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COVID-19: The Problem of Evil and the Resources of the Gospel

by Greg Ganssle

During this unusual season, a lot of people are thinking again about the problem of evil. The problem of evil is an argument, or a family of arguments, that begins with facts about evil and concludes that God does not exist or probably does not exist.

These arguments typically focus on a traditional notion of God as all-powerful, all-knowing and wholly good. The basic move in the argument is that, if this description fits who God is, he will prevent evil. Since evil is a reality, God’s existence is unlikely given the amount or kind or distribution of evil we see in the world. Those who defend God’s existence frequently appeal to reasons God could have to allow this kind of evil.

I think that many of the responses to the problem of evil that philosophers have developed are pretty good. As a result, it is reasonable to think that the amount of evil in the world does not count as strong evidence against God’s existence.

In this short article, I aim to offer a new and better way to answer the challenge of evil. Let us call the view that thinks that God is all-powerful, all-knowing and wholly good. God exists “generic theism.” This view is a kind of theism because it believes in God. It is generic because it does not include other beliefs, such as those typically endorsed by a religious tradition. One who holds to these other beliefs will hold to a “specific theism.” There are many kinds of specific theism. There is Islamic Theism, Jewish Theism, Christian Theism, and probably many others.

My new approach to the problem of evil is to answer the challenge within particular theism rather than generic theism. That is, one should offer answers from the view one actually believes. Despite the fact that so much of the philosophical discussion focuses on generic theism, few people are actually generic theists. Most people who are theists at all, are particular theists.

My recommendation, then, is to answer the challenge of evil from within Christianity. This approach requires that we think about where evil and suffering fit within the Christian story. It is not surprising that Christianity brings unique resources to the question. I will list some of these resources and make a few comments on them:

  1. If there were not a lot of very serious evil, we would know Christianity is false.
    • Remember, the Christian story is about God’s heroic work to rescue the world from horrible evil. If there was not evil, or only a little evil, Christianity could not be true. Christianity requires lots of horrible evil.
  2. Christianity is the story of how God does act to redeem and defeat all evil.
    • Sometimes people think that God does not exist because, if he did, he would do something about the evil in the world. The Christian story is a story about a God who involves himself in the world to redeem us from evil. God is not simply a spectator. He is active.
  3. Christianity also has resources for personal suffering — the presence of Christ.
    • When we encounter evil in our lives, we need assurance that our lives matter and that they make sense. The Christian story involves the presence of God in the lives of his people in the midst of their sorrow. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. He wept with his friends. He is present.
  4. Christianity gives us a role in pushing back evil.
    • To be a Christ-follower is to be commissioned into God’s plan of redemption. We participate with him in his work to roll back evil and the effects of evil in the world. It is no wonder that most hospitals and schools, until fairly recently, we started as part of this divine calling.
  5. Christianity grounds hope that evil can be defeated!
    • In a time of pandemic, and any time of widespread suffering, we need hope. Christianity promises that, just as God entered the world to deal with evil and suffering at its root in Jesus, he will return to deal with evil in its entirety. His coming to judge means that no more people will be exploited and no more disease will sweep the world.

You can see, then, that Christian Theism has much deeper resources to explain evil than does theism itself. God has revealed in his Word his purposes in the world. His purposes are to push back evil and suffering, and, in the end, to conquer them completely.

When we are challenged, that evil is strong evidence against the reality of God. Begin the conversation with what we know from the Christian story.

Greg Ganssle is a professor of philosophy at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology and the author of Our Deepest Desires (IVP Academic, August 2017).