Reflection: The Problems with the Problem of Evil
This reflection was initially prepared for my course Introduction to Christian Theology in Winter 2011.
Throughout the entire history of monotheism, even going back to the exilic and post-exilic prophets of Ancient Israel, the Problem of Evil has been something that is assumed to be the dooming philosophical issue for belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God. The formulation is simple: if God is all powerful and God is all loving, then God would eliminate evil because that is the loving thing to do. It is generally universally accepted that there is evil; therefore God must be either limited in power or not fully loving. Case closed, at least according to many atheist defenders and many defenders of other conceptions of God without those two core values. My belief, though, is that once you dig past the surface on this formulation, there are problems with the Problem of Evil.
The first issue is the definition of evil. We (almost) all agree that it exists, and for the most part we can agree on what constitutes examples of it. One of the most glaring problems with the Problem of Evil is that it starts with the assumption that there is a perfect version of what this world should be. The question must be asked of how we have all come to this same conclusion on this concept of what “should be.” What informs this concept of good vs. evil that is very similar across all times and all cultures? There may be answers beyond that of a loving and all-powerful creator, but that is a necessary question to ask before you can accept the Problem of Evil as a real problem.
A second problem is the assumption that this world is the end-goal. Repeating my previous sentence with a different emphasis, The Problem of Evil “starts with the assumption that there is a perfect version of what this world should be.” Now, if the Christian faith – and the Jewish faith and the Muslim faith for that matter – had no doctrine of an eternal soul and no doctrine of Paradise, then this would be a very valid complaint because this world is the only part of the picture.
This relates to a third assumption: the concept of love. It is very tempting to equate the loving action with the “nice” action. I think we even intuitively know otherwise. We know that it is nicer to tell a child that they are right when at ten years old they say that 2 + 2 = 6 but we also know that it is not a good or loving thing to do that. The loving thing sometimes requires suffering now (being told they’re wrong) in order to bring forth good later.
Let’s suppose, as I heard it put recently by Bruxy Cavey, Teaching Pastor of The Meeting House, that “this is the not the best of all possible worlds, but it is the best of all possible ways to get to the best of all possible worlds.” I don’t believe that true love can exist without choice. As is often the case in my current stage of life, I use my girlfriend Emily as an example. If Emily was forced to marry me instead of chose it, even assuming she will be generally happy when that happens, can there really be said to be love in that process? I would argue no, because it is inherently non-relational if there is no choice to be in that relationship and love is fundamentally a relational concept. Moving this back to the cosmic scale, I believe it is inconsistent to suggest that we can have free will to choose to love and be loved by God without also having the free will for the opposite choice: the choice to reject that. To me, rejecting giving and receiving love is the very definition of evil, so evil in this world is necessary if we are to ever reach a world of love, that “best of all possible worlds.”
On the surface, it looks like all three Abrahamic faiths should struggle with the reality of suffering in the world. Christianity especially, centred on God himself becoming human, being tortured and killed on a cross, and rising to life again, should be unafraid to acknowledge the suffering in the world. Our theology should not allow us to shrink from it just because of these problematic assumptions with the Problem of Evil. Rather, our theology should bring us into the thick of suffering, to join God in working towards this best of all possible worlds by choosing love despite the existence of evil. In one sense, evil is not really a problem because its existence is evidence of the loving choice which God sets before us.