Wresting with Human Freewill and God’s Power & Benevolence in the Face of Evil

Some time ago, a Jewish rabbi, in a national bestseller written after losing a son to a rare illness, wrote: “I do not believe the same things about [God] that I did . . . when I was a theological student . . . He is limited in what He can do by laws of nature and by the evolution of human nature and human moral freedom . . . I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it.”  So, to this grieving rabbi, it is for the sake of our sanity that we “recognize His limitations” in that while God is still benevolent, He is not all-powerful.  At least the rabbi kept some semblance of his former faith; there are those who deny God's existence itself on account of the problem of evil in the world.
No, I don’t necessarily disagree with the rabbi, but the reason for God’s limitation is not any of the things he pointed out.  So what limits God?  

The great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) said that “God is bound by reason, and the very nature of God is such that . . . nothing which [He] is or does is out of accord with man’s reason.”  But, in view of countless tragedies that often occur, like the Waukesha Christmas massacre this past November or Sandy hook school shooting in 2012, “if you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit,” says C.S. Lewis, "I reply that . . . either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit.”  That then takes care of Aquinas’ overconfidence in human reason, which cannot ultimately explain why God would allow a Taliban suicide bomber to leave 75 Christian worshippers dead in Pakistan (2013), or a white supremacist to mow down nine Black Christians gathered for a Wednesday prayer meeting (2015).  Again, in what sense is God limited?  

Every day I make a choice between doing good and bad, like telling a lie or truth, but not so with God, for Hebrews 6:18 says: “It is impossible for God to lie.”  Just for the sake of argument, if God were to choose, His choices would not be between telling a lie or truth, to do good or evil; rather His selection would be exercised over all things that are good.  In fact, God does not choose that which is good or better; instead, what He does is good—even if it may not look that way to us—because of God’s inherent goodness (Mt. 19:17).  Look, it is possible that to a semiconscious patient the man in a whitecoat, with a surgical knife about to amputate his gangrene leg, may well appear to be an evil monster about to do the unthinkable.  Of course, nothing can be further from the truth despite how the dazed patient may feel.

Nevertheless, we may still ask, “Why would a benevolent and all-powerful God allow evil?” Obviously, none of our explanations, especially in the face of pure evil or great natural disaster, is really convincing.  Thus, the “theist admits,” says philosopher Alvin C. Plantinga, “he just doesn’t know why God permits evil, [but he also] believes that God has a reason for permitting evil; he doesn’t know what that reason is.  But why should that mean that his belief is improper or irrational?  The theist’s not knowing why God permits evil does not by itself show that he is irrational in thinking that God does indeed have a reason.”  If we’re honest, we can readily admit that there are many things about our world we don’t understand, and how they work together; but we don’t deny their existence or that they work.  For instance, while there must be some connection between my decision to type this blog and a set of related bodily movements that produce it, I don’t know what that connection is.  Yet, no one would dare deny that I am writing this blog.  

Ultimately, everything comes down to trusting in God’s character, that He is bound by who He is; God never does anything that is not in accord with the core of His Being.  Thus, inasmuch as it is impossible for God to lie, it is also impossible for Him to create a robot who would love Him at the push of a button.  To a God of love (1 Jn. 4:8), creating such an automaton makes as much sense as calling someone a married bachelor: both are inherently not possible.  This is to say, once it was decreed to create the first human, the nature of God necessarily demanded that that creature is endowed with freewill.  This means that human choices, whether good or bad, must be consequential; invalidating them so that all human decisions look and feel the same also goes against God’s character.  Thus, our world in which there is evil, which came into existence when Lucifer divested himself of goodness that God had endowed him (Is. 14:12-15), is necessarily consistent with who God is and His character.  

Now, imagine a world where humans, having been created without freewill, only do what they are programmed for by a benevolent God.  It would be a world without any evil. In such existence, what complaints will these automatons lodge against their creator?  This scenario, of course, is not possible because, first, there won’t be anything to complain about, and second, even if there were any, like everything being so predictable and even boring, no one will be complaining unless they are programmed to do so, which God wouldn’t permit since He is benevolent.  This is to suggest that only we who are endowed with freewill have the luxury to question God—His ability, even His existence—for allowing evil in the world.  

I trust that “God has a reason for permitting evil even if I don’t know what that reason is” now. But I do know why God allowed His Son Jesus to experience the evil of suffering for the sins of others.  The Scripture says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).  Only those who are perfectly righteous can enter heaven, and the only way we can be righteous before a holy God is when Christ’s perfect righteousness is imputed on us.  That transference takes place when we place our trust in Christ, that his death on the cross perfectly paid for the penalty of our sins.  If you haven’t done so already, do it today. Place your trust in Jesus Christ.