Our world has never been a place of ease. Torn by war, famine, disease, and natural disasters, the earth, and the humanity that dwells upon it, are regularly rocked by tragedy. Our recent past, certainly, is rife with it, with incidents such as the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando being a prime example. But how do we reconcile the reality of tragedy—of the existence of evil—with the existence of God? How do we hold to the idea that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and also all-loving, yet allowed something like the Holocaust to happen? Do we simply let go of our faith, declaring it untenable? No—this is a problem worthy of exploration, one that Christians have struggled with since the Fall, but it’s not one that is without an answer. The answer to this problem boils down to one concept—that of free will.
God is inarguably good. Psalm 145:9 sums up God’s scriptural character well with “The Lord is good to all; He has compassion on all He has made”. Jesus later reinforces this in Matthew 19:17, saying that “There is only One who is good,” speaking of God. He is also definitively all-powerful and all-knowing, attributes which God, Himself declares to Job throughout Job 38. So if God is, scripturally, all-knowing, all-powerful, and good, shouldn’t all evil intention be squashed before it can bloom into consequence?
The answer to that lies in what Alvin Plantinga, noted scholar of Christian apologetics, calls libertarian free will—free will that is genuinely free. This kind of free will is morally significant—we are free to choose between the moral and the immoral. In that way, we, as God’s creations can be rightfully punished or praised for our actions, as God does throughout scripture.
But imagine that God chooses to stop all evil as soon as it begins, that the choice to commit an evil act is simply no longer possible. Mass shootings stop. There are no more terrorist attacks. No more drunken drivers. Nothing. Seems great, right? Think on where this line of reasoning goes. God’s lockdown on evil would affect everything—all choices, from the decision to fire a gun, to the decision to jaywalk, to the decision to talk back to your parents. Suddenly, actual free will is gone, and all moral responsibility is gone from us. We lose our ability to choose to be good, and without that choice we are no longer beings made in the image of God. We would be puppets, and God does not want automatons. It would be either that, or God would have to remove us all, as well all are naturally sinners. But, no--He loves us so much that He allows us to exist and operate with free will—we get to choose how to best act. But we also have to face the consequences of our actions.
But what of natural evils such as disease and earthquakes and other such events? This seems a more difficult question, but we can again look to free will for the answer. Scripturally, nature was corrupted by the choices of the very first humans. Before Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, there was no imperfection in nature. Natural evil has its source in moral evil, as we can see in Genesis 3:14-19, which details the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin. And what of the fact that the forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil existed in the first place? Did God place it there to purposefully tempt Adam and Eve? No—it was there so that they would have a choice, so that they could exercise their free will each day, choosing to love and obey God.
So does God do anything at all about the problem of evil? Certainly. He speaks to us constantly through scripture, guiding us away from choices which cause us pain and misery. Knowing that we are all born with a sin nature, He set up the laws of the Old Testament to discourage and punish evil. In the New Testament, once man had advanced enough to do so, He encouraged systems of government which bring about justice and protect the innocent from evil acts. His laws and commands are set not to keep us from doing what we want to do, but to protect us from evil, and to protect others from our own potential evil acts.
That’s not to say that God does not miraculously intervene, preventing evil that we have no idea of. The reality of spiritual warfare—of unseen battles—means that God is constantly working in ways we cannot witness or imagine. In Daniel 10:13, for example, an angel of God is delayed by an evil spirit—a very real entity that can cause man some very real trouble.
The unfortunate side of free will is that no matter how closely we follow God’s laws, there will always be others who won’t. There will always be others who steal, murder, lie, and hurt—this is their choice, and they will pay the consequences. But what they do is not the will of God. God does not cause these tragedies. He does not create sin, nor does he condone it in any form, against any people. His permission is not the same as His approval. By continuing to do our best to follow God’s edicts, we lessen the amount of evil in the world by just a little bit. Those little bits can add up to global changes.
When tragedy strikes, think on these ideas, and shift the framework of your questioning. Rather than asking why God would allow such a tragedy, ask the more appropriate question—why would we allow it? God gave us the gift of free will, gave us instruction, and allows us to choose. Take ownership of your life, and purposefully choose good, even when those around you are indulging in inhumanity. Your example will inspire others, and they, others still, and future tragedy may yet be avoided.