Theodicy and the Problem of Evil

What is theodicy?

Theodicy is a branch of apologetics that attempts to explain how a just and loving God can allow evil to exist.  This is frequently referred to as the problem of evil.  As stated by the pagan Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC), the problem is this:

If God is willing to prevent evil, but not able, then he is not omnipotent.

If God is able to prevent evil, but not willing, then he is malevolent.

If God is both willing (good) and able (omnipotent), then why is there evil?

The Christian will notice right away that these statements are in the form abstract philosophy, stripped of the biblical history and doctrine that largely explain mankind's present circumstances.  This is why the problem of evil has never seemed as pressing to Christians as it seems to some non-believers.

How have Christians responded to the problem of evil?

Many Christians have tackled this problem, including the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, who, like his English counterpart Isaac Newton, was actively concerned with biblical and theological questions.  Leibniz coined the term “theodicy”—a compound of the Greek words for God (θεός, theos) and justice (δίκη, dike) that conveys the concept of judging or justifying God—in a book published in 1710 entitled, Théodicée: Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal (Theodicy: Essays of Theodicy on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil).  Leibniz’ work was a response to the French skeptic, Pierre Bayle, who could find no acceptable answer to the problem of evil (which is probably why Leibniz wrote the book in French). 

Who is the creature to Judge the Creator?

It could be argued that, given the inherently presumptuous nature of theodicy, Christians should not be doing it. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, 'What are you making?' Does your work say, 'The potter has no hands.'” Isa. 45:9. The Apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, echoed Isaiah: “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?'” Rom. 9:20

If anyone ever had cause to complain of God allowing unwarranted, unexplainable evil to be visited upon him, it surely was Job, who, notwithstanding his uprightness, saw his wealth swept away, his children killed, and his body afflicted with painful sores.  Yet when Job complained, God directed a sizable tranche of “potter and potsherd” language at him:

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Gird up your loins like a man;
    I will question you, and you make it known to me.

4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone,
7 when the morning stars sang together
    and all the sons of God shouted for joy?  Job 38:2-7

God continues in this line for two more chapters, including:

7 Gird up your loins like a man;
    I will question you, and you make it known to me.
8 Will you even put me in the wrong?
    Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?  Job 40:7-8

God’s message to Job is that humans are finite, mortal, and limited, whereas God can see the end from the beginning, so it is better if we do not presume to stand in judgment of God. 

That said, it is worthwhile to explore some of the arguments relevant to theodicy, because Seventh-day Adventist eschatology is concerned with vindicating the character of God.  This is part and parcel of the “great controversy” theme.

Is the problem of evil a reason not to believe in the existence of God?

No.  It is true that if there is no God, there is no “problem of evil,” because the problem of evil is “how can a good god allow evil to exist.”  So if there is no God, there is no problem.  But—and please mark this carefully—there is still evil.  If there is no God, all the disease, suffering, death, predation, natural disasters, wars, genocides, children dying of disease and abuse, man’s inhumanity to man, etc., still exists and will still go on.  In fact, without God, there is no hope of these things ever coming to an end.  If the God of the Bible exists, however, then there is hope of a better world in the future, a world without suffering and death.  (Isa. 25:7-9; John 14:1-4; Rom. 8:18-25; 1 Cor. 2:9; Heb. 11:13-16; 2 Peter 3:3-13; Rev. 21; 22:1-5) Beyond merely ending evil, the God of the Bible has promised to judge and punish those who have done evil.  (Mat. 10:15; 12:36; Rom. 2:5-12; 14:12; Heb. 9:27; 1 Pet. 1:17; Rev. 20:11-15).  So anyone who is troubled by the evil in the world should be thrilled and delighted that the God of Scripture has promised to bring evil to an end and punish the wrongdoers.

No one who is really bothered by evil should say, “I don’t think a good God would allow evil; therefore, I don’t believe God exists.”  Such a person is transparently more dismayed by the prospect that God exists—and will ultimately judge us all—than by the fact of evil, because if he were really distressed by evil, he would desperately want to believe in a God who has promised to bring evil to an end, and balance the scales of justice, which is the God of the Bible.  If anyone refuses to believe in God because God, at least for the time being, tolerates evil, he dislikes the concept of God more than he dislike evil. Of such a one we have reason to ask, “do you really hate evil, or are you a scoffer looking for an excuse to scoff?”  (See, e.g., 2 Pet. 3:3, “knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts . . . “)

Did God create human evil?

No. Preliminarily, I will not try to defend an abstract, theoretical god.  I would not know how, even were I so inclined.  Every religion’s sacred scriptures and doctrines are its theodicy.  A theodicy of Allah would be based upon the Quran and the hadith, and would require a close familiarity with those sources.  One of the most important purposes of Christian doctrine is to describe the characteristics of God that emerge from God’s revelation of Himself in the Bible.  Each Christian denomination’s unique doctrines constitute a further refinement of its theodicy. 

A prominent Seventh-day Adventist example is our doctrine of a temporally limited Hell.  We do not believe that the unsaved burn forever, but rather are burned up, consumed and annihilated. (Psalm 37:10, 20; 104:35; Mal. 4:1-3; Mat. 13:40-42; John 15:6; 2 Pet. 3:10; Jude 1:7; Rev. 20:11-15).  That humans naturally or automatically possess an immortal being is not a biblical concept (Eccl. 9:5; Rom. 6:23; 1 John 5:11-12), but a pagan Greek idea that was brought into the church.  That God does not torture people forever for the sins of a comparatively brief earthly existence is an important aspect of Seventh-day Adventist theodicy.

According to the Bible, God did not create evil.  Everything God created was good. (Gen. 1:31).  The evil on earth is a result of the intentional disobedience of Adam in failing the simple test given him.  (Gen. 3; Rom. 5:12-14; 8:19-23; 1 Cor. 15:21-22).  Hence, the evil in the world—which is all a result of sin and of man’s sinful, fallen condition—is a result of man’s choice, not God’s. 

But what of the tempter, the Serpent in the Garden of Eden? The Serpent in the Garden of Eden was Satan. (Rev. 12:9; 20:2).  God did not created Satan—literally, “the adversary.”  God created a sinless being named Lucifer. Lucifer was the “covering cherub,” “full of wisdom and perfect in beauty,” the highest created being in the universe, second only to the Godhead. (Ezek. 28:12-15).  God said of Lucifer, “You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you.” (Ezek. 28:15). Lucifer turned himself into Satan through pride and self-exaltation, when he sought equality with the Godhead: “How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! . . . For you have said in your heart, . . . I will exalt my throne above the stars of God . . . I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.’” (Isa. 14:12-14)

It is not known why “iniquity was found” in Lucifer and he became Satan, which is why this is the called the “mystery of iniquity.”  But we can be certain that God did not create Lucifer to tempt our first parents. “Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.” (James 1:13). “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5). “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.” (James 1:17) God is not the author of confusion. (1 Cor. 14:33).  The tempter is Satan, not God. (Mark 1:13; Luke 4:1-13; 22:31; Acts 5:3; 1 Cor. 7:5; 1 Pet. 5:8; Rev. 12:9

So God did not create evil.  God created a universe of beings with free will, who have the power of choice.  (Deut. 30:19; Josh. 24:15; 2 Cor. 3:17; 1 Peter 2:16).  But with free will and choice comes the capacity to make wrong choices.  We know that Satan made wrong choices, then tempted a third of the angels to follow him in rebellion against God. (Mat. 25:41; Rev. 12:4, 7-9).  Then Satan tempted Adam and Eve, who also made wrong choices, plunging the world into sin.   

Why did God create beings with free will?

I will not attempt to improve on C.S. Lewis’s answer to this question of why God elected to create higher beings—men and angels—with free will: 

God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can't. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata -of creatures that worked like machines- would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they've got to be free.

Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk. . . .  If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will—that is, for making a real world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings—then we may take it it is worth paying.  C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity

Did God create animal predation and “natural evil”?

No.  God’s original creation was “very good.” Gen. 1:31. The biological world that exists now, the plants and animals, are different from what God originally created.  Scripture states that the earth was cursed: 

“Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground." Gen. 3:17-18

So the thorns and thistles—poison ivy, green briars, hemlock, deadly nightshade, Oleander, White Snakeroot, poisonous mushrooms, etc.—were not part of the original creation, or at least their toxic or irritant properties were not.  These were products of the Fall.

The diet that God designed for his creatures, both human and animal, was a vegetarian diet:

“And God said, ‘See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food. Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food’; and it was so.” (Gen. 1:29-30)

So God designed that all animals—the beasts of the earth, the birds, and the creeping things—should nourish themselves on vegetation. This means that animal predation was not part of the original creation.  Animal predation, like thorns and thistles, also came in after the Fall.

Many animals are now adapted to a carnivorous lifestyle, having claws, sharp conical or canine teeth, and short digestive tracts, all biological features adapted to catching, killing, biting off, and digesting meat.  Even more troubling is that some animals possess complex biological machinery obviously designed for predation and killing.  Consider the poisonous snake, which has a poison consisting of a complex combination of proteins, enzymes, and other substances, all contained in a main poison gland, which is connected by ducts to specialized hollow fangs that function as hypodermic needles to inject the poison into the prey. The notion that this complex system evolved by unguided random genetic mutations is untenable. 

Or consider this example from one of our Fulcrum7 commenters, Robin Vandermolen:

“Who created the loathsome crocodile? This beast has sensory organs in its snout, unique to this species, which detect minute pressure changes. With his snout submerged in the water, he can detect a toddler putting his foot in the water, fifty yards upstream, even though a human eye would not detect a surface ripple. This sophisticated device enables him to sense his prey. Then using his razor sharp teeth and mighty carnivorous jaws, he seizes his prey. He is neurologically programmed (wired) to submerge the prey to drown it before consuming it. It is remotely unlikely that these sophisticated attributes which make him into a lethal ‘killing machine’ could have resulted from chance mutations over many millennia (and certainly not possible for believers in young earth creation). It is clear that God created the crocodile AS IS.”

I agree with Robin that the integumentary sense organs (ISOs) found on the skin (mostly near the lower jaw) of crocodiles that allow them to sense small changes in water pressure—and thereby locate prey in murky waters—are unlikely to have evolved by random genetic mutations.  But I disagree that God created the crocodile in its present condition.  Again, we are specifically told in Scripture that God created the animals, even the things that creep on their bellies, to eat vegetation, not other animals.  So God did not originally create the crocodile to eat whatever ventures into the water, nor did he create the snake to inject poison into prey. 

So if God did not modify these creatures to pursue a predatory lifestyle—with complex features that shout design and rule out evolution—who did? 

Ellen White urges that children learn from nature--"In no other way can the foundation of a true education be so firmly and surely laid"--but even children can discern that there is something wrong with nature: 

“Yet even the child, as he comes in contact with nature, will see cause for perplexity. He cannot but recognize the working of antagonistic forces. It is here that nature needs an interpreter. Looking upon the evil manifest even in the natural world, all have the same sorrowful lesson to learn—‘An enemy hath done this.’” Matthew 13:28.” Education, p. 101.

Commenting on Gen. 3:17, Ellen White expands on who the “enemy” is:

“Christ never planted the seeds of death in the system. . . . Not one noxious plant was placed in the Lord's great garden, but after Adam and Eve sinned, poisonous herbs sprang up. In the parable of the sower the question was asked the master, "Didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?" The master answered, "An enemy hath done this" (Matt. 13:27, 28). All tares are sown by the evil one. Every noxious herb is of his sowing, and by his ingenious methods of amalgamation he has corrupted the earth with tares.  2 Selected Messages, 288.2

The enemy that did his is that old serpent called the devil and Satan.  Rev. 12:9

After the Fall of this planet’s original ruler, Adam, Satan became “the ruler of this world.” (John 12:31.  See, also, 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 6:12; Job 1:6-12).  Apparently, Satan’s reign over our world came with certain rights and prerogatives over the biological creation.  And as the above passage indicates, Satan mastered “ingenious methods of amalgamation” with which he tampered with the biological creation.  As explained in my book Dinosaurs--An Adventist View, I believe that Ellen White, in using the term “amalgamation,” was trying to convey the concept that we call genetic engineering. 

Admittedly, Ellen White speaks of Satan’s “ingenious methods of amalgamation” only in connection with modifying the plant kingdom to produce tares and noxious herbs.  But elsewhere she states that the antediluvians engaged in amalgamation, which resulted in “confused species of animals which God did not create.”  (3 SG 75.2) So amalgamation can apply to animals, not just plants. I believe that Satan, using the same methods of amalgamation (genetic engineering) with which he modified the plant kingdom, also modified originally herbivorous animals to become carnivores.  Satan was the designer of the evil that we see in the animal kingdom.

And it is very important to get this right, because if you don’t believe that “an enemy has done this,” but rather believe that God was the author of natural evil, you can come to wildly errant conclusions about the character of God, as does our friend Dr. Vandermolen:

“So a God capable of making crocodiles and great white sharks is capable of making
gays and lesbians.  He no doubt gets a perverse pleasure from each gay bashing and gay bullying, because it was his own Biblical pronouncements that produced homophobia. . . . God's greatest delight is when, having programmed humans to need a ‘helpmate,’ He watches his gay creatures living desolate, lonely lives, without a companion.”

There are several responses to this, including that Christ himself lived a celibate life, and that heterosexual believers are often called upon to live chastely but, most importantly, the premise is wrong: God is not the author of evil; Christ never planted the seeds of death in the system. 

And the good news is that one day soon, God is going to re-assert His own character in the natural world: “ . . . the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Rom. 8:21) God will make a new Earth in which there will be no animal predation: 

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze;
Their young ones shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole,
And the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den.
9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.”  Isaiah 11:6-9

 By the way, it is worth noting that even though we speak of “natural evil” (predation, disease, natural disasters, death, suffering, etc.) the concept of evil does not come from nature.  According to a Godless nature, whatever exists is good and right.  But even this is incorrect, because nature of itself does not produce moral categories.  Hence, whatever exists in nature is neither good nor bad, it just is.  When we speak of “natural evil” we are standing outside of nature, judging it.  The fact that humans universally think, reason, and judge in terms of moral categories is strong evidence of transcendence.  It is evidence that we were created by God in His image, and endowed with the ability to understand and apply concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice.  Were we merely a product of nature, of natural selection, as the Darwinists teach, we could not stand outside of nature judging the morality of nature. 

Why did God create Lucifer, and Adam and Eve, if He knew they would sin?

God is omniscient and knows the future.  When He created Lucifer, He knew that eventually “iniquity would be found in him,” and when God created Adam and Eve, He knew that they would fall into sin.  So why did God go ahead and create us? 

Ask yourself whether, because of the pain and suffering in the world, you would prefer to be dead?  It sure is interesting that, even in this world of suffering and death, people cling to life with astonishing tenacity.  Life may not be perfect but life is great, and if we are honest, over 99% of us would rather be alive in a world that is not perfect than be dead.  Now ask yourself whether, because of the evil in the world, you wish you had never been born at all? Even if we are old, tired, in pain and ready to die, over 99.99% of us are mighty glad that we lived, laughed, loved and lost, even for the short time that we were on this earth.  Those who argue that God, knowing our fate in advance, should not have created us are asserting that we are completely wrong about the value of our own existence.  They are arguing that in spite of their own greedy, grasping love of existence, God should never have allowed them to happen. If you make that argument, the odds are overwhelming that you are a hypocrite, a far worse hypocrite than the Bible’s otherwise good God who temporarily allows evil to exist. 

Now think about the act of procreation. Those who have had children knew those children would be born into a world where there are birth defects, illness, suffering and death.  Unlike God, you did not know exactly how your offspring would be affected by these things, but you knew they would be, and you chose to have them anyway.  And you also knew that they would have free will.  Some of them will follow your path and accept Christ as their savior, but you knew that there is a chance that they would not, that they would be lost eternally.  Yet you procreated anyway.  And you knew that there was at least a small chance that your child would commit a serious crime, and cause terrible pain to other people, yet you had children anyway.  Parents, I would suggest that you be graciousness enough to cut God as much slack as you have cut yourself.  Don’t argue that God should have aborted you, and everyone you know.  Because that is what you are arguing when you argue that God should never have created us.

How should we react to evil?

God wants to use the evil in the world—for which He is not to blame—to accomplish good in us.  “All things work together for good to those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose.”  Rom. 8:28. So how does the evil in the world work toward our salvation?

First, when we see a world that has tremendous good—love, family, friendship, kindness, fellowship, pleasure, etc.—but is also tinged with evil—disease, predation, death, crime, war, etc.—that should prompt us to ask why the world is this way.  This question should lead us to the Christian-biblical worldview, according to which a loving God created a good world, but mankind fell into sin, and hence there is great good in the world, but also ineradicable evil, wrong things that cannot be made right short of radical divine intervention.  That the world’s condition corresponds to the Christian-biblical worldview should lead us to Christ. 

Second, those of us who long since converted to Christianity become complacent when things are only good in our lives.  When everything is going well, we tend to become worldly and world-loving.  But when tragedy strikes, when the world’s evil crashes into our own lives and we come face-to-face with disease, suffering, terror, and death, we realize that this world isn’t our home.  Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), and we need to get ready to meet Jesus when He comes back for us (Mat. 25).  That means putting away the baubles and toys of this world, the sins that so easily charm us, waste our time, and leave us empty. 

So what Satan intended for evil, God will use for good in our lives, if we will but yield to His promptings.

Will something good come of the Fall of humanity?

Oh, yes!  Something very good has already come of it.  God has been glorified in a wonderful plan of salvation, pursuant to which Christ has died so that humanity might be saved.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”  John 3:16.

The plan of redemption is the ultimate demonstration, to a watching universe, which includes unfallen angels and unfallen worlds, of the true character of God.  God’s wrath against sin, His justice, and His mercy all met on the cross of Calvary.  Without the fall of Adam and Eve, the watching universe would never have seen and understood God’s reaction to a rebellion against His government by some of the free-will creatures He created.  Like the man born blind and the death of Lazarus, the Fall of mankind came about “so that the works of God might be displayed” (John 9:3) and “so that the Son of God might receive glory.” (John 11:4

Why hasn’t Jesus already returned to this world to put an end to evil?

Are you ready for Jesus to return?  Am I?  Can you face a righteous, holy Savior in your present condition, or do you need to put away sin from your life?  “But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.  The Lord is not slow concerning His promise, as some count slowness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” 2 Pet. 3:8-9.  The Lord’s timing is guided by His love and mercy toward us. 

On this point, we should heed God’s message to Job, and not question God.  God sees the end from the beginning.  We do not.  What God is trying to bring about is a universe filled with beings who have free will, but who will never use their freedom of choice to do wrong:

“The whole universe will have become witnesses to the nature and results of sin. And its utter extermination, which in the beginning would have brought fear to angels and dishonor to God, will now vindicate His love and establish His honor before the universe of beings who delight to do His will, and in whose heart is His law. Never will evil again be manifest. Says the word of God: "Affliction shall not rise up the second time." Nahum 1:9. The law of God, which Satan has reproached as the yoke of bondage, will be honored as the law of liberty. A tested and proved creation will never again be turned from allegiance to Him whose character has been fully manifested before them as fathomless love and infinite wisdom.”  GC 504.

I will go out on a limb and predict that 85,000 years into our eternal life without sin, disease, suffering or death, no one will be worried about those few extra centuries that God took to resolve the sin problem and bring about a universe of creatures with free will who will never again fall into sin. “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33) but “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18)

Recommended further reading: Patriarchs and Prophets, Chapter 1: "Why was Sin Permitted," Great Controversy, Chapter 29: "The Origin of Evil