Many are familiar with the so-called “problem of evil” that Christianity’s opponents raise against it, but fewer are acquainted with the similar “problem of good.” The “problem of evil” asks: if God is good, as Christians claim, why do evil things happen? It seeks to disprove the existence of a good God through the evidence of evil in the world. The Christian response to this question is fit for a different discussion. This post, instead, deals with the counterpart to the “problem of evil”—the “problem of good.” This counterpart seeks to disprove Christianity by pointing to the evidence of good in the world among non-Christians. It asks: how can non-Christians act morally and live happy, prosperous and successful lives? Since at times the non-Christian seems more disposed to follow the good than his Christian neighbor, is Christianity therefore really necessary or beneficial? How can Christians claim that their moral unbelieving neighbors are worse off than they are and that they are deserving of eternal punishment? The answer to these questions lies in what Christians call the doctrine of common grace, a grace that God bestows on all of humanity. Common grace restrains evil in people, gives good gifts to humanity so that people can live well, and restrains God’s wrath on the unbelieving.
The first aspect of God’s common grace is his act of restraining evil in people. While different Christian denominations differ widely in their beliefs on the goodness of human nature and the natural state of man, they all share a common core idea. If it were not for God’s intervening grace, human nature in its unregenerate, pre-salvation state would be much worse than it currently is.
The opening chapters of Romans present a very bleak picture of fallen (pre-redeemed) mankind. In Paul’s words, people had a
debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:28-32)
One can argue, though, that while this may be true about some people, this is not how the world as a whole appears. As Paul goes on to point out, those who act morally show that “the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Romans 2:15). This is the grace God has made common to all people. He has given them a conscience and an understanding of the good so that they will not act as evilly as their sinful nature might incline them. It is out of this grace that we see non-Christians who act morally, perhaps even more morally, than some Christians.
Secondly, God’s common grace gives good gifts to people. Whereas the first aspect of common grace was “negative” in that it prevents evil, this aspect is “positive” in that it proactively creates good things in people’s lives. God bestows the gifts of relationships, love, a capability to learn and be educated, wealth, prosperity, happiness, and much else to both the Christian and the non-Christian. It would be strange for us to think that God causes rain only on the field of the Christian farmer and allows the field of his neighboring non-Christian farmer to suffer drought. Likewise, God gives other gifts commonly to all people regardless of merit. Although these gifts may differ in magnitude, by no means are they limited to only the Christians.
It is out of these first two aspects of common grace that we can begin to develop a response to the “problem of good.” Combined, God’s acts of restraining sin and giving good gifts to Christians and non-Christians can allow non-Christians to live with similar morality, happiness, and prosperity as Christians. If all this is true, however, is Christianity actually necessary? If we can be moral and successful without affirming Christian doctrine, why bother with it?
Christianity remains necessary for, as even the most cursory of examinations of Christian theology will reveal, Christianity does not focus on finding happiness and success in this lifetime but on finding eternal happiness. It does not seek merely to fix people’s behavior, to improve communities, and to bring peace. It does not seek merely to teach a system of morality, help the poor, and create good citizens. While all these things are certainly contained in the outworking of Christianity, its real focus is on the eternal state of the soul. Christianity teaches that all people have sinned—have failed to live up to the perfect standard of morality that God demands—and thus justly deserve his wrath and eternal punishment. Even the most successful, prosperous, and happy people will suffer this fate if they are not Christian. The only thing that has prevented this fate from happening already is God’s grace. This, then, is the third aspect of common grace: God’s restraining of his wrath on the world.
It is by common grace that God both restrains evil and gives good gifts, but that is not enough for eternal salvation. In the end, the deciding factor in God’s judgment will still be Christian or non-Christian, and it is only by this grace that that decision has not yet been made. The real “problem of good,” then, is not that good deeds disprove Christianity, but it is that they can hide Christianity’s true purpose and obscure the coming judgment.
This post is adapted from Rev. D. Marion Clark’s sermon, “The Problem of Good,” given at Tenth Presbyterian Church on 8/19/12.
 Some groups (notably, the Catholic church) hold that in the final judgment, God might still have mercy on some non-Christians. We should not, however, trust in this for salvation, but we should view the coming judgment with sobriety.