Looking for the Bible’s answer to the most difficult question
by Jeffrey Still | November 02 2023
The question is simple and yet painfully difficult to answer. Why does evil exist? Why does God allow humans to do so many selfish and even wicked things? In the face of the horrors of war or acts of terrorism, many people start to doubt that God is good, and some stop believing that He even exists.
This has been a major topic in western philosophy for centuries. And the problem usually gets formulated like this: If God is perfectly good, all seeing, and all powerful, why does the world contain evil? A Creator God like that would never create evil or allow it to continue. Therefore, is it logical to believe in the God of the Bible?
It’s an argument that’s easy to understand. But I don’t think most people think of it in such dry, logical terms. Usually, it’s much more personal.
Right now, in the wake of the horrific terrorist attack against Israel, many people may be asking, “Where was God in this?” I saw an utterly heartbreaking article in the Israeli press this week with the title “Hamas Abducted Her Daughters: ‘I’m Sorry, but I Don’t Believe God Exists.’”
The article photo shows Israeli mom, Maayan, cuddled up with her two little girls. But the girls have both now been taken by Hamas militants, and who knows if they will ever come home safe? Maayan says,
If [God exists], why are my daughters in Gaza? Why all this murder along the Gaza border … with innocent children now going through what they are?
Maayan’s response to what happened is very understandable, and her reason for disbelief in God is very hard to answer. If God is there, why does the world contain such unthinkable evil?
It’s a question that the Scriptures take head on. The Bible addresses this problem time and time again from different angles. And in a way, the problem of evil is one of the central questions that the Torah and the entire Tanakh work to answer—as does the New Testament.
So, what does the Bible say? Can it give us any comfort? Let’s take a look.
The Scripture’s answer to the problem of evil is complex. Books like Genesis, Job, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, and Proverbs dig into the problem with wisdom, pathos, and no list of easy answers. But here are some of the key ideas that we can identify.
The Bible’s most plainly-stated answer to the question is that evil exists because of human choice. But there’s some important nuance to this.
In Genesis, God creates humanity and gives us—free will? Actually, it doesn’t say that. What it specifically says is that God gives us dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28–30).
What does dominion mean? Essentially, it means that God gives us a job to do. We’re to govern and cultivate His good creation and create a flourishing human society, all under the guidance of His authoritative, loving care. So, obviously, there’s freedom of will there, but the freedom is focused on a creatively constructive purpose that God has for humanity.
Unfortunately, that vision for the world did not go according to plan. The freedom inherent in the human vocation was used for evil choices. In essence, we rebelled against God’s plan for the world and largely abandoned our vocation (Genesis 3:1–7).
The initial rebellion was seemingly mild, but it led very quickly to humanity falling further and further into evil—like a guy who smokes one cigarette and next thing you know, he’s burning through two packs a day. By the time of Noah, evil was ruling our hearts entirely (Genesis 4:8; 6:5).
That’s the way Genesis tells the story. The cause of evil is human choice.
We can all understand that evil comes from human choices. But someone can immediately ask, “Why does God then allow us to choose?” That’s a good question!
Or can’t God at least make evil choices off limits to us?
Because think about it: human will really isn’t that free. Our range of possible choices in life is very limited. There are so many things that we can’t do. There are so many problems in the world that we are not able to solve. And it seems that our freedom to do good is much more limited than our ability to do bad!
A family raising a single child is extremely difficult; it takes years of work, love, and patience. A terrorist killing a room full of people is terrifyingly easy; it can be done in an instant. Why does God ever put that kind of power in human hands?
The classic philosophical answer to this that both Jewish and Gentile Christian thinkers often give is called the “free will argument.” In short, human free will requires the possibility of evil choices.
That argument has done relatively well among philosophers through the centuries,1 but it is not exactly the Bible’s argument. Vocation obviously requires freedom in which to work. But the emphasis of Genesis 1–2 is not on our freedom of will, but on the productive work that God wants us to do.
So, think about it this way.
Imagine you were given a job tending a garden. And you find that every gardening decision you make turns out great. Naturally, you feel awesome about that. You’re very proud of your green thumb.
But then, over time, you find that things are so consistently great that you start to get suspicious. You start making intentionally bad gardening decisions just to see what will happen. But the garden still thrives.
You run the lawn mower over the bed of tulips, take a weed whacker to the rose bushes, but they have no effect. You give the garden over to weeks upon weeks of neglect, but still it flourishes. And the joy of your vocation quickly turns to despair. Why? Because nothing you’ve ever done really matters.
Or imagine that you raise a child and never allow her to fail at anything. You never allow her to be hurt or to hurt others. You never even allow her to neglect the needs of others or refrain from helping someone who asks.
What would be the result? It would rob her of the ability to form true character. She’d never get to do good for goodness’ sake. She would never have an opportunity to forgive or be forgiven.
By giving us a world where both good and evil are possible, God gave us a world where what we do really matters. The love you show to others really counts for something. The mercy and forgiveness you give and are given have an immeasurably deep significance.
A world in which evil is possible is a world in which love and bravery and self-control and all the other virtues have a deep and undeniable reality. A world without the possibility of evil might still have some form of freedom—certainly it would have less heartache—but it would be lacking in meaning, virtue, and love.
God has given us this extraordinary, unbelievable, very open-ended opportunity to join Him in creating a good world. That’s our vocation. We totally blow that opportunity every day—with disastrous consequences. But He still hasn’t taken it away from us.
Maybe we can find some of this reasoning compelling. But does it solve the whole problem of evil for us? Not even close! There are two reasons why not that the Bible itself brings up time and again: tragedy and unfairness.
Tragedy means recognizing the horrible loss that the powers of evil and destruction in the world bring about. So many beautiful things are lost. So many wonderful things are torn away from us and cannot be replaced.
There are psalms and whole biblical books about this topic (e.g., Psalm 89, Job, and Lamentations). Even Jesus, on the eve of his own death in the garden of Gethsemane, lamented what he was about to lose (Matthew 26:36–39).
Unfairness is the other piece. And it’s the thing that the psalmists often get so fired up about. They cry out to God in protest.
Adonai, how long will the wicked gloat? They gush out, they speak arrogance—all the evildoers keep boasting. They crush Your people, Adonai, and afflict Your heritage. They slay the widow and the outsider, and murder the fatherless. So they say: “Adonai does not see—the God of Jacob pays no attention.” (Psalm 94:3–7 TLV)
Maybe the biggest problem that we have with evil is that it’s so painfully unfair! Good and ethical human choices often go unrewarded, but evil people seem to prosper from their ill-gotten gains all the time!
How can we believe in God when the world is so unfair?
Just as there are two deeper problems, God’s response has two deeper elements: His presence and His plan.
God’s presence means that God doesn’t stand far off from human suffering. God is near to the brokenhearted; He is with us in our sufferings; He stands with the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable; and He judges evil doers (Psalm 34).
These themes are woven together in many places in the Bible. When the prophet Elijah had to flee from the evil Queen Jezebel and ran off into the desert, he was so filled with despair for himself and his country that he prayed that he might die. “It’s too much!” he said to God (1 Kings 19:1–4).
But rather than take his life, the Lord came to strengthen him with food and a comforting hand on his shoulder. Then God drew him to the holy mountain where He spoke to Elijah in a soft whisper and told him of His plans for the redemption of Israel (1 Kings 19:5–18).
Though we don’t have space to dive into them, this is an idea that is found in Job and Ecclesiastes as well. God’s closeness to us and our closeness to God are the most powerful sources of healing in a world that contains pain and suffering.
That very closeness is the reason that He has given us freedom and the reason that He will punish evil. The God of the Bible is not passive and distant. He cares; He stands with us; He “comforts us in all our affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:4). No one is more brokenhearted about what just happened in Israel than God is.
So, God is with us in suffering. But His response to evil is not only solidarity with the sufferers and judgment for evildoers. His ultimate response to suffering is our redemption.
This is the theme that runs so powerfully through the prophets. The prophets were so often called to speak to Israel amid crises, and often God uses them to speak words of condemnation to Israel when the people had adopted too many of the bad habits of their Gentile neighbors. But despite their tones of doom and gloom, they always come back to a word of hope.
See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more….
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.
(Isaiah 65:17–19, 25 NIV)
The book of Isaiah is not short on frightening pronouncements of divine judgment. But in this passage, God outlines His plans for the redemption of Israel and of the entire world. God’s original vision for a world full of goodness and harmony will finally be realized.
The Bible’s ultimate answer to the problem of evil is not some airtight philosophical argument. The ultimate answer is God Himself, showing up in compassion and mercy and bringing about the renewal of all things.
The heavens and the earth will be renewed, the dead will be raised to new life, and this new reality will wash away all the darkness and evil in the world so thoroughly that they will not even be remembered.
This hope from the prophets is what Jesus came to fulfill.
One problem that the Hebrew Scriptures don’t fully answer is how God can redeem us if we’re so obviously prone to keep falling into evil. If even wise King Solomon or Moses himself fell short, what chance do I have?
For Jesus and his Jewish followers, the Messiah’s death on a Roman cross was understood to make a final atonement for sins—like the ultimate Yom Kippur.
My favorite image of this from the New Testament is found in the book of Revelation. In chapter 5, the apocalyptic prophet, John, has been having a vision of the heavenly throne room where God dwells in power and glory. And John sees a scroll in the hand of God sealed with seven seals: “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it” (Revelation 5:3).
So, John starts weeping uncontrollably that the scroll couldn’t be opened. But weeping? Why? It’s the scroll of divine judgment! It’s full of plagues and woes! If I were John at that moment, I wouldn’t be weeping; I’d be relieved!
People today are very uncomfortable with the idea of divine judgment. But it’s what John is desperate for. Why? Because he is Jewish, and his people have been oppressed by evil empires for the last 500 years! In his life, he’s seen 10,000 injustices and the constant suffering of his people.
What John longs for is the day when the kingship of God finally comes on earth as in heaven. God will judge the evildoers and vindicate the poor and oppressed.
Just think of how much evil and pain in the world is due to bad rulers, who use the power of destruction and death to force their will upon others.
Then, maybe worse yet, when the poor and the lowly finally get up enough gumption and strength to overthrow the oppressors, what usually happens is that the revolutionary leaders become the new tyrants. And the cycle just goes on and on.
Thankfully, in modern democracies, we’ve found ways to check and balance the power of our rulers in some very important ways. But still, the history of democratic governance has no shortage of injustice and oppression.
There’s a reason Revelation says that no one is worthy to open the scroll of judgment! We all like to think that we’d set things right if we were in charge. But none of our hearts is immune from the temptations of power.
So, what does this world need more than anything? It needs a wise, powerful, and perfectly just judge and ruler. But where can we find one of those? John says,
No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it,… And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Revelation 5:3–5, emphasis added)
At last! The Lion of Judah! Weep no more, John. Here’s the mighty king who will execute justice for the poor and oppressed with perfect fairness! He will bring down all the kings of the earth who would use violence to control people and hoard their wealth. And amazingly, he has already conquered!
With a jolt of hope, John turns to see the arrival of this powerful and awesome warrior, this lion of a man: “Between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6, emphasis added).
You can’t understand the book of Revelation unless you accept its total redefinition of what it means to conquer.
In a world full of rebels who would make themselves kings, in a world where rulers maintain and grow their power by dishing out death, in a world where even the best of us succumb to the lure of power if given the chance, the only one worthy to open the scroll of judgment is the one who had ultimate power and yet refused to use it.
Messiah Jesus allowed himself to be convicted as the very thing he refused to be: a revolutionary warlord. He was the innocent one who endured the punishment for the very evil of the rebellion against God that is in all of our hands.
The Bible is not the story of a Creator God who stands far off and says, “Tsk-tsk,” to human evil. God’s answer to evil and the power of death is to come down and get right in the middle of it. It’s to break through its power with self-sacrificial love and open the way for us to follow Him through it—and out into eternal life.
1 Considering that philosophers never come to consensus approval for any argument, the free will argument has fared better than most over the centuries.