Essays and Stories
by Seyed P. Razavi

The Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil is typically stated as: “If there is an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, why is there evil in the world?” Usually, this is used to put the theist in the horn of a dilemma wherein he must give up either God’s omnipotency (including her omniscience) or her omnibenevolence or both. I’d like to argue that the problem as stated suffers from three category mistakes: two in the conditional (“an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God”) and one in the conclusion (“there is evil in the world”). In doing so, I believe I dissolve the problem and offer an alternative lesson to draw.

The first category mistake is in how we describe God within human limits of potentiality. When we say something is omnipotent we are saying that ‘if it has the power to act it could do so’. We might qualify this by saying that this power is limited so as to avoid logical impossibilities (e.g. God creating a rock that God couldn’t lift). However, I think this is a mischaracterisation of God’s power borne from the finitude of the human perspective. If human power is defined as ‘potential to affect change’, to order its surroundings according to his whims, what does it mean for an infinitely powerful being to affect change? Surely by definition everything is already as this being wants it to be. Therefore, the notion of omnipotency is meaningless when we extrapolate from the finite sense of potential to the infinite sense. If there is any notion of an all-powerful being it is not in its power to change or arrange matters as she would like but in the very fact that everything is already arranged as she would like it to be. In fact, all power to affect change must stem from her all-encompassing infinite pool of power. Put another way, God’s omnipotency is to human power what the set of all numbers are to the number seven. Therefore, we cannot say God could or could not act, because God doesn’t act at all in the same sense of a human being with agency acting towards an outcome.

The second category mistake is how we describe God’s benevolence, her desire for good, within human limits. Firstly, it’s important to understand from within the scriptural framework, human beings are not, nor can they be, innately good. We are flawed creatures by nature. I think any examination of human nature would come to the same conclusion. We have our good moments and our bad moments. So when we talk about good in human terms, what we are saying is our thoughts and actions align for a time with some sense of good. The measure of this good may be considered objective or subjective, transcendent or cultural, real or emotive. It doesn’t matter where you think this sense of good comes from for the purposes of this argument. Regardless, it is in the process of change committed by human beings we find any good. However, when we talk about God being good, we are not talking about a process but an end-state. We are saying that there exists an infinite being of whom a defining property is goodness. The process of human thoughts and actions which are morally good aim towards the end-state of goodness. Human beings may be benevolent through their actions but it is the end-state of all benevolence that is the infinite God.

The third category mistake we make is about the nature of evil and its presence in the world. This stems from a mistaken interpretation of good and evil as being equivalent to pleasure and pain or happiness and suffering. Suffering is a part of life. It is no more intrinsically evil than happiness is good. One may find evil causes suffering or doing good causes happiness but that doesn't mean they are the same thing. Evil is when moral agents turn their backs on doing good. We can see the intent more clearly when we rephrase the Problem of Evil as “If there is an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, why is there suffering in the world?” or perhaps more explicitly, “If there is an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, why do bad things happen to good people?” The latter is more explicit than the former because we implicitly accept suffering as just when it is against wrongdoers. Our sense of justice, of being good, is that those who are evil should be punished. So when we complain that there is suffering in the world, we are implicitly arguing that there is suffering in the world and it is directed towards people who don’t deserve it; by allowing this suffering, God cannot be just.

However, the rational theist would say this misunderstands the nature of evil and justice in two ways:

Firstly, as I said before, we are all flawed, none of us are good in of ourselves, none of us wholly innocent in potentiality. Human nature has the capacity for goodness but also evil. We can strive towards the good or we can turn our back against it. So the plea that some are undeserving of suffering misunderstands the sense of good entirely. It is impossible to be pure good, to be completely clean from the perspective of the eternal (as in outside of time) goodness.

Secondly, suffering is not equivalent to punishment. A natural disaster, disease, bodily pain, the cycle of life and death in of itself, are not necessarily God’s way of bringing justice to the world. Again we’ve taken human social constructs and applied them to our sense of God’s agency in the world. However, this directly contradicts the narrative of scripture and our witness of the world. Yes, sometimes God intervenes directly and within a human being’s lifespan. More often though, bad people do not get punished before our eyes. Good people have terrible things happen to them. Even people who are singled out by God as witnesses are notable not by their lack of suffering but by the amount they do suffer for their faith. If Jesus doesn’t escape the worst form of suffering, then any expectation that we would, seems to fundamentally misunderstand suffering’s role in God’s creation.

Some people will find this acceptance of suffering and our lack of innocence problematic. Yet the argument that human existence would be better without any suffering is clearly flawed. A good thought experiment to grapple with this ideas is Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine. It is difficult to imagine a positive scenario wherein human beings have free will, bodily and spiritual growth, a sense of a worthwhile narrative about their own lives without setbacks and suffering. How can a human being grow to know goodness if he does not overcome suffering, if not in his own life but in the life of others? Consider a kind of human being who lives their life without suffering nor being empathic towards the suffering of others. I'd contend that kind of human being is only partially formed or perhaps closer to a vegetative state than a moral agent.

Is there too much suffering in the world? I think this is the wrong question to ask entirely. For one person suffering, there is too much suffering. We don’t need to extrapolate to find some level of suffering that would be acceptable or not, beyond which God should have intervened. Instead, we must see that we are the beings with agency and motivation to lessen suffering especially when we align ourselves towards the end-state of goodness. It is certainly part of the scripture that God does sometimes punish people. My argument doesn't rest on there not being suffering nor that God is not involved whether as cause or alleviation of suffering. In fact, I argue that suffering is a necessary part of life and that there is no distinction between those we consider deserving or those we don't consider deserving of the suffering we witness. Whilst there is a wealth of testimony both in scripture and by believers since, of God's positive intervention, more often than not, these interventions are through the actions (and agency) of people. We are called by our witnessing of suffering to act if we are to align ourselves towards the good.

The Problem of Evil is a flawed projection of human agency and psychology on to God. It is also contrary to the witness testimony of scripture which illustrates repeatedly this is the wrong approach to describing God. If we ask “If you, as a human being, had the power to affect change to stop an evil from happening, why would you not act?” we may try to answer by either denying our power to affect change or explain our lack of desire to stop the evil from happening. However, to then extrapolate our expectation of agency, of a human being whose short existence is a vector through spacetime, to the singular, infinite and eternal being of God is to make a categorical mistake. It is to misunderstand what scripture describes as an all-Good and all-Powerful God. If having so misunderstood the God that is found in scriptural testimony, we argue against another conception of God and find it wanting, then all we have done is reinforced our implicit premise of the non-existence of God. We have not made a reasonable argument against God’s existence at all.

However, if we take the pragmatic position that there is in God all potential outcomes, we can aim our moral compass correctly towards the end-state of goodness by turning towards her. Then the question of suffering is not about why it happens but how we can face it with faith and compassion. Not only when suffering happens to those who we think are undeserving of it. In fact, by recognising we all share the same flawed human nature, we are motivated to exercise our agency to alleviate suffering for all, familiar or stranger, near or far.

So the problem of evil is not that there is evil in the world but how we can overcome it with God’s support.