Reflections on the problem of evil (Part 1) – Introduction

Posted: July 18, 2011 in Philosophy, Religion
Tags: , , , ,

by Dima Zhyvov

Undoubtedly the so-called problem of evil poses by far the greatest challenge to belief in God. It just seems unbelievable, if an omnipotent and wholly good God exists, that he would permit so much pain and suffering in the world. Indeed, the sheer amount of human misery and pain is staggering. One need only turn on the TV to hear the latest news report of horrific atrocities inflicted on defenceless and innocent fellow human beings; of equally horrific consequences visited on people and animals through natural disasters; of even cruel ironies, whereby a parent unintentionally participates in grievous harm to, or death of, a beloved child.

Reading and hearing such stories produces profound distress in any morally sane human being, and it should. I remember visiting Cambodia with a team of young people from Sweden. I can vividly recall our trip to a site in Phnom Phen, called S-21. This place used to be a normal school in the capital of Cambodia, but with the coming of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, the classrooms were turned into torture chambers, where thousands of innocent Cambodians were forcibly brought for interrogation, which involved absolutely horrific treatment. The victims would be beaten to death with metal sticks, laid on a bed with a fire underneath to burn them alive, electrocuted; their nails would be pulled out, etc. It seems human creativity in doing evil is without limits. As I stood in one of those rooms with pictures of tortured people on the walls I could not help but wonder: how could human beings do such things to one another? How could the perpetrators hear the cries for help and the pleadings on the part of their victims and be unmoved by it? At the site of such moral evil I was dumbfounded. I do not know if you have ever experienced something like this, but I felt like my mind was just incapable of taking these things in; of comprehending it. Even bringing such things before one’s mind is overwhelming; it is painful even to consider them.

So it is not at all surprising that evil poses the biggest challenge for the Christian faith. On the one hand, there are all the evils that are the result of man’s own inhumanity to man. Such moral evil is unfathomable, but perhaps what is even more difficult to reconcile with the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God is the suffering brought by natural causes in the world. These include natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes; different sorts of diseases such as cancer or polio; accidents and injuries such as being burned or drowned, etc. Just how, we may understandably wonder, could God allow such things to happen? Surely, if he is all-powerful, then he is more than able to prevent them or at the very least stop them. Surely if he is all-good, then he would be willing to do that, wouldn’t he? Then why, cry millions of people, does evil still exist?

So in this article I would like to take a look at these age-old questions and examine them. I want to honestly consider the challenges theism in general, and Christianity in particular, face from the best atheological arguments from evil. I am interested in seeing whether Christians can rationally maintain their belief in a God who is all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful when the facts of evil and the best atheistic arguments from it are considered. In short, I want to see if the problem of evil poses an insurmountable objection to my faith in a loving God.

But before we begin our inquiry, let us make a number of distinctions to help keep our thinking straight. Broadly speaking, we must distinguish between what could be called the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil. The intellectual problem concerns how to give a rational explanation of the coexistence of God and evil. The emotional problem concerns how to comfort those who are suffering and how to dissolve the emotional dislike people have for a God who would permit such evil. The intellectual problem lies more in the field of philosophy, whereby the emotional problem lies in the area of a counsellor. I believe it is absolutely critical to keep these two problems separate, lest we run into the danger of appearing pathetic, unhelpful, deficient, or superficial to someone reflecting on the problem abstractly and philosophically. Or else, and what is even worse, appearing dry, uncaring, indifferent, and even cruel to someone who is him/herself suffering or sees someone dear to them undergoing suffering. C.S. Lewis put it so well in the preface of The Problem of Pain:

“I must add, too, that the only purpose of the book is to solve the intellectual problem raised by suffering; for the far higher task of teaching fortitude and patience I was never fool enough to suppose myself qualified, nor have I anything to offer my readers except my conviction that when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all”[1]

I agree with Lewis, and I want to stress that in this article I will mainly be concerned with the philosophical side of the problem, although at the very end I wish to say a few things about the emotional problem of evil as well.

So keeping these distinctions in mind, let us proceed.

Click here to see part 2 of the article

[1] The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis, HarperSanFrancisco ed., preface, XII

  1. Ester says:

    Thanks Dima for a well worded introduction to a very interesting topic worth much consideration! I’m looking forward to read the rest of the articles!

    • Thank you for your kind and encouraging words, Ester! I hope you will like the rest of it as well. This week I will put up the final bit on the emotional problem of evil to conclude the series.

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