"By the way, a Bulgarian I met lately in Moscow," Ivan went on, seeming not to hear his brother's words, "told me about the crimes committed by Turks and Circassians in all parts of Bulgaria through fear of a general rising of the Slavs. They burn villages, murder, outrage women and children, they nail their prisoners by the ears to the fences, leave them so till morning, and in the morning they hang them--all sorts of things you can't imagine. People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that's a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that's all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it. These Turks took a pleasure in torturing children, too; cutting the unborn child from the mother’s womb, and tossing babies up in the air and catching them on the points of their bayonets before their mothers' eyes. Doing it before the mothers' eyes was what gave zest to the amusement. Here is another scene that I thought very interesting. Imagine a trembling mother with her baby in her arms, a circle of invading Turks around her. They've planned a diversion: they pet the baby, laugh to make it laugh. They succeed, the baby laughs. At that moment a Turk points a pistol four inches from the baby's face. The baby laughs with glee, holds out its little hands to the pistol, and he pulls the trigger in the baby's face and blows out its brains. Artistic, wasn't it? By the way, Turks are particularly fond of sweet things, they say."
"Brother, what are you driving at?" asked Alyosha.
"I think if the devil doesn't exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness."
Dostoyevsky captures the essence of evil perfectly. Most us of are left feeling ill after reading a selection like this. Francis Schaeffer referred to this internal turmoil as “moral motions” (see Romans 2:15). In a world seemingly defiled with evil, the Christian can easily find himself/herself questioning the goodness of God while others may even question his very existence. When confronted with real, palpable evil – rape, murder, torture, etc. – asking why God would cause these sorts of things to happen or angrily denying God’s existence is altogether understandable.
As ambassadors of God’s kingdom, how do we flesh this out? Is God the author of evil? Should we be questioning the validity of our faith in the face of war, famine, disease and suffering? The quick answer is no, but with a topic so emotionally charged, a one word response will not suffice. In order to effectively tackle the problem of evil, we must first come to an understanding of what evil is.
The first thing that needs to be understood is that evil is something. That is, evil is real. In other words, evil is a matter of objective fact and not merely personal opinion (more on this later). The second thing that needs to be understood is that evil is not some “thing.” I know this sounds like a bit of double-speak but an important distinction needs to be made here. Evil is not a blackish-grey blob floating around the universe that we must carefully avoid. No, evil is a relational property (as evidenced by the fact all questions about evil are either raised about a person or by a person). A good example of this can be made through the use of a piece of steel. If the piece of steel is a scalpel being wielded by a surgeon to remove a tumor, the “relationship” between the steel and the person with the tumor can be declared good. If, however, the piece of steel is a knife in the hands of a criminal being plunged into the belly of his/her victim, the “relationship” between the piece of steel and the victim can rightfully be declared evil.
Why is this distinction important? If evil is a description of the “relationship” between two or more things (more specifically two or more caused/created things), God cannot be its cause, author or creator. The astute among us may already have the follow up question ringing in their head; “Okay, maybe he didn’t cause it, but why would a loving God allow so much evil?”
The rejoinder to this question, made popular by Alvin Plantinga, is known as the free will defense. In reading through all of God’s “omni’s” it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that God can do anything. The truth is God cannot do just anything. God cannot do that which is logically impossible. He can’t make a square-circle, He can’t make a rock so big He can’t lift it, and He can’t contradict Himself (praise God!). God also can’t create freedom without choice. God didn’t want robots that blindly follow Him. Rather, He wanted people who freely choose to love and follow Him. We can all understand the importance of choice concerning a loving relationship. What makes love authentic is being loved according to another’s volition rather than through coercion. My relationship with my wife is special because she chooses to love me. She was never forced or told to do so. To put it simply; God is responsible for the fact freedom and we are responsible for our acts of freedom.
There is one objection to the free will defense that holds a bit of rhetorical force that I would like to address before moving on. Some might respond to our freedom of choice by asking why God couldn’t have created a world with less evil. That is, why not keep freedom of choice intact but eliminate things like cancer and poverty? There are three things not being considered by a person who sincerely asks this question:
1- We don’t know that God hasn’t done so already
2- We don’t fully understand linkages – the resulting effects of God intervening
3- We don’t know that we would be satisfied with the limits imposed on evil. Consider Aristotle’s tallest man problem. Imagine a person who couldn’t stand the idea of there being a tallest man. In order ease his mental anguish this person decides to eliminate (kill) the tallest man. What then after he has eliminated the tallest man? The previously second tallest man is now the tallest man and we are back to where we started! The point is, the idea of eliminating some evil sends you into an infinite regress. We would get to the point of denying God’s goodness because of paper cuts (oh, the humanity!).
Understanding that God didn’t cause evil and why He allowed it might be good enough for the believer but many non-believers (atheists more specifically) remain unstirred. For many non-believers, talk over whether God allowed evil or caused evil is a waste of time; the idea of a loving God and evil coexisting is incompatible – like Super Man and kryptonite. When looked at carefully, it isn’t difficult to see how truly shallow this objection is.
Any discussion of evil (more specifically moral evil) under the atheistic worldview ultimately degenerates to nothing more than empty words. If there is no God to objectively ground morals in, all that we are left with is moral relativism – right or wrong/good or evil is purely subjective (only personal opinion). The value of maternal love of a human mother towards her child is as arbitrary and morally neutral as when a salt water crocodile eats her young. A slave owner is no more right or wrong than a researcher who dedicates his/her life to curing cancer.
It defies reason to even attempt to reconcile moral choice with a worldview that negates the very notion of free choice altogether (the two are not logically compatible). As Hume said, “No matter how hard one tries, you cannot get moral agents from a process of scientific materialistic reductionism. It simply does not work. Morality does not come from empirically verifiable scientific statements alone. At several points of the delicate formula we will always have to make the leap into the realm of moral reasoning; but if there is no absolute basis from which to make the leap, if there is no transcendent foundational scope to human life, then there is no platform from whence the leap can be made.”
I am not suggesting atheist can’t be moral. In fact, I believe they can. The problem isn’t immorality; to be immoral one would have to presume knowledge of right or wrong. Atheism cannot plausibly have any such knowledge. Atheism is not immoral; it is amoral, which is downright terrifying!
One last point to address before I wrap this thing up – natural evil (earthquakes, volcanos, etc.). First, I think it’s important to point out there is nothing inherently evil about one continental plate slipping under another, nor about the earth’s trembling as a result. These natural events are morally neutral. Something “bad” only results when humans get caught in such events. Much like the case with moral evil, the non-believer (atheist) finds himself/herself in a precarious position when complaining about natural evil.
If an atheist suggests a tidal wave sweeping over an island ought not to have carried children out to sea he is acknowledging that this might be troubling for the islanders but is ignoring the great boon for the marine life surrounding the island. The atheist is quietly proclaiming there is a way things should be, a view only plausible for the believer.
The following five points might help the believer understand why God has chosen to allow natural evil:
1- The earth’s processes that cause many of these events are crucial to our survivability on this planet (rent The Privileged Planet on DVD for a better understanding of this)
2- God does not cause people to be in the times and places where the natural events take place
3- It is very plausible that only in a world suffused with natural evil would great numbers of people freely come to know God and find eternal life
4- Although God has intervened in His creation before (performed miracles to handle/prevent some form of evil), He is the Master painter of this canvas we call the universe. Miracles are like radiant colors that add much beauty to a painting with just a light touch. Too much lustrous color can ruin the whole painting. God is the Master Designer/Artist and He knows the perfect amount and scope of miracles that will reflect the most beauty of His creation.
5- Compassion is a virtue that God desires us all to have. How could we develop the virtue of compassion without the existence of suffering?
Armed with all this information, how should we respond when someone we know is suffering from some sort of moral or natural evil? How quick should we be to answer with the proper philosophical or theological retort? The appropriate time is when they are ready to hear it; after having the chance to grieve and process all the pain (both emotional and physical). I have experienced this first hand. Six years ago I went through a very difficult life changing event and while in the throes of all the emotional anguish I was given many of the standard Christian responses, most of which rang hollow. There was however one response that I will never forget. Upon hearing the news, my brother, who was living in Escondido at the time, (I was in Chula Vista) drove down that night to visit. He arrived at the house late, walked in my room, laid down next me and shared in my pain. Two grown men crying together; so unexpected, so taboo yet so appropriate.