The Problem Of Evil
Author’s Note: This essay was originally presented as an adult Bible Study lesson at Idlewild Baptist Church, Tampa Florida, in the wake of the tragic killings of several students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. I have not attempted to change the informal speaking style to a more formal, written format. I have made only minor clarifications to the text for clarity’s sake and added footnotes to give credit to appropriate sources.
The Holocaust: Where Was God?
Good morning to you all. My name is Daniel Gerstein.1 I live in Clearwater, Florida, and I am a survivor of the Shoah. You know of it as the Holocaust.
The unspeakable horror began when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. My homeland was in the grip of a severe economic depression. Massive unemployment. Social unrest. National shame as a result of losing The Great World War and the harsh provisions imposed by the victors at the Treaty of Versailles. For the next 12 years, Germany would be ruled by the Fuhrer and my life would be a living nightmare.
I was 8 years old. I lived in Berlin with my mother and father, Jonah and Joanna Gerstein and my baby sister Deborah. I remember the change well. Before Hitler came to power, I went to school with Gentile children. We played on the soccer team together. But my age of innocence lasted only a short time. You see, racism was the central theme of Nazi ideology. As Jews, the Nazis considered my family and I to be racially inferior.
It began on April 1, 1933. On that day, the Nazis initiated a boycott of all Jewish businesses. They boycotted my father’s bakery. They painted a yellow and black Star of David on his shop, and they spray painted on the glass windows signs - “Germans! Defend Yourselves.” “Don’t buy from Jews.” And then, simply, “Jude.”
The police just stood by and watched as the brownshirts did their work. They laughed as the Nazi pigs spat on my father’s store. We watched from our upstairs apartment. It was the first time I felt afraid.
A week later, the government enacted its first anti-Jewish laws. The Civil Service Law forced all Jews to quit their government jobs - including working as teachers. My math teacher Mrs. Cohen had to quit. My science teacher Dr. Krupp also. My uncle Arthur had to quit his job at the Department of Records. My teachers began to make fun of me and my other Jewish friends. They called us stupid and no good and said we had no future in Germany. I had to quit the soccer team. My Gentile friends wouldn’t play with me anymore.
In 1935, we were all stripped of our German citizenships. Imagine that! My father was a war hero! He gave years of his life to the Fatherland and took a bullet that saved the life of a general. He walked with a limp after that. Yet they said he was no longer a citizen. They said we could not fly the German flag anymore. We soon became outcasts.
We couldn’t go to Gentile shops, theaters, restaurants, hotels or drugstores anymore. In the park where my sister and I played, we could only sit on benches marked “for Jews only.” In 1938, when I was 13 years old, they made all of us Jewish men change our middle name to Israel and the Jewish women had to change their names to Sara. I didn’t understand what was happening. My father talked about us leaving, perhaps going to Palestine or America. But this was our home. He thought we would be safe because of his war record. We stayed.
Events accelerated quickly. On November 9, 1939, the stormtroopers burned our synagogue. They also burned my father’s shop. That night was called Krystallnacht. The night of broken glass. The next week, they barred my sister and I from going to school. After that, our family stayed at home and went outside only in the day time. When we passed by the synagogue, I saw a mound of smoldering ashes in the center of the courtyard. It was the synagogue’s prayer books. I had been taught to have great reverence for the Torah - what you call the first five books of the Old Testament. The Nazis burned them. It was then that I realized that there was no safety for us anywhere. There was no place for us to go.
My aunt Thelma and uncle Dashan did get on board the St. Louis, a luxury ship that left Germany for Cuba carrying 930 Jews. They had spent their life savings for their visas. But the Cuban government refused to honor the visas of the ship’s passengers. They wouldn’t let them land. The ship tried to go to Miami, but the Coast Guard ships patrolled the waters to make sure that no one jumped to freedom. They appealed to the State Department and the White House, but President Roosevelt ignored their pleas. With nowhere to land, the ship turned around and went back to Europe. My aunt and uncle landed in Belgium. Like all the passengers except for 200 or so who landed in England, they didn’t survive the Holocaust after Hitler’s armies overran Western Europe.
Meanwhile, back in Germany, we were forced to wear the yellow star. Then, the truly unspeakable horror began.
At the Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942, Hitler’s madmen agreed on what they called the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.” It was a policy of mass extermination. Before, the violence against my people had been episodic. Now, it was total and consuming.
It was in 1943 that my family received our notice. We were told to report to the train station. The Nazis told us we were going to be “resettled in the East.” We were told to pack our belongings and bring them with us. A labor camp, they said we were going to.
We were herded into cattle cars, hundreds of us. We were crammed in together, men, women and children. My sister cried the whole way. It was suffocatingly hot on the train. And all the SS provided was a bucket for bodily needs. We were forced to sit in feces and urine. The stench was overwhelming. At every stop, we clamored for water, but the soldiers drove off anybody who tried to approach the convoy. Two young mothers on the train who were nursing their babies groaned night and day begging for water. Their cries went unheeded.
Suddenly, in the middle of the night, the train stopped, and the door opened with a crash. Through the dark echoed the harsh German commands. We were dazed as we left the train. A dozen SS men began to interrogate us. “How old?” “Healthy or ill,” they asked. On the basis of the replies, they pointed in two different directions. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had come to Auschwitz.
My precious mother and sister were put in a different line than my father and me. We never saw them again.
Because my father and I were healthy, we were selected for work. Our heads were shaved and we were given tattoos on our arms with a number.
Every day, we faced the Selection. We had to get undressed and run - not walk - naked in front of SS officers. We had to show them that we still had strength left. I recall some women, as the hair grew back, they were beginning to get gray hair. They would take a little piece of coal from one of the stoves in a barrack. The would use the coal to color their hair with, so that they would look a little younger. If one had a scar, a pimple, if one didn’t run fast enough, if one didn’t look right for whatever reason to the particular person that was doing the selection . . . They would stand their with a stick . . . to the right or to the left as you ran by them. One never knew if they were in the good line or the bad line. One line would go to the gas chambers. The other line would go back to the camp and to the barracks, to live another day. We knew the trains were coming in. And we knew that many of the barracks were being emptied out, day in and day out, to make room for the new people that were coming in. We never knew when our turn would come next. So one always lived in fear and one always tried to get through these Selections for one more day. I lost my father during one of these Selections.
We were fortunate that we were at Auschwitz. Belzec, Sobidor and Treblinka were nothing more than death camps. All who went there were dead within hours. At least Auschwitz was also a slave-labor camp. In fact, I am alive today because the concentration camps became a part of the war economy. Forced labor was essential to the war effort. We worked 11 hour shifts. The ability to work was essential to survival. If you showed weakness, you didn’t survive. When I lost my father, I couldn’t even cry. If you cried, you died.
There is much more I can tell you. The indignity of men and women stripped naked day after day. The inhumanity. The cruelty. I was one of the fortunate ones. I survived. Many thousands of Jews -- God’s chosen people -- were killed each day in the gas chambers. By the time Nazi Germany had been defeated, as many as 6 million of the 8 million Jews in Europe had been slaughtered. Nine out of ten Jews in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Czechoslovakia were dead. It was a time of unspeakable evil.
My question to you - as followers of the one true God and of Jesus Christ whom you call Messiah - is this: WHY? WHY? How could a good and benevolent God who is all powerful allow such a thing to happen? How did a good God permit such evil? I beg you to ponder this question as I bid you good day.
What Is The Problem Of Evil?
I have illustrated the problem of evil in this dramatic fashion because too often we Christians give glib answers to unbelievers’ genuine yet anguished questions of why people suffer. Christianity has an answer - the only answer, in fact - to the problem of evil, but it is not a glib answer nor an easy answer.
Here is the problem:
We believe that God is all powerful and all-good.
Evil is real.
An all-powerful, all-good God would want to abolish evil. But he doesn’t.
Therefore, either God is not all-powerful or all-good.
Do you see the dilemma? How can an all-powerful, all-good God allow evil to exist? Even worse, how could he have created evil?
Four Unsatisfactory Answers
Let’s first look at four unsatisfactory answers that have been proposed to deal with the problem of evil.2
God Does Not Exist.
This is unacceptable. First of all, we know God exists. We have the witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. We have the evidence of changed lives that come from being given new natures, new hearts, new lives in Christ. This alone is sufficient evidence that God exists - setting aside all the abstract, theological proofs of his existence.
In addition, if there were no God, suffering and evil would be nothing more than painful indicators that life is meaningless and futile. If this is all there is, our lives have no meaning and, as the apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:19, we as Christians are to be pitied more than all men. No, atheism is not the answer.
God Is Not All Powerful.
A second false solution is that God is not all powerful. This solution was adopted by Rabbi Harold Kushner in a book you may have seen in a secular bookstore, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner says God can’t be held responsible for evil because he can’t do anything about it.
However, if God can’t do anything about evil, then he can’t do anything about sin. We have no redeemer. We will die in our sins. Not only that, if God is too weak to do anything about evil, then he is too weak to have any real effect on the world or our lives at all. Our hope for a better world is nothing more than wishful thinking. We are no better off than if God didn’t exist. No, this also is no answer.
God Is Not All-Good.
Another wrong solution that has been suggested by some people is that God is not all good. Elie Wiesel, the most famous of Holocaust survivors, has adopted this view. After suffering through the horrors of the concentration camps, he concluded in his book, Night, that God is malicious for having allowed the holocaust to occur.
However, this solution is almost too horrible to think about. If God is evil, how can we worship him? In fact, why would we want to? What would be the point? If this were true, we would be better off with no God at all. This too provides no answer.
Evil Is Not Real.
The final false answer is that evil is not real. This solution is more popular than you might think. You need to understand that all eastern religions teach this. New age religion teaches this. They say that evil is an illusion. If you just look at things from the right perspective, it will disappear.
This view is running rampant through our society. Does this sound familiar: Evil is not real; it is merely the “dark side” of a force that also has a “light side” or a “good side.” George Lucas has been very open about the fact that pantheism and eastern religion pervade the Star Wars movies and that he added this element to the movies very intentionally. There is no evil; even Darth Vader turns out to be Luke Skywalker’s caring father. Look for this thread in the new Star Wars movie that’s coming out.
The problem with this view is that it is not grounded in reality. Let me illustrate with a quotation from Francis Schaeffer’s book The God Who Is There.
One day I was talking to a group of people in the room of a young South African in Cambridge University. Among others, there was present a young Indian who was of Sikh background but a Hindu by religion. He started to speak strongly against Christianity, but did not really understand the problems of his own beliefs. So I said, “Am I not correct in saying that on the basis of your system, cruelty and noncruelty are ultimately equal, that there is no intrinsic difference between them?” He agreed. The people who listened and knew him as a delightful person, an “English gentleman” of the very best kind, looked up in amazement. But the student in whose room we met, who had clearly understood the implications of what the Sikh had admitted, picked up his kettle of boiling water with which he was about to make tea, and stood with it steaming over the Indian’s head. The man looked up and asked him what he was doing, and he said with a cold yet gentle finality, “There is no difference between cruelty and noncruelty.” Thereupon the Hindu walked out into the night.3
If these are false answers, then what is the real answer?
Towards A Scriptural Answer To The Problem Of Evil
God does not give us a full-fledged theodicy in the Bible. (A theodicy is an attempt to justify the ways of God to man.)4 However, God’s Word does have much to say about the problem of evil that gives us hope and comfort. Let’s look at some scriptures that deal with the problem of evil.
Point 1: God Is Not Evil.
James 1:13-15 says:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death.
This passage demonstrates that God is not evil and does not do evil. By his very nature, he is good and he does only good. Psalm 100:5 says that the Lord is good. In Mark 10:18, Jesus goes beyond that to say that no one is good except God alone. Psalm 119:68 says that what God does is good. So, God does not create evil.
Point 2: God Is Not To Blame For Evil; Humans Are.
Jesus’ words in Mark 10 (no one is good except God) echo Paul’s statements in Romans 3:10-12.
Just as it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one,
there is no one who understands,
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.”
Man is not good. In his heart, he is desperately wicked. No one seeks God. Therefore, the blame for evil is placed squarely on the one who commits it - man.
Yet this does not get around our problem. How can God be absolved of evil when He is our creator? If we say that man in his present cruelty is what man has always been, and what man intrinsically is, then we must conclude that God created man cruel. And if God made man cruel, how can we escape the conclusion of Albert Camus who advocated fighting against God? Or the conclusion of Charles Baudelaire who said, “If there is a God, He is the Devil”?
But as we know, there is another option. Man as he is now is not what he once was. Man is now abnormal; he has changed. To quote Francis Schaeffer again:
This involves yet another question and choice: If God changed him, or made him abnormal, then He is still a bad God, and we have solved nothing. But there is another possibility at this point: that man created by God as personal has changed himself - that he stands at the point of discontinuity rather than continuity not because God changed him, but because he changed himself. Man, by his own choice, is not what he intrinsically was. In this case we can understand that man is now cruel; but that God is not a bad God. This is precisely the Judeo-Christian position.5
Adam, in the garden of Eden, changed himself from what God created to stand in discontinuity with his former status. He introduced sin into the world and as a result, man is not now what God created him to be.
Point 3: God Allows Evil To Exist.
However, asserting that humans are to blame for evil because of sin does not solve our problem. We still have to face the reality that God is responsible in some way for evil. When we are talking about an all powerful God, a sovereign God, we have to say that everything that happens, happens on his watch. In other words, He allowed it. He permitted evil to infest his creation. God didn’t create evil, but he does allow it to occur.
Philosophy tells us that God is the First Cause of all that occurs -- including evil. Humans acting wickedly are the second causes of evil. The great confessions of faith illustrate the point:
God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.6
Herein lies the mystery of the problem of evil. As Wayne Grudem has observed, “Scripture does not tell us . . . how it can be that God holds us accountable for what he ordains to come to pass.”7 Nevertheless, we hold this to be true because it is the clear teaching of Scripture.
Where does this leave us?
Point 4: God Uses Evil For His Purposes.
The Bible leaves some things unanswered when it comes to the problem of evil, but this much it does tell us: God uses evil for His own purposes.
We see this in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Genesis 37:4 tells us that Joseph’s brothers hated him. Genesis 37:11 similarly tells us that they were jealous of their brother. As the story progresses, Jacob, Joseph’s father, sends him looking for his brothers while they are tending the flocks in the fields.
Now Joseph’s brothers saw him from a distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this master of dreams! Come now, let’s kill him, throw him into one of the cisterns, and then say that a wild animal ate him. Then we’ll see how his dreams turn out!”
When Reuben heard this, he rescued Joseph from their hands, saying, “Let’s not take his life!” Reuben continued, “Don’t shed blood! Throw him into this cistern that is here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.” (Reuben said this so he could rescue Joseph from them and take him back to his father.)
When Joseph reached his brothers, they stripped him of his tunic, the special tunic that he wore. Then they took him and threw him into the cistern. (Now the cistern was empty; there was no water in it.)
When they sat down to eat their food, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were carrying spices, balm, and myrrh down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is there if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let’s not lay a hand on him, for after all, he is our brother, our own flesh.” His brothers agreed. So when the Midianite merchants passed by, Joseph’s brothers pulled him out of the cistern and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. The Ishmaelites then took Joseph to Egypt. (Gen. 37:18-28).
What Joseph’s brothers did was evil. They were clearly responsible for their sin. Yet, in Genesis 45:5, Joseph told his brothers:
Now, do not be upset and do not be angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me ahead of you to preserve life!
God used their evil for good - to preserve the life of the entire family. Genesis 50:20 is even more explicit:
As for you, you meant to harm me, but God intended it for a good purpose, so he could preserve the lives of many people, as you can see this day.
Here, we have a combination of (a) evil deeds brought about by sinful men who were rightly held accountable for their sin and (b) the overriding providential control of God by which His own purposes were accomplished.
Another example is the case of Pharaoh. Throughout the book of Exodus, God says, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” However, Exodus 8:15 (and verses like it) says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Both are true at the same time. Romans 9:17 says: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’”
Pharaoh was responsible for his own sin, but God used Pharaoh’s obstinance to display his own power and glory.
The book of Job teaches us the same thing. The Chaldeans and Sabeans were evil in killing Job’s children and raiding his flocks. However, as we know, God allowed it and used it to demonstrate Job’s faithfulness.
Our final example comes from passages in the book of Acts in which the apostles describe the most evil event that ever happened -- the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Acts 2:23, Peter tells the listening crowd at Pentecost: “This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” Acts 4:27 is similar: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”
All the evil actions of the participants in the crucifixion of Jesus had been decided beforehand by God. Yet the moral blame for those actions rested on the sinful men who crucified Him.
What can we learn from these passages? The lesson is this: God uses evil to fulfill his purposes - he uses it for his own glory and for our good.
For Christians who suffer evil at the hands of wicked men, of course, we have the comfort of knowing that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28; NASB). This kind of conviction enabled Joseph to say to his brothers, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.”
But what can we say about the evil that befalls nonbelievers. Frankly speaking, this is harder to deal with, not because the Bible doesn’t give us an answer, but because it’s more difficult for us to understand why it is the answer.
The Bible says that God is glorified even in the evil that falls on unbelievers. Prov. 16:4 says that “the Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.” Ps. 76:10 says: “surely the wrath of men shall praise you.” The example of Pharaoh is a clear example of the way that God uses evil for his own glory and for the good of his people.
Application To The Holocaust
How do we apply what I just mentioned to the Holocaust -- or for that matter to the other persecutions of the Jews that have occurred at the hands of, for example, Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphenes during his second century vendetta against pious Jews, Roman General Titus during his horrific destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and the coming persecution of the Jews at the hands of Antichrist during the Great Tribulation? More pointedly, let me ask the question that I was asked by one of my work colleagues in Washington DC when we toured the Holocaust Memorial Museum. How can we say that God was just in permitting the Jewish victims of the Holocaust who died in unbelief to go to the same hell as their German guards who committed unspeakable atrocities against them and who also died in unbelief? It’s a good question, isn’t it? The apostle Paul wrestled with a somewhat similar question. Confronted with the fact that God had seemed to turn his back on his chosen people, Paul bared his heart to the Roman church:
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed – cut off from Christ – for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen,. . . (Rom. 9:2-3).
And yet Paul never questioned God’s justice in the condemnation of his own people who died without Christ:
What shall we say then? Is there injustice with God? Absolutely not! For he says to Moses: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” (Rom. 9:14-15).
This is the only answer the Bible gives. “God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy.” It is a hard answer but a true answer. All have sinned and are deserving of death. None of us deserve God’s mercy, but only eternal condemnation. Therefore, we cannot question God’s justice in saving some and not saving others. We simply have to leave justice up to God. And that’s as far as we can go.
Ultimately, we cannot say that we understand God’s purposes in allowing evil. Was there good that came out of the Holocaust? Absolutely! The nation of Israel was created directly as a result of western guilt over the atrocities of the Holocaust. Does that mean we can rationalize in our own minds why it took 6 million Jews dying in gas ovens for that to occur? Absolutely not! At this point, we simply have to trust in God’s goodness and leave more complete answers to the mysteries of God.
Let’s go to the final step.
Point 5: This Is Not The Best Of All Possible Worlds But The Best Of All Worlds Is Coming.
To go back to our syllogism, since God is all good, he must want to abolish evil even though he allows it to exist for now for his own purposes. And he will abolish evil. That’s the whole point of the book of Daniel, isn’t it? There’s a new world coming. The kingdom of God is going to come in its fullness and completeness when Jesus Christ returns to earth. That’s when God will consummate His program for humanity and fully and finally abolish evil and sin and sorrow. In the meantime, God uses evil to accomplish his purpose.
How much evil does God use to accomplish his purpose? Exactly as much as it takes and no more. There is a limit to how much evil God will allow. He only allows as much evil as is required to bring about his purpose.
Where does all this leave us? An all powerful God could have prevented the tragedy of the Holocaust. An all powerful God could have prevented the deaths at Columbine High School. But he didn’t.
Why? I don’t know why He allowed the Holocaust to occur. I don’t know why babies die or parents die or accidents happen. But I do know this. Those tragedies do not change the reality that God is all loving and all powerful. They simply make Him a little harder to understand.
Nothing is outside God’s plan - even if we don’t like it or understand it. If we are going to be Bible believing Christians, we have to believe that God has not let go of the reigns of the universe, that nothing happens outside of His purpose or control. He is all-good and all-powerful and yet He allows evil to exist. For now. One day, though, God will put an end to the kingdoms of man and consummate the kingdom of God. Until then, let’s pray as Jesus instructed, “Thy kingdom come.”
1. Daniel Gerstein is a composite character that I have drawn from an April 1999 tour of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and, in particular, the exhibit Adaniel’s Story. I have also relied on the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s principal publication, Michael Berenbaum, The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust As Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Little Brown & Co., 1993).
2.This brief discussion of false solutions is adopted from Winfried Corduan, No Doubt About It: The Case for Christianity (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1997), p. 127-131. Corduan or another standard apologetics source should be consulted for more details.
3.Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, reprinted in Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), p. 110.
4.For more details, see F.S. Feinberg, A Theodicy in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A. Elwell, editor (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1984), p. 1083-1086.
5.Schaeffer, He is There and He Is Not Silent reprinted in Francis Schaeffer Trilogy, p. 298.
6.Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 3, Article 1.
7.Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), p. 330.