God’s Sovereignty and the Problem of Evil

(the following is a paper I did for school and I thought I would share it)


The universe we live in is a peculiar place. The vast majority of the university is empty space with no known sense of life. Yet our planet, an infinitesimal speck among the throng of stars, teems with life. The oceans which make up the vast majority of this blue planet overflow with living organisms. According to an MSNBC report, The National Science Foundation’s “Tree of Life” project estimates that there is 5 million to 100 million species on earth1. Each day on this speck among the stars, billions of new lives begin. Yet in the midst of this thriving, breeding, and living life there is a black stain. Just as a new life excitedly enters the world, another life breaths its last breath. Death is everywhere as is its friend pain.

One does not have to look far or hard to see the harshness of nature. Charles Darwin saw this harshness as he wrote to his friend J.D. Hooker, “What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horribly cruel works of nature.2” These horribly cruel works of nature have led many to question the existence of a creator. Charles Darwin’s observations led him to propose a theory that is still having a rippling effect on everything from science, politics, economics, to religion. C.S. Lewis wrote in the introduction of his theodicy The Problem of Pain:

Not many years ago when I was an atheist, if anyone had asked me “Why do you not believe in God?” my reply would have run something like this: “Look at the universe we live in. By far the greatest part of it consists of empty space, completely dark and

unimaginably cold. The bodies which move in this space are so few and so small in comparison with the space itself that even if every one of them were known to be crowded as full as it could hold with perfectly happy creatures, it would still be difficult to believethat life and happiness were more than a by-product to the power that made the universe… If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit I reply that all evidence points in the opposite direction.3


Yet the world is filled with millions who not only believe in a creator but in an benevolent and omnipotent creator. How then does one answer the question that evil asks? How can evil even exist if there is an all-powerful and all-loving God? This is the “Problem of evil” that has plagued theologists, philosophers, and lay-people for years.


The problem of evil has been a question that many have striven to answer but what exactly is the problem of evil? The problem of evil really only exists for theists in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic tradition. The atheist worldview would matter-of-factually say that evil does not exist in any absolute way because their worldview does not allow for moral absolutes. The eastern religion of Buddhism also like Atheism teaches that evil does not exist but instead that evil is an illusion. One could simply argue that for the one experiencing this “illusionary evil” that it is a very real evil to them. But for Jews, Christians, and Muslims the problem of evil is a real conundrum because of their belief that the world was created by an omnipotent and perfectly good God. In the book Encountering Evil: Live Options for Theodicy the problem of evil is defined as this:

if God is omnipotent he must be able to prevent evil (the state of affairs of there existing no evil seems precisely the sort of state of affairs an omnipotent being can bring about) And if God is perfectly good he must be willing to prevent evil. But if God is both able and willing to prevent evil why does evil exit? Why do children die of inoperable cancer of the throat? Why do innocent people suffer in prison? Why do earthquakes and tornadoes and famines cause pain and death? Thus in an oft-quotes passage, David Hume asks about God: “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?4


In the problem of evil, God is on trial. His sovereignty is called into question as is his goodness. What is at stake in this question is the nature of God and/or his existence. While this is a question of deep philosophical importance it is also important on a practical personal level. It is here that it would be wise to perhaps have a personal anecdote.

About 12 years and fresh out of high school, I found my self taken up with a girl who I wanted to marry. We had dated for several years though out school and I was so sure that she would be the one I was to marry. I also wanted to be able to attend college and at the same time be able to financially take care of everything. Being young and dumb, I signed up for the military so that I would have the financial means to accomplish my goals. After a tearful goodbye I set off for basic training. It was a long few months away from home and my girlfriend. Cellphones were not as popular as they are today so we wrote each other every day. While I returned home expecting things to be perfect that was not how they were to be. On February 14, Valentine’s Day, she broke up with me for another man. I had never felt so betrayed or heart-broken. Not to say that my pain and suffering was anything great in the grand scheme of things, but to me it was unbearable. It was in the midst of this suffering that I became angry with God. I questioned God’s goodness. How could a good God allow me to suffer like this? It became much easier to doubt God’s existence than to think of a God who would allow this evil to be done to me. Thus the problem of evil was real to me. The purpose of writing about my personal experience is to highlight the intimate and far reaching presence of this issue. There are far more who have experienced worse evil done to them then I who have like King David and Jesus cried out “My God My God, why have you forsaken me?”




Throughout Christian history many theologians have worked at providing an answer for the existence of evil. While many people have contributed to this issue, three defenses in particular have risen to the top. The three are the open theist/process theology doctrine, the classical free-will defense first put forth by St. Augustine and championed by Armmianists, and finally the reformed compatible free-will argument in which God is the ultimate cause though not the author of evil5. Before proceeding to describe in further detail the three views in might be wise to heed the advice that William Bruce Olstrom offers in his dissertation, “Just because human beings are unable to conceive of a reason for God allowing certain evils does not mean there is no reason. Instead of doubting God’s existence, why not doubt that finite, fallible human

beings could ever discern God’s inscrutable reasons for allowing the awful misery of an

Auschwitz.6” In other words while the question of evil is a big issue and we may be able to come to some conclusions on it, we must remember that we are finite and fallible and can not be expected to ever discern all of God’s intentions as it is written in Isaiah 40: Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel?

The first viewpoint that will be briefly discussed is the open theist position put forth by Richard Rice, Gregory Boyd, and others. In open theism, God has chosen to limit his control over the world, granting humans libertarian freedom.7 Open theists argue that in order for God to be truly loving then He must give his creation the complete freedom to do as it pleases. God does not determine the future or even know the future but shares in the living process with humans. In choosing to create this world, God is gambling on the future. If God knew the future, he would also know the certainty of our future choices thus we would not have free will. Dr. Olstrom says that in open theism, “God does not possess exhaustive knowledge of future events; however, we are told that he is competent enough to turn things around in the end. In terms of divine agency and suffering, Open theists admits that some suffering has no meaning. This is because God is often unaware of the tragedy until it happens. Thus, God is not so much the one who “allows” suffering as the one who “observes” suffering.8” Open theologians have removed from the problem of suffering God’s omnipotence thus God is still good and evil still exists. Without going into a lengthy rebuttal of Open theism, there are many faults in this view. Besides being in-congruent with what is taught in the bible, open theism leads to some very fearful questions. How can an open theist be sure that good will win in the end and that evil will not win? How can one trust God to make things right? In the end, open theism diminishes God to a servant of chance and finally to a slave of His own creation.

Open theism is often said to be the logical conclusion of taking the Armmianist position to its extreme. Therefor we will now look at the Armmianist position to see if it adequately answers the problem of evil. Olstrom describes the Armmianism view of God as “general ruler.9” In this view God has voluntarily chosen to limit his sovereignty by giving Adam and Eve libertarian free will. Arminianism unlike open theism affirms God’s knowledge of the future. In this view, God does not cause evil but He does allow it with the ultimate end purpose of good.

In this theory, the important element is libertarian free will. John W. Hendryx defines free will as understood in the libertarian sense freedom in which a “person is fully able to perform some other action in place of the one that is actually done, and this is not predetermined by any prior circumstances, our desires or even our affections. In other words, our choices are free from the determination or constraints of human nature.10” This means that Gods exerts no control over the decisions of people thus they are free to either choose to love God or to hate him. Armmianists also insist that God is able to accomplish his general purpose because he knows the future and is ready to respond to the choices of his creation. This theory has on the surface seemed to answer the question of evil by seemingly acquitting God of being involved in the process of evil while still maintaining some level of his omnipotence.

Open theist Richard Rice11 is quick to point out that if God possesses complete knowledge of one’s decision then how is one ever free in the libertarian sense to choose otherwise. Also it may be said that if God knows that evil will occur then he is complacent in it. Thus the Armmianist viewpoint does not hold up on several fronts. It still has not answered the problem of evil and is internally inconsistent with its own view of free will.

While the Armmianist viewpoint of free will does not hold up it would be unwise to give up on the free will argument altogether. The free will argument was first developed by St. Augustine. Augustine’s De Libero Arbitrio, or On Free Will, is a dialogue with a historical friend named Evodius, in which he first states the problem: “We believe that everything which exists is created by one God, and yet that God is not the cause of sin. The difficulty is: if sins go back to souls created by God, and souls go back to God, how can we avoid before long tracing sin back to God?12” Augustine first came to the conclusion that evil is not in of itself a thing. Evil is not an object to be touched, held, or gazed upon. It is important to remember this especially when looking at the problem of evil. Because evil is more of a concept than an actual positive object it would not have to have been created by God. Thomas Aquinas agreed with Augustine in that evil is not the presence of something but is the absence of good13. Since God, the ultimate Good, is the source of being from which all else receives its being, evil is simply the lack of being, just as coldness is truly a lack of heat. Augustine was not finished with the problem of evil but still needed an answer to why God would allow this absence of good to happen. This is where the free will defense begins. The free will defense as stated earlier is that God wanted his creation to have the ability to choose to love him or not. He gave Adam and Eve the ability to choose to love him or to reject him. In this freedom, man rejected the ultimate good and thus evil happened. If God is the ultimate source of life, love, happiness, and joy then to choose the opposite is to choose the opposite of life, love, happiness, and joy. It is to choose death and pain.

As mentioned earlier when discussing open theist and Armmianist viewpoints, free will was essential to their arguments. But in their argumentation both viewpoints make it necessary to limit God’s omnipotence in some way. This limit to God is unjustified and certainly not taught in scripture especially within the book of Romans. Can there still be a way then that Adam and Eve were able to have free will and yet God’s omnipotence kept intact.

I believe that the reformed version of free will, compatibilist free will, provides the best answer to the problem of evil while still maintaining God’s omnipotence and goodness. The theory of compatibilist free will allows for man to make choices based upon his own desire but also allows for God to have ultimate control over what happens.



According to compatibilists, moral agents are free if their choices truly flow from their own nature and desires. People always choose according to their strongest desire at any given moment. In other words, people are free to choose what they wantmost. This explains how God can ordain whatsoever comes to pass, including every specific choice and action of moral agents without violating human freedom. As long as a person’s choice is not forced or coerced, it is free.Based on this explanation of human freedom, compatibilists contend that they too can account for human responsibility and a person’s freely choosing to love God. When people choose to sin and rebel against God, they are doing what they want to do. And when people choose to love and obey God, they too are doing what they want to do. Moreover, this model maintains that in each of these incidents, what a person does complies with God’s sovereign will.14


Thus evil enters the world through the choice of Adam and Eve. Yet God still is in ultimate control and nothing happens without his plan.




Two out of three parts of the problem of evil have been maintained in the compatibilist view but what about the third? God’s omnipotence has been accounted for and evil has been accounted for but what about God’s goodness. One might argue that if God is in complete control and yet evil exists then God must not be good. Some have explained this by saying that God’s goodness is not our goodness. There is some truth in this but C.S. Lewis summed up the problem of that view in his book The Problem of Pain:


Any consideration of the goodness of God at once threatens us with the following dilemma. On the one hand, if God is wiser than we His judgment must differ from ours on many things, and not least on good and evil. What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil. On the other hand, if God’s moral judgement differs from ours so that “black” may be His “white”, we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say “God is good”, while asserting His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say “God is we know not what”. And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him.15


C.S. Lewis then goes on to to explain the kind of goodness that most people want from God.


By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness – the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, “What does it matter so long as they are contented?” We want, in fact, not so much a Father in heaven as a grandfather in heaven – a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and who plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’.16


It becomes clear that most of us need a correction in our concept of love and God’s goodness.

If God is good and yet evil still exists then it must follow that God must have some greater plan for evil than we are truly capable of understanding. The bible teaches that it has been God’s plan from the beginning to crucify his own Son Jesus and to love us into the image of his Son. There is much more information on the goodness of God and his plan then I can include here. It will be suffice to say that it is because God is good that He has given us free will which caused the problem of evil and because God is good He has made a way with His Son to fix the problem.

Another objection to be made against this defense is the objection of nature. By this I mean that it makes sense that a lot of suffering and evil comes into the world by human decision but what about the suffering that is outside of man’s choice, namely natural disasters. As mentioned in the beginning of this paper, the world seems a mighty cruel place on its own apart from human intervention. All one has to do is to look at the animal world to see the cruelty of nature. Death is a way of life for so many animals. How did this pain enter the world? The answer lies once again in the human will. The bible explains that nature itself was effected by Adam’s decision to sin. The ground was cursed and now all of nature groans in expectation of its renewal. Why did Adam’s decision effect nature? The bible explains that man was given dominion over the earth and nature. God created the world for man and not man for the world. Thus when man sinned the things under his responsibility also suffered.

The problem of evil has been a tough question for theists for centuries. In my research for this paper, I found many answers and even more questions. In the end however, I have as have many found comfort in knowing that a good God is in control of even evil and one day evil will not survive. We know that God has a greater purpose for good and that in his infinite wisdom He uses evil to bring about this good. We may be like Job of the Old Testament and never fully understand the reason of our suffering yet still worship God knowing He is good.

The problem of evil has led some to devalue God’s omnipotence as in open theism and Armmianism. In order to free God of guilt they have weakened God to a slave of His own creation. They have robbed God of His sovereignty. The problem of evil has led some to claim that God does not exist or worse that God is evil. But for those in the reformed tradition the problem of evil has led to a greater understanding of God’s sovereignty, love, and goodness. We may never receive all of the answers to why evil exists and why it sometimes is allowed to thrive but we can stand like Joseph of the Old Testament and say, “What man meant for evil, God meant for Good.”


1 Andrea Thompson, “How Many Species Exist On Earth.” MSNBC.com, August 3, 2007. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20109284/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/how-many-species-exist-earth/#.TrLRH-yLf4V (accessed November 3, 2011).

2 Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2008. 1

3. Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007. 567-568

4 John B. Cobb, David R. Griffin, John H. Hick, John K Roth, and Frederick Sontag.

Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy. Edited by Stephen T. Davis. Atlanta: John Knox

Press, 1981.3

5Not to say that these are the only three. There are also various versions of these three arguments.

6. Olstrom, William Bruce. “Divine Sovereignty and the Religious Problem of Evil: An Evaluation of Evangelical Models”. Ph.D. Diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2007.

7 Reichenbach, Bruce. “God Limits His Power,” in Predestination and Free Will: Four

Views of Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom. Edited by David Basinger and Randall Basinger. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986

8 Olstrom, William Bruce. “Divine Sovereignty and the Religious Problem of Evil: An Evaluation of Evangelical Models”. Ph.D. Diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2007.

9 Ibid.

10 Hendryx, John. “Eleven Reasons to Reject Libertarian Free Will.”www.monergism.com. http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/libertarian.html (accessed November 3, 2011).

11 Olstrom, William Bruce. “Divine Sovereignty and the Religious Problem of Evil: An Evaluation of Evangelical Models”. Ph.D. Diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2007.

12 Richards, Steven. “The Freewill Defense (St. Augustine of Hippo): Part 1.” That Religious Studies WebsiteHttp://www.thatreligiousstudieswebsite.com/Religious_Studies/ Phil_of_Rel/Evil/freewill_defense_augustine:php (accessed November 3, 2011).

13 Ibid

14 Olstrom, William Bruce. “Divine Sovereignty and the Religious Problem of Evil: An Evaluation of Evangelical Models”. Ph.D. Diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2007.

15 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.567

16 Ibid. 569