Why believe in God? Part II: the problem of evil

Thomas Aquinas identified the problem of evil as one of the main objections to the existence of God—if God exists, why do we see so much evil in the world? Eight-hundred years later this is still a powerful question, and one that most have to confront directly in their lives.

First, we can take a moment to think about what we mean by the term “evil.” Would we say that it is evil to paint a rock red, yellow, or green? No… but we would say it is evil to paint over traffic lights and cause accidents. This is because we define evil in relationship to some good or purpose. The color of a rock doesn’t affect its purpose or dignity. Evil disrupts what *should* be there. It is an experience of something that has gone wrong. To use another example, we wouldn’t react in shock if we saw a human without wings, but we probably would if we saw an eagle without wings. As Augustine says, evil is the absence of some good that should be there.

However, this leads to a sort of paradox. The sense that things *should* be different implies a sense that there is a purpose or dignity to things. If there were no God (and creation truly was just the product of random chance), there wouldn’t be any more inherent purpose to a human being than to a rock. Both would come from the same source and have the same dignity. Therefore, it wouldn’t be more “evil” for a child to suffer and go hungry than for a child to be cared for and loved. Both cases would just be random interactions of atoms among beings destined for non-existence. So, in this paradoxical way, the reality of evil provides not only a challenge to faith but also evidence of belief in something that transcends atheistic existence.

Jesus responds to the question of evil a number of times. In Matthew 13 he addresses the parable of the weeds and the wheat (“Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?”); John 9 considers the case of the man born blind (“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”); and John 11 describes the death of Lazarus (“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”). Jesus doesn’t give a comprehensive answer to every aspect of the question of evil, but he gives an exhortation to hope. He denies that evil is a part of God’s desire for creation, and that the evil someone suffers is always the result of a personal sin on their part. He teaches that evil is permitted for only a time, and will come to an end when the final redemption is complete. However, he teaches that there is some plan or purpose to why it is tolerated to exist for a time. In the parable of the sower he addresses the harm that would be done to the wheat if all the weeds were pulled up. With Lazarus, he speaks of the way God’s grace is manifested through the crisis. Christ exhorts us to faith in the goodness of God to believe that a plan is being accomplished. God does not directly cause or desire evil, but permits it at times for the sake of some purpose that is often mysterious to us.

This isn’t a completely blind faith. At times we are able to see glimpses of why certain things happen. We might recognize it like the painful surgery that brings about health. Other times we do not. Yet, we see Christ crucified on the Cross. We see that in his life he did not ignore suffering, but identified himself with the suffering. He embraced the full reality of evil and opened a door to redemption. He invites us to trust him on account of his goodness in the moments when we do not understand.

We arrive, then, at this choice: do we trust him in the face of evil? Will we take confidence in a knowledge that surpasses our own? The alternative (belief in no transcendent reality) also robs the sense of evil from any grounding in how things “should” be. Without God, evil becomes meaningless. Do we believe that we are correct when we see something “wrong” with the world, and that our desire for a world without evil has a basis in the truth?

This doesn’t give a definitive answer to the question of evil, and an aspect of mystery will continue to be with us on this side of eternity. But, it gives us reason for faith in the existence of God even in the face of evil.

2 comments on “Why believe in God? Part II: the problem of evil

  1. Linda Fiedler says:

    Your homilies are so inspiring. I learn something that I hadn’t given much though before.
    Thank Fr. Phelps & God bless


  2. john zande says:

    Why should the staggering amount of evil be source of enormous confusion for believers on God? Is there any legitimate argument to justify the confusion? Is there any plausible pretext or historically compelling observation to rationally feed and sustain the puzzlement? Is there any credible reason to even suspect that the world has somehow gone terribly, drastically, hopelessly wrong, as opposed to it simply performing precisely as desired by its Creator?


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