The Problem of Evil
Why do people suffer? Why is there evil in the world? There are very few people who do not ask “Why?” when confronted with the terrible things that have happened in history and continue to happen day by day. This is because we nearly all believe, to some degree, that there really is a God who is conscious of human beings, who is good, and who has sufficient power to prevent bad things from happening. Unless there is such a God, there is no “problem of evil” as usually understood. If there is no God, the only answer to the question “Why are children starving in Somalia?” is “Why not?” We would have no reason to think that they shouldn’t be starving. The occurrence of evil would no longer be strange, and might even seem quite natural–though we would still have the “other” problem of evil, the problem of how to get rid of it.
Certainly the Christian faith is committed to a picture of God and the world that makes every event ultimately redeemable, and therefore permissible, by a personal God who is both willing and able to nurture into being a creation which cannot be improved on. It does not hold that every event is good in itself. Bad things, even horrendous moral evils, do come to pass. But in the vision of Jesus Christ communicated to his people, all human beings–and yes, even the sparrows and the lilies–are effectively cared for. Every person is invited to say in faith and obedience, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
But how can we resolve the classical thorn in the side of such faith, which insists that if God were both all-good and all-powerful, he would not permit the evil things which do happen to occur at all? (We shall concentrate here on the evils that men do or cause, the moral evils. They pose the most serious problem. We shall ask why God permits human beings to do evil.) It would seem that God cannot be both all-good and all-powerful, if moral evil exists, and that we are forced to let one or the other go.
In resolving this dilemma, the first step is to affirm that a universe which permits the development of moral character–one which makes it possible for persons to become the immeasurably precious and even glorious beings that they sometimes do–is of greater value than any world which does not. A world containing only minerals, or minerals and plants, for example, would be of much less worth or intrinsic value than one which also contained human beings as we know them. If personality is not to be regarded as having a very great value, it would clearly be wrong of God to permit the actual suffering and wrong-doing that occurs in order to procure it.
But the moral development of personality is possible only in a world of genuine freedom. To nurture moral perfection, horrendous moral crimes must be permitted by God–though he himself never approves of them, actualizes them or requires them. Nurturing moral perfection (within a suitable world) and not allowing wrong doing is impossible. If a child is never permitted to do wrong, it will never become capable of developing a nature or character that resolutely chooses the good. Good persons must live in a world where doing evil is a genuine choice for them.
But does this not mean that God is limited in power, that there is something he cannot do? Not at all, for the impossible is not something that could be either done or left undone. If the janitor does not sweep the room after a lecture, his supervisor can rightly point that out to him, and require that he do it. But the supervisor cannot require that he both sweep the room and not sweep the room. Sweeping the room and not sweeping the room is not something that can be done or left undone. It is nothing at all. The fact that the janitor “cannot do it” does not mean that the janitor is limited in some way, as he would be if he had no arms and could not hold the vacuum or broom.
To hold God to be limited because he does not nurture moral character while simultaneously preventing choice is like regarding the janitor as limited because he does not both sweep and not sweep the room. Producing people with character without giving them choice is impossible because the capacity to choose is a part of character. So it is not something God “left undone,” for it is not anything at all. It is not something he cannot do, because it is not `something’. Period. God remains of unlimited power. He can do anything that might be either done or left undone.
Hence the presence of moral evil in the world does not mean that God is lacking in goodness or in power. The classical dilemma is dissolved by setting existing evil in the context of the good that God achieves in permitting (but not producing) moral evil.
While this may seem like a “merely logical maneuver,” it in fact yields the conclusion that permits us to see the suffering of individuals, ourselves or others, in the larger world of a great and good God, who has all eternity, and resources beyond our wildest imagination, to ensure that the life of every individual who suffers, in whatever way, is ultimately one that even that individual will receive with boundless gratitude.
If all the individual has is `this’ life, then clearly evil, pain and frustration is not redeemed. But seen in the context of God’s world as a whole, seen as but a part of a life that never ends and endlessly becomes more and more glorious, there is no evil individuals may suffer that can prevent them from finding life to be good and God to be good. Theirs is the perspective of St. Paul, who speaks of great suffering as “our light affliction, which is but for a moment and which produces for us a weight of glory far greater than it.” (II Cor. 4)
The child dying in famine is ushered immediately into the full world of God in which it finds its existence good and its prospects incomprehensibly grand. There God is seen, as he now surely is not seen, to be good and great without limit, and every individual received into his presence enjoys the everlasting sufficiency of his goodness and greatness. There is no tragedy for those who rely on this God.
It is the hearty assurance of this for the individual–which we here do not attempt to prove, but only to show that it is not automatically ruled out by the presence of evil in our world–that empowers the individual to deal with the “other” problem of evil: namely, how to get rid of it. If I am truly concerned about moral evil in the world, I should at least worry as much about my responsibility for it as about God’s. By ceasing to do evil I can make a significant impact on the moral evil that is in my world. By trusting the goodness and greatness of God, I can turn loose of the chain that drags me into moral evil: the chain of self-deification, which puts me in the position of the one I trust to take care of me. Nearly all evil-doing is done under the guise of `necessity’. “I wouldn’t lie, cheat, steal, hurt others but for the fact that it is necessary to secure my aims–which of course I must bring about.”
By contrast, if I rely upon God, I can relinquish the realization of my aims to him. I can stop doing what I and everyone else knows to be wrong, and I can calmly cease co-operation with immoral behavior occurring around me. I also can stand against the evils in my world, unconcerned about what is going to happen to me if I do. We need not try to be perfect. We can concentrate on just doing a lot better. That is the surest way of vastly improving the world we live in.
And by far the best way of taking this stand is by simply relying on Jesus Christ to guide and help us. The life that is in him is the best light that has ever been given to human beings. The surest sign that God is who we hope he is is the presence of Jesus Christ in human history. By trusting him the best we know how, we will begin to share in the eternal kind of life that belongs to God. We will begin to live in the world of the Twenty-Third Psalm, where we “fear no evil,” where “goodness and mercy shall follow me all of the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” That will be given to us in response to our trust. Experience will confirm it to us.
Because I make my living as a university professor and philosopher I am frequently asked, in so many words, “Why do you follow Jesus Christ?” My answer is always the same: “Who else did you have in mind?” I am open, I am willing, and I always seek to know more. But so far I have found no one who remotely compares to Jesus Christ as a practical guide to how things are and should be in human life. He proves to be one who is in touch with reality in depth and who guides me evermore into a life that comes to terms with evil in all of its dimensions. He brings us into the path leading to an experiential solution for the problems of evil.