What’s the Problem with the Problem of Evil? 2

A friend of mine once told me that he does not see any problem with the problem of evil — as if it weren’t any problem at all.

I do have a problem with that.

First of all, evil itself is an enormous problem. When innocent people suffer tragedy, finding words to console them is not always possible. Evil is almost always regarded as an injustice of some sort. Why then should it be tolerated at all?

Second, the notion of evil as a privation, i.e., not an actual thing in itself that God creates or causes, is too abstract for some people to grasp. Then, some people who do understand the privative notion of evil still do not accept this subtle explanation of evil as part of a viable solution to the “classical problem of evil,” which can be stated as follows:

How can the following 5 statements be held as consistent with one another?

  • God exists
  • God is omnipotent
  • God is omniscient
  • God is benevolent
  • Evil exists

Evil certainly exists. If God exists, he must be omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent, or else he is not perfect; and an imperfect being cannot be God; otherwise, something better than said being could exist, namely an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent God.

Yet if God were omnipotent, he could prevent evil; if he were omniscient, he should know about potential evil and know how to prevent it; if he were benevolent, he should want to prevent it. So why does evil exist if God exists.

Many answers to this problem have been proposed. Here’s a video featuring an atheist responding to 10 of those proposed answers:

I can’t comment on everything he says here. I have to admit I find some of his points valid. The world would be a much better place if atrocities like child rape never occurred. If you agree that this specific issue fully justifies rejecting God, then you should also question certain things about our justice system — Follow this link only if you think this man’s child rape argument should definitely cause everyone to question God.

But as I said, I don’t intend to take issue with these things here.

The usual response to this problem (other than denying the existence of God) is twofold. First, as I mentioned earlier, evil is a privation. It is the absence of the good that ought to be present. For example, blindess is a privation of the vision that a person ought to have. I’m not justifying the fact that God allows blindness. I’m just saying that it’s nothing other than the privation of sight.

Second, God does not directly cause evil, nor does he permit it. He allows it for the sake of a greater good that he foresees as forthcoming as a consequence of the evil that he allows.

You are probably asking, “What is the difference between permitting and allowing.”

Take the example of a police officer positioned stealthily for a speedtrap on the highway. The speedlimit is 65 mph, and the flow of traffic is going at 75 mph (just a hypothetical, though I’m sure someone out there can relate to this scenario). The police officer’s duty is to enforce the law. Yet he’s allowing traffic to flow over the speedlimit.

Note that he’s not giving anyone permission to drive over the speedlimit. He is allowing traffic to flow steadily at a higher speed than what is legally permitted, within that zone, for various reasons. One of those reasons is that he want’s to nab the guy on the Suzuki weaving around the other motorists at 95 mph. He’s not going to allow that one to get away.

Now I’m not saying that God is like a cop at a speedtrap waiting to bust a speeding cyclist. I’m just pointing out the distinction between what is permitted and what is being allowed and suggesting that the one who allows some things, which are not permitted, to happen may be doing so for a decent reason.

Does that resolve the problem of evil? Certainly not. I don’t think I can resolve it. It’s a mystery.

Calling it a mystery does not bring in the infamous “God of the Gaps” to resolve the issue. A mystery is not just something that makes people say, “God did it,” just because they can’t see any other way around it.

Rather, a mystery is something that the human mind cannot exhaust.

St Augustine

It’s like the famous dream of St Augustine, when he found himself walking along the seashore and came across a child using a little seashell to pour water into a small hole in the sand. When Augustine asked the child what he was trying to do, the child responded, “I’m trying to fill this hole with all the water in the ocean.” Augustine laughed and said, “That’s impossible! You can’t fit the whole ocean into that little hole!” The child rebuked Augustine with the innocent question, “And you think you can fit the Trinity into your little head?”

St Augustine did not then say, “Well, I guess I’m going to have to throw my monumental treatise, De Trinitate, out the window.” He recognized the kid’s point that the mystery of the Trinity is inexhaustible. You can ponder it endlessly and fathom it more deeply as long as you contemplate it; but you can never say you’ve fully understood it.

The mystery of evil, especially the mystery of human iniquity and why God allows it, is one of those things. You can mull it over as long as you want, but you will never wrap your head around it.

I’d like to wrap this up with a reflection that I made after reading some comments on one of my recent posts. The topic under discussion was about whether one could reasonably say that religion is the cause of all wars. Someone raised this question:

Was the atomic bomb the fruit of religion or science?

Another commenter brought in Einstein, who certainly did not intend for his genius to be used for such horrific ends. Afterwards I thought, okay, so maybe “science” did not cause the horrific events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some scientists certainly contributed to it knowingly. Einstein might have made the bomb possible in some way, and if he hadn’t, someone else might have figured out what he had figured out, eventually. This is not the point.

Einstein knew that the implementation of scientific discoveries could be used for evil ends. Did that discourage him from being a scientist? Should it have? Should we suspend all scientific progress just because evil could arise from it? Arguably not.

Well then, try and see how God might allow certain things to happen, like giving men the ability to act and choose freely, even though he is aware that that power could (and would) be used for illicit ends.

If you still think that you have to solve the whole riddle of evil before you can accept that there is a loving God… I understand why you might have given up already. I’m not sure it can be fully resolved.

[photo-credit]

2 comments

  1. As an atheist, I usually disagree with you. I’m glad to see that you admit that evil is a problem. That’s a fair assessment. “God works in mysterious ways” just isn’t answer enough for me.

    • Thanks, Solomon. I assume that anyone who would accept “God works in mysterious ways” as an answer to any problem would already be inclined to believe in God.

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