Theologians and philosophers have long argued about the problem of evil. But what is it and how should Christians respond to it? In this video, President of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Jamie Dew, walks through three iterations of the problem of evil and how Christians in the past and present have acknowledged to it.
The entire video is above, and the complete transcript is below.
For 2,000 years Christianity has faced the same, recurring “problem” again and again. It’s known as the problem of evil.
Let me just start here by saying this, every worldview has something that it explains very well and something else that it has a difficult time explaining. And that’s no different from the Christian worldview.
Seems to me that the Christian worldview explains so very, very much about our world and about our life. It explains things like why sugar tastes sweet. It explains things like why we laugh at jokes and why we fall in love. But it also explains things like why we suffer, why we struggle sometimes, why we find ourselves in tension with people. This is called the problem of evil.
But for many people, the problem of evil is something that seems to be a discontinuity with the faith. In other words, they find evil to be something that they simply would not expect if Christianity were true.
Historically speaking, the problem of evil has taken various forms. You have what’s called a logical problem of evil, for example. This was very, very popular back in the 1950’s and the 60’s. In fact, the whole first half of the twentieth century philosophers would argue that Christianity as a belief set entailed certain contradictions. That we believe this and we believe this and those two are mutually exclusive. They’re contradictory and so therefore, Christianity is not just probably wrong, it is absolutely wrong and you can say that with certainty.
Christian philosophers have done a lot of work to respond to those problems and generally speaking today, the consensus amongst philosophers – not just Christian philosophers, but even secular philosophers – is that the logical problem of evil is really not a problem.
There’s another version of the problem called the evidential problem. And simply put, we could put it this way: the evidential problem would say that in all likelihood, God doesn’t exist. And they would base that off of the “evidence” we find in evil. The argument would go something like this: we don’t have good evidence for the existence of God, but we do have good evidence against the existence of God, namely evil. And so, therefore, when you weigh the evidence – hence the evidential argument – the evidence points against God. And so in all likelihood, God does not exist.
Christian philosophers have done a lot of work on this problem of evil too in the last few decades. And you have a myriad of responses to this that we could consider and go into detail, but that’s probably beyond the scope of this particular little interview. Suffice it to say for now that we’ve done good work there showing how those types of arguments ultimately are not successful in defeating Christianity.
I would point to a third problem, and I would suggest that this problem is actually the problem of evil that underlies all of the other versions that I’ve already talked about. I’d call this the existential problem or maybe the religious problem. Let me explain what that is.
By existential I’m referring to things that happen in our life. Things that matter to us in our experiences. So for example, we fall in love, we laugh at jokes, we develop relationships. Those things matter to us very deeply. We lose a loved one, we lose a job, we lose a spouse to divorce or something like that, and that hits us and it hurts us very deeply. So when we talk about existential things, we’re talking about things that hit us at the core of our being.
The existential problem of evil is simply this, and I say this to people: that ultimately the problem of evil is not a problem because you’ve got a bunch of philosophers or eggheads somewhere in an ivory tower debating the intellectual merits of Christian theism. Evil is a problem because it jumps up off the street and it punches us in the gut, it brings us to our knees, and in those moments we have a difficult time hanging on to God. That’s, I think, the real problem of evil.
And it’s a problem felt, not just by non-believers, but if we’re honest with each other, it’s even felt by believers in the Church when we struggle in these moments. Praying for a young child to be healed, when we watch that young child die. Praying for that woman to be cured from breast cancer, when we watch that person die. Praying that things will work out in this marriage, and it doesn’t work out. Those are the problems that cause us to sort of detach from belief in God.
Now how do we respond to that? That’s a very complex problem and in the history of the Church there’s been a lot of different answers. I think the best way to do this is to understand where it comes from. We live in a broken, fallen world because we all, collectively, have turned away from God and when we do that, we turn away from God, we turn away from life. And when we turn away from life, we turn into death. And so we understand now, we live in a broken, fallen world because of our choices.
And the Bible actually predicted that this would happen. The end of Genesis 3 the Bible says this about Adam and the difficulty of working the ground, He says, “And thus it shall be until you return to the ground.” Which means, that if we’re reading our Bibles correctly, not only do we have place in space to say these things about evil, but ultimately the Bible’s been predicting it the whole time.
But the Bible predicts something else as well. And that is One Who would come into this world in the form of a baby. Genesis chapter 3, verse 15. He’d come into the world in the form of a baby. He would crush the head of the serpent and the serpent would bruise His heel. This is a prophecy of a child to be born to us that will redeem and restore and make all things new. And the rest of the Bible is pointing to that same man. And in the Gospels, we find that man, Jesus Christ.
The world is not as it’s supposed to be, but it will be redeemed and it will be restored. And the Christian has to hang onto that hope.