This final article on the problem of evil has three sections: a short list of some of the usual shortcomings found in treatments of this subject, a brief look at biblical first principles1 relevant to the problem, and a concluding observation. This format allows a partial summary of previous arguments, and also shows the contrast between the biblical and conventional perspectives on evil. God willing, the next topic we will investigate, the fairness of God, will pick up on some related issues.
X. Typical Pitfalls Encountered in “Problem of Evil” Discussions
1. Dependency on the amount of evil.
I have already shown that this is a red herring; “amount” has very little, if any, bearing on the issue whatsoever. However, in a peculiar way, every argument from evil against theism boils down to the “amount” issue, for it is only because people perceive the amount of evil to be excessive that they even begin to question the existence of God.
2. Treating evil as a tangible, objective entity.
We use “evil” as a convention to denote any unfavorable state of affairs, but it’s hardly precise and very subjective, not the sort of entity that belongs in a rigorous logical statement that purports to unseat God. Some authors don’t even attempt a definition or description of what “evil” entails. Pages of crisply reasoned argumentation, often in mathematical-style shorthand, really amount to much less than the author intended to convey, as “evil” is not a real entity, such as a termite. Evil is as slippery as beauty; equations and logical flow patterns are simply misleading, and a vain show. How can the presence of A disprove the presence of B when A turns out to be a subjective and indefinable entity? We must be very careful how we use “evil” as a word and as a concept.
3. Mixing personal experience with rational argument.
I think we all know of people who have lost their faith after suffering some calamity that they thought God should have averted. Their personal world collapses, and with it their faith. Of course, people affected by tragedy will incur a tremendous sense of loss; that’s the human side of evil. However, personal experience of evil has no appropriate place in deciding the argument, and it is rationally inadmissible to use one’s own experience as evidence against the existence of God, or the involvement of God in human affairs.
A person who rejects belief in God because of a personal tragedy is discounting all previous incidents and persons who have suffered similar tragedies. If personal experience provided evidence, then wouldn’t anyone’s loss suffice to disprove the existence of God? Yet many people live lives of faith until something happens to them. This shows us how emotional and irrational people can be on this subject. Let your faith rest on appropriate evidence that can survive severe trials. Just because something happens to me doesn’t change the realities of the universe.
4. Using highly emotional examples
Tears are not arguments.2
This point is similar to the previous point, in that it shows how we can lose our perspective in the face of a particularly vile evil. In this instance, I refer here to the icon of evil in our generation, the Holocaust, which has had enormous influence on discussions of theodicy. Let me make myself perfectly clear here. I do not mean in any way to minimize what the Holocaust did, or what its memory means today. I’m only referring to the inappropriate use that philosophers and theologians have made of the Holocaust as an instance of evil, for in so doing they have weakened their own credibility. Let’s look at just two examples.
One interesting fact to emerge from recent discussion of the problem of evil is that the paradigm evil event to which virtually all theodicists now refer—including all the contributors of this book—is the Holocaust. … Let me pose this question for the authors and readers of this book: are there any theodicies, represented here or elsewhere, which are credible when they try to account for the Holocaust?3
If he [God] could bring Jesus back from total lifelessness to life, I believe that God could have changed the minds of the Nazi leaders, thereby preventing Auschwitz.4
Let’s look at what the second statement implies. The author says God could have prevented the Nazi leaders from carrying out the Holocaust, for which he usesAuschwitzas a symbol. The Holocaust accounted for perhaps only 20% of WWII casualties. Does not the rest of WWII bother his faith? What about Nazis in general? What about WWI? Where do we stop? We’ve been through this exercise in a previous article, and the results will be no different here.
The Holocaust has had enormous emotional impact, and for good reason; it is probably the worst-ever instance of evil. However, it still does not differ qualitatively from numerous other mass evils. We might be able to keep the Inquisition, say, at an emotional arm’s distance, or the Cambodian genocide, but they are equally valid, and vivid, examples of the same kind of evil. Whatever was true about God in 1945 was true in 1200 and 1200 B.C., too. Yet, how many times have we encountered words such as, “We can’t accept belief in God after the Holocaust”? Is this not a posthumous slap in the face to every victim of any evil before the Holocaust? There is no “post-Holocaust” theodicy that differs from what anyone would propose in 1920, or in 2020, should the world cook itself with nuclear weapons and global warming.
Two and a half centuries ago the Lisbonearthquake provided a similar challenge to theologians and philosophers.5 It’s fine to use examples when discussing the problem of evil, but no particular form or instance of evil requires a special collapse of belief in God. The misuse of the Holocaust here smacks of emotionality rather than rational thinking.
5. Superficial concept of God
People who attempt to understand how God can allow evil without first understanding God are in obvious trouble. However, the typical view of God (as expressed in formal philosophical premises) is limited to His infinite power and goodness, and the assumption that these attributes must always serve our physical well-being. Omniscience may also be cited, but with a constricted meaning: God’s knowledge should prevent all evil.
However, temporal happiness might in some way be detrimental to what God values most in a human. God’s omniscience could include the notion that He’s more interested in our character than our comfort. True, God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, but let’s give omniscience full value.
Finally, we must also add just to our description of God; this we will do below.
6. Long on complaint, short on solutions
It’s easy to say God should have made a better world. It’s not so easy to demonstrate what that world would look like. Writers invariably argue that our present world does not look like the work of an infinitely good God, but they don’t bother to think through the process of just what such improvements would yield. No one can successfully propose an evil-free earth populated by mortals. I have read no writer who acknowledges this point, or even hints at the fact that mortality itself is the problem. They all want some sort of world in which they believe they will be happy, but they don’t think far enough to realize that this only ends in an impossible world, and thus, no solution at all.
XI. Biblical Perspectives
Although not generally recognized as a first principle, per se, biblical theodicy is indeed integral to biblical fundamentals. Below I have listed some first principles, recast slightly in the service of resolving the Theodicy Enigma.
1. Free will and sin
Moral responsibility to God is an essential feature of biblical thinking. Moral responsibility entails both a moral standard and also a creature capable of free choice to live or not live in accord with that standard. Without individual free choice, we cannot be morally responsible creatures.
The Bible standard is love, but we do not always exercise or manifest our love. Failure to always manifest love is called sin, and sin clearly will cause harm to others and to ourselves as well. Therefore, at least some evil accrues from our own choices. Hence, the presence of a moral standard and free will are integral to explaining the occurrence of evil.
The Bible views evil as a consequence of sin (Gen. 3:17-19). The same abuse of free will caused cataclysmic harm when Cain slew Abel, and we haven’t improved since.
Mortality is the lynchpin of a right understanding. We are mortal because we are all sinful beings (Rom.5:12). In this condition evil will of necessity occur, for we will all die of something. As frequently noted, though, amount becomes the focus, and the real evil, mortality itself, is ignored. Everyone, regardless of his or her perspective on the Bible, is subject to mortality. All discussions of evil must start from this basic fact, but I have yet to see even one writer recognize it. Instead, they argue for a perfect world inhabited by mortals. This is manifestly poor thinking.
A few paragraphs above we added justice to the attributes of God, a feature invariably omitted in the standard formulations of God’s character.
Justice means God will judge people, and this entails further occurrences of evil. This evil will occur in one of three fashions: (a) Extra-ordinary physical event, such as Korah and company being swallowed up at Moses’ command, (b) Ordinary physical events, such as famines, and (c) Judgment by means of human evils, such asAssyriaorBabyloninvadingIsrael. The latter two categories would appear to any observer as naturally occurring or human-caused evils. Therefore, we cannot say about any evil that there might not be any divine direction behind it.
We can stipulate these premises about a just God:
- If there is a God of infinite virtue, justice is among these virtues.
- A just God will invoke justice on creatures responsible to His will.
- Such justice will involve the appearance of what humans generally label as evil.
- Therefore, the presence of evil does not provide evidence against God. Evil could be an instance of divine justice.
The usual omission of justice from descriptions of the character of God is revealing. As I have said many times, the problem of evil tells us more about people than about God.
4. No one is innocent
Yes, the suffering of innocents is much harder to explain, so let’s do away with that category, shall we? The biblical picture is very simple: we’re all mortal by virtue of our humanity, and human by virtue of our mortality. They go together; no one escapes. If mortal, then the amount of suffering we incur, and when, become ultimately immaterial.
5. Mortality means cessation of life
Absent the extra-biblical notion of immortal souls, and the correspondent need for venues for their disposition (i.e., heaven and hell), God’s judgment makes sense. The unfaithful disappear and become as if they never had been. Those of faith, saved by grace, become part of the eternal realm of God. Thus all suffering is temporary, resolved either by destruction in the grave or resurrection to immortality. When it’s over, it’s over.
6. Kingdom of God on earth
This feature removes all evil from the earth. It is, however, logically and morally necessary to have an antecedent period of mortal existence. Without a period for developing faith, no one could have a place in the divine realm. God can make perfect beings, but He cannot make perfect beings who have free moral choice. Those who complain that God has not made the world perfect to begin with, want a perfect mortal world. This is impossible. God can, however, make a perfect world inhabited by those who have experienced mortality and thus prostrate themselves in love and gratitude to their Creator.
7. Evil and suffering necessary for spiritual life
Three related points buttress the argument that evil and suffering are necessary in God’s plan for human life:
(a) Good cannot exist without some contrast; we wouldn’t know a blessed condition if we had not some unfortunate events also. If life were always in a state of comfort and happiness, would we even recognize them as such? Without contrast, we become creatures who cannot assess our environment. It would be true that our nervous systems would still be able to sense heat and cold, but if we never experienced a temperature too hot or too cold to cause discomfort (a miniscule concession to the notion of pain or suffering), we would have no sense of what comfort meant. Many similar examples could be added, in physical and emotional realms.
(b) The matter of good works is raised, for how could anyone do good if no one else had any need? Where would be heroism without someone else’s dire straits? Where would be charity without someone else’s poverty? Where would be compassion without someone else’s misfortune? We need injustices for someone to right, disease for people to tirelessly strive to cure, interpersonal offenses to be forgiven, and the list goes on and on. In short, we would have no occasion to perform humanity’s greatest acts if there were no evils.
(c) Perhaps most cogent in this line of argumentation, we need adversity and suffering on account of their didactic and character-building benefits. One does not achieve faith, patience, tolerance, perspective, humility, and probably any other virtue without the trials of life. Paul’s words in Romans 5:3-4 are true by anyone’s estimation. It is manifestly clear that human character absolutely requires chafing and burnishing to rise to its greatest potential. Many people have said, or written, that they simply wouldn’t be the person they are had not severe trial, resulting in life-changing conditions, overtaken them at some point.6 Under this head, we should also cite the great works of art, literature, and music that came from tortured lives . Extreme duress can bring out the best in human character.7
8. The atoning sacrifice of Christ
The crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ represents the absolute gravest transgression of propriety, the greatest breach of justice, and the worst misunderstanding ever endured by a single human, a perfectly righteous and innocent person. Consider this act relative to our discussion: God, with the willing cooperation of his son, Jesus, utilized the vilest and most ignominious torture for the purpose of bringing us salvation. If this is the necessary means to obviate the effects of sin, then we have in this act alone an ample resource to deal with any other aspect of evil that we might encounter in our lives. God gives us no quarter to complain about the presence of evil. We cannot embrace the meaning of Jesus’ innocent suffering on our behalf and ever raise a complaint of evil. God has also given us the hope of a positive result of evil, that is, the resurrection to eternal life wherein neither evil nor suffering will again intrude into our lives.
Sum greater than the whole
The sum of the preceding eight points is greater than the parts. The biblical view makes it rational, although uncomfortable, to live as a believer in God in a world of manifest evil. For the non-believer, I suggest a careful look at these principles as a solution to the problem of evil, regardless of their biblical source.
Biblical teachings allow us to produce a successful explanation; this is no easy task. The Bible’s ability to give us a clear theodicy then becomes evidence of its value. For the believer, consider it a blessing to have the knowledge that so many others have sought for in vain.
A final ironic argument
I have noted several times that the problem of evil holds a special place in theology, as it is the most frequently discussed issue, except for perhaps pure arguments about the existence of God; and it is a, if not the, main reason that leads people into unbelief. However, the fact that people are so invested in this problem provides strong evidence for the existence of God. If we were not of divine making, we would lack the aesthetic and moral capabilities to even mount such arguments. Every time a writer takes in hand the project of disproving or limiting God because of perceived injustice or suffering, the writer evidences that he or she belongs to a species able to discern evil in a way unexplainable if humans arose by purely natural means.
To sum up all the anti-theist arguments from evil, I will say that they present absolutely no evidence whatsoever against the existence of God. The same arguments attest to a humankind greatly sensitive to evils, longing to be rid of them, but resisting the very means by which this will occur.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away (Rev. 21:4).
David Levin, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Next: Is God Fair?
1. I have not forgotten my earlier assertion that biblical arguments might be fine for those who already accept biblical authority, but they have little value for those who have rejected the Bible. I do not propose the arguments in the biblical section as, “This is what the Bible says, and that ends the discussion.” Rather, I suggest you consider the biblical arguments as evidence of biblical authority, not a result of biblical authority.
2. Machado de Assis, Brazilian author (1839-1908)
3. Stephen T. Davis, ed., Encountering Evil. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981, p.6.
4. John Roth, in Encountering Evil, p. 33.
5. This event has particular significance in the history of the problem of evil, and I regret that this series of articles does not permit a more thorough investigation of the many issues related to it. Lisbon, then the fourth largest city in Europe, and one of the wealthiest and most splendidly constructed, was nearly entirely destroyed on Nov. 1, 1755, by a massive earthquake followed by widespread fires and flooding from tsunami. Loss of life was in the many tens of thousands. The great French philosopher, author, and poet, Voltaire, wrote two major works in response to this event, taking to task prevailing philosophical and theological ideas. His lengthy poem, “The Lisbon Earthquake,” along with its preface (available in The Portable Voltaire, Ben Ray Redman, ed. New York, Viking Press, 1968), reveal his emptiness and inability to account for any plausible explanation why God should allow such, and his distaste for those who could overlook the monumental human suffering and dish out philosophical musings to explain evil. Much of the poem is a reply to the philosophical position first advanced by Leibniz, whom we met in the first article as the coiner of the word “theodicy.” Leibniz said that we live in the best possible of all worlds, because God could, of course, not make anything less. Any evil that was present had to be subsumed under a larger picture that all worked for an ultimate greater good. Voltaire continued his attack on this position a few years later with his greatest work, the short satirical novel Candide. In this work, the hero Candide encounters an absurd series of disasters, but he is repeatedly reminded that, nonetheless, this is the best of all possible worlds we inhabit. It is indeed a great piece of writing by a master of humor and satire, but it is sad to see how constrained and feeble is even a great wit, without knowledge of God’s purpose. Ultimately, Voltaire and the rest of his ilk, have nothing to offer but perplexity.
6. It is perfectly true that adversity does not necessarily build character. Some just put up with it, others are broken by it, becoming bitter and disillusioned, and some even choose to end their own lives rather than live under the consequences of calamitous personal loss. Adversity can show us how powerful we really are, for when we are weak then are we strong, as we learn dependence on God and become aware of the true extent of our coping faculties. Religious bookstores are well stocked with biographies and autobiographies of people who overcame severe adversity and achieved internal peace and spiritual qualities.
7. “Certainly virtue is like precious odours, most fragrant when they are incensed, or crushed: for prosperity doth best discover vice, but adversity doth best discover virtue.” Francis Bacon, English philosopher and statesman (1561-1626).