“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?” – Epicurus (BC 341-270)
It’s not merely within the talk of cynics and misanthropes that one can expect to find disillusionment toward this world; nature creates and nature destroys, all with an air of indifference to whatever chaos ensues. Even the committed theist surely has difficulty in reconciling the optimism of Leibniz – that this is the ‘best possible world’ – with the starkly contrasted state of affairs we presently find ourselves in. In fact, it is quite obvious that this is not the best possible world, since any one of us can effortlessly conceptualize a world with less evil and more love, so surely an all-powerful god could effortlessly actualize it. From HIV to AIDS, earthquakes causing tsunamis, hurricanes perpetuating floods, and droughts that enable famine, it is not an unreasonable question to ask: where is God?
The basis upon which the Abrahamic religions are built, depicts a single supernatural entity that, while being intimately involved in the lives of his divine creation, is ostentatiously defined by his unwavering omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. These three attributes are the hallmark of perfect being theology, which posits that a truly divine God must be maximally perfect in all faculties. That is, he must possess the greatest possible set of intrinsically good properties. When considering the world in which we live, wrought with evil and unimaginable suffering, it seems positively absurd to credit such obvious imperfection to a being who is supposedly defined by perfection.
If we are to assume that the theistic God exists, then we should expect to find ourselves in a world that does not contain avoidable suffering because a benevolent god would not want us to suffer, and an all-powerful god would be able to actualize that desire by preventing our suffering. It is here that we find the inconsistency, since our world does contain avoidable suffering. There are countless instances throughout history where God could have prevented suffering without permitting evil or compromising the ‘greater good’, yet that is certainly not the history man has come to know. The presence of gratuitous evil and avoidable suffering in the world poses a rather palpable threat to theism, for it shatters the very premise of divinity: perfection.
Prominent monotheisms hold belief in an anthropomorphized god possessing human-like qualities such as emotion and volition. His most revered attribute however, is not one capable of humans; in fact it is specifically the lack of this attribute that signifies our separation from the divine – the quality of perfection. The assumption that God is perfect in all faculties poses an immediate problem: if God is a perfect creator then his creation must also be perfect.
Theologians and apologists claim to have resolved this obvious logical inconsistency with theodicies involving free will, which effectively cast the blame on man for proliferating evil by misusing our God-given autonomy. However, invoking the free will defense only addresses moral evils, but what of gratuitous evil? What of earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, and hurricanes that ravage entire communities? Or birth defects that handicap children, cancers and diseases that infiltrate any and all tissues of the body? And avalanches, rockslides, and forest fires that compromise not only human lives, but biological diversity and intricate ecosystems? The list is seemingly endless, and the suffering that amounts is endless still, yet none of these disasters are the result of human agency.
And it is not just the catastrophic natural disasters and epidemics that should be taken into account when considering the existence of suffering, but also the very mechanisms of the natural world. Take for example, the dynamics of ecosystems and predator-prey interactions, which are characterized by the unrelenting fact that one organism must die for the other to live.
Natural selection, the mechanism credited with our own evolution, is itself necessitated by selfish genes that reward opportunistic behavior. The products of nature may be beautiful, but the methods through which they are derived are ugly, for they are dependent on a cycle of violence and submission. Sir David Attenborough famously commented on this supposed beauty of nature as a creation of God in numerous interviews:
When Creationists talk about God creating every individual species as a separate act, they always instance hummingbirds, or orchids, sunflowers and beautiful things. But I tend to think instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, [a worm] that’s going to make him blind. And [I ask them], ‘Are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all-merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child’s eyeball? Because that doesn’t seem to me to coincide with a God who’s full of mercy.
What reasonable conclusion can be made in light of nature’s innate wickedness, the suffering that results, and the lives lost in vain? The obvious answer seems to be that since avoidable evil not only exists but is fundamentally necessitated by all organisms’ struggle for survival, an all powerful and all-good god does not exist.
According to Genesis, natural evil is a punishment from God, as result of Adam and Eve’s transgressions in the Garden of Eden. This explanation serves to coalesce the triggers of natural evil with those of moral evil, such that natural evil is both a punishment and reflection of our humanly flaws. If we are to accept this causality, then we cannot describe God as being benevolent. As mentioned earlier, humans are definitively separated from God by measure of perfection such that God is maximally perfect, and humans are sufficiently imperfect. Yet despite this rather crippling handicap, we are still held entirely accountable, and eternally condemned in fact, for the wrongful actions resulting from exercising the free will that God forced us to have. If we are given free will with a tendency toward sin, but eternally damned if we act in a way that is consistent with our nature, were we ever free to begin with?
The double standard that arises is unsettling to say the least, especially because God is in a position of totalitarian control. We are told to love him unconditionally, though our salvation through his love is highly conditional. If we are to be held entirely responsible for the magnitude of our transgressions, then God must at least be held accountable for the natural evils that afflict our world. If hurricanes, earthquakes, and childhood leukemia are punishment for homosexuality, eating shellfish, and failing to keep the Sabbath holy, then free will truly is an illusion and the very basis of theodicy collapses. A god that creates flawed beings and punishes them for acting imperfectly by summoning the forces of nature to destroy, injure, and kill, is a sadistic god unworthy of praise or affection. This god shows no qualities of mercy, but rather a self-gratifying ordinance of power over humans, who, in spite of the continuous onslaught of misery, still ironically praise his name.
An additional problem that arises from the Biblical interpretation of natural evil is the occurrence of supposed miracles relative to natural evils. For the purposes of this argument, I will define a ‘miracle’ as any event that poses a significant amount of good to a significant amount of people, rather than personal revelation since it is hardly verifiable. If God can intervene in the world with intent to punish, why does he not also intervene to reward? When looking back on human history, it is quite obvious that natural evils have afflicted far more people than any miracles have benefitted. You would think after punishing us with so many disasters and epidemics, an all-good God would reward us once in a while.
Attempts to reconcile natural evil with the theistic god are abundant in theological discourse, yet they remain largely unsatisfactory in arguing their case. St. Augustine’s free will theodicy, also known as the “soul-deciding theodicy”, posits that all natural evils are the work of demonic forces resulting from moral evil. This logical framework is advocated by many modern theologians such as Alvin Plantinga, and was even integrated into the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Although Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God, …and although his action may cause grave injuries – of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature – to each man and to society, the action is permitted by divine providence, which, with strength and gentleness, guides human and cosmic history. (Catholic Church 395)
It seems however, that this ad hoc explanation for the existence of natural evil in the world introduces far more problems than it solves; if God is indeed omnipotent, he could easily destroy the demons responsible for natural evils. After all, he was so willing to destroy humans with the Great Flood for all of their wrongdoings and sinful ways, could he not do the same to these demonic forces? (Interestingly, the Bible claims that God later regretted his decision to annihilate the human race (New King James Version, Gen. 8:20-22), thus implying he could not have foreseen the consequences of doing so – meaning God is not omniscient.) In any case, proposing natural evil to be the work of demons may logically solve the problem, but realistically, it forces the believer to adopt even more bizarre and convoluted explanations to accommodate the improbability of the original premise. (It’s also worth noting that there exists no tangible shred of evidence to support either of these claims in the first place.)
Despite the fact that these ‘demonic forces’ are poorly defined to begin with, the causality existing between their assumed origin and their alleged authority in producing evil on such large-scales remains ambiguous at best. The idea of devils/demons/extrinsic forces of evil existing independently of God, suggests a duality in universal power, which is incompatible with monotheistic beliefs. William Lane Craig, a distinguished theologian and Christian apologist, has defined ‘goodness’ to be synonymous with God, such that God is goodness rather than God has goodness. As Craig puts it, “God, by definition, is the greatest conceivable being, and a being which is the paradigm of goodness is greater than one which merely exemplifies goodness.” (Craig 182). If we are to accept God as the ultimate paradigm of goodness, we are led to two resulting conclusions. The first is that he cannot be omnipotent since he is constrained by being wholly good and his will is limited to doing only good things. The second conclusion, a logical jump from the first, is that since he is limited to doing only good things, he can only create good things, meaning only good things can come from him. These demonic forces must have come from God then, since God created all things ex nihilo. And because God is inherently good, anything that comes from him must also be good regardless of free will, since free will does not necessitate evil. Thus, the notion of evil spirits existing outside of the physical realm is still subject to the causal entanglement that attributes evil to God’s creation.
Another reconciliatory framework commonly found in theology accepts that evil comes from God, but claims it is well justified. This theodicy, based on the writings of Irenaeus and referred to as the “soul-making theodicy”, suggests that natural evils have the divine purpose of developing virtuous qualities to purify the soul, meaning they are necessary in developing moral character through compassion, forgiveness, obedience, courage, etc.
The obvious criticism of the Irenaean theodicy is the sheer exorbitance of natural evils, which seem wildly unnecessary if intended solely for the purpose of moral development. Is it not an act of overzealousness to invoke the Bubonic Plague for example, to develop moral character? (One may also ask of what good moral character is, if everyone capable of it is dead…) Consider the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010. This single earthquake boasted a death toll in the hundreds of thousands, in a country already afflicted with immense poverty, with approximately 70% of its population living on less than $US2 a day. And it was not just the earthquake itself that caused such widespread suffering, but also the resulting outbreaks of cholera that claimed the lives of thousands more. What ‘greater good’ could have come from this? It may be true that these horrific events inspired great philanthropic gestures and challenged the spirit of heroism and altruism within the global community, but surely these discrete acts of valor do not outweigh the profound suffering that necessitated them in the first place?
Moreover, this possible explanation for the occurrence of gratuitous suffering calls into question the value of goodness, for it justifies evil and suffering as an instrument to inspire moral goodness. But how good is goodness if it is validated only by the presence of evil? Goodness, as earlier defined by Craig and others, is an intrinsic property and if we are to assume that objective morals exist, as all theisms do, then we must accept that ‘the good’ is not relative to evil nor are moral actions contingent on the option of immoral action. Herein lies the fundamental inadequacy of the Irenaean theodicy and its counterparts. God places the ‘willingness to be moral’ as the pinnacle of goodness, such that choosing to be moral is a greater good than simply being moral. This premise forces us to reexamine the nature of God. If he is maximally perfect, then he should also be self-sufficient and free of any needs or desires. Why then, does he so desperately crave human affection, praise, and moral action so much so, that he is willing to permit and inflict harm upon us just to satisfy his desire? This God is not perfect nor is he benevolent but rather, he is selfish by seeking to fulfill his own shallow desires by giving man free will while ignoring the suffering that will inevitably ensue.
A further implication of the Irenaean theodicy is the supposition that meaningless suffering does not exist since all suffering serves the greater purpose of developing moral character. William Rowe, a distinguished philosopher, famously presented an argument for the evidential problem of evil whereby he introduced a thought experiment to prove that unnecessary suffering does exist. The thought experiment is presented as such:
Suppose in some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering. So far as we can see, the fawn’s intense suffering is pointless. For there does not appear to be any greater good such that the prevention of the fawn’s suffering would require either the loss of that good or the occurrence of an evil equally bad or worse. Since the fawn’s intense suffering was preventable and, so far as we can see, pointless, doesn’t it appear that there do exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse. (Tittle 44)
What greater moral purpose was achieved through the fawn’s suffering? Forces beyond the animal’s control caused the circumstances, and no human could have prevented it, so there is no earthly being who is responsible for its suffering. Since it eventually died, its suffering did not instill any beneficial wisdom to the creature. Similarly, its demise was not punishment for some misdeed since fawns do not have any concept of morality, so it would be absurd to claim a greater moral purpose. It is reasonable therefore, to conclude that the suffering endured by the fawn was completely meaningless, and that unnecessary evils not only exist, but also provide a solid grounding for the rejection of theistic beliefs.
Simply put, the problem of natural evil and avoidable suffering is fatal to theism because it cannot coexist with a god who is supremely powerful and good. Therefore, the theist must concede that either their presupposition of god’s nature is false, or that no god exists at all. One need not delve too far into the passages of the Bible to see the portrayal of an angry, jealous creator, nor too deep into Islamic scripture to get a sense of the militant, war-hungry God that is glorified page after page. As a species we have come to understand so much about the universe; our knowledge stretches far beyond the realm of superstition and myth – and yet we still hopelessly cling to these Bronze Age relics. To idly accept human suffering and believe that a just, loving God is orchestrating it to punish certain individuals or to nurture our moral development, is to be ignorant of the human experience.
There is much suffering in this world and in order to alleviate its presence we must be willing to accept that perhaps it has no greater meaning. We must be cognizant of reality and strive for a better future through our own endeavor instead of shifting the responsibility to a god because the task seems too daunting. We must mobilize and try to bring justice to injustice, peace to conflict, and love to one another. It is our duty to mitigate suffering, and our duty alone as patrons of this planet and citizens of this global community; we must realize that worldly justice depends on our willingness to enforce it.
Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000. Print.
Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Leicester, UK: Crossway Books. (2008): 182. Print.
Morris, Thomas V. Our Idea of God. Downers Grove, IL. (1991): 73-76. Print.
Murray, Michael and Greenberg, Sean, “Leibniz on the Problem of Evil”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
The Holy Bible, King James Version. New York: American Bible Society: 1999; Bartleby.com, 2000. Print.
Tittle, Peg. What If–: Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy. New York: Pearson/Longman. (2005): 44. Print.