Around here, the problem of evil might be summed up in the person of Nick Saban or Steve Spurrier. That’s only in my home state of Tennessee. Hopefully, the Vols can deal with that a little better this fall. That’s a pretty specific definition of evil, as well as light hearted Southeastern Conference humor. No offense to the Tide or Gamecock fans.
Evil, as we so broadly define it when we are judging God, is anything we deem uncomfortable or inconvenient.
I can’t help but make that accusation due to the incessant cries of the skeptics who doggedly rake God over the coals because of this ‘problem’ of evil.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t deny that evil rightly understood, exists. I also concede that it does at least seem to pose a difficulty for unbelievers and believers alike. There are many who may in some sense be authentically confused by the fact that evil exists while they try to comprehend an all powerful, benevolent God.
Furthermore, to reduce the so-called problem to a syllogism gives the impression that I am not giving some relational, emotional, or thoughtful response to it. Let me confess to you now that I do sympathize with those who experience evil in its many facets. Its unpleasantries and emotional and physical destructiveness are not alien to my own life. I enjoy this unity with all of humanity in that evil has visited me more than once. I have experienced it at my own hand. It has also come to me uninvited.
That being said, I would like to describe something other than what we might call the real problem of evil though. I would rather like to discuss something that is a perceived problem of evil.
There is this perception of the so-called problem of evil that evil never seems to be dealt with. In the argument that people use to dismiss God, when the problem of evil is put forth as evidence, it is implemented in such a way as to indicate a certain evil that is left unabated. Evil is left unchecked, they might say. It persists in such a way that it seems to prevail.
In other words, an integral part of the argument that because evil exists there is no god, is that evil exists persistently and undiminished. It might be put this way: If there is a god that is both good and all-powerful, why does evil (now) exist?
I think it’s fair to point out the assumption there. It is as if the existence of a good and all-powerful god negates the possibility of the persistence of any evil. This avoids the possibility that God may actually be acting to diminish evil at his own good pleasure in his own good time.
Therein lies my point. It is not the fact that there is evil in existence that is at the crux of most people’s argument. The problem for most people is that they don’t like the effects of evil and prefer its demise when and where they decide. God is taking his sweet time and using ineffective measures while they would do it differently. Let me illustrate this. Their premise is the existence of evil when they really mean to premise on the persistence of evil.
One event some point to as a failure of God is the Biblical reference to the destruction of the Canaanites. God is maligned by skeptics for ordering the total destruction of men, women, and children who occupied Canaan after the exodus of Israel from Egypt. The problem with this is that God’s accusers leave out the fact that the Canaanites had been committing countless human atrocities for several hundred years, stuff that would turn your stomach. The fact that God used an invading army to carry out his judgment of evil seems to be off limits for the skeptics. It is as if they would require God to use some supernatural means to eliminate the Canaanite evil rather than his sovereign and providential supervision of historical events.
Let’s say that tomorrow God used his omnipotence supernaturally and destroyed evil once and for all. He would punish all evil deeds, stop all natural evil, and cease the possibility for any future evil acts. What would you expect that to look like? Maybe it would be sulfur and fire from the sky or a flood of global proportions or an army of angels? Do you think that the naysayers would all of a sudden fall to their knees and worship him? Do you believe that they would drop the argument against him called the problem of evil?
I don’t think so.
You see, the only real problem with evil is that it exists at all. If an atheist were going to make a real argument against theism using the problem of evil, the argument would have to be made on an ontological level. In other words, the existence of evil can be posed as a problem for theism, the persistence of evil cannot.
Because if God exists and evil exists, then evils persistence is not actually a problem for Gods existence, only our understanding of his nature (goodness).
The only argument against Gods existence using the existence of evil is one in which the mere existence of evil negates God. That could possibly be a sound argument using the problem of evil.
The argument that most people pose is an argument of the persistence of evil. An argument of the persistence of evil cannot be posed as an argument against God. It is only an argument with God who already exists.
This is true because, if there is objective evil that exists, then there must be objective good that exists as well. If there is objective good, then that objective good exists in the nature of God. God does not merely act good, as if he is not free. Likewise, good does not merely come from God as if it is not really objective. Objective good is grounded in God’s nature. That is the only way it can be both objective and transcendent (we all have an understanding of it).
Now, if both real evil exists and God really exists, then evils persistence is no problem for the existence of God. There is nothing about God so far, that would require him to immediately destroy all evil.
In fact, it may be his benevolence that allows evil to continue.
If God’s nature is in fact, truly good, then it would also be true that he would require the destruction of all evil, including that evil which you and I commit. You see, its easy to use Hitler or Stalin as examples when people accuse God of allowing evil to continue. Its more difficult to remember that each one of us commit evil acts on a regular schedule. And if all evil is to be some how done away with, well we may be in some jeopardy. Maybe God is not overlooking evil. Maybe he is being patient.
In fact, I would say that God is not overlooking evil at all, and if that is true, then the persistence of evil is no evidence against God’s character at all.
I wouldn’t say that evil doesn’t seem to have a quality of persistence, per se’. I would say that evil doesn’t seem to be persisting absolutely.
There is not a day that goes by that evil is not punished by governments all over the world. Murderers are executed, rapists are jailed, thieves are punished, and child abusers are punished, all in various ways by various cultures. Maybe this is why God instituted governments to rule over people. Although many evildoers seem to get away with their mischief, they rarely do so. It is almost always the case that governments punish evil. Even rogue governments have a vested interest in the rule of law although many of their other interests may not be considered good.
As far as that particular concern goes, this kind of ‘macro-evil’ doesn’t go unnoticed by God either. It may seem to always exist in some location on this planet, but in the large view of history it is challenged and defeated by other more righteous national powers. By the term righteous, I am not necessarily referring to Christian. That term carries a lot of baggage for my skeptical friends. I only mean to tag these nations as righteous so as to separate them from nations whose ideology generally does evil to humanity. Regimes like the Nazis, Pol-pots, some of the Caesars, and others who perpetrate evil upon their culture would be seen as objectively evil. The forces that opposed and defeated them, although not innocent, were used to put an end to their evil intentions.
It may be true that by defeating those evil regimes, others used the opportunity to propagate their own evil, but the former particular evil ceased and a new evil came about. In that sense, evil did not persist.
This argument could be made for all evil that is not considered natural. Evil may seem to persist, even under an all-powerful, benevolent God. The fact is, it does not. Calvin put it beautifully…
For in administering human society he so tempers his providence that, although kindly and beneficent toward all in numberless ways, he still by open and daily indications declares his clemency to the godly and his severity to the wicked and criminal. For there are no doubts about what sort of vengeance he takes on wicked deeds. Thus he clearly shows himself the protector and vindicator of innocence, while he prospers the life of good men with his blessing, relieves their need, soothes and mitigates their pain, and alleviates their calamities; and in all these things he provides for their salvation. And indeed the unfailing rule of his righteousness ought not to be obscured by the fact that he frequently allows the wicked and malefactors to exult unpunished for some time, while he permits the upright and deserving to be tossed about by many adversities, and even to be oppressed by the malice and iniquity of the impious. But a far different consideration ought, rather, to enter our minds: that, when with a manifest show of his anger he punishes one sin, he hates all sins; that, when he leaves many sins unpunished, there will be another judgment to which have been deferred the sins yet to be punished. Similarly, what great occasion he gives us to contemplate his mercy when he often pursues miserable sinners with unwearied kindness, until he shatters their wickedness by imparting benefits and by recalling them to him with more than fatherly kindness!
Most of this has been about what I would call man-generated evil. Calvin runs with that idea but he made another interesting point. It’s also obvious, Calvin stated, that God is always dealing with natural evil. He protects and vindicates innocence, prospers good men, sooths pain, alleviates calamity.
Although we can think of many situations that natural circumstances such as socio-economic, weather, or geographic conditions dictate needs and create suffering, it seems that we can name many more ways that those needs are being met, not completely or finally, but persistently. In fact, it may be that the means God uses to deal with evil are the very things that persist rather than evil.
The attitude of men to persevere, the resolve of people to strive for liberty and justice, the fortitude of individuals to stand against death and suffering, are all evidence of the persistent march of good towards the ultimate annihilation of evil. There seems to be a goal, a final end in view for mankind. The end of evil altogether for some reason seems to be mankinds ostensibly self-imposed destiny. The intrinsic understanding that some things are wrong objectively and that they need to be overcome finally, is evidence of a hope that comes from outside of us though. We each have this hope that in the final analysis, evil will be dealt with. That hope, and the effort that follows it, is what persists. Evil, although it fights tooth, fang, and claw, yields to good continuously.
The problem of evil’s alleged persistence is an uncomfortable part of being human. None of us like that it continues to aggravate us and we certainly don’t understand the providential long term plans of God. Evil is a mere discomfort though, a symptom of being human, but its days are always numbered and its effects are always limited. It is not the final diagnosis of humanity. The persistence of evil comes from a limited perspective of time. You can remember evil of the past, but conveniently forget of its past defeats. You know of our present struggle against it, but focus too little on the need to struggle rather than the fact that we do fight against it.
The persistence of evil is only our perspective of evil but if we look to the past, we should see its future demise. A friend recently quoted Gen. Robert E. Lee…
“My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them, or indisposed me to serve them; nor in spite of failures, which I lament, of errors which I now see and acknowledge; or of the present aspect of affairs; do I despair of the future.
The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.”
-Robert E Lee-Letter to Lt. Col. Charles Marshall (September 1870)
 Calvin, J. (2011). Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2. (F. L. Battles, Trans., J. T. McNeill, Ed.) (Vol. 1, p. 60). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.