The Problem of Evil – Proof or Puzzle?

The most beautiful cancer patient I know

My wife has cancer.  We initially learned of her cancer just two days before our first anniversary. I am so proud of the way she has handled herself over the last four-and-a-half years as she has endured treatments, surgeries, and side effects. Our experience is not unique, of course. Today approximately 4,600 Americans will learn that they have cancer.

The reality of pain and suffering – whether caused by diseases like cancer, disasters like tsunamis, or inhumanities like murder – is a great challenge to faith. The psalmist Asaph says his faith faltered as he “saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:2-3). In the midst of his anguish, Job complained about God’s seeming indifference: “It is all one; therefore I say, He destroys both the blameless and the wicked” (Job 9:22). And even the Lord Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46, quoting Psalm 22:1).

Philosophers refer to the difficulty in reconciling the existence of suffering with the existence of God as the problem of evil. To state the argument in its classical formulation, it goes like this:

  • Premise 1: Evil exists.
  • Premise 2: If God was all-powerful, He could prevent the existence of evil.
  • Premise 3: If God was all-good, He would prevent the existence of evil.
  • Conclusion: Therefore God does not exist.

What are we to make of this argument? Christians accept the first premise – evil does indeed exist. And Christians agree with the second premise – God is all-powerful, and He could prevent the existence of evil. But what about the third premise – that if God was all-good He would have prevented the existence of evil? This is the key contention, and it is the one that I want to focus on in a moment.

But before I address that issue, there is a crucial distinction that we need to bear in mind, and that is the distinction between a proof for something and a puzzle about something. Maybe the easiest way to illustrate the difference between proofs and puzzles is with conspiracy theories. The other day I happened to see a YouTube video produced by a “truther” (someone who denies that the attacks of 9/11 were perpetrated by terrorists). This specific video was about the attack on the Pentagon, and the gist of the video was this: the Pentagon is one of the most secure buildings in the world. It is surrounded by video cameras. And yet not one video camera covering the most secure building in the world captured any video of the plane actually hitting the Pentagon. Therefore, there was no plane, and no terrorist attack!

The point raised by the video is indeed a puzzle. Why is there no footage from a security camera that shows the attack? But – here is the key distinction – is this proof that there was no terrorist attack? Absolutely not. And the reason it is not proof that no terrorist attack occurred is that – although there is an unanswered question regarding the absence of security camera footage – there is overwhelming evidence from many lines of testimony that a plane did indeed strike the building as part of a terrorist plot. Over a hundred eyewitnesses saw the plane hit the building. Many parts of the plane were recovered from the building. Radar tracking and flight data information confirm the plane’s course into the building. So there is proof that the Pentagon was struck by a plane operated by terrorists. But there is also a question, a puzzle, that is unanswered – why no security camera footage of the moment of impact? But do you see that the fact that there is an unanswered question about the attack does not in any way diminish the fact of the attack.

Indeed, given the fact that multiple lines of evidence provide a compelling reason to believe the attack occurred, we can reasonably conclude there is an explanation to the mystery of the absence of video footage, even if we never ascertain it. Perhaps the low angle of the plane’s trajectory at impact wasn’t covered by any camera. Maybe the camera that would normally have captured the video wasn’t working. Maybe there is footage and the government has chosen not to release it out of respect for the families who lost loved ones, or for security reasons. I can think of all kinds of possibilities. And the reality is, I may never fully satisfy myself that I can solve this puzzle, but that has absolutely no bearing on the question of whether the attack occurred. A puzzle is not proof, and an unanswered question does not erase demonstrably proven truths.

So let’s return now to the question of God and evil. In the first place, aside from the question of evil, I believe there are multiple lines of evidence that provide proof for the existence of God. I don’t have time in this article to develop them, but the ancient arguments for a First Cause that is eternal, immaterial, intelligent, and purely active are compelling. The issue of evil certainly presents a puzzle (and not just an intellectual curiosity, but a deeply challenging emotional burden, as my wife and I can testify). But this puzzle no more trumps the proof for God’s existence than the puzzle over the absence of video footage of the plane striking the Pentagon undermines the proof for the terrorist attack.

Look once more at the argument I laid out earlier:

  • Premise 1: Evil exists.
  • Premise 2: If God was all-powerful, He could prevent the existence of evil.
  • Premise 3: If God was all-good, He would prevent the existence of evil.
  • Conclusion: Therefore God does not exist.

Since Christians believe Premise 1 and Premise 2, the obvious point at which to challenge this argument is Premise 3. We would say that even though God is all-good, He has chosen not to prevent the existence of evil. But does this amount to a proof that He doesn’t exist? Of course not – not any more than the lack of security video of the plane proves there was no terrorist attack on the Pentagon. What it does amount to is a puzzle – why would God who is completely good permit the existence of evil?

And just as we can surmise many reasonable answers to the puzzle of the lack of video, we can certainly suggest many plausible reasons that God would permit evil to exist. Perhaps God values free will in His creatures, and that inhered the reality of evil. Since God is all-powerful, perhaps God chose to permit evil knowing that He would bring greater good from it. Another possibility is that God allows evil in order to give us the chance to love freely and without selfish motives, thus sharing His perfect character. These are just a few of the many reasons suggested by thoughtful Christian reflection through the centuries.

And maybe we will never really know the answer to this puzzle, just like we may never know why no footage exists of the plane crashing into the Pentagon. But that gives us no warrant to ignore the good reasons we have to believe in God. It just means that we must learn to trust God when we don’t always understand His ways. Not in some blind leap of irrationality, but precisely because we have such good reasons to believe that He is, and to believe that despite the painful puzzles that break our heart, some day like Job (Job 42:5) and Asaph (Psalm 73:17) we will see Him.

1 Comment

  1. Shane,

    I wanted to comment, not really on the theological topic, but on the personal story of Kristi’s cancer. I will never forget the day my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and how bravely she endured many surgeries, radiation treatments, and chemo treatments. She died last year after 3 years of treatment. Kristi (and you) have been on my prayer list for months.

    You mentioned in your post how many people will receive a cancer diagnosis today. Sara never forgot the feeling of the day she first received the diagnosis. Even more than praying for herself, she would always pray for the people that received a diagnosis cancer that day, that they would find peace and support. And I haven’t forgotten what she prayed for, and I have taken up that prayer myself.

    May God bless you both!


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