This is widely agreed as the Big Problem in Christian theology and the reason why so many do not believe. Ever since Voltaire in Candide mocked Leibnitz’ view that our world is “the best of all possible worlds”; ever since David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Enlightenment attitudes to the issue of God and evil have prevailed. Hume wrote what has become the standard version, stock-in-trade among modern theologians: If God would like to prevent evil but cannot, then he is not omnipotent; if he could but won’t, then he is malevolent. In either case he is not God.
The first thing to be said about this standard objection is that it is a rationalistic, anthropocentric perspective: the “enlightened” mind of man presuming to evaluate God. As such, it is a non-starter because, if God is God (and he should not be worshipped if he isn’t) then he is transcendent and his nature is beyond the scope of man’s natural, limited mind.
The true theological answer to this so called “problem of evil” is not anthropocentric but theocentric. In other words, only God can answer it. And in The Book of Job – out of the whirlwind – God does answer it: “Who is this that darkeneth counsel without knowledge? Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook?” Job is put firmly in his place for his presumption.
So where does this leave the problem of evil? Does God’s answer to Job amount to his saying, “Keep your nose out! I’ll do as I damn well like because I’m the boss”? No, because in another place in the Bible Genesis God says, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil thou shalt not eat, for in the day that thou eastest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” This means that the mystery of the origin of evil is inextricably tied up with the mystery of the being of God: depths which we cannot plumb.
This is unsatisfactory. Happily, God provides more information and this information takes the form of the whole of subsequent Judeao-Christian history and development. It is like this…
Evil is not merely something nasty which afflicts us – an offence as it were to the self-esteem of Enlightenment Man. Evil is something which we perpetrate – by proving ourselves incapable of keeping God’s commandments. The next bit of information provided by God is God’s coming to do something about this problem in Jesus Christ who dies in order to redeem us. This is even more astonishing as a cosmic event than it appears, for it entails the truth that – God, being God and therefore omniscient, knew that his original act of creation would result in the crucifixion of the Second Person of the Trinity. Thus in the original act of creation, God willed his own suffering and death. That is he too became the victim of evil.
It is at this point in the story that Enlightenment Man pops up again and says, “Then in that case, it would have been better not to create anything at all than to do so in the sure and certain knowledge that it would entail all this misery.”
But that is the one thing precisely which we cannot know, which we are forbidden to ask about in the story of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This however is not unsatisfactory; it is no cop-out on God’s part, God throwing his weight around. For the subsequent revelation of God in Christ’s death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Ghost explains and vindicates the original act of creation. That is why our sin, Original Sin, has been called felix culpa – the happy fault without which God would not have become incarnate in Jesus Christ.
Evil remains a mystery, the mystery. But now we can see that it was necessary in order that God could manifest his love for us. That is why evil is necessary. If there had been some other way, God would have chosen that instead. But there you have it – the paradox of the cross: in order for the redemptive act of God to become real for us, evil is necessary. This redemptive act of love is real for us – because Christians for 2000 years have known it as a fact of their direct experience.
So the question is not, “How can a God of love allow evil?” Rather the answer is that it is evil which reveals that God is a God of love. It is not only a mystery, but a miracle. C.H. Sisson puts it beautifully, heartbreakingly, “The wonder is that he came here at all, where no one ever came voluntarily before.”