Why does God allow evil? Answering our kids' questionsWritten by Alex McFarland
This question takes as many forms as there are people who ask it. One common variation is “Why does God allow evil people to live?” Another is “If God knew Adam and Eve would sin, why did he put the tree in the garden of Eden?” Adult skeptics will preface the questions with phrases, such as “If God is all-loving, why does He allow bad things to happen to good people? If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t he do something about the suffering in the world?
Almost every person with an active mind has wrestled with the question of evil. Some of the best and brightest thinkers in history have invested much of their lives and intellect in this subject.
Believe it or not, the problem of evil isn’t as difficult as most people make it out to be. While it can appear complicated, it’s certainly not a theological showstopper. Using Scripture mixed with a healthy dose of logic, you can adequately address your children’s concerns.
As your children mature, however, their questions will change, and you may need to revisit the related Bible passages and re-examine the problem of evil several times. Now, let’s explore a few more aspects to your kid’s question: Why does God allow evil?
What is evil?
If you have older children or ones who are philosophically minded, this material may help you.
Some people assume that evil is a “thing,” so if God created everything, then he must have created evil. The disheartening conclusion would then be that this world of suffering must somehow be the way God wants it.
Christian thinkers like Augustine and C.S. Lewis reasoned that evil is not a thing. Evil is not a tangible or physical object; it is a corruption of an otherwise good thing. Therefore, God was being truthful in his assessment of his entire creation, recorded in Genesis 1:31: “It was very good.”
Evil is a parasite that feeds on a host. God did not “create” evil when he set the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden of Eden. Evil is the degradation and corruption of something that otherwise is good. God allowed evil to enter the equation because he is sovereign. But it’s not accurate to say that he caused it or created it.
The word evil appears in the Bible as early as Genesis 2. In verse 17, God gave Adam a single command, which Adam later passed on to Eve: “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”
Did Adam and Eve eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Yes. So, by the third chapter of Genesis, we arrive at the answer to the question about why there is evil in the world. The answer is that Adam and Eve chose evil, or sin, by disobeying God.
Question recap: Why does God allow evil?
1. All evil present in this world is traceable to Adam and Eve's fall into sin. That means every human is part of the world's evil. Sin and evil are virtually the same thing.
2. God is patient and loving. However, he has a plan that will rid the world of evil and evil people. Part of that plan involves Jesus' death on the cross.
God and evil
A question immediately follows: Why did God allow Adam and Eve to live when he said in Genesis 2:17 that they would surely die if they ate from the tree in the centre of the garden?
The answer is this: Starting with Adam and Eve, throughout history everyone has sinned, and sinning is “evil.” If God had destroyed Adam and Eve on the spot, there would have been no humanity left.
However, there was still a penalty or punishment that was imposed on Adam and Eve, and eventually all of humanity. Adam and Eve did not die immediately, but they did eventually die.
Critics of the Bible argue that the serpent was correct when he said, “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4). The skeptic’s line of reasoning is this: “God said that eating the fruit would cause death. But when Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they weren’t struck down. They did not die. They lived.”
However, the wording literally means “when you eat of it, in dying, you shall die.” Even though Adam and Eve did not keel over dead right that instant, physical death became a part of the human experience and a consequence of human sin.
But the subtle reality is this: Sin's entrance into the human experience meant that spiritual death would follow physical death. “In dying, you shall die.” Think of it: a double dose of death for every person. The implications of this are tragic beyond description.
Where does evil come from?
As a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, sin was passed on to the rest of humanity. Humans have a bent towards evil, commonly referred to as our sin nature. This is where the question of evil turns personal and can present an opportunity to share the gospel.
Most children think of evil as describing someone like Hitler, drug dealers or people who divorced six wives. When your children realize that they themselves are part of the world’s evil and that penalty of death is required of them, then the need for God’s grace becomes apparent.
If your children ask, “Couldn’t God get rid of all the wicked people instantly?” you can explain that of course he could, but that would wipe out all of us. God defines evil as selfishness, anger, unforgiveness, untruthfulness, faithlessness and so on. These “minor” sins are as harmful to God as the things that most of us would say are “major” sins (such as murder, robbery, rape, torture, etc.).
To understand salvation and to have a solid Christian world view, it’s essential that this important fact become ingrained in your children’s hearts and minds: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
So, are we stuck with evil forever? No. God does have a plan to rid the world of all the evil. He’s just waiting for the perfect time to do it. The final step will be the re-creation of the world as described in the book of Revelation. But the first step toward ridding the world of evil was sending Jesus Christ to earth in human form.
Evil, mercy and God
Children understand the concept of second chances. We’ve all heard them ask for a do-over when they play games. Jesus Christ is called the “last Adam” because he was humankind’s do-over – the way to get rid of the problem of evil. In 1 Corinthians 15:45, the relationship between Adam and Jesus is explained: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam [Jesus] became a life-giving spirit.” Because God knew that one day his son, Jesus, would pay the price for sin and evil, he allowed humankind to live.
If your children question how God could allow so many evil people to go on living, ask them to consider Romans 3:25: “. . . whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”
According to this verse, God allowed humans to live because he knew that Jesus Christ would pay the death-penalty debt that was outstanding. Before Jesus came to earth, God established a sacrificial system so his people could offer a payment for their sins against him.
In fact, the Old Testament describes many different types of sacrifices, including bulls, lambs, goats and even birds. However, all these sacrifices were temporary; they were not a complete payment for sin. Additionally, these sacrifices symbolically pointed toward the need for Christ.
Why does God allow evil? – For the sake of sacrifice
The one perfect sacrifice would be God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who would have no sin nature and would live a perfect life of obedience to God. Jesus takes the punishment for you, your kids and everyone else.
God’s Son could do what the animal sacrifices could not. Hebrews 10:4 points out that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Hebrews 10:10 explains how the relationship between God and fallen, evil people is restored: “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
Jesus implied that children have, well, childlike faith (Matthew 18:3). We need to tell our children that God is good, and he thinks children are good too! God delays punishment to give us a chance to accept his sacrificial offer of Jesus. In the end, there is a way home, and children can learn to appreciate that.
When your kids ask you: Why does God allow evil?, emphasize God’s sovereign control and unending love. Consider why your kids are asking this question and their level of exposure to certain aspects of evil in our world. Although this question is difficult and we rarely have all the answers, there is an opportunity to build your relationship with your child. Remember to pray for guidance and wisdom when answering your kid’s difficult questions.
Alex McFarland is a Christian apologist and evangelist who has spoken at hundreds of churches, college campuses and events throughout the United States and abroad. He is a nationally recognized culture and religion expert who has been interviewed by numerous major media outlets. Alex has published more than 150 articles and authored 16 books.
© 2013 Alex McFarland. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Content excerpted from The 21 Toughest Questions Your Kids Will Ask About Christianity by Alex McFarland. © 2013 Alex McFarland. A Focus on the Family Resource published by Tyndale House Publishers.
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