Why Would God Create Such a Broken World?

(Note: "Tom" is not a single real person. However, he is the fictional dialogue partner I sometimes use to share questions and responses I've received from those wrestling with Christianity with identifying details removed.)

Dear Tom,

You wrote asking one of the big questions, that of the relationship of God and evil. If I have it right, you’re wrestling not so much with how God could allow some amount of evil in His creation, but more with why He would create such a broken world in the first place. What does it say about the character and actions of God that he made us, knowing full well the genocide, hatred, war, and poverty we would inflict on each other? More specifically, can we worship a being with such a character?

As you say, those are incredibly hard questions and no human can give a full accounting of them. Any God we can completely explain is a fabrication of our own minds. That said, it is a deeply human question, and I’ll try to give some thoughts below. They come out of my own wrestling and reflection on pain. Hear these at gestures towards pieces of possibilities. In addition, I’m aware of the limitations of words and ideas in such a discussion. These are question about the heart and the will as much as the intellect, and while I’ll try to address all three, I’m sure I will fall short.

So how could God create a world with so much evil? You mention perhaps the most popular answer—that of free choice, whether of human beings or of Satan as the agent of temptation in the fall of humanity. This idea is where apologists often encamp: that in order to be free we must be able to do terrible things, but that freedom (and hence freely being able to enter into a relationship of love) is so cosmically valuable that God permits all of the evil simply because of the magnitude of the good.

That answer is not wrong per se. However, it has always struck me as unsatisfactory. In the first place, nothing says that freedom necessitates the capacity to commit the magnitude of evil we see in our world. I don’t see why God could have created a world where we were free to rebel while being impotent to do much damage in that rebellion. At the very least, I’m sure His infinite intelligence could have concocted a creation where gunpowder, mustard gas and the splitting of atoms would not have the capacities for destruction they possess.

In addition, it implies that God’s morality with regards to freedom is different than ours. We all intuit that the freedom of the rapist to commit his preferred evil is not somehow more valuable than the innocence and dignity of his victim, which is why we deprive him of that freedom. God’s law seems to agree with that assessment. So why would his valuation work any differently on a cosmic scale?

None of the above means that the human capacity to make choices is completely disconnected from the discussion of evil. Certainly, Scripture sees the origin of the world’s brokenness in Adam’s choice to rebel against God. Neither the Lord nor the devil “made him do it,” even if they both in different ways gave the opportunity for the rebellion (God in creating the tree and the actors and giving the command, and Satan in encouraging its breach). However, none of that addresses the real question. Why would God create the world (and us) with the capacity for such an amount of rebellion and destruction? To that, let me make a couple of imperfect and incomplete observations.

First, before addressing the specific question, it is worth reflecting on the reality that, whatever we say about evil in the world, it is also essential to recognize in it enormous good. Sunrises and ice crystals, the blazing sun and the warmth of human touch, apples and cardamom and bread and beer, the buoyancy of laughter and the feeling of relief after tears, toddlers and orgasms and old friendships and loyal pets and human forgiveness and charity and the white foam on ocean waves and all of the rest of it—there is a nearly infinite catalogue of such joys. None of those undo the sorrow—don’t hear me starting here as the set-up for a dismissal of your struggles. However, it is a crucial balancing perspective. One of the tools evil uses to destroy us is its self-magnification. We become so focused on the flaw that we cannot perceive the otherwise-beautiful face on which it lies. To let what is wrong crowd out our capacity to appreciate what is right is the first step of despair, and it needs to be guarded against. We must be asking how to explain a God that imbues creation with the potential for both beauty and brokenness, not just the latter.

That said, here is the heart of my answer. I believe that at least some of our struggle comes from thinking about the question the wrong way. When discussing evil, both Christianity’s detractors and its defenders tend toward what I think of as the reasoning of the mathematician. In a mathematical approach to evil, we take the work of creation as one side of an equation and the current state of the world, broken by sin, on the other and ask why God would do such a sum. The skeptic answers, “He couldn’t.” The apologist insists he can. I don’t think we can ever do such calculus while maintaining the visceral hatred of evil which we see in God’s self-revelation.

The problem with this mathematical approach is that it treats the question in terms of two individual points: one in eternity past (God’s decision to create) and the other in the present. This is flawed because it views God as timeless in the sense of being absent from or prior to time rather than in its proper sense of encompassing and transcending it. The Lord includes both the end and the beginning, the past and present and future, all together as a whole. Or, to put it differently, whatever God’s reasoning, it resembles that of an author much more than a mathematician.

In the reasoning of the author, no single point can fully explain the story. Indeed, any single page is incomplete to near-absurdity. It is only by considering the full arc of the narrative that we can understand what sort of book he or she is trying to write. When considered as a whole, what does God as an author intend to tell us in His story about why He permits evil?

First, God is telling a story not about creating evil but about triumphing over it. Inasmuch as rebellion is a feature of the tale, it exists because it will be overcome, firstly by God reconciling the rebels back to Himself, and secondarily by defeating those who refuse such reconciliation and wiping creation clean of the scars we leave. God invents villains so that they can be overthrown. We cannot adequately explain the existence of evil in the present without remembering that it is a heartbreaking but temporary phenomenon. You cannot judge a story by the conflict in the middle; you can only understand what the author is up to by reading through to the end.

If the world were as broken as it was and there was not resurrection and new creation and an eternity of peace and communion with the Father afterwards, the Bible’s story would not make sense. It isn’t supposed to. If what’s lost is not restored, then God is capricious and mean. But Scripture insists from first to last that it will be restored and even exceeded, which means that we cannot reason only from the present state of things but must include the final state as well.

While I realize it risks skewing into speculation, I think that the narrative of God’s victory also helps us understand why God allows His creatures such a capacity to embody so much evil. In an equation, it makes sense that God would minimize the brokenness. However, if the story is ultimately on of healing, then the depth of the disease demonstrates the grace of the cure. We all have some instinct that “happily ever after” is sweetest only after the battle with the vicious dragon; the pain and conflice in the end serve to magnify the joy.

So the narrative of victory is part of the answer, yet left on its own it could easily leave God seeming as a dispassionate author magnifying the depth of our suffering so that, with a flourish of a pen and a literal deus ex machina, it could be undone. We must add to this the remarkable truth that this story hinges on God as the author Himself entering into it both emotionally and physically.

It is common to speak of the incarnation and death of Jesus with the same mathematical tone as we do the existence of evil. God was left with a sort of cosmic deficit if He wanted to work forgiveness, so after fretting over the numbers for a while, He concludes that the only way to balance things is to die on our behalf. Now, whether God could have done differently than He did to atone for us is not something any human being can speculate upon. That said, I think Scripture would encourage us to view God’s entering of history and bearing our sins on the cross not as a mathematical necessity so much as a self-revealing choice. God in His freedom decided that the way He would achieve His victory (while being the sort of author He is) was to Himself be subject to the cruelty and brokenness of the evil He overcomes.

The ultimate question we must grapple with when confronting the God of Scripture is not “what sort of God would create such a world” but “what sort of God would knowingly enter it and be killed by it?” The answer to the latter question is still mysterious—perhaps moreso since the former sort of being is closer to our own instincts. Yet it is a question with an entirely different tone. Whatever we might say of God, He is not dispassionate or uninvolved. From the beginning of the Bible, we see God’s heart in the game with His creatures, sympathizing and condescending toward them. In Jesus, we see Him put literal skin in the game as well. What sort of God would create our earth, knowing Adam would sin and the terrible consequences that would result? The sort of God who would both send and go as Himself to die on it and work its salvation.

Even with all of the above, you might still be left with the question, “But why?” Understanding God as a storyteller might help explain the shape of the plot, but I realize some part of your wrestling is really “Why tell such a story at all?”

The answer to this ultimate question, while hazy to our creaturely eyes, must exist within God Himself. The historic Christian confession is that God is not only eternal being but also eternal relationship, with Father and Son loving each other and the Spirit existing as the love between them both, loving both as a fellow-person with them. While God Himself does not exist within narrative (since the relationship between the three is always perfect and narrative requires a movement toward greater perfection), this relationship has a deeply dramatic force. Creation is the spilling-forth of this relationship given form in time and thus given a story. The Father is glorified and glorifies the Son by overcoming all enemies; the Son is glorified and glorifies the Father by triumphing over His foes through submission and resurrection; the Spirit is glorified and glorifies both by applying this victory to us as God’s image-bearers and drawing us into the loving relationship of the Father and the Son. Or, to put it more simply, the triune God creates for the same reason that every great artist creates: to take the beauty that exists within oneself and to give it form beyond oneself.

Again, it is essential to remember that from this perspective we must view Christianity as a complete story even though we are presently in the middle of it. Evil’s ascendancy in the present cannot define our vision of the future. Thus one of the fundamental Christian virtues has always been hope; we are living in the light of an ending not yet realized. It is also the proper meaning of faith, as the author of Hebrews tells us—a commitment to trust the author while the denouement is yet to come.

Three final notes that I would add, in addition to the above.

First, none of what I’ve said is meant to fully answer the question we feel. Indeed, we cannot answer it in the way I think many of us wish. We have the mistaken instinct that the answer will make us feel “okay” with evil and suffering. This cannot be the case, since God Himself abhors the sin and death He nonetheless includes in the story He weaves. Any solution that removes our outrage or grief is in fact anti-Christian. However, my hope is that the above offers some glimpses of a part of an answer that allows us to love God and others in the present (since God is a fellow-sufferer) and hope for true transformation in the future (since His story is one of resurrection and the ultimate victory of life).

Second, it is worth remembering that, as we are God’s image-bearers and caught up in His story, another answer to the question of evil in Scripture is always meant to be us. When we confront a specific instance of brokenness in creation and ask, “Jesus, why aren’t you doing anything about it?” His answer to us as His body on earth is, “Yes, why aren’t you?” Of course, we as believers cannot usher in utopia or overcome all that is wrong in the world, nor are we expected to. Trying to be the earth's savior will destroy you. However, there is a specific sort of frustration over suffering that is born not from God’s inaction but as an excuse for ours, and we always need to watch out for it.

Lastly, it is also worth wrestling with what story we would put in the place of Christianity as we confront the brokenness (and beauty) of the world. Especially in our culture, the idea seems to be that the secular, materialistic frame could provide a better way of working good in the universe. That has always seemed to me the greatest of oddities—a tale whose foundation is that molecules bump into each other without purpose or meaning until, eventually, some of them decided some stuff about right and wrong which we should all now work to realize is hardly the stuff to mobilize us for action against tyrrany and injustice. Obviously many secular people do great good in the world, as do people of all faiths, and we should be inspired and challenged by them, but I worry that they are largely relying on borrowed resources which with time will slip away. Any change of worldview should ask us to confront both the weaknesses of our old one and the weaknesses of the new; we should doubt our doubts as well as our beliefs.

In looking over all of the above, I cannot help but feel that it is still insufficient. It is incredibly difficult to address these questions because, when asked correctly, they marry a puzzled mind and an aching heart. More than that, I am deeply aware that it wanders into the territory of answering for the divine where He has not necessarily answered Himself, something I tremble to do. That said, I pray you find it useful and would love to dialogue more.

In Christ, the Victory of God,