Why God? A Reflection on the Problem of Evil

“Why God?” This is the question that arises during times of sorrow and loss. I recently did the funeral for a cousin on my wife’s side of the family. She was only 32 and left two wonderful children at her passing. The funeral was in West Palm Beach, Florida. All around us were gated communities, with high HOA fees, and all the niceties that come with it. From the houses, to the grass, the air conditioning, and not to mention the awesome waterparks attached to various housing communities. The modern world has a way of causing us to forget about death. Well, at least until it comes close to us.

When death strikes, the pain unmasks our wealthy poverty. Grief is present and powerful. The relationship of daughter, mother, cousin, and more become so close that modernity itself comes to a crashing halt. What are we to say of suffering and God?

We cannot and should not blame suffering on the devil. This gives him too much power. Moreover, we cannot and should not blame all suffering on “sin,” although the Catholic Catechism is right to say that it acts like an air pollutant, and thus is part of the problem. Moreover, it does not ‘feel’ right to blame all suffering on God. We know he is good and just and merciful. So, how shall we answer the question of pain and suffering?

A quick aside. If you are in the middle of grief or suffering right now, philosophical answers tend not to go so far in the moment, even if they are true. I recommend, spending time with a friend or counselor to walk you through the pain.

The truth is that God is in some sense on the ‘hook’ for the suffering that we see in this world, because he set the world up to work and operate the way that it does. However, in another sense he is off the hook, because if he was going to create a good world, he has limitations on the kind of world that he can create in the first place. Perhaps a better way of saying this is that God could end all suffering right now if he was prepared to take away several of the most important and good attributes that this world has to offer in the first place. For instance:

  1. God could end all human evil, and hence the suffering that comes with it, if he took away free-will. Namely, he could have stopped Hitler’s action, he could stop the lies that happen in marriages, he could stop all the racism. However, for God free-will is a valuable and good thing, despite the consequences that it has for evil. Without free-will there would be no love, and hence there would be no Mother Teresa’s in this world or Ghandi’s etc. God considers the enshrining of free-will a greater good, that presupposes the possibility of incredible evil. If asked “why?” about a murder, the answer is that someone used their free-will to kill someone else. Free-will answers the question of human (moral) evil. But, what about the natural suffering in the world?
  2. God could end all suffering if he took away the natural laws that operate this world/universe. Remember, that the natural laws are things like gravity. With repeated experiments and observations scientists (and humans in general) have figured out the way much of the world works. Let’s use an example that is used in the Philosophy of Religion. It’s really simple; water. Water has the capacity to bring health to our bodies. One drink on a hot and dry day can greatly aid us. At the same time, water has the ‘power’ to drown us. Unless God is willing to change these properties in each circumstance we are in (and he is not willing in 99.9999999 (imagine seeing 9’s to infinity here) % of the time), then we will see the natural consequences that they bring. Namely, if we jump off of a building, we can know (that without a net or some other safety device) that we will crash into the pavement below in ways that destroy our bodies. Therefore, when we are asking “Why someone died?” we can simply answer by highlighting the natural circumstances of their condition or situation. So, in the case of a drowning, we can say that a given person drowned, “because water filled their lungs and they were unable to breath until they died.” The natural answer really is good enough here, as harsh as it may be sometimes.

Moreover, it would be a very strange world indeed if God did jump in to mess with the trillions and trillions of possible circumstances by changing the natural laws. Natural laws are a good thing. They help us to know that when we walk out of our houses in the morning, gravity won’t switch at random and we go up into space never to come back again. They help us to know and interact with the world that we live in.

Therefore, God sees that the natural laws are the very rules and tools for humanity to get to know the world. Having an orderly world means that we can use our reasoning in such a way as to make decisions. Without the natural laws, the concepts of free-will and reason (both of which God highly values) cannot exist in any strong or valid way.

A littler further reflection on Natural Evil

I myself think that natural evil does not make any sense. In the philosophical literature, moral evil is the kind of evil that humans do. I answered that above in a short paragraph on free-will. However, that is only one half of the equation about ‘evil.’ Very often we are asking questions that have no free-will attached to the apparent evil done. Examples of what are called ‘natural evil’ abound, such as, earthquakes, avalanches, tornadoes, tsunami’s, cancers, and much much more.

Why are these things taking place? Again, my answer is that these things are not actually “evil.” They just are. They are destructive for sure. They cause lots of pain and sorrow. No one will deny this. But, to call that “evil” seems to be attributing to a non-rational agent (let’s say an earthquake) moral power and capacities. However, natural events have no moral power whatsoever. They happen without intention or moral force. We cannot say, “That evil tsunami” because a tsunami is not evil. It is just a force that takes place in the ocean that impacts the land that humans and other living things abide.

Therefore, my answer to the question about the problem of evil is really that we only need answer the moral problem of evil. Once that question is answered with free-will, we simply need to understand that the natural laws are a prior good. Sure, they can cause much destruction, but ‘on the whole’ they set up the possibility of a better world than one without them. Again, if there are no natural laws, anything can happen at any time for no reason whatsoever, and that would be much more destructive than the world that we live in.

The universe that we live in, although set up by God, is set up for the good and long-range goals God has, such as giving people free-will, building an orderly universe, gifting human creatures with reasoning capabilities, and more. This means, that when events happen, God is not to blame in the sense that he did a given act in the moment. Instead, the moment can be explained in natural terms. Cancer takes lives. Lions eat antelope. Earthquakes hurt populations that build their societies near fault lines, etc.

Suffering and evil take place because the kind of things that make for learning, stability, love, and more are enshrined by free-will, natural laws, and the power of reason. These are great goods, which all the while allowing for great evil or destruction. We might say, for clarity purposes, that if God wants the incredibly important categories of free-will, natural-laws, and the powers of reason, there are certain possibilities that can always happen. Hence, suffering.

6 thoughts on “Why God? A Reflection on the Problem of Evil

  1. Dick Rhody says:

    I’m thinkn’ that some of the suffering comes from God. He sends good times and bad. The suffering brings closer to God. The joy of the good times are brought to remind us of his love. Don’t rejoice of your good luck until you thank God. Don’t curse him when your fortune turns sour. Both the good and the bad are sent to bring you closer to Him.

  2. Pastor Isaac Fleming says:

    Dick,
    Thanks for adding some insights. There is a great paper by a scholar named John Hick centered around that this worlds suffering is used as a means to making us…namely developing us and maturing us. Your thought is similar…albeit different as well.

    Blessings

  3. JayBavet says:

    The word that comes to mind after reading your thoughtful blog post is “consequences”. Each of us faces consequences as a result of our free will decisions. As an example in point: We eat to much, we get fat… we get fat… we don’t exercise at all, or as much (because it’s more uncomfortable/difficult)… we don’t exercise… we get out of shape… we get out of shape… we are more likely to have serious medical issues/diagnoses… and these issues often cause us to die younger than we might have otherwise… and or suffer more until that death… now, do all fat people die young. Of course not. That is the irony in all this. We can point to examples where fat people don’t fall that trajectory, and thin people do. BUT, who is more likely to?? Of course it’s vastly complicated and unpredictable, but not “statistically” unpredictable. If you run out into a busy street, you might survive, but statistically, it’s not very likely. So, don’t run out into the street, or blame the “evil” highways or cars for an untimely death. Stop rationalizing things away as evil as if there is no impact on “evil” outcomes. Instead use your God-given brain to make wiser, more thoughtful, more “holy” decisions/suggestions for yourself and for others (if they are willing to listen). Then you can rest assured that you are NOT the biggest part of the cause of such “evil” and stop blaming God. Instead you can blame the bad luck/chance of this natural world God created. And, BTW, you likely won’t be doing willful “bad” things to yourself or others at the same time (moral evil).

  4. Pastor Isaac Fleming says:

    JayBavet,

    Thanks for adding your thoughts. My point is basically as you said. It is not that all things are clearly predictable, but that much of our daily world is able to be interacted with in some kind of law-like way. Even the person’s who eat too much, but do not put on the pounds, the laws were still operating, albeit perhaps with their DNA or even their other daily habits they circumvented some of the consequences that would come about without those other daily habits being in place.

    I don’t think God can make it both ways, at least not in way that our free-will (as well as our reasoning powers) could interact with on a very free way. I do think the blame can usually fall on other things besides God. It is interesting, certainly we have to include God in the discussion from an ultimate causal standpoint. He set up the world in the way in which it operates and he is currently upholding this world. But, there is this principle that works in moments like these (especially when we rely on the categories mentioned in the original post). It is called Occam’s Razor. That we need not multiply causes beyond necessity. Which means in this case, that once we understand God’s ‘limits’ based on his good goals for this world, and we know that the natural world is at work according to natural laws, then we do not have to keep asking the why question’s and expect deep spiritual answers, since we can ground the “why” in mostly natural events.

    -Isaac

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