Okay, fellow humans, help me out with my quandry. Here is a brief overview of the problem of evil, and then some questions.
First, it is an old question. It constitutes one of those objections to our experiences as human beings that require an answer form every generation of Christians. In other words, there is more than one conceptual image at work. Simultaneously, the “problem of evil” demonstrates what seems like inconsistencies in the truth claims inherent in Christianity (specifically) and theism (generally). However, there is some evidence to suggest that the problem is unduly complicated by misunderstanding the nature of those truth claims. For example, in its classic formulation the problem of evil reads like this, “If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil. Evil exists. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn’t know when evil exists, or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.” Perhaps a less technical, but sufficiently succinct way to put it is, “If God (who is completely good and powerful) exists, then how can evil also exist?” Clearly, this creates a neat little problem for Christians and theists. If you deny that evil exists, you seem foolish. If you deny that God is ultimately good or utterly powerful, you seem to be denying the concept of God. Consequently, the argument is set up as an “either/or” – either evil is real or God (as conceptualized by theism, especially Christianity) is real, because they cannot co-exist. This is a decidedly deductive construction of the problem. There are also inductive forms of the problem. In terms of theism, though, the ontological defense of God’s existence is valid and true (and convincing) – therefore, for a theist, inductive forms of the problem of evil and facts about evil “cannot constitute even prima facie arguments against the existence of God,” and are a moot point.
So, briefly, what are the ways in which theists have sought to unravel the apparent contradiction between these two facts?
First, some authors have suggested that suffering and evil are part of God’s plan in “building the soul” of a person. In other words, suffering and evil build endurance, patience, and faith. If you suffer, you are better for it. This, of course, is only as satisfying as the extent to which your imagination allows you to be comfortable. Surely, the suffering that an athlete in training endures is beneficial. The suffering a mother in child-birth endures is beneficial. However, do you think that a small child that suffers through Leukemia receives a benefit commensurate to her suffering? Do you believe that innocent Jews that suffered through the Holocaust and died were benefited from their suffering? So, the extent of the argument may only be appealing to the extent you see a benefit. What if, then, the benefit were eternal?
Second, some theists have tried to posit that “evil” is not a thing or being. It is a result of free will, and so the existence of evil is the consequence of God allowing humanity to have free will. Consequently, God created humanity in his image, and the result as a free agent that may and does choose to act in morally evil ways. Thus, the real conflict exists between God’s desire for humanity to reflect his glory, and for his plan for creation to be executed as conceived. God could force humanity to behave, but he would be violating his own will in providing humanity with a will. In other words, “good” is only good because evil is an option.
Third, and finally, the “Need for Natural Laws” is summarized by Michael Tooley:
“first, it is important that events in the world take place in a regular way, since otherwise effective action would be impossible; secondly, events will exhibit regular patters only if they are governed by natural laws; thirdly, if events are governed by natural laws, the operation of those laws will give rise to events that harm individuals; so, fourthly, God’s allowing natural evils is justified because the existence of natural evils is entailed by natural laws, and a world without natural laws would be a much worse world.”
This touches on Christian notions of Original Sin. When humanity exercised its free will against God’s will, it brought about certain changes in God’s creation that resulted in natural laws and states of affair that created patterns of destruction, violence, and suffering. Consequently, evil is only a problem in the temporal sense. Once Christ returns and sets everything to rights, there will be no “problem of evil” of which to speak. There is an infinitely good, knowledgeable, and powerful God that will have dealt justly with all the suffering and evil caused by humanity’s exertion of free will.
There are others, but I find something interesting in this whole debate. It is the designation of things and events as either “good” or “evil.” The reason I find it interesting is because the very notion of a “problem of evil” is designed to express the contradiction between the existence of a Christian God and the events we experience in life. However, the very language used to conceptualize the problem are dependent on the existence of said “morally good God.” If God did not exist, then neither would the moral designation of the good over and against that of evil. If there is no good God, can there even be evil? Of course, we wonder about the issue of suffering. What is our justification for giving moral designation to suffering? Am I suffering when I experience pain? If God does not exist, how would I have a standard of good by which I could compare the wrongness of suffering or the evilness of violence? How would an atheist that actually framed the question without presupposing that God exists maintain the tension of the original contradiction? Assume the atheist position is correct. There is no God. We have evolved socially, emotionally, morally, etc. If the notions of good and evil are both innate to the evolutionary process of humanity, how do we distinguish between them? Perhaps, I have unfairly changed the topic of the discussion, but I fail to see how the problem of evil exists without the existence of God. Doesn’t that mean that God has to exist?