Paul Derengowski, ThM
In the 1700s, Scottish philosopher, historian, and skeptic, David Hume wrote an essay which was intended to demonstrate that because of the presence of natural evil in the world, that God himself could not exist. In other words, if God exists, then evil should not. Yet, since evil does exist, then it is incomprehensible to human reason that God could exist. In his essay, “Evil Makes a Strong Case against God’s Existence,” Hume constructs a dialogue between three fictional persons: Demea, Philo, and Cleanthes. The epitome of Hume’s argument is found in a series of questions he culls from Epicurus, who asked: “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” These three questions have served to fuel the debate coming from skeptics, atheists, and agnostics alike, many of whom seem to think that Hume’s deduction is the proverbial “Catch-22” that theists cannot, or will not, answer. Yet, there is a plausible response which does not agree that simply because evil is present in the world, that God cannot be as well.
Questioning God’s Omnipotence
In order to answer questions about God’s omnipotence, a few clarifying remarks must be made. First of all, it must be understood what is meant by God’s omnipotence. “God is omnipotent” means that he is able to do all things that are consistent with his character. Since he is a God of love, justice, righteousness, perfection, and so on, his activities toward his creation are going to be reflective of his character. He cannot, conversely, deny himself, or contradict his character, and do things which would contradict reality, over and above which he is the author. Hence, he cannot create square circles or cause himself to cease to exist, since those activities are inconsistent with who and what God is as an omnipotent being. Moreover, he is going intervene at times of “evil” in accord with that same character. This is not going to include an absolute prohibition of every act of man, evil or otherwise, since that would defy the very purpose of why God created in the first place, which was to glorify himself through his creation, and its activities, whether good or bad. That in itself reflects God’s omnipotent power, when he can take whatever circumstance that has arisen and turn it into an event whereby he is glorified.
Second, God’s will is not contingent upon human determination, or predicament, as to when he will act, or not act. God is an infinite being whose will and ways are so far above the fallen, finite, human will, that to be assuming that just because God has supposedly failed to act upon a specific human request or condition, at a specific time, in a specific place, that he is somehow impotent, is to fail to understand the ontological difference between the Creator and the creature. In fact, such an attitude tends to arrogate the creature to at least the level of the Creator, if not beyond, and falsely assumes that God is answerable to the creature for the decisions he makes. God will act when he so wills, not when fallen “evil” (cf. Matt. 7:11) beings demand that he jump when they expect him to. And if there ever comes the day—which it will not—when God is subordinate to his creation, then God will cease to be God, and so will everything else, along with the question of evil.
Third, the prevention of evil, or assumed lack thereof, in no way validates or invalidates whether or not God is omnipotent. In fact, it is amazing, sometimes, when discussing this whole issue how bereft of what an actual definition of “evil” is, and its cause, on the part of those raising the question. Their automatic assumption often revolves around some kind of personal, physical pain or discomfort is the definition of “evil.” Therefore, if the television goes on the blink during the Super Bowl, then God must not exist, since if God did exist, then he would have prevented such a personal tragedy from happening in the first place. Yet, such a definition is woefully lacking. God is no more obligated to intervene in every perceived instance of evil than he is obligated to redeem every lost sinner who ever lived. God does intervene to prevent evil from occurring (see Genesis 6-7; Revelation 20), and will eventually eradicate it altogether, but it will be done according to his own timing and purpose, and not fallen humanity’s.
The Source of Evil
Since God is both willing and capable of preventing and/or eradicating evil, the question naturally arises of where evil came from in the first place, since obviously it is assumed by Hume, and others, that simply because of its presence that an omnipotent God could not existence at the same time. Evil, in its incipient state, is the direct result of rebellion against God. The main perpetrator of rebellion is none other than one of God’s creatures, and that is Lucifer, who is now known as Satan. Initially the first humans were created in a state of innocence, yet as the Bible reveals, it was Satan—who had already fallen from his state of perfection—that successfully tempted Eve to commit the first evil act among humans by acting independent of God’s commands not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam, apparently standing by watching and listening to the events transpire, then followed up Eve’s rebellious act by participating in the same “evil,” and ate of the tree as well. Hence, the source of evil is God’s creatures, starting with Lucifer, who became self-consumed with his beauty (Ezek. 28:17) and was then filled with a perverse pride that led him to believe that he could become as God himself. His sin has since led him to wage war against God by first attacking God’s most special of his creation, mankind, and causing it to rebel against God as well. The taint of sin, rebellion, and evil has been with all creation ever since, as God continues to work toward a full and final redemption of creation still yet in the future. Until such time, though, creation “groans and suffers” (Rom. 8:22) waiting for that redemption, by and large because of the continuing presence of the after-effects that brought evil into the world in the first place.
Now, some skeptics might scoff at such an explanation, asserting that that all sounds fine and wonderful, but that offers no more of explanation for the presence of evil than it does the existence of God. In other words, since the skeptic or atheist cannot empirically determine whether or not Satan exists, then such an explanation for evil’s presence is no more credible than telling them that God exists because the Bible says so. Tangibly, the skeptic can see, feel, taste, smell, and hear evil all around them. But, they cannot do the same with the Devil. Hence, any explanation tied to him to explain the presence of evil is plainly irrational. Yet, if one follows that line of reasoning, then cannot one simply conclude that the skepticism does not exist either? For one cannot see the thoughts or concepts floating about in his head which would lead him to conclude that neither God, nor Satan, exist. Therefore, since we cannot see, feel, taste, smell, or hear his concepts, as they exist in his head, then cannot we simply conclude that they do not exist? Moreover, since David Hume is not around to see, touch, taste, smell, or hear, then why cannot we simply conclude that he never really existed either? If all we have to judge reality is our five senses in the here and now, and each individual is the final arbiter of the truth, based on his subjective sense interpretations, then what is to preclude anyone from arriving at whatever conclusion about anything, including evil itself, and then prescribing a solution so outrageous as to defy common sense? After all, there have been men such as Joseph Stalin and Karl Marx, both of whom were staunch atheists, who prescribed what they thought was the solution to humanity’s woes was in the form of Marxist-Socialist Communism—a godless belief system that is responsible for more “evil” deaths in human history than all of the religious wars combined! The fact of the matter is the biblical explanation for the presence of evil is more plausible, and more hopeful, than any skeptical or atheistic explanation could ever possibly fathom. And the moment we start thinking otherwise will be the moment we invite another evil to reign over the human condition, which in turn will lead to more unnecessary, irresponsible, and ignorant questioning about God’s existence.
Therefore, to answer the questions, “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” we can say in the affirmative that God is both willing, and able, to prevent evil, yet only in accord with his own timing and his own purposes. Sometimes that timing may occur within our lifetime; at other times it may not occur at all, simply because God is quite capable of taking an evil act and turning it into something good, far beyond the notions and dreams of those perpetrating or enduring the evil, and that may not happen instantly.
Fallen humanity may not understand, at any given moment, why tragedies have happened to them, and may even doubt God’s existence, if not turn its back on him altogether. But, humanity’s lack of understanding does not mean that God does not understand, particularly when he knows that the real reason why perceived “evil” does occur happens in accord with a grander purpose and plan that humanity is not sometimes not privy to.
It is during times of adversity, when no one has a clue as to why things have happened the way that they have, that one ought not to doubt the existence of God, but to simply humble him/herself—as much as it hurts—and say with Job, “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10). For if, indeed, sin’s taint is upon creation, and “the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil, and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives,” (Eccl. 9:3), then to curse God, rather than see life, with all its faux pas clearly before us, is simply an indication of the evil and insanity that God told us was there; the evil and insanity that some want to blame God for, rather than take responsibility themselves.