Thoughts on the Problem of Evil

"Do you eat girls?" she said.
"I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms," said the Lion. It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis

I make light and create darkness. I make blessings and create disasters. I, Jehovah, do all these things.
— Isaiah 45:7

Back when I was one of the moderators of the Philosophy conference at Digital, we had many go-arounds on the Problem of Evil. My friend and co-moderator Jon Callas said that, to solve it, one had to put a dent of some kind in either God's omnipotence, His omniscience, or His benevolence. Well, Jon was right, I think, and I pick benevolence.

Not that I think God is not good. But of the three, benevolence is certainly the trickiest quality, the one about which humans could be confused most easily.

Miscellaneous thoughts:


There is a Zoroastrian tale that, at the creation, Ormazd (God, more or less) created all the souls, told them about the battle between good and evil, warned them of the risks, then asked for volunteers.

We who are born are the volunteers. This, plus making Ahriman responsible for all natural evil, means that Zoroastrianism has no problem of evil to cope with, as far as I can see.

Christians and Jews don't have a warrant for the volunteers solution, but I wish we did. Furthermore, the verse quoted from Isaiah means that Christians and Jews can't dismiss all the painful parts of creation as caused by someone other than God, either. Which only makes sense with an omnipotent and omniscient God, Who, at a minimum, must permit everything that happens.

Current Events

There was a tsumani on Christmas day of 2005, in the Indian Ocean, that caused widespread death and destruction. There were occasional public outcries to the effect of "How could God allow this?" As if this suddenly called God's goodness or existence into question. I found these outcries silly. In a world where people suffer and die every day from disease and accident, why is the tsunami different? It's just a lot of people dying by accident in the same time and area.

They were all going to die anyway, mostly in distress, mostly being mourned. Nothing here changes the shape of the philosophical problem or casts any new doubts on God's existence or goodness.

It's the same when people abandon God and cite the Holocaust. Yes, the Holocaust was horrible and should never be forgotten, but humans have been doing evil to each other since Cain and Able. And God gave His opinion on that. Human-on-human evil is the easy part of the Problem of Evil, and having a startlingly awful example changes nothing in the argument. It gives no new reason to disbelieve.

Transfinite Safety Margins

I think God is like a parent who lets the children explore and quarrel and take the consequences, so long as they don't get into more trouble than the parent can get them out of. Being omnipotent, God can get us out of arbitrary amounts of trouble – which is comforting until you realize God can therefore afford to let us get into arbitrary amounts of trouble.

This could mean that God could simply act Deistic, uninvolved, until Judgment Day, which can be arbitrarily far off so long as it eventually comes. Against that, we put His covenants and other promises in the Bible.


How shall a man open his mind to a child, or a god to a man?
The Mask of Apollo, by Mary Renault

People often talk as if the point of the book of Job were very mysterious. Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't think it is. Job suffers through no fault of his own. His famous comforters insist he must be being punished by God, but he denies it, and he's right. Job complains about it to God, long, loudly, and vehemently. Eventually, God appears in a whirlwind and says, in effect, "Don't you use that tone with Me! Don't you think I know what I'm doing?" And Job apologizes. God blesses him and tells the comforters to have Job intercede for them, because Job, not they, have spoken truly about God.

In other words, Job is right, suffering is not always about divine punishment. As to what it is about, God knows what He's doing; have faith in that.

And, well, yes, an omniscient being should know better than us. Think how terrible the actions of parents can look to children, or the actions of owners look to pets. But Job still gets no explanation.

"Don't you think I know what I'm doing? Yes? Then trust Me and stop grumbling." End of conversation.

However, the reader does get some explanation, even if Job doesn't. To avoid arguments about whether Satan exists, I shall put the explanation this way:

"Job cannot be shown to love God and righteousness for themselves until Job is not getting any personal benefit from God and righteousness."

That, after all, was Satan's argument to God – Job only likes You because You shower him with blessings. Does Job deserve to have the blessings removed, just to score an arguing point with Satan? Then put it more existentially:

"Job's firm and unselfish love of and loyalty to God exist only as a potential, a possibility, while Job is really blessed. It can only become actual when he loves even when he is not blessed."

It's also well worth noting that Job's unwavering faith is perfectly compatible with getting enormously angry with God. God yells back (and, of course, louder and more cogently), but the two quickly patch things up and then it is the moralistic rationalizers who are in trouble.

Coping Skills

I don't have any scripture or philosophy for this, but I rather think that one of the things we're simply made for is to be dropped into a world with a certain amount of chaos in it, and cope. Here it might be wise to take a leaf from the Buddhists and regard things with a certain amount of detachment.

So what do I mean by "detachment"? Think of a game. You play as well as you are able, and you try to win or do well, but however you do, you shouldn't let the game provoke you into becoming upset, because it's just a game. Real life is more important.

Well, there are things more important than real life – what we ordinarily mean by "real life." The disasters of mundane life should not provoke you to despair because "it's just a life," and there's something more important. You can lose at life and still win. You detach from the troubles of life by focusing on something more important still. What that something is will depend on your beliefs.

Detachment suggests calm, or indifference, or resignation. But it can even coexist with ferocious glee. Here is an excerpt from "Out of the Silent Planet," by C. S. Lewis. The viewpoint character, Ransom, is talking to a hross, a Martian, who turns out to be Edenically innocent, unfallen. But his world is not painless; there is the hnakra, the water monster that prowls the Martian canals:

"All the same," said Ransom, unconsciously nettled on behalf of his own world, "Maleldil [God] has let in the hnakra."

"Oh, but that is so different. I long to kill this hnakra as he also longs to kill me. I hope that my ship will be the first and I first in my ship with my straight spear when the black jaws snap. And if he kills me, my people will mourn and my brothers will desire still more to kill him. But they will not wish that there were no hneraki; nor do I. How can I make you understand, when you do not understand the poets? The hnakra is our enemy, but he is also our beloved. We feel in our hearts his joy as he looks down from the Mountain of Water in the north where he was born; we leap with him when he jumps the falls; and when winter comes, and the lake smokes higher than our heads, it is with his eyes that we see it and know that his roaming time is come. We hang images of him in our houses, and the sign of all the hrossa is a hnakra. In him the spirit of the valley lives; and our young play at being hneraki as soon as they can splash in the shallows."

"And then he kills them?"

"Not often them. The hrossa would be bent hrossa if they let him get so near. Long before he had come down so far we should have sought him out. No, Hman, it is not a few deaths roving the world around him that make a hnau [soul] miserable. It is a bent [evil] hnau that would blacken the world. And I say also this. I do not think the forest would be so bright, nor the water so warm, nor love so sweet, if there were no danger in the lakes. I will tell you a day in my life that has shaped me; such a day as comes only once, like love, or serving Oyarsa in Meldilorn. Then I was young, not much more than a cub, when I went far, far up the handramit [canal canyon] to the land where stars shine at midday and even water is cold. A great waterfall I climbed. I stood on the shore of Balki the pool, which is the place of most awe in all worlds. The walls of it go up for ever and ever and huge and holy images are cut in them, the work of old times. There is the fall called the Mountain of Water. Because I have stood there alone, Maleldil and I, for even Oyarsa sent me no word, my heart has been higher, my song deeper, all my days. But do you think it would have been so unless I had known that in Balki hneraki dwelled? There I drank life because death was in the pool. That was the best of drinks save one."

"What one?" asked Ransom.

"Death itself in the day I drink it and go to Maleldil."

Lewis's exultant Martian shows his detachment exuberantly, not calmly or resignedly, but it is still a form of detachment. The hnakra is his world's great peril, but hunting it is also his great sport, a game. It is more important to play the game than to win it. Most important of all is "going to Maleldil."

But I admit that I am not often able to summon up a martial (Martian) joy in the adventure of strife. I am more like Bilbo Baggins, who regarded adventures as "nasty uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" Of course, look what happened to him.

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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011