In a previous post I talked about the 'problem' of believing that God is fully good and loving while accepting that sometimes God punishes people with death because of their sins, and how I make sense of that.
Another frequent accusation against God's goodness is that if God was really totally good and all-powerful, then God should prevent more evil. Skeptics say the only reason why there is evil is that either God doesn't exist, God is not all-powerful, or at worst, God is not all-good or all-loving.
I've seen this problem referred to in numerous accounts of why some people have left Christianity. They might have experienced an incident of evil that they thought God should have prevented. Or they might consider all the suffering they see on the news all around the world, and be outraged that God doesn't do more to stop it.
So here I will present the best arguments I've found which can explain why an all-powerful, perfectly loving God might not prevent all evil in the world. I hope this will help Christians make sense of this difficult topic, as well as understand some possible reasons behind their own experiences of being afflicted by evil or suffering.
Why Not Just Say God Isn't Omnipotent?
It would seem that the easiest solution to the problem would be to say that God is not omnipotent. That is, God is not all-powerful, because God gave away some power to humans and fallen angels, who misuse their power to do evil.
This is the approach taken by Thomas J. Oord in his book The Uncontrolling Love of God (2015). He says it is more comforting to believe that God is always doing everything God can to prevent and restrain evil, and that God never chooses to allow any evil to occur that God could prevent.
So for example, Oord tells the story of a woman who was horribly raped by gangs and suffered severe injuries that caused pain for the rest of her life. He thinks it is better for Christians to say that God did not want this to happen but God could not prevent it, because a God of pure love would never allow any evil that He could prevent.1
Oord argues that it's better to say God gives all creation real, irrevocable freedom and never takes it away, even when free creatures use it to do evil, or when the freedom inherent in creation leads to negative consequences like natural disasters.2
And because God is spirit and does not have a body, Oord says, God literally cannot override all evil since God can't physically intervene in the world, but must influence others to intervene on His behalf, if they so freely choose.3 So if people disobey God, there's nothing God can really do about it.
But to me, this position is actually terrifying, because it means that there is some force out there that is actually more powerful than God! And not only that, but this force is not fully loving or good!
Whether that force is sinful human free will, evil demons, or the chaotic nature of fallen creation, in any case, God would seem to be stuck in an eternal struggle against this force, and there would be no guarantee that God would be able to overcome it in order to vanquish evil once and for all.
I'd rather live in a world where, for some reason, God temporarily allows evil, even if God could wipe it out at any time.
So what are some reasons why an omnipotent and loving God would allow evil to exist temporarily?
Preventing More Evil
I've touched on this point briefly in the past in this post, but I want to expand on this here.
One simple argument we can make for why God doesn't prevent more evil, is that if God were to prevent the 'worst' evils, then eventually, it would lead us to demand that God prevent all evil.
Let's imagine that God does intervene to prevent the 'worst' moral evils. Things like the holocaust, genocide, and the massacres under communist dictators like Stalin and Mao do not occur because God prevents them.
Then, since we would be unaware of these 'worst' evils that God prevented, we would demand that He also prevent the next-'worst' moral evils that we do see occurring. For example, now we would demand that God stop all murder, all rape, all drunk driving, all instances of bullying of children in schools, and all divorce. After all, a loving God surely doesn't want these things to happen either, right?
So let's say God prevents these incidents of moral evil also. Now the 'worst' moral evils in the world are things like prank calls, shoplifting, gossiping, and graffiti. But, if we were totally unaware of all the other evils God has already prevented, we would again insist that God stop these things also, for these would be considered as leading to unacceptable levels of suffering. We would complain "Why would a good and loving God allow some punk to spray-paint my garage door? Doesn't God love me?"
So as you can see, if God were to prevent every instance of evil because we find it intolerable, it would mean God would have to override all human free will, so that no moral choices would be possible. Therefore, it is understandable that God does not prevent all moral evil, because to prevent all evil would override all free will.4
Why Is Free Will Important to God?
However, this raises the question of why God would value free will.
Some people make the mistake of saying that God values free will in itself, as if God is a sort of libertarian who values freedom above everything else, and would never take away or limit anyone's freedom to act however they want.
For example, the open theist John Sanders was asked if he would want God to override his daughter's free-will if she were wandering down a rail track with a train approaching and force her to move off the track. He replied that taking away her free-will is not God's only option to prevent a tragedy, but, if God did warn her to move, he believed his daughter would retain the freedom to ignore God's Holy Spirit warning her to move off the track.5
From this, I get the impression that to Sanders, free will is 'untouchable' by God, because it would be unacceptable for God to override or restrain someone's free will even if their lives were in danger.
I sometimes see this same idea that God would never restrain free will because God values free will in itself made by Arminian apologists who are debating with Calvinists. But if this was true, and God loves and honors free will for free will's sake, then it doesn't make any sense why God would get angry at sin or punish sinners. After all—sin is just someone using their free will!
And why should God restrain any evil, if what God loves most is free will? It would seem that if God truly loved freedom for freedom's sake, then God would back off completely and avoid intervening in our world at all, and leave everything entirely up to our free will.
Free Will Necessary for Love
So God does not value free will for free will's sake. Free will is only good insofar as it serves God's higher purposes, which is loving relationships.
The Bible says God IS love (1 John 4:8), and as I explain here, God's reason for creating the universe is to create more loving relationships for Him to participate in and enjoy, and so love is what God loves.
Now, loving relationships are not possible without free will. If God forced anyone to love Him, that love would not mean anything to God. It would be as meaningful as if you programmed you computer to say "I love you" each morning—which is to say—not meaningful at all!
But, this raises the question of how much free will we really need to fulfill God's purposes. And I believe that amount is much less than we typically assume.
After all, no one has absolutely unimpeded free will. We do not choose many things about ourselves. We don't choose when or where we are born, our parents, or our DNA. We don't choose our intellectual capabilities, our personalities, or our gifts. We can't change past history. We don't even have total control over our own bodies and whether we face illnesses. And clearly, we don't have control over the choices of others, which can have significant impact on our lives.
So when it comes to God's ultimate purpose for humanity, I think we really only need one 'free' choice, which is: do we choose to love God or not?
And if this one choice is made wrongly, it will naturally and necessarily lead to sin and evil.
For if anything is truly good and in alignment with our purpose of loving God and loving others, then God allows it (Matt. 22:37-40, Rom. 13:9-10). The only reason God does not allow some things, and labels those things as sin and evil, are because they are inherently bad for us, and therefore, they automatically lead to suffering sooner or later. That's exactly why sin angers God, and why God instructs us to avoid sinning!
By choosing to not love God, who is pure Love, and hence, who is also pure Goodness, humans are effectively choosing not-love, and not-goodness: that is, sin, evil, and suffering. We are saying to God "I do not want to act in ways that align with perfect Love and perfect Goodness". For if we truly loved God, who is Love, then we would also love to act in ways that are perfectly loving, for all God's commands are summed up as love. When we sin, we do not love God, we do not love others, and we do not even love ourselves, and instead we act in ways that hurt others and hurt ourselves.
Therefore, choosing to not love God, is by default choosing what is sinful and evil, which inherently leads to suffering.
But Why Must God Allow So Much Sin and Evil?
So we've seen that because God loves loving relationships, God allows each human enough free will to love God or not. And if humans choose not to love God, because God's nature is perfect love and perfect goodness, by not loving God, we are sinning, which leads automatically to evil and suffering.
And therefore, God must allow at least enough free-will for each person to potentially sin at least once in their lives. And Scripture says that all humans sin (Romans 3:23), and every sin is worthy of eternal death.
One sin per person would be the absolute minimum of sin and evil that God would theoretically have to allow in the world.
So why can't God just give us just enough freedom so that each person only sins once? Even if it would lead to some suffering, it would surely be much better than this world, right?
But I think the problem is that humans as a species are really dumb. We're also really, really good at trying to justify ourselves in our own eyes and in the eyes of others and make excuses for ourselves (e.g. Gen.3:12-13).
Let's say we each only sinned once. We would say to God "Well, it was just an accident! I'm actually still a very good person—I don't have a problem with sin in my heart. It was just bad judgment. I was too curious for my own good. In fact, I was deceived - just like how Eve was deceived (Gen. 3:13). It's not my fault! If you punish me for this one accidental sin, without giving me a second chance, then you're being unfair! In fact, you would be totally unloving!"
And we would make the same excuse the next time also.
So I think God allows enough human free will, and enough sin and evil (and thus, enough suffering) to exist in the world to prove it to us that we really have a major problem in our hearts.
It's not that we slip up once and accidentally sin, despite being otherwise good people. Instead, history and our own consciences prove to us that the human heart is continually evil and corrupt (Jer. 17:9, Gen. 6:5), and that there's nothing we can do on our own to solve the problem ourselves.
History shows us that the solution to sin is not better education, better parenting techniques, more welfare, more 'tolerance' for differences, more 'reconciliation' between people groups, excluding/eliminating some people groups, less pollution, more organic food, more democracy, more socialism, more laws, less laws, banning guns or nuclear weapons, the uniting of all religions into one, the banning of all religion, or even better technology.
The history of humanity as described in the Bible shows that humans fail again and again, under every circumstance imaginable:
- We fail when we're left to live according to our own consciences, as humanity was before the Flood, ending up in a world full of violence where most people's thoughts were continually evil (Gen. 6:5).
- We fail even when God starts over with only relatively 'good' people like Noah and his family, and even when Noah is given the authority to restrain evil by putting murderers to death (Gen. 9:6).
- We fail when God chooses one guy to start a new nation by which God will reveal Himself to humanity (Israel) by giving them God's laws (the Torah) which, if followed, would have led to a relatively good society, and gave them the authority to punish those who broke these laws. On top of this, God threatened the entire nation with various punishments for mass rebellion which should have encouraged obedience. But they repeatedly turn away to idolatry and sinful practices, leading to repeated judgments and finally, to rejection of their Messiah.
- We fail even after God comes to us in the human form of Jesus and teaches us in person what God wants us to do, and demonstrates it to us in His own actions. But, we decide we'd rather torture and kill Him, and actually do so.
- We fail even after the Church is created, and Christians with the Holy Spirit indwelling us take God's love into the world as salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16). But Christians remain imperfect and act in hypocritical and sinful ways, leading to much suffering and evil committed by various Christian leaders and denominations. Most of the world continues to reject the Church's testimony about Christ and persecutes Christians.
- Even the Millennium, when Jesus reigns over the world personally from Jerusalem (Isaiah 9:6-7), with the incorruptible government of resurrected Christians (Rev. 20:4), when Satan is bound in the pit (Rev. 20:1-3), and starting over with only a population of people who love God (Matt. 25:31-34), will end in another rebellion of sinful humanity (Rev. 20:7-9).
So I think God lets us sin enough to prove to us that we have no excuses left. Under every system of government, under every situation of divine law or lack thereof, in every country and culture around the world, and despite the huge variation we see in personal circumstances, every single human sins, and probably sins at least once every day, if not more.
Now, you think this should get humanity to wake up and realize we've got a sin problem in our hearts which cannot be blamed on anyone or anything besides ourselves, and that we can't do anything to fix it on our own.
This should help us see that we need God to step in, to save us from ourselves, and from the situation we created by rebelling against God and God's desires for ourselves. This should make us see that we deserve God's judgment and wrath, and need Jesus as our savior.
But Can't God Negate the Negative Consequences of Sin?
Someone might say that God should allow us to make free choices, but miraculously prevent the negative results of our sinful choices. But I believe Millard Erickson got it right when he says:
"Libertarian freedom must include the power of actions to carry to their consequences. If not it is a rather spurious form of freedom...This would seem to be a denial of freedom, not in the sense of precluding the action, but of negating its intended effect."6
Richard Rice agrees, and says,
"God must respect the consequences to which our actions lead. For actions to have real integrity, they must have real results. After all, freedom is more than making a decision, it also involves making a difference."7
So if God interrupts a person’s thought to shoot a gun at someone, for example, it is denying that person the ability to use their free will to have a real effect in the world.
Even if God let them go through with it but then miraculously diverted all the bullets from hitting anyone, it would still be overriding the shooter’s free will. Not in the sense of controlling their will, but by denying them the ability for their actions to make any difference in the world.
We do occasionally hear stories of things like a mass-murderer's gun getting jammed, or other similar events where an evil person's intention is thwarted by something outside of their control. So God does not have to allow all instances of sinful intention to always carry through to sinful action.
But these quotes show that God cannot prevent all negative consequences of sin, or then God really would be effectively denying all free-will to make sinful choices, which as we've already seen, would thwart God's purposes for the world. The reasons why God may allow or prevent any particular instance of evil will be discussed later in this article.
Additionally, it could be that God often allows the consequences of sin to occur, because otherwise, if God prevented us from seeing the suffering that sin naturally will lead to, then we would start to wonder if sin is really as bad as God says it is. The horrible consequences of sin should persuade us and others that sin should be avoided for our own good, thus, confirming the earlier argument that sin is forbidden by God because it leads to suffering.
Ok, But Why Not Prevent More Natural Evil?
So, let's say my argument is valid up to this point and we can see why God allows some moral evil to exist. An objector might say, well, what about natural evil, such as disease, accidents, natural disasters, predation, and so forth? Why doesn't God just kill all those mosquitos, to spare us from their bites? Why not prevent all earthquakes, tornadoes, and cancer?
These natural evils are all explainable as the byproducts of a fallen world, which goes back to the first sin of Adam and Eve.
God said that as a result of their sin, nature would no longer be as idyllic as it first was. Now, things like thorns appear in the ground (Gen. 3:17-18). And although it's not stated explicitly, we can say that all other natural evils also began at this time, because these things are surely not God's desire for his people or his creatures. When God finished creating the world, God said it was "very good" (Gen. 1:31).
But the suffering caused by disease or deformities are never seen as 'good' in Scripture. The death and destruction caused by natural disasters is not good. Animals did not originally eat one another (Gen. 1:29-30), and so carnivory must have been a result of the change of nature which occurred after the first sin.
Even some forms of entropy and decay may be results of the first sin, such as rust and the wearing out of clothes (Matt. 6:19), and the suffering caused by ageing which is really just the gradual death of our bodily cells as a reminder of our approaching death, which is a punishment for sin.
All of this makes total sense. For when Adam and Eve sinned, they basically said to God "We don't need you—now we're going to be like gods! Go away, we can take care of ourselves."
So, it seems God effectively said "Ok, you don't want me around? You don't want my influence in the world, even though I'm the source of all that is good in it? Let me show you a small sample of what a world without Me is like..." And so God withdrew some of His sustaining influence over the world, which meant that things started going awry.
Now, there are times in Scripture where God chooses to override these things. For example, God does cure disease (e.g. 2 Kings 5:14), does heal deformities and disabilities (e.g. Acts. 3:7-8), and can even prevent clothes from wearing out (Neh. 9:21). So God clearly can override natural evil if God wants to.
But I think if God got rid of all natural evil, then God would basically be undoing the curse of nature placed on the world as a result of Adam and Eve's sin. And since each of us descended from these first two humans also inherited their sinful, rebellious tendency, we also deserve to live in such a world where God's sustaining power and presence is reduced. God doesn't owe rebels a perfect life in a perfect world. Technically, the fact that we're even still alive and the world is as good as it is is a testament to God's mercy and grace!
In the future Millennial kingdom which Jesus will establish after his return to earth after the Tribulation (Isaiah 9:6-7), God will bring back some of God's sustaining power to creation, which means we will get things like wolves who no longer eat lambs (Isaiah 11:6, 65:25), and infants who can play with poisonous snakes without being hurt (Isaiah 11:8), and the ground will produce food much more easily than it does now (Amos 9:13). But this won't be absolute paradise, for there will still be sin (Isaiah 65:20), and sin will still lead to negative consequences for people.
Temporarily Allowing Evil and Sin is Necessary for Redemption
Of course, God could have justly chosen to kill Adam and Eve on the spot after they sinned, since death is the penalty for sin (Gen. 2:16-17). And God could justly choose to withdraw more of God's influence over nature, which would mean there would be even more disasters and diseases in the world.
But God loved them so much that God did not instantly kill them, and instead promised to redeem them (Gen. 3:15) by providing a way so that anyone who wanted to could be saved from the punishment of eternal death for sin (John 3:16). This is why Jesus came to earth, to die on the cross, absorbing God's wrath at sin on behalf of sinners, so that God can forgive us, if we accept God's offer by believing that Jesus died for our sins.
Therefore, if God wants to redeem humanity, God must temporarily allow sin and evil to exist. Because again, without taking away all human free will or wiping out all humanity, there is no way to avoid all human sin or evil, and at least some minimal level of free will is necessary for the possibility of loving relationships which are God's goal, as discussed above.
God Does Place Limits on Evil In General
Despite all of the above, there is still a whole lot of evil that I believe God does prevent.
We can see this when we look at several conditions that are necessary in order for God's promises and purposes to be fulfilled:
- God must prevent the total self-destruction of humanity.
- God must prevent the ultimate victory of Satan.
- God must prevent the complete overthrow of the Church, thus, ensuring the gates of hell will never prevail (Matt 16:18).
- God must prevent the total destruction of his people Israel and the Jews (in fulfillment of OT promises like Joel 3:20, and for future prophecies regarding Israel like Rom. 11:25 to be fulfilled).
- God must allow generally enough stability and goodness in the world that people can usually live without being in a constant state of minute-to-minute survival. For it's hard to have time to think about abstract ideas like God or do good works when under constant imminent threats of injury or death.
- God must prevent enough evil and suffering that most people's lives are tolerable enough that they do not want to kill themselves on a day-to-day basis, and that people generally live long enough so that humanity as a whole will continue to procreate and raise children. (Even though this is sort of just a variation on #1).
Within these above limits, I believe God can choose to allow or prevent evil according to a number of factors:
- God can allow evil if it is the only way to fulfill God's greater good purposes (e.g. the crucifixion of Christ, see Luke 22:53, Matt. 26:53-56).
- God can prevent more evil if more people pray for God to intervene in the world, or if more people commit to obeying God's will8.
- God can allow evil as judgment on a people or an individual if they have rejected God.
But Why Does God Allow Any Particular Instance of Evil?
Ultimately, I agree with Gregory Boyd that we cannot know exactly why God allows or prevents any particular instance of evil, because we do not know all the different factors that affect God's decision.9 We don't know why God heals one person but not another, or why God saves one person from experiencing evil but not someone else.
It might be that we have some responsibility to try to make wise choices for our lives, and if we make poor choices, then there's a greater chance we will experience negative consequences, which God allows to teach us wisdom, to develop our character, and to learn to avoid sin.
It might be explained by spiritual warfare in the invisible parts of reality.
It might depend on how many people choose to obey God, how many people pray for something, or how strong the faith of various people who pray is.
And some of it depends on God's wisdom and providential plan regarding how He is currently working in history to fulfill His prophecies, to convict people of sin and their need for repentance, to judge or restrain evil, or whatever else falls within God's good purposes.
The exact method behind how God may allow or restrain evil is the topic for another post, but at least we can say that since God is fully good, evil and sin is never ever caused by God's positive action or inspiration. God can withdraw and let evil happen, but the source of evil is always the misuse of the free will of God's created beings, whether human or demonic.
I hope this post has shown that there are indeed answers to the difficult question of why a loving God would not prevent all evil, and why God allows there to be as much evil in the world as there is. But we may not know at least in this life all the reasons why God allowed any particular instance of sin or evil.
The topic of theodicy is a difficult one, but it is one that I believe Christians need to have answers to, not only for when we personally are afflicted with evil and ask God why it happened, but to have answers ready for skeptics, or for Christians to help them not give up on faith when they see evil in the world or experience suffering.
And Christians can have confidence that regardless of how dark the world gets, or how powerful evil seems to be, God will one day utterly destroy it, and all that will be left for eternity will be the New Heaven and New Earth, where every tear will be wiped away, and there will be no more pain or evil at all (Rev. 21:1-4).
In the meantime, let's do all we can to do good, and to pray for God to restrain evil in our world. Let's try to overcome sin in our personal lives, and encourage others also, while spreading the good news that Jesus has died for our sins so we can have eternal life!
- 1. Thomas J. Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 140-143.
- 2. Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God, 169-175.
- 3. Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God, 176-180.
- 4. Bruce Reichenbach, "God Limits His Power," in Predestination & Free Will eds. David and Randall Basinger (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 122.
- 5. Christopher A. Hall and John Sanders, Does God Have A Future? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 38 and 42.
- 6. Millard Erickson, What Does God Know and When Does He Know It? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 194-195.
- 7. Richard Rice, Suffering and the Search for Meaning (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2014), 100.
- 8. Gregory Boyd, Is God to Blame? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 123-139.
- 9. Boyd, Is God to Blame?, 79-80, 119-124.