Nor the Heart of Man Imagined

Nor the Heart of Man Imagined

The problem of suffering, sin and evil, in its myriad forms, is the most difficult problem that any Christian faces. The problem is sometimes construed too abstractly, as if it were only an intellectual problem. But it isn't. It is an intensely human problem, a pastoral problem, a global problem, a problem that everyone lives and breathes. Anyone who lives in this world, daily, even multiple times per day, recognizes the reality of evil and suffering in this world. Suffering is a universal iron blanket that covers the entirety of the world; it affects everyone, it presses down on us with relentless pressure, and it never abates. The effects of suffering and evil squeeze on us with such massive weight, that they threaten to crush us and render us virtually paralyzed.

When the late philosopher Antony Flew offered the parable of "The Invisible Gardener," his reason for doing so was, in part, motivated by what he saw as the failure of theists to deal honestly with the problem of evil and suffering. The reason, he maintained, that belief in God "died the death of a thousand qualifications," was that, as he saw it, every time a serious problem arose that challenged that belief, there was a response that tried to get God "off the hook." For Flew, there seemed to be no real answer to the serious problems that confront us in the world. Is there a satisfactory answer to the question of suffering and evil in a world where a good God reigns?

We have discussed the "to-ing and fro-ing" of apologetics. In order to respond to challenges that come, we need to move from our side of the bridge to the other side, from whence the objections come, and seek to respond by showing the objections, on that side, to be untenable. Then we invite our interlocutor to cross the bridge with us so that he might see the objection in its proper, Christian light. Here is one way (not the only way) it could look when we address the problem of suffering and evil.

Let's take for granted that the objector really is concerned with the extent and intensity of suffering and evil in the world. He wants to know how this can be reconciled with the Christian belief in a God who is wholly good, omniscient (so that, in creating, He would know what was to come) and omnipotent (so that, in creating, He had the power to keep suffering and evil from coming into the world). The objector makes the point that the existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of this kind of God; they simply cannot co-exist.

But how, on his side of the bridge, can one construe this notion that the two cannot co-exist? What is the force of this "cannot"? The notion that the two are logically contradictory has, itself, died the death of a thousand qualifications, so we don't need to run down that rabbit trail any longer; the "cannot" is not a logical "cannot." Clearly, (1) "An omniscient, omnipotent and wholly good God exists," and (2) "Evil exists," are not contradictory in any formally logical way. So, since the force of the "cannot" does not come from a logical contradiction, it must be something like, "Given the incompatibility (not the logical contradiction) of the existence of God and of evil, it is not possible that the two co-exist." In this case, the "cannot" must mean "not possible."

If this is the objection, then the problem of just exactly what "possibility" (and impossibility) is rears its ugly head. What can the objector think that "possibility" and "impossibility" mean in this case? There are only two options open to him. Suppose he means to say that, by "not possible," there is a necessary incompatibility between the two such that they cannot exist together. This is the first option. If this is what is meant, then it could be phrased thus, "There is no possible world in which an omniscient, omnipotent and wholly good God and evil can co-exist." It is easy to see at this point that the objection of a necessary incompatibility between the two presupposes some notion of what is possible and what is impossible. And how might one go about determining what is possible and what is impossible? Given that we have no logical contradiction, the best the objector can do is identify the essential nature of God and of evil in order to affirm their incompatibility. That is, since the propositions are not logically contradictory, "incompatibility" has to presuppose the nature of God, and nature of evil, in order to show that there is a property (or properties) in each that, for some reason, cannot co-exist. But how might an objector go about doing that? How might he identify the nature of God, and the nature of evil so that they contain properties that cannot exist together? This, I think, is the place where the objector will be without a defense. We will return to this below, when we are walking the other direction across the bridge.

The only other option available to the objector is that the notion that the two cannot co-exist means, not that there is a necessary incompatibility between them (such that there is "no possible world in which they can co-exist"), but that the incompatibility is probable. But if the incompatibility is only probable, then there is a possibility (even if, on his basis, a small possibility) that the two are not incompatible and the objection reduces down to one's preferences. One man's small possibility, in this case, is another's certainty. The probability calculus here is only as strong as, in that it must be supported by, one's view of the world.(1)  And that reduces the objection to little more than a perspective.

What have we done thus far? In attempting to walk across the bridge in order to stand on the objector's ground, for argument's sake, we have put on display his view of possibility/impossibility in such a way that only one of two options can obtain. The second option he has pertains to what is, on his view, more or less probable. But, as we said, probability, in this case, is so loaded with personal preferences that the best he can produce is a small chapter of his autobiography. That is, any objection that is based on this kind of probability tells us more about one's predispositions and biases than it does about what, objectively, might or might not be the case.

So, we can return to the first option, i.e., the notion that the incompatibility between God and evil is necessarily the case. Remember that we noticed, in the first option above, that the notion of an impossible co-existence might be affirmed by the objector in such a way that moves him to argue that the two "existences" are necessarily incompatible. But, as we said, this pushes us to ask about how we know what is possible and what is impossible, especially when it comes to God's existence, as well as His nature, and the nature of evil itself.

Before we walk across the bridge, with the objector, back to our side, a couple of clarification points are in order. First, it has been said that one of the best ways to respond to this objection is to point out that the objector himself has no foundation or ground for determining the nature evil itself. Since he has no absolute standard, he has not absolute way to define good or evil. This is no doubt true, and it may be that such a conversation will be needed on occasion. But this point misses the original objection, and can be construed as a dodge to the objection. The objector is not saying that we have to make sense of his view of God and of evil. It is likely the objector's view of God is atheistic or agnostic. So, the challenge does not come to the Christian, in this case, as an affirmation of what the objector himself believes. It comes to the Christian, who claims to believe both of the propositions above. The objector may certainly believe that there are evil and wicked things, and, as we said, there may be reason and occasion to challenge this. But at this point, we began with the objector's challenge to Christianity, not with our objection against his view of morality. The objector wants to challenge what we believe, and he wants us to show him how such beliefs can be made compatible. 

The second clarification that we need to remember is that Christians cannot respond to this challenge based on the objector's understanding of what is possible or what is impossible (or what is necessary and what is probable). In other words, the objector's view of what is possible and what is impossible is built on his own speculation, and has no foundation in reality. How could we defend, for example, the existence of God and evil based on a notion of possibility and impossibility that has denied the clear revelation of God at the outset? Or, to put it another way, if God is not the supreme source of what is possible and impossible, what could be?

As we invite the objector to walk across the bridge with us, then, we do so by reminding him that he has asked us to make sense of our beliefs. If what he is asking is that we make sense of our beliefs based on his view of reality, this will, indeed, be impossible. His view of reality, as the objection illustrates, makes no room for God. To try thereby to make room for God is futile and foolish; a barrel full of crude oil has no room for water, and it wouldn't mix with it if it did. We explain to the objector, therefore, that since his objection includes my belief in the existence of God and my belief in the existence of evil, I will need to respond to him in the context of those beliefs, and in order to do that, he will need to walk along with me for a while.

Maybe we could begin the walk back by asking the objector where he thinks we get the our notion of God in the first place. How do we know that God is omniscient, omnipotent and wholly good? Whatever his response, we could then make clear to him that such truths can only be affirmed because God has told us who He is; He has revealed Himself. That is, we could remind him that our knowledge of God is not something that is self-generated, or gained by a "proper" use of reason. We don't affirm God's character because we're smarter than others, or because of our innate genius. We affirm it because this is what God has told us about Himself. 

We can anticipate an objection here: the objector may cry foul if we begin to refer to God's revelation in order to make sense of the two "existences." He may protest, and loudly, that we are no longer standing on the same ground. But we were never on the same ground, at any point, in our discussion. That's what makes a debate what it is. We would need to remind him that God's revelation is the only foundation we have available to us if we're going to talk about who God is, what evil is, what is compatible, what is possible and what is impossible, etc. We might want to tell him that we have seen other arguments for such things, but that no one has been able to conjure up a view that stands on anything remotely akin to solid ground. The only way to know who God is, is if He tells us (the same, we could say, is true for us as well).

Once we affirm that we know because of what God has said, we can then discuss possibility, impossibility, compatibility, etc. For example, we could ask if it was possible that this omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good God could, while remaining who He is, and remaining the same person, take on a human nature without in any way changing His own nature, or the human nature taken. If he said this was not possible, given the incompatibility of, for example, omniscience and a human nature (which, by definition, cannot know all things), we might want to ask him how he would know those things to be incompatible. He would no doubt tell us that omniscience is the logical opposite of finite knowledge, so that to combine the two would be to affirm an absurdity. But then we could offer him a brief history lesson, and show him that, as a matter of fact, the church has affirmed that God has done exactly that, in the person of His Son. This would be a good place to pull out our well-worn copy of the Chalcedonian Creed. We could begin to explain to him that God is able to do things that our finite minds could not imagine.
None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him"-- these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God" (1 Cor. 2:8-10). 
To try to define compatibility/incompatibility or possible/impossible without reference to God is to wrench these words from the only home that can accommodate them.

You can begin to see how this might go. Once we make it clear that we have to subsume our own reasoning process under the authority of Scripture, then Scripture defines what compatibility is. It may not (and does not, in some cases) tell us exactly how two apparently incompatible things can become compatible, but that they do is beyond question. This is also a good place to reiterate our full and absolute dependence on God and His Word for what we affirm. We do not affirm this because we completely comprehend it; nor do we affirm it because we jettison all standard ways of thinking. We affirm it because what God has said regulates and guides the use of our standard ways of thinking. What God affirms, we affirm, because He affirms it.

This discussion, on our side of the bridge, could obviously continue for some time. But the problem we began with is the problem of the two "existences," God and evil. At this point, we could begin to explain God's plan for redemption in history, culminating in the One who came, as both God and man, to, at the end of time, completely and eternally subdue the evil that has, seemingly, run rampant since its introduction into the world in the Garden. We could tell him that we agree that evil is opposed to God and His character, but we could also tell him that, in God's plan, He determined to wipe away all evil, by taking that evil and suffering to Himself, and by taking it to the grave. Having conquered suffering and evil in His resurrection, He is now in the process of subduing it completely. In His perfect timing, He will subdue it completely and all who trust in Him will participate in evil's final un-doing. This way of responding provides a pastoral and practical response to what is often, and otherwise, discussed only as an abstraction. Christ and His work point us to the only true response to this problem, both philosophically and pastorally. 

More could be said, of course, and the above only hints at some of the main ideas in play. What should grab anyone interested in apologetics, generally, and in this most difficult of topics, specifically, is that there is a clear and seamless way to move from the depth of the problem, to the depth of the gospel. Only in that gospel is the problem of suffering and evil given its due weight, and its deserved defeat.

Dr. K. Scott Oliphint is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).


1.Anyone interested in a fuller, more detailed, development of this argument can see K. Scott Oliphint, Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology, (Phillipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2006).