The problem of evil presents a greater apologetic challenge to the Christian faith than any other. It is a hard thing to wrap your head around. How is it that God, who is by nature, all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing, could allow evil to exist in the world? It is pretty easy to affirm any two of those three characteristics at the same time and understand how evil exists.
Consider if God was only morally perfect and all-powerful, but He was not all-knowing. In that situation, evil could clearly exist, and perhaps God simply was not aware of it. That dodges the problem of evil.
If God was morally perfect and all-knowing but not omnipotent, He may know about evil and want to stop it, but it may be too strong. Again, that avoids the problem.
If God is all-knowing and omnipotent but not all-good, then there is no reason to expect that you might want to eliminate all evil. Without moral perfection, there would certainly be no expectation that he would eliminate evil and therefore no problem of evil.
The Christian faith cannot accept only two of those three characteristics though. Our God is indeed morally perfect, all-knowing and all-powerful. Therefore, we have to deal with the problem of evil. Other religions might not have to. When you think about the ancient Greeks, their pantheon of gods didn’t have any of these characteristics. Their gods did morally questionable things all the time, none of them were omnipotent as there always at war with each other and it was possible to deceive them implying they were not omniscient. Of course there is no problem of evil when you cannot expect your deities to do anything about evil.
The Christian faith must answer this question, and G.K. Chesterton attempted to do so at the end of The Man Who Was Thursday. If you haven’t read the book, here is a very brief summary that will contain spoilers. The protagonist, Syme, is an undercover detective who is assigned to infiltrate an anarchist conspiracy. He joins the group by unseating a fellow contender named Gregory and consequently embarks on a mission to prevent an assassination. Needless to say, he encounters multiple obstacles on this journey, and at the end of the story, it turns out that Sunday, the chief anarchist, is also the one who had originally assigned Syme to join the anarchists in the first place in order to take it down. I understand from people who know a lot more about Chesterton than I do that there is a great deal of discussion as to what Sunday really represents, but Syme asked him questions at the end of the book that sound an awful lot like Job speaking to God about why he had to go through so many difficult times. Sunday’s answer applies to the real world problem of evil as well.
Gregory begins the final dialogue by accusing Syme and Sunday of being too happy. “The unpardonable sin of the supreme power is that it is supreme. I do not curse you for being cruel. I do not curse you (though I might) for being kind. I curse you for being safe! You sit in your chairs of stone, and have never come down from them. You are the seven angels of heaven, and you have had no troubles. Oh, I could forgive you everything, you that rule mankind, if I could feel for once that you had suffered for one hour a real agony such as I—“
This sounds very much like Satan’s accusation of Job. Of course it was easy for Job to be faithful because God had blessed him with family, wealth and general safety. We hear this accusation today as well. I have had people tell me that essentially they have personal disputes with God. They allege that God will a lot to answer for if He is real because of all the difficult situations they had to go through. That spirit of rebellion is embedded in this attack from Gregory.
The Third-Party Defense
Syme immediately objects to this characterization and launches into a theodicy of his own. “Why does a dandelion have to fight the whole universe? For the same reason that I had to be alone in the dreadful Council of the Days. So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist. So that each man fighting for order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter. So that the real lie of Satan may be flung back in the face of this blasphemer, so that by tears and torture we may earn the right to say to this man, ‘You lie! No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, ‘We also have suffered.’”
He hypothesizes that perhaps the reason for so much evil is that those who ultimately stand for what is right and need to be able to say that they did not receive any preferential treatment. Gregory is saying that Syme had an easy life, and he knows that that is untrue. This entire story documents the trials and tribulations Syme had to persevere through. Therefore, he supposes that perhaps the entire reason that he had to go through all of this suffering was so that he could stand up to the charge of Gregory. Gregory would not be the only one to lay claim to the virtues of bravery and courage because he was the anarchist. It would be problematic if the rebel was the only one who could espouse good virtues; those who embrace order necessarily needed to be able to lay claim to the same virtues.
At this point, everyone understands that Sunday was the architect behind everything that took place. As a result, all of the struggles that Syme had to handle were a direct consequence of the situation that Sunday had put him in. In terms of theodicy, this is quite a bit like the situation that some would say God is in. How is it the case that God could put people in situations that cause them so much pain? Syme’s response is quite similar to what has been referred to as a soul-making theodicy.
In other words, God allows trials to come into our lives because they help us develop into better people. There are virtues that can only be cultivated sometimes by experiencing difficulty. Consider the value of courage. It has no value if it is never tested in a situation where one would need it. We don’t know we have it until we actually need it. Consider the value of sympathy. We could never develop our sympathy if they were never other people that we had to be sympathetic towards, and the only reason they need sympathy is if there is some difficulty they are experiencing.
This idea of a soul-making theodicy is not Sunday’s response to the accusation. In fact, he never responds to Gregory’s charge whatsoever. His only response comes to a direct question from Syme when he is asked if he has ever suffered.
“As he gazed, the great face grew to an awful size, grew larger than the colossal mask of Memnon, which had made him scream as a child. It grew larger and larger, filling the whole sky; then everything went black. Only in the blackness before it entirely destroyed his brain he seemed to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere, ‘Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?’”
This reference directly ties to the narrative dictated in Mark 10:37-40 (NIV).
“They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’ ‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said. ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?’ ‘We can,’ they answered. Jesus said to them, ‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.’”
The implication is obvious. Sunday does understand suffering, and anyone who is going to follow him had to be prepared to do the same. Much in the way that Jesus Christ understood human suffering, Sunday understood the suffering of Syme.
This doesn’t seem to be a straightforward affirmation of a soul-making theodicy though. Otherwise, he could have simply agreed that all of the suffering was to help Syme develop certain character traits. He only answers by asking a question. He asks if Syme can drink of the same cup that he did. That certainly points to the fact that anything that Syme had experienced up until that point was insufficient. He may have gone through suffering, but Sunday essentially challenges him by asking if he was prepared to do what Sunday himself had already done.
Is the Problem a Problem?
In this response lies the answer to the question of evil in the world. Has anyone ever experienced suffering in the way that Jesus Christ did on the cross? Has anyone had that experience of taking on all the sin of the world? The answer to those questions has to be negative. None of us have ever had the experience of being the morally perfect victim punished for a crime that we didn’t commit.
Therefore, we undoubtedly can drink our own cup that very well can be full of suffering, but our cup pales in comparison to the one that Jesus Himself handled for you and for me. What right do we have to than complain about anything? We can say that God doesn’t understand, but in reality, it is the other way around. Our human minds cannot comprehend the degree to which Jesus Christ suffered on the cross for each one of us. We cannot comprehend what it must have felt like to have the weight of all of the sin of all of humanity of all time on our shoulders.
Soul-making therefore doesn’t seem to be the chief way that Chesterton attempts to explain the problem of evil. If it was, then it seems like Sunday would have simply agreed with Syme and moved on. However, that was not how the answered the question. Instead, he treated him very much like God treated Job. Until you are in the position of God Himself, your perspective on suffering is insufficient. God never really told Job why everything was happening to him in the way that it did, but He practically reminded him that He was God and that should be enough.
The problem of evil is undoubtedly a problem for the Christian, but it is only a problem for those who are determined to understand every reason. Chesterton does not seem to be as concerned with providing some type of absolute reason. He doesn’t ultimately assume that God must be allowing things to happen for the development of one’s soul. He doesn’t want to put God in the box which is a theme that is prominent throughout all of Chesterton’s written work. He preferred to be in wonder of how God worked.
Interestingly, this is not the product of pure anti-intellectualism or something much more nefarious like that. Rather, Chesterton understood his place in the universe, and even when we think we understand God perfectly, we very well might not. Our conceptions can only put God in the box, so we do our best to understand all that we can, and from what I understand, Chesterton defends a variation of the free will defense in other works. However, that being said, humility is a large part of understanding the problem of evil. We try to understand why God might allow certain things to happen, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, Chesterton’s corrective through The Man Who Was Thursday reminds us to focus on what is truly important. Our suffering pales in comparison to what God Himself willingly entered into, and that ought to tell us something about the problem of evil. God is with us even in the dark times and therefore the problem of evil fails based on the character of God.
 G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2011), 156, Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., 157.
 Ibid., 157-158.