Let’s talk about the issue of evil. Why doesn’t God just take it away, and take it away all the time?
The typical argument goes like this:
If God was good, he wouldn’t put us through this
If God was all-powerful, he could stop it.
But since pain, suffering, and sickness continue, they conclude that either God is not good, or he is not all-powerful. It’s not at all the case, and I’ll explain why.
Here is my basic statement: God CAN’T do that, but not because he’s weak. If God took evil and suffering away, it would make life impossible, it would ruin humanity, and it’s just not possible. Again, let me explain. If God is going to wave his hand and take away all the suffering, sickness, and pain, he not only has to take away pain, sickness, injuries, accidents, and anything harmful, he also has to stop anything that causes those things. Therefore He has to guide every motion of your body, and all the things around you so nothing ever goes wrong. He has to make sure you never bump into the corner of a table, hit your thumb with a hammer, or stub your toe on a rock. Your body and your movements can no longer be your own. Your body becomes a robot, and God will run the remote control. But that’s not all. If he’s going to take away all pain, he has to take away not only physical hurts, but he has to take away all emotional pain, and anxiety, and worry. If he’s going to take away all emotional pain, then he has to take away our words that hurt, which means he has to control our mouths and our minds. To take away all suffering, we can’t even say things that would hurt, or offend, or be misunderstood. He has to control every word we say. But then he also has to control how we hear it, because sometimes someone says something innocent and we misunderstand, or take it wrong. So he has to control our thoughts so that we hear things in a certain way, and perceive and interpret them in a certain way. So really, if we want him to wave his hand and make everything alright, ultimately he has to take away what makes us human: all our freedom, all of our ability to act on our own, and we all become complete robots.
Understand? We aren’t human anymore. He has taken away our ability to act as free agents. We can’t love any more, because love is a choice—an act of the will—and God would have to take our will away to stop suffering. Love would be impossible. It would all be forced. There would be no more kindness, because it would all be forced. Then we’d be hurt when someone said they loved us, because we would know they didn’t mean it. So Jesus would have to make us all deadpan and robotic all the time, seriously, or else someone’s feelings might get hurt. But that would hurt our feelings to know that people didn’t mean what they said. Life would just have to shut down.
It’s not possible for God to just take away all evil and suffering. When you work it through, that takes away our humanity. It’s funny to think about, but if God takes away all suffering and pain, we’re not human any more. Am I making sense to you? In other words, a world where evil was never allowed and does not exist is a false, superficial, self-contradictory—and therefore completely impossible—scenario.
Right? Let’s assume God created a world in which there would never be any pain of any kind, any suffering of any kind, any evil—in short, nothing negative at all. We would all be happy, fulfilled, kind, loving, merciful, and forgiving (oops, can’t forgive if there’s never an offense!). Oops, can’t have mercy either if no one needs it. Oops, can’t have love either, since love is an act of the will to elevate someone else’s welfare, and we wouldn’t be able to will it since it was inextricably part of our nature and automatically part of our behavior. The artificiality of happiness and kindness in a world where nothing else was known OR EVEN POSSIBLE is not true happiness, fulfillment, or kindness. It’s, as I said at the beginning, a false, superficial, and self-contradictory world without love, and, ultimately, without will, for I cannot truly will if my choices in that will are limited to a small box of artificial and superficial choices. And without love and will, happiness, fulfillment, and kindness are false realities.
But, in case you are wondering about heaven (since heaven is the place of no pain and suffering), it makes sense to me that once I have tasted the nasties, but instead chosen love and goodness, to have the evil exorcized and to be left with only the good and the pleasant is a delight I would trade anything to find. Heaven is only possible because this life includes irretractable evil, and it’s a reality that has no relationship to Utopia in a world that never knew pain.
Therefore evil absolutely HAS to be part of this world, in enough dosage for Lao Tse to say they are equal. It has to be there, and God HAS to let it work its full effect without interference for this to be a REAL world, and for love and fulfillment and will to be real.
Another piece of the “problem of evil” is the other side of the coin: “the problem of VIRTUE,” which is just as substantive as the problem of evil. Anybody can see that there is virtue in the world as well as evil. Lao Tse, in Taoism, explained it with yin and yang, noticing (or concocting) a balance between the two, since both are so prominent in life.
It’s one thing to say that if God is good and powerful, evil maybe shouldn’t exist. But it’s the exact same problem to say that if there is no God, maybe love, forgiveness, and grace shouldn’t exist. And it’s not being complete in your thinking to say that one subject is allowed in the argument but the other is not. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t say that the problem of evil is a real problem, but the problem of virtue is easily resolved because virtue can be explained as a survival tactic—the “for-the-good-of-society” argument. Then you’re not being fair. We all know that evil in human beings reaches a level far beyond anything else in creation. Animals kill each other, sometimes even their own, but we humans kill with intent and premeditation. We take evil to a personal level far beyond any evolutionary explanation, and that’s what creates the “problem” of evil, so to speak. Otherwise, evil is just an evolutionary response aligned with survival, and it’s not a problem.
So also with good. Humans take virtue far beyond any survival-of-the-fittest expression. We take it to a personal level, and show genuine love, unreasonable forgiveness, and grace unheard of. And the deepest expressions of those virtues have nothing to do with survival or evolutionary sociology. The atheist must account for the presence of such virtue far beyond what we see elsewhere in animal life. The cop-out of sociological morality doesn’t begin to treat the subject fairly. If we are just an agglomeration of chemicals, brought together by chance over a long period of time, and we have learned that certain behaviors contribute to our survival, how do you explain the existence of deep, authentic sacrificial, love? I would venture that the idea of “evil exists, therefore there can’t be a God” has just as many soft areas as the Christian position struggling with evil. You believe it because you choose to believe it, not because the evidence is overwhelming.
Why does this work for me? We talk in Christianity about a wholly good, omniscient, omnipotent being we call “God”. To be fair, then, if “wholly good,” “creator of good,” “implanting in us morality and conscience,” is taken out of the picture, what is left is life radically different from the world we see around us, to the point where I can no longer explain the world around us articulately. In my observations, someone has tinkered with humanity, and that’s why we have virtue. It’s disingenuous to say, “Aw, we’d-a had that anyway.”
A third piece about the “problem” of evil: God lets evil run its wild course, hardly EVER interfering in the circumstances in our lives (meaning that most of the time we can’t even tell he EXISTS, let alone is around). It doesn’t mean He isn’t good or powerful. That’s the way the world HAS to be run for love, will, faith, and peace to have ANY reality to them. Because the world is that way, however, it speaks loudly to his non-existence, and that’s just part of the zen of the universe. (I’m not mixing religions; there’s just truth in all kinds of places, and in all religions.) Nor am I advocating agnosticism or deism, where God wound up the world like a clock and then lets it run while he’s watching reruns on TV. The Bible’s truth is worlds away from those deceptions.
So when I comes right down to it, I obviously have come to a place in my life where I don’t think the problem of evil is a huge stumbling block to faith. Sure there’s evil and suffering in the world, and none of it is from God, nor is He to be blamed for it.
1. People make bad decisions that make them suffer or that make others suffer. Hopefully this is easy enough to understand without a lot of elaboration. The majority of starvation in the world is because of human error, selfishness, power struggles, destruction of the environment by people and other choices we make that create suffering. Diseases (STDs, lung cancer from smoking, and heart attacks from poor diets, are primo examples) are the result of poor choices people make. We get angry, we withhold, we hoard, we deprive… In other words, we are at core evil (evil being self-centered rather than love-oriented) people. ‘Nuff said?
2. If you believe in spirit beings and spiritual powers (and I don’t know if you do or not), then you’d probably admit that spiritual powers can and do create suffering. Jesus cast out demons that caused epileptic seizures, catatonia, etc.
3. Cause-and-effect causes evil and suffering, and I think this is the one that troubles people the most: disease, earthquakes, tsunamis, fires – you name it. But actually, it was as impossible to create a world without cause-and-effect as it would have been to create one without time, space, and matter. He doesn’t send them, and he doesn’t stop them. These elements are the necessary components of existence, and God is not to be blamed because of the unavoidable yin/yang of cause and effect.
All creation has this characteristic. You can’t have light without darkness, because objects cast shadows. You can’t have life without death, because much of life depends on death (soil, vultures, fungi, to name a few). Any hand is just as capable of love as it is violence. This is not God’s “fault” or a mistake he made. It’s the nature of materiality.
We don’t blame God when wind causes a tree to fall and it kills a rabbit on the ground. We know that the laws of physics demand that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time (and there really is no other choice in a physical world), and so when 5-ton tree hits 10-pound rabbit, one is broken. This is not God’s fault: physical laws are necessary for a physical world.
Any wind can push a sailing vessel across the sea, and it can also push a flimsy house down. Does it make God cruel when it pushes the flimsy house down? Any hand can be used to stroke a face, or to slap it. Does it make God evil when the hand slaps? By necessity, the world is a cause-and-effect place. When the world spins and rotates on its axis, it creates winds of different temperatures that make it rain, or create both gentle winds and violent hurricanes. There’s no other choice. Since we need atmosphere, wind is a necessity, and hurricanes happen – so also beautiful days, snowstorms, delightful tropical climates, and dreadfully frigid ones. God is not to be blamed for this, nor does it disprove his existence. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. Rain falls! You can’t have a material world or humanity without cause-and-effect. The only other choice is a mechanistic, deterministic world where humans are robotic (and therefore not human).
The “problem of evil,” in my humble opinion, isn’t a problem at all. Evil comes from poor choices, evil spiritual powers, and the normal outplaying of cause-and-effect. It comes from a world that absolutely HAD to be made this way, and there are no other choices. Why does this cause so many to disbelieve in the possibility of an all-powerful and good God?