Question: "What is the biblical solution to the problem of evil?"
Answer: Broadly stated, the “problem of evil” is the seeming contradiction between an all-powerful, all-loving God and the human experience of suffering and evil in the world. Critics claim that the existence of evil is proof that the omnipotent, omnibenevolent God of the Bible cannot exist. Since “bad things happen to good people,” critics say, God is either nonexistent or less good or less powerful than Scripture suggests.
Despite what some critics think, the so-called “problem of evil” is not something the Bible leaves unaddressed. Scripture not only refers to the problem of evil, but it offers several solutions to it. By looking at the Bible’s honest questioning of evil, God’s response to evil, and the scriptural solution to evil, one can address this problem using almost nothing other than God’s Word. Of course, this question ties into theology and philosophy as well. There are multiple ways of coming to possible solutions, and none is entirely complete all by itself.
According to the Bible, the experience of evil is something God understands and acknowledges. God’s willingness to grant us the freedom of making our own choices also allows for the possibility of moral evil. Moral evil leads to physical evil. Even so, God has always acted to soften the blows that evil and suffering land on humanity. He also provided the one and only means to make all wrongs right. One day, God’s plan to defeat and destroy evil will be fully complete.
Scripture acknowledges the “problem of evil”
Many of the Bible’s 66 individual books openly express what we would now term the “problem of evil.” In some cases, these expressions are all but a direct accusation against God, in response to the suffering the writers had seen or experienced.
The entire book of Job, for example, is a discussion of the reasons why mankind experiences suffering even when we don’t seem to deserve it. In addition, Scripture offers many other notable passages that clearly reflect the problem of evil:
Habakkuk 1:2–4, “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.”
Ecclesiastes 4:1–3, “Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors—and they have no comforter. And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.”
Psalm 10:1, “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”
Psalm 22:1–2, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.”
Psalm 83:1–2, “O God, do not remain silent; do not turn a deaf ear, do not stand aloof, O God. See how your enemies growl, how your foes rear their heads.”
John 16:2–4, “They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them.”
Romans 8:36, “As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’“
Revelation 6:9–10, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’”
These passages show a personal, deep awareness of the reality of evil. Scripture does not present evil as an abstraction or a remote idea. The real human beings who recorded the words of the Bible were painfully aware of the existence of evil and suffering. And they were willing to express their feelings to God, especially when they felt He wasn’t acting according to their expectations.
Notably, however, these same authors also recognize and trust the goodness of God to make these wrongs right, someday.
Scripture frames the “problem of evil”
The Bible makes it clear that evil is something God neither intended nor created. Rather, moral evil is a necessary possibility. If we are truly free, then we are free to choose something other than God’s will—that is, we can choose moral evil. Scripture points out that there are consequences for defying the will of God—personal, communal, physical, and spiritual.
Genesis 1:31, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”
Genesis 2:16–17, “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’“
Genesis 3:17–19, “To Adam he said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Proverbs 14:34, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people.”
Proverbs 19:3, “A person’s own folly leads to their ruin, yet their heart rages against the Lord.”
Matthew 5:3–11, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. . . . Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”
John 9:1–3, “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.’”
Romans 1:18–28, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. . . . Just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.”
Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.”
Hebrews 2:2–3, “For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?”
Taken together, Scripture shows us that physical evils—sickness, famine, war, and death—are the result of moral evil. And moral evil is something human beings are all responsible for, on a personal and a communal level. We suffer because of our own sins at times. Other times, we suffer because of the sins of others. In some situations, we suffer from simple cause-and-effect. And we sometimes suffer for a special purpose, in order to bring hope or help—or a warning—to others (see 2 Corinthians 1:4).
The Bible “frames” the problem of evil by keeping it in the proper context. “Evil” is meaningless without something to compare it to. For comparison, we have the original creation of God, called “very good” (Genesis 1:31). We have the standard of goodness in God Himself. And we have an explanation for the various causes of evil and suffering.
Likewise, we see that this physical world is not all there is. Nor is this mortal life all we have been made for. We can experience physical struggles such as “mourning” and “persecution” (Matthew 5:4, 11) while looking to a greater, more permanent state of being “blessed.”
Of course, clearly framing what evil is and why we experience it is not the same as resolving the problem of evil. However, even the framing of evil in the context of Christian theology shows that our experience of evil and suffering is not incompatible with God’s existence. Amplifying this proof is how the Bible goes beyond accurately describing evil to revealing God’s action to remedy it.
Scripture opposes the “problem of evil”
Scripture shows that God did not create evil and does not promote it; rather, it describes God’s actions in combatting it. God limits the impact of evil, warns us of the dangers of evil, acts to stop the spread of evil, gives us an escape from evil, and will eventually defeat evil forever.
Genesis 3:21, “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.”
Genesis 4:10–15, “The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.’ Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.’”
Genesis 6:5–8, “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.”
Genesis 7:1–4, “The Lord then said to Noah, ‘Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation. . . . Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.’”
Deuteronomy 9:5, “It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
Deuteronomy 30:15–18, “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”
Jonah 3:6–10, “When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.’ When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.”
Matthew 10:28, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Matthew 23:37, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”
1 Corinthians 6:9–11, “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Colossians 1:13, “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.”
2 Thessalonians 2:7, “For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way.”
2 Peter 2:9, “The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.”
Revelation 19:11, “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war.”
Revelation 20:11–15, “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. . . . I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. . . . The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. . . . Each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”
Revelation 21:1–5, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. . . . I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”
The Bible explains that God has acted to limit the impact of evil. He has given us clear instructions to avoid being evil. God has also made spiritual power available for those who want to be freed from the power of evil. And, from the very beginning, God set in motion a plan to make all wrongs right and end our experience of evil and suffering (see Genesis 3:15).
Scripture resolves the “problem of evil”
The existence of evil is often presented as an enormous problem for those who believe in God, mostly because of various false dichotomies. God must, it is assumed, disallow all evil or He is evil Himself. God must immediately punish all evildoers and never trouble those who are innocent, or He is assumed not to be omnipotent. In reality, these assumptions miss the actual means by which Scripture resolves the problem of evil.
As we’ve seen, the Bible acknowledges evil, correctly frames it, and shows how God opposes it. Most importantly, though, Scripture explains how the existence of the Christian God defeats the problem of evil.
Matthew 16:21, “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Luke 22:19–20, “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’”
John 14:6, “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
John 19:16–18, “Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.”
John 19:30, “Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
John 20:19–20, “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.”
John 20:30–31, “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
2 Corinthians 5:1, “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”
Hebrews 4:15, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”
1 John 3:1, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!”
Colossians 1:21–22, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”
Rather than creating us as amoral robots or dooming mankind for our sin or condoning our sin by leaving it unresolved, God chose the one and only way to settle the problem. He created us with the freedom to choose our actions, and then extended forgiveness to us. Forgiveness is the Christian answer to the problem of evil.
Forgiveness is different from condemnation—it releases the condemned from punishment. Forgiveness is also different from excusing evil—it acknowledges that there is wrong to be made right. The basis of our forgiveness, the cross, is the intersection of God’s perfect moral character, love, and omnipotence. Since He chose to take our penalty upon Himself, all suffering and evil can be overcome. According to the Bible, the evil we experience in this life has already been defeated, and everyone has access to that victory.
John 3:16–21, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”
John 16:33, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Taken as a whole, as it is intended, the Bible describes evil as something God allowed, but never condoned, for the sake of our free will. All through history, God has taken steps to limit the influence of evil. And, most importantly, God Himself took the consequences of our sin, so every person can have access to forgiveness and salvation. As a result, all sin, evil, and suffering will someday be completely ended. Beyond the philosophical or theological aspects of this issue, Scripture in and of itself goes a long way to neutralizing the power of the “problem of evil.”