On the night of 1st October 2017, Stephen Paddock opened fire on a crowd of concert-goers attending a music festival in Las Vegas. In the space of ten minutes this lone gunman killed 58 people and injured 851 more. After firing more than 1100 rounds into the crowd, he shot himself. Many media outlets used the words of US President Donald Trump to describe the massacre as ‘An act of pure evil’.
All right-thinking people surely agree with this assessment. However, occasions like this often cause people to challenge the Christian belief in an all-good, all-powerful God. The challenge is sometimes presented as follows:
- If God is all-powerful, He could remove evil
- If God is all-good, He would want to remove evil
- Evil [obviously] exists
- Therefore an all-good, all-powerful God does not exist.
What is rarely understood is that the existence of evil is, in reality, a much greater challenge to atheism than to Christianity. Evil is not really a challenge to the Christian message because sin is a central concept in it. Christianity, in fact, is the story of the origin, proliferation, defeat and banishment of evil.
The challenge which the problem of evil presents against God’s existence is certainly not insurmountable. One perfectly coherent answer is that the God who can remove evil, and will remove evil, has morally justifiable reasons (known to Himself) for allowing evil at present to remain active in our world. That’s it. As finite creatures with very limited knowledge, we are not in a position to deny this possibility. We would have to know all God’s thoughts to be sure that He has no good purpose in permitting evil. Indeed, as sinful creatures, we should be thankful for God’s refusal to judge evil summarily. When God does judge sin, He will not stop at murder and rape, but will judge every sin including our own if we have never received His forgiveness.
The Atheist’s Sin-problem
What can the atheist say about sin? To him, the whole concept of evil is a major difficulty. For Christians, evil is a departure from the way things should be, but materialism (the philosophy embraced by the vast majority of atheists) does not allow for this. Richard Dawkins puts it eloquently: ‘there is at the bottom’ of the universe ‘no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good.’ In other words, if atheism is true, there is no way we can say what the world should be; there is just the way the world is.
To say (or imply) that actions such as murder, rape, child abuse, bigotry, racism, and slavery are objectively evil is to affirm the existence of an obligation upon people not to act in these ways. Within the materialist worldview, however, there is no place for such an obligation. The only way such obligations could exist and be binding upon all of humanity is if there was a transcendent, immaterial, moral law. This, in turn, requires a Lawgiver.
At an intellectual level some atheists do accept the logical consequences of their materialism, agreeing with Dawkins that there is ‘no evil, and no good’. I am very thankful that they do not live accordingly. Just imagine what the world would be like if people judged no action to be evil. In real life, however, atheists generally respond to evil in the same way that other people do. They condemn the actions of Stephen Paddock with the same vehemence as many who believe that God exists. Why? Because they know intuitively that Paddock’s actions were evil even though their worldview has no foundation for that belief. When confronted with wicked acts of barbarity they take a leap of faith, ditching the logical implications of their own belief system and embracing the truth about life in the real world, though they cannot tell you why.
When my son was a toddler he was very proficient at doing children’s jigsaw puzzles. Sometimes, however, the pieces of more than one puzzle lay around him on the floor, and he would attempt to force-fit a piece from one puzzle into another puzzle. It didn’t work, but it wasn’t for the lack of trying! In the same way, many atheists, in order to live in the real world, pull pieces from the Christian worldview and attempt to fit them into their own. While this may enable them to get through life, it shows the bankruptcy of their worldview— it doesn’t work when faced with reality.
There is no doubt that moral evil exists; the world is not as it should be. This causes us to ask:
How Does Sin Exist?
The Bible tells us that ‘God made the world and everything in it’ (Acts 17:24). After the completion of His creative activity, He ‘saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31). According to the Bible, God made everything, and everything He made was good. How, then, can we explain the existence of evil?
We’ll begin by asking what is meant when we say that God made everything. If you look around it won’t be long until you see that there are many things God didn’t create directly. I am typing this article on a computer. Did God make the computer? No. I am resting my computer on a table in a coffee shop. Did God make the table or the coffee shop? No. What does the Bible mean, then, when it says that God made everything? It means that God made every substance from which everything is derived. That is to say, God is the ultimate source of all the material and all the energy used in the construction of everything. In this sense, He is the Originator, the Creator, of all things.
Let us take this a little further. Suppose I decide to build a bookcase. I obtain the wood and the screws, and I draw up the plan. Finally, after a good deal of sweat, I have a bookcase. However, it’s a shoddy piece of work: the shelves are not level and it rocks unsteadily back and forth. God is the ultimate maker of the substance from which the bookcase has been constructed. Can He, therefore, be blamed for the poor job I have done with what He provided? Of course not.
When considering the origin of sin, we must ask what intrinsically good thing God made which has resulted in the existence of sin. The answer is free will. If free will is a good thing (and most would agree that it is) then God made something good. However, if free will involves the ability to do other than what God wants (as it must do), then it includes within it the possibility of evil. If God has given to some of His creatures an intrinsically good thing, and they have used that intrinsically good thing in a way that He did not desire, and against which they were clearly warned, how can He be blamed for the result? He can’t be. At least, not righteously.
God is not the author of sin. According to James, no one has the right to say, ‘I am tempted by God’. Why not? Because God doesn’t ‘tempt anyone’ (James 1:13). Sin arose, not as a result of something bad that God did, but by the misuse of something good God created.
Evil in the Supernatural Realm
An admittedly difficult section of the Bible refers to the fall of Satan. The prophet Ezekiel writes of a supernatural personage (Ezekiel 28:11-19) whom he describes as the ‘seal of perfection, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty’ (v.12). He was ‘in Eden, the garden of God’ (v.13). He was ‘the anointed cherub … on the holy mountain of God’, who ‘walked back and forth in the midst of fiery stones’ (v.14). Of particular interest to our subject is verse 15, which is addressed directly to this supernatural being: ‘You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, till iniquity was found in you’. In the following verses, the nature of that iniquity is described.
In what sense was Satan ‘perfect’ when created? He was absolutely without sin; that is, his perfection was the perfection of innocence. However, at a later date, ‘iniquity was found’ in him. What caused a previously innocent being to sin? It was the use of his free will to do other than God intended. Satan was, therefore, the originator of sin.
This is further confirmed in another Old Testament passage. In Isaiah chapter 14, God’s judgment upon ‘Lucifer, son of the morning’ (v.12) is directly linked with his own choices. Lucifer said this in his heart: ‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation on the farthest sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High’ (vv.13-14). The repetition of ‘I will’ emphasizes the source of the evil. It was born in his own heart by the exercise of his will: the sin that corrupted Satan was self-generated.
Evil in the Natural Realm
That which was true of Satan became true also of Adam, the first human being. The creation story in Genesis chapter 1 records ten occasions when God spoke and creation responded with immediate obedience. For example, ‘God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light’ (v.3). However, in Genesis chapter 2, God spoke to Adam differently. He said: ‘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’ (vv.16-17). Notice how God treated man. He presented him with a choice, and clearly communicated the consequences.
‘God made man upright’ (Ecclesiastes 7:29), but Adam had free will: he could choose whether to remain upright or to rebel.
Free will, in the sense I am using the term, is not a will free from external influence, but a will free from external determination. God reminded Adam of the wealth of His provision. This was a positive influence upon Adam to remain within the boundaries of God’s will. In Genesis chapter 3, however, Satan influenced Adam through Eve, and Adam, freely and deliberately, made a personal choice to rebel against his Creator. This free choice has had huge consequences for humanity: ‘through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned’ (Romans 5:12).
Adam was faced with an external influence to sin, but his sin was nevertheless his own choice. His heart became the source of sinfulness in the human world.
Evil in the Personal Realm
Finally, let us consider our own hearts. It is easy to detect the faults of others; furthermore, it is easy to consider the problem of evil as a purely intellectual issue. However, the problem is much greater and the ramifications more serious than we like to think.
A newspaper once invited its readers to write a response to the question, ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ The briefest and best response came from G K Chesterton. He wrote the following:
G K Chesterton.
The evil out there in the world is the result of the sin inside all of us. The Lord Jesus said that ‘from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man’ (Mark 7:21-23).
James encourages us to take responsibility for our own actions: ‘Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am tempted by God” … each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death’ (James 1:13-15).
When we do wrong, we often blame our circumstances. We shouldn’t. Sin springs up from within us. That is, we are tempted, we make our choice, and sin is birthed. Because we sin deliberately, this makes us guilty before God.
Thankfully, we can be ‘justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 3:24). Through his disobedience Adam introduced sin into our world. By contrast, the Lord Jesus has brought salvation through His act of obedience, His sacrificial death upon the cross (Romans 5:19).
In conclusion, it is worth reemphasizing that Christianity has good answers for the problem of evil. These answers, found in the Bible, allow us to be honest about the existence of moral evil; and further allow us to hope confidently for the removal of it both at the personal and the cosmic level. Your sins can be forgiven right now through faith in Christ, and one day ‘the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Romans 8:21).