Problem of Evil: Important Distinctions

EvilPart1Part 1 of a 5 part series on the problem of evil. I was originally inspired to think about this subject after reading Greg Ganssle’s book Thinking About God last year. While I have explored the thoughts and writings of others on this topic I am indebted to Dr. Ganssle for his accessible and effective treatment of this topic.


What is the most difficult question to confront the Christian faith? The Problem of Evil is arguably that question. No other challenge to the Christian worldview has done more damage. More accurately, I would say that responses to this topic have done a great deal of damage. For many, the Problem of Evil “proves” that God does not exist. However, properly understood and handled carefully, the Problem of Evil does not dispute God’s existence; rather it gives evidence for the reality of God.

What is it?

Consider the following quotes.

“Undoubtedly the greatest intellectual obstacle to belief in God is the so-called problem of evil. That is to say, it seems unbelievable, if an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God exists, that he would permit so much pain and suffering in the world.”[1]

David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher and skeptic had this to say about evil and God.

“Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”[2]

Finally, consider the following comment from Sam Harris in an article from CNN’s Belief Blog where prominent individuals commented on the March 2011 earthquake in Japan.

“Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.”[3]

Important distinctions

Emotional vs. Intellectual

Before we begin to analyze this objection some important distinctions must be made. When considering this topic we must realize that there is an intellectual and emotional version of the problem of evil.

“The intellectual problem of evil concerns how to give a rational explanation of the coexistence of God and evil. The emotional problem of evil concerns how to comfort those who are suffering and how to dissolve the emotional dislike people have of a God who would permit such evil. The intellectual problem lies in the province of the philosopher; the emotional problem lies in the province of the counselor.”[4]

I have heard it said that there is no such thing as an intellectual problem of evil, only an emotional one. I disagree with this assessment but I agree with its sentiment. This series is devoted to answering objections to God’s existence based on the problem of evil. These are intellectual objections and we will respond to them with reason and logic. However, the emotional wreckage caused by evil and suffering cannot be denied. When confronting this topic for ourselves or for others we must be cognizant of the different answers these two objections require. The intellectual problem requires reason, logic, and academic knowledge. The emotional problem requires a willingness to comfort and respond to the feelings and experiences that evil causes.

While the emotional and intellectual sides of this issue are very different, we must also recognize how much they may interact. Allow me to elaborate with an example from my own background. My father died of cancer in October of 1996. The previous spring a “blotch” was seen on a routine chest x-ray prior to double knee replacement surgery. He had lung cancer that had already metastasized to his arm and brain. He was prescribed some type of steroid-based medication to alleviate discomfort from the tumors growing in his brain. Whether it was a side-effect of the medication, decades of unresolved issues in his marriage, or just confronting the immanence of his death, my Dad started to lash out verbally at my Mom. It was “decided” (I don’t know how or by whom) that the steroid medication would be stopped abruptly. What followed may have been an inevitable outcome of the brain tumors, but the onset was probably accelerated by the removal of the steroid medication. In the course of an afternoon he became completely unresponsive apart from making eye contact. I sat with him while this was happening. I was not studying apologetics at the time, but I had spent five years studying the Bible in a Bible Study Fellowship class. As I watched this happen to my father, I was not angry with God, I did not question how could He allow this to happen, I had one simple and terrifying thought go through my head. This is sin. I was observing in a horrible and intimate manner, the reality and consequences of sin. God did not do this, but He has a solution for it. This is not the way it is supposed to be, but He will make things right.

(Before I apply this anecdote to the subject at hand, I must make one thing clear. What exactly is in view in the expression, “This is sin”? I am not saying the cancer was a punishment for some specific sin. Rather I am referring to the universal condition of humanity. What I witnessed was a specific and painful example of how sin afflicts everyone, everyday.)

As I have reflected on that experience, I am convinced that I was protected from the potential trauma of the emotional problem of evil because I stood on a solid intellectual foundation regarding the nature of God and the nature of sin. That knowledge did not protect me from the loss I suffered that day, but it made it impossible for me to blame God for it. I am sure they are anecdotes available of people having an opposite experience regarding their attitude toward God in difficult circumstances. In short, our knowledge of God (via theology) can sustain us during difficulty. Contrariwise, our ignorance can allow our experiences to cloud our ability to see God and His world the way they really are.

In the next installment we will continue to consider distinctions within the problem of evil, specifically Natural evil vs. moral evil.

(Originally published 4/12/2013)

[1] J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), 536.

[2] David Hume. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part 10 (Kindle Locations 1018-1019).

[3] Jessica Ravitz quoting Sam Harris in “Finding faith amid disaster,”, (accessed March 1, 2013).

[4] Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 536.



Problem of Evil: Important Distinctions — 1 Comment

  1. Great article. I really like this quote: “The intellectual problem requires reason, logic, and academic knowledge. The emotional problem requires a willingness to comfort and respond to the feelings and experiences that evil causes.”

    I think that is very important to diagnose while discussing this topic with others. Also, it sounds like this would make a great presentation!

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