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God and evil

This page in brief ….

How could a good God create an evil world? If he is good, he would want to eliminate evil, and if he is powerful he could do it. Can we resolve this dilemma, or is this the ultimate argument to prove God doesn’t exist?

There are two different types of evil – the harmful things people choose to do to each other and the world, and the natural processes that harm people. We can see ways in which these things may be necessary, and we can see much that is good in the world too, but we are still left with the question that surely things didn’t have to be this way?

This is surely the strongest argument against the existence of God, but we can also see that there are nevertheless reasons to believe a good God did create this world.

Before we start:

It is helpful to remember that dealing with grief or anger are very different processes from discussing philosophy, and may be best separated. If you are suffering at the moment, particularly from some loss or bereavement, there are many places you could receive support, including these.

How can a good God create an evil world?

There are so many terrible things in the world today, from the murder, war and abuse of innocents to crippling diseases; from bereavement and loss to starvation and endemic poverty. And that’s only the effect on humans – in the animal world it is a constant battle to survive and most creatures are potential prey to others. If God is both good and powerful, surely she could have created a better world and would do something to stop evil?

This is a powerful argument against the existence of God. It is hard to see how anyone could not feel the force of the argument, and there is little need to elaborate on it. The question is, are there counter arguments and do they stack up?

Can an almighty god do everything?

We must try to make sure at the start that we are not talking nonsense. Linking god with a nonsense idea does not make it sensible. Even an almighty god cannot be expected to do things that are logically inconsistent – for example, it is not reasonable to expect god to be able to make 2 and 2 equal 44. So part of our discussion will examine whether a world without the possibility of evil is logically inconsistent.

Two kinds of evil

There are two very different kinds of evil in the world – things people do to each other (war, rape, inequality, etc), and harmful natural events (earthquakes, poisonous animals, floods, etc). Let’s look at each separately.

“The evil that we do”

The evil that people do to others is surely the most difficult of all evil to deal with. We know the potential human beings have to do the heroic, the noble and the loving, so we can be especially upset when we see the opposite, in ourselves or others.

What causes people to choose to harm others with weapons or words or discrimination? It may be selfishness, wanting to put ourselves ahead of others, or it may be putting a cause (a religion or political belief) ahead of the wellbeing of others. But whatever, it is generally a choice.

The ability to choose is surely one of the fundamentals of being human. Some religions claim that God gave the human race the amazing gift of autonomy, spiritual life and the freedom to make choices. But this freedom also gives the awesome responsibility of making ‘right’ choices.

It is therefore not surprising that we live in a world with possibilities of good and evil, danger and beauty, love and hate. So much of the evil in the world arises because we choose selfishly.

Can we have choice without the possibility of evil?

It seems to me that this is one of the logical inconsistencies we discussed earlier. Genuine choice, by definition, means we must have the opportunity to choose evil. Thus, if a god was to create living beings, he would have to either give them choice and accept the possibility of evil, or deny them choice. Which would you prefer?

Do we want choice?

It is therefore interesting to wonder if anyone wants God interfering to stop them ‘misbehaving’? Is anyone actually asking God to step in to stop every one of their evil thoughts, words and actions? We don’t like anyone interfering, because we like our independence (including being able to do things occasionally we know are not ‘right’) and we think that it would take away our humanness to lose that free will.

We may conclude then, that the gift of freedom is a good greater than the evil which arises because of it.

Natural evil

People die and suffer every day, and natural disasters occur only too frequently, and we cannot blame them all on human freedom. Can we explain them?

We live in a physical world, which means that there are physical laws of cause and effect. The structure of the earth makes earthquakes and tidal waves (for example) possible. The existence of other species makes shark attacks and snake bites possible. And gravity makes it possible that we can fall and break our leg. Accidents will happen.

Some of the natural evil can be explained in this way. If we fail to live in harmony with nature, we will likely suffer. If we attempt to do dangerous things, we may easily get hurt. In fact, for many people – mountain climbers, racing car drivers, sky divers and bungie jumpers – the sense of danger is part of the attraction.

So again, we can see that if a god created a physical world, it may inevitably include the possibility of danger and harm. And we may (possibly) conclude that the beauty and thrill of the physical world outweighs the evil which may result.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has suggested that natural evil can have its origin in freewill – in this case the freewill of spiritual beings which many religions believe oppose God, and have introduced much pain and suffering into our world, including much natural evil. Non-believers will naturally be unable to accept this explanation, but believers in many religions may have no problems with it.

But surely not that much evil?

These arguments have some force. It may indeed be true that evil deeds and hard knocks are simply part of life in a physical, free choice, world. But surely God could have kept the bad outcomes a little more in control?

There is little to say about this, because we just cannot know. A person who believes in God will tend to trust that their God has made the best of all possible choices. A few may draw the conclusion that God is evil, although that is a difficult belief to sustain. A person who disbelieves in a god will find that every new example of evil in the world strengthens their disbelief. And a person who is still undecided will simply have to weigh the two sides of the argument.

Why do we keep on living?

Despite all the evil which surrounds us and all the arguments, most of us decide to keep on living. Studies show that three quarters of people are ‘happy’ and only a few are ‘unhappy’ So most of us enjoy life, and hold onto it as long as we can. And when someone is unable to do so, and dies through tragic accident or suicide, we can feel devastated.

So somehow, we are all voting with our choices that life is not, at heart, bad. Despite all the evil we see and experience, our actions show we still think (mostly) that life is better than non-life. This lends support to the view that God has given us something of great value, even if it is a mixed blessing.

Who says the world is evil?

Finally, the argument against God depends on the world being really evil. For the argument to have force, our assessment of the world cannot be merely our own personal view. (Otherwise, the argument reduces to God failing to please us, which is hardly an argument at all!)

But where have we obtained an ethical code to make the judgment that the world is evil? As is discussed in How do we know right and wrong?, if the world evolved out of nothing, it is hard to find a basis for such a judgment – all we can say reasonably is that we feel that the world is evil.

But why should our feelings be a guide to what is really true? To say the world is evil requires an ethical code that is true, and which identifies evil. And to have a moral code that is really true seems to require that it has God, or some other, authority behind it. So the argument from evil seems to depend on God at the same time as it tries to disprove him.

Making a difficult choice

After all the argument, we still may feel dissatisfied – some of us may not want an ‘answer’ so much as comfort. Whatever our conclusion, we will have to accept some difficulties.

  • If we choose to believe in God, our belief will need to be robust enough to deal with this problem of evil. We will certainly hope that God cares about our hurts and is actively seeking to remove the causes of evil from this world.
  • If we choose to disbelieve, our disbelief will have to be robust enough to overcome our natural joy in living and explain how our ethics arise in this god forsaken world. And we’ll need to decide whether our belief leaves us with any hope.

My personal opinion

I have long felt that this was the strongest argument against the existence of a god. My belief as a christian has at times been tested by the occurrence of gross evil. However I could never conclude that God didn’t exist because that would destroy ethics and the very ground of the argument, and because there is so much evidence that God is indeed there (see e.g. Why believe?).

Preparing this material has, perhaps surprisingly, given new strength to my belief. I had never before really considered whether evil and pain were inevitable for humans with freedom of choice living in a physical world, Nor has it been so clear to me before now that when we continue to live and enjoy life, we are endorsing the decision I believe God made to give us the gift of life. They now seem to me to be strong arguments.

Nevertheless, I am still troubled by the evil in the world, and I don’t believe I will ever be fully at peace about it.

What do you think?

How do you balance the arguments? Do you think that evil is a necessary part of a physical world and free choice? Do you feel that, with all the risks and evils, life is still better than no life? Or do you feel that no argument can outweigh the evil that surrounds us? Are you comfortable with the basis of your ethics that calls the world evil?

Photo: Frank Hurley in The Heritage of the Great War.

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