Charles Rulon: God and the problem of evil

By | September 13, 2010

Evil: Immoral, corrupt, sinful, wicked, depraved, harmful, malignant, malevolent, misery, suffering, disaster, ruinous, disease, catastrophe, calamity; anything causing injury, harm and pain.

The Christian god is described as an all-good, all-loving, all-merciful, all-just, all-compassionate, all-knowing, all-powerful, interventionist god. Of course! Who wants to worship a hateful, vengeful, ignorant, absentee god? But if this god really exists, then why has there been so much heinous evil throughout all of human history — endless wars, genocides, famines, tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, droughts, cancers, heart disease, strokes, crippling arthritis, horrible birth defects and parasites—parasites which make up the majority of species on Earth and which spread flesh-eating diseases, bubonic plague, small pox, malaria, cholera, TB and on and on.[i] In response, one only hears God’s maddening silence. Where is His Goodness and Compassion, His Omnipotence? The presence of such horrendous levels of “evil” has been a potent reason for many to turn away from God.
Still, over the centuries Judaeo-Christianity has steadfastly held to the conviction that the universe is good — that it is the creation of a good God for a good purpose. Thus, over the centuries men of the cloth have agonized over all this evil and have attempted to explain away why such horrific levels of pain and suffering have been visited on the innocent. Surely, this wasn’t the best God could do?

Religious explanations

In the face of all this evil, religions struggle to continue to validate and glorify God’s goodness. So in comes Satan. In comes God’s punishment for sinning (“God sent Hurricane Katrina [or 9/11, or the tsunami, or the earthquake, or…] because God is mad at us for allowing pre-born babies to be butchered and homosexuals to run rampant.”). In comes the argument from Free Will (“God gave us free will so that instead of being robots we can freely choose to love Him. But the price paid is that we are now also free to do evil.”). In addition, “We are all depraved and deserve punishment from the very beginning.” Or, “suffering occurs because God’s creation is unfinished. As the universe continues toward perfection, diseases, natural disasters and other forms of evil will disappear.” And let’s not forget that “Suffering is good for us. God uses suffering because it is remedial and medicinal. Pain is the means by which we become motivated to finally surrender to God and to seek the cure in Christ. Suffering is necessary to forge high-quality souls for the afterlife. The point of our lives in this world isn’t comfort, but training and preparation for eternity.”

Skeptical responses

Non-theists respond that the obscene levels of excruciating pain, monstrous suffering and horrible deaths throughout history seem out of all proportion to what one might expect from any kind of god worth worshiping. They respond that “creating Satan” to explain away all evil begs the question of why an all-powerful, all-good God would permit Satan to exist in the first place—a rival who has inflicted so much harm on the good and innocent. And what about all of the scientific, medical and social advances which interfere with these “God ordained” punishments for sin? Are these blasphemous?

God’s inability to eliminate evil

Non-theists also point out that God’s finest creation was filled with so much evil several thousand years ago that this God drowned everyone except for one good family (Genesis flood). But as this family multiplied, evil once again returned with its endless wars, genocides, tortures, inquisitions, witch hunts, hatreds, greed, thefts and so on. Thus, skeptics observe, either this biblical god can’t create evil-free humans, or won’t.
Believers are quick to respond that God gave us free will so that we can freely choose to love Him, which also means that we are free to sin. But so much evil?! So many wars and genocides?! So much cruelty!? Besides, what does free will have to do with cancer, parasites and earthquakes?

Evil & the Old Testament God

Skeptics also emphasize that the Old Testament, the foundation for the world’s three major monotheistic religions, has been described as “… one of the most brutal war mythologies of all time with the enemies of the Hebrew’s tribal god consistently treated as sub-human things.”[ii] If we judge evil by today’s standards in civilized societies, then this tribal god of the Hebrews, observes Richard Dawkins, is “a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”[iii]

The existence of evil doesn’t disprove God

Of course, all of these horrendously obscene levels of evil don’t disprove the existence of a god or gods. If “God” exists, perhaps He’s an evil capricious god. Or possibly she’s a loving god with very limited powers. Or perhaps there is some kind of cosmic battle on Earth between the forces of good and evil. Or perhaps the Creator of the Universe doesn’t intervene in human affairs and/or has more important things to do than to worry about human suffering. Insight: Once we introduce non-testable supernatural explanations for the existence of evil, we’re only limited by our very fertile imaginations.

We must move beyond mental gymnastics

All of the above attempts to explain the existence of evil in a good universe created by a good God, plus all the skeptical responses, are simply arm-chair debates. Though satisfying and convincing for many, such mental gymnastics merely gloss over our fundamental ignorance. They don’t move us any closer to empirically verifiable explanations as to why all this evil—diseases, earthquakes, human cruelties—exist in the first place, much less how to reduce their occurrence.

Science and God

Regarding how an all-good God could co-exist with all this evil, most scientists respond that it’s because God is an imaginary being. The last several hundred years of scientific discoveries—from astrophysics, evolutionary biology and biochemistry, to the lack of any solid evidence for the existence of paranormal and supernatural events—all this evidence has reached a critical mass which strongly supports the powerful thesis that there never were any gods in the first place, at least in any kind of manifestation that is of interest to the overwhelming majority of Christians, Muslims, Jews and other religious folk. As scientific knowledge continued to advance over the last 400 years, supernatural explanations for events continued to retreat …and retreat. Many scientists faced with such a consistent trend have extrapolated to what seems an obvious conclusion: All of our earthly gods are non-existent.

Scientific explanations for evil

Scientists (through incredibly hard work over centuries) have been able to arrive at natural explanations for the existence of most of the world’s evils, from diseases, to natural disasters, to the evolution of parasites, to our xenophobic human nature. They have also discovered that our universe and Earth are even more dangerous (evil) than ever imagined.

Some educated Christians who accept modern cosmology and the fact of our biological evolution have responded that since evil can now be explained naturally, there’s no reason to blame God for it. Do they really grock the depth to which scientific discoveries have seriously devastated their core religious dogmas?

The universe and Earth: Our universe is far from being a safe and peaceful backdrop for God’s finest creation, man. Black holes suck in entire star systems. Gigantic explosions at the center of galaxies destroy millions of worlds, many possibly populated with sentient beings. And Earth, itself, is hardly a peaceful setting for God’s favorite species. Catastrophic events — meteor impacts, gigantic volcanic eruptions, ice sheets covering much of Earth, plate tectonic movements tearing apart entire continents — have repeatedly devastated Earth’s surface, resulting in horrifically high death rates, pain and suffering, even numerous mass extinctions over the past 600 million years. Skeptics ask why an all-powerful, loving god would place his favorite creations on a planet destined to experience catastrophic disasters, in such a violent universe.

Natural selection: Natural selection has been the primary mechanism driving evolution for billions of years. With natural selection comes an ‘infinity’ of dead ends, starvation, disease, plagues, cruelty, flawed designs, violent deaths, and a prodigious waste of life. Shortsighted selfishness usually wins out, no matter how much pain and loss it produces in the long term. Parasites are a major out¬come, outnumbering all other species. Very few biologists see evidence of some deity’s hand anywhere in natural selection—particularly evidence that humans were “planned” ahead of time.

Extinctions: Over the past hundreds of millions of years, natural selection, plus the contingencies of history, plus cataclysmic events have resulted in the extinction of over 99% of all the species to have ever evolved on our planet. Such horrendous levels of extinction leave many religious people quite upset. If essentially all of God’s creatures eventually go extinct, doesn’t that imply a God that’s inept, wasteful, careless, cruel, and/or unconcerned with the welfare of His creations?

[i] There are over 10,000 species of tapeworms, 2000 species of biting lice and untold numbers of species of harmful bacteria, viruses and protozoa. Parasites have blinded millions of children. The Black Death of 1348 wiped out half the population of Europe. The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed 50 million people. Over 300 million people every year become deathly sick with malaria.

[ii]Campbell, J., 1988. Myths to Live By, p. 181-183.

[iii] Dawkins, R., The God Delusion, 2006. Dawkins based his description on the fact that in the Old Testament this god instructs his followers to kill those who work on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15; 35:2), to kill children who curse their parents (Exodus 21:17; Lev. 20:9; Deut. 21:18-21) and to stone to death brides found not to be virgins on their wedding night (Deut. 22:13-21). Virgin girls could be offered to an angry mob to protect male guests from harm[iii] The Hebrews’ god also commanded his followers after they defeated enemy cities to slaughter all of the men, the elderly, the crippled, the women, the children—everyone (Deut. 20:16-18; Deut. 7:1-6; Joshua 6:21-24; 10:40).

2 thoughts on “Charles Rulon: God and the problem of evil

  1. john mize

    The short answer to the problem of evil? Compassion. The article lists many evils but fails to mention the concept of compassion which is the key term used by many of the world's religions, even those which have no need for the concept of God. In a universe without suffering there would be no compassion. There would be no courage needed nor character formed in a world free of suffering. It would not be a place of soul making, nor a place suitable for moral growth. As to the amount of the evils we encounter and struggle against, who knows the optimal amount? Those of us who have faith that there exists an intelligent moral force behind this universe trust that in the end all shall be well.

  2. Firooz R Oskooi

    In the Baha'i Faith, which is the latest in in the progressive revelations, the evil does not exist, like darkness is the lack of light or coldness in the lack of heat etc. The evils and/or misfortunes mentioned in the above article are the blessings in diguise! Why? Because, if everything was to our liking and comfort, we would not have the progresses that we have today in science, medicine, philosophy. Rightiousness, compassion and morality would be meaningless words. I am also puzzled that when we talk about e.g. phisics we refer to the latest discoveries, but when it comes to religion, we go thousand years back! Do we accept change in everything except religion?


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