Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (God the Father: The Problem of Evil and Theodicy)

Biblical Theodicy

A Biblical Perspective on Evil

Compatibilistic Theodicy

Theodicy in Evangelism

One of the most persistent arguments against the existence of God is based on the existence of physical and moral evil in the world. The question that many unbelievers voice is, if God is real, perfectly good, and omnipotent, how can evil exist? John Frame details the classic “problem of evil” as follows:

Premise 1: If God were all-powerful, he would be able to prevent evil.

Premise 2: If God were all-good, he would desire to prevent evil.

Conclusion: So, if God were both all-powerful and all-good, there would be no evil.

Premise 3: But there is evil.

Conclusion: Therefore, there is no all-powerful, all-good God.

The problem of evil has in view both physical evil (e.g., catastrophes, illness, pain, death) and moral evil (sin).

The Christian response to the problem of evil is called theodicy, which comes from the Greek words theos and dikē. These words combined mean “judicial hearing of God” (for dikē, see 2 Thess. 1:9; Jude 7), or the “justification of God.” Theodicy involves a vindication of God’s justice against the charge that the presence of evil in creation shows him to be unjust, impotent, both, or nonexistent. Theodicy declares that God is all-powerful and all-good even though this might not seem to be the case since evil exists in the creation.

Biblical Theodicy

The only proper theodicy comes from the Bible. When God is the One being charged before the court of human opinion, the Word of God provides a sufficient defense. God provides his own theodicy as he is revealed in his Word. John Frame has set forth principles of establishing God and his Word as the theodicy that is the legitimate response to the problem of evil.

Scripture never assumes that God must explain his actions but rather asserts that he has the right to be trusted. In the Genesis 3 account of the beginning of moral and physical evil, God does not explain the origin of evil in Satan or how Adam and Eve could sin in a perfect world. Adam implied that God was at fault, but God did not defend himself and instead condemned Adam. In the Genesis 22 account of the sacrifice of Isaac, God does not explain how his command to sacrifice Isaac harmonizes with his goodness. According to Exodus 33:19, God will not submit to man’s judgment but will show grace and mercy to whomever he wills without needing to explain his actions.

In Job 38–41, after Job’s friends have blamed him for being the cause of his suffering, and after Job has expressed his desire to appeal to God, God asks the questions, asserting that man is incapable of understanding God’s workings in distributing good and evil. God never explains why Job had to suffer. And the book of Job never explains why Job had to suffer as a response to Satan’s charges. Job wanted to question God but was questioned by God. In Ezekiel 18:25–30, God does not defend himself against Israel’s charge of injustice but rather condemns Israel for injustice.

In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1–16, the master does not defend himself against the charge of unfairly distributing payment but reverses the charge on the accusers. Divine sovereignty is thus asserted. The master presents his word as reliable. Proper perspective shows the generosity of the master, not any unfairness.

Similarly, in Romans 3:4–6, Paul does not ask questions about God’s fairness but rather rebukes such questions by asserting God’s rights as the sovereign Lord. In Romans 9:15–20, Paul affirms God’s sovereign right to do as he pleases; to question God is disrespectful “back talk.” According to Paul, man is disobedient in complaining against God. God is not obligated to explain his actions so as to satisfy human intellect with respect to the problem of evil. God’s sovereignty must always be reaffirmed. God’s Word is absolutely reliable, and Scripture is clear: God is holy, not unjust.

A Biblical Perspective on Evil

A proper biblical theodicy recognizes God’s right to do as he pleases, to not explain himself, to condemn sinners for the evil in the world, and to call sinners to accept him as the remedy for evil. God is just and good because justice and goodness are his very nature. God vindicates his justice by helping people see history from his perspective.

First, God gives perspective on the past. God has always vindicated himself by bringing periods of suffering to an end by an act of grace. He provided Moses to end four hundred years of bondage. And even Moses had to wait forty years for his commission. The wilderness journey was a period of waiting that culminated in entering the Promised Land. Even the journey had periods of waiting for water and food, all ended by God’s gracious preservation. The alternation between waiting periods and divine visitations continued in the cycles of bondage and deliverance under the judges and in the divided kingdom. The entire Old Testament period was a period of waiting for fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. In the Old Testament period, the length of time involved a dialectic between justice and mercy, which posed a question about the consistency of God’s justice and mercy. Justice was predicted, but God also promised to fulfill his promises. Yet this fact raised the question of how God’s justice and mercy could be reconciled and harmonized without compromising one or both. God’s justice caused questions about his mercy and his mercy about his justice.

Jesus solved the Old Testament problem of evil by harmonizing divine justice and mercy. By his atoning death, he is the divine theodicy, vindicating both divine justice and mercy at the cross (Rom. 3:26; 5:8–9, 20–21). Grace reigns through righteousness, which is revealed by the gospel of grace (Rom. 1:17). And so through grace God moves us to praise his righteousness. Many Old Testament saints suffered more severely than any contemporary believers, and yet they died before seeing God’s conquest of evil through Christ’s cross. They had to trust that God would one day vindicate himself. How much more should new covenant believers trust God to vindicate his justice at Christ’s return according to his faithful promises.

Second, God gives perspective on the present. Scripture shows us that God has always used and is now presently using evil to fulfill his purposes for good. The solution of the problem of evil must be theocentric, not anthropocentric. It must not have as its aim to make man happier or freer but to glorify God. The greater-good defense is valid only if the greater good is seen as that which glorifies God more fully than a lesser good. Man’s happiness comes only through God-glorifying ways: obedience, self-denial, and suffering while anticipating final glory. When God’s greater good of divine glorification is accomplished, believers and all creation (excluding unbelievers) will have their own greater good (Rom. 8:28).

While not giving exhaustive explanations of all evil and while calling for patience in the midst of adversities, Scripture shows some ways in which God uses evil to further his purposes: to display divine grace and justice (Rom. 3:26; 5:8, 20–21; 9:17); to judge evil in the present and future (Matt. 23:35; John 5:14); to redeem through Christ’s sufferings (1 Pet. 3:18); to expand gospel witness through the suffering of Christ’s people (Col. 1:24); to shock unbelievers, get their attention, and call for a change of heart (Zech. 13:7–9; Luke 13:1–5; John 9); to discipline believers (Heb. 12:3–17); and to vindicate God (Rom. 3:26).

God assures that he always has a purpose for the glory of himself and the good of his people in every event (Rom. 8:28). All the evidence of God using evil for good should encourage his people to trust in faith that currently unexplained evils are divinely purposed for good.

Third, God gives perspective on the future. Scripture promises that God will be finally vindicated and believers fully delivered from evil. In the future, suffering will end in glory for believers, and prosperity will end in judgment for the wicked (Psalm 73; Isaiah 40; Matthew 25; Luke 1:46–55). When God seems unjust in the present, one needs to wait for God’s glory and judgment (Hab. 2:2–3) and remember his past acts (Hab. 3:1–18). In the future consummation, no one will doubt God’s justice and mercy. Not that he will give a final, exhaustive theoretical theodicy, but when he is revealed to all in the second advent of Christ, all doubts will be transformed into ashamed silence or reverential praise. And when Christ reigns in perfect righteousness, there will be no more problem of evil. If one believes in the final divine vindication, one needs only to trust now that the problem of evil is solved in the mind and sovereign counsel of God. So Scripture responds to the problem of evil not with philosophical reasoning but with divine reassurance of final divine vindication. All Christians should follow this pattern in articulating a theodicy to the world in the present.

Finally, Scripture provides proper perspective by serving as the means by which God gives a new heart to believers. Through the Word of God, the Spirit saves and transforms doubt to faith, humbling people of their prideful autonomy and leading them to give thanks for God’s mercy. Through his Word, God gives a new heart by which one sees Christ, believes, and praises (1 Cor. 2:12–13). The change of values given with the new heart lifts one’s eyes past the evils of this life to the God who will finally end evil and is even now using it for his purpose. This new perspective is the Christian’s theodicy.

Compatibilistic Theodicy

Compatibilism holds that, when properly defined, human free will and divine determinism are complementary ideas; that is, it is possible to accept both without being logically inconsistent. Compatibilism contends that one’s will is free within the boundaries of one’s nature. Unregenerated human will is free only within the limitations of human finiteness and depravity. Since depraved human nature cannot obey God, fallen humans are free only to sin. Fallen humans sin freely in that they want to sin, doing so without coercion. A biblical theodicy accords with a compatibilistic view of human freedom. A biblical theodicy assumes not that man in his fallenness has the ability to obey God but rather that fallen humans in their corrupted nature choose only what serves their own pleasure and power. The following biblical principles explain how all this can be true:

       1.    God predetermines all events (Eph. 1:11).

       2.    The fall resulted in physical difficulties and catastrophes (Isa. 45:7; Rom. 8:20–22).

       3.    God predetermines sin but makes man accountable for his sin (Acts 2:23; 4:27–28; 14:16).

       4.    God hardens sinners in sin (Rom. 9:18).

       5.    God never tempts people to sin (James 1:13).

       6.    God is never blamed in Scripture for sin or portrayed as enjoying the sin he permits (Ps. 5:4).

       7.    God never coerces man to sin but ordains that man sin freely and thus be culpable (James 1:14–15).

       8.    God controls people’s sin, working mysteriously through secondary causes (2 Sam. 24:1, 10; 1 Chron. 21:1).

       9.    God is glorified in his justice when he causes calamities and judges sin (Isa. 45:5–7; Ezek. 28:22; John 9:2–5).

     10.    God has graciously provided salvation from sin for those who believe in Christ (Rom. 3:24–26).

Theodicy in Evangelism

As Christians engage with unbelievers, they must not think that they can vindicate God by principles outside the Word of God. Rather, they should express God’s inspired written theodicy by articulating its principles. These biblical principles can be illustrated by personal accounts, but the principles should be the ground of the conversation. To base theodicy on extrabiblical principles fails to present God as he has ordained in Scripture.

The Bible, being God’s theodicy, vindicates all his perfections by what he has revealed about what he has done in the past, is doing in the present, and will do in the future. As one presents God’s theodicy, one must not fall into the trap of pandering to what unsaved man thinks is best for his happiness but must seek to call people from sinful self-centeredness to humble, submissive repentance from sin and faith in the true God through Jesus Christ. One must not allow unsaved man to establish human well-being according to human desires, making human thinking the standard for divine justice and mercy.[1]

[1] MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R., eds. (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 221–226). Crossway.