The Problem of EvilOriginally published at Crisis Magazine
As an advocate of the Intelligent Design movement, I’m very often confronted with the following rather pointed criticism: “Well, if the world is designed, then we’ve got to blame the designer for all of the evil in it, don’t we? Backaches and headaches, cancer, cats playing with mice, parasites, floods, Nazis, slavery, starving children—the whole mess would have to be laid at the designer’s door.”
Indeed, the presence of evil has been used, time and again, as a kind of trump card thrown down in debate against theists in general and design proponents in particular as the unanswerable objection, a lock-tight logical proof of atheism. In slightly expanded form, the logic runs as follows: If God exists, He is all-powerful and benevolent. If He is all powerful and benevolent, He wouldn’t allow _____. But _____ exists; therefore, God does not exist.
We must understand, however, that this is not a mere debating tactic on the part of the atheist, but a formalization of a very human cri de coeur: “I can’t believe God exists. There is so much evil in the world.” Simply put, evil is a real problem, and odd as it sounds, we need to keep it that way.
Keeping Evil as a Problem
Keep it that way? As tempting as the above syllogism might be, either to our hearts or our heads, if we are to take evil seriously, it must be rejected because it is self-devouring and, hence, self defeating. If God does not exist, then there is no evil in the world. We can illustrate this seeming paradox by watching how quickly the cri de coeur is undermined in the most thorough and powerful denial of design: Darwinism.
Charles Darwin himself famously complained in a letter to Asa Gray, “I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic insects] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.” Rather than such apparent natural cruelties being the result of divine intention, Darwin chose to hang them on the vagaries of natural selection. As a result, the presence of evil was rendered unproblematic because we could only expect a mixture of good and bad results from evolution’s ongoing natural lottery.
Witness, however, the jaws of defeat already devouring the victory: If the universe and all things in it are the unintended result of the purposeless ebb and flow, expansion and collapse, explosion and fusion of matter and energy, then we have lost the grounds for complaint about all the evil in the world. The dust cannot complain to the cosmic wind that blows it recklessly hither and thither.
The irony, then, is that, while the “misery in the world” helped to confirm Darwin’s belief in a world without design, consigning the cause of the misery to evolution meant, ultimately, giving up the existence of evil. As the Voltaire of contemporary Darwinism, zoologist Richard Dawkins, has rightly noted, from the perspective of evolution, while such parasitism as Darwin complained about may seem “savagely cruel,” the truth of the matter is that “nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent.” For Dawkins, this is “one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn.” In a cosmos in which a creator is absent, things are “neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous—indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.”
Paradoxically, then, eliminating God because of the existence of evil means embracing an impersonal, que será será cosmos utterly indifferent not only to our complaints but even to the distinction between good and evil itself. And the same goes for those who retain a distant God who, for some strange reason, gives free reign over nature to the blind, careless demiurgic powers of natural selection. In either case, the outcome can only be an object of complaint if it was initially an object of intelligent intention.
In one sense, this is very helpful, for it provides the proper response to the all-too frequently served atheist’s platitude that the presence of evil is the coup de grace that finally and decisively puts theology out of our misery. As it turns out, the only victim of the coup de grace is the cri de coeur. But thankfully, the cry of the heart is so deeply human that we cannot embrace cosmic indifference. We are repelled by a heartless universe and cannot shake our conviction that evil really is a problem. The solution to the problem of evil cannot simply be the dissolution of the existence of evil. Therefore, we had better look more carefully at evil as a problem.
The Problem of Deciding What Is Evil
Understanding evil as a problem is not an easy task, however. In debates about the existence of evil, we often overlook the unpleasant but illuminating fact that while we all agree that evil exists—and I do believe, in his heart of hearts, even Dawkins knows that it exists—we don’t all agree on the particular evils we would include in our list of complaints. That is no small point.
One might think, for example, that we all agree that disease is evil and that its elimination is an unambiguous good. For Darwinism, however, the elimination of disease itself becomes a problem because disease and other hardships help weed out the unfit. As Darwin noted in his Descent of Man:
With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health…. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination….. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.”
Or to take an even more interesting example, even though Dawkins rightly concluded that evolution removes God and hence considerations of good and evil from the cosmos, he has also released a jeremiad against religion as an evil we’d all be better off without. Just after the horrifying destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, Dawkins railed against the “faith-heads,” each equipped with an “after-life—obsessed suicidal brain,” a brain of the “Abrahamic kind” that “teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the end.”
To be fair to Dawkins, the horror of the attack may have driven him momentarily to extremes of passion. (At least we can be thankful that his passion drove him back into the realm of sanity again, where he was willing to affirm publicly that evil is real and a real problem.) But there is an important lesson here. The crises and consequent passions of the moment often skew our more balanced assessments both of what things are evil and, further, what we would do about them if suddenly we were granted omnipotence to treat the problem. Unfortunately, human beings are more fickle than farsighted, and their judgment undulates even upon the waves of headaches and hormones, let alone the larger shocks of events like 9/11. So the problem of identifying what is evil often depends upon when we are asked.
There is yet another difficulty in defining evil, one that was implicit in Darwin and Dawkins but which we need to make explicit. As radically different accounts of happiness and the human good become more pronounced and sharply defined, we shall find that more and more, one person’s joy is another’s sorrow, and one group’s victory is another’s sign of impending darkness.
For example, recently the news came of the first baby born from sperm bought over the Internet. And just who was doing the peddling? A lovely organization called Man Not Included (MNI) that caters especially to lesbian couples (and to a lesser degree, single-by-choice women, whatever their nuance or persuasion). Once the registration fee is paid, lesbians can search the MNI database for donors and click on those with the desired characteristics. They need never get closer than a mouse to a male.
To frustrated lesbians, who may now have sperm delivered right to their front door for home insemination, this news offered a golden ray of hope. For others, however, the news was bleak rather than bright, one more oppressive sign that the sun was setting on modern civilization.
The result of this increasing divergence is that the very same thing is seen to be both dawn and dusk, a cause both for celebration and lamentation. To drill in the point, for Planned Parenthood and NOW, the legalization and increasing availability of abortion worldwide over the last 25 years is a great sign of hope, an unprecedented shimmer of light finally bursting forth after countless millennia of oppression by men, a joyful release from the slavery of biology. For those who oppose abortion, however, the last quarter-century has been the darkest on record, a remorseless slide into the depths of a barbarism previously unknown.
Thus, if we dig below the surface of the universal cri de coeur that “there is so much evil in the world,” we soon find its actual referent is all too frequently not universal. It can mean, as we have just seen, both that abortion rights are not yet universal and that abortion exists for anyone at all. The problem of evil, then, resides not merely in the presence of evil. In no small part, evil is problematic because we do not agree upon what things actually are evil.
Further, such divergence about good and evil has a ripple effect that distorts more particular levels of seeming agreement, especially in regard to what should be done once—the evil has been identified. Show a picture of a malnourished, deformed two-year-old orphan from Ethiopia, and a sad, pained expression steals over the faces of all. “Ah, yes,” one would say, “there is so much evil in the world.” Yet, the harmony turns to cacophony once we ask what should be done about it. If you still doubt, imagine throwing the picture into the center of a table around which are seated representatives of the United Nations, Planned Parenthood International, the Vatican, and the government of Ethiopia.
In sum, the vexing problem of evil is, if anything, even more frustrating than we thought. We cannot opt for a solution, like evolution, that simply eliminates the problem by eliminating the distinction between good and evil. Nor can we take for granted that there is real agreement on what things are actually evil, or if we find such agreement, what should be done. Alas, the contradictions even extend to the individual, who often changes his mind with his mood. Of course, the ramifications for theology are immense.
The Problem of Evil and God
Given all of the above, it is not very clear exactly how we could get from “There is so much evil in the world” to “I can’t believe God exists.” Not only does the denial of God undermine the reality of evil, but since we cannot agree on what things actually are evil or, if some semblance of agreement exists, what to do about it, it is difficult to see exactly what we expect of the divine.
To illustrate, if we were all suddenly given the power to eliminate evil and make the universe right again, each in accordance with his or her own list, we would very quickly end up in a chaotic and destructive free-for-all far worse than the condition we were trying to escape. The only way to avoid such chaos would be to lay aside all our differing opinions and figure out exactly what things are evil.
But here we run into yet another problem. Not only are we confused about what is evil. We are also unaware of how much of a problem evil is; that is, we don’t truly see how deep and pervasive are the evils that actually afflict us.
Imagine the following: We, bemoaning all the evil in the world, cry out that we cannot believe God exists. No sooner has the conclusion escaped our lips than God abruptly appears. Of course, being God, He is not only all-powerful and so can remove all the evils, but He is all-knowing and so can see all the evils.
“Do you wish me to remove all the evil from the world?” God asks.
“Yes! Yes! Please do!” we cry.
“ALL the evil?” He asks again, leaning forward and looking straight through our eyes and into our hidden depths.
Well, we don’t really know about all the evil, do we? We begin rummaging around nervously within. Oh dear! Unkind words, unfulfilled promises, nagging resentments, and a thousand other failures in everyday charity. Sins of our youth, sins yet to be committed, sins of omission. The new clothes, new car, theater tickets, baubles, and toys we bought even while we knew that the money could have saved a thousand lives or made the poverty of a thousand more lives bearable. Even more frightening, what of the sins hidden even from us?
“ALL the evil?” He repeats yet a third time.
Under the omniscient gaze, we are made rather keenly aware that somehow all the evil in the world is not out there, and that we hadn’t really considered, in our cry of the heart, the evil within the very heart that cries. The problem with suddenly getting rid of all evil is that (at least in this imaginative exercise) we are making such a request to an all-powerful, all-knowing Being, and hence we’re likely to be caught in the very dragnet that we bid God to cast. This is all the more frightening given that we are often oblivious to the faults in ourselves that others find so painfully obvious.
In attending to omniscience, we’ve stumbled upon an oft-neglected aspect of the problem of evil. We generally focus on the problem of evil as if it were merely a problem of power. That is, we look to the heavens and cry, “Why don’t you do something?” or we look dejectedly down at the earth, shake our heads, and mutter, “If there were a God, he would have done something about this. And you wonder why I’m an atheist!”
But the problem of evil is not one that could be solved by power alone. Power exercised in the elimination of evil devoid of the penetrating knowledge that can accurately identify evil, root and branch, is either chaotic or ineffective. It is chaotic if it is governed by confusion about what is evil; it is ineffective if it does not get to the hidden roots of evil.
Again, we see the necessity of God insofar as we have discovered the necessity for divine wisdom. As we have seen, our disagreements about evil can only be settled by determining what things actually are evil. But that would take a divine-like mind, a mind that adheres unerringly to truth by its very nature and is not swayed by the passion-driven storms of human partiality. Further, we must admit that evil must be eliminated at the very roots, and for this, once again, we will need an omniscient being who won’t let us hide the evils within us, evils that would have to be eliminated if the world is to receive more than an ineffective whitewashing.
The Problem of Not Being God
We have seen that a good part of evil is human in origin, what we usually call “moral evil,” and that moral evil often involves distortions in our judgment that in turn cause us to disagree about what actually is evil. We must also recognize another, more subtle aspect of the problem of evil: Human judgment is not only distorted, and hence entangled in disagreement, but human—that is, not omniscient. This fundamental lack of omniscience, independent of the distortion of sin, makes our assessment of “natural evil,” the kind of evil that so disturbed Darwin, problematic as well.
As it is often such natural evil that turns men away from theology and to an atheistic mode of science, I shall use science to make the point. The history of science is littered with the grandest claims of omniscience. I say “littered” because all-encompassing theories rise and fall like so many civilizations, displacing each other at fairly regular intervals. The reason for this pattern is simple: The universe is nearly mind-numbing in its complexity, from the farthest reaches of the most distant galaxy to the densely intricate subatomic microcosmos and everywhere in between. The gap between our human capacities and the awe-full immensity of the universe accounts for the cyclic pattern of scientific discovery and revolution.
This pattern allows for a humble recognition of the actual circumscribed realm of human intellectual competence. The order of the cosmos from the eye-view of omniscience is something we strive for, not something we have attained. Human reason is competent but not omni- competent. The problem is not that the universe is unintelligible; it is that the intelligibility of the universe lies within but also exceeds our human intelligence.
It is fair to say, then, that we do know many things, but that we do not know the overall design of the universe and how the myriad particulars fit in. We see some aspects of it quite clearly; others we find confusing or utterly confounding. Our efforts yield both victories and humilities. After much hacking through a set of difficulties, scientists break into a clearing and gaze happily upon a suddenly illumined landscape, but soon enough new difficulties arise, and they see how small a clearing actually was gained and how much lies dense, entangled, and unknown beyond it.
If we did comprehend the design of the cosmos, then of course we would have achieved omniscience and therefore would be in the best possible position to judge its design. But that is an important admission, for in it, we recognize that only the perspective of omniscience could judge the design, both in whole and in regard to any of the parts. Simply put, distinguishing between things that are actually evil, things that only appear to be evil, and things that are harmful or painful but necessary or beneficial to bring about a larger good would take an omniscient eye, not a merely human one.
With this in mind, we may return to Darwin’s statement: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.” Again, such parasitism cannot be called evil if it is the result of evolution. To call it evil, both Ichneumonidae and Caterpillars must somehow be understood as intentional results of God. But if that is the case, then knowing we are not omniscient, and God is, we cannot properly judge His designs or their beneficent order and intent. The best we can say is that we don’t know how such parasitism—what appears to us to be a natural evil—can fit into God’s designs.
The Answer to the Problem of Evil
It might seem at this point that the problem of evil has been solved and that, as it turns out, evil is not really a problem after all. Once we realize that there is so little agreement on what is evil or what to do about it, and that our merely human judgment is either stunted or partial, then we must confess that our complaints are without merit. Only God could know the big picture, and into that picture backaches and headaches, cancer, cats playing with mice, parasites, floods, Nazis, slavery, and starving children all somehow fit..
But such a conclusion seems to commit the same kind of error as evolution. We cannot solve the problem of evil by dissolving the reality of evil. We seem to be caught in a trap. On the one hand, the oppressive weight of evil leads us to deny the existence of God, but if we deny God and pin evil on the mindless and indifferent lottery of evolution, then evil itself disappears. On the other, if we recognize that in order to retain evil, the cosmos and its contents must be the intentional result of an intelligent creator—a creator whose ultimate designs are beyond our merely human reach to fathom—then evil seems to disappear into the inscrutable depths of omniscience. What could release us from this trap?
The trap is all the more excruciating because, even after all of the above is taken into account, there seems to be a great excess of suffering, especially in regard to the innocent. We still want to cry, Job-like, to those inscrutable depths, “Who are you to orchestrate everything around us puny and pitiable creatures, leaving us shuddering in the darkness, ignorant, blasted, and buffeted? It’s all well and good to say, ‘Trust me! It’ll all be made right in the end,’ while you float unscathed above it all. Grinding poverty, hunger, thirst, frustration, rejection, toil, death of our loved ones, blood-sweating anxiety, excruciating pain, humiliation, torture, and finally a twisted and miserable annihilation—that’s the meal we’re served! You’d sing a different tune if you were one of us and got a taste of your own medicine.”
What could we say against these depths if the answer we received was not an argument but an incarnation, a full and free submission by God to the very evils about which we complain? This submission would be a kind of token, a sign that evil is very real indeed, bringing the incarnate God blood-sweating anxiety, excruciating pain, humiliation, torture, and finally a twisted and miserable annihilation on the cross. As real as such evil is, however, the resurrection reveals that it is somehow mysteriously comprehended within the divine plan.
With the Incarnation, the reality of evil is absorbed into the deity, not dissolved into thin air, because God freely tastes the bitterness of the medicine as wounded healer, not distant doctor. Further, given the drastic nature of this solution, we begin to recognize that God takes the problem of evil more seriously than we could ever have taken it ourselves.
At the same time, it’s not just a question of God’s submission to our condition. In order to solve the problem of evil, we also need to be delivered from our ignorance, our confusion, our shortsightedness, our willful distortion of truth, and our weakness in the face of evils we recognize but choose nonetheless. We need to be cured of imperfections and led by and to more than human wisdom, and all this must be done in a way that is, as it were, fit to the capacities of human nature. We need, that is, to have the very wisdom and mercy of God made flesh.
And finally, since we are burdened by the presence of natural evil, the very evil about which Darwin complained, all the world must somehow be redeemed. That is, in our cry of the heart, we not only wanted things made right in regard to human beings but also a new heaven and a new earth, released from the current ambiguities and cruelties.
This is the full answer given by Christianity, an answer to the entire problem of evil. Of course, this answer can only and ultimately be grasped as the answer by the gift of faith. The most an essay such as this can do is remove the obstacles and prepare the ground for the seed to be dropped. But that, I hope, is no small thing.
Benjamin D. Wiker is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author of “Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists” and the forthcoming “Architects of the Culture of Death” with Donald DeMarco (Ignatius, April 2004). He is a lecturer in theology and science at Franciscan University of Steubenville.