Willard and the Problem of Evil

Willard and the Problem of Evil May 22, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 9.52.11 AMHere is perhaps the strongest argument for some against the Christian belief in theism, and that theism being a good God who loves us and cares about life on planet earth:

If Christianity is true, then God is both benevolent toward humankind and infinitely powerful.

If God is benevolent toward humankind and infinitely powerful, then he will see to it that we do not suffer.

God does not see to it that we do not suffer.

Therefore: Christianity is false, since God is either not benevolent or not powerful, to which the presence of suffering testifies.

This is Dallas Willard’s framing of the challenge in The Allure of Gentleness 113), as old as Augustine I think, and he responds in the following set of ideas.

First, the lines are formally valid as an argument. Second, the hitch comes with whether or not the premises are true. He says no. Some quotations:

We must specify that God is always able to accomplish his will, that he is sufficient to the task of caring for his own business, and that a part of his business is taking care of human beings (115).

The essence of his response is:

1. That this view of God is an avuncular god, not the God of the Bible.

2. That this view of humanity tends toward the narcissistic in that it cannot find meaning in pain.

As you can see, my rejection of the argument that the presence of pain in our world means Christianity is false is based on the inaccuracy of the premise stating that, if a benevolent and powerful God did hold dominion over the proceedings of this world, he would not allow people to suffer. That this premise is false is obvious now that we understand that God allows people to suffer precisely because he is benevolent. It’s for our best (119).

3. That a better view is that God is the creator, that God is marked by freedom, that suffering in this world is a part of human freedom, and that apart from freedom we have no will, no character development, no love, no life.

They overlook the fact that by surrendering responsibility they surrender freedom and the capacity for virtue as well. The person who cannot be blameworthy cannot be praiseworthy either (121).

So what we must look at is the question: Did God do well to create a world in which there is free personality and natural law, such that it includes the possibility of a kingdom of God as well as the possibility of evil? (122)

A world that permits the development of moral character—one that makes it possible for persons to become the immeasurably precious and even glorious beings that they sometimes do become—is of much greater value than any world that does not (126).

But the moral development of personality is possible only in a world of genuine freedom (126).

4. That the Christian view is that God’s End in the kingdom will so outstrip the pain and suffering of this life that we will not see it as good but see it for what it was in a state of joy.

Hence, many things happen that on their own cannot be good; God is not the author of these things; a world like ours is better than a world not like ours when it comes to pain; and there is no sorrow on earth that heaven cannot heal.

If your God is big enough there is no problem with evil — he claims here to be re-expressing David Hume (133).

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  • Rick Cruse

    I’m basically with him until one of his final comments: there is no sorrow on earth that heaven cannot heal. Unless you’re a universalist, heaven’s healing doesn’t touch the sorrow of the young Thai girl sold into sexual slavery or the Nepali boy crushed under a building brought down by an earthquake. Gratuitous evil and natural disaster require something more than the promise of healing (for only some) in heaven.

  • Scott Irenaeus Watson

    So, essentially, Willard’s view of theodicy is similar to that of St. Irenaeus. It’s sad that so many have to “discover” views now which are the touchstone of the Faith,but with a much broader and profound theological vision.

  • I think that Willard’s theodicy is only partially correct. It is a part of a larger picture, but I suggest that Brian Davies’ expression of Aquinas’ theodicy is the best book on the subject today. He’s written two:
    1. The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil (very good)
    2. Thomas Aquinas on God and Evil (pretty good)

  • RJS4DQ


    I don’t think one has to be a universalist – just some kind of accessibilist.

  • Andrew Dowling

    This is pretty standard Christian apologetic (free will, suffering somehow is “good” for us) and IMO it’s pretty weak. For starters, tons of suffering has nothing to do with free will. How is a 2 year old with bone cancer engaging in or the recipient of any free will? And how is that suffering “good” for her or her family? What about the wide majority of others who will never undergo such pain? Did they not receive the relative “benefit” of that suffering? Gapaul is right . . .trying to rationalize theodicy away just makes the problem worse.

  • Bev Mitchell


    This deserves more discussion. I think I understand you, and agree, but have a question. Do you see accessibility as in any way limited by God? In our confusion, self-centredness and peering through the dark glass, we do lots of limiting. But what, if any, limits does God ever place against the promise of our ultimate healing? If the answer is ‘none’, is that not universalism? You can probably guess some of the books I’m reading these days. 🙂

  • Rick Cruse

    Which books?

  • Phil Miller

    Have you ever read Greg Boyd’s God at War or Satan and the Problem of Evil? While Boyd does use a free will defense as part of his theodicy, it’s not the entirety of it. Basically, Boyd’s position is that the world is so complex with some many entwined causal forces (human and spiritual agents) that trying to pinpoint specific causes for events is often an impossibility. It means that much of the evil that occurs in the world is arbitrary – there’s no deeper reason behind it. As Christians our job is not to try to assign meaning to suffering, but rather to be with those who are experiencing suffering and stand against evil as best as we can.

    It may not an answer that satisfies everyone, but I personally appreciate it because it moves us out the realm of simply bloviating, and puts us into a place where we can act.

  • Always helpful to distinguish the emotional problem of evil and the philosophical problem of evil. Don’t think anyone can imagine a scenario where our emotional reaction to evil – especially gratuitous evil – can be eased by an argument. However, in times of our temporary stay from evil, we can explore the idea that the simultaneous existence of God and presence of evil can be a rational feature of reality.

    Also helpful to acknowledge we have a problem that Jeremy Evans calls Cognitive Idolatry on this issue. A “demand [to God] that we have control over knowledge” of the reason for evil. We need to be humble – and I think Willard was – about the limits of our explanations. As someone said here, Job did not get an explanation.

    What helps me is knowing that somehow God will redeem all that is broken. It will be restored. There will be cosmic justice. Resurrection and the new creation will happen. Christ was the firstfruits of this. Creation’s Garden Exile will come to an end. Our Garden Exile will come to an end.

  • Sarah Green

    Rick, I think your point is incredibly insightful when you say “unless you’re a universalist, heaven’s healing doesn’t touch” many, if not most, of earth’s sorrow’s. I think I’m with Bev on this one. What else does, “I will make all things new” mean? Or “he will wipe away all tears. . .mourning and crying and pain will be no more”? I used to think it would mean that Jesus would wipe away my memory of my loved ones in hell (or annihilated), but I no longer think my eternity will be a state of partial amnesia. Or “the leaves on the trees are for the healing of the nations”?

    I’d love to hear what Bev’s reading, but I can tell you what I’m reading: “Her Gates Will Never Be Shut” by Brad Jersak.

  • Bev Mitchell


    “The Evangelical Universalist” by Gregory MacDonald (pseudonym for Robin Parry. But for a great list of other books see Essential Readings on Universalism at:


  • Chris Armer

    The benefit of suffering is only to those with free will and able to learn lessons from it. Young children who suffer learn no lessons. Then it seems one must conclude that God uses “disposable” people who can’t possibly learn lessons from suffering to teach “more important” people the lessons.

  • J. Inglis

    Worth it for freedom? Yes and no-but only because you mix levels of analysis and comparison. Freedom generically cannot be compared to a specific event of evil, as in “it is worth burning this child alive so that we can have the freedom to do good.” Those two are incommensurable.

    The appropriate analysis is to to keep comparisons at the same conceptual level. The proper questions is whether it is better to have no freedom whatsoever, or to have freedom that necessarily comes with the possibility of evil. Furthermore, the evil is never so great that God cannot make some good happen.

  • J. Inglis

    “Don’t think anyone can imagine a scenario where our emotional reaction to evil – especially gratuitous evil – can be eased by an argument. ”

    It has worked for me, so I’m at least one example.

  • Bev Mitchell


    I just recently discovered Brad Jersak’s work and want to read “Her Gates will Never be Shut”. He is very good, IMO. See my review of his recent “A More Christlike God, A More Beautiful Gospel” at Amazon. Also on my list is Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge (editors), Universal Salvation? The Current Debate. Reviews of it at Amazon are encouraging.

  • Sarah Green

    Thanks! I’ll go read your reviews! I’m also loving David Bentley Hart’s remarks at the Eclectic Orthodoxy link you posted.

  • Andrew Dowling

    False dichotomy. A world in which children don’t get cancer would not require any inhibition of freedom.

  • But Marshall raises a good point here. Words are going to fall short of the goal of “making it all okay.” They can’t. They won’t. But what Willard and other are saying is that God can and will heal/redeem/resurrect. But the promise (alone) is not intended to make it all okay. In the meantime, we all groan and wait, either in hope or despair about what is still to come.

  • I think this is Willard not being as much insensitive as it is him talking as a professor of philosophy. These are not pastoral words given to those who are suffering in the time of their pain. In the presence of the suffering, sometimes words of any kind are offensive.

    That said, I would still say it differently. I tend to think that, given our freedom and capacity for cruelty, that God’s grace is in limiting our capacity for physical pain, both physiologically and in our mortality. Yes, freedom is a great grace, that some will use for evil, but I believe what we see as the limits of human pain could have been even worse, but for his grace, and that, God does stand ready to redeem, resurrect and heal in the age to come.

  • Good comment Phil! I’d only add that _Is God to Blame?_ is a layman’s version of _Satan and the Problem of Evil_. I recommend it highly and often.

    Also, Jessica Kelly, who can speak from personal experience, is in the process of publishing a book on theodicy tentatively called _God in Pain_.

  • Glenn_G

    Excellent comment.

  • I hear you. I’m not wanting to deny reality at all, but I do thank God for the limits that are there. And yes it could be easier but given how short life is (which we hear much more often than the opposite), it could have been much worse. But more, this is where it is significant to me that, while thankfully not all people experience the worst of life, Jesus did so as central to his mission and now stands on the other side restored and whole. This is our hope. In this way, I am convinced that Christianity is made for reality, for this world, the hard one that actually is, not as we would prefer it to be. We follow a crucified King.

    I find comfort in the fact that even Jesus asked for escape from the cross rather than resurrection from it, but that he, like many of us, was denied this request. He also asked, in the middle of torture, why God had forsaken him. But he also now lives, restored and full. I guess if it was up to me I would design it all differently. But that’s not the choice with which I am presented. I’m given the world as it is, with horrors, graces and Jesus. And I have to respond to that. In light of it all, I just can’t bring myself to accuse Christ, though I’m glad Christ asked about being forsaken in the middle of the worst. I believe the world was made by him and through him, and I believe the same world cursed him and cost him his life. Yet he loves it, redeems it, and will make it all new.

    I know Job was mentioned in this thread. I feel a bit like an overwhelmed Job in the whirlwind when I look at it all, inclined to put my hand over my mouth as I consider what he has done and my own relative and inescapable ignorance of the wide range of experience of pain and joy. The inscrutability of it all leads me to trust. I know that’s not where everyone is; many are crying out asking why God has forsaken them. I get that.

  • Rick Cruse

    Actually, they didn’t break his legs because they found him already dead. John 19:33. It’s possible the depth and weight (and height and length) of his suffering simply BROKE his heart.

  • Bob Wilson

    Excellent bibliography. I’d only add that Thomas Talbott’s “The Inescapable Love of God” further develops arguments presented in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate.

  • Bev Mitchell

    There is also a very helpful YT interview with Robin Parry* (search: The Evangelical Universalist Robin Parry Interview)

    However, as Parry is encouragingly careful to point out, there is no room for dogmatism on such matters (as is also illustrated in the great conversation between gapaul, T Freeman and others in the major thread for this post). In recognition of this need for diversity of viewpoints, consider this quote from Roger Olson: “Universalists are Calvinists with soft hearts and a true vision of the love of God shown in Jesus Christ. Arminians are immune to universalism because we believe God’s love includes permitting the beloved to walk away and reject God’s mercy.” Though Sanders makes a good case for this thesis in “Universal Salvation?” I still wonder about the strength of the immunity against universalism provided by Arminianism 🙂 but do agree that, if I were a Calvinist, I would be a universalist. Olson’s blog post on the topic (January 14, 2015) is outstanding, as is the discussion that follows with its 219 comments. (I know you are familiar with this Bob. Just pointing to it for others who may still be following this side thread.)

    *Robin Parry, aka. Gregory MacDonald), author of “Evangelical Universalist” (2006, 2012 2ed.)

  • Bob Wilson

    Thanks Bev. While universalism does seem to be the vıew that uniquely combınes the strongest perceptions of Calvinism and Arminianism, Parry and Talbott plainly reject Calvinism. And as I told Roger under that post, instincts about the nature of true freedom differ, and Talbott especially has written extensively on how human free will and universalism can be compatible.

    Parry calls himself a ‘hopeful dogmatic universalist to suggest that while our perceptions always may be in error, hıs is that Scripture is most consistently interpreted as proclaiming a universalist outcome.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Yes, but John Sanders in “Universal Salvation? (Parry and Partridge) deserves careful reading. If I read Sanders aright, he thinks Talbott is arguing for irresistible grace, à la Calvinism, but just postpones such grace to some undetermined? point in the distant future. In other words, an Arminian must first become a Calvinist, regarding at least the ultimate nature of grace, before it is possible to become an evangelical universalist. One of Sanders’ best observations: “…. if….the ‘mystery of iniquity’ just is not understandable then no matter how much education we receive it is possible that we can act irrationally.” It seems we must choose our mysteries very carefully indeed. 🙂

  • Bob Wilson

    I need to reread Sanders when İ return from Turkey. My recollection was that he had not read Talbotts artıcles on freedom and determınısm. Have you read hıs book? I fınd he explıcıty rejects ırresıstable grace, and that arguıng the mystery we need ıs that free wıll means ıt can become ımposıble to act ın lıght of the truth seems ıncoherent.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    OK, so call me overly “philisophical” about these arguments for the non-existence of God based on the problem of suffering. When I go to root on the issue I’m reminded of my own experience of getting older as the bodily pains and escalation of suffering seems immanent yet I think isn’t it better than the alternative. I can understand compelling stories of inexplicable suffering and reasonable arguments for why this shouldn’t be if God is good and all-powerful. I get it. But really, even if God is responsible for the galaxies that are violently crashing into one another and the extensive experience of pain and loss that probably occurs because of that, isn’t that preferable to the non-experience or non-existence?

  • Bev Mitchell


    Hope you are enjoying Turkey. It’s high on my list but haven’t made it yet.

    I think you recall it correctly. For sure Sanders rejects irresistible grace. He would not call the consequent argument incoherent but, I think Talbott would (does?). To bring our little chat back to the major theme that Scot probably wanted us to consider, theodicy figures large in the disagreement between Talbott and Sanders, and is strongly connected to how the universalist claim is approached. Talbott more or less explicitly (relying on quote attributed to him by Sanders) accepts Hicks’ theodicy (evil is present so that we might be improved by doing battle against it). Sanders rejects this just as strongly as he rejects irresistible grace. As an open theist, Sanders sees love’s need for real freedom as the opening that leads to the possibility that love is rejected. God -given freedom is what explains any rejection of love by any created being. Because of love, freedom is necessary. Because of freedom, evil is possible (not necessary but unfortunately a reality).

    I’ve got to read more of “Universal Salvation?”, but, for me the essential argument will be between Talbott and Sanders. The universalist case (against Sanders’ kind of objection) would be best served by appealing to the mystery of the power of God’s love. Talbott mostly argues that our education gained through seeing the horrors that attend the rejection of God will eventually bring everyone around. I wish he would consider the possibility that the full revelation of God’s perfect love will be what does the trick. I wonder how Sanders would respond to such an argument?

    Hope we have a chance to discuss this again after more reading and consideration.

    Ever hopeful but not dogmatic,


  • Bob Wilson

    Yes, İ meant Talbott sees grace as resıstıble, yet fınds ıt ırratıonal semantıcs to ınsıst that real ‘freedom’ requıres that many must lose all possıble freedom to ever genuınely choose what ıs true and real.

    Though İ am skeptıcal that ‘the possıbılıty love ıs rejected’ can explaın all evıls, Talbott sees evıl as ınevıtable for us to freely form a genuıne self that can grow ın a free relatıonshıp wıth God. I thınk he does see a ‘fuller’ revelatıon of God`s perfect love as part of what leads us to be able to freely choose what ıs best. But lıke many Armınıans who ınsıst allowıng us to fully see the truth would rob us of the the supposed ‘freedom’ that epıstomologıcal ıgnorance preserves, Talbott may fear that a Total revelatıon of God`s perfect love would be too coercıve.

    He really ıs seekıng to preserve an Armınıan non determınıst approach for a God who seeks to save all, along wıth the Calvınıst faıth that God`s love and desıre cannot ultımately be frustrated. Most of all, to honor the texts that seem to say that all men wıll ın fact ultımately genuınely praıse God, confess Chrıst, be reconcıled and justıfıed.

    Grace be wıth you,

  • Andrew Dowling

    I would bet there are many people whose suffering is so immense they wish they’d never been born.

  • louismoreaugottschalk

    a list of the things I am greatful for really helps me get up in the morning.

  • louismoreaugottschalk

    Thx for this! I found your post to be helpful and healing esp abt ‘a demand (to god) that we have control over knowledge.’ Cognitive idolatry! Yes! That’ll preach! I’d like to throw this in the face of some athiests but you know…aw fugitaboutit!

  • louismoreaugottschalk

    I think the most mysterious things are the necessity, for me at least, to be able to forgive the crimes that have been committed against me, the poss that I can come to understand the impact & implications of the crimes I have committed, make amends for these crime, be forgiven & the ability to have a new way to be in the world: free! And, on a daily basis, maintain a healthy emotional & mental state of wellbeing. I think I could not do this w/out the holy spirits help!

  • Jeff Y

    “… and offers absolutely nothing by way of an explanation.”

    Actually, God does give an explanation to Job- as Fretheim notes in a phenomenal chapter on Job in Creation Untamed. The explanation is similar to Willard’s (Job 38-41) that it’s not just human freedom but God sets the whole creation free as well (this is also in line with Polkinghorne).

  • Jeff Y

    I agree with Phil on this to a degree (there is some meaning assigned by Paul and others). God also gives freedom to Creation and the very nature of the creation is that it is dangerous. At the same time, the resurrection changes everything. It is the way God will ultimately bring about ‘meaning’ to humanity in Christ. It, in essence, changes the game. It’s not a one at bat, one strike you’re out. It’s a much longer horizon than that (it’s an endless game after that first inning; and all the other innings are better as we become transformed in the first). This doesn’t mean there is no suffering but that any suffering can and will have a greater purpose. Nor, of course, does it mean God inflicts such but that he gives freedom even to creation and that there is an interconnectedness to human sin and creation’s brokenness (though this is not a one-to-one, neat correspondence; it is more of a tapestry). This is part of Fretheim’s argument in Creation Untamed and his larger work on the Old Testament. Further, as Wright notes, Jesus on the cross is in fact God doing something about evil – defeating it, in fact. He suffers with, for and on behalf of the creation.

    This is not a full or complete answer. But it is part. Another part of the answer is that we are horribly finite creatures who have little clue about the future God has in store or how he will put the world to rights (as Wright likes to say). But, the cross and resurrection are sufficient for us to trust that God is ultimately benevolent (e.g., Romans 5:1-11). In fact, Psalm 88, the darkest most despairing of all Psalms, is indicative that suffering is meaningless if only this life is in view (see esp. 88:10-12 – and the emphasis on death as the greatest despair). But, resurrection changes the equation and outlook. It doesn’t directly lessen suffering or our cries for help and despair – but it does help us hold on in a sea of doubt and suffering – to trust that there is a future beyond just death (any death of any human). In fact, all deaths are terrible, not just child deaths. The death of a parent for a child can be every bit as awful (especially one who has some awareness – say, a 10 or 12 year old), because a child doesn’t have as deep or broad a perspective as an adult. Resurrection however brings hope that separation of death (enemy that it remains) is not the final end of relationships – but only temporary separations. And, in light of eternity, a human lifetime becomes infinitesimally small. Still difficult and painful but hopeful as well.

  • Jeff Y

    No – there is still mystery. But, Fretheim was the first I came across who questioned the “no explanation from God” view (which I had always just assumed).