Let’s start by getting one thing quite clear, the problem of evil is theoretical.
Now let’s confuse that one thing we just got perfectly clear, the problem of evil is perhaps the biggest issue to ever make Christians grip our Bibles just a little bit more tightly. It usually goes something like this:
Step 1: Hi, are you a human being and are you old enough to talk? Yes? Well then unless you’ve been living under a rock your whole life then you know that life is terrible, and perfectly horrible things happen to perfectly nice people who really don’t have it coming. Incidentally if you have lived under a rock your whole life then you know life is bad, living under a rock is far from ideal, and we have a word for how bad life is, it’s called evil.
Step 2: So there is supposed to be this being in the world, let’s call the being God, and this being is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent. Or to put it simply, all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere present, and all-good. Ok, let me try it one more time, really simple. God is tough, smart, present, and good but in a way that absolutely exceeds all human standards.
Step 3: But…If God is tough then She can stop evil. If God is smart then He knows about evil. If God is present then It is wherever evil is happening. Finally if God is good then She must want there to be no evil, right?
Step 4: SO WHY IS THERE EVIL?!
Now let’s all calm down for a second and think through what this argument is really all about. Can anyone tell me what the problem of evil is really all about? Theodicy! (TLDR)
Yep! It’s a bad argument designed to set a logical trap for people who believe in God. The conventional wisdom is that this puts the believer into a dilemma. Either they have to sacrifice one of God’s attributes, which they won’t do because then their entire theology would be wrong and their lives would be meaningless, OR there is no God. (And now for an obligatory picture of a smiling atheist)
Of course the believer isn’t about to accept that there is no God, but then again why does evil exist?
The clever theologians will of course tell you that there are brilliant arguments invented by everyone to ever write a commentary on the Bible, they call these arguments theodicies, and they can perfectly explain why God exists and why evil is not God’s fault.
But I am not going to run any of these arguments. What would be the point? Really? After all, let’s get back to what the problem of evil is really all about.
Life First and foremost, life kind of, well, isn’t always awesome? It’s all well and good to wave that Christian flag and sing “Onward Christian Soldiers”, but sometimes we’re kind of stuck.
Sometimes, and here I want to try to deal with serious stuff, we lose people we love to tragedy. These are not theoretical people, or for-the-sake-of-argument people, they are real, and losing them really hurts. They die, they leave, they hurt us, and we don’t really know why. Sure I get that people die, but why do they have to die so young, or in some dumb accident, or from some dumb disease that we should have a cure for by now? Why do they move out and take all the good memories with them, leaving that stupid couch that we are never going to be able to fit through that door without their help? Why do they get us alone and do things to us that they know we don’t like? Why do the people we love and trust leave marks that we have to hide from strangers who wouldn’t understand?
It’s usually at this point that some sort of well-meaning person, Kind of like Mr. Collins (pride and prejudice, the A&E version), sidles up and says. “Hey I know that life isn’t always great, but you know other people in the world have it worse than you.”
Aside from the brilliant theologians who craft their excellent theodicies, there are the much more common and absolutely destructive words of the well-meaning. Just so we can be clear let’s call these the apologies.
“Other people in the world are suffering too.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“They are in a better place/you are better off/they are with God now etc.”
“God never gives us more than we can handle.”
“It’s not your fault.”
In their proper context these, and other phrases like this, are usually said by people who genuinely do mean well. They just have no idea exactly what to do. I get that, and I know how hard it is to comfort a hysterical man, or a wailing woman. You might have even used these phrases once or twice yourself. We kind of have a tendency to fall back on the familiar when we are grappling with the unthinkable horrors of life.
Sure these phrases don’t fix anything, and they can stir up anger, resentment, bitterness, frustration, rage, sorrow, guilt, fear, hopelessness, and despair. Then again sometimes it’s nice to know that there is another human being who is trying to offer me something other than a defense for God. I call these phrases apologies because it’s what we offer when we really don’t have anything better to say.
When you were a child and you pushed another kid on the playground, somebody told you to apologize. And you did, in that half-hearted mumbling, stricken little tone of voice, “msorryok”. But as adults we see people emotionally devastated, physically shattered, and mentally broken by the relentless onslaught of the unfairness of life. Faced with that we often resort to being children again, and mumble out a grown up apology in an effort to reach across the infinite gulfs that divide human souls from each other.
But who are we apologizing for?
Do you know why some people leave the faith? It’s because something horrible happens in their lives and they think, in some simple way, that God should have stopped it. They then decide that either God doesn’t care or there is no God at all. Not all atheists have a bone to pick with God, but just about every single one of them has a bone to pick with believers.
My question is this: Why is it so hard for the church to admit that life is filled with suffering? Why is our Christian culture predicated on the concept of Sunday best? When did being Christian mean that we talk about how “nobody is perfect” but somehow still expect everyone to be darn near close?
Do we worry that the atheist who walks out that door has a point? Does the fear grip your heart in hospital waiting rooms and cemeteries? Perhaps we work so hard to appear perfect because we secretly suspect that this whole thing is just a show, all form and no substance.
Oh, but beyond that fear there is faith. They are both uncertainties, but faith is a mystery. In faith I realize that the pain of life is real, but I embrace it rather than running from it. There is no reason here, no answer, and no confidence. Faith is madness and foolishness beyond all measure. Reason tells us quite plainly that the world is cruel and religion is a monster full of bloody teeth. Yet in faith I find that mad hope that moves me to embrace the stranger, I find love. I feel the breath of evil but it is warmer than it once was and its roar is now a gentle purr.
One of my favorite expressions of the mystery of faith is found in the song For F.F.B. by Michael Card. He wrote the song for his grandfather, a preacher. The song itself even includes excerpts from one of his grandfather’s sermons. By all means you should listen to this song, but the best line is from the end.
“I have no hope, except that I believe that Christ died for my sins, according to Scriptures. I expect to swing out into eternity on that.”
James Taylor earned a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from Texas A&M University, and is currently finishing his doctoral dissertation on the link between race and technology. He currently teaches philosophy and specializes in critical philosophy of race, technology, and religion. In his free time he enjoys researching family genealogies and going graving, the hobby of documenting cemeteries.