In my last post, I talked about the problem of evil, the reality of evil, and why I think we can’t really begin to deal with this problem until we have an appreciation for evil at its worst.1 In response to this, a number of people asked me to present my own answer to the problem. “You kind of left the reader hanging,” one said.
So, here’s what I’ll do. Instead of giving a solution to the problem of evil, I’ll simply offer a few pointed thoughts that I think go a long way toward answering the issue. But, to be fair, this won’t be exhaustive. The problem of evil is probably the greatest puzzle in all of philosophy, theology, ethics, and apologetics. Despite what some people2 might naively think, no one has definitively solved the problem of evil, so I’ve no illusions of being able to do so. Plus, even if I did have the smarts to pull off an indisputable answer to this riddle, it would require a book large enough to make Harry Potter books look like a pamphlet. And since I don’t have the time to write a book that size, and since a blog is not the place to publish book-sized text, and since most of my readers wouldn’t read that much of my stuff anyhow, and since I’m taking a graduate class this coming spring focused solely on the problem of evil, I just don’t think this is the time and place to do a full-on theodicy (maybe someday).
In the meantime, here’s some stuff to chew on…
Framing the Problem
Before we get too far down this rabbit hole, let me first take a moment to explain what exactly the problem of evil is. According to tradition, it was first formulated by Epicurus back before everyone set their clocks forward from BC to AD. He put it like this:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
It is generally believed by atheists that this problem of evil logically demonstrates the non-existence of God. A more modern rendering goes something like this
And there you have it. Christian theism is over. Go home, everyone. Turns out we were wrong.
But, wait! What if that’s not the whole story? I mean, there are a ton of other evidences in favor of the Christian God. Maybe this argument is damning to our faith. But, if so, then there is an awful lot of explaining that needs to happen for some other stuff.3 So, before we grab this ball and run with it, let’s be sure that we’ve considered all the relevant stuff. And one of those stuffs that I think makes a huge difference is love.
All You Need Is Love
It is important to remember when handling the problem of evil that as Christians we are not just defending the existence of God in general, but the Christian God specifically. And one the central motifs of the New Testament is that God is loving… actually, even more than that, God is love (1 Jn 4:7-8, 16). And as a Being who has love as His very nature, God created the universe because of love. He wants a genuine loving relationship with His creatures. And love requires freewill.
You see, there are just some things that God cannot do, and one of those things is that God cannot create a world with love that lacks freewill. By it’s very nature love must be chosen. You can’t force love. In fact, we have a word in the English language for forced love. It’s called rape. “But couldn’t God create a world where everyone would freely choose to love him?” Nope. He could create a world where everyone has the potential to love Him, but He could not guarantee it.
Now, there is a view called Compatibilism that claims God created every event in history to coincide with His will, including freewill decisions. This view claims that even though all human choices fall within God’s will, they are nevertheless freely chosen. Think of it like this – I want my son to eat some grapes because grapes are healthy, and my son wants to eat grapes because grapes are awesome! If I give my son grapes and he eats them then it was my will that he ate them and his will that he ate them. In this sense, his freewill is compatible with my greater will as his father. So too, in the Compatibilist view mankind’s freewill is compatible with God’s.
The thing about Compatibilism is that it assumes that we could not choose to do other than God’s sovereign will determines. “Yeah,” the compatibilist will say, “it’s not like you could actually choose not to do God’s will, but you’d never know it because you will always choose it, whether for good or ill.” I confess, I just have a hard time seeing this as genuine freewill. Greg Boyd offers an insightful comparison for why Compatibilism’s view of freewill is not really freewill, and therefore can not result in genuine love.
Consider an analogy: Suppose I were able to invent a computer chip that could interact with a human brain in a deterministic fashion, causing the person who carries the chip to do exactly what the chip dictates without the person knowing this. Suppose further that I programmed this chip to produce “the perfect wife” and inserted it in my wife’s brain while she was sleeping. The next morning she would wake up as my idea of the perfect wife. She would feel, behave and speak in a perfectly loving fashion. Owing to the sophistication of this chip, she would believe that she was voluntarily choosing to love me in this fashion, though in truth she could not do otherwise.
Would my wife genuinely love me? I think not. Proof of this is that I (and hopefully all husbands) would eventually find this “love” unfulfilling. I would know that my wife was not experiencing these loving feelings or engaging in this loving behavior on her own. In reality, I would simply be acting and speaking to myself through this sophisticated computer chip. My wife’s behavior would not be chosen by her, so she would not really be loving me at all. She would become the equivalent of a puppet. If I want love from her, she must personally possess the capacity to choose not to love me.4
You see, in order for love to be genuine, we must genuinely possess the ability to not love. My love for God really only means anything because I truly am capable of choosing not to love Him. Now, this does not mean that hatred itself must exist for love to exist, but it does mean that the sincere possibility of hatred must exist for meaningful love to exist.
So this is the first half of the answer to Epicurus’ question, “whence cometh evil?”5 Moral evil exists because our world is populated by humans who possess genuine freewill and who can genuinely use our freewill to choose evil. Rather than saying that everything happens according to God’s will, quite the opposite is true – there are realities and events in this world that actually fall outside of the will of God. Evil is not the veiled workings of God in some mysterious way; evil is that which works in opposition to God. And the reason that God even bothered to create a world with the potential for evil is because He wanted a world with the potential for love… real, authentic, honest-to-goodness, non-coerced love.
But wait! There’s more. As much as this might explain the existence of moral evils as a result of human actions, what about evils that aren’t the result of human actions? What about famines and droughts that leave vulnerable villagers dying of hunger and thirst, or diseases that ravage their victim’s bodies, or babies born with severe deformities and cancer? Telling a young couple grieving a late-term miscarriage that their baby died as a result of their evil choices seems at best cold and heartless, and at worst downright diabolical.
And therein, as the bard would say, lays the rub. Tune in next time, my friends, as I discuss the truly demonic source of evil.
1: If you haven’t yet read that post, go back and do so. Otherwise, a lot of what I write here might not make sense.
2: Here’s looking at you, Kirk Cameron.
3: such as the cosmological argument for the existence of God, the teleological argument, the existence of moral absolutes, the anthropological argument, aesthetics, the empty tome of Jesus, the martyrdom of the apostles, all instances of the miraculous, and every claim to an experience of God.
4: Greg Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, 55.
5: Actually, I suppose the first part of answering the question, “whence cometh evil?” would be to say, “not from God.” But, this doesn’t really answer the question; it just negates a potential answer. Plus, I already touched on that in the last post.