Addressing the Problem of Evil and Suffering in a Moral Philosophy Class

I’ve long believed that in light of the great number of young people who reject their faith as college students or young adults, we need to ask ourselves two questions: What are we doing to help nominally Christian young people come to a true faith in Christ? And what are we doing to help youthful genuine Christians go deeper in exploring Scripture, learning sound theology, and developing a truly Christian worldview, not a superficial one?

In my book If God Is Good, I explain that having grown up in a non-Christian home, and still vividly remembering my unbelief as a young teenager, I’m convinced that Christianity’s explanation of why evil and suffering exist beats that of any other worldview. Its explanation of why we can expect God to forever deliver His redeemed people from evil and suffering is better still. The answers revealed in Scripture not only account for how the world is, they offer the greatest hope for where the world is headed.

Not long ago I came across a blog post from Ryan MacPherson, who teaches American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College. Ryan describes how the usual book he used for his Moral Philosophy class went out of print, and he was seeking an alternative, “out of the box” text for his students. Here’s an excerpt from his blog, describing how he ended up using If God Is Good:

If God Is GoodAt the suggestion of my wife, I read Randy Alcorn’s If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil. I was impressed in several ways:

  • Alcorn makes the Problem of Evil accessible to a broad audience. (The famous “Problem” is this: If God exists, and God is almighty, and God is loving, then how can evil exist?)
  • Alcorn explores a wide variety of attempted solutions to the Problem of Evil, and analyzes them both philosophically and theologically.
  • Although Alcorn is a Christian, he provides a fair representation of the views of atheists and agnostics. The fact that he is a Christian convert who previously was in their camp perhaps makes him more sensitive to their point of view.
  • Although Alcorn leans toward Calvinism, he provides a fair-minded assessment of Arminianism and also acknowledges criticisms of Calvinism. In fact, he suggests a nuanced spectrum, distinguishing how Calvinists define their own position versus how their position appears from the vantage point of Arminians, and vice versa. Aside from helpfully analyzing this particular topic (divine sovereignty vs. human freedom), Alcorn’s framework provides a model for fostering a balanced discussion of other topics as well.
  • In the end, Alcorn lets Scripture speak for itself, and does not attempt to over-explain the paradox of God’s sovereignty and human freedom, or the implications of this paradox for the philosophical issues involving free will and moral responsibility.

Throughout the book, Alcorn also cites major philosophers and theologians from the past and present, including many of the philosophers whom my students are studying. Although his book is by no means a survey text for an introductory course in philosophy, it did serve as a pedagogical complement to the primary texts I assigned to my students and the classroom discussions that we had concerning those texts.

Two Bonus Benefits

In addition to serving well as a supplementary text for a moral philosophy course, Alcorn’s If God Is Good also provided two other advantages that confirmed my decision to assign his book rather than following the latest trends in the textbook industry.

First, he wove together numerous people and concepts that constitute “cultural literacy.” In other words, he helped my students to navigate their world. He expanded their horizons. And isn’t that what any college course should accomplish? If my students did not already know the following people, they do now.

  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  • Alvin Plantiga
  • Benjamin Warfield
  • C. S. Lewis
  • Carl Sagan
  • Charles Finney
  • Charles Spurgeon
  • Chuck Colson
  • Cicero
  • Corrie ten Boom
  • David Livingstone
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Dinesh D’Souza
  • Elisabeth Elliot
  • Fanny Crosby
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • G. K. Chesterton
  • Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
  • Helen Keller
  • J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Joel Osteen
  • John Calvin
  • John Piper
  • Jonathan Edwards
  • Joni Aereckson Tada
  • Joseph Stalin
  • Justin Martyr
  • Mao Zedong
  • Molech
  • Peter van Inwagen
  • Pol Pot
  • Richard Baxter
  • Richard Wurmbrand
  • Sam Harris
  • Samuel Rutherford
  • Vladimir Lenin
  • Voltaire
  • Wayne Grudem

Second, If God Is Good reinforces the chief mission of Christian education. As much as I appreciate the personal attention that I can provide to students because I teach at a small college, and as exciting as it is that about nine out of every ten graduates become employed in their preferred field soon after graduation, or else get admitted to their first choice among graduate schools, none of these “success statistics” matters as much as the main reason why Christian education should be treasured. Put frankly, Christian education matters because people die. It happens every semester. Usually someone’s grandparent. Sometimes a parent or a sibling. Sometimes even a classmate. Most recently, it was my faculty colleague. And so the question arises: If God is good, then why does He permit evil and suffering? Why death? Why this person’s death today, why now?

Philosophers have vexed over these questions. Second-rate theologians have side-stepped the real issues. Alcorn’s If God Is Good takes seriously the confusion and doubts that people have about God’s existence, about His love, and about a whole host of other issues centering around God’s nature, man’s nature, and the relationship between the two. Ultimately, Alcorn guides his readers back to Scripture, where the mystery is revealed in part even while some paradoxes remain. “Those without a biblically grounded theology of suffering are always just one accident, disease, natural disaster, or combat fatality away from losing their faith,” warns Alcorn. On the other hand, those who understand from Scripture that God works all things for the good of His children (Romans 8:28) will experience hardships differently—rather than losing their faith, they will grow in their trust that God is almighty, that God is gracious, that God is in control, and that even when the evils and tragedies of this world do not make sense to us—why would a loving God permit such suffering?—God and His saints ultimately will overcome and obtain the victory.

Alcorn connects a wealth of Scripture passages, wisdom from the great theologians of the ages, and the raw experiences of people who have suffered greatly in order to provide comfort, courage, and above all Christ to readers who are struggling with hardships and temptations. That alone makes the book worth reading. The fact that he interweaves major themes from influential philosophers, past and present, makes the book also suitable as a supplemental text for a philosophy course in ethics. (For those desiring to continue the discussion, I’d also recommend his books entitled Happiness and Heaven.)

Excerpted from Ryan C. MacPherson, "Moral Philosophy beyond the Textbook," (C) 2016 Into Your Hands LLC, used by permission.

Thanks, Ryan, for your kind words. I’m honored that If God Is Good was used in your class!

If you’d like to check it out, the book is available from our ministry in paperback. Also available are 90 Days of God’s Goodness, ideal for those who want to digest key sections from the larger book in a daily reading format; and The Goodness of God, a specially focused condensation of If God Is Good, which also includes additional material. Many people have also handed out the If God Is Good booklets.

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries