Friday, November 14, 2014

The Problem of Evil

One of the most compelling arguments against the existence of God (or, at least, the sort of all powerful, all knowing and all benevolent God worshiped by most religions) is the so-called “Problem of Evil”.  Stated simply, it asks how a God who is supposed to be an all knowing, all powerful and all loving being could allow so much suffering to occur.  The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus put it this way:
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?
There seem to be two standard responses to this argument that are made by theists, each of which I will address below:
  1. God gave mankind free will, and if one person wants to do harm to another person then God cannot prevent that from happening without taking away that free will.  In other words, God could prevent suffering, but that would cause something even worse to occur (the loss of our free will).
  2. Adam and Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden caused the entire world to become a cursed place, full of pain and suffering.  The “fall” from God’s grace affected all of creation, and all of creation therefore suffers as a result of man’s sin.
The first response to the problem of evil is actually a fairly persuasive argument for why God permits suffering that is actually caused by other people (or even caused by people themselves).  Yes, free will is a wonderful thing and it would be pretty bad if we were all just a bunch of mindless robots forced to act the way God wants us to act.

However, this argument says precisely nothing about why people suffer as the result of natural causes such as diseases, famine, blizzards, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc., none of which are the result of man’s exercising his free will.  OK, sure, I suppose an argument could be made that some of what we call “natural causes” do, in fact, have some basis in man’s exercise of free will.  Perhaps you could argue that some people get lung cancer, say, because of the choice they made to smoke cigarettes.  Or that some people needlessly die in hurricanes because we as a species have largely chosen to ignore the evidence of anthropogenic climate change.  I would argue, however, that those cases are few and far between when compared with all the other forms of suffering that clearly have nothing to do with our free will, unless you want to get completely reductive and claim that, since person X chose to live in a part of the world where tornadoes occasionally happen, it’s his fault that he (and his family, of course) are later killed by a tornado.

Moreover, this free will argument does not address why there is so much suffering in the rest of the world.  Sure, you can blame man’s free will for some of the suffering (deforestation, pollution, etc.), but man’s free will can’t be blamed for the fact that the majority of animal life either need to feed on other animals in order to survive or get eaten by other animals.  It doesn’t explain why animals also get painful, debilitating diseases.  It doesn’t explain why there are species of wasps that lay their eggs in the bodies of living creatures that die a slow and agonizing death as the wasp larvae hatch and eat their way out.

So, yeah – free will is important and can explain man’s inhumanity to man.  Aside from that, though, it’s not a particularly compelling argument.

The second response to the problem of evil has many flaws, but the primary one in my opinion is that it apparently takes away God’s free will and/or renders him powerless.  It’s basically saying that God didn’t want all of creation to suffer but had no choice due to Adam’s transgression.  Really?  He had no choice?  Let’s think about that for a minute, shall we?  If God is all powerful, surely he could have come up with a way to punish Adam (and all of his descendants) without punishing every other living thing on the planet (and perhaps even the universe).  Either God had no choice in the matter, in which case he is not all powerful after all, or else he chose to inflict as much suffering as possible on all of his creation, in which case he is not all loving.

I suppose one could argue that God really only cares about humans and just isn’t concerned with the suffering of lesser creatures who (presumably) have no souls and just exist to make the world a more colorful place.  That doesn’t seem to match the biblical description of God as a being who cares about a single sparrow falling to the ground.

Again, this argument assumes that it’s man’s fault that the world fell from grace into a state of suffering, but that’s only valid if you also assume that God was powerless or unwilling to prevent it from happening, or at least from happening in the way that it did.  If God really wanted to punish man for Adam’s sin (and I’ll leave the morality of punishing people for a sin committed by a distant ancestor for another post), wouldn’t it have been more effective to make man suffer and die while simultaneously leaving the rest of creation in an Edenic state as a constant reminder of what was lost?

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