Stephen Scale | Why does a good God allow evil?
School has just ended. A seven-year-old boy is standing on his school compound when an unmanned garbage truck runs into a nearby taxi then overturns and crushes him to death.
In November, a university student is viciously murdered while making his way home, his life mercilessly snuffed out before he reached his full potential.
Last December, almost 300 people died, following a tsunami in Indonesia. Just a few months earlier in September, over 800 people died in a similar catastrophe.
In times of tragedy and disaster, one may find themselves asking where was God when this was happening? Why does a good God allow so much evil in the world?
n If God is omnipotent – that is to say, “all powerful” – it means that He has the power to put a stop to evil.
n If God is omniscient – that is to say “all knowing” – it means that He cannot plead ignorance, He knows about all the evil that is happening.
n If God is omni-benevolent – that is “all loving” – He is not some kind of despot, but He is full of love and compassion and would rather see goodness prevail in His creation rather than evil, yet we see quite the opposite over and over.
How can God-believing people reconcile these characteristics of God with all the evil that is happening in the world?
In philosophical circles, this dilemma, known as “the problem of evil”, has provided fodder for atheism (the belief that there is no God). After all, if God exists, then He is omnipotent and perfectly good; a perfectly good being would eliminate evil as far as it could; there is no limit to what an omnipotent being can do; therefore, if God exists, there would be no evil in the world; there is evil in the world; therefore, God does not exist.
An important statement of the problem of evil, attributed to Epicurus, was cited by the Scottish philosopher and renowned atheist David Hume in his ‘Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’ (1779): “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is He impotent? Is He able, but not willing? Then is He malevolent? Is He both able and willing? whence then is evil?”
Before I interact with the problem itself, I should define evil. According to Cambridge Dictionary, evil means “morally bad, cruel, or very unpleasant”.
TWO TYPES OF EVIL
There are two types of evil: what is known as moral evil – the acts of humans that are considered to be morally wrong, for example, to steal, or to murder someone. Then there is natural evil – natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis.
Philosophers, usually of the Christian variety, have devoted substantial effort responding to the problem of evil, so much so that this has its own term – theodicy – defined as the vindication of divine providence in view of the existence of evil.
The main defensive argument put forward is that God neither causes nor desires evil in the world, but rather, evil is a result of humans exercising their free will. Free will, in humans, is the power or capacity to choose among alternatives or to act in certain situations independently of natural, social, or divine restraints. For example, a person can decide to rob and harm another person – that is their free choice. This view is posited by philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga.
Plantinga’s defence is summarised in the following statement: “A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so.” (Plantinga, 1977 – God, Freedom and Evil page 30).
He continues: “As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.”
Perhaps free will could explain the existence of moral evil, but what about natural evil? What does my ability to choose between lying and telling the truth have to do with tectonic plate movements beneath the earth’s surface, causing earthquakes and tsunamis, so-called “acts of God” that wipe out thousands of human lives, including innocent babies?
Furthermore, even if this is so, consider the results of free will: inequality, injustice, genocide, to name a few. Are the evils in the world a fair price to pay for free will? Should God stand by and allow hundreds of young teenage girls to be sold via human trafficking into the global sex trade because greedy men need to exercise their free will? What about that poor, innocent child’s free will?
ORIGIN OF EVIL
Where did evil come from in the first place? Christians cite the book of Genesis in the Bible and trace this to the Garden of Eden. Some even go further back in time to the fall of Satan, the devil.
As for the capacity for moral evil in humanity, Christianity teaches that we are introduced to evil by Satan in the Garden of Eden. Why was there a devil in the Garden of Eden in the first place? God created everything and it was “good”. Yet, this crafty serpent, the devil, stood contrary to God and influenced the free will of Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Which begs the question: what was that tree even doing there in the first place?
Couldn’t God have simply made us in a manner that we would resist evil and choose good ALL the time? Why not programme us to do the right thing? To love instead of hate? Imagine what a utopian world that would be!
Is it possible that God made man for a purpose beyond the experiences of this world and its current evils? Could the current evil and suffering be part of a curriculum of the human experience, to develop character for a life beyond this one? Is it at all conceivable that free will – the ability to choose between right and wrong, good and evil – be an important condition for developing character for that future life? Could that future life be of such stupendous quality that it is worth the high price of free will, along with its consequential moral evil and suffering? Could even natural evil be part of such a curriculum?
If I could draw an analogy from school. Many students find paying school fees, going to classes, studying, doing assignments and exams to be undesirable, tedious and nerve-racking. Yet the best of students know that they are going through their school experience for a purpose, a greater good, knowing well that the reward for successfully navigating the curriculum far outweighs and outlasts the temporary discomfort caused by being in school.
There is a Jamaican saying, “if you want good, you nose haffi run”. Perhaps it is not so inconceivable that the God who created such a vast, intricate universe, could be refining His prized creation through the property of human free will, taking us through a spiritual curriculum towards an exceedingly superior future existence, with its present, comparatively minor, temporary inconvenience – the problem of evil.