On December 14th, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, twenty-year old Adam Lanza, armed with several semi-automatic firearms, shot and killed 26 people (including 20 children) at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first mass shooting in America in 2012.
It wasn’t even the deadliest shooting in American history.
That was the April 16, 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech.
That guy killed 32 people.
Unfortunately we know that someone someday is going to kill more people than that.
It’s only a matter of time.
Most people were appalled by the senseless murder of so many young and innocent children. I admit I’m a jaded cynic, but like many people, I struggle to find any justification for murdering twenty defenseless children.
Or anyone else for that matter.
Unfortunately, there are some people who claim there is a justification for killing little kids.
… and they seem pretty contented about it.
Anyone who pays any attention to the news or hasn’t been hiding under a rock has certainly heard of the Westboro Baptist Church. This is them:
While average folks like you and I might wonder why bad things happen to good people – especially when bad things happen to little children – according to the Westboro Baptist Church, God allows bad things to happen to good people because we deserve it. We’ve turned away from God and in return God has turned away from us.
See for yourself:
Naturally, when one contemplates the possibility that God has abandoned us one inevitably asks how could an all-powerful, loving God allow bad things to happen to good people?
That is, why does God permit evil?
If you don’t have an answer don’t worry. Epicurus didn’t have an answer, either.
Our dilemma with God and evil is the core question of what philosophers call THE PROBLEM OF EVIL.
We ask, if God is a loving and perfectly good, why does he allow evil and suffering to happen? We assume that if God is capable of preventing evil he would do so.
The theologian Richard Swinburne writes:
God is by definition omnipotent and perfectly good. Yet manifestly there is evil of many diverse kinds. It would appear that an omnipotent being can prevent evil if he tries to do so, and that a perfectly good being will try.
The implication of assuming that an all-powerful, perfectly good God will stop evil from happening is two-fold: if God is capable of preventing evil and he does not, he must be unwilling or incapable to prevent evil. Or, if God is both willing and able to prevent evil, but he does not, we have reason to: 1) believe that God actively participates in evil (God is malevolent), or 2) doubt the existence of God at all. Swinburne adds, “The existence of such evil appears, therefore, to be inconsistent with the existence of God, or at least to render it improbable.”
Even if we say that not every bad thing that happens is (necessarily) evil, we may have a difficult time arguing that every bad thing that happens needs to happen. The prevalence of “pointless” evil (e.g. a fawn that is burned in a forest fire and suffers before it dies a slow, painful death or the murder of children) poses a strong argument against the existence of God. God may have a plan for some evil, but how can an omnipotent, benevolent God allow evil that serves no purpose? One argument used to argue that God does not exist, the Evidential Argument from Evil, goes like this:
1. There are pointless evils
2. If God exists, there are no pointless evils
\ (therefore) God does not exist
Wait a minute. We can surely argue that the fact that evil exists doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to abandon any belief in God.* And it’s obvious that for some people the claim that evil proves that God does not exist won’t be too convincing (there are plenty of people out there who, despite the existence of evil, still believe in God). The argument from evil might convince a few agnostics that God does not exist (or at least that God occasionally likes to mess some people up) but it’s unlikely that the argument from evil will convince true believers like the members of the Westboro Baptist Church.
*That is, unless you’re with a group of Christopher Hitchens fans. In that case, no one will argue this point.
In fact, if you want to use the problem of evil to fail miserably with a lame argument convince a believer that God doesn’t exist, you should know that there’s already at least one solution for the problem of evil: God not only exists but also allows evil to happen.
Evil, according to this view, is not only a necessary component of this world; it’s a part of God‘s plan. Leibniz suggests that some evil can happen if the purpose of the evil is to bring about a greater good. Leibniz says:
Thus one must understand that God loves virtue supremely and hates vice supremely, and that nevertheless some vice is to be permitted… he must by necessity love all the means without which he could not manifest his glory.
So, if you find yourself on the bad end of a bear attack while camping or your house is destroyed by a tornado, according to Leibniz you’re not the victim of random misfortune, but that your suffering is all a part of God’s plan.
You should feel blessed.
Now, some people may find comfort in the belief that all things, even acts of evil, are manifestations of the will of God, not everyone agrees that it is God’s will that is always done.
Some people think the idea of attributing our misfortunes to the will of God is a bunch of B.S.
William Rowe writes:
It seems quite unlikely that all the instances of intense suffering occurring daily in our world are intimately related to the occurrence of greater goods or the prevention of evils… that an omnipotent, omniscient being could not have achieved at least some of these goods (or prevented some of those evils) without permitting the instances of intense suffering that are supposedly related to them.
and N.T. Wright writes:
Various writers have suggested, for instance, that God allows evil because it creates the special conditions in which virtue can flourish. But the thought that God decided to permit Auschwitz because some heroes would emerge is hardly a solution to the problem.
Ok. So we shouldn’t blame God for evil. Or at least we have no good reason to attribute the presence of evil to God’s grand plan. But if we can’t blame the Almighty for evil
why does evil exist?
Although the argument from evil does not put us totally off believing that God exists, still, the argument from evil is a pretty compelling argument. It would be foolish to dismiss it.
That said, we still haven’t answered the question why does evil exist?
The answer, according to some theologians, not only is evil a necessary component of the world, but if God intervenes every time in our lives something bad happens we are in danger of losing our free will.
Plantinga argues that a world with free creatures is more valuable than (therefore preferable to) a world where beings are not free. To be morally good, we must be able to choose freely, even if that means the choice to do evil. God cannot create a world where his creations are free and determined to do good at the same time. According to this view God could have (and can) create a world with creatures that do exactly as he wants them to do but He didn’t (and doesn’t) because God thinks it is good that humans have free will (see: Plantinga “The Free Will Defense” in God and the Problem of Evil).
So you see, the world can’t be without evil.
You know, we can say that all the evil in the world is because of the devil, or God’s plan, or even that the world needs evil so we can be free. But you want to know the REAL reason why there is evil in the world?
The answer is, believe it or not, evil exists because our souls need it.
The Bible says:
A good person produces good deeds from a good heart, and an evil person produces evil deeds from an evil heart. Whatever is in your heart determines what you say. (Luke 6:45)
Here’s the deal: The philosopher John Hick (1922-2012) says that evil is necessary to develop (good) souls. So whether we do evil (acts/thoughts, etc.) is a choice. Our choices are a reflection of the kind of person we are. The ability to do evil gives us the opportunity to choose to be better people. Hick writes:
If, then, God’s purpose was to create finite persons embodying the most valuable kind of moral goodness, he would have to create them, not as already perfect beings but rather as imperfect creatures who can the attain to the more valuable kind of goodness through their own free choices as in the course of their personal and social history new responses prompt new insights, opening up new moral possibilities, and providing a milieu in which the most valuable kind of moral nature can be developed.
We have thus far, then, the hypothesis that one is created at an epistemic distance from God in order to come freely to know and love the Maker; and that one is at the same time created as a morally immature and imperfect being in order to attain through freedom the most valuable quality of goodness. The end sought, according to this hypothesis, is the full realization of the human potentialities in a unitary spiritual and moral perfection in the divine kingdom.
The Westboro Baptist Church may be wrong in thinking that bad things happen because God hates gays, but they are right in a way whether they truly realize it or not – that evil things will happen because whether we like it or not, evil is a necessary part of our world.
It’s only a matter of time before evil strikes us.
Epicurus’ inquiry went something like this:
Is he willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent.
Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?
We might want to differentiate between so-called “natural” evils (earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, floods, lightning strikes) and “moral” evils, which are acts performed deliberately by moral agents (humans). Some “pointless” evils may be natural evils.
The infamous atheist Richard Dawkins (oh yeah, he’s a legit scientist, too) says the argument from evil is an argument isn’t as much an argument against God as it is an argument against a good God. (The God Delusion, pg. 108)
1. Richard Swinburne. “Some Major Strands of Theodicy”. The Evidential Argument From Evil. 1996. Ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 30.
2. Alvin Plantinga. “Epistemic Probability of Evil”. The Evidential Argument From Evil. 1996. Ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 71-2.
3. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. “Theodicy, sections 218-236”. God and the Problem of Evil. 2001.Ed. William Rowe. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. 6, 9.
4. John Hick. “Soul-Making Theodicy”. God and the Problem of Evil. 2001.Ed. William Rowe. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. 271-2.
5. J.T. Wright. Evil and the Justice of God. 2006. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books. 28.