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What is the Problem of Evil? – Owen Anderson

Home » What is the Problem of Evil? – Owen Anderson

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Anderson on how to make sense of evil and suffering.

Topics of conversation include:

  • How the story of Job speaks to the problem of evil
  • The difference between discipline and punishment
  • What the story of Job teaches us about ourselves and about God
  • Philosophical resources for understanding the problem of evil.

Dr. Owen Anderson is professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, and serves as adjunct faculty at Phoenix Seminary. He has been a visiting scholar at Princeton Seminary, as well as a fellow at both Princeton University and University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the author of several books, including The Natural Moral Law: The Good After Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 2012), The Declaration of Independence and God: Self-Evident Truths in American Law (Cambridge University Press, 2015), and Job: A Philosophical Commentary (Logos Papers Press, 2021). Dr. Anderson holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Arizona State University.


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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:17):

The problem of evil is one of the greatest philosophical challenges to the Christian faith. This problem dates back to the ancient world, and is found in its classic form in the Greek philosopher, Epicurus, who asked—is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then where does evil come from? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God? For millennia, atheists have found the problem of evil to be one of their greatest arguments against the existence of God. And many Christians have struggled to understand why God allows all the evil in the world. It is important for Christians to have a robust answer to this question, both for their own souls and as an apologetic to those who stumble over this problem.

Brian Arnold (01:05):

To help us understand the problem of evil, we have with us today Dr. Owen Anderson. Dr. Anderson has been teaching philosophy and religious studies for 21 years, and is a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Arizona State University, and teaches as an adjunct for us at Phoenix Seminary in philosophy and theology. He’s been a fellow and visiting scholar at Princeton University, and a fellow at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published several books, including the Declaration of Independence and God, The Natural Moral Law, and Job: A Philosophical Commentary. Dr. Anderson, welcome to the podcast.

Owen Anderson (01:40):

Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.

Brian Arnold (01:42):

Well, our big question today is this—what is the problem of evil? Well, let’s start broadly. Can you first summarize for us what the problem of evil is?

Owen Anderson (01:51):

Yeah. I think you gave a great quotation there, which is what is used to explain the logical problem sometimes—how can there be evil if we say God is both all good, all powerful, all knowing? But I think there’s also something we might call the existential problem of evil, which is maybe where we feel it first. And that is—how do I make sense of suffering? So that’s not the same as the practical problem of how do I avoid suffering. I get a headache, I take some Tylenol, and now my headache’s gone, hopefully. But the problem isn’t just how to solve headaches. The problem is—why is there suffering in the world at all? And how can I make sense of my life?

Brian Arnold (02:28):

And it’s one of those questions that we can have and view it academically. Here’s the deductive problem of evil, as we just kind of ran through. If this is true, if this is true, then why does evil exist? Therefore, God doesn’t exist. But it’s, like you said, when suffering hits our own life, and we’re having to grapple with—why did God allow this to happen to me? And even if we have a category for that, sometimes it feels like it piles on so much that it’s like, “Okay, Lord, relent! Why is it this much evil in my life?”

Owen Anderson (02:57):

And especially my life, or those I love, those that are closest to me. For a parent, it’s often the children. Parents often say, “I’d rather suffer than have my children suffer.” So we’re trying to make sense of it, not just solve it. I remember hearing one time a politician say, “it doesn’t matter why there’s evil, it just matters what to do about it.” And it’s sort of the opposite, right? We could solve evil, but we still…let’s say starting today, somehow, there’s no evil ever again. But we still have our memory of the past, and what we went through. And you say, well, why did all that have to happen? Why couldn’t it have been different? Especially if we want to hold that God is in charge of all things. So I think what we can call the problem of meaning, the problem of evil is really a problem of meaning. And that’s why it’s a uniquely human problem, that doesn’t, for example…it doesn’t strike the animals in the same way, right? Animals can be good at avoiding suffering and trying to survive, but you won’t come across them reflecting on why, right? You won’t come across a field of antelope, lounging back like philosophers, asking, “why do we have to suffer and be hunted?” Right? So this is a uniquely human aspect of the problem as we try to understand things.

Brian Arnold (04:03):

Yeah, for them, suffering exists of—you’re the fattest, the slowest, the dumbest, you’re going to get eaten.

Owen Anderson (04:09):

It’s a practical reality.

Brian Arnold (04:10):

That’s right. That’s right. But we are forced to reflect more on it. Well, you’ve recently written this book on Job, and it’s a philosophical commentary. That’s your background. Most commentaries we see come from biblical exegetes, who are Old Testament scholars, who will attack it from that vantage point. So I think it’s interesting that, as a philosopher, you’ve done it. Because the story of Job is one of the greatest stories of the problem of evil in all the Bible. So why don’t you, for maybe even people listening who don’t really know the story of Job that well, kind of go through that story and why you decided to approach this book on the problem of evil through Job, and reflect on it from your vantage point.

Owen Anderson (04:53):

Yeah. That’s a great question. Just as a philosopher…and that’s why the subtitle is, “A Philosophical Commentary.” So no one says, “hey, this is a false marketing—I was looking for a linguistic commentary or historical commentary.” No, this is a philosophical commentary. And the reason why is in philosophy, and I’m…especially in the philosophy of religion, the main problem really is the problem of evil. And so here we have Job. And it’s a book that’s universally recognized to deal with that. But it’s surprising to me how rare it is for philosophers to really dig into it and see how many different kinds of solutions Job and his friends wrestle with. And then how often the ending is misunderstood by philosophers. And then dismissed by philosophers, because…it’s as if they give a poor understanding of the end, and then they dismiss it as not helpful. Instead of taking the time to understand what is going on in the book.

Owen Anderson (05:44):

So I wanted a philosophical book that really treats it like a philosophical dialogue. I mean, that’s what it is, right? It’s a dialogue. You have different people interacting, speaking, arguing with each other, just like you would in Plato. And so you could say Job is like a platonic dialogue, but really the timing is the other way around. Platonic dialogues are kind of like Job. And so I make a case in the book, that Job is the first philosopher. Aristotle said the first philosopher was Thales, and the Greek materialists like him. But I think we could get into arguments about dates about Job, but even if someone was wanting to put him really close to the Greek philosophers, he’s still before them. And not only…so he’s the first philosopher, not just in sequence of history, but also I think what he’s doing, you could call first philosophy.

Owen Anderson (06:28):

He’s dealing with the very first question that gets us into philosophy. So for that reason, I think I can put that out there and say—yeah, Job’s really the first philosopher. As philosophers, we should take care and time to study him. In fact, I love this—what God says about Job. When Satan approaches, God says, “have you considered my servant, Job?” And I take that, not just to be in that moment, like, “hey, have you, Satan, considered my servant Job?” But really for all of us—have we taken time to consider God’s servant, Job? What a title, right? And through this whole book, even with all that Job is put through, that never changes. It’s a story of God’s merciful and kind love to Job. Whereas we might initially read it as the opposite. But this is God’s servant, Job, and we should consider him.

Brian Arnold (07:15):

And as we just kind of flush out the story…and let me, just for people listening who don’t know how we kind of traditionally date Job—a lot of times we put him around the time of Abraham, which would be about 2000 BC. The Greek philosophers are not even going to start coming in for at least another thousand years. So Job really does get to that place first. And the story of Job, as it unfolds, yes, Satan comes to God, and God says, “have you considered my servant, Job?” He kind of offers him up as tribute in many ways.

Owen Anderson (07:46):

God is the one who initiates it.

Brian Arnold (07:46):

That’s right. And so then kind of unpack that story, even as you do through your book,

Owen Anderson (07:51):

Yeah. So it’s interesting, because we have that story about Satan, and he says he’s been wandering through the earth. And he comes, and God says, “well, have you considered my servant, Job?” He gives Job as an example. And so it sets for us the standard of—what is a servant of God? What should we expect as servants of God? And we might have expectations about what my life would look like. I’m a good person. I’m decent. You know, people like to be around me. I’m a nice neighbor. And so I shouldn’t suffer. And when suffering strikes my life, or strikes someone close to me, I cry out, “it’s not fair!” So we’re going to get here now, a picture of someone like that—God’s servant, Job. And it says that he’s the most blameless. I don’t read that as sinless, because then we have other problems in other parts of Scripture—here’s one sinless person. But it says that about other things, like elders should be blameless.

Owen Anderson (08:40):

So he’s a blameless person, and we’re going to see that his friends challenge that. But there’s also still sin present…Job himself, I think at the climax of the book, is Job himself repenting. So I’m laying that out there. We’ll get to that in a moment. So here’s Job, he’s going along, he’s a religious person, he’s offering sacrifices for his children. He’s worried about their piety, or maybe lack of piety, and pay attention that he knows there’s a need for vicarious atonement, right? So he sits into it, he fits into a stream that we see all the way back with Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham offering sacrifices. Something is dying in the place of someone else. So we have Job at the very beginning of the book, he knows about that already. And then he…these calamities hit. And it’s wave after wave of really bad news, right? The worst news you can get. Everything is taken from him, even his health.

Brian Arnold (09:34):

Well, because God says to him, right—to Satan—you can touch the things in his life, but you can’t touch Job.

Owen Anderson (09:41):

Right, yep. So he’s going to stay alive. Right. But he loses his stuff, his wealth, even his children and his reputation. That one stands out actually most—he actually talks about that his reputation is taken from him. And so all of these things are lost. Now real quick, let me go back to the idea of the first philosopher and the dating you gave. One other idea is that this was written by Moses, as part of the works of Moses. And so this is introducing humans to the problem that we’re all going to face at the very beginning of the Canon of Scripture, even though it’s not put there, connected to the five books of Moses. But right away, this is going to be the problem all humans face. The first thing we think of when we begin to think…we’ll be going along in our life, coasting along,

Owen Anderson (10:25):

and then—bam! Suffering makes us think. So that’s what happens with Job. Suffering happens. And he’s struck down, even so that his health is taken away. His body is covered with boils, and he can find no relief from them. And then his friends come. And he has three friends that show up there initially. And they’re called Job’s comforters. And what comforters. Their comfort is—you’re a wicked person, and you’ve done something to deserve what’s coming on you. And so there’s a great dialogue that the majority of the book of Job, and the majority of my book, the chapters are that dialogue between these three people. You can start to get a good idea of their personalities. Like Eliphaz is very refined, and he’s a little more nuanced than the other two. Zophar is very direct, a very practical person. So you can get a sense of their personalities in the dialogue. And they begin increasingly to accuse Job of some really heinous things, all the way up to just pure idolatry. Like, “you’re worshiping the moon itself.”

Brian Arnold (11:32):

Just the kind of friends you want when your life falls apart and everything’s going poorly—to have friends who come and increase in their accusations. And it’s almost how a lot of people view even God still today. Almost like karma-related. Job, you’re suffering—you must have done something bad. So I hear a lot of Christians say that. It is almost…if something’s going wrong in your life, the assumption is God is punishing you. And sometimes God may be disciplining us in certain ways, and doing that, but not through punishment. So yeah, Job’s friends are…

Owen Anderson (12:06):

Yeah. That’s what I’m going to emphasize, is that difference between disciplining and punishing, and also what it is we’re guilty for. Because just like Job’s friends, we, I think, tend to focus on what I call fruit sins. So the fruit sin is not the same as the root. I define the root sin as, the same as Paul in Romans 3:10-11—not seeking, not understanding, not doing what is right. And we usually think mostly of that last one, not doing what is right. And we say, “oh yeah, I did this wrong, this wrong, this wrong. Or the opposite—I didn’t do those things. I’m a really decent person.” So what this is going to challenge for all of us, including Job, but then all of us is—do you see where you haven’t been seeking God? And then it gets a little worse.

Owen Anderson (12:53):

You’ve deceived yourself about it. And you justified yourself to others. That’s when Job does get rebuked. “You would rather justify yourself, than justify me,” God says. And Elihu says first that you’re doing that. And then God confirms it. So that’s the…the question for us is—what will it take to break through our self-deception, our self justification, and our sin—all three of those things—to get us to accurately and honestly look at ourselves? If we did that, then we’d be in the place of Job, where we say, “I abhor myself, and I repent.” But look at all that it took for Job. It’s not like you get a little mosquito bite and it’s annoying. If it took that much for Job, we better strap in, so to speak, right? Because it’s going to…every reason to think it’s going to take that for us as well.

Brian Arnold (13:40):

Because I think people will see the bookends of Job. They see the first part, of him losing everything. And then the last part—hey, he got everything back! But even missing God’s speech to Job at the very end of the book, where Job finally throws up his hands and says, “God, what are you doing?” And then God basically says, “Gird your loins, Job. Stand there like a man, remind me, what was it like when I created the world and stretched it out?” And Job recognizes his humble estate compared to God.

Owen Anderson (14:10):

And that’s one of the things I really wanted to do in this book, that I think is unique, is many times the philosophers I’ll encounter will view that last part of Job as God shows up and flexes, and Job shuts up. And I think that’s just to miss what’s going on. And so here’s a few things that are going on. You’re right, he says, “Job, be ready to answer this.” And then he says over 70 questions, and many times saying, “have you considered?” Just like he said, “consider my servant, Job.” “Have you considered?”—to Job. And really to all of us. Beginning with the foundation of all things. God made the foundation of everything that is, which means that God was already there. God is eternal. God alone is eternal, and everything else is dependent on God. And then going there into sometimes very exquisite details about the creation.

Owen Anderson (14:53):

So what stands out to me is that God…as a philosopher, God directs Job to natural theology. He doesn’t open up and say, have you read Matthew chapter 12? I mean, obviously, right? There’s no Matthew. But he doesn’t direct him to some Scriptures. He directs Job to natural theology. Have you considered the works of God? And that’s what convicts Job. But it comes in phases, because after the first two chapters, Job’s willing to say, “okay, I’ll be quiet.” And it doesn’t stop there. God doesn’t want him to be quiet. There’s not enough. Two more chapters in, then Job says, “now I see you.” And here’s an important part of that—then he repents. Which means this is not simply instruction. You don’t repent after having received instruction. Like if I give a seminar on how to teach a philosophy class, at the end of it you don’t repent

Owen Anderson (15:39):

and say, “I can’t believe I didn’t know how to teach a philosophy class!” That’s just information. You repent when you didn’t do something you should have done. So Job is convicted that he should have already done this. And he hadn’t, and he repents and he sees his condition. So that’s where it brings…that’s where natural theology and directing his attention brings Job to. And then that’s still not the end, because then Job directs him to offer sacrifices. Right? Which is the vicarious atonement part. Which is getting into foreshadowing other things that we’ll come to know later.

Brian Arnold (16:09):

So I got a couple of questions then. So how does, in your view then, natural theology…which I want you to define for our listeners, how does that help us through the problem of evil? So if somebody is suffering right now, and they’re wondering why God has allowed this into their life, how does natural theology help them?

Owen Anderson (16:31):

Yeah, that’s a good question. So in other words, I think that one, and then also the dramatic examples of suffering are two things we’d have to address. And Job is one of those. But in The Brothers Karamazov, that’s what Ivan’s especially worried about. Ivan gives these examples of children suffering, which he says proves they’re…you can’t accept God based on those. So those two go together. I don’t know that you would sit down…this is not, say, a pastoral care book. Like someone’s suffering, you go to them, you put your arm around them and say, “hey, did you know about natural theology?” Job gets there because Job gets to a point where he’s saying of himself, “I’m right. God must be wrong.” And then God speaks. But there’s a kind of triage that we all have, where let’s say you get cut deeply.

Owen Anderson (17:17):

You’re bleeding. You go to the ER, you get it sutured up. You don’t answer like a thousand questions about what happened, you know? Oh, I slipped. Are you gonna be more careful next time? Yeah, I guess. Right? I mean, you don’t go through that. You just get the problem solved. But then you might think, once you have some time, like, wow, how did that happen? And how can I avoid it? So I don’t know that you would use this as a way to first minister to someone who’s currently in great suffering, but I guarantee they’re going to end up having questions about it. Right? And so you should be prepared to do that from Job and from that process. So it gets to this bigger question about why is there suffering in the world? The world is filled with suffering. I mean from top to bottom, you can’t avoid it. Why is the world like that? Well, the corollary is that it’s filled with sin. And we should see that as an opportunity to reflect on our own condition rather than covering it up. Which is what our parents did from the very beginning. Just cover it up. Not deal with it.

Brian Arnold (18:12):

And so just to come before God in full repentance and just to say, we’re at ourselves. Is that where you’re…?

Owen Anderson (18:19):

Yeah. That, and recognizing that the whole time, knowing God was my greatest good. That was always my greatest good. Oftentimes I’ve been redirecting my attention to something else. That’s the first and greatest commandment—to love God. And you love God as you know him through his works. His works of creation and providence, his work in redemptive history. And as I’m getting my attention onto other things, I’m not pursuing my greatest good anymore. So the problem of evil is really a question of—what will it take me to seek what is actually good, and not complain about something that really isn’t good?

Brian Arnold (18:53):

Reorienting the focus, reorienting the eyes back to God, and to see him in his greatness. Well, one of the things that I think Job does for us, the way it peels back the curtain, if you will, of this spiritual reality—we live in a world where there’s God and angels and there is Satan and there are demons, and they’re in constant conflict and war with one another. And as they peel this back, it is telling us—Satan has to go to God. Satan has to get permission. So God is still the sovereign one behind all this. And then one of the passages I want to read from the book of Job is when he’s sitting there in the ashes. He’s scraping open his boils to give himself some relief, and then his wife says to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die!”

Brian Arnold (19:36):

“But he said to her, ‘you speak as one of the foolish women should speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?'” And if you stop there, you might be able to say, well, Job is really in this place of crisis, and of course he said that, but he shouldn’t have said that. But then the Holy Spirit, the ultimate author of Scripture, says, “in all this, Job did not sin with his lips.” When he says, “Shall we receive good and not evil from God?” So what does this tell us about God? I mean, I know we only have a few minutes left, but I think this is a really important question from the book of Job—that God is…if he’s still sovereign over all these things, even the activities of the devil. So what do we do with that?

Owen Anderson (20:15):

In other words, Christianity is not dualism. It’s not that there’s two equally eternal powers, good and evil, fighting. God alone is eternal. God created all things. God is sovereignly in charge. So where do we go with that? How do we understand that God’s in charge of all things? I also quote in here a verse from Amos, where Amos…after having described judgments on Israel, God says, “I’m wooing you back to me.” So it’s almost like an orientation of our perspective to see that this is God’s tender care in the life of his servants, to bring them to where they need to be, while they’re kicking and screaming, so to speak. That’s the opposite of it being God hating you, or getting you. It’s—you want to be here, you should be here. This is what it’s going to take to get you there. And there is a greater understanding of who God is, so that you can say, “Now I see you.” That can’t be a visible see, right.

Owen Anderson (21:06):

Because they say God speaks out of the whirlwind. It’s not as if there’s a guy over there with a toga on, and Job says, “Oh, there he is.” Job now understands in a greater way, and he repents of not having done that. And this is what it took. So here…I guess here’s a question you might want to ask—is it worth it? Someone could say, I don’t…it’s not worth it. I think it depends when you ask the question. If you were tell Job ahead of time, he might say it’s not worth it. And there’s times in the middle where he might say it’s not worth it. But if you ask Job at the end, “Hey, was all this worth it?” I don’t think you have any doubt. You get a resounding yes, this was worth it.

Brian Arnold (21:41):

And that orientation of the fact that God is always for us, Satan is always against us. I think about the story of some one like Joseph, who suffered greatly at the hands of his brothers. They sell him into slavery. And when they’re reconciled again in Genesis 50:20, Joseph says to his brothers, “you meant this for evil, but God meant it for good.” And even in Job’s life, Satan means it for evil, God means it for good. So he allows these moments of trials and suffering to come into our life, ultimately for our good and his glory, but his motivation behind it is for our good.

Owen Anderson (22:14):

Yeah. And I think in sin, sin like inversing—sin calls good, evil and evil, good. And so in sin, we complain about the very thing that we need, because of our sin. So what I’m doing here is…so it might sound like a greater, what’s called a greater good solution, which says evil is justified because of some greater good. It kind of is. But it also isn’t, because those solutions state they’re okay with staying ambiguous. For all we know there’s a greater good. I’m spelling it out—the greater good is the knowledge of God through the works of God. Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. That’s the greater good that explains these other things. I think you do have to be explicit like that about what it is—what is it that God’s working together for the good?

Brian Arnold (22:55):

I think that’s really helpful, because we throw those things out as Christian platitudes when people are suffering, and leave it vague. But to be able to tie it back to—to know God and to experience him more.

Owen Anderson (23:05):

Imagine that. We get to know the Creator of all things.

Brian Arnold (23:07):

And God is going to use whatever he needs to, to get us to that place. Well, let’s really quickly…maybe one or two resources for somebody out there hearing the problem of evil. Obviously your book, Job: A Philosophical Commentary. But even things that…for people who are brand new to this question, a resource that you have found really helpful of introduction.

Owen Anderson (23:27):

Yeah. It might seem surprising, but I’m going to suggest David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

Brian Arnold (23:33):

That is very surprising. Yes.

Owen Anderson (23:35):

And here’s why. He’s presenting a skeptical view, and it’s a fictional dialogue between three persons. And what I would…I just went through this in class, and why I think your readers might benefit from it is this—he considers the best objections from the problem of evil, and articulates it in the strongest way possible. But in doing that, the solution I just articulated is still there. And that was written 1776. Since then, the things he considered there are just the same things you get recycled, the same kinds of answers. So I would suggest David Hume to get the best example of how strongly can a philosopher put the problem of evil? And then from there, we’ll see how—you know what? Job addresses that.

Brian Arnold (24:21):

Well, I think that’s really helpful and just…it’s always good to remember the problem of evil is not just academic. Every person has looked evil in the eye. We’ve all faced trials. We’ve suffered. We’ve asked hard questions about why God allows such evil in the world. And I think Dr. Anderson has reminded us well that much of it is to get us to see God, to consider God, to think about him. And to remember that the sovereign Lord of the universe has not surrendered his power. He’s still working through evil to bring redemption. And one day, evil will be vanquished and will not tamper with his people any longer. But until that day, we trust while we wait. Well, Dr. Anderson, thank you so much for joining us today.

Owen Anderson (24:59):

Thanks for having me.

Outro (25:00):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at

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