotent, but that does not mean He can do the logically impossible. Can God create a married bachelor? Of course not, because the moment the bachelor is married, he’s no longer a bachelor. Can God create a square circle? Of course not, because the moment the circle becomes square, it’s no longer a circle. And, finally, can God create a love that’s forced? No, because the moment love is forced, it’s no longer love.
In other words, God can force you to obey Him. God can force you to fear Him. But God cannot force you to love Him, because the moment He did that, it would no longer be love.
Modern technology is creating better and more efficient robots that obey their masters’ commands because they have no choice. But the kind of relationship one could have with a robot is not the kind of relationship that God wants with the intelligent creatures whom He has made. Instead, He wants them to obey Him because they love Him.
But love, to be love, must be freely given, or it cannot truly be love. In other words, love requires moral freedom. And this moral freedom, if real, entails risk—the risk that the free beings whom God created might choose not to love God or to obey Him.
And here, within the freedom inherent in love itself, we find (sadly enough) where evil began.
Though humans have speculated since time immemorial about extra-terrestrial life (after all, the universe is a very big place!), the Bible not only talks about this life but gives us some deep insights into it. In fact, the Bible reveals things about other life in the universe that today’s most powerful radio telescopes looking for extra-terrestrial life could never discover.
The Old Testament book of Ezekiel, for instance, describes an extra-terrestrial, an angel, who existed in another part of the universe that we call “heaven” (Ezekiel 28:12–19). After describing what this angel looked like, the Bible said this about him: “You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, till iniquity was found in you” (verse 15).*
The implications of this one text are astounding.
First, we see here a perfect being, created by a perfect God. And yet—what does this same verse say about this being created perfectly by God? It says that “iniquity was found” in him. How could that be? How could iniquity arise in a perfect being?
The answer is because perfection includes freedom, the moral freedom inherent in love. If Lucifer was to love God, he had to have the freedom, the potential, not to love Him as well. He had to have the freedom to make his own moral choices, good or bad.
And that, in fact, is what happened: Lucifer made bad choices. Two verses later the text says, “Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty” (verse 17). How could Lucifer lift his own heart up unless, even though created perfect, he had moral freedom? And in this case that freedom, or we should say the abuse of that freedom, led to pride and rebellion.
The book of Isaiah reveals more about what Lucifer did with the freedom inherent in love: “For you have said in your heart: ‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; . . . I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High’ ” (Isaiah 14:13, 14).
Though perfect and beautiful already, Lucifer wanted more. He wanted to be like God Himself. His attitude became so bad that the book of Revelation describes an outright rebellion that he instigated: “War broke out in heaven. . . . So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him” (Revelation 12:7, 9).
How could Lucifer and these angels, all created perfect by God, rebel against Him? The answer, again, is that God created these intelligent creatures with moral freedom, and, as we have seen, that freedom included risk. And, unfortunately, that risk came to earth as well.
rebellion on earth
The reality of the moral freedom God has given His intelligent creatures is revealed even more starkly in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Genesis describes God’s finished work of creation as “very good” (Genesis 1:31). This creation included both Adam and Eve, no doubt created as perfectly as God had created Lucifer in heaven.
However, what follows next is a powerful representation of the reality of human freedom, the freedom inherent in love. After creating Adam, God said to him, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16, 17).
Now, why would God have warned Adam (and later Eve) about the danger in doing something unless they had the moral capacity to choose what He told them specifically not to do? If God didn’t want them to eat from the tree, He could have programmed their brains in a way that would have kept the two of them from eating it. He could have put the tree on the moon or somewhere else where they couldn’t get to it. He could have made the tree undesirable, something that would have repulsed them. Finally, He could have not created the tree at all, removing any possibility for them to partake of it (after all, no one can eat the fruit of a nonexistent tree!).
But God did none of these things, a fact that implies two crucial points: first, Adam and Eve were free moral beings, capable of choosing right and wrong. Second, the tree was a test to see whether these two morally free beings would obey God.
And, as the Bible shows in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve chose in Eden, as did Lucifer in heaven, to violate the freedom inherent in love. Hence, the floodgates of evil, of sin, of death, have been a reality in our world ever since. Though kicked out of heaven, Satan established his domain on earth, becoming, as the Bible calls him, “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4, KJV). And the evil, suffering, and havoc we’ve seen ever since are the fruits of his reign.
Yes, God is all-powerful and all-loving. But nothing in the idea of an all-loving, all-powerful God means that the free creatures whom He created to love Him would always love and obey Him. Freedom, true freedom, includes the potential of turning away even from God.
In fact, nothing reveals the reality of our moral freedom more than Jesus’ death on the cross. Had God created us like the robots that humans are making now, we never would have sinned, which means that Jesus would not have needed to go to the cross to save us from the results of our sins. But so sacred, so fundamental is love to the kind of moral universe God created that, rather than create beings who could not love, Jesus, despite the risks, made us morally free creatures who could love. And He did so even knowing before He created us that we would sin and that our sin would lead Him to the cross (Revelation 13:8).
The cross also shows that, rather than leave us to the eternal destruction that sin and rebellion bring, Jesus took upon Himself the punishment, the ultimate consequences from our abuse of the freedom inherent in love. And He did this in order to give us a chance to live in a whole new existence—one that will not include the things that make life in this world as miserable as we all know it is. “Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). In other words, because Christ was crucified and raised from the dead, sin, evil, rebellion, and suffering will forever be eradicated.
Until then we struggle with the hard questions—the questions of theodicy—questions that, even with our understanding of the freedom inherent in love, are still so painful to deal with and so hard to answer. Like Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s book, we are pained, hurt, and befuddled by evil, which seems to get only worse and worse as time progresses. But by looking to the cross, at what it represents, at what it teaches us about God’s love, we can find our only hope in a world that otherwise offers none.
* Unless otherwise noted, all Bible texts in this article are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.