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COVID-19 and the Problem of Evil

One of the most deeply felt questions many ask about the Christian God is this: how could a loving, good, all-knowing and all-powerful God allow evil? This question poses what is commonly called the problem of evil (POE). The COVID-19 pandemic can force this question to the surface for many, with the suffering, deaths and devastation. While many are safe so far by sheltering in place, others’ lives are being threatened and ruined.

COVID-19 is a case of natural evil. Other examples include disasters caused by earthquakes, tsunamis or hurricanes and their aftermath. Natural evils bring massive pain, despair, widespread destruction and death, and COVID-19 is no exception.

While Alvin Plantinga has shown there is no logical contradiction with the existence of God and evil, there still remains the evidential version of the POE. Roughly, this version claims that due to the evidence of the amount and kind of evil in the world, it is more probable than not that God does not exist. Atheists such as William Rowe and Paul Draper have advocated it.

Yet, probability arguments depend upon expectations, which in turn depend upon one’s background beliefs. For believers, God exists, so they would evaluate the evidence from evil in that light. For atheists, they don’t believe God exists, so they would evaluate the evidence from evil accordingly. But, this tells us just that Christians’ and atheists’ background beliefs differ, and they each have good reasons for their beliefs. That result, however, is not helpful in resolving the POE.

While there is no question that there is real evil, I think a more helpful approach is to ask, first: what kind of thing is evil? That question is harder to answer than it may seem at first. We all can recognize clear examples of evil, but that still doesn’t address what evil is.

Instead of evil actions, conditions or people, it seems we suppose they should be good. That is, evil presupposes a standard of goodness. That is like Augustine realized, that evil is spoiled — or perverted — goodness.

What then could be the best explanation for the standard of goodness? Most atheists in the West are naturalists, who believe there is only the natural realm; there is no supernatural realm. While they have offered many suggestions for what is good, they face a common problem. Morals can be only descriptive, not normative, because what is natural (the physical world) can be exhausted descriptively. But that cannot account for morals, which are about what should be the case.

In my book, In Search of Moral Knowledge, I survey the gamut of options for that standard. Here, I simply think Christianity has the best explanation: God himself is good. It also can explain why there is evil, which is due to sin. Yet, God has provided a solution in his Son, Jesus, and one day will eradicate all evil. In the meantime, we can trust his goodness and loving care, even in the midst of COVID-19 (Isa. 26:3–4).

R. Scott Smith (M.A. ’95) is a professor of Christian apologetics at Talbot School of Theology. He received his Ph.D. in religion and ethics from the University of Southern California.