The Problem of Evil
By Rev. Rebecca
In my opinion the problem of evil is the most effective, challenging, and fascinating philosophical and theological argument against the existence of an all powerful good God. Attempts to explain the problem of evil are called theodicies.
The problem of evil can be summarized in the following question:
How can an all powerful, all knowing and wholly good God exist and evil also exist?
It seems either God is not all knowing, not all powerful, not wholly good, or does not exist.
Philosophers and theologians have struggled through the centuries to answer this question from St. Augustine to Albert Camus.
One of the best presentations of the problem of evil comes from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, "The Brothers Karamozov."
At one point the brother Ivan goes through a litany of observations regarding the depth of evil in humanity in one particular culture.
’They burn villages, murder, rape women and children, they nail their prisoners to the fences by the ears, leave them so till morning, and in the morning they hang them—all sorts of things you can’t imagine. People talked sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beast; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that’s all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it. These (men) took pleasure in torturing children, too; cutting the unborn child from the mother’s womb, and tossing babies up in the air and catching them on the points of their bayonets before their mothers’ eyes. Doing it before the mother’s eyes was what gave zest to the amusement. Here is another scene that I thought very interesting. Imagine a trembling mother with her baby in her arm, a circle of invading (men) around her. They planned a diversion; they pet the baby, laugh to make it laugh. They succeed, the baby laughs. At that moment a (man) points a pistol four inches from the baby’s face. The baby laughs with glee, hold out its little hands to the pistol, and he pulls the trigger in the baby’s face and blows out its brains. Artistic wasn’t it?
By the way, (these men) are particularly found of sweets, they say.’
"Brother, what are you driving at?" asked Alyosha.
"I think if the devil doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness."
Later Ivan puts the problem of evil more bluntly to his brother.
"Tell me yourself, I challenge you answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature that little child beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth."
"No, I wouldn’t consent," said Alyosha softly
From the human perspective, the evil that is present does not make sense and no explanation has ever developed that sufficiently answers or explains it. If we were God, we would not have created a world in which so much suffering, evil, disaster, and violence exists.
What can we say? I do not believe any theodicy has come up with an answer that is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying.
Examples of Failed Explanations:
1. The Predestination Argument
The predestination argument comes primarily from those attempting to assert the all-knowing and all-powerful aspects of God. Thus, conservative Muslims and protestant Christians of the radical reformers, e.g. Calvinists, are the main proponents of this argument.
In this argument God, being all-powerful, is the ultimate cause of all events good and evil. But God, being all-knowing, is able to see that actions which appear evil to us are actually somehow good in the eternal perspective of God. We as simple, imperfect creatures who are totally unable to grasp the complex ways of God must simply trust the in the goodness of God’s higher, all-knowing purposes even when we can’t conceive of how any good could come from a situation. Soft predestinarian say that God doesn’t cause the evil, but allows evil to be done by others. But this evil is still not really evil because in the end we will see that it was actually all for good.
This argument fails because, first, it makes God responsible for all the evil we see. Even if they want to redefine this intellectually, it is not an emotionally satisfying answer.
This argument says that God tortured that child, but it wasn’t really evil. Second, this argument ultimately denies the existence of evil altogether. If God causes every event and God is not evil, then no events are evil.
This not only contradicts our own experience, but also contradicts the internal theology of the predestinarians themselves. And, as we can see, the soft predestinarian view doesn’t make any changes to this.
For they still ultimately deny evil and merely make God the accomplice to evil events.
2. Process Theology
Modern Jewish theologians developed this theology after the holocaust. But some liberal Christian philosophers have since adopted it because it allows them to answer some complex philosophical problems.
This theory sees God as an imperfect being who, like humanity, is learning to be good throughout the millennia. God has done a lot of nasty things and has let many evils occur. But this is because God has not fully matured or reached spiritual enlightenment. Sometimes God flies off the handle, gets angry and jealous and kills people. But, proponents reassure us, God is getting better with time…just as the God of the New Testament is “nicer” than the God of the Old.
This theodicy simply denies the initial premise of the problem of evil. This theory simply asserts that God is neither wholly good, all knowing, nor all-powerful. This theodicy merely lowers our expectations of the past and the present while attempting to provide some hope for a better future.
3. The Hallmark Response
This is the most popular response to evil that we see in society. An example of the “Hallmark” response is shown in a card left for a murdered child that explained, “God just needed another sweet little angel up in heaven because he was lonely.”
The response attempts to shift the focus from the evil and look at something good. Ultimately it tries to show that there is nothing deeply evil.
This response is really no response at all. It is merely a diversion from the issue that strives to help people forget that anything actually happened.
4. Evil as the Absence of Good
This is one of the oldest and most popular theodicies among theologians. It was first developed by St. Augustine in the 4th century and was re-popularized in the 20th century by C.S. Lewis.
Put simply, evil is not a substance in and of itself, it is merely the negation or absence of good. When good is not present the result is evil. Therefore, if God (ultimate good) is not present in a context, person, or situation, evil reigns. So then why would God allow there to be the absence of good?
Free will. Augustine proposed that for there to be love there must be choice, and choice requires free will. If God is to create creatures that can love, they must be able to choose not to love. However, they can use this free will to do other things like create evil. Humans create evil when they “disorder” their loves. Augustine proposed that God create people to always choose good things, but sometimes we choose a lesser good to focus on. The less the good and greater the focus we place on it, the greater the evil that is created.
But why do we need the depth of evil and pain? Why couldn’t humanity have been created with a greater propensity towards good? Shouldn’t our free will be, as least, limited in its potential harm? Why give wicked parents the ability to torture and murder their children? And, couldn’t free will exist but God intervene to prevent major atrocities?
These are necessarily brief summaries which do not get into the complexities of each argument. However, having studied at depth, I find none compelling.
This is an unsatisfying response. It seems rather dismissive of evil. Evil does seem to have a natural force and substance of its own. It also does not sufficiently explain why God would allow good to be “absent. If God is omnipresent, why doesn’t God’s goodness merely overpower and flow into all things?
5. "We Need to Know Evil in Order to Understand Good" Argument
This explanation claims that humans are only capable of understanding concepts like “good” and “evil” if they are contrasted with one another. We can only know love because we see it contrasted with hate, we only know black because it is contrasted with white, etc. Evil is necessary to understand good.
This response merely begs the question. It fails to explain why evil is so rampant, why innocent people should suffer (surely only ‘deserving’ people need suffer in this model), or even why God created us with this kind of seeming deficiency in the first place. God could have built-in the ability within the human psyche to understand good and evil.
Related to this argument is the idea that we can only “appreciate” good when contrasted with evil. The pitfalls with this explanation are the same.
6. The Best of All Worlds Argument
This explanation states that God, in creating the universe, was constrained by certain parameters (unkown to us). The universe and world we live in was the “best possible world” God could have created. The fact that evil exists is simply a bi-product of the constraints of creation. Our world is “better” than it could have been, it is the “best possible.”
While it is harder to argue this theodicy than the others (as it deals with such huge hypotheticals), it fails in that Ivan’s question (above) remains unanswered. Why would a good God create a world at all if pain and evil were necessary bi-products? If it meant the suffering of even one innocent wouldn’t a truly good God simply refrain from creating?
7. Evil as Punishment From God
This explanation claims that all suffering and evil is somehow “deserved” because humans are disobedient and rebellious. In God’s good and just character, God punishes us through suffering and evil. Natural disasters, disease,and even war can be seen as the “righteous hand” of God’s judgment.
Related to this argument is the Pauline explanation that “Adam,” the first man, was our representative on earth. Because he sinned, we all now sin and live in a fallen world. Evil is a result of the first man’s actions.
I have strong ethical objections to these arguments. I for one did not ask to be created. I am necessarily, without any choice, born into a world filled with evil. I was also created with certain weaknesses and am unable to do “right” or even understand “right” at all times. I will necessarily experience tremendous pain and suffering. But the ‘game’ and ‘rules’ were established for me without my consent! This is unjust. God cannot be good. God is simply a cunning, cruel Game Master in this model.
8. Evil Doesn’t Exist
It is similar to the theodicy propounded by Christian Scientists (who claim that all suffering is an illusion created by one’s mind). Both explanations do not explain evil, they merely dismiss it, pretending it doesn’t “really” exist.
My personal feeling on the subject is simply that evil is a mystery. Just as we cannot fully apprehend God, we cannot fully apprehend the nature of the universe we live in or the depth of evil that exists.
It is possible, for instance, that we have made a choice at some point prior to our conscious existence, and we are now suffering from the consequences of our free choices in the past. (Reincarnation hints at this explanation.)
It is possible that a great good, one that far surpasses the pain all of human suffering, will somehow be accomplished by the existence of evil. It is impossible to know.
The Buddha is an intriguing figure. He explains that “life is suffering” and offered intellectual explanations for evil, teaching us how to overcome it. But I do not believe that intellectual explanations are adequate.
In contrast to the Buddha, the person of Jesus does not offer intellectual explanations. Instead, he demonstrates a willingness to walk with us in our suffering. He unites himself to us in suffering and simply lives with us in the midst of it, accepting the pain and evil this inevitably involves.
When a friend is hurting, it is best to remain silent, listen, and not explain their suffering away. Do not become intellectual! Rather, “be” with them, hold them, walk with them, and feel with them. In that way, their suffering is eased.
Jesus also offers us a solution to end evil in both his words and his actions. It is the concept of not repaying evil for evil. Gandhi elaborated on this concept and called it being an “evil sink.” The theory is that evil is limited…there is a finite amount of evil in the world. When someone wrongs you and you choose not to repay them or others with evil in return, that portion of evil in the universe has been obliterated forever.
The danger with this theory is that people can easily move into victim complexes. This is especially true for unhealthy and needy individuals or those prone to abuse. The only people who can adequately serve as “evil sinks” are those who are strong, bold, and healthy enough to completely rise above the evil they experience. Ideally, they are like the wise man who no longer reacts to evil…in near apathy, it simply falls off of their backs and has no effect on them at all whatsoever.
Once you realize that whenever people commit evil against you it is a reflection of them and their internal state and not a reflection on you, then you are on your way to overcoming the effects evil has on you. You are able to control your own response to evil. If you truly ignore it (on your deepest level and not just repress, divert, or sublimate it) then you have risen above evil and have simultaneously eradicated it.
The Philosophical Flaw of the Problem of EvilI have come to believe that the very basis of the Problem of Evil, that God is "all knowing" is flawed. Please see: The Open View of God