About this dialogue:

This is a fictional exchange between an apologist and a professing Christian believer who has witnessed significant suffering, on account of which he is struggling with doubts relative to the “problem of evil.”

The struggling Christian’s name is Pat Thema, derived from the Greek word for ‘suffering’ (πάθημα, pathema).

Though the exchange is fictional, the issues raised and treated in this dialogue represent real issues and reflect some actual exchanges that the author has had with believers who are suffering. They also reflect some of the more studied objections raised by skeptics and philosophers, which are put into the mouth of the struggling believer in this dialogue. 


APOLOGIST: Hey Pat, how is it going?

PAT THEMA: Just fine I suppose, considering all the pains I’m daily experiencing. This bone disease I was diagnosed with several years ago just won’t let up. My bones and joints are screaming bloody murder. My whole life is tailored around capitulating to this stupid disease. Sometimes I can hardly move. I can’t work or provide for my family. And I can’t relax, sleep, or enjoy anything anymore because of the constant pain. I’m so sleep deprived that life is just miserable. And this is just one ailment of many—not that you or anyone else cares to hear about all my infirmities. Life is just so hard and it’s not going to change. Like Solomon said, “who can make straight what [God] has made crooked?” (Eccles. 7:13).

APOLOGIST: I’m sorry to hear about what you’re going through. I do care but perhaps my inbred selfishness prevents me from caring as much as I should. Pray the Lord would give me more compassion, would you? I’ll be praying for you regularly, Pat. May the Lord give you strength to endure this trial with gratitude.

PAT: Gratitude?!

APOLOGIST: Yeah, Scripture teaches that suffering, unpleasant as it is, is sanctified to us by the Father’s love so that it actually works for our good. We can and should be grateful for that.

PAT: Romans 8:28, right? Easy for you to say.

APOLOGIST: I know. Please forgive me if that sounds trite or flippant. I don’t mean to downplay the severity of what you’re experiencing; nor do I pretend to fully understand. I really admire you for your strength to persevere in your daily activities, in your role as a husband and father, and especially for your perseverance in the faith after all you’ve been through. You seem so strong; much stronger than I would be if I were in your shoes.

PAT: [Chuckles.] Believe me, I’m not half as strong as you think I am. I struggle with doubts all the time. I try not to think about them, and I refuse to let them sever me from my faith in Christ. But they really trouble me sometimes.

APOLOGIST: What kind of doubts? Anything I can maybe help with?

PAT: You wouldn’t understand.

APOLOGIST: I won’t criticize or condemn you. You can be transparent with me. I can’t promise I have the answers you need, but I can promise that I’ll at least help you out in prayer.

PAT: Well, I really struggle with what philosophers call “the problem of evil.” This “problem” strikes so close to home I can’t ignore it. I’ve yet to hear answers that truly resolve the issue to my satisfaction.

APOLOGIST: What about it specifically do you struggle with?

How Can an Almighty and Good God Allow Evil?

PAT: Just about everything. Now, you’re aware that I have some training in theology and philosophy, just like you do. The little bit of knowledge I have, however, makes the problem worse. I can identify and articulate the problems just fine, but my limited knowledge does not go so far as to provide any real solutions. For instance, David Hume’s famous—or infamous—objection.

APOLOGIST: The one about how God can be good and all-powerful in the face of the existence of evil?

PAT: Exactly. Hume put it like this: “Is [God] 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?”[1] Doesn’t the presence of evil lend support to atheism?

APOLOGIST: No because the atheist has an even bigger problem than the theist does.

PAT: Really? What’s that?

APOLOGIST: The theist must give an account as to why there is evil in the universe created by God. But at least the theist has a basis for accounting for an absolute standard by which we can differentiate between good and evil and call evil “evil.” Since God exists, absolute morals exist, by which we can call things truly ‘good’ and ‘evil.’[2] Evil is defined in relation to God’s character and His unchanging moral law, which reflects His character. But the atheist has to account for how evil and good can exist when he acknowledges no absolute standard for either one. According to his worldview, who’s to say that evil is actually evil? It’s just his opinion, which is nothing more than a physical, chemical process of “brain fizz.” When the atheist raises the issue of the “problem of evil,” he is already tacitly acknowledging the veridical nature of the moral argument for the existence of God! He is borrowing capital from the Christian worldview.

PAT: Great point; I never thought of it like that. But what do you say to Hume’s argument as he states it? Do you think there is logical conflict between God’s existence, His omnipotence, and His benevolence?

APOLOGIST: Well, God certainly exists, and He certainly is omnipotent and benevolent; we have the self-attesting testimony of Scripture on that (e.g., Gen. 1:1; Ps. 147:5; Jer. 32:17; Isa. 63:7; Matt. 5:45; Rom. 2:4). You and I both believe Scripture is true; but even if we didn’t, it would still be true (see Rom. 3:4). So those divine attributes can’t legitimately be called into question.

PAT: I agree, but the conundrum remains. As Pierre Bayle put it in the seventeenth century, (1) an omnipotent God could destroy evil, and (2) a benevolent God would destroy evil. But evil exists and is not destroyed. Therefore, either God is omnipotent but malevolent, or He is benevolent but impotent. Or He is both malevolent and impotent. That has led some to deny that God exists altogether.[3] You see the problem?

APOLOGIST: Of course. This is where theology comes in and helps us resolve what philosophy alone cannot. We must remember that there is no contradiction between God’s attributes, for the whole undivided essence of God is one with ‘each’ of His ineffable attributes.[4] So there is no conflict between God’s power and His goodness. God is neither impotent nor malevolent, nor is there any contradiction in God that would set His attributes off in opposition to one another; nor can one attribute be greater than the other since both attributes are infinite. If we think there could be a contradiction, the tension exists in our own minds due to our limited understanding—there is no such tension in God’s being.

PAT: So, doesn’t that lead us to fall into the skeptic’s trap, namely, to affirm that God could and would (to borrow Hayle’s terminology) destroy evil? Then why doesn’t He? Doesn’t the presence of evil disprove God’s existence?

APOLOGIST: Not so fast! I do affirm God can and will destroy evil. That’s what the Bible teaches (Rev. 19-22). One day, He will put evil away forever, redeem His people from the presence of evil, and provide an eternal state in which evil no longer harasses the children of God. The wicked will have their evil punished, and God will vindicate His justice and goodness. But God will do all this according to His timing, not ours.

PAT: I’ve thought about that. If God were to destroy evil now, He would also have to destroy everyone who does evil, who has not been redeemed by our Lord’s precious blood. That would put an end to human history as we know it. I say “destroy” loosely, by which I mean, judgment and hell.[5]

APOLOGIST. That’s right. Second Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” It is God’s great mercy which leads Him to wait with so much patience, even though He absolutely abominates evil more than we can imagine.

PAT: So the conundrum is really a temporary one. God’s benevolence and omnipotence win out in the end.

APOLOGIST: Absolutely! Praise God.

PAT: But what about Hell? Won’t there be evil in Hell? And isn’t it horrendous that people will burn in the fury of God’s wrath forever? How does that square with God’s benevolence?

APOLOGIST: It’s important to define God’s benevolence according to Scripture, not according to our human sentiments. And Scripture teaches that God has more than one or two attributes. God is also infinitely holy and just, for instance (Exod. 15:11; Deut. 32:4). And justice dictates that injustice and evil be punished. It is good for evil to be punished accordingly (see Prov. 17:15). Also, benevolence puts away evil so that it ceases to afflict and oppress others (cf. Ps. 35; 94:1, 3; Rev. 6:9-10).

PAT: Hmmm… Could you elaborate?

APOLOGIST: A policeman, for instance, puts murderous thieves in jail because their evil is a menace to society. Law-abiding citizens consider that to be an act of benevolence on the part of the government, to lock up dangerous criminals. There is no contradiction between God’s punishing of sinners and His benevolence.

Why a World of Sin and Suffering?

PAT: Okay, but why would a benevolent and omnipotent God create a world in which everyone does evil and in which most people end up being evil forever in Hell, as they suffer the pain of eternal torment? Could He not have made a world in which evil does not exist?

APOLOGIST: That’s a good question. God certainly could have not created any world at all.[6] And God could have, hypothetically at least, created a world in which sinners would never exist, I suppose. Could He have created a perpetually sinless world in which moral image bearers exist who have volitional powers and free agency, but never sin? My answer is: we need to be careful not to indulge in speculation, for it could lead us to go “beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6) and equivocate.

PAT: So why did God create this world as we know it—sin and sinners and all?

APOLOGIST: That really is the issue we should be addressing. I think a few things need to be said in response. In the first place, God did not create evil as such.

PAT: He created all things good, like Genesis (1:31) says, right? Where did evil come from then? Is it equally ultimate with God?

APOLOGIST: If good (God) and evil were equally supreme and eternal, each would necessarily be limited by the other. The power of the good would be limited by the power of evil, and so forth. In that case, the good (God) would not be infinite, but finite. But a finite personal God can hardly account for the universe, let alone be worthy of being considered a God worthy of worship.

PAT: Good point. Go on…

APOLOGIST: Only by positing God as Personal Absolute can we account for the universe.[7] There can’t be two Absolutes, because the very definition of an Absolute consists of that which is infinite and self-existent (a se). Plus, there could be no absolute morals if there were two Absolutes since morals would be relative to each Absolute in question. But absolute morals do exist; therefore, the Lord God alone is the sole Personal Absolute.[8]

PAT: Why does evil exist then? And where did it come from?

APOLOGIST: That’s what I was getting at. God did not create evil. He created everything that exists, but evil does not exist, properly speaking. That is to say, evil has no being of its own. The Christian tradition, following Augustine and Aquinas, has taught that evil is technically not being but non-being.

PAT: So, evil is an illusion?

APOLOGIST: No, I didn’t say that.

PAT: My daily pains certainly feel real.

APOLOGIST: It’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? C.S. Lewis said, “I am not arguing that pain is not painful. Pain hurts. That is what the word means.”[9] He pointed out that it would be stupid to speak of illusionary pain—and illusionary death, and illusionary genocides and torture chambers and cancers and hurricanes and so forth. Some philosophers have posited that evil is just an illusion, but Christ didn’t come to redeem us from a mere illusion.

PAT: What then do you mean that evil “has no being”?

APOLOGIST: I’m referring to what is known as the metaphysical problem of evil. First premise: God is the author of everything in the world. Second premise: evil is something in the world. Conclusion: it would seem that God is the author of evil, right?[10]

PAT: I suppose so. What’s your response?

APOLOGIST: I deny the second premise because there is equivocation in it.[11] Evil is not “something” like you and me and birds and flowers and trees are somethings. Evil is real, but it is not a created entity. Evil is, as the old theologians used to say in Latin, privatio—privation.

PAT: What does that mean?

APOLOGIST: Evil is parasitic of the good. It has no independent existence apart from the agency of moral creatures. One fine theologian explained, “The essence of sin lies in the fact that it is a spontaneous state or act of a free moral agent, not in conformity to the law of absolute moral perfection. Sin is necessarily immaterial, spiritual, an attribute of moral agency, inseparable from persons.”[12]

PAT: I suppose that helps to explain the origin of evil, getting at Hume’s challenge, “Whence then is evil?”

APOLOGIST: I admit it doesn’t completely resolve our questions, so we have to respect the mystery. The Christian faith reverently honors that such mysteries exist for us as finite humans, like the origin of sin and the doctrine of the Trinity.[13] However, it does help if we understand that sin came into the world by the volition of creatures.

PAT: Doesn’t that capitulate to the Arminian doctrine of free will? I’m a Calvinist!

APOLOGIST: There are many apologists who employ the argument in ways that limit God’s sovereignty, and it is fallacious to do so.[14] However, the gist of the argument holds if we carefully distinguish between free will, which is inconsistent with Scripture, and free moral agency, which the Bible teaches.

PAT: I think I read about that once in a book by J.I. Packer.[15]

APOLOGIST: Right. God does not constrain or coerce our decisions. We make decisions according to our desires. Reformed Christians affirm the “nature of second causes” and the reality of contingency, under God’s sovereign decree.[16] This is often called, “compatibilism,” because God’s sovereignty and human responsibly operate concursively, in tandem, both being real, and neither obliterating the reality of the other.[17]

PAT: But we still have a problem then. God decreed evil and sin in the first place!

The Moral Problem of Evil

APOLOGIST: It’s precisely at this point that the mystery exists. I don’t think we can provide a fully adequate solution to this conundrum. But the Bible does help us to at least understand enough about it to provide some degree of peace as we trust and hope in the Lord.

PAT: I need that peace! Help me out.

APOLOGIST: Whatever we believe, we need uphold the truth of Scripture which teaches that God is not responsible for the evil actions of creatures. James 1:13-14 says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed.” The responsibility for sin is placed squarely on the shoulders of those who commit it.

PAT: Well God doesn’t tempt us or coerce us to sin, but He did ordain all our temptations and sins, right? 

APOLOGIST: In a sense, that’s right. Ephesians 1:11, speaking of God’s eternal “purpose” (πρόθεσιν), says He “works all things according to the counsel of His will.” That includes the sinful actions of creatures.

PAT: Then creatures sin in conformity to God’s will? Uh oh.

APOLOGIST: Wait a minute! It’s the prerogative of the theologian to make distinctions,[18] and these distinctions help us to avoid over-simplifying things so that we don’t misunderstand them. We have to distinguish between God’s decretive will and His preceptive will. The former cannot be violated, but the latter can be and often is in this sinful world.[19]

PAT: Is that biblical?

APOLOGIST: The greatest example is the crucifixion of our Lord. God decreed it should take place, for Christ is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). Yet, He was slain by wicked men who are guilty of murdering the Son of God. Peter said the cross was both foreordained and constituted grievous sin committed by people: “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death.” There you have both aspects of God’s twofold will in a single Scriptural sentence.

PAT: Wow. It boggles my mind.

APOLOGIST: And it shows us how God is supreme over sin. Think about it. The greatest threat to God and His reign is sin, the moral rebellion of creatures. Yet God uses sin—which attempted to dethrone God—to dethrone sin. He utilizes evil to accomplish His good and glorious purposes, and He ultimately triumphs to the praise of His infinite wisdom and sovereignty.[20]

PAT: I can see that. But can’t we still ask the question: How can God fault us for being the way He decreed we should be, namely, sinners?

APOLOGIST: The fact that you ask the question shows you’re understanding God’s sovereignty aright. The apostle Paul foresaw that objection when He taught about God’s sovereignty in Romans 9: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?’ But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?” (Rom. 9:19–21).

PAT: The right response then, is reverence and fear and awe. I mean, I’m not God. How can I possibly understand the mind of God when it comes to such unfathomable mysteries?

APOLOGIST: Now you’re getting it!

PAT: That leaves me a bit unsettled, though.

APOLOGIST: I understand. When you feel that way, go back to Scripture. Fuel your faith with God’s goodness and God’s promises in the Word. Don’t judge God’s character or disposition toward you on the basis of your suffering or on the basis of the evil that exists in the world. Paradoxes can leave us unsettled, so don’t get consumed by them. Rather, discern God’s love for you based on what the Word clearly says. The Word is the ultimate truth, the ground for ultimate epistemic certainty, and it speaks to ultimate reality. This world and all its suffering will pass away, but God’s Word abides forever.

PAT: Yeah, I need to think more biblically. That’s for sure. Sometimes my mind wanders into forbidden areas, and I get entangled with too many mere human thoughts. I still wonder, though, why God made this world, full of sin and suffering. Is it the best possible world? Why not make a world in which sin would never exist?

APOLOGIST: Actually, Scripture does give us some insight about that. Again, in Romans 9, Paul says God “endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” in order to “show His wrath and make His power known” (Rom. 9:22). And He also says God ordained it this way to “make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory” (Rom. 9:23). God ordained sin and then judges it and redeems from it in order to make a full-orbed display of His glorious attributes, in a way that would not have been possible if sin had not been in the world. As terrible as sin is, it provides the backdrop necessary for the fullest possible display of the divine glory in the contrivance and accomplishment of man’s redemption, and also in the punishment of the wicked who reject God’s mercy.[21]

PAT: That’s both a wonderful thought and a terrifying one. I cannot but confess that I stand in awe of the divine majesty.

APOLOGIST: I know, me too. But there’s another element to it: the Christological teleology of human history.

PAT: That the goal of history is Christological?

APOLOGIST: Exactly. In Ephesians 1, when Paul speaks of “the mystery of [God’s] will…which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.” God orchestrated everything in order to highlight and eventuate in the absolute, unrivaled, all-embracive supremacy of His Son. Christ became incarnate and as a “Man of sorrows acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3), He endured the pain of temptation yet never succumbed, so He sympathizes with us (Heb. 4:15). And He experienced the agony of the cross, suffering to save sinners like us. He triumphed over all, and proved that His power is greater than sin, and that His love for us is greater than His aversion to the most horrendous and hellish suffering. “God demonstrates His love toward us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). We cannot fully resolve the mystery of the problem of evil. But we must not miss the fact that Christ came to deal with this problem and provide the ultimate solution, the ultimate redemption from it. Even though we cannot resolve the problem, we can certainly rest in Christ’s love. In the end, we will have fuller insight into and appreciation for the glory of Christ’s sacrifice for us. We will enjoy what angels, who know no redemption, long to look into (1 Pet. 1:12). In the end, we can say that, although this is not the best possible world, it is “the best way to the best possible world.”[22]

PAT: That brings tears to my eyes. You’ve given me a lot to ponder. I must be on my way now.

APOLOGIST: Take care, Pat. I’ll be praying for you.

PAT: Thanks! Farewell.



[1] Cited in Ronald Rhodes, “Tough Questions About Evil,” in Who Made God? And Answers to Over 100 Other Tough Questions of Faith, ed. Ravi Zacharias and Norman Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 35.

[2] James N. Anderson and Greg Welty, Why Should I Believe Christianity? ed. James N. Anderson, The Big Ten: Critical Questions Answered (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publication, 2016), 110-15.

[3] Norman Geisler, Philosophy of Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 349.

[4] This statement is an inference from the doctrine of divine simplicity, which teaches that “all that is in God is God.” See James E. Dolezal, All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017). To give a biblical example, 1 John 4:8 says, “God is love.” The attribute of love is one with God, such that His entire non-composite essence is love. God doesn’t merely possess love like a perfect creature would possess it; He is the infinite, self-existent fount of love, the very source and definition of love itself. The same goes with the rest of God’s attributes.

[5] Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 389.

[6] Cf., “We believe that God did not need to create the world; God did not need to reveal himself. Yet, when he did create the world and did reveal himself, this creation or revelation had genuine significance.” Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Philadelphia, 1955), 282.

[7] For elaboration, see John M. Frame, Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief, ed. Joseph E. Torres, Second ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015), 34-42.

[8] The other hypothetical possibility, not mentioned in the dialogue, is that the standard of good and evil exists independently of the two powers and stands above them. C.S. Lewis explains, “So we must mean that one of the two powers is actually wrong and the other actually right. But the moment you say that, you are putting into the universe a third thing in addition to the two Powers: some law or standard or rule of good which one of the powers conforms to and the other fails to conform to. But since the two powers are judged by this standard, then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up than either of them, and He will be the real God. In fact, what we meant by calling them good and bad turns out to be that one of them is in a right relation to the real ultimate God and the other is in a wrong relation to Him.” C.S. Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 43-44. Thankful to Dr. James Anderson’s unpublished lecture notes on apologetics for bringing this quote to my attention.

[9] C.S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian: 127 Readings (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1977), 212.

[10] Geisler, Philosophy of Religion, 327.

[11] Following Geisler, Philosophy of Religion, 327.

[12] Archibald Alexander Hodge, The Atonement (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1867), 85.

[13] Such mysteries are mysterious for us, since we don’t have all the answers and do not possess omniscience. They hold out facts or concepts that seem paradoxical to us, but they are not ultimately contradictory. In the mind of God there is no mystery. See Cornelius Van Til and William Edgar, Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed. (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 2003), 14, 35–36, 91.

[14] E.g., Norman L. Geisler, “Determinism,” Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 196. Geisler was a fine apologist and well-intentioned, but his affirmation of Arminian conceptions of freedom of the will was erroneous.

[15] See J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), 33–34.

[16] The quoted phrase comes from the Westminster Confession of Faith 5.2., See Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 268-80, for elaboration.

[17] For philosophical explication, see Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: IVP Academic; Apollos, 2011), 632–633.

[18] R.C. Sproul would often say this. E.g., “It is the prerogative of the theologian to make fine distinctions; that is what theology is about.” R. C. Sproul, What Is the Trinity?, vol. 10, The Crucial Questions Series (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2011), 34.

[19] Cf., “There are, we can show Pighius, no two ultimate wills in God contradicting one another. Yet we need the idea of two wills, that of command and that of secret counsel. We harmonize the two.” Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace And The Gospel (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Nutley, NJ, 1977), 77.

[20] See John Piper, Spectacular Sins and Their Global Purpose for the Glory of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008).

[21] This is similar to Jay Adams’ solution to the problem of evil, but my take is a bit more expansive. Only here I do not have the space to elaborate. On Adams’ proposed solution and Frame’s response, see Frame, Apologetics, 157-58.

[22] Norman L. Geiser and Ronald M. Brooks, When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences, revised and updated (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2013), 67.