Struggling with the problem of evil

I am profoundly disturbed about the “problem of evil.” Indeed, it would be the one single factor that would cause me to question the existence of a loving God. I often wonder why there is such pain and suffering in the world. To be perfectly honest, I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to this problem that plagues the human race.

We do not have to look far to see evidence of evil. Any list, be it ever so lengthy, would still be incomplete. Nevertheless, allow me to enumerate some examples of the evil that surrounds us at any given time. A cursory glance at any daily newspaper would reveal multiplied examples of human suffering.

Why do individuals suffer unbearable pain? Why are children born with defects? Why are people daily diagnosed with cancer and other diseases? Why are there droughts that lead to the starvation of innocent millions? Why do tornados, hurricanes, and other natural disasters strike, leaving carnage in their wake? Why are there nuclear threats? Why are there suicide bombings, often in the name of God? Why rape, murder, torture, mutilation, and dismemberment?

Why does much of the world live in grinding poverty? Why are children killed in vehicle accidents? Abused by those in positions of authority? Senselessly taken by leukemia and other diseases? Why Alzheimer’s disease, AIDS, genocide, racism, sexism, civil war, and malaria? Why are animals abused? Why divorce and broken families? Why do individuals suffer job loss and failed hopes and aspirations?

Before long, you will lay aside the newspaper, perhaps in despair. The world is rife with suffering almost too varied, intense, and pervasive to contemplate.

In short, where is God in the midst of suffering?

​Once upon a time, I was convinced I knew the answer to all of life’s thorny problems. But that was when I was a young ordained minister. I look back with shame and embarrassment when I recall the times I analyzed the problem of pain and offered answers that today I would regard as pat and inadequate. With age and experience, I now have fewer answers and more questions.

​Admittedly, some people are not bothered by the problem of evil. I envy them their confidence. At times, I wish I could lay aside my doubts and unquestionably accept the pious platitudes I had dished out in earlier days.

There is a logical problem to be solved here. It is made up of three assertions that appear to be true. However, they also appear to contradict one another.

First, God is all powerful.
​Second, God is all loving.
​Third, there is suffering.

A question naturally arises: How can all three assertions be true at the same time? If God is all powerful, he is able to do as he pleases. Which means he can remove suffering. If God is all loving, he wants what is best for his creation. Which means he does not want them to suffer. But the harsh reality is that people do suffer. How can the third assertion be reconciled with the first two?

​I recently read God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer. The author, Bart D. Ehrman, guides the reader through the Bible, discussing the various answers given to the problem of evil.

The classical view of suffering is that God is punishing us for our sin. A second biblical view is that some suffering is caused because we have the free will to do as we please. Third, God can bring good out of suffering. Fourth, suffering is caused by forces opposed to God. Fifth, suffering serves as a test of faith. Sixth, suffering is simply the way things are, so accept it and move on. Seventh, God will eventually make right whatever is presently wrong with the world. One problem–many answers. Perhaps because any one answer inadequately answers the question of suffering.

While I am confident about many aspects of Christianity, I have consciously decided to be what Leslie D. Weatherhead calls a “Christian agnostic” about the problem of evil. Meanwhile, I personally crave a satisfactory answer to the question. Until then, I have determined to leave the problem in a mental box labeled “Awaiting further light.” In all likelihood, I will never arrive at a satisfactory rationale for the existence of evil. The brute fact is that much in the world is unintelligible, and the problem of evil may, in the end, be simply insoluble.

Meanwhile, some questions of great importance remain. For one, am I, as one who lives amid great evil, helping to alleviate suffering and bring hope to individuals devoid of hope? Am I working my utmost to make the world a better place, not just for myself, but for my children and others? Indeed, what exactly am I personally doing to alleviate suffering? Can I do more?

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Following a 35-year career as an ordained minister, Burton K. Janes is now a freelance editor, writer and online instructor. He lives in Newfoundland where he maintains his own blog

  • Robert Landbeck

    “The brute fact is that much in the world is unintelligible, and the problem of evil may, in the end, be simply insoluble.” It is not God you should be questioning but our understanding of God! If any religious truth is self-evident it must be this: as in the beginning, it is not God who failed man; it is man who failed God, himself, and his fellow man. That is the way of the world.