Why Does God Allow Evil? By Clay Jones A Review

 

Author

Clay Jones is an associate professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, and the chairman of Ratio Christi, a campus apologetics alliance. He is a former talk show host and has served on the pastoral staff of several large churches. Jones received a BA in Philosophy from California State University, an MDiv from American Theological Seminary, and a DMin from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. (Because of his doctorate and the topic of this book, which is his main area of teaching, I lovingly refer to Clay as “Dr. Evil.)

 

Synopsis

A common complaint from skeptics as well as saints is that there is so much evil in the world. How is this possible if a good and loving God exists? While there are many well-reasoned arguments that show this is not a problem, it is still a challenging topic. It can be especially difficult to discern what is behind the question. Is it intellectual curiosity, skepticism seeking an excuse, or the gut-wrenching reality of the death or suffering of a loved-one. Each kind of questioner needs a different approach. For those in the third category, I would say this book is not for you right now. There is no book on this topic that will really meet your need. You don’t need a book. You need a community of people to come along side you, love you, and hurt with you through this. Go to your community and get the support you need. For those who want an answer, this book is for you. For those hoping to justify your skepticism with the Problem of Evil, I challenge you to read this book with an open mind.

Why God Allows Evil is written from the perspective of a Christian worldview. It offers answers based on what God has revealed in the Holy Bible. If you read this book assuming that Christianity is false, you will find the arguments within meaningless. That would be a great loss.

The book is divided into 11 chapters, with an introduction setting the stage and defining terms. Chapter 1 starts at the beginning, which is to say how evil was actualized by our first parents. Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the question of bad things happening to good people. Chapter 4 deals with the unevangelized, or “if people never hear about Jesus, how is it fair to punish them?” Chapter 5 addresses the fairness of Hell. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 deal with free will and how it plays into these questions. 9, 10, and 11 explain how eternity sets the context for the whole question. The book is then summarized on the epilogue, followed by an appendix that takes a stab at explaining the ultimate origin of evil.

 

Analysis

Having sat under Dr. Jones’ teaching on this material in graduate school, I could hear his voice in my head as I read this book. This was an advantage for me. However, for those who have never met him, it could be a challenge for you. Jones goes to great pains to express his heart for those who are wrestling with these issues, but because of his no-nonsense approach, that might not be obvious. He is offering tough answers to tough questions. Trust me when I tell you, he is giving these answers with a pastor’s heart.

From my studies of these issues under Jones and others, I agree with most of what he has to say in this volume. Jones ascribes almost all suffering and death to Adam’s sin and God’s curse on the earth that resulted. I am a little hesitant to agree. I realize Jones’ view is from what he would call “an unforced reading” of the Biblical data. What gives me pause is the number of things that have been discovered to be beneficial to life on earth that are often shown as examples of “natural evil.” For example, earthquakes, which unfortunately cause thousands of deaths around the world, are the result of a natural process, plate tectonics, that makes earth habitable. Hurricanes have a major role in regulating the climate of the planet. However, in the final analysis, I think Jones nails it. We suffer because of sin, ours and that of others, but our suffering will fade into insignificance in eternity.

This book is accessible to even the high school reader, but not dumbed down such that a reader with an advanced degree would be bored with it. It is a must read. I urge you to read it BEFORE you encounter a crisis..

 

Is God a Good God? What Does That Even Mean?

This past Sunday, my pastor preached a message in which he encouraged people to remember, “God is a good God” when they experience suffering or difficulty. This is a wise counsel. However, what does it mean? I know it means God is good and not evil, but what does “good” mean? Is there some standard that stands above God, which he meets, and therefore is good? Or, is he good because there is more about him that we like than that which we don’t? How we answer this question is extremely important. In fact, I would argue that if God is not good, then good itself does not exist. If God is not good, then “good” can only really mean, “I like it.” If good is nothing more than “I like it,” then evil can be nothing more than “I don’t like it.”

Some have argued that good things are good because “God says so.” Then they say that God could have called what we think of as evil “good” if he wanted to. Therefore, these are arbitrary categories. On this view, good simply means, “God likes it” and evil means “God doesn’t like it.” There is nothing really good or evil in and of itself. These are mere statements of preference, either ours, or God’s. If you think about this, and you consider things you care deeply about, such as the wrongness of genocide, or the rightness of self-sacrifice, you will find neither of these explanations satisfying.

When you think of genocide, you not only think it is evil, you think everyone ought to agree. In fact, if someone disagrees, you think there is something wrong with that person. When you here stories of self-sacrifice, you want to celebrate, and encourage others to follow the example. How do we explain this? It is because God is good.

If you have been to an evangelical church in the last few decades, you have probably heard “God is good” so many times it might seem like a cliché. However, I want to encourage you to think of it a little differently. “God is good” can be understood more than one way. Typically, it is understood that “good” is an adjective that describes God, and it is. That is one way to take the statement. Here is another way, and I want you to wrap your mind around it. “God is good” also means that God is the very standard by which we call anything else good.

Before I unpack that, let me clarify what I mean by good. There is another way “good” is commonly used. It is used to mean, “Well suited for its intended purpose.” However, you could easily see how something can be good in this sense, but not good in a moral sense. For example, a hollow-point bullet is well suited for doing maximum damage to a living organism into which it is fired. It is a good bullet, in this sense. However, no one in his or her right mind would think such a bullet striking an innocent person would be a good thing.

The definition above, however is not far off the mark (no pun intended.) I would argue that when God declared his creation “good” in Genesis 1, he meant that it was well suited to the purpose for which he created it. The important difference is that God’s purposes are always good, because he is good. Here I mean he is good in that he is the embodiment of good. Good in this sense that which reflects God’s character. God is good by nature. As such, whatever he commands is good because his commands express his nature. Therefore, whatever he commands us to do, it is good to do it. Whatever he forbids us from doing, it is evil to do those things.

It may be helpful at this point to say something about evil. Evil is not a thing or a force in and of itself, just as cold or darkness is not a thing. Just as darkness is a lack of light, and cold is a lack of heat, evil is a lack of good.

God is good. This is the standard by which we rightly call anything else good. The difficult thing to realize is that if God allows us to suffer, in the end, it is good. God promises “all things work together for good to those who love him and are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) This does not always mean we will see that good any time soon after some painful thing happens. It may not be until you stand before God and look at your entire life that you see how that thing is used for your good. However, since our lives here on earth are SO short compared to our life in eternity, we will see how these truly are what Paul calls “light and momentary afflictions.” (See 2 Corinthians 4:17)

God is good. If you deny this because of bad things happening to you or those you love, you are denying the very meaning of the word. All you are left with is “I don’t like this…” Is that really a preferable alternative?

 

Sci-Fi, Free Will and the Problem of Evil

Clay Jones, whom I lovingly refer to as  Dr. Evil, is an associate professor at Biola University and teaches a course called Why God Allows Evil. (That, and his DMin, are why I call him Dr. Evil.) Dr. Jones posted a fascinating article on how Sci-Fi stories resonate with us because we value free will. It can be found here.

Evil, Suffering, and Eternity

It seems like every time I turn around, the topic of evil and suffering keeps coming up. Whether it is the mid-week Bible study on it, or apologetics podcasts I listen to that discuss the Problem of Evil, or the fact that my father-in-law is suffering from cancer, even when life is going well for me the issue is inescapable.

The Problem of Evil (POE) is one of the most difficult to address of all the challenges to the Christian worldview. This is not because the Christian does not have valid answers so much as navigating the emotional issues that the challenger may be dealing with. Let me say at this point that if you are suffering now, whether from an illness or injury, or from the illness, injury or death of a loved one, it is likely you will not find what I have to offer here satisfying. In the middle of these times, you don’t need an argument. You need someone to come along side you and suffer with you. You need to know I hurt for you. For those of you who are suffering, I pray for you that you will be comforted. I also pray that if I have the opportunity to relieve that suffering that I am effective in that effort. I also encourage you to come back and read this when the sting of the situation has eased.

The POE has been presented in a number of forms. Since others have covered these in depth, and much better that I could, I will offer a brief survey below, and links to further resources at the end.

One such form was known as the Logical POE. This took the form of the following syllogism:

  1. If God were all-good, he would want a world without evil and suffering.
  2. If God were all-powerful, he would be able to make a world without evil and suffering.
  3. There is evil and suffering in the world.
  4. Therefore, either God is not all good, or he is not all-powerful, or he does not exist.

No philosopher of religion still offers this because as Alvin Plantinga pointed out, all you need to do to defeat this is to show that it is possible that God could have morally justifiable reasons for allowing evil and suffering and still be all good and all powerful.

Another way this issue is raised is in what is called a Probabilistic POE.

William L. Rowe, in an essay in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, argues that there are cases of evil and suffering that God could have prevented, and would want to prevent. He then goes on to argue that this is probably the case. He offers examples such as the faun that is caught in a forest fire started by a lightning strike and horribly burned. This suffering happens entirely unobserved, and therefore there is no greater good that could come about as a result of this animal’s suffering. I think this example overlooks several things. For example, it assumes that animals suffer in the same way humans do, which is not uncontroversial. Moreover, the pain felt by the faun is the result of a physical mechanism that has a good purpose. Pain is the body’s alarm system that tells us something is wrong. Additionally, as Clay Jones points out, the world needs to operate according to understandable and predictable laws such that actions have consequences in order for our actions to have any meaning. If God were to intervene every time there was a case of suffering, these laws would be indiscernible and our actions meaningless.

A third category has been called the Religious POE, or the Pastoral POE. This is basically the response of the sufferer that in their suffering cannot see how a loving God would allow this to happen. This is the form that is the most difficult because it requires far more sensitivity and patience with the one who raises it. I will not attempt to address this directly here since the best response must be tailored to the needs of the sufferer. It is not a complete waste of time to offer these philosophical answers to the POE. If we have studied these before we enter a season of pain, grief, or suffering, we will be better prepared.

There does seem to be one aspect of this issue that I hear little about. I will call this the Temporal Defense. I realize that for the person who is watching their child die, or their spouse, or who has just experienced some evil act that talk of eternity can sound like “pie-in-the-sky” but it is a relevant issue. Since these problems are offered as a critique of the Christian worldview, it is important to remember that any critique must be done on the terms of that worldview. On the Christian worldview, human beings may live only a few decades in this life, but we will live forever somewhere after this life. If this is the case, our natural physical life only counts as the tiniest fraction of our total existence. If I live for 80 years, all of which in constant pain, but I place my trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ, when I die, I will enter a blissful intermediate state, followed by a resurrection to painless, blissful life. I will continue in that condition forever. What is 80 years of suffering compared to that?

A related issue to this is the death of children. I once attended a memorial service for a two-year-old who had died after a long illness. It was the most heart-wrenching experience of my life, and I pray I never have to do that again. I am a father, and I can think of no worse nightmare than burying one of my children. However, in the case of children like that two-year-old, they will also enjoy that blissful state. For those who would ask, “How can God allow that child to die?” for God, that child is not gone. She has just changed the mode of her existence.

Finally, I would like to note that God is not distant and unconcerned. He experienced severe suffering through the crucifixion. He knows what it means to suffer. He did that so we could be reconciled to God. That is proof enough that God is all-good.

For more on this issue, see:

The Logical Problem of Evil, http://www.iep.utm.edu/evil-log/#H4

Feinberg, John S. The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil. rev. and expanded ed. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, ©2004.

Craig, William Lane. Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

Strobel, Lee. The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: ZondervanPublishingHouse, ©2000.