Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #13 – Believers and the Elephant in the Room: Tackling the Challenge of Evil

March 26th, 2018

At the age of twenty-one Jeff, my youngest cousin, was mercilessly beaten to death by the local police in a Midwest jail for no reason. His crime: He had asthma and was Jewish. From what the family could gather, it was Jeff’s first day of law school and due to his asthma, he sat near the window in the library to help with his breathing. When the school librarian told him to move because the window seats were reserved for upperclassmen, he refused due to his health and out of principle; the place was nearly empty. When he repeatedly denied the librarian’s demands she summoned the local police. They eagerly hauled off this city boy from Los Angeles to jail, and unfortunately he never again saw the light of day again. He died in jail. His parents and his three older sisters, who loved Jeff practically more than their own lives, were devastated. This sort of suffering and loss is all too common in this world. And it leads us to consider the elephant in the room for theistic belief, sometimes called the problem of evil. If God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, why then when He knows about it, has the power to do something about it, and is supremely good does he allow such cruelty to continue? The existence of evil thus logically contradicts the existence of God. Or does it? Below is my attempt at theodicy: answering the challenge that if God exists, why does He permit evil?

 

Explanation I: One good argument doesn’t necessarily prove one’s point. One must weigh the cumulative evidence or arguments.

 

There may be very strong evidence or argument that one has committed murder, but that is not enough to convict a person. There also may be very strong arguments that one is innocent. The jury must come to a fair conclusion based on the cumulative evidence. Similarly, the argument against God from the reality of evil is a strong argument, but to come to a fair conclusion one must weigh the cumulative evidence. I would posit that the arguments for God’s existence are very strong, stronger than the problem of evil. Just one of the arguments below called “Monkey on a Typewriter”:

 

It is more probable that a monkey on a typewriter by chance produced the complete works of William Shakespeare or the Encyclopedia Britannica than this world happens by chance. And if you think about it, as I write this very article, every word scribed that fits into a sentence, or anything in the world that moves with reason or order, at every second increases exponentially the improbability that this world has happened by chance. And if the probability of the world having arisen by chance is as close to nil as mathematically possible and ever increasingly so, then the account of the world wherein God creates it has far more power to explain the nature of the world than the denial of God and its consequent randomness. Therefore, the argument by evil, although strong, cannot in itself establish the verdict that God does not exist.

 

Explanation II: The argument for evil itself proves the existence of God.

 

By recognizing the existence of evil we are acknowledging that objective moral values exist, which seems to far more point to the existence of God than to deny His existence. If everything ultimately is just particles of matter moving randomly then on what basis can any action be judged moral, and if everything is deterministic how can anyone be held morally accountable? In other words, our capacity to deem something genuinely good or morally evil requires an acknowledgement of something transcendent that is morally meaningful (God), otherwise moral judgments, even concerning the most horrendous actions, become reduced to subjective expressions of cultural conditioning or personal preference simply based on chance and consequent evolution. Even the most hardened atheists shudder to fully embrace the consequence of atheism where even the most horrendous actions are deterministic and not objectively wrong. Therefore the existence of evil, rather than denying God, points to His existence.

 

Explanation III: The acceptance of free will includes the choice for evil.

 

Love, which is the supreme ethic, requires freedom and thus the possibility of wrong choice—even evil. Thus rather than evil negating the possibility of God, evil affirms God’s existence because it is a world of humanity and not compliant or forced “good”. Simply put, God allows sin (moral evil) at the cost of freedom and that is His perfection. There are many reasonable arguments, both simple and complex, by substantial religionists and philosophers that deal with this train of response to the problem of evil. They are a little beyond the scope of this paper, but I recommend researching them. [1]

 

Although there is some weight to the argument of free will, I can also conceive some challenges to the argument by a conception of an all-powerful God who somehow is able to create a free choice and consequent love without the possibility for evil,[2] which is why I like the argument given by Leibniz as a complimentary one. It follows.

 

Explanation IV: The world God created is the best possible of all worlds.[3]

 

Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura gave a similar reason to one posited above by Leibniz. He argued that God would not be complete as the enjoyer of all energies if He didn’t also have the experience of exchanging with the material energy. On the surface, this argument may make God look self-serving or callous, but I think there is a sense to it that I would purport as follows: The material world allows for the beauty of compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and the special flavor of a soul’s personal triumph over suffering that enhances God’s manifestation rather than contradicts His existence.

 

Explanation V: Soul-making theodicy and the law of karma. [4]

 

Evil only negates the existence of God if you look at the world from the very selfish perspective of affirming God’s goodness only when it serves our enjoyment and control. Judging God in that way is like a spoiled child evaluating his parent’s character based on the rewards and punishments he receives. In a similar way, evil and suffering is best understood by looking at the world from God’s perspective, which judges what is ultimately good, not what superficially rewards or punishes. In traditional Indian thought this perspective falls under the conception of the law of karma, which sees and even tries to prove that whatever happens to one, even if painful, are perfect conditions created by God to rectify one’s behavior for the purpose of everlasting joy. At least one serious about spiritual life should be able to connect the trials and tribulations in one’s life to his or her personal growth and then to project that onto the world. Evil does not therefore a priori negate the existence of God’s benevolence. It is a tough pill to swallow, but all traditional Indian philosophies, even if they disagree fundamentally on many core points, agree on this one: There is a moral force called the law of karma that is Absolute and ultimately good, even when one is on the receiving end of cruelty.

 

Explanation VI: Humility

 

It is one thing to equate suffering with growth and renewal, but what about pointless suffering? Does not pointless suffering challenge the existence of God? Bhīṣmadeva answered a similar question when enlightening Yudhiṣṭhira. I like his answer from a traditional Indian philosophical perspective: “No one can understand the inexplicable will of the Lord.”[5] As we have been entangled in this world since time immemorial, it is not possible to estimate our level of misconception and what it takes for the Lord to enlighten us. I think anyone on a genuine spiritual path cannot help but be amazed at the sheer number of constant and unending painful life lessons that one has endured that have helped expand one’s present awareness, lessons that one had absolutely no ability to comprehend at the time they occurred. So basically the answer to seemingly pointless suffering is to humbly accept that we lack the capacity to understand what we need, or to fully ever understand God’s will.

 

The elephant in the room—the problem of evil: Acknowledge it. Confront it. The theistic conclusion still stands.

 

 


[1] Alvin Plantinga’s summary of his argument for free will: A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.

[2] In Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism we have the concept of Śrī Rādhā and her eternal associates, who are the embodiment of the highest love, but have no choice of choosing evil.

[3] Gottfried Wilhelm (von) Leibniz, 17th century German Philosopher

[4] John Hick developed what is called “soul-making” theodicy in which he argued that God allows evil and suffering in the world in order to develop humans into virtuous creatures capable of following His will.

[5] Bhāg. 1.9.16

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