I mentioned previously that most apologists argue that the reason God allows evil is that it is a greater good for God to allow evil than to create a world where evil is impossible. For God to create a world with significantly free beings, He must allow these free beings to use their free will wrongly (or He hasn’t given free will in the first place). Christians believe, in fact, that that is exactly what Adam and Eve did. They used their free will wrongly and so plunged us into suffering and death. But, with all the horrors that this misuse of free will has wrought, it is preferable to a world without significantly free beings.
So now we come to Ehrman’s only relevant criticism of the greater good theodicy. He writes, “I am absolutely opposed to the idea that we can universalize this observation by saying that something good always comes out of suffering. The reality is that most suffering is not positive, does not have a silver lining, is not good for the body or soul, and leads to wretched and miserable, not positive, outcomes” (155-156).1
What Ehrman is arguing about is what philosophers call “gratuitous” evil. Gratuitous evil is evil which appears to serve no “greater good.” For example, skeptics point out that sometimes fawns burn to death in a forest fire and ask what possibly good purpose could result from that? What skeptics hope to accomplish by this is to say that God isn’t good for allowing the fawn to suffer since no possible good can come from it.
I have several things to say in about this.
First, when we say that God can do all things we don’t mean things that are logically contradictory. Even God cannot make square-circles or colorless-red cars. Likewise, it wouldn’t be possible for God to let a man use his free will, say, to start a forest fire and at the same time to protect all the inhabitants of the forest unless he were to intervene miraculously for millions or billions of creatures (I say “billions” because, after all, the case could be made that He shouldn’t let beetles or butterflies burn to death). If God were to intervene like this and in countless other situations, rebellious humans would have undeniable empirical evidence of His existence which would then interfere with these rebels’ free will (they would be compelled to feign loyalty).2
Second, when humankind sinned, God cursed the ground. This presumably enabled all kinds of natural evils as a consequence of their rebellion. Once creatures rebel against God, there is no moral obligation upon Him to make the rebels’ lives joyous or even easy any more than a man has a duty to protect someone who seeks to terrorize him. Therefore, if the race of Adam suffers because God has withdrawn His protection then they should understand that as the price of rebellion. If we don’t like all the suffering that ensued from Adam and Eve’s sin then there is a cosmic lesson: Hate Sin! Learning that rebellion against God results in going it on your own outside of God’s constant protection is a “greater good” lesson available to anyone paying attention.
Third, and related to the above, it is true that many who suffer in this life won’t see good come out of it here. But, Christianity isn’t primarily about this life—as in this life on earth! Christianity is primarily concerned about eternal life and we are learning lessons here that will benefit us for eternity. One of those lessons happens to be that God is and was right all along. We are learning here to distinguish good from evil and learning to overcome evil with good (Heb. 5:14, Rom. 12:21). At the Judgment everyone will see the horror of human rebellion, and that is a greater good than God shielding all of us from the consequences of rebellion. Experience is usually a harsh teacher, but it is the most thorough teacher, and eternity will dwarf our suffering to insignificance.