The Problem of Evil
Is it logically sound to conclude there is no God because there is evil? How do we think through this problem? And what does it seem to tell us about ourselves?
Those affected by the Toronto van attack of 2018 had a measure of closure this week, as Ontario’s Superior Court Justice Anne Molloy found the perpetrator guilty of 10 charges of first-degree murder and 16 charges of attempted murder. Human justice was served; but in the minds of some, troubling questions remain.
In Canada, a first-degree murder conviction automatically carries a life sentence, with no right to parole for 25 years in this case. The attacker’s defense concocted a “not criminally responsible” strategy based on the attacker’s autism spectrum diagnosis, the first time this is attempted in Canada. Much has been written about this, and much more will be written and said.
However, my focus today is on a separate phenomenon that arises when these events happen. Almost inevitably, some will use tragedies like this to question the existence of God. This isn’t new; it’s a philosophical issue known as the problem of evil. I think Christians need to deal with this question with appropriate respect and intellectual rigour. It can seem a cheap shot against our faith, and sometimes it’s used like that. But others may have a genuine curiosity and concern around this, and I think we must be prepared to address it accordingly.
The Problem of Evil According to Welty
I’m going to get a bit formal here for a second. I like the following six-step articulation of the problem of evil. Here’s statement number one: a perfectly powerful being can prevent all evil. Number two: a perfectly good being will prevent evil as far as he can. Number three: God is perfectly powerful and good. Number four: if a perfectly powerful and good God exists, there will be no evil. Number five: there is evil. And number six, the conclusion: therefore, God doesn’t exist.
It sounds fairly logical put that way, eh? Let’s deal with this. To make this less abstract, let’s play a game pretending that we’re seated around a table with these arguments, and let’s consider the odd numbered arguments first. Number One, you say that a perfectly powerful being can prevent all evil. I have no problems with your truth value. You can be excused. Number Three, “God is perfectly powerful and good.” Amen to that! Not debating it. We can excuse this argument too. Number Five, “there is evil.” No argument there either. Painful, but true. There is no wrestling with this argument.
This leaves us with three even numbered arguments. Let’s say that Number Four is to my left, Number Six is to my right, and Number Two is across the table from me. Number Six, you’re the conclusion. There’s no point contending directly with you; you were logically derived from the premises. You’re free to go. Number Four, you say that a perfectly powerful and good God means there will be no evil. We can and must attack closer to the base, so you are dismissed. This leaves me facing argument number two: “a perfectly good God will always prevent evil,” and this is where we can begin to debate.
A theistic answer to the problem of evil takes two forms against this argument. One is the bold claim that the argument is false. A perfectly good God will not always prevent evil, basically because a perfectly good God may have greater goods in mind, which He intends to bring about by way of various evils. This is the way of theodicy, a word of Greek origin that means “vindication of God”.
There are several theodicies, which highlight various goals that God could have for specific evils. And there are many concrete examples of this in the Bible. One of them is the story of Joseph, who was sold as a slave by his brothers and went through some pretty unfair trials and tribulations for nearly two decades. After this, he rose to be the second in command in Egypt, and averted the extinction of his own family as a famine ravaged the land. And of course, there’s the story of Jesus, who suffered a senseless and undeserved death to accomplish the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation for humanity.
The other way to debate this argument is more modest. It claims that we can’t know for sure that argument number two is true. We can’t know for sure that a perfectly good God would always prevent all evil. We can’t know all of God’s motives or reasons or plans. This is known as the way of inscrutability. This rests at least in part on recognizing our cognitive limitations as humans. And hopefully it doesn’t take much to prove this. We don’t know everything, and our lack of evidence or perception around a fact isn’t enough to affirm that the fact isn’t true.
Here are a couple of concrete examples. It doesn’t seem to me that there is a perfectly spherical rock on the far side of the moon; however, this is no reason to conclude that such a rock actually doesn’t exist. It may not have seemed to people in the Middle Ages that special relativity or quantum theory were true; however, this is no reason to conclude that they aren’t. It may not have seemed to my infant daughter, back in the day, that any good was going to come out of her vaccination shots; however, that was no reason to conclude that was the case. You get the point. We can easily see that our ability to know things is limited, and that we shouldn’t be quick to come to conclusions in areas where this is the case. We just don’t know enough to affirm that an all-knowing, almighty God will never have reasons to allow evil, even the most unconscionable evil from which no good I can think of could come.
This is important for a couple reasons. First, it’s a purely rational argument. Theodicy presupposes a religious grounding, such as the authority of the Bible. Inscrutability would seem to make a point even in the absence of that grounding. Second, inscrutability teaches powerful lessons to both believers and non-believers. To believers, that we dare not to insensitively attempt to point out the good reasons we think God may have in permitting evil in the lives of those who suffer it. We may sincerely believe that such good reasons exist, but we don’t know what they are. To non-believers, I think there’s an element of caution against irrationality or even intellectual dishonesty. The seemingly unassailable six-step argument we started with actually makes a dangerously frail assumption at its very base.
This isn’t to say that we now have a full answer to this problem. We would have to cover many more elements, including the difference between moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil is that which comes from human judgments and deeds, like the Toronto van attack. Natural evil is impersonal, brought about by phenomena like hurricanes and earthquakes. These phenomena have natural causes and effects. Hurricanes balance heat globally, and earthquakes release stress as tectonic plates shift. But why do these events cause human harm and loss? There are theodicies that explain specific instances of natural evil. There are inferences that can generalize those explanations to the entire category. And inscrutability can protect us against any overreaching assumptions as we do that. But that’s a longer discussion than we can have here and now.
Most of what I’ve said so far comes from philosophy professor Greg Welty. He wrote a book titled, “Why is There Evil in the World (And So Much of It)?” In it, he extensively addresses the problem of evil. He has also published a shorter but equally comprehensive essay on the subject. I would heartily recommend his approach for a more detailed explanation of these arguments.
However, before we depart today, I’d like to point out two other arguments, and what I think I conclude from all this. First, I want you to reflect about an incident like the Toronto van attack. I’m fairly confident that whether you’re a Christian or not, you find it unequivocally, absolutely evil and condemnable. And I find that interesting, that at this level our sense of right or wrong doesn’t seem to depend or align with our religious beliefs. For that matter, it doesn’t seem to depend on our origin, ethnicity, level of education or socioeconomic status. I’d be hard-pressed to think of an identity group that wouldn’t find this event completely evil.
Where does this come from? Our group identity traits can’t explain it. Our genes can’t explain it – otherwise every evil person who ever lived would simply be a victim of their genetics and couldn’t possibly be guilty of their evil actions. And I’d be happy to debate how social interpretations of Darwinism or evolution cannot explain this either.
Famed British writer Clive Staples Lewis, better known as C. S. Lewis, grappled with this issue. Lewis’s name may ring a bell for you as the author of “The Chronicles of Narnia”, but he was also a lay theologian. However, that wasn’t always the case. In his young adulthood, Lewis was a self-professed atheist, in no small part because of all the injustice in the world. On page 45 of his book Mere Christianity, he describes what happened next:
[m]y argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?
If you think you’ve heard this argument here before, you’re right. You’re probably thinking of Episode 10 (article, podcast). Ultimately, our ability to universally recognize evil tells us something about the existence of God – the exact opposite of what the problem of evil tells us about the matter.
Here’s one last thing I’d like you to consider. This is pretty crazy, but let’s imagine that God exists, He’s able to stop all evil, but for some reason so far has chosen not to. Let’s imagine that He changes His mind – I told you this is pretty crazy – and He will start preventing evil next Monday. There will be no more vehicle ramming attacks – that we can all agree to. And I think we’ll all mostly agree to not having any more car accidents. For that matter, no more fatalities from fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, typhoons, winter storms, muggings…
So far so good, right? No more stealing, no more lying… Wait a second. Do we want God to stop all lying, including the white lies we use to excuse ourselves? What about smoking? Is that evil, or is that passable? What about flirting with someone who isn’t your couple, or simply looking at someone else?
Whose definition of evil should God use to stop it?
And I think this hits home in terms of understanding where does the problem of evil actually come from. I think all of us, Christians and non-believers alike, grapple with our lack of knowledge of what I would call “The Table”. You know, the one with four columns? Sinner, sin, victim, consequence? “Peter committed sin A and because of that, Paul experienced evil B”. Or maybe, “Alice experienced evil A so that Bob can enjoy greater good B.” We would like to understand – no, control – the causes and effects of everything that happens around us, and at least in that way, we would like to be God. We seem to be unable to unequivocally draw these connections. However, maybe this isn’t reason to believe that they don’t exist, and that there is a God that does know them, or even creates them in the first place.
As a believer, I have no place speculating about the specific theodicies behind specific evil events. My faith is bound by God’s inscrutability. So, on something like the Toronto van attack, all I can offer are my thoughts and prayers for the victims and their families. But I think the combination of theodicy and inscrutability also more or less precludes our ability to simply deny God’s existence on intellectual grounds in the face of these painful events.