Pick any time of the day and turn on a news channel or check in with your favorite news website. It doesn’t matter which one. It won’t take long before you stumble across a story about something terrible: earthquakes, war, drought, epidemics, tsunamis, nuclear disasters, starving children, terrorist attacks, and the list goes on. At other times, bad things touch our own lives: cancer, miscarriages, broken relationships, loss of a job, a house fire, and again, the list goes on.
And then we—Christians—find ourselves asking: Is there a God at all? If so, how could he let this happen? Is he too weak to prevent it? Is he actually evil himself? Does he maybe just not care? We call this “the problem of evil.”
These are all issues Christians have to struggle with. But if you’re not Christian, there is one more problem:
How can Christians—some of whom I know and respect as sane, intelligent people—how can they go on believing in a loving, all-powerful God, even in the face of this?
Breaking Down the Problem
The problem of evil is framed by a few enduring beliefs that seem to be in conflict:
- God is all-good.
- God is all-powerful.
- God knows everything.
- God cares about us.
- Evil exists.
Various conclusions can follow from attempts to reconcile these five beliefs.
- Some people say God must not be good, and that’s why he continues to allow evil in the world.
- Some say God is good, but he hasn’t got the power to destroy evil.
- Some say God is good and powerful, but he doesn’t always know when evil is occurring, and so he doesn’t put a stop to it.
- Some say God is good, all-powerful, and all-knowing, but he doesn’t care at all when we suffer, and so does nothing.
- Some few people say that evil is an illusion, and therefore it doesn’t really conflict with the idea of a good, powerful, caring God.
Christianity cannot accept any of these conclusions. Logical as they may be, they all rely on contradicting one or more of the basic beliefs we hold and believe we have evidence for. And so we struggle on with the problem of evil.
How do Christians resolve this?
The Logic of Relationships
We do it using something I’m going to call the “logic of relationships,” as opposed to experimental, scientific reasoning. This is something every human being uses to answer questions like:
- Why is my spouse late coming home so often recently?
- Should I keep waiting, or just figure my friends ditched me and go home?
- Is so-and-so ghosting me?
- I can’t find my watch in my home—has a family member stolen it, or did I just misplace it?
You can see that all of these questions are really at bottom the same question: How far can I trust X person?
Now, if we were going to apply scientific logic to questions like these, the first thing we’d probably do is to gather evidence—to rig up an experiment—to consider all options impartially, including unfaithfulness, spite and malice, selfishness and greed. The person missing a watch might plan to leave other valuable items out in the open and see if any more of them disappear. The person with a spouse late home from work might hire a detective or go through the spouse’s phone. These would all be logical, “scientific” ways of gathering evidence.
But generally speaking, they would also be things that other human beings would frown on. You just don’t do experiments on your husband or wife’s faithfulness. It’s not right. You don’t sit there in cold blood and try to figure out what would be most likely to tempt your family members into stealing something valuable, and then stick that item out like cheese in a mousetrap to see if you can catch them in the act. And if you know what’s good for you, you definitely don’t go through people’s phones, or stalk them to see if they’re betraying you!
I’ll backtrack a moment here. People do in fact do all of these things—but not normally until they already have overwhelming reasons to believe the other party to be guilty. That’s the only time such measures are justified. To spy on a person you’ve known and loved for many years, someone you’ve always found to be trustworthy and true, someone who has never up to now betrayed you or given you reason to suspect him or her—that’s just low. We don’t do that. Instead, if we have concerns, we talk about them. We ask.
And if we don’t know the answers just yet, we trust them until we do. Because that’s what the logic of relationships tells us to do. It says, Trust those who have been trustworthy up to now. Believe those who have never lied to you, even when appearances are against them. Have faith in those who have always been reliable, those who have bent over backwards to show you love and care and kindness. Sooner or later an answer will probably turn up. Those late nights? Your spouse is working overtime to pay for your surprise anniversary present. The friends who didn’t turn up? They had a flat tire. The ghosting? X was in the hospital for six weeks with an aneurysm. Oh, and the missing watch is down the sofa cushions—you really ought to clean more often.
How Christians Apply the Logic of Relationships
You can probably see how Christians apply this to God. God is a person we know—someone we have acquaintance with, friendship, even love. He is not an abstract idea to us. He became a human being, the man Jesus. Though he was killed, he rose from the dead and promised to be with us forever, just before he returned to God the Father. And that is in fact what we experience. He is someone we live with on a daily basis—not visible, not audible, but clearly HERE in a way that’s hard to explain but totally real (even when we don’t want him to be sometimes, haha).
And as a result, God—in Jesus—falls into the same category as our spouses, friends, lovers, children—he is someone to evaluate based on how he has treated us in the past, and not simply on the way things appear in the present. Has he been faithful, loving, kind, truthful? Has he kept his promises, behaved reliably, gone the extra mile to help us out?
Ask a Christian. The answers are going to be “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.” Because that is our experience of God—not simply from the stories in the Bible, though we believe those. But we’ve also seen God at work in our own lives. We can be character witnesses for him based on what we personally know. And what we have found is that he is all those things—good, caring, wise, powerful.
And yet—evil still exists. And it hits us just as hard as it hits anyone else. We, too, suffer cancer or heart disease. We get Alzheimer’s. We lose jobs, have house fires, total our cars. We lose people we love, even children, to death.
How does this square with the God we know, love and trust? Answer: It doesn’t. But because of how relationships work, we go on trusting him. We are human. We do as humans do. And while we may be angry with him or yell at him or even at times threaten to leave him, we still trust him. Because in the end, he has loved us and been faithful to us and told us the truth, and we know that. His demonstrated character overcomes everything else.
We hope for an answer some day. But in the meantime, we go on with what we know of God, through our experience of Jesus.
Written by Dr. Chad Lakies and Dr. Kari Vo