I introduced the problem of evil in a previous blog post, looking at God in light of the evil in the world. My writing is prompted by the discussion series being conducted by over 800 churches in the Chicago, explore God, taking on some of the big questions about faith.
I have tackled various aspects of the problem of pain before, but understanding is an ongoing process. I write as a way of working through things. My understanding continues to grow and sometimes to change.
In the previous post, I suggested that we should approach the problem of evil in a similar fashion to the way we approach science,. Not that faith questions are susceptible of scientific inquiry, per se, but the answers aren’t always obvious. Sometimes they take considerable work on our part. We shouldn’t be lazy and give up simply because the work is hard.
As with science, we need to start with a premise. For the theist, the premise is that God exists. For the Christian, the God who exists is revealed in the Scripture. He is a maximal being – maximally great, maximally good and maximally powerful. Of course, this is where the problem of evil arises. (The problem of evil takes on different form, depending on the way each religion describes God. Not all religions describe God as a maximal, personal and volitional Being.)
How can a good and all-powerful God allow evil, pain and suffering to exist in the world? This is the question posed by the problem of evil. Either God isn’t all powerful, the counterargument goes, or He isn’t good.
If we are going to work through the problem, we need to hold to the premises we are given. Is there a way to do that? Can we harmonize these things? I think we can.
The problem of pain is an issue for every religion and for theism, generally. If we really wanted to be comprehensive about it, we would see how each religion deals with the issue, but I am only addressing a Christian response here.
For the Christian response, of course, we have to look at the Bible. We find there that God is not only a maximal being, He is love, and He has made mankind (male and female) in His own image. Since He is love, He has made us to know and to reflect love. Love, then, is a key component to understanding the problem of evil.
Love isn’t coercive. Love doesn’t force itself on others. That’s why rape is wrong. I may have the most passionate feelings in the world toward a woman, but raping her (or coercing or manipulating her, etc.), if she rejects me, would not be an act of love.
Since God is love, He will not force Himself on us; and, since we are made in the image of God, God must protect our ability to reject Him in order for us to have the capacity to love in return – anything else would not allow us to love (God or anyone else) – because love is ultimately a selfless, volitional action. Love defers to the best interests of its object.
Good creatures with no choice other than being good could not understand love, could not experience love and could not love God. Such a creation would not accomplish God’s purpose. We would not be able to bear the image of God, and we could not reflect God’s love.
We would not be created in God’s image (to the extent we couldn’t choose), and we could not know and reflect the love of god without choice. For that choice to be truly free, it must be free from compulsion.
God cannot create creatures with free will, the freedom to depart from God’s will, the freedom to do evil, and (at the same time) restrict them to do only what is good. God had to allow the freedom to choose evil as a necessary corollary to love.
Some will further argue that, if God allows evil into the world, then God has chosen evil and, in that sense, God created evil. How can God be good, then? Some people may be tempted to stop there and conclude either that God isn’t good, or god doesn’t exist. Most people who stop there conclude that God doesn’t exist, which is, frankly irrational (if we are reaching that conclusion on the basis that God allowed evil and is, therefore, not good).
Why should God be who we think He should be? God is who He is! (I AM that I AM, God said to Moses.) God is who He is regardless of what we think of Him and regardless of whether He is good.
The Bible, though, reveals that God is good. Therefore, we need to hold on to that premise and try to work out the problem, given the parameters we have to deal with.
One response to this dilemma is to note that God has only created the possibility of choosing evil. If His created beings don’t choose evil, evil never exists. I don’t honestly know how this works, but it seems to me that a maximally great and knowing God could create a world in which which the possibility of evil exists.
That doesn’t mean that God has created evil. Keep in mind that evil isn’t a thing in itself. Evil is evil only in relation to good.
Good is, by definition, the character of God. God determines what is good by the essence of His nature. Not that good is good just because God wills it to be good (that would pose the Euthyphro Dilemma); rather, good is good because it reflects God’s character, which is maximally good.
If we are to have genuine choice, we must be able to reject God, and rejecting God necessarily means rejecting what is good. If creatures are created with free will, and the creatures choose to reject God, and therefore reject good, it isn’t God who introduces evil into the world. God’s created beings with free will, choosing to depart from the will of God, doing their own thing, are responsible for introducing evil into the world.
Further, if God compensated for those bad choices so that no harm ever befell anyone, would we still really have freedom? Maybe, and maybe not. It may be that consequences of our choices are a necessary component to the actual freedom to choose. It may be that something else is going on.
Maybe, the issue isn’t related to freedom, in that we wouldn’t have true freedom without consequences. Maybe the issue is related directly to God’s purpose in creating free creatures made in his image with the capacity to love and, therefore, the capacity to reject Him. His desire (purpose) is that we would choose to love Him and have relationship with Him. If we are free to reject Him, however, how does a God encourage us to choose Him?
Perhaps, this is where evil, pain and suffering come into the picture. I think this is what Paul is getting at in Romans 8:18-21:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
Perhaps, the consequences of our choices that introduce evil into the world are designed to help us choose to turn to God. Without violating our freedom to choose, God has made a world in which we are encouraged to seek Him and find Him, not because we have no other choice, but because we want to. The idea that God has created a world that is designed to encourage people to search for and find God is suggested in Paul’s speech to the philosophers at the Areopagus in Athens:
From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. (Acts 17:26-27)
Without diving into the rabbit hole of God’s sovereignty, predestination (or determinism) etc., we do need to address God’s omniscience – all-knowingness. The issue is this: if God is all-knowing, and He knew that we would reject Him, causing evil, pain and suffering to enter the world, then didn’t God (in effect) cause evil, pain and suffering?
On one level, the answer must yes. God chose to go forward with this world, knowing that evil was possible. And, if God is all-knowing, we would have to say that God knew we would choose evil, and pain and suffering would exist in the world.
But there is another angle to this that needs to be understood. That angle is that we don’t determine what is good. We aren’t the arbiters of goodness.
Perhaps, part of the problem with our view of pain and suffering is that we assume that pain and suffering is evil (because we don’t like it); but pain and suffering evil aren’t the same things. Evil certainly leads to pain and suffering, but we shouldn’t conflate the two things.
I just had two wisdom teeth pulled recently. The dentist caused me tremendous pain and suffering, but I wouldn’t call what he did evil. I even paid him for it!
Pain and suffering may have a purpose in the world God created. When we read that God subjected the world to futility, we have to assume that this is part of God’s plan. (Romans 8:20) It wasn’t of our choosing, but God’s. Pain and suffering is part of His purpose.
In fact, pain was built right into the fabric of the creation! I’m sure that will raise an eyebrow or two, but consider this: that many people make the mistake of thinking that the Garden of Eden was perfect. That isn’t what the Scripture says. Scripture says only that it was good. (In fact, no one and nothing is perfect, except God alone. (Mark 10:18)
Further, Scripture suggests that pain was already part of the experience of Adam and Eve in the Garden, even before the fall. When God addresses Eve about eating the forbidden fruit, He says, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing….” (Genesis 3:16) Pain, then, already existed in the creation that God made, which God called good. Again, this means pain is built into the creation, and it is one of the parameters of God’s creation by which God will accomplish His purposes.
Again, we need to uphold the premises that are laid out for us. They are all pieces to the puzzle.
Since this blog post is getting long in the tooth, I will end it here, and I will pick up where I am leaving off in the next installment of this (short) summary of an attempt to work out the “problem of pain” – Another Look at God in Light of the Evil in the World (Part 2).