Problem of Evil

The problem of evil is one of the most common objections to the Christian faith. Let’s take a look at how Stephen Fry expresses it in the video below:

The problem of evil is powerful because it is common. We all experience pain and suffering so we can relate. Even if we don’t experience the suffering that Stephen Fry is alluding to, we nonetheless experience it in our own ways. The problem also trades on our heartache for others and our outrage at evil acts.

Sometimes this problem appeals more to our hearts than our heads. We are outraged or shocked at suffering in our world, and we wonder how a good God can allow it. This is where the person of Jesus is so compelling. Whatever else someone might say about suffering, we can’t say that God sits back idly and watches. God came and participated in our suffering through Jesus. Jesus was called a “man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief.”  The description fits him well since he has suffered in so many of the same ways that we do:

  • His dad (Joseph) likely died at an early age, before Jesus turned 30
  • Jesus was rejected by his own people, including his own family
  • He was used and exploited by many people that he helped
  • He was plotted against by evil people and unjust authorities
  • His close friend, Judas, betrayed him for money
  • Ultimately he was brutally tortured and killed for a crime he did not commit (blasphemy)

There is no doubt that suffering and evil exists in this world, and God does not spare himself from it. We can take some measure of comfort in the knowledge that God knows exactly what we are going through, having suffered himself for our sake.

The problem isn’t all heart and no head, however.  There is also an intellectual question to be asked, “How could a good God allow that to happen?”  This seems to be what Stephen Fry was saying in part one of this series.  Setting aside our anger or hurt for a second, how could a good God allow so much evil?  It can certainly seem like God must not exist since so much unchecked evil is going on.  There are four ways we can answer this.

First, if we broaden the scope of what we are considering, God’s existence is more probable. If we look only at evil, then of course it might seem that God probably doesn’t exist, but there is more to consider than just evil.  If we broaden our view to include things like the Cosmological Argument, the Argument from Contingency, the Moral Argument, and the like then we have a much broader scope to evaluate whether or not God exists.  We can’t just look at reasons to doubt, we would also need to look at reasons to believe.

Second, we are just not in a good position to say that God doesn’t have a good enough reason to allow evil. As bad as evil is, we are just too finite to understand its full consequences.  This reminds me of the movie “The Adjustment Bureau” with Matt Daamon.  In that movie there was this unseen organization that orchestrated world events through micromanagement down to fine details.  They had a plan that the main character, played by Daamon, would become president of the United States.  Their whole plan was thrown into jeopardy, however, because Daamon saw a woman on a bus that he was never supposed to see.  This one event set things in motion that would prevent Daamon from ever becoming president.  This is sometimes called the butterfly effect.  The idea is that the flapping of the wings of a butterfly can set in motion natural events that eventually build up into a tsunami hundreds of miles away.  The full effects of any act, even an evil act, may not show up for hundreds of years or even on another continent.  We just aren’t in a good position to say that God, who sees all of these consequences, didn’t have a good enough reason for permitting the evil act that we witness.

Third, Christianity contains doctrines that would make the existence of God and evil more compatible. I’ll give four of them.

  • Man is in a state of rebellion against God and his purpose, and this rebellion results in evil in the world.
  • God’s purpose for mankind is not happiness, but knowledge of God. God isn’t as concerned that we be happy in this life as he is that we come to know him, so avoiding things that compromise happiness may not be relevant to his ultimate goal for us. Ultimately knowledge of God leads to a life of ultimate meaning and fulfillment, which is best for mankind.
  • God’s purposes for mankind are not restricted to this life, but spill over into eternal life. We cannot think merely of the suffering or evil that one experiences in this life but we should take into consideration that God will make all things right in the end. Even if someone experiences much suffering in this life, they may experience an even greater reward in heaven that more than compensates for their pain.
  • Knowledge of God is an incommensurable good. Even those who suffer can say, “God is good to me” because of the fulfillment and blessing that comes from their connection to him. This reminds me of the movie “City of Angels” in which an angel gives up his immortality so he can be with a human woman. Ultimately the woman dies a few days later and his former co-angels ask him if it was worth it since she has so quickly died. The main character responds, “I would rather have had one breath of her hair, one kiss of her mouth, one touch of her hand, than eternity without it. Just one.” Our connection to God is like this. It is worth whatever it might cost us.

As we wrap up our consideration of the problem of evil we will take a look at how evil may actually prove God’s existence.

Remember from the Moral Argument that objective moral values and duties can only exist if God exists. Evil, if it exists, is a moral value.  That means that if evil exists then God must also exist.  Consider this argument:

  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
  2. If Evil exists, then objective moral values do exist.
  3. Evil exists.
  4. Therefore, objective moral values exist.
  5. Therefore, God exists.

Now a critic might backtrack and say that there is no problem of “evil” but of “gratuitous suffering” (suffering that is uncalled for, for which there is no morally sufficient reason). If God exists, surely he wouldn’t allow pointless suffering!

We can come up with a couple of critical questions that show a mistake in thinking here. Is the critic saying it would be objectively wrong if he wanted us to experience pointless suffering?  If it would be objectively wrong, then doesn’t that mean objective moral values exist?  If it wouldn’t be wrong, then what’s the problem?

Setting aside those questions, let’s sketch out both arguments:

  1. If gratuitous evil exists, God does not exist.
  2. Gratuitous evil exists.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

 

  1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
  2. God exists.
  3. Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

 

It all comes down to premise two.  Which is more likely to be true, that gratuitous evil exists or that God exists?  We can’t possibly have evidence that gratuitous evil exists for some of the reasons stated above, but there is a whole host of evidence that God exists.

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