Despite the common arguments of the so-called “New Atheists,” these fervent even dogmatic disbelievers in God—there really are many good reasons to believe in God. Yet, the one pervading question remains, an age-old question that never seems to go away. If God exists, and God is love, why is there so much evil, so much pain, and so much suffering in the world?
There’s an old argument, called the Epicurean Paradox, that goes, basically, like this:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not all-powerful.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent (has evil intent).
Is he both able and willing? Then why is there still evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
Though at first glance it sounds reasonable, there are flaws. And the flaws have to do with the understanding of two terms in the argument: The first deals with what it means that God is all-powerful; the second with the nature of love.
First of all, one has to be careful with the idea of God being able to do anything, as the modifier of "all-powerful" suggests. Can an all-powerful God create a triangle that has four sides? No, because the moment it has four sides it’s no longer a triangle. Can an all-powerful God create a circle with four right-angle edges? No, because the moment it has four right-angle edges, it’s no longer a circle.
And with this comes the key question: Can God, even an all-powerful God, create a love that is forced? No, because the moment that love is forced it’s no longer love. Just as a triangle, to be a triangle, must have three sides—love, to be love, must be freely given. To force love is to annihilate it. Love, by its very definition as love, must be free; otherwise it’s not love.
Even God, the Omnipotent and Almighty Creator, cannot create a love that is forced, because the moment it is forced it’s something other than love. Without freedom, “love” is as impossible as a Euclidian plane without breadth or width.
God can create obedience without freedom. He can create law without freedom. He can create order without freedom. He can create compliance without freedom. But not love. God can force the entire universe to worship Him, to obey Him, to fear Him, but He cannot force a single creature in all His creation to love Him.
And here’s the crucial pivot, the hinge upon which the question of evil rests—the only way humans could have that moral freedom is if they had the potential to make immoral choices. Without that potential, without the option for immorality or evil, humans are not morally free; and, if not morally free, they cannot love.
Imagine a marriage where a husband says to his wife “I command that you love me!” or “I order you to love me!” How would that work? If she didn’t freely, and of her own will, give him that love, then whatever kind of relationship they have—companionship, friendship, co-worker, whatever—it wouldn’t ultimately, be based on love. Fear, maybe? Convenience? Necessity? But not love.
And certainly, not the kind of love that God wants for His creation. Hence, God had no choice—if He wanted beings who could love Him back in a way that reflected the love He had for them, then He had to create them free. Because only in freedom could they know what it means to love. And because in that freedom, humans made the wrong choices, evil has arisen.
The good news, however, is that this same God, who has created us free, has not only promised to rid the world of evil but has also given a detailed account of how He plans to (Revelation 21:8 – more on that in Lesson 16).
An All-Powerful God of Love?
Before you read all the texts about God that speak of death, genocide, and destruction, I want to invite you to put your rose-colored glasses on and see God through the lens of love.
God is Love
Ok, we had to be created free in order to love God, but how are we to understand God’s love for us? What does it mean that God loves us? How are we to respond to that love?
For starters, if, as the Bible says, “God is love” (1 John 4:16), then God was love before He created us, even before He created the universe. But whom would God love? Love means that something is the object of that love, and who would God have loved before He created anything?
Here, then, is where the idea of the Trinity, that of God as Three Divine Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, comes in. These three Persons have been in a love relationship with each other for all time. When God says that He is love, He is saying that there is a love relationship within the Trinity. Love would be only an idea in the mind of a single being. It takes at least two people to turn love into an action. In the Godhead, there is a relationship of self-sacrificing love, given unconditionally, toward each other. This is the greatest type of love.
But the amazingly good news is that God has unconditionally extended His love behind the Trinity, to His creation itself, and He did so in the hope that His creation would return that love to Him. Again, God gives His creation the free will choice to return love to Him.
The story of the Bible is the story of God inviting humanity into this eternal love relationship that has existed within the Trinity forever. Take a look at some of the verses that describe the love between the members of the Trinity:
Matthew 3:16, 17: “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’"
John 16:14, 15: “He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you.”
John 15:9, 10: "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commands and remain in his love.”
John 17:23-26: “I in them and you in me--so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. ‘Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. ... I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.’"
From this loving relationship between the persons in the Trinity comes the invitation for all of humanity to enter into a loving relationship with God as well:
John 14:23. Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.”
Unfortunately, from the start, humanity chose a different course. The freedom inherent in love had been abused, and the endless parade of sin, suffering, and death is the result of that abuse. But love, the kind of love expressed by God, has never given up on this world. And the greatest expression of the love, the greatest manifestation of that love, was revealed in the death of Jesus on the cross, a theme that will be greatly explored in later lessons.
So, in order to be transparent and authentic, He is providing the blueprint of how He plans to eradicate evil to everyone. Moreover, He is giving us a definition for good and evil so that we won’t be confused. Here it is: Good is Self-sacrificing Love, and Evil is Selfishness.
The Bible writers make some audacious claims about this God, saying that He is a superhuman being that is beyond our understanding (Isaiah 55:8, 9). He can do all things (Job 42:2). He knows everything (Psalm 147:4, 5). He is everywhere (Psalm 139:7-10). But most importantly, it says that God is good (Exodus 33:19). It says that He is love (1 John 4:8). It says that He is perfect (Matthew 5:48). It says that He is holy (1 Peter 1:16). These are not just character traits, but actual defining elements of who He is.
The best defining characteristic about this God of love is that He wants to be in a loving relationship with you.