March 22, 2011

Japan, God, and the Problem of Evil

The latest catastrophic events in Japan are bound to provoke a crisis of faith for those struggling with their belief in God. For atheists and agnostics, it is bound to be interpreted as further confirmation that there is no God. The problem of which this natural disaster is a highly visible illustration is one with which Christians and others have wrestled for centuries and centuries. It is called “the problem of evil.”

The problem of evil is the problem of reconciling belief in an all-powerful and all-loving Being with the presence of evil in the world. If God is all-powerful, the reasoning runs, then He must be able to stop evil. If, on the other hand, He is all-loving, then He must want to stop evil. But evil exists. Thus, there is no all-powerful and all-loving God.

The idea of an all powerful God Who also happens to be all loving is the idea of God as the supreme Person. This means that the problem of evil, if successful, would defeat only those statements of theism that conceive God in personal terms. Yet ironically, it is those religious and quasi-religious belief systems – like Hinduism, Buddhism, and, say, Stoicism – from which God is either absent or according to which He is conceived impersonally that seek to reduce evil to an illusion. In glaring contrast, Judaism and Christianity, which view God personally, not only reckon with suffering head on, but assign it a prominent role in their respective narratives.

The irony thickens.

Its unique doctrines of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation render Christianity’s God too personal for its monotheistic relatives, Judaism and Islam: The Holy Trinity affirms not just that God is personal, but that He is three Persons in One; and the Incarnation is the belief that God is not only a Person, but that He chose to become a human being. But it is this religion, and no other, that goes beyond merely acknowledging evil as a reality to ascribing it a place of near central importance. Furthermore, it is only Christianity that assures the world that although it is ridden with suffering, this suffering has been defeated by the God-Man, Christ.

However, in spite of the fact that Christianity has dealt with the problem of evil from its inception, there remain legions of people, both among the laity and the intelligentsia, who assume, or who seem to assume, that it is practically axiomatic that the fact of evil undercuts theism. This supposition is spawned by an arrogance and an ignorance that are alike monumental: It is arrogant because of the ease with which it dismisses two millennia worth of indefatigable labor on the part of Christians to answer the problem of evil; it is ignorant because the ease with which these efforts are dismissed suggests that they are unknown.

Christians are the only people on the planet whose faith centers on the claim that God became a man so that He could conquer evil by enduring it. Discussions regarding the problem of evil far too frequently neglect this most crucial of considerations: God suffered, died, and was buried, as the Nicene Creed says. From sheer love, Jesus allowed Himself to be subjected to the most unjust of injustices and the most agonizing of agonies so that He could reconcile humanity with the God in whose image it was created. And although His work as Savior was successful, that His disciples would continue to encounter injustice and cruelty of every conceivable sort is something that He foretold.

So why would anyone today – or ever – think that evil somehow discredits Christianity?

The example of Christ and His teachings aside, Christians have engaged the problem of evil on an intellectual level as well. Several distinct but mutually complimentary responses to the problem have arisen over the centuries. Each such reply is known as a “theodicy.” We will look at two of them here.

The first theodicy is called “the free will defense.” The idea here is that while God could have rid His creation of all evil, and while He most certainly would like to see the world rid of all evil, evil remains a reality at the present time because God endowed the prize of His creation – the human being – with the freedom to choose. If not for this freedom to either accept God’s offer of friendship or to reject it, the human being would be no different from any other artifact, the puppet to God’s puppet master. In such a world, there would be no evil, it is true, but neither would there be any freedom. And if there is no freedom, then the human being would lose the privileged position that he currently occupies along “the great chain of being,” or in the order of creation.

It is from his free agency that the human being derives his unique dignity. God recognized that a world with freedom and evil, though inescapably imperfect inasmuch as its inhabitants are creatures, is nevertheless better than a world with no evil and no freedom. Such a world must come at a cost, but the cost God judges to be worthwhile, for only with free agents – persons – can He share Himself as Father and Friend.

Still, it may be objected, couldn’t God allow less freedom and, thus, less evil? Why doesn’t God intervene only when really bad things are about to happen?

There are at least two ways to meet this objection. First, since our knowledge is limited while God’s is unlimited, we are in no position to know how often God intervenes as it is. The second counter-objection is another theodicy, what has been called “the natural order defense.”

The natural order defense is the position that if God were to intervene whenever instances of intense suffering were about to transpire, then He would, in effect, undermine the freedom with which He blessed us to begin with, for the exercise of that freedom vitally depends upon there being a relatively stable, predictable environment. As Kant observed, he who wills the end wills the means. Thus, since God wants for us to be free, He gives us a world that is self-continuous, a world that doesn’t radically change in character from one moment to the next.

Regardless of one’s opinion of these arguments, one can have no opinion of them unless one first knows of them. It is for those who reject Christianity while lacking the requisite awareness of what its Scriptures and tradition teach on the issue of evil that I write this article.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D., blogs at Contact him at [email protected]

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