(15-Minute Read)

For a while now, I had the idea to share a short article reflecting on some possible theological views concerning pain and suffering. In this article, I examine some renowned Christians’ viewpoints that influenced how we can account for the presence of evil and suffering in the world. A Christian Theistic understanding does not exclude God’s presence because of the reality of evil, like atheism. This article does not attempt to distinguish between the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil even though some descriptions might reflect on moral evil or natural evil. The point of this article is to account for some varied perspectives that could help elucidate the necessity of evil in our world. Let us start with the fourth-century Church Father, Augustine of Hippo.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

Augustine believes that everything God created is good. First, everything in the universe is diverse but distinctively orderly and plays a part in the greater whole of working together. Everything is like a beautiful painting with a mixture of colors and contours necessary to make a picture. Black might be dark or even morbid, but black is still vital to bring balance and contrast. Augustine does stress that evil does not mean a negation of the overall good; neither can its presence relinquish any celestial existence or omnipotence of God. He writes in his book The City of God:

“But evils are so thoroughly overcome by good, that though they are permitted to exist, for the sake of demonstrating how the most righteous foresight of God can make a good use even of them, yet good can exist without evil, as in the true and supreme God Himself, and as in every invisible and visible celestial creature that exists above this murky atmosphere; but evil cannot exist without good, because the natures in which evil exists, in so far as they are natures, are good. And evil is removed, not by removing any nature, or part of a nature, which had been introduced by the evil, but by healing and correcting that which had been vitiated and depraved.”[1]

Augustine concludes that evil did not come from God, but it came from a source other than God.[2] He maintains that evil is the misapplication of the good. All is good, but we use it in the wrong way. Augustine’s proposition can be summed up in the following way:

1) All things that God created are good; 2) evil is not good; 3) therefore, evil was not created by God. Second: 1) God created everything; 2) God did not create evil; 3) therefore, evil is not a thing.[3]

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

In many ways, Thomas adds to Augustine’s view that evil is simply the absence of good. Thomas mentions that there are things that seem ugly, but on the greater whole, God makes use of it to bring forth a greater purpose. Aquinas mentions that there are a ‘direct’ will of God and an ‘indirect’ will of God. God never directly wills evil, but sometimes His will is indirectly causative of an evil act. He describes this using the analogy of a lion desiring the meat of a deer (direct will) but having to kill the deer (indirect will) in conclusion to that point.   Thomas writes;

“evil may be sought accidentally, so far as it accompanies a good, as appears in each of the appetites. For a natural agent intends not privation or corruption, but the form to which is annexed the privation of some other form, and the generation of one thing, which implies the corruption of another.”[4]

For Aquinas God could allow pain and suffering to achieve a greater good. To achieve the desired result in the pursuit of a more desired outcome, it might be that the possibility of suffering might be inevitable to achieve this result. 

John Calvin (1509-1564)

John demonstrates that God planned all that should necessarily come to pass upon the earth and is administering everything in the finest detail as He has predetermined.[5] God governs heaven and earth by his providence and regulates all things in such a manner that nothing happens but according to his counsel.[6] This means that God does not just allow evil but predetermines how and when everything will happen.

“From this it is easy to conclude how foolish and frail is the support of divine justice afforded by the suggestion that evils come to be not by [God’s] will, but merely by his permission. Of course, so far as they are evils, which men perpetrate with their evil mind, as I shall show in greater detail shortly, I admit that they are not pleasing to God. But it is a quite frivolous refuge to say that God otiosely [= idly] permits them, when Scripture shows Him not only willing but the author of them.”[7]

Nothing is determinative away from His will and nothing is rendered detached from His predetermined decree. John Calvin writes;

“If one falls among robbers, or ravenous beasts; if a sudden gust of wind at sea causes shipwreck; if one is struck down by the fall of a house or a tree; if another, when wandering through desert paths, meets with deliverance; or, after being tossed by the waves, arrives in port, and makes some wondrous hair-breadth escape from death—all these occurrences, prosperous as well as adverse, carnal sense will attribute to fortune. But whose has learned from the mouth of Christ that all the hairs of his head are numbered (Mt. 10:30), will look farther for the cause, and hold that all events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God.”[8]

Nothing in life, even the evil we see is purposeless because God is clearly previous in all that He has determined.[9] Calvin clearly attributes to God the determinative actualization of the fact of sin (secondary-causes) but allows for man to enact His own desired (primary-causes) through the free rendering of what he does away from God’s revealed character.[10] Some evil may be because of God enacting justice on sin.

Jacob Arminius (1559-1609)

Jacob accepts the absolute omnipotence of God but also holds that God from His own free volition limited His might in His creation. Arminius holds that God created man autonomous and free with the inherent possibility to make free decisions. Man is, therefore, free and capable of doing evil from his own will.[11]

God therefore rules the world with general principles but does not determine every single detail. God knows the choices man would make but he does not determine them.

“What then, you ask, does free will do? I reply with brevity, it saves. Take away free will, and nothing will be left to be saved. Take away grace, and nothing will be left as the source of salvation. This work [of salvation] cannot be effected without two parties—one, from whom it may come: the other, to whom or in whom it may be wrought. God is the author of salvation. Free will is only capable of being saved. No one, except God, is able to bestow salvation; and nothing, except free will, is capable of receiving it.”[12]

Arminius hold that God does not will even evil, as Calvin would declare, but He simply allows it at the expense of man’s true autonomous freedom. Evil is man’s own free decision even though God allows it.[13] Jacob Arminius writes;

“Granting, therefore, that sin has exceeded the order of everything created, yet it is circumscribed within the order of the Creator himself and of the chief good. Since it is apparent from all these premises, that the providence of God ought not to intervene, or come between, to prevent the perpetration of evil by a free creature; it also follows, from the entrance of evil into the world, and it has entered so far “that the whole world lieth in wickedness,” (1 John v. 19,) — that the Providence of God cannot be destroyed.”[14]

Clive Staples Lewis (1918–1964)

Lewis probably had the most profound impact on twentieth-century imagination in the last few years due to his fictional books, even though his most profitable reads would be his theological writings. His unique contributions give us proximity to God’s existence and a profound outlook on how we can find the reality of God’s presence amidst the reality of evil and suffering. Lewis points out that;

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got 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?[15]

Lewis uproots the assumption that there is nothing in opposition to the emptiness of pain and suffering. The contrast of suffering is not bliss, or even happiness, the antithesis of bad is not just good, but presently the generous personified God as revealed in Jesus Christ. He announced;

“Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither.”[16]

When contemplating the meaning of pain and suffering Lewis comes to the realization that our sense of pain and suffering fuel our curiosity for something more. Lewis points out that our desire for another world shows that this is not our home.[17] He wrote;

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death.”[18]

Alvin Plantinga (1932-)

Alvin Plantinga has offered the most famous contemporary philosophical response to the question of pain and suffering.[19] He asks if it could be possible for God to create a world where free creatures can live without the possibility of evil and suffering. He suggests the following as a possible morally sufficient reason:

“it is possible that God could have created a universe containing moral good… without creating one that also contained moral evil. And if so, then it is possible that god has good reason for creating a world containing evil.”[20]

Plantinga maintains that any potential world that includes creatures that are both free to perform good or bad acts seems more valuable. Both choices necessitate the absoluteness of autonomous moral propensity. Plantinga does not deny the fact that God could have created a world where moral evil would not be possible but hold that in a world where free will is apparent, it might be that both possibilities (good and evil) are necessary.[21]

Ravi Zacharias (1946-2020).

C. S. Lewis showed the necessity of God to make sense of evil, but Ravi showed the need for the Incarnation to give God proximity despite evil. Jesus, amidst our pain and suffering, is the freedom of the perplexed, and for Ravi, it allows for the central revelation of God’s present Son. Ravi accounts;

“In every other worldview, you find the way of being good and the way of not being bad. But in the Christian message, Jesus Christ didn’t come into this world to make bad people good. He came into this world to make dead people live. That’s the reality.” We cannot attain salvation by lifting ourselves up by our own ethical standards. Every other worldview is good versus bad. The message of Jesus Christ is grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Even if we set our own standards, there will be times where we fall short of our own subjective standards and need redemption… Physically, pain is an indicator in this world to indicate something is wrong. How much more in the infinite wisdom of God can pain be an indicator that there is something wrong with our relationship with Him? Remember, there is a cross and a hill called Calvary. There is a suffering Savior and a relationship where He gives us comfort. God does not conquer in spite of the dark mystery of evil. He conquers through evil, suffering, and pain, making you the person He intended you to be through that. We might be looking for an answer, but what we need is a person – Jesus Christ.[22]

When we contemplate the evil and suffering we observe around us, we call to account God’s very action to alleviate humanity, who is lost. We demand God’s action on behalf of those who are lost because He is the only powerful Sovereign that can save us. This is what we find in the gospel story according to Ravi:

“Only in the Cross of Jesus Christ do love, justice, evil, and forgiveness converge. Evil, in the heart of man, shown in the crucifixion; love, in the heart of God who gave his Son; forgiveness, because of the grace of Christ; and justice, because of the law of God revealed. That is the heart of the Christian Story. God has done something about evil.”[23]

John Polkinghorne (1930–)

Physicist and Theologian John Polkinghorne contend that God wants nature and creation to have autonomous integrity that allows it to have its own rhythms. Natural evil can be reasonably expected in a world of apparent freedom because a world micromanaged by its creator would not have evident evil. Natural evil is manifest amongst us, which allows for free creatures to experience randomness and not unavoidable determinism. What we regard as pain and suffering is a result of the earth’s natural processes. God has chosen to let the world develop in a perpetual interplay with chance so that man could explore all its possibilities. Man is free within the realm of possible contingency but not free from God, determining natural causes by necessity. [24] Polkinghorne says:

“regularities described by physics “are pale reflections of [God’s] faithfulness towards his creation.” He speculates that God “will not interfere in their operation in a fitful or capricious way, for that would be for the Eternally Reliable to turn himself into an occasional conjurer.”[25]

Polkinghorne refers to random evolutionary mutation manifest amongst all species in nature that could potentially cause cancers. He shows that we have a central aspect of a natural process that could produce a desired or undesired result, and these affirm the fact that through the mechanics of natural processes the chance of defects and undesired effects are probable.[26]

Gregory Boyd (1957-).

Boyd caused quite a stir with his views, but any sensible theologian can agree that there are some contentions from Boyd that we should consider. Boyd holds that the abstract price God must pay for the sake of the affection of free creatures also makes evil possible. There are simply no rational or biblical reasons to suppose that divine sovereignty entails exhaustive, meticulous, control. Meticulous sovereignty according to Boyd reduces the Creator to a mere abstract principle and not a person.

The possibility of evil is not a second decision God makes; it is implied in the single decision to have a world in which love is possible. It is, in effect, the metaphysical price God must pay if he wants to arrive at a bride who says yes to his triune love.[27]

Further, Boyd explains that this world is in an inevitable conflict with the evil one. Our perspective on evil will be greatly affected once we notice that we are contending with the forces of darkness.

“The world is caught up in a spiritual war between God and Satan… God fights these opponents precisely because their purposes are working against his purposes. Suffering takes on a different meaning when it is considered in the context of a cosmic war as opposed to a context in which everything is part of God’s meticulous plan and mysterious higher good. In the warfare worldview we would not wonder about what specific divine reason God might have had in allowing little children to be buried alive in mud or a little girl to be kidnapped. Instead, we would view these individuals as “victims of war” and assign the blame to human or demonic beings who oppose God’s will.”[28]

Synopsis of the perspectives on evil

When we look at all the different views on evil and suffering, I suggest using a multiple-tiered approach will probably be the best way to account for the reality of pain and suffering in this world. The first way we can account for evil and suffering is to acknowledge that these are essential for a conceptual human experience, and everything forms a part of the greater picture (Augustine). Some evil is a natural by-product of good processes that we deem evil but seems necessary for the greater physical good. The early bird gets the worm, but the worm gets eaten (Aquinas). God brings forth both good and evil, and through his divine purposes, we can understand His sovereignty and the ultimacy amidst the existence of evil and suffering. Some physical events result from God’s judgment. In the Bible, God used physical calamities, like plagues (Exodus 7-11), famines (Isa.14:30), sicknesses (2 Kings 20), and death (Rom.5:12, 1 Cor.11:28-30) (Calvin). God is not the actual cause of evil and suffering, and some evil is merely as a result of the free agency of man’s will (Arminius).

Without the perplexing reality of evil, there can be no conception of the good. Some evil is directly or indirectly caused by the exercise of humanity’s free actions, but without the possibility of evil, there cannot be an understanding of good (Lewis). Because this is the best possible world, the best means that it includes a spectrum of possible realities (Plantinga). Redeemed creatures can understand the beauty of God’s self-sacrificing love through Jesus Christ (Zacharias). Natural processes can occur that include the free actions of humanity, resulting in direct or indirect evil. Some examples are smoking, drug abuse, sugar, pollution, GMO foods, etc. (Direct). Earthquakes, tornados, and floods (Indirect). Evil could be the by-product of natural processes. Water causes the possibility of drowning, fire the possibility of forest fires, rain could cause floods (Polkinghorne). Lastly, scripture shows Lucifer, an Archangel that rebelled against God (Rev.12:4) with some other angelic creatures (Gen.1:31, 1 Tim.4:4) that can cause evil (Joh.10:10) and sickness (Matt.9:32-33, 8:16, 15:22). Some evil is, therefore, a result of evil spirits and fallen beings (Boyd).

I hope this was an ample synopsis of how we can account for evil and suffering.





[1] The City of God. Saint Augustine (Bishop of Hippo.), Pg.413.

[2] https://ecommons.luc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1422&context=luc_theses

[3] https://www.str.org/w/augustine-on-evil-1

[4] http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1019.htm#article9

[5] Institutes, 1,16,2.

[6] Institutes, 1,16,3.

[7] Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, Pg.176.

[8] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iii.xvii.html

[9] https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/does-god-permit-sin#fnref3

[10] Whether certain words and forms of speech are not employed in them, which are capable of being understood in different ways and furnishing occasion for disputes. Thus, for example, in the Fourteenth article of the [Dutch] Confession, we read the following words, “nothing is done without God’s ordination,” [or appointment]: if by the word “ordination” is signified, “that God appoints things of any kind to be done,” this mode of enunciation is erroneous, and it follows as a consequence from it, that God is the author of sin. But if it signify, that “whatever it be that is done, God ordains it to a good end,” the terms in which it is conceived are in that case correct. Jacob Arminius, Declaration of Sentiments X.4

[11] In like manner, God knows that man sins; for he knows all things: Yet we do not sin because he knows it, but he knows it because we sin; and his knowledge supposes our sin, but does not in anywise cause it. In a word, God, looking on all ages, from the creation to the consummation, as a moment, and seeing at once whatever is in the hearts of all the children of men, knows every one that does or does not believe, in every age or nation. Yet what he knows, whether faith or unbelief, is in nowise caused by his knowledge. Men are as free in believing or not believing as if he did not know it at all. – John Wesley, Sermon 58 – On Predestination

[12] The Works of Jacobus Arminius Volume 2 – Private Disputations, Pg.164.

[13] https://aclayjar.net/2017/09/arminianism-sovereignty-and-free-will/

[14] https://www.ccel.org/ccel/arminius/works1.v.x.html

[15] Mere Christianity Pg.45.

[16] The Joyful Christian, Pg.138.

[17] Lewis wrote in the same book that God wants all. “”Give me all of you!!! I don’t want so much of your time, so much of your talents and money, and so much of your work. I want YOU!!! ALL OF YOU!! I have not come to torment or frustrate the natural man or woman, but to KILL IT! No half measures will do. I don’t want to only prune a branch here and a branch there; rather I want the whole tree out! Hand it over to me, the whole outfit, all of your desires, all of your wants and wishes and dreams. Turn them ALL over to me, give yourself to me and I will make of you a new self—in my image. Give me yourself and in exchange I will give you Myself. My will, shall become your will. My heart, shall become your heart.”, Pg.167.

[18] Mere-Christianity, Pg.136-137.

[19] Plantinga presents his proposition stating the following premises: 

P1: If God decides to create then he will of necessity create the best possible world.

P2: If God will of necessity create the best possible world, then only the best possible world is possible.

P3: If only the best possible world is possible, then it is not the best possible world (as there are no other possible worlds to compare it to).

P4: If the best possible world is not the best possible world, then it is impossible for God to create it.

Therefore, if God decides to create it is impossible for him to create the best possible world.

[20] God, Freedom, and evil, Pg.31.

[21] God, Freedom, and evil, Pg.33-34.

[22] http://100huntley.com/watch?id=223204&title=an-answer-to-suffering-and-evil–dr-ravi-zacharias

[23] Beyond Opinion: Living the faith we defend. Pg.202.

[24] https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/free-process-defense

[25] Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World. Pg.30.

[26] Evolution and the Problem of Natural Evil. Michael Anthony Corey. Pg.57.

[27] Satan and the Problem of Evil, Pg.54-55

[28] https://reknew.org/2008/01/intro-to-warfare-worldview/