Mars Hill Forum #119 at Brooklyn College – If There is a God, Why Does Evil Exist?

John C. Rankin

On Thursday, November 9, 2006, I addressed Mars Hill Forum #119 at Brooklyn College in Brooklyn, NY, sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship: “If There is a God, Why Does Evil Exist?” Brooklyn College is a commuter campus, and the sponsors were delighted with a mid-afternoon turnout of more than 100 people.

The response was very good. Let me give two wonderful examples.

First, after the forum, an agnostic Jewish man talked with me for awhile, and the more he talked the more he rejected agnosticism in his own thinking process. He then said that if he ever became a believer, he would choose Christianity because it offers a personal relationship with God through Jesus. He concluded our talk with “God bless you.”

Second, a Muslim Imam was also present, said he learned much, and has invited me to speak at his Mosque in Brooklyn, “in a place of honor.”

My guest was associate Professor Richard Brown, a very pleasant young man and an agnostic. Afterward, at a reception at the department of philosophy, he said that he deeply admired what I do – being accountable to tough questions on a range of issues in places where skeptics are at home or made to feel welcome.

His opening argument was that the best of all possible worlds would be where a God makes us free, but we do not use that freedom to do evil. He does not want to say that such a God prohibits us from saying no to freedom, but how otherwise would evil not be chosen? If we cannot say no to something, it has in fact been imposed on us. And Professor Brown does not like imposition, nor do any of us. I asked him if such a theory has ever been shown in reality. He could not say it has. In fact, he began by talking about concrete acts of evil in world history, and in his own life (as a young boy, he was threatened with a beating if he did not say his prayers – in other words, imposition). When I asked him about his theory, he said philosophy deals with ideas not facts. Yet it is the fact of evil that we all are concerned about. Biblical theology deals with ideas and facts, or as it has been stated elsewhere, “ideas have consequences.”

In the Bible, God is free, and we as his image-bearers are given the freedom to eat of the good fruit in the Garden of Eden, and of the tree of life. We are also warned not to eat the forbidden fruit that leads to death, but we were given the power to choose death.

So is God free to do evil? No. For to do evil is to become a slave to it, and the Bible shows that slavery is the defining nature of evil. And God is not a slave to anyone or anything, or else he would not be God. In the mythology of pagan deities, they are slaves to their own caprice, and they treat men and women as slaves.

What is good and evil? Life is good, and death is evil. Love is good, and hatred is evil (unless it is redemptive hatred of hatred which is love). Trust is good, and distrust is evil. The right is good, and the wrong is evil. Freedom is good, and slavery is evil. The proactive is good, and the reactive is evil. Light is proactive and good, and ethically speaking, darkness is reactive and evil. Light has an atomic weight, and darkness does not, therefore by definition darkness flees the presence of light. In physics, heat is good and cold is evil. All chemical reactions in a universe that support life require heat. At -460 degrees Fahrenheit, absolute zero, no chemical reactions can happen and therefore life is not possible.

These couplets sum up much reality, but simply we can say this: Evil cannot exist by itself, for it is inherently non-life giving and destructive; evil can only exist because good exists first.

Back to the question of freedom. Unless we are free to say no to God, then we are slaves, robots, puppets or animals. And if God forced us to do the good, then he would be evil because love is a gift, not forced, and in this “if” scenario, God could not exist nor could the universe. So it would be a moot issue. Forced love is rape, and that is the nature of much pagan mythology.

The great reality is this – since God’s love gives us all the good, and since love cannot be forced without becoming evil, we as finite beings are not fully free unless we have the power to say no to freedom and the good. God loves us enough to let us say no, and when we reap the fruit of broken trust, God loves us again and sends Jesus who alone can take all evil onto himself, die in our stead, and rise again to offer us new life. This is reality, and it is the only way to address broken trust and evil, which all of humanity knows well. So I concluded the afternoon by pointing at the power of the cross.

So what is the origin of evil? It lies in the fact that God is good, his love is a gift, and to be free to enter into real love, we need to have the freedom to choose no to it.