Several weeks ago I wrapped up some musings on the definitions of good and evil and how poor definitions have led to some pretty disastrous results. In the process, I alluded to, but refrained from answering, a common question: “If God is so good and only wills that which is good, why does He allow evil to exist?” Granted, this question is often stated rhetorically and triumphantly as smug justification for not believing in God, as if asking it somehow proves that He doesn’t exist, but I do think it is a good question and deserves an answer for those who legitimately would want to know.
Andy Stanley did a great job with this question in a sermon he preached a while ago (although for the life of me I can’t remember the series of which it was a part), in which he effectively turned it back on those who ask it by asking, roughly, “If you had a button by which you could completely eliminate all evil from the world, would you push it without hesitation?” Sure, we could be selective and say, “Well, I just want to eliminate the warlords and starvation of children and oppression of women,” but then we would have to answer why we allowed other evil to persist, like petty theft or rude driving. If we would truly want God to eliminate evil from the world, He’d have to include every single one of us. Have any of us ever lied or embezzled? Have any of us ever cheated on our spouses or lusted after another woman or man? Have any of us ever downloaded music or movies for which we didn’t pay? Held a grudge against someone? Uttered profanity, even softly to ourselves? Although not typically on the order of genocide, every one of us commits evil acts and would likely stop short of pushing the get-rid-of-all-evil button for reasons of varying merit, not the least of which would be saving our own skin. Is it so hard to believe, then, that God might have a good reason for not wiping out all evil from the world, at least for the time being?
Let’s take it further, though: What is God’s good reason for allowing evil to persist, at least for now? Frédéric Bastiat and Herbert Spencer, although not exactly theologians, arrive at some interesting conclusions in their studies of economics and law that strike me as surprisingly good reasons God might allow evil to exist. I mentioned in a previous post that self-interest was the cause of Adam and Eve’s original sin (they chose to put their interests ahead of God’s). In the chapter on competition in his Economic Harmonies, Bastiat discusses that while self-interest can give rise to evils such as monopoly and inequality (or Original Sin), it also gives rise to the competitive instinct, as in “if such-and-such a service is so profitable, I’m going to do it too and make myself a fortune”, and this competition in services provides a benefit to all of humanity by lowering costs, improving services, and constantly bringing into availability for the common man what were previously considered luxuries. The evil or potential for evil that surrounds us, like starvation and homelessness, actually motivates our self-interest to do something purely selfish, but has the astounding side effect of improving the lot of mankind in general, when all competition and its results are taken as a whole. “Evil,” Bastiat concludes, “constitutes a necessary part of the machinery designed [by God] to conquer error, ignorance, and injustice.”
Similarly, Spencer, in his Social Statics, while discussing the adaption of plants and animals to their environments and the similar adaption of man to his social environment, asserts that “all evil results from non-adaptation of constitution to conditions.” He points as examples to the death and decay of plants placed in unsuitable climates, to the pain and disease of animals exposed to harsher conditions than those to which they would naturally tend, and to the injury even of people when encountering situations to which the body’s powers are inappropriate (such as burns or falls). He further asserts, however, that “this non-adaptation of an organism to its conditions is ever being rectified”; in other words, that “evil perpetually tends to disappear.” He points again as examples to “the acclimatization of plants”, “the altered habits of domesticated animals”, and variations in skin color, dietary needs, physical fitness, etc. of humans based on the environments to which we daily subject ourselves. Essentially, Spencer is proving out that old adage that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
In this, then, we see a very good reason why God hasn’t yet chosen to eradicate evil once and for all. Although God certainly never willed for evil to exist or for us to experience its horrors, it is something our fallen, sinful state makes necessary in order for God to mold us into the perfected beings He wants us to be. God has actually designed a system whereby humanity’s own faults and failures are used to remedy themselves — evil circumstances caused by one person are used by God to draw others closer to Himself, to draw humanity closer to the embodiment of ultimate goodness. As Joseph said, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good,” and as Paul points out, “We know that all things [including the evil ones] work together for good to them that love God.” Like so many other of God’s Truths, the answer is a paradox: God allows evil for our own good.