For millennia, people have questioned the goodness, power, and love of God because of the persistence of evil in the world. As we witness the atrocities that humans inflict on each other, we wish that God would intervene with swift and decisive justice.
So we ask, “Can God prevent evil?” Or perhaps destroy evil and leave the rest of us to live in peace and harmony?
God can prevent evil, but doing so would require Him to intrude on our free will, wipe out humanity, and break His promises. Instead, God has given us a means, through Jesus, of overcoming evil and being made righteous.
The Problem of Evil
From the Greek philosopher Epicurus in the 3rd century BC to the enlightenment thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries, to modern-day pop culture icons, the problem of evil has been stated and restated.
In summary, the problem of evil asserts:
- If God is good, but evil persists, He cannot be all-powerful.
- If God is all-powerful, but evil persists, He cannot be good.
On the surface, the problem of evil poses an intuitive question that deserves a thoughtful answer. If God can prevent evil, then why does evil still persist?
Before we consider whether or not God can prevent evil, we must first define evil.
To most people, “evil” is a class of sins, crimes, and abuses that are deemed the most horrific. Murder, torture, oppression, and the like are universally regarded as evil. Likewise, most people are hesitant to define petty theft, small lies, or temper tantrums as evil, because these are things that everybody does every day.
The problem is that scripture disagrees with this view.
Evil, in its simplest definition, is the absence of good, much the same way that darkness is the absence of light. Sin—the state of separation from God—inclines the human heart toward evil:
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,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”Romans 3:10-12
While it is convenient and self-assuaging for us to apply a gradient to sins based on the relative severity of their impact, sin knows no degree in eternity. As we have covered elsewhere, with God all sin is sin. And all sin produces some manifestation of evil.
Can God Prevent Sin?
God is sovereign, so He can indeed change hearts and/or create people who are incapable of sin. If He were to choose, He could create beings who are programmed to only do what is right in His eyes.
So instead of asking “Can God prevent evil?” perhaps it is more appropriate to ask “Why doesn’t God prevent evil?”
The answer lies in free will and human nature.
Evil and Free Will
God made man in His image in order that we may glorify Him, love Him, and worship Him. All of those actions require an act of will to carry out. Because we are created in God’s image, we are created with the capacity to exercise our will. So the capacity to love comes with the inherent risk that we could choose to reject love and reject our Creator.
Humanity fell when we rejected our Creator. Self-worship (pride) is the core trait of our sinful nature. Each of us freely engages in our own self-driven pursuits unless and until God intervenes to save us.
Can God Just Destroy the Worst Evil?
As stated earlier, most people do not view their own sins and shortcomings as “evil,” but reserve that term for the most horrific atrocities.
The thought that follows, then, is that if God were to just get rid of the most heinous evildoers—handpicked by us, of course—then humanity would be much better off and we could work out the minor problems on our own.
This premise fails for two reasons. First, it wrests the sovereign authority to measure and define good and evil from God’s hands and places it in our own.
Second, God has already done this and shown us that it doesn’t work:
The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time… So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created… But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.Genesis 6:5, 7a, 8
By preserving only Noah and his family, God started over with the best that humanity had to offer. But Noah still bore the sin nature inherent in all of us, and still passed it on to subsequent generations:
The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.Genesis 8:21
Finally, we see in this passage that God has promised to not wipe out all living creatures again.
God’s Response to Evil
Even though evil persists, there is still good news. After Noah’s flood, God put a long-term plan into action to ultimately defeat evil. Through Abraham, He raised up a nation of people set apart to Himself. And through this nation, Israel, He would ultimately deliver Jesus.
By suffering the effects of evil and bearing the consequence of sin through his death on the cross, Jesus became the means by which we may be restored to a right relationship with God and released from the penalty of sin.
Even though we Christians still struggle with sin and evil in our hearts, his blood covers our sins and secures our hope for eternity. As Christians, we are being made more like Jesus every day. When we pass from this life, we will be fully perfected in him as we enter into eternity.
Eternity is the place where evil will be defeated and eradicated because of the perfection that God has achieved in his people:
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” … God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”Revelation 21:1a, 3b-5
The Final Answer
So is God all-powerful or is He good? He is both. In His goodness, He bore the weight of evil for our sake when Jesus died. In his power, He overcame evil and sin through Jesus’ resurrection. And in His grace, He allows the world to persist, despite the presence of evil, so that more people may come to know Him.