EVIL, SUFFERING, AND GOD
Of course, there is suffering and evil all around us. So what? It seemed too matter-of-fact to need any serious contemplation. I had taken it for granted that there would be an answer someday and that the apparent dilemma would somehow be solved. But later, as I came across deep, seasoned thinkers who had wrestled with the question, yet were unable to provide a satisfactory explanation, even to themselves, my complacency seemed naïve and simple.
Some were sure they had found a reasonable approach. Others confessed that they were foundering. Yet others decided to simply leave it as an open-ended question. Was it really such a difficult matter?
What caused the dilemma?
“Either He is not good or else He is not almighty” (Epicurus, a Greek philosopher, 341 B.C. – 270 B.C.).
“Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but unable? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (New York: Hafner; 1948), p. 66.
The problem was the difficulty in reconciling the existence of a loving, almighty God with the presence of evil and suffering, and this contradiction was of a magnitude sufficient to sway the minds of some thinkers and cause them to reject the idea of God altogether.
“The problem of evil is one of the most crucial protests raised by unbelievers against the fact of God.” James E. Orr, The Faith That Persuades (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 80.
‘Evil constitutes the biggest single argument against the existence of an Almighty, loving God.” John W. Wenham, “Response”, in Geisler, The Roots of Evil (Zondervan, 1978), p. 89.
“The biggest single stumbling block to belief in a God of love.” Ed L. Miller, God and Reason, a Historical Approach to Philosophical Theology (MacMillan, 1972), p. 139.
It appeared to be a huge, consequential question. And more than that, it seemed to be one of the most prevalent questions ever raised.
“It is a problem that no theist can avoid and no honest thinker will try to avoid.” David E. Trueblood, General Philosophy, p. 226, quoted by Steve Kumar, Christianity for Skeptics (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000) p. 41.
“Indeed every philosophical theory has to deal with it in some way.” R.C. Sproul, Objections Answered (Glendale, CA: GL Regal Books, 1978), p. 131.
“These are pressing questions which every reflective and sensitive mind frequently ponders” (Kumar, Christianity for Skeptics. p. 39).
What makes the problem particularly distressing is the fact that this abhorrent, unwelcome, unacceptable thing called evil brings pain, suffering, and injustice that are all too real. If only we could wipe it from our existence! But far from being destroyed; far from being pushed into a corner; it dominates our existence in such a ruthless, relentless manner that despair seems entirely reasonable. And because we are unable to do anything to alleviate it, the feeling of helplessness is utter. So when there is talk of a loving God who is also almighty and could have done something about it, the words sound hollow. They irk and taunt like a cruel joke. No wonder Stendhal is said to have declared:
“God’s only excuse is that he does not exist” (quoted in Kumar, Christianity for Skeptics, p. 40). “According to (Bertrand) Russell, no one could sit beside a dying child and still believe in the existence of God” (Ibid.).
So here’s the argument. Evil is real, horrendous, and unacceptable. We hate it but cannot do anything about it. We are totally helpless. In such circumstances comes the claim that there is a loving God, who is also powerful enough to have done something about it. But on observation, it seems obvious that He has decided not to do much to reduce the suffering around us. There is, therefore, a contradiction between God being full of love, as well as powerful, and yet permitting so much pain and suffering, and the contradiction is so irreconcilable and vexing that the most reasonable conclusion is that God does not exist.
The argument is plausible but incomplete. At least two questions still need to be addressed.
- Is “evil” the only factor to be considered?
- Is this conclusion the only option we have?
Evil the Only Factor?
Is there anything besides evil in our existence? The answer couldn’t be more obvious: “Of course, there is!” On the other side of the spectrum are experiences that are equally undeniable. Joys, pleasures, and thrills are everywhere. Heroism, courage, and generosity still permeate our lives. Who can experience a mother’s compassion, a father’s self-sacrifice, a friend’s loyalty and support, a lover’s soft caress, and deny that there is fulfillment, security, and delight within reach, and sometimes, in fair measure? Stendhal and Russell would be wrong and quite out of touch with reality to deny these. There is a lot of good in this world, too!
So why does the presence of good not raise a similar question regarding the existence of God? “Whence then is goodness?” In the name of equity and fairness, we should concede that if evil suggests the absence of God, the counter-proposal, that goodness suggests the presence of God, should be accepted as equally valid. If a contradiction (between the attributes of God) is an argument for His non-existence, then the congruence (between God’s attributes and the goodness in our lives) should be an argument for His existence. If evil is the “the most crucial protest,” “the biggest single argument,” “the biggest stumbling block” against the presence of God, then goodness should also form the “most crucial” and “the biggest single” argument for the presence of God! Atheism now becomes an untenable proposition, because it is forced to consider the existence of God as an equal alternative, since both evil and goodness are undeniable in our existence.
In this context, theism becomes the more justifiable, based on the reasoning that, within the same setting, evidence for a presence outweighs evidence against that presence, and thus defines the correct overall-all picture. An illustration might help. If we want to know whether or not invisible humans exist in a room, and a piece of rock is evidence for the absence, while a cap is evidence for the presence of a human, then just one cap in the room is sufficient to make that decision despite the presence of a hundred pieces of rock.The dictum: One piece of evidence for the presence will negate all the evidence for the absence of that entity. Similarly, in the setting of our existence, with evil as well as goodness being present, it is the evidence for the presence of God that must provide the final, correct picture of the whole setting, despite a whole lot of evidence for the absence of God.
While this does not resolve the conflict between the existence of a loving God and the presence of evil, it does restrain us from making that conflict an argument against the existence of God. In other words, the presence of evil does not, of itself, support atheism or negate theism. It might have done so, if goodness had been completely absent. But such is just not the case.
Atheism the Only Possibility?
Admittedly, there is an apparent contradiction between God’s love and power, especially when the presence of evil is also considered. But a contradiction does not give us the liberty to throw out both qualities, unless they are shown to be non-existent. What if Mr. A was nice and loving in the mornings and regularly got drunk and became nasty and abusive in the evenings(creating a severe contradiction in characteristics), would that allow us to claim that Mr. A was non-existent? Of course not! Contradictions require solutions, not summary dismissal of the whole entity. Even if the contradiction were never resolved, such a conclusion would still not be warranted. Likewise, the contradiction between God’s love and power on the one hand and the presence of evil on the other, does not prove that God is absent. Rather, it is only a description of what there is—a contradiction – and nothing more.
In keeping with this, we should look for other possibilities too. Along with atheism, there are three others, making a total of four.
- God is evil.
- God is good.
- God is both good and evil.
- God is non-existent.
The first is consistent with the evil in the world but contradicts the good.
The second is consistent with the good but contradicts the evil.
The third is usually found in mythological literature.
The fourth is a peculiar proposition. While it presents no obvious conflict, it provides no explanation for the origin of good or evil. If it did attempt one, the reasoning in the first section above would defeat it. To circumvent the hurdle, it evades both good and evil, treating them as if they did not exist, and takes two dubious approaches. First, it avoids making a counter-proposal. Second, it goes on to make a bizarre statement, without bothering to provide any evidence for it whatsoever.
Absence of a Counter-proposal
The proposal of theism includes the concept that God is “all in all” and forms the ultimate reference point of our lives. He sets the criteria and standards for all evaluations.
Atheism does not make any clear-cut counter-proposal to this, although it probably does so by default. The default proposal should state that the individual is the ultimate reference point. This becomes an oxymoron, because there are now multiple reference points, each with a different idea of what constitutes “ultimate” authority. Therefore it cannot be “ultimate” in any sense of the word. In such circumstances, all claims should be given equal validity, even if they happen to be diametrically opposed to any other. Therefore, if there is a claim that God is the “ultimate” authority, it should be welcomed and accepted as enthusiastically as its opposite claim. In other words, the existence of God is a real and distinct possibility. To deny this possibility is to deny the default counter-proposal (which allows this possibility), in which case, there will be no option but to accept the fact of God. So on approaching the question from either angle—that of the theistic proposal or that of the atheistic default proposal—the reality and relevance of God become inevitable.
This appears to be the reason why the atheistic argument stops short of making a real counter-proposal.If it did, the possibility of the existence of God would become inevitable. And if that possibility is accepted, atheism becomes false!
The Atheistic Declaration
I still find myself shaking my head in disbelief at the absurdity of such a statement. When fair and honest arguments are not forthcoming, to resort to a declaration, by fiat as it were, becomes a pathetic cop-out. Here is the declaration: “There is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good—nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
The most basic and “crucial” argument used to make the case for atheism was that of the presence of evil. Now that the end has been gained, the argument is being discarded. Can a foundation be demolished while retaining the superstructure? After using the main branch to get to the perch, the main branch is nonchalantly chopped. What of the perch now? Evil is suddenly and arbitrarily chopped out of existence. What of the absence of God now?
“There is …no evil and no good…” Will anyone seriously agree with this?
- “No evil” = Nothing is unacceptable = everything is acceptable = everything is good.
- “No good” = Nothing is acceptable = everything is unacceptable = everything is evil.
Each of these phrases should apply simultaneously, at all times, in all circumstances. So what is the real claim? NOT EVEN NOTHING! (With due respect to Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate and author of Dreams of a Final Theory. In describing conservatives, who claimed that there were absolutes, and liberals, who denied any such idea, he said that he happened to disagree with the conservatives on certain issues, but at least they were standing for something that could be discussed and probably shown to be wrong. The liberals were “not even wrong”)!
- Atheism is not a claim but rather, the absence of a claim—or a claim that there is no claim to make.
- Atheism is not a stand but rather, the absence of a stand—or a stand that there is no stand to take.
- Atheism is not a philosophy but rather, the absence of a philosophy—or the philosophy that there is no philosophy to hold.
Atheism is a non-statement masquerading as a statement and is therefore doubly false. To ask that which is absent to form an opinion on that which is present, or to even tell the difference between absence and presence, is futile!
Atheism appears to have lost its standing, at least in theory, at this point.
How will it turn out, when considered in practical terms?
I have never, ever, seen an individual live as if there were neither evil nor good. Even in the (theism versus atheism) debate room, there is a difference between winning and losing. It can be tested by just flinging a slander in hurtful, sarcastic language and observing how ready and willing the recipients are to breathe fire down your neck! They really shouldn’t, if there is no evil! The idea that everything is neutral is completely impractical. Nobody has ever lived it out.
The final portion of the “declaration” has the words “nothing but.” This phrase is stating an absolute. It can tolerate no exception whatsoever. Even if one exception is found, it will prove the claim false. Here, the phrase refers to blindness, pitilessness, and indifference. Will it stand simple observation?
Is blindness universal? Whether it is taken literally or as a metaphor, the claimant’s own statement proves it false, for sight would have to be absolutely necessary to pen those words. Sight, and not blindness, is universal.
Does complete lack of compassion define our existence? What then is it that flows out of a mother toward her infant? What has driven a thousand projects, overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles, to bring food, water, education, and hope to the under-privileged in a hundred countries? Probably those who sit in swivel chairs in air-conditioned luxury have never seen what I have. Compassion and pity mark our lives at every level. One can deny it only on a page disconnected from the book of our real life experiences.
Is everyone indifferent to everything at all times? The answer is too obvious. Attention, consideration and thoughtfulness pervade and soak through the majority of lives on earth. How far away from reality can we hope to run?
Need it be said? “Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” is, on all counts, a fabrication. The whole of the atheistic declaration cannot stand theoretical or practical scrutiny and therefore, is false!
We are left with the first three options. Of these, the first and third are not debated. The second—the claim that there is a loving God—requires attention.
Addressing the Contradiction
The contradiction arose because of the claim that there was something supernatural—God—and that He was wise, loving,and powerful.
We are then, dealing with wisdom, love, and power that do not belong to our realm of existence but to that of God. What could be the explanations, looking at it from the angle of the supernatural? We cannot be certain. The most we can do is attempt an explanation, and see if it sounds at least somewhat reasonable.
- God permitted evil in His wisdom, and He had a good reason or it. He withheld the explanations from us, also for a good reason, one of which was that we might not be able to understand or appreciate them just yet (it would lead to even more confusion at this time).
- God’s love is true. True love cannot but allow complete freedom of choice. Since love is a free expression, that which is coerced or automated is not love at all. This choice, therefore, could also be misused or abused. Humanity misused it and brought into its own existence, principles that were self-destructive. This has allowed evil to express itself in pain, suffering, and other baleful results.
- Evil is only temporary. God will ultimately wipe it away permanently. The time is not yet. But when it comes, and when He destroys evil completely, it will be a display of His omnipotence (all-powerful status).
- Eternity/infinity is a concept within which there is a description of heaven, and the possibility that God will give to us, in that existence, that which will compensate us a million times over. The enjoyment and bliss will be so great as to dwarf all the troubles and sufferings we now experience.
This will sound far-fetched, like “pie in the sky” today, and must be necessarily so, because the descriptions are coming from God’s realm to us.
The presence of evil could suggest that God’s love expressed itself in true form to give us our freedom of choice. The final destruction of evil will show that He is all-powerful. Once evil is exterminated, He will provide heaven, which is grand enough to more than compensate us for every suffering we will have ever experienced. The contradiction today is only apparent. The ultimate state will show the perfect harmony between the love and power of God.
If God does not exist, there is no possible explanation for good or evil, and actually, no explanation is needed. If God exists, the explanations are consistent with His character and have the potential to lift us from aimlessness and despair to a vibrant, purposeful, and hopeful life!
A correct and deep understanding of atheism has been a confessed cause of unrelenting despair and even suicide (read the expressions of Albert Camus, Bertrand Russell, Jean Paul Sartre etc.), even without pain and suffering thrown in to add to it. A correct and deep understanding of the hope God offers has amazingly turned around would-be suicides—in the midst of their suffering, pain and despair—into benevolent, happy, constructive members of their community. These are not carefully crafted theoretical claims but real-life experiences that form empirical and therefore, undeniable evidence regarding the effects of theism.
Evil, pain, and suffering are all around us. While it is very distressing, the argument that it is evidence for atheism is quite unfounded, especially because there is a lot of goodness within our experiences too. The presence of goodness, suggesting the presence of God, is the defining feature of our existence, despite the presence of evil.
Atheism has no explanation for the presence of good or evil, and in trying to avoid the difficulty in supplying a reason, it makes statements which expose its stand. This stand, on examination, is found to be untenable, impractical, and false. Thus, it appears that there are really no consistent arguments for atheism!
Theism does not explain the conflict between the love and power of God in terms of our present existence alone. It appeals to its basic claim regarding the existence of the supernatural and attempts to reconcile the conflict in the light of eternal values. Taking the perspective of eternity, it is possible that there is complete harmony between an almighty, loving God and the presence of evil today.
Atheism does not alleviate the pain and suffering in the world one iota. On the contrary, it could add to the despair and depression already prevalent.
Theism, by itself, also does not alleviate pain and suffering but can bring in hope and purpose, which are able to lift our spirits and make us happy, constructive neighbors, despite experiencing evil (which is the common lot of humanity).
So theism, even if ultimately wrong, produces a quality of life here on earth that is more appealing compared to the hopelessness and despair that atheism must produce, if ultimately correct!
With the ultimate unknown, and with only the present evidence to go by, I would more than readily opt for theism!