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Religion Library: Protestantism

Suffering and the Problem of Evil

Written by: Ted Vial

Like all monotheists (those who believe in one God), Protestants confront a dilemma on the subject of evil and suffering. Does God want to relieve suffering, but is unable? In that case God is good but not all-powerful. Is God able to relieve suffering but unwilling or too unconcerned? Then God is all-powerful but not good.

Protestants agree that the universe was created from nothing by God, and it was created good. This is the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. God is omnipotent and, prior to the effects of evil, Creator of all that is. There is no property of matter that in and of itself could account for evil—creation was good. Therefore evil and suffering entered the world through something other than God's original acts of creation. God is not the creator of evil. (For many modern Protestants this belief is not incompatible with evolution; God created the universe in such a way that creation unfolds through the mechanism of evolution.)

The entrance point for evil and moral suffering in the world, then, is the fall and work of Satan, and human rebellion against God (that is, sin). Protestants do not always agree on why sin entered the world. Those who believe that the story of the fall recounts a historical event agree that Adam was tempted by the devil. But why did Adam, created without sin, succumb to temptation? One set believes that Adam could have chosen not to sin. In order to create a genuinely free being with whom God could enter into a relationship, God gave Adam free will. Adam made a bad choice. This belief dovetails with a belief that salvation in part requires the individual's free choice to ask for forgiveness and for help in following God's law.

Other Protestants argue that this places too much control over the course of history into the hands of humans rather than God. They argue that Adam sinned necessarily, though not by compulsion; this makes God at least indirectly the author of sin. This second group splits on why creation was set up this way. Some believe that God's mercy and glory are more fully demonstrated in a world in which sin enters, and is then forgiven and defeated. Others believe that scripture simply does not answer this question, that God's ways are not human, and that it is not the place of human beings to interrogate God on why sin entered the world. Zwingli and Calvin belong here. They agree that sin is an act of human disobedience against God's command, and that this disobedience is entirely humans' responsibility.

For Calvin, since the time of the fall (Adam's original sin), one cannot say that humans sin by compulsion, because that would indirectly make God the author of sin. But one can say that humans sin inevitably. When they sin, they are doing what they want to do. But on the question of human responsibility for sin and the role played by God, this claim of human responsibility simply pushes the problem back to square one. Could not God have created humans in such a way that they would not sin? In the end Calvin, and many other Christians with him, says that humans are not privy to God's plans, and that it is inappropriate to question them or speculate about them.


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