Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Problem of Evil

Can there be a single answer as to why evil exists? Or, why bad things happen to good people?

So much depends on your preconceived principles of faith. I couldn't give the same answer to someone who doesn't believe in God as I could to someone who does. Furthermore, what is your conception of God? What are God's defining characteristics?


Atheists have no problem with this question, of course. Some smart-aleck once said that atheists have no problem with the existence of evil, only with the existence of everything else.

I'll let that go, for now.


Assuming that you believe in something God-like, then you still don't necessarily have a problem with the existence of evil if you believe in one of the following things:

1. God is not omnipotent.

Even if you believe in a single deity, you can believe that God is not omnipotent. In which case, you can assume that evil things can happen beyond God's control.

By the way, this is the answer given in the book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People", by Rabbi Harold Kushner.

2. God is not omniscient.

If you believe that God is omnipotent, you still may not believe that He is all-knowing. Perhaps bad things happen and the most He can do is react to them. Alternately, you may believe that God "wound the clock", so to speak, and then left, so that He doesn't have direct involvement in our worldly affairs.

3. God is not omni-benevolent.

Even if you believe the first two, evil is not a problem for those who do not believe in God's benevolence. I believe that that is the case for many people who suffer, or who view the terrible things that happen around the world.

If you do believe all these things, then you have to answer how an all-powerful, all-knowing, and good Being can let terrible suffering occur.

Explanations I Can't Accept

One explanation that I often hear is "because you've sinned". Rabbis and Preachers love that one. After all, it is hard to prove otherwise. No one can say that they're perfect.

I find this explanation to be pretty pathetic. First of all, you can simply look at thousands of people whose lives are roughly equal in virtue and see that the pain and pleasure allotted to each is wildly disproportionate. They can say that the sufferers must have sinned "in their heart", which is not only unprovable, but highly improbable.

In any case, if you're Christian or Jewish and believe in the Old Testament, you're completely contradicting the book of Job, whose entire premise is that bad things happen to good people, even when they haven't sinned. Job's three friends believe that he must have sinned, and both Job and God reject this.

Furthermore, a tremendous amount of suffering happens to babies and children, who cannot possibly have sinned before they were born.

The explanation given in Job is that God's ways are mysterious. He made the Earth and Heavens, and so it is not possible that you will ever really know the answer. While possibly true, to an extent, this explanation is not entirely satisfying.

Another explanation is that a person may have sinned in a past life. For this to make sense, you have to assume that suffering is not "correction" - i.e. used for instruction - but "absolution", in that it somehow cleanses the soul.

I find this a rather inefficient system. I can't see the point of having another life just to suffer for a previous one. Furthermore, the non-obviousness of this system is a stumbling block for human understanding. We have to make sense of it retroactively; otherwise, we couldn't hold our faith. But we only hold our faith because of this system. That's rather circular reasoning to me.

A similarly unsatisfying explanation is that the more suffering you undergo in this life, the less you will receive in "the world to come". This is another example of reasoning invented to explain what we cannot otherwise cope with.

Another explanation is that we suffer so that we are inspired to choose God as our savior. God is showing us what free will allows us, and why it's bad. Again, the number of babies and children who suffer without ever having the opportunity to do this, not to mention the suffering that occurs after choosing God, seems to preclude this as a possibility.

My understanding

Here are my thoughts.

In one of my wife's papers, she wrote about Emmanuel Levinas:
According to Levinas, it is "disappointment", the absence of God, which forces the individual to created a space within for God as Other. A separation, a distance is necessary. The individual is thus not enclosed in a totality which dissolves the self, but allows him to give himself over, turn towards the other, his fellow man. In other words, "ontological absence [of God, the Other] means ethical presence [for the other]".
Even better, Rachel once phrased this as: "ontological absence necessitates ethical presence".

Which means that God perforce gives humans something to do by absenting Himself, just a bit. Without evil to overcome, we are nothing but empty vessels.

Can an omni-benevolent God create evil and suffering? Yes, if by doing so even more good comes as a result: human compassion, human action, human striving.

Can this really explain a child born to twisted agony, destined for a short life of starvation in Africa? Or the Holocaust? By virtue of God's absence, we must act together to stop these things from happening. We have to invent the science to help the unborn, the economics to share the food, and the politics and militaries to stop the tragedies. We cannot rely on God to do this for us.

But an explanation is not an excuse. That's one of the points, I think. God's examples of prophets are Abraham, Job, Moses. These guys railed against, argued with, and condemned God. They wouldn't let God off the hook. And they took action.

If you don't like evil and suffering in the world, fight against it and, while doing so, condemn God for it. Bring God to task.

More on the subject of theodicy. And here's an entire blog devoted to the subject.


Update: Over shabbat I thought of one more important point to make on this issue.

I didn't really answer how my interpretation of why evil/suffering exists can explain a small child born into pain and suffering who leaves the world before cognition, something which the other explanations fail to address satisfactorily.

I don't have an answer for the pre-scientific world, but for today's world the answer is that we have failed the child, at least partially.

Where is the medicine and nutrition that didn't make it to the parents before the child was conceived? The screening before it grew in the womb? The surgeries and gene-splicing that could have cured the infant before it was born?

Our science and our social programs have a long way to go, in part because so much of our world's attention and resources go to other issues, such as war and other such nonsense. In a sense, war's cost can also be measured indirectly, by our inability to give our fellow humans the attention and solutions that they need.

I don't know if, suddenly, the world were to act in complete concert that we could solve all human suffering, but I bet we could make a big dent in it.



Agent Easy said...


I'll preface my comments by saying that I'm an atheist, so you can take my comments within that context.

I understand "evil" as an interpretation of intent or of an event. In the large majority of cases, what is evil in one person's opinion is not necessarily so from another's point of view.

From that, it's not a big jump to say that "evil" is closer to "a terrible intention, or event" (although obviously the term "evil" implies a certain consiousness).

The next thing you need to know about my point of view is that I consider human beings to be part of the same natural system which includes everything from insects to plants to animals to the universe.

Bad things happen because change is a fundamental part of nature. From the point of view of a forest, a forest fire is an enormous calamity. However, forest fires are a necessary event in the continuous health of the soil beneath. Similarly, a certain percentage of all things will be considered "imperfect". On one hand, this can be considered a law of simple percentages, but it's not a stretch to consider that the imperfections serve a purpose as well (a warning vs. complacency, a reminder to be appreciative of what we have, a necessary corrective step, an exception to prove the rule, whatever).

Humans often separate themselves from this process and assume no such thing happens at our level... but I don't beleive it. Just because I can't always understand the reasons doesn't mean their not there. I've come to beleive that most aquaintances I've had with undesirable people have at the very least served as reminders to myself NOT to be that way to others... to learn from my reaction to them what it's like to be on the other side of my own personality traits.(whether it's simply a characteristic I dislike, or worse).

Anyway, interesting post.

Chris said...


I enjoy theodicy as much as the rest of the theological game... :) A few thoughts.

My God-concept is a bit abstract, so for the purposes of my comment I will try-on something a little more conventional.

An omnipotent God may still choose not to intervene - a father may know their child is making a mistake, but sometimes it is better to let the child learn... The capacity for infinite action is not an obligation to act. Given that belief in God goes hand in hand with belief in free will for most people, God may simply choose not to act (even though God could). If the world is ours, what good could come from God overtly usurping our role in the world? That would be overbearing!

A similar argument applies to an omniscient God. This is the weakest of the traits usually assigned to God in my opinion - a truly omniscient God sees not only what happens but the infinite horizon of what *could* happen. Since we cannot see the future, how can we truly judge whether action on behalf of God would have been in the collective good?

In respect of omni-benevolence, a salient question might be: could a universe have been created in which there was only good and not evil? I do not believe this is the case. Evil is a natural side product of free will, and as such any universe that allows for free will must (perhaps) allow for evil.

Think of the cases when a well-intentioned nation has acted in such a way as to *cause* evil, when meaning to do good. I might even say this applies to the US invasion of Iraq. (The US people felt they were acting on behalf of the Iraqi people, whatever the Bush administration may had thought on the matter).

When one has a God-concept with all three traits, the problem of evil arises when we face what seems to be a tragic and pointless occurrence. How could God allow this to happen? Yet:

Would overtly acting to prevent it happening undermine our existential freedom? (The argument that omnipotence does not imply action).

Are the future implications of the event as tragic as its direct experience? (The argument that we are not omniscient, and thus judging what would be seen by an omniscient being in that circumstance is impossible).

If God suffers with us - if God feels our pain - God can still be omni-benevolent even if God takes no action.

We assume that in the face of evil, God must act if God can, or else lose one of the three traits listed. But is this assumption valid? I don't believe it is.

Terrible things happen... they happen to good people, to bad people, to people of all kinds. Some of these terrible things are caused by people - this is what I would choose to call *evil*, and that is a product of free will.

Then there are terrible things that happen seemingly at random. But these are *not* evil - for evil implies intent. They are, rather, tragic. Yet tragedy is part of this existence - it is an inherent part of it. Must this be so? Is it possible to construct a universe devoid of tragedy?

How can we possibly judge?

Best wishes!

Yehuda said...

agent easy: thanks for your point of view.

chris: you're kind of saying my point.

To clarify, your parent/child issue has to deal with the AIDS infected baby dying of starvation or rape in Africa. A parent doesn't give lessons like that to a child, because, for that child, there is no opportunity to learn from it.

My contention is that these things must happen for all of mankind to deal with it. Perhaps there is some compensation for the undeserved suffering we undergo in some sort of heaven. I don't need to reflect on that overly much.

What I need to know is that I have a job to do, and I can't rest as long as the job remains. "It is not my task to complete the job, but neither am I free to absolve myself from it."


meowsqueak said...

Just a quick comment from my point of view.

I personally make a distinction between bad things that are the result of 'evil' and bad things that are the result of random chance. Sure, it's a terrible tragedy when an earthquake wipes out thousands of people in seconds, but that's not evil and it's not a direct result of anything humans do. I don't know how God and natural disasters fit together.

On the point of "sin causes bad things" - my understanding is that there are three separate translations of the word 'sin' in the Christian Bible (perhaps more?). One of these is "fallen short", i.e. we have all sinned in that we have all fallen short of God's individual plan for each of us. I think the world is the way it is partly because of that - if we were without sin (living according to his plan 100%, which is impossible under our own power), then we would be following God's plan perfectly and there would be no evil in the world. There would also be none of the other two meanings of sin present either.