Friday, April 16, 2010

The Existence of Evil

Nonbelievers most often raise an objection to a belief in God along the lines of His allowing evil and injustice, including great evil and injustice. We know it’s a good objection because believers raise it themselves when tragedy seems overwhelming. Entire bookshelves are devoted to attempted explanations. When standard answers do not satisfy, it might be because they are inadequate. But more likely, they appear inadequate because they answer the wrong question.

Two questions are being raised when this objection arises, and it is not possible to answer both simultaneously. More especially, it is not possible to quickly answer one of them at all. Yet longer attempts to answer are off-putting from the start. Well, if you have to go on chapter after chapter, maybe you’re just being evasive, mate. I like plain answers with no baloney.

Try this imagination experiment, then: You are in my kitchen. I am making a sandwich, my back to you. You ask, with some emotion, how God can allow some great evil – a large public one like the Holocaust or a personal one such as the death of a child dear to you. I shrug and say emotionlessly “Logical necessity. You can’t have free will without the possibility of evil. Think about it. Once people have the power to do something nice, they have the power not to.” And continue with my sandwich. If I did this, you would have the profound impression that I was not-quite human, and did not understand the conversation at some basic level. I would be not merely irritating or infuriating, but a bit chilling. True?

I think folks are willing to grant the cold and logical explanation for small evils. But we’re not talking about a fender-bender that inconveniences someone for a few days; we’re talking about a three-year old being run over senselessly. We see that in theory the two are the same. But they are not the same, because we are human. That nonbelievers, however much they claim to be looking for logical answers, do not accept this logical answer is not to their shame, but to their glory. They are not merely logical, and that is a good thing. We think of ourselves as supervisors over others and think it is one thing to let a few accidents go, but irresponsible to let great injustices proceed on our watch. We apply that same standard to God, who might as a good teacher let us learn from our mistakes, but would not countenance the destruction of the whole classroom.

We cannot help but anthropomorphise here. We regard the believer’s second line of defense, to explain that God’s ways and our ways are not the same, as a mere evasion. It feels like a cruel and terrible thing to say. How can these great injustices not be evil by whatever measure we choose? Yet I will point out that this is an anthropomorphising on our part. Logically, it is a perfectly good explanation. We are rejecting it on some emotional grounds. We have smuggled in a batch of second questions underneath the first. Don’t you care? Does God not care? Is God not good? Anyone who responds so emotionlessly and callously to such great evil must not be Good, or not in any sense we can recognise. All else is evasion.

Well, we are hard to please, we humans. We ask for a simple explanation, but when it comes we realise there were harder questions underneath. Yet we don’t want book-length answers to hard questions either. Apparently, what we really want is for bad things to go away, or us to be protected from them. We didn’t really want answers at all, we wanted relief.

So be it. Sumus quod sumus, we are what we are. But let us at least admit that, and not pretend to be asking high and logical questions when what we are really seeking is comfort. There is no shame in seeking comfort, and God has offered to provide it. It may be a wiser request than our original demand of God that he provide debating points for our approval. It turns out that we cannot even ask questions well until we have submitted to self-honesty, and pondered what we are really asking.

It’s a tough answer to hear. I don’t have another.


james said...

"How can the gods speak to us face to face till we have faces?"

Boethius said...

Perhaps a reason for a young child leaving us so early is because the Lord wants them to be with Him and He knows they will reject Him if they are allowed to grow.

This reasoning has always satisfied me somehow but then again, I have never lost a young child.

Unknown said...

I wrestled with this question for a long time and a partial answer finally arrived. Not a solution but a comforting answer in that God didn't exempt Christ from the horror of a torture murder. He knew it would occur when He created this world yet thought it was all worth it. If Christ didn't come down and suffer a horrible death, then the view that we are just pawns in God's experiment has some merit. But Christ did come down and did knowingly and willingly suffer alongside of us so there really has to be something grand at the end of all of this. This is why I could never be anything other than Christian---not even Jewish.

Tom Grey said...

Free Will -- really is the simple and true answer.

You phrased the inconsistent desires VERY nicely, thanks.

(I've been missing you on neo-neocon's comments, but I've hugely reduced my commenting and reading, too.)