Making sense of the existence of evil is a daunting challenge. For the secularist, the concept of “evil” is nonsensical, as the recognition of the existence of evil can make sense only if there is something against which the act or thought in question can be compared – namely, good. But without a God to ground good in some meaningfully transcendent way, what’s left is simply a difference of opinion. A thing may be distasteful, or not preferred, but labeling it as “evil” says quite a bit about the worldview –whether recognized or not – of the person making the claim.
But for the Christian, too, the presence of evil can pose a challenge. Not long ago, a new believer put the question this way:
My question is if God is the creator of everything, then why not evil too? I mean if he is all knowing and time means nothing to him then he had to know how his creation was going to act. He said he knew you in the womb, did he not? So doesn't knowing in a way mean he is responsible in some way for the creation of evil? So, if God knew that what he was creating would murder, rape or do some other bad things, doesn’t that make God bad?”
There is an assumption that underlies this question, and teasing out that assumption will make it easier to see where the problem lies. When one talks about evil in the way the questioner does, there is an assumption implicit in the thinking that “evil” is a thing. That’s why he is wondering whether God “created it” or knew about “it,” or is somehow “responsible” for it. It is as if we are viewing God as some type of craftsman who set out to build functional and efficient machines but ended up with bad or broken ones. How could he get it so wrong? Mess up his product so badly? But evil is not a thing. It is simply not a creation, either of God’s or of ours. Whether we’re talking about things that take life – like cars or guns or roadways - or any type of conduct that harms others, evil is not a discreet and separate entity. What then is it? After all, the effects of evil acts are real; they are not the products of imagination or illusion.
In short, “evil” is the label we use to describe our thoughts and actions – and the effects of our thoughts and actions – when we refuse to follow God’s will. It’s what we see, hear and experience when God would have us do one thing according to his will, but we instead rebel and do what we want to do. It is the measure of the extent to which a thought or action departs from God’s perfect will, which embodies total and complete goodness. Sometimes evil takes extreme forms, like murder or rape. Sometimes, it is a lesser act, like failing to treat someone with appropriate Christian kindness or wishing someone ill.
So, could God foresee evil? Eliminate it? Of course. As long as he controlled our behavior, there would be no “evil” because there would be no capacity to rebel against him. When a car’s brakes fail and it rolls down a hill and hits something, do we consider that evil? Or when a lion attacks its prey? No, of course not, because there is no act of the will in either case. But a human being who sets the car in motion, or lets the lion loose on a person, is indeed committing acts of evil.
In short, God intended for us to have the capacity to make moral choices and the way he did that was by allowing free will. He obviously felt that doing so was better in some sense that the alternative – not creating free will creatures. But what he could not do is give us free will while at the same time preventing any evil; that would be like making a square circle. The thought itself is contradictory and incoherent. It amounts to stating a contradiction.
So, does the fact that God allows evil to occur make him “bad?” That depends on how one grounds the concept of “bad.” Bad, after all, is a judgment, a conclusion one reaches when deciding to what extent something departs from pure good. But God is himself the purest of all good. If God allowed for free choice, and therefore allowed human beings to rebel against him, on what basis could we, as human beings, conclude that there has been a failure of good?
But on a deeper level, there is a better answer. To stop us from being evil, God must stop us from exercising free will. Whether that is good – to have some free will beings with whom he will one day re-unite – or to have no free-will beings and no rebellion against his will – is a question that only the creator – the one with the choice – can coherently answer. Whether it’s better for me to have a high performance sports car or a highly efficient hybrid depends on what resources I command and what my purposes are. With limited resources and no need for speed, the choice would be clear, as would the opposite, if I had unlimited resources and a race to run. Only I can decide which option is better, by understanding both the nature of the thing in question and the use to which I intend to put it. So too with God.
These philosophical musings may provide little comfort to someone who is suffering the real effects of evil acts. They are not meant to trivialize that suffering, for it is all too real. But for limited beings such as us, struggling to make sense of what we find around us, they mark the beginning of the answer, the beginning of a fuller understanding of the One who left us here to struggle, and of the brighter future He has in store for us if we place our trust in Him.