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If God is good, why is there evil?

Personally, I believe that the existence of evil & suffering is one of the weakest arguments that non-theists can make against the existence of God.  But for many, this is the go-to point when they attempt to argue away the idea that God is good.

It’s hard for me to believe in a God because of all the suffering that occurs in the world,” said Aaron, a senior insurance agent. “If God has so much power why wouldn’t he just fix that? I understand the “not wanting us to be robots” thing but small children getting cancer and dying or being brought up to be terrorists doesn’t seem to make any sense whatsoever to me.

The first question I usually pose to those who hold to this belief is whether or not they are evolutionists.  Why would I ask that?  It’s simple.  Typically, those who do not believe in God, as we have seen so far, hold to the idea that God and evolution are mutually incompatible.  However, if the doubter in God is indeed an evolutionist, and yet is concerned with the idea of children dying or people committing terrible murders, he or she must understand that the evolutionary model requires the death of the weak and the survival of the fittest.  The unbeliever may then find out that he or she is not angry with God (since he or she does not believe in him) for the terrible reality of the world, but nature itself.

So the non-believing evolutionists is now openly admitting that he does not believe in any god, yet still finds that the natural order of the world (children dying; people killing; natural disasters) is evil.  But where does he get this idea of evil if he is not comparing this world to an outside, non-evil, standard?  The famous author C.S. Lewis struggled with this inner battle while he was an atheist.  This is what Lewis had to say in his book Mere Christianity:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of “just” and “unjust”? . . . What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? . . . Of course I could have given up my idea of just by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. . . . Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple.[1]

Lewis compared this world to a crooked line drawn on a sheet of paper.  He then realized that in order to know that the line was crooked, a perfectly straight line must then exists and that is the standard by which he judges the crooked line.  He then carries that principle into our universe.  Our universe is his crooked line; therefore, there must exist a perfect line – a universe where neither evil nor suffering exists.  He then reconciled this to understand that God’s universe (heaven) exists outside of ours, and only by comparing our current world to it can we really label our world unjust.

Note further what Lewis realized.  “…for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies.”  What Lewis is saying here is that for an atheist to argue that God does not exist due to the unjust state of the universe, we must believe that just and unjust are universal principles not relative to each person or situation.   For by saying that just and unjust are relative rather than absolute, we have no right to question other people who claim the world truly is just.

Who honestly sits around and says that children dying painful deaths of cancer is truly just?  I would say that not many do.  However, it is widely accepted that child death, whatever the cause, is a tragedy; thus affirming that there is an absolute principle in force.  Going further, if someone claims that truth is relative instead of absolute, the statement which that person makes is thus, by that person’s definition, relative; therefore, it is not required to be accepted by any.  How ironic is it that anyone who makes the truth statement of, “Truth is relative, not absolute,” is, in his or her eyes, making a relative statement about the absoluteness of truth?  The irony in this is outstanding.  As Lewis would agree, theism simply makes more sense than atheism when considered in light of evil and suffering.  However, many will still argue that all of this philosophy is not enough to prove to them that Yahweh or any other god exists; they still believe that God cannot exist if all of this unnecessary evil keeps happening in the world.

Often I hear of this such argument: Since there is evil in the world, God cannot be good and therefore must be evil.  The problem here lies in the fact that the skeptic is not giving attention to the entirety of his or her logic. Philosophically, if the existence of evil in the world determines that God is evil, then the existence of good in the world would therefore determine that God is good.  The statement “Evil exists, therefore God is evil” demands that the statement “Good exists, therefore God is good” also be true, lest the logic be biased.  Even the most skeptical of atheists would agree that though there is evil in the world, there is also good in the world; most of these atheists justify their atheism by committing charitable acts to tip the scales more in favor of good on Earth.

Let us now address the issue of pointless evil. On September 11, 2001, a terrorist organization hijacked four American airplanes and killed thousands of innocent American citizens; in 2004, a tsunami killed more than 250,000 people around the coast of the Indian Ocean; in 2014-2015, a Muslim jihadist group has been kidnapping and beheading hundreds of people all in the name of Allah.  How can we look at these current events and not ask the question, why God?  In the case of these horrible events, many people will make this case against the existence of God:

  1. If God existed, he would prevent pointless evil.
  2. Pointless evil exists.
  3. Therefore, God cannot exist.

As Timothy Keller would point out, there is a hidden premise within this argument: if evil appears pointless to me, it must be pointless.[2]  Why should we accept this premise?  The short answer is that we should not.

What is pointless evil?  Pointless evil is evil that exists that neither prevents a greater evil nor brings about a greater good.  But the tougher question is this: how do we determine if a particular evil is pointless?  In reality, there is no way to determine if an evil is pointless because there exists no method of which to test it.  Like evolution, the prevention of a greater evil or the production of a greater good may or may not happen within a year, a decade, a millennium, or even 10 mortal lifetimes.  We simply cannot test every evil and determine whether or not a greater evil was prevented or a greater good was produced.  Why then must we insist that unnecessary evil exists if we are unable to test it?  We simply label it as “unnecessary” because we cannot instantly see a reason behind it.

I would like to discuss an example of a necessary evil within my life in light of what is known as the greater good principle. The greater good principle occurs when an evil either prevents the existence of a greater evil or brings about a greater good. A trivial example would be a soldier falling on a live grenade to save his squadron. The soldier will die or be severely injured by shielding the others with his body, which is considered an evil. However, this evil prevents a worse evil from happening: the death of his entire squadron.

When I was 24 years old, I had recently finished up my undergraduate work at Shorter University in Rome, GA.  Following graduation, I searched for secular jobs to work until I would begin graduate school.  I landed a job at a local State Farm branch and worked as a sales agent for a period of time.  For reasons beyond the scope of this writing, I was forced to leave the company within the first two months.  I was broke.  I had no idea how I was going to fund my wedding, my current student loan bills, or how I would be able to move out from my parents’ house.  However, just two weeks after leaving my job, my grandfather fell terribly ill and needed constant care.  Because I was recently freed up from my 50 hour/week job, I was able to tend to his needs and care for my grandfather until the situation became better.  My initial evil – the loss of my job and income – was not unnecessary, for it then provided me with a different resource – time – which I could use for good.  The care that I was able to then give my grandfather outweighed the evil of me losing my job.  Thus, in this case, my evil was not unnecessary, but rather, it happened in order that a greater good could come about.

Let us look at it this way.  When I first lost my job, I had no idea that my grandfather would soon fall ill and need my assistance.  To my perception, there existed no reasoning behind my suffering.  However, to my surprise, the reasoning surely came about.  What does that say about other evils or sufferings, though?  Do reasons behind evils always appear as fast as mine did?  Of course they do not.  Do reasons behind evils always even appear?  To that, the answer remains the same.  Evil and suffering will forever be a part of this world, and reasons behind them do exist, but that does not mean that our mental faculties will be able to identify and/or recognize them every time they appear. Just because our perception is unable to detect the reason, this does not mean that the reason does not exist.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (162).

[2] Keller, 23.

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