We have seen that God has a very good reason to allow pain and suffering in the world—its possibility was the only way he could create us with true freedom and all that goes with it. But what about hurricanes, earthquakes, and diseases? Can God not limit these and still preserve human freedom? He can, but it seem there may be other morally sufficient reasons for him to permit these evils. I’ll offer an argument to this conclusion in the next few posts.
Moral vs. Physical Evil
In the past several weeks I’ve discussed “moral evil”—evil caused by the choices people make. Hurricanes, earthquakes, diseases, and the like fall into a different category, referred to as “physical evil.” How can this reality be consistent with the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving God?
There are two ways to answer this question: one theological and one logical. (I don’t mean to say theology is not logical, for it certainly is. Here I am referring to the specific academic disciplines of theology and logic.)
I’ll begin with the theological answer. Note this is may not be helpful to the skeptic asking for an answer to the Problem of Evil. But it is helpful to the believer struggling with this issue, to ensure we have taken all knowledge into account in answering this question, including theological knowledge. (For a discussion of theology as knowledge, and not mere/uninformed belief, see here.)
What We Know From Theology
Theologically, all evil (physical as well as moral evil) traces back to two choices. The first choice was by the angel Lucifer. This story is told in Ezekiel 28. Some scholars believe Isaiah 14:12-17 also refers to the fall of Lucifer, in light of its similarities to Ezekiel 28.
Many scholars believe that Ezekiel 28:1-10 refers to an earthly king, and then verses 11 to 19 shift the focus to the angel Lucifer, as he is described with properties not true of any human. For instance, in verse 12 we read he is “full of wisdom,” “perfect in beauty,” and has “the seal of perfection,” in verse 14 that he is a “cherub” (rather than a human), and also that he is in God’s direct presence (on “the holy mountain of God”). In verse 15 Ezekiel adds that Lucifer was without sin (“blameless…from the day you were created”).
Lucifer was an angel who had great beauty, intelligence, and power. Unfortunately, this went to his head and he became quite impressed with himself. As a result, he decided to seek the honor and glory God alone deserved: “Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor.” (Ezekiel 28:17; see also I Timothy 3:6—when choosing a leader in a church, “He must not [be] a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil.”)
Due to this choice, driven by his pride, God condemned Lucifer: “I threw you to the earth” (Ezekiel 28:17). This does not mean Lucifer no longer interacts with God. He does—for instance, in Job 1:6-12 and Zechariah 3:1,2. Rather, it means he no longer has a “seat at the table”—he no longer has his place of authority in God’s rule (cf. Luke 10:18). His name is also changed from Lucifer (“Morning Star”) to Satan (“Adversary”) to reflect this shift of position and activity.
From this one choice results all evil. Yet to see this come into full bloom we must understand the second decisive decision made as a result of freedom.
The second pivotal choice was the one made by Adam and Eve to reject God’s direction and rebel against Him. They, too, are created good (as was Lucifer), yet with free will. Therefore, God was careful to give them instructions about how they should, and should not, exercise their freedom:
“From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; 3 but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” (Genesis 3:2-3)
Yet the choice was theirs. And we all know the rest of the story—they chose to do the one thing God had asked them not to do. This second choice of rebellion results in all the pain, suffering, and evil in our world today (as Paul discusses in Romans 8:18-22). As I read somewhere (I don’t recall the reference),
If we are indeed stewards over creation, and we have failed in that stewardship (Gen 3:14-19, Rom 8:18-23, Rev. 22:3), then our failure should impact that which we have had stewardship over, that is, we should see a fallen world and our inability to retain control over it. So disasters actually point to our dignity as humans, we once had dominion and we gave it away in the garden.
In sum, theologically all evil traces back to this first choice by Lucifer, followed by the choice of the first humans. Therefore, God is not to blame. Those of us who have chosen evil are…that’s all of us.
What We Know From Logic
However, what we know from theology has little apologetic force, for the skeptic does not accept the Scriptures as authoritative, and thus the claims contained therein to be knowledge. Are there other good reasons to believe God may have morally adequate reasons for allowing physical evil? I believe so.
If so, this provides additional reason to reject Premise 1 of the argument against God’s existence due to the reality of evil. Recall the argument offered by atheists:
If God is all-good, he would will all good and no evil. (He would desire to produce only good and prevent all evil.)
If God is all-powerful, he would accomplish everything he wills. (He would be able to do anything in His will.)
Therefore, if God exists he would want to and could create a world with no evil (and therefore would create such a world).
Yet there is evil.
Therefore, God (an all-powerful, all-good Being) does not exist.
As discussed in Post 6 of this series, each premise must be true for the conclusion to be true. Yet Premise 1 implies it is impossible for God to have morally adequate reasons to allow evil. If just one counter-example can be found, the Premise is false and the conclusion is not proven.
The question now is whether it is logically possible for God to have morally sufficient reasons to allow physical evil. I believe it is logically possible, and in fact even to be expected. I’ll discuss my reasons for saying this next week. Until then, grace and peace.
For more on these theological issues I suggest the relevant sections of Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology. In fact, I suggest having this book on your shelf for any theological questions. Unlike some other popular systematic theology texts, he by and large does a good job of outlining the various views on a topic fairly (rather than offering an unflattering description of views other than his). He finally states his view, but even when I disagree with his conclusion I appreciate how he has treated my view on the matter.
For a fictional account of what it must have felt like to experience the temptation leading to our Fall, I highly recommend C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra (the second book in his space trilogy).