The Problem of Evil and the Attributes of God

~This blog post was adapted from the work of a Sattler student. It was originally written as a final paper for Sattler’s freshman apologetics class.~

Introduction

In a 2005 blog post on the problem of evil emotively titled, “There is No God (And You Know It),” prominent “New Atheist” Sam Harris discusses the problem of evil. To him, tsunamis happen, so there can’t be an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God.[1] Everyone knows this deep inside – so those who disagree senselessly cause suffering when they live like there’s an eternity worth sacrificing for.

This “problem of evil” is not a new one. In fact, Job grapples with it in what may be the oldest book of the Bible. Different aspects of the problem have continued to develop since Bible times, but its most basic premise states that God’s alleged goodness and power are incompatible with the evil we see. While it may seem necessary to address each fresh iteration of this critique individually, the fundamental issue remains the same. And given the long history of the question, we do well to consider whether a historical answer might best address that central problem. But out of so many, who should we look to for an answer? The following three things stand out as especially important qualifications for those who would answer the question:

  1. Proper theology must under-gird their response. Theology may seem initially irrelevant to this discussion, since most think of the problem of evil as an apologetic question. However, going back to Job, that book’s conclusion on the problem indicates that the answer comes down to God and who He is, and us, and who we are in relation to Him. So then, the problem of evil is a theological one first; you have to know what God exactly you are defending before you can know how to defend Him.
  2. Those who answer should know what it is to experience the problem of evil. They must show that their answer can be lived in the real world – and that it produces godly fruit.
  3. They must answer in a way that provides real emotional resolution. As displayed by Harris’ blog, the problem of evil is an emotionally charged one. An ideal answer will also provide emotional resolution, and vindication of God’s character.

One group in history fits these criteria remarkably well: the early church.

Given their unparalleled theological resources (most notably their temporal proximity to the One who was the perfect image and revelation of God) they are best equipped to supplement the Biblical indications on the subject, and help us understand the historic faith.

The early Christians were also uniquely equipped to address the issue of suffering because of their own experience of it. The extreme hardship they willingly endured shows that their explanation was not only a good theoretical one, but equipped them to handle actual suffering.

Finally, and probably because of these two factors, the story-like picture they paint offers a surprising amount of emotional resolution.

Given the early church’s unique positioning to answer this question, the remainder of this blog will explore through their eyes the three terms (omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence) that are central to understanding the problem of evil. Unsurprisingly, we find that the early Christians believed exactly what the Bible teaches.

What the Early Christians Believed about God’s Omnipotence

Several early Christian writings intriguingly illuminate the early church’s view on God’s omnipotence, and thereby its view of the problem of evil. These writings tend to address the problem more indirectly, because they were responding to ideas much different than the ones we face today. Nevertheless, each work helps us understand the assumptions underlying the early Christian arguments, and clarifies their understanding of omnipotence.

We’ll first consider the writings of Lactantius, a Latin church father who lived near the end of the 3rd century. He was a learned apologist, and even taught rhetoric under Diocletian. In book seven of his Divine Institutes Lactantius presents his view of how God made the world. He describes the early Christian worldview in a story-like way, telling how God put choices before man so that he can attain eternal life through a path of real suffering and pain. He believed that “God wished that we should procure life for ourselves in life,” [2] and that by struggle we should attain to immortality. This view implies an idea that modern apologists have raised: there was some good outcome God could not bring about without giving us choice, and letting us undergo hardships. It further implies that God cannot somehow give us free will and let us suffer, but also keep us from doing wrong, and save us from suffering. This argument falls into the bounds of what many modern apologists have argued: God can do anything that is logically possible, but He cannot do anything that is logically impossible.

God wished that we should procure life for ourselves in life. For this reason He has given us this present life, that we may either lose that true and eternal life by our vices, or win it by virtue.” ~ Lactantius

Lactantius indicates that God works under certain constraints when bringing about His desired ends. He implies that God had to make the paths of life and death similarly appealing if man was to acquire the kind of wisdom and virtue He desired for them. Compared to what some believe about God’s omnipotence, Lactantius seems to have had a less rigid understanding of it.

A second writer addresses this issue from another angle. Origen, a famous Greek apologist from Alexandria, writing in the early 3rd century, argues extensively against those who would interpret certain biblical passages as saying free will doesn’t exist. Passages in his On First Principles have particularly interesting implications about God’s omnipotence. The early Christian concept of synergism in this work deserves special attention. According to those who believe in synergism, God wants to work with humans; He neither leaves us to our own devices entirely, nor does things in us without our compliance. Origen illustrates the concept of synergism this way:

“… the recovery of sight by the blind is, so far as their request goes, the act of those who believe that they are capable of being healed; but as respects the restoration of sight, it is the work of our Savior.” [3]

Origen argues that to have the sort of relationship God wants, He can’t simply give us eyes to see. Yet He does want to help us. Therefore, we have to ask for that healing. Origen indicates that God simply could not get the outcome He wanted by forcing His goodness on others, but that it required working together with them.

Next, we examine Origen’s argument concerning God’s hardening of Pharaoh. Origen seems to say that this “hardening” was due to certain rules about how the world operates, another indication of how he thought of God’s omnipotence. Here Origen draws on the analogy of the different impacts the sun has on wax and clay. The sun can both harden clay, and soften wax; in the same way, God’s interactions with people, even while having the same good purpose for all, can lead to the hardening of some “as a result of the inherent principle of wickedness in such persons.”[4] To support his interpretation of that passage, Origen draws on Hebrews 6:7-8 which says “… the land which has drunk the rain that comes often on it and produces a crop suitable for them for whose sake it is also tilled, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and thistles, it is rejected and near being cursed, whose end is to be burned.”

For, had rain not fallen, there would have been neither fruits nor thorns; but, having fallen at the proper time and in moderation, both were produced.” ~ Origen

Origen argues that God did not purposefully harden Pharaoh. Rather, his hardening resulted from the circumstances. God cannot change His own nature. When Pharaoh’s rebellious nature interacted with God’s righteous nature, he became hardened. Origen says that, as implied by the passage in Hebrews, “had rain not fallen, there would have been neither fruits nor thorns; but, having fallen at the proper time and in moderation, both were produced.”[5] In this way Pharoah’s hardening resulted from God’s interaction with him, like rain falling on soil and making seeds grow. But as the water does not change a weed’s nature, so God does not create the rebellious nature.

So Origen too seems to have some sense of qualified omnipotence. God, in His goodness, gives us a choice of how to react to Him. This means that aspects of our free will are out of His control.

What the Early Christians Believed about God’s Omniscience

The early Christian writings that pertain to their views on omniscience suggest that their position was largely taken for granted. We’ll look first at some passages from Tertullian, who was a prolific writer from Carthage around the beginning of the 3rd century. Tertullian’s thoughts in “Instances of God’s Repentance,” shed much light on his beliefs about omniscience.

In this piece, Tertullian combats the idea that when the Old Testament speaks of God repenting, it means that God had made a mistake and turned back from it. An instance Tertullian’s opponents pointed to to prove this was God’s choosing of Saul as king, and later “repentance” when Saul disobeyed Him. To explain this, Tertullian writes that God “… had most fitly chosen [Saul] as being at that moment the choicest man, so that (as He says) there was not his fellow among the children of Israel,”[6] but that God later “repented” of choosing Saul because of the choices he made later. This initially sounds sympathetic to open theism (the belief that God limits His knowledge of the future in order to allow free will to exist.)  But with his next sentence, Tertullian rejects open theism, saying that God wasn’t “… ignorant how [Saul] would afterwards turn out. For no one would bear you out in imputing lack of foresight to that God whom, since you do not deny Him to be divine, you allow to be also foreseeing; for this proper attribute of divinity exists in Him.”

For no one would bear you out in imputing lack of foresight to that God whom, since you do not deny Him to be divine, you allow to be also foreseeing; for this proper attribute of divinity exists in Him.” ~ Tertullian

“… sometimes a rapid cure is not for the advantage of those who are healed, if, after being seized by troublesome diseases, they should easily get rid of those by which they had been entangled.” ~ Origen

So Tertullian clearly believes in foreknowledge, but apparently also thinks that God doesn’t always deal with people on the basis of that foreknowledge.[7] Interestingly, one of Origen’s arguments on omniscience seems initially incompatible with Tertullian’s idea. We can tell from Origen’s comments that some during his time were questioning why Jesus didn’t open the eyes of the Pharisees, but instead hid the meaning of His teachings from them (Mark 4:12). By the same token they asked, if Jesus knew the Tyrians would repent upon seeing His miracles, why didn’t He visit Tyre? (Matthew 11:21)[8]. Origen argues that God used His foreknowledge of how they would respond to decide how to interact with them. He writes, “… sometimes a rapid cure is not for the advantage of those who are healed, if, after being seized by troublesome diseases, they should easily get rid of those by which they had been entangled. For, despising the evil as one that is easy of cure, and not being on their guard a second time against falling into it, they will be involved in it (again).”[9]

For more from the early Church on the problem of evil, listen to David Bercot’s lesson “Why God Permits Evil” in Mini Courses and Miscellaneous Lessons.

Origen maintains that God, knowing all things, had good reason for His actions. Perhaps He was acting on the knowledge that those sinners, not realizing the cost and difficulty of remission of sin, would despise their “easy salvation” and a real cure would not take root. Origen makes this argument concerning both outsiders, like the Tyrians, and insiders, like the Pharisees. If the Tyrians had repented and then fallen away, their sins would have been reckoned to them more heavily, and likewise with the Pharisees.

Beyond the clear fact that both Origen and Tertullian believed in God’s omniscience, what do their arguments imply about how they thought He uses it? Instead of trying to reconcile the two, we’ll simply observe the differences and common themes in each of their contentions regarding God’s omniscience. Origen’s idea, more strongly contradicting open theism, ostensibly cuts against Tertullian’s argument. Tertullian says God knew how Saul was going to turn out, but picked him anyway. But Origen argues that God knew how certain people’s repentance would have turned out, so he didn’t let them hear. In Origen’s example, He uses foreknowledge to decide how to interact with someone; in Tertullian’s, He doesn’t. Also important to note is that in both instances, each writer attempts to defend God’s goodness in the midst of what seems like either a mistake, or a deliberate evil.

While Tertullian and Origen appear to disagree on how He uses foreknowledge, they both seem to put God’s unquestionable goodness at the forefront. We will see this even more in the next section.

What the Early Christians Believed about God’s Omnibenevolence

The question of God’s goodness may be the key aspect of the problem of evil – especially for the early church. And God’s punishment may be the aspect of God that many find hardest to reconcile with His goodness. Accordingly, we will spend this section exploring how the early Christians reconciled the two. Their view helps us better understand God’s justice while also heightening our perception of His goodness.

Origen’s argument in “On Justice and Goodness” exemplifies this. Origen posits that God’s punishment is actually a form of mercy. He quotes Psalm 78:34, which says of the Israelites, “‘When [God] slew them, then they sought Him.’”[10] Origen contends that this passage doesn’t only mean that God used deadly punishment as an example that would drive others to seek Him, but that “… the destruction of those who were killed was of such a nature that, when put to death, they sought God.”[11] He goes on to say that God both rewards justly, and punishes kindly, and that the true dignity of the divine nature must include justice and goodness together.

The destruction of those who were killed was of such a nature that, when put to death, they sought God. … He confers benefits justly, and punishes with kindness.” ~ Origen

Clement of Alexandria, a theologian who taught at the end of the 2nd century, goes even further, saying that justice and goodness are inseparable. “… God does not inflict punishment from wrath, but for the ends of justice; since it is not expedient that justice should be neglected on our account.” He goes on to say that everyone who sins chooses punishment with his free will; God does not bear the guilt for our decisions.

“It is clear, then, that those who are not at enmity with the truth, and do not hate the Word, will not hate their own salvation, but will escape the punishment of enmity.” ~Clement of Alexandria

Clement then quotes a rather gruesome verse: “I will make my arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh from the blood of the wounded” (Deuteronomy 32:42). Yet he argues that this is mercy still: “It is clear, then, that those who are not at enmity with the truth, and do not hate the Word, will not hate their own salvation, but will escape the punishment of enmity.”[12] With God’s reputation for justice and carrying it out, He purposes to turn people to Him. Those who love good will surely choose God’s deliverance. Those who go against God’s warnings have chosen to hate Him. Therefore His justice is chosen by those who refuse to listen to His voice; He warned them of the consequences of turning away in order to help them follow, but they did not heed the warning. After that, God, in goodness, must keep His word.

Evaluation

Is this a useful apologetic? Do these clarifications seem a promising aid in combating the kind of atheist story we considered earlier?

The early Christians’ faithful biblical interpretation is a fundamental strength of their apologetic. Two aspects of their answer that result from this, when combined, stand out as especially helpful today.

  1. Instead of maintaining rigid theological definitions, they discuss God the way the Bible does.
    • This is especially important in the context of omnipotence. If “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26) means something other than that He can do anything at all (as the totality of Scripture seems to imply) then God must use certain means for His desired ends. This explains much of how He operates in relation to the world.
    • A second component of this strength is that it enables the early Christians to emphasize God’s goodness. Having understood omnipotence biblically, a right view of omnibenevolence can follow. Things that would seem evil of a God capable of anything become logical if God must use certain means to obtain His good ends. For instance, if God were able to create creatures with real capacity for love and relationship without giving them free will, but instead chose to use free will, thus permitting evil, that could be construed as unjust of God. But if this is impossible, then God’s choice to give free will and thus permit evil was not unjust. It was instead a temporary necessity for the unparalleled joy of relationship.
    • If anything, it seems as if the early Christians magnify God’s goodness at the expense of His omnipotence. But given the fact that His goodness is probably the aspect most central to how we interact with Him, this vindication of God’s character is vital to properly answering the problem of evil. If we cannot trust God to be good, we cannot hope to have close relationship with Him.
  2. The second strength is their refusal to resort to revisionist theology for the sake of justifying God.
    • For example, many who emphasize God’s love instinctively minimize His judgment. In contrast the early Christians emphasize justice as part of goodness. This, instead of obscuring justice, serves to illuminate both of them.
    • This is also true of their view of God’s omniscience. They don’t give in to the temptation to revise foreknowledge, though doing so would simplify the problem of evil immensely.

The early Christians’ grasp on biblical communication results in both their ability to avoid rigid theological literalism, and refusal to resort to a revisionist apologetic. This combination seems largely absent in the modern conversation. Their take is therefore vital in addressing the problem of evil.

Conclusion

The problem of evil, though one of the most extensively discussed religious questions, remains without a simple answer. For most, a rigid definition of our three key terms (omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence) further complicates the matter. But the early Christian writings support the idea that of the three, the Bible is the least clear regarding omnipotence.

Now, one aspect of their apologetic may look initially troubling: the early Christians seem to leave one question untouched. They didn’t address whether the results God wanted, and took such extreme action to obtain, were worth it. Oddly, the fact that they didn’t discuss this question may actually be a strength of their argument. The problem of evil, more than a cold logical issue, holds the weight it does because it is, at its core, a story problem. The early Christians resolved the problem not by proclaiming God’s reasons why a world with free will was objectively better than one without. They instead did so – as the Bible does – by showing how God uses evil and hardship to transform people into His image.

Inasmuch as they diminished God’s omnipotence, some would say that the early Christian apologetic becomes questionable; indeed, that the early church should have instead left us with the basic impression the book of Job gives: “Hush, child. You couldn’t possibly understand.”[13]

But their unquestioning acceptance of God’s story reminds us to keep Job’s message in mind, as something that they themselves agreed with. In their carefulness to magnify God’s goodness, they never discounted His greatness and undeniable authority.

Overall, given the consistency between their inferences and Scripture’s way of discussing the problem of evil, the early Christian commentary is first invaluable in interpreting the Biblical passages central to the problem of evil. And possibly more importantly, their story-like answer (enabled by considering the question the way the biblical authors did) provides invaluable emotional resolution.

[1] “There Is No God (And You Know It).” Sam Harris, December 4, 2017.

[2] Lactantius, Divine Institutes 7.5.3 (ANF 7.200).

[3] Origen, On First Principles 3.1.15 (ANF 4.317).

[4] Origen, On First Principles 3.1.10 (ANF 4.310).

[5] Ibid

[6] Tertullian, Against Marcion 2.24.1 (ANF 3.315).

[7] Bercot, D. (2020, June 13). Mini courses and miscellaneous lessons. The Historic Faith. Accessed November 12, 2021.

[8] Origen, On First Principles 3.1.17 (ANF 4.319).

[9] Origen, On First Principles 3.1.17 (ANF 4.318).

[10] Origen, On First Principles 2.5.3 (ANF 4.280).

[11] Ibid

[12] Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor 1.8.11 (ANF 2.227).

[13] Kreeft, Peter. “Questions and Answers.” Catholic Education Resource Center. Accessed April 27, 2021.

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