Faith

“If God, why evil?”: Apologist Dr Sean McDowell answers a hard question

by Bridget Lee // December 16, 2020, 6:09 pm

IF GOD WHY EVIL

One of the biggest questions we can wrestle with in life may be encompassed in just four words: “If God, why evil?”

That was how renowned speaker and apologist Dr Sean McDowell kicked off RENOVARÉ, Cru Singapore‘s online youth conference held from 14 to 16 December.

McDowell began by telling attendees that simply opening up the news is all we have to do to realise that we live in a broken world filled with “evil and suffering”.

It’s enough to make anyone ask: “God, where are you? Why do we suffer in this way?”

WHAT’S BEHIND THE QUESTION?

Before talking about evil, McDowell framed the discussion by noting that making a distinction in what we mean by “evil” helps to talk about the problem of evil itself.

He believes there is an emotional problem of evil, one he explained through his own life’s example.

While studying at a private evangelical Christian university in California, McDowell had taken a class on apologetics where he studied the problem of evil and got an “A” on the subject.

But then a chance meeting with a lady at a hair salon gave him the opportunity to share what he had learned. She asked him: “If God is so good and powerful, why is there so much evil in the world?”

McDowell went on to provide an answer to every question she posed him, but he had failed to realise something.

“I was more concerned with sounding smart and winning an argument, than actually helping somebody who was hurting,” he admitted.

The son of world-renowned apologist Josh McDowell, Sean is an Associate Professor in the Christian Apologetics program at Talbot School of Theology (Biola University).

Now, when someone asks him about suffering and evil, he first responds with” “Of all the questions you could ask about God, why that one?”

Because for McDowell, it’s either an intellectual question or an emotional question.

An intellectual question might come from a discussion that a person had in class, or might stem from something someone had been wondering about.

But for an emotional question, the motivation behind it is different – perhaps the person who asked the question has gone through an inexplicably terrible time in life.

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“We have to make a distinction in the person’s minds,” elaborated McDowell. “Are they trying to solve this world via the question? Or are they hurting and suffering, and trying to figure out where God is?”

McDowell quoted from Romans 12:15, which to him provides the answer on how to address the emotional question: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

When people suffer, suffer with them, said McDowell. He recounted a piece of precious advice that someone once told him, “Sometimes the greatest present you can give someone is your presence.”

In other words, when someone is hurting, be there with them and hurt as they hurt.

If God is real, why doesn’t He end our suffering?

Next, McDowell talked about the philosophical problem of evil: how do we reconcile the existence and goodness of God with all the brokenness that we see around us?

To McDowell, starting with the right question is important: “Compared to all world views out there, which one makes the most sense logically and emotionally?”

The 44-year-old asserted that Christianity makes for the most compelling worldview, before quoting C.S Lewis in Mere Christianity.

“My argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how would I have gotten this idea of just and unjust?

A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”

McDowell shared that C.S Lewis saw the world as unjust and broken, but pointed out he couldn’t have viewed it that way unless there first was a standard of justice.

And if there is a standard, there has to be a standard giver. So if there’s such a thing as justice, then there must be a personal God who is just to ground the existence of justice.

“A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”

“You can have good without evil, but you cannot have evil without good,” McDowell pointed out. Evil, by definition, assumes that there is a standard of good.

“I don’t know how you can have a standard of good without there being a God,” he said.

“Ironically, the complaint about evil is one reason to believe that there’s an objective, moral standard,” McDowell reasoned. “And thus, there’s a moral standard giver, namely God.”

A LOGICAL LOOK

The third part of McDowell’s sharing covered the logical problem of evil, summed up in four premises.

  1. If God is all-powerful, He can stop evil.
  2. If God is good, He would want to stop evil.
  3. Evil exists.
  4. Therefore, God does not exist.

The first premise calls God’s power into question. McDowell shared that he likes to ask Christian audiences one particular question, “Can God make a rock so big that He can’t move it?”

If they say yes, then God is limited. But if they say no, then God is also limited. Either way, God is not all-powerful, which is contrary to what Scripture tells us.

“When we say God is all-powerful, we mean God can do everything that power can do,” he clarified.

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In the Bible, there are a few things that God cannot do. He cannot be tempted and cannot lie, because He is morally perfect and holy. God can do anything that is consistent with His holy, good character.

So, can God stop evil? Yes, He can and will! When judgment day comes, all of us will give an account for the evil we contributed to the world.

“But there’s a catch,” McDowell warned. “Even God can’t make a world in which there are beings who are genuinely free, and He forces those beings to choose that which is right.”

The second premise calls God’s goodness into question.

Here, McDowell made a point: the obligation that humans have to each other is different from God’s obligation, who is running a universe.

Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. McDowell once more quoted from C.S. Lewis in The Problem with Pain and noted: “There’s something about pain and suffering in the world that draws us to focus on God.”

What suffering does is two things: it either causes people to call on God for strength, or makes people angry at Him for allowing us to go through this.

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For McDowell, God is interested in “eternal things”, but also in shaping our character.

So God allows there to be suffering. But God, in His goodness, also works through the suffering for our good, drawing many people to the kingdom and towards Him.

McDowell also likened it to a dentist sorting out a patient’s cavity. To get the cavity out, it will have to hurt.

But just because it hurts doesn’t mean the dentist is bad – he cares about taking the root out for the patient’s good.

WHERE IS GOD?

Coming to a close, McDowell concluded: “The unique Christian response to suffering is that God sent Jesus to die on a cross and enter into our suffering.”

He then went back to the question that people often ask him: “Where is God when I suffer?”

His answer? God is right there with you in the suffering.

Indeed, for McDowell, part of what makes Christianity unique is how God understands our hurt and pain.

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“But the story doesn’t end at the cross,” reminded McDowell. “God can take brokenness, and because He is sovereign, work good out of it.”

McDowell explained that God can do this because He is good, and because the story continued when Jesus rose to life on the third day.

“Through the resurrection of Jesus, God has shown that He is sovereign over this broken world, and He is working for good, even when we can’t see it.”

McDowell admitted he cannot know exactly why we experience hurt or suffering. In some sense, it is because God has given us free will and we live in a broken world.

However, that is precisely where faith comes in. The challenge lies in trusting that God is good despite our circumstances.

And He has given us good reason to believe that He is good, mainly through the resurrection of Jesus.

So faith is being able to trust God even when things don’t make sense.

That is the kind of faith that God calls us to.

Liked this content? If you want to pick up Dr Sean McDowell’s full series of 3 talks, Cru Singapore is releasing them for US$10 from tomorrow onwards on Vimeo.

THINK + TALK

  1. What are your definitions of good and evil?
  2. How does the Bible define good and evil?
  3. According to the Bible, where did evil come from?
  4. And when does evil end?
  5. How have these truths impacted the way you see suffering and evil in the world?
  6. Who do you know who is facing suffering today? How can you be an encouragement to them this week?
About the author

Bridget Lee

How Bridget would describe a perfect day is listening to music and writing stories, all while having a cup of tea.