I’ve heard it most of my life- from the teen years on, certainly, and maybe before that, the “Theodicy Problem” or in particular the so-called “Argument from Evil”. Just to make sure every reader knows what I am writing about here, the customary formulation of the problem, from Epicurus to Hume to the New Atheists, is this:
1. An all-powerful God would be able to end all evil in the world.
2. A good God would be willing to end all evil in the world.
3. There is evil in the world.
4. Therefore an all-powerful, good God cannot exist.
The “evil” being talked about here, to further clarify, is physical suffering, i.e. pain. To me, this line of argument against faith in God has always seemed to be a con, a deception meant to appeal to the base emotion of human self-pity by smuggling in demonstrably false assumptions about human nature. Four such assumptions leap immediately to mind:
1. The assumption that there are no conditions in which physical suffering can be unavoidable and God still good.
2. The assumption that there can be no conditions under which suffering can be deserved.
3. The assumption that there can be no conditions under which suffering can bring about God-justifying good.
4. The assumption that God is doing nothing to prevent, end or alleviate suffering.
That is the order in which I will deal with my problems with the problem of evil below.
1. There are no conditions in which physical suffering is unavoidable and God still good.
Posit a concrete situation involving some minor suffering: Steve decides to go biking through some challenging hill terrain, inviting his son, Brad, to ride along with him. The trail is even more challenging than they expected. Both father and son suffer minor injuries going beyond the muscle strain and exertion involved in overcoming the hills, roots, stumps, and so forth. No enough suffering? Let’s add a bit of mental suffering to go with it.
On top of this, they get lost, have to back-track, get lost again, and, since they left their handhelds at home, they cannot let Laura (Mrs. Steve, Brad’s mom)know what happened, and only return three hours after the time they told her they would be back. She suffers the uncertainty of not knowing when they will be back and, whether or not their delay signaled that one or both of them suffered some serious injury.
Or, posit another concrete situation involving more significant suffering, but still nothing (immediately) life threatening: Frank works construction. Six days a week, sun up to sundown, Frank is subjected to punishing work conditions, physical strain on his entire musculo-skeletal system, noise, heat and occasional rounds of dehydration, all inevitable, unavoidable consequences of the fact that Frank is a physical being who is exerting his body to produce observable, permanent effects on solid physical objects in time and space- and all of these factors, the body, the objects, space and time, are subject to limitations and constraints. The conditions aren’t pleasant, exactly, but they are (for the sake of argument) not unreasonably difficult or dangerous. They are simply the physical conditions of a human moving objects (like bags of Sakrete, bricks, sledgehammers, etc.) in space and time.
It would be easy to multiply such examples and it would quickly become tedious. The core point can be distilled to this: Life in space and time in physical body is always going to be subject to limitations of wear and tear, time constraints, and other minor evils. This is what Aquinas called “natural evil” inherent in bodies. If a superhuman, good, omnipotent being (God) creates physical beings who live in time and space (humans, animals, sapient alien species if any exist), those beings are simply going to be subject to the “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” regardless. None of these limitations and their attendant pain or suffering can be regarded, in fairness or honesty, as being in any way relevant to questions of existential meaning. Physical pain- even mortality- are inherent characteristics of biological life at an elemental level. It might be tenable to think of a „mortality problem“ when considering the „everyday evils“ of this sort, but not a „problem of evil“ in any sense that even could have metaphysical or moral significance.
2. The are no conditions under which suffering can be deserved.
This is the abstract one, but one with significant real-world implications. The assumption here is that no human living, no human who ever lived, deserved or could deserve even one second of suffering. We are all such completely guiltless innocents, that any suffering at all in our lives is always gratuitous, always cruelly senseless, never justifiable, never capable of having any higher meaning or purpose. This is a sentiment alien to Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and even Greco-Roman and Norse religions (the Norse weren’t at all concerned with the question, it seems), and as such, it seems strange that it should have gained any purchase at all, and instead ought to be dismissed when raised as contrary to human experience. This the second assumption smuggled into the “problem of evil” is also the most demonstrably false, and every time the argument is raised, the right response is to ask the person raising it, “Have you ever met a human?”
You see, I have met humans. Many humans. And they are spiteful, cruel, vicious, hateful, bloodthirsty, vengeful, petty, greedy, self-centered, heartless, callous, mean, and I’m just talking about the ones who think they are “Nice People” like myself. They become Stasi agents, Revolutionary Guard enforcers, soldiers in the service of monstrous tyrannies like the Third Reich, Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China. They become Chekas, Hamas terrorists, Klansmen, or thugs with the Crips, Bloods, MS-13, the Latin Kings, and so forth. The cute little boy down the block grows up to be David Berkowitz, the BTK killer, Kermit Gosnell or Timothy McVeigh. For that matter, the cute little boy next door might not wait until he grows up to start inflicting the cruelest violence of which he is capable on his siblings or other children at daycare. The ingenious medical student admired by his colleagues becomes Henry Holmes or Josef Mengele. Or someone whose evils are less obvious, less dramatic, but nonetheless evils. “A good God would end suffering” assumes that those whose suffering is being ended- all of them- deserve for it to end. The idea is that, somehow, the species that is morally capable of producing these monsters, should for some reason (and an atheist can give no reason-I’ll get back to that one) be spared living in separation from the source of all Good. That is at least part of the definition of God taken as an a prior here, right? “But I didn’t want a world in which those people could do those things.”
Sure, you did. Because, under the wrong circumstances, you’d be the one doing them. Your will itself is corrupted, and so is mine. The human race, in its current moral state, does not deserve lives free of suffering and pain and anyone who thinks we do is deluded. If I were a good and all-powerful God, I’d rid the universe of us yesterday and start over. I think I’ve heard tell of something like that….
Thankfully, I’m not making the decisions on that score. And neither are you. You are, and I am, a fit object for God’s mercy, in spite of our innate, self-chosen corruption.
And here is the real conceptual problem with the question as it is posed: If a good God would not permit evil, he would not permit us to exist. Not in our present moral state. Our moral state, though, more than justifies humanity being exposed to at least the possibility of real, not just potential, suffering. That’s the Biblical truth, at least. Humanity is fundamentally separated from the source of all good, including all moral good, and that separation cannot help but result in suffering. This is the element of lived reality that the „problem of evil“ demands you ignore. If the world and humanity were completely in harmony with God’s will and character at all times, then Premise #2 of the standard formulation of the argument from evil would be valid. They aren’t and it isn’t. And the key point? The world is in its current state where evil and suffering are not just possible but constantly realized because we want it this way. The biblical teaching is that the human race was given a world which was wholly in harmony with God, wholly good, without flaw or defect. And we rejected that world. We humans asked for a world fundamentally separated from God, and we ask for it again and again with every decision we make against God. It is only by the mercy of God that we see any good in the world yet, having handed the lease over to Satan, effectively.
Humans- as a species – do not deserve lives free of even the possibility of suffering. What did Jesus call the audience listening to the Sermon on the Mount? „You who arre evil.“ (Matthew 7:11) That is the truth of the The hard question, really, concerns not a particular instance of suffering, of physical evil, is justified or not, whether it serves some redeeming purpose or not. The real problem afflicting the world is that life in this world separated from God is therefore constantly subject not to the will of God alone, but to the will of Satan (whom Jesus called “the Prince of this age”, i.e. the one having authority in this age), and the 6-going-on-7-billion wills of individual persons who act either in harmony with or in conflict with the will of God, those actions bringing with them their inevitable and sometimes awful consequences. These questions, “why is there evil in the world” and “why do the apparently innocent suffer” do have answers. They may not be answers we like. “Bad things happen to good people” is a core biblical truth- with the qualification that, strictly speaking, there are no good people. Certainly none perfect.
If that fact offends you, that’s just too bad. For you. Grow up, and stop trying to blame God for the state of the world you chose and are choosing. And instead, be thankful to God that the human race is still here and, even in this twisted and poisoned world, there is real good to be experienced every day. The molecules that constituted those flowers, that forest, that wave on the Pacific you just stood in awe of, that terrific beer you just finished, the sound waves that conducted your best friend’s voice to your ear? You invented none of it. Not only do you not deserve not to suffer, if you’re human, but you benefit from unearned, undeserved, goodness in creation that existed before you. Why, it’s as if premise 4 of the „argument from evil“ were vitiated by the fabric of creation itself. Because it is. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
3. There are no conditions under which suffering can bring-about a God-justifying good.
When atheists and skeptics bring up the problem of suffering as an argument against the existence of a good and omnipotent God, though, the kinds of evils dealt with under #1 are not what they generally have in mind. What they have in mind are the child who contracts cancer or the young mother who contracts ALS. The cases are often real and heart-wrenching, which is the point. The skeptic or atheist aims to wrench hearts, simply because that is a perfect way to prevent thinking. As long as you, the faithful interlocutor, are busy emoting about the suffering person adduced as example, maybe re-living emotional losses in your own past, you can’t reflect on a pair of truths: Suffering can both affirm the moral core, the faith and the God-born good of the sufferer and bring greater goodness, godliness and wisdom into the souls of those around him.
The first point comes straight out of the first scenes of Job: Good is not good, i.e. worshiping and obeying God is not good, if it is done solely out of a sense of self-preservation. If we know, always, that doing and being good guarantees that suffering and misfortune will never befall us, we aren’t truly good. Now, the man who remains faithful, kind, patient, gentle, generous- who expresses the good in its various facets- when he is afflicted, while he is afflicted, that man is good. To face evil, to suffer, and draw on the good from without, to turn to the source of all good for comfort and strength, that act of metaphysical judo, renders the evil that seeks to kill the soul thwarted, powerless, voided.
The second is related, but not just the obvious point of a sufferer drawing on God’s grace and receiving God’s comfort in suffering being a faith-building act to those around him, but that those who willingly enter into the suffering and share in it with the person undergoing the physical evil are exercising a good that is only born in the confrontation with evil: Compassion. “To suffer with” is what this means, “mitleiden” in German is immediately lexically transparent to the hearer (or reader) in a way the Latin word may not be to some English speakers these days. In a way, the ability to express compassion itself depends on the existence of physical evils, and its expression more than overwhelms the significance of the evil itself. The expression of say, the friend who stays at the bedside of the woman undergoing chemotherapy when there are a thousand other demands on her time, the husband who tends his wheel-chair bound wife instead of abandoning her, the hospice nurses who go the extra mile for patients- I could go on- the point is this: Compassion is greater than evil, overcomes evil, is more meaningful than evil. God’s metaphysical judo finds its finest expression in compassion.
4. God is doing nothing to alleviate suffering.
This last of the four implicit assumptions built into the standard “argument from evil” and …the most inane. It is pure question-begging really. Compassion, mentioned above, is one of God’s gifts to mankind and is a powerful weapon against the reality of pain and suffering. So are other virtues, such as kindness, patience, longsuffering, mercy, and gentleness. Those moral goods, imparted to humanity by God, are the first and most common proof of the clear and manifest falsehood of the fourth concealed assumption laid out above. They are common to all human civilizations, all moral systems of all great, civilization-building religions contain some version of them. And these divinely-given morally good impulses of the soul, they prompt actions: Feeding the poor, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison, and so forth. God is “doing something” to end evil in the world- where we allow him to. That fact alone falsifies the so-called problem.
The argument also smuggles in another bit of question-begging by assuming that God does not directly intervene in any human life. Ever. This is an argument no faithful Jew, Christian or Muslim credits. And I, personally, know beyond any possibility of doubt that God directly, supernaturally intervenes in human lives, having experienced healing of a congenital heart defect a direct, response to prayer and laying on hands back in 2016.
What happened? In 1968, I was born with an atrio-ventricular septal defect which, at the time was life-threatening. I was in the hospital for weeks as in infant, spent several days of that time in an oxygen tent, and had a standing prescription for digitalis (to re-start my heart should it stop beating) well into my pre-school years. Then, one fine day in 2016, a revivalist preacher named Jean-Luc Trachsel (from Oron, Switzerland), a man who had no idea who I was at the time, correctly identified my congenital defect as I walked into the Prayer Room at the Gebetshaus Augsburg in Bavaria, Germany. It was a Tuesday, and to be quite precise, he said, “The Lord has told me there is someone in the room with a congenital heart defect he would like to heal. If you are that person, raise your hand.” I was the only person who raised his hand. He prayed for me, and later, I had multiple doctors check me and asked if they heard the heart murmur I’d walked with for 46 years. They did not. In fact, the last doctor I asked, a practitioner with Lutheran Health in Bluffton, Indiana, said “I hear no trace of a murmur.”
That is what is called “empirical evidence”, directly experienced by the subject with his senses and through no intervening mediators. It is also only one of several such events in my life, and there are dozens more like of which I have had first-or second-hand experience. And I am far from alone. There is, as C.S. Lewis put it in Miracles: A Preliminary Study, a veritable torrent of evidence in favor of divine intervention, particularly in the area of healing, and it is available to anyone willing to look. Catholics and Protestants alike can adduce not thousands, not hundreds of thousands, but tens of millions of modern-day, medically attested healings that they attribute rightly and directly to the interventions of God in answer to prayer.
The only real problem of evil, the only proper formulation of the question then, is not “Why is there evil in the world?”, but “Why did that evil occur in that life?” That’s a question worth asking, even if no answer is immediately forthcoming. But the “problem of evil” as commonly formulated? It’s a con. Don’t fall for it.
Post Script: Lewis’s book can be viewed online here. Thanks to Isaac Acker for helping me find the reference.
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