The Problem of Evil

When people talk about The Problem of Evil, they are usually asking this question: How can God be all-seeing, all powerful and wholly good when evil exists in the world?  Either he doesn’t care, or is powerless to combat evil, or doesn’t exist at all.

I have always been mystified by this line of reasoning. I think it fails to take into account that we live in a created world. After all, we rarely draw these conclusions when we talk about other created worlds – the ones we know in novels, plays or movies.

Take, for example, the world Shakespeare created in Hamlet. The story ends tragically. Almost everyone in the story dies, the just and unjust alike.

  • Question 1: Did Shakespeare know Hamlet, Ophelia and the rest were going to die? Yes.
  • Question 2: Could he have prevented their deaths? Yes again.
  • Question 3: Does Shakespeare care about them, does he love them? Yes again. We know that authors do not reward the characters they love most with long lives or happy endings. He rewards them by making them whole, rounded and true.
  • Question 4: Is Shakespeare good?

We don’t really know the answer to this last one, and can’t learn the answer by looking into the play. We can only observe that Shakespeare has created a world that has captured our imaginations for 400 years. His characters may have cursed Shakespeare, had they any inkling he existed. (Although I don’t think they would have blamed him. As with all really good stories, the outcome flows inexorably from the choices of the characters themselves. Shakespeare, like God, is no puppet-master.) But we know, intuitively, that if everyone in the Court of Denmark had lived happily ever after, the play would be somehow less important, and less true.

We know, because we are Shakespeare’s fellow humans, and see Hamlet’s world from the creator’s perspective. But when we are the characters in the story that God has created, the meaning is not obvious. We have glimpses of the meaning – and that is the great gift God gives us when, in the form of Jesus, he enters his creation as one of the characters. But in many ways we take it on faith that, as Yann Martel says in Life of Pi, “God is the better story.”

For me, the real Problem of Evil is this: Why are we such suckers for evil? Why do I cave into pride, or fear, or envy or numbness, when they sap my soul and give nothing in return?

St. Paul describes the phenomenon when he says, “What I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.” (Romans 19) But he doesn’t really explain it. Margaret Atwood has a witty explanation in her comic essay, “Unpopular Gals,” where the evil women in fairy tales make their case. As the Wicked Stepmother says, “I stir things up, I get things moving. . . . you can’t get me out of the story. I’m the plot, babe, and don’t ever forget it.” But I think fairy-tale evils are much more entertaining than the besetting evils of middle-class Canadians like me. My sins don’t get things moving. They sink them in timidity and torpor.

So friends, I’m turning to you. When evil comes knocking, why do we open the door? What makes us blind to evil, so that when we see it around us, we think it’s normal?

Take a risk, and add your comments below.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Problem of Evil

  1. Christine Robertson

    Thank you. With the many literary allusions, I can’t wait to pass this on to the book group I belong to. We love to discuss material such as this. I relate to your deliniation of middle class sins. Torpor rather than terror, timidity in place of a tornado of malfaction.
    The Screwtape letters of C.S. Lewis are perhaps apposite here.

  2. Joy, love the concept of God as author. That’s real authority. Wouldn’t God get bored with a perfect world and perfect people. (as in the Matrix dialogue where Mr. Smith says the machines tried creating a perfect matrix world but it was just too boring – humans didn’t thrive in that atmosphere)

    i wonder if God just can’t wait to see what we’ll do next? Evil is the possibilities involved with free human beings. Isn’t being free what Christ offers?

  3. Dan Cooperstock

    I think there are two normal parts to the question of the problem of evil. The first is people’s evil. I have always felt that part is easily answered by free will.

    The harder question is about things like natural disasters. While arguably the word “evil” is not entirely appropriate for them, this is usually lumped in with the same problem – if God is good and all-powerful, why does She allow natural disasters to happen? (Sorry, hard to write without using a pronoun for God, and I prefer not to follow thousands of years of the patriarchal choice.)

    Surely God could have created a world without tectonic plates and earthquakes, for instance?

    Here, of course, it depends on the level at which one believes God “created” the world – if it was just setting the Big Bang in motion, the argument probably doesn’t apply. But then what do we mean by this “God”, and attributing “creation” to Her?

  4. Roger Smith

    Joy, thanks for these posts. I’m not sure I can answer the question of why we “open the door” to evil, or why we’re “blind to” it. It strikes me though, that we are left with evil as part of our story as human beings. It’s part of what makes our own narratives very real. And the fact that God is ultimately the author of our stories makes your reference to Shakespeare’s tales, and your quote from Life Of Pi interesting.

    When I sat down to write this little note, about an hour ago, many thoughts came to my mind, like: What if God walks away from the story? Is God present in the evil that makes up part of our stories? Are we writing our own stories? As my thinking progressed, I started “slipping down the rabbit hole”. The question of evil and a good God is so complex. It is, at the least, a paradox that evil is present in a universe that we hope was made by a good God. Still, there may be some comfort in that paradox. The fact that God “may be” or “may not be” present, as Richard Kearney puts it, allows us to have faith in God, despite our uncertainty about God taking care of things.

    Phew! I really am feeling like Alice. You gotta have a lot of faith to be Alice. The story goes on.

  5. Paul Connelly

    Lots to think about here, so where to start? How about Dan’s question, “Surely God could have created a world without tectonic plates and earthquakes, for instance?” True, no doubt, but we have them, they’re part of how the world operates, and we need to deal with them somehow (even if the “dealing with” is limited to incorporating them into our mental framework). I have a bunch of thoughts, not all of them coherent, but I’ve been playing with two streams of response (note, not “answer”) to the question Dan raised.
    After the Haiti earthquake, the columnist Nicholas Kristoff noted that northern California had an earthquake of similar intensity in 1989. Yet the damage was substantially less and only 63 people died, rather than thousands. Much of the difference is due to the fact that Haiti is poor. And that’s neither an accident nor “God’s will.” I don’t want to use this tragedy to go off on a diatribe about global injustice, inequitable trade, power imbalances, etc., but it certainly that the first world is generally better able to cope with disasters than the third world. (And I’d put the Katrina-afflicted population of New Orleans in the Third World, as measured by FEMA’s response.) And I’m certainly not shrugging and saying, “what do you expect?”
    The other thing that strikes me is the notion of “untimely death” as “God’s fault.” (At least, that’s what’s often meant is a discussion of God and natural disasters.) Well, I don’t want to be callous here, but nearly everyone has an untimely death. I think most of us have in our heads a “good way to die”, but most people don’t die that way. And what are the alternatives? Sudden death, as in an earthquake, is one. And it may not even be the worst. If everyone knew in advance when they were going to die, would they be any happier, any more peaceful, any more attentive to how they use their remaining time? I wonder.

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