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Tsunamis and the problem of evil

March 22, 2011 by Eric Stillman 0 comments

Last week, I was watching an interview by MSNBC’s Martin Bashir with Rob Bell on his new book, Love Wins, and Bashir began the interview by asking Bell point blank, “The tsunami in Japan – which of these is true – either God is all-powerful but he doesn’t care about the people of Japan, or he does care about the people of Japan, but he’s not all-powerful. Which one is it?” Bell danced around the question with his answer, but I am sure that I would have done far worse if I had been asked that question on national television and had only two minutes with which to answer. Not only is the “problem of evil” a question that has challenged philosophers for centuries, but for the majority of people, it is not a philosophical question but a profoundly personal question, a question often filled with despair or rage towards God. Why, God? Why would you allow this devastation in my life? Why did you allow me to be abused? Why did you allow my son to be killed? Why have you allowed this crippling illness in my life? Is it that you just don’t care? Or you’re not powerful enough to stop it? Why, God?

In light of the recent tragedy in Japan, and with full confidence that there are many more tragedies around the bend for all of us, I thought it would be good to address Bashir’s question. Today, I want to reply with some thoughts to those who ask the question as philosophers. In the next week or two, I will deal more with the personal side of the question. But, in response to the philosophical question, let me offer three answers to the problem of evil:

1) Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be one. Spoken to someone who has just lost their child, or is struggling with past abuse, this answer is clichéd and probably offensive. But to the philosopher who sees a good, all-powerful God as incompatible with pointless evil and suffering, it is worth considering. How do you know the suffering you see is pointless? Because you can’t think of any good reason for God to allow it? It takes enormous faith in your own cognitive faculties to say that if there is a God, he could have no greater reason for allowing the suffering we see. Think of the analogy of a human trying to free a bear caught in a trap – in order to free him, he needs to shoot him with a tranquilizer gun, and then push the trap further into the claw in order to release the springs and open the trap. Do you think during this process, the bear thinks the human is acting out of love? With time and perspective, most of us can see good reasons for at least some of the tragedy and pain that occurs in our life. Why couldn’t it be possible that, from God’s vantage point, there are good reasons for all of them, even a tsunami? If you think God should be big enough to stop the tragedy, then he must be big enough to have reasons for allowing it that you can’t understand.

2) Where are you getting your idea of evil and justice from? In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis talks about how he was an atheist because the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But then he realized something: where had he gotten the idea of just and unjust, of good and evil? Was it simply his own personal conception of justice and goodness? If so, then who was to say that he was accurate in his perception? Or, was he responding to some universal standard of justice and goodness? And if so, then where did that standard come from if not from God? Atheism, Lewis realized, was too simple a response to the problem of evil.

3) God IS all-powerful and good, but in order to create a universe with love, there had to be the possibility of evil. To answer Bashir’s question directly, in order to create humans capable of love, he had to give them free will, which meant allowing for the possibility of evil. God could have created human beings without free will, but then there would be no love, for there would be no free choice; we would all be robots. By creating us with free will, he created the possibility that we would choose evil and bring suffering into this world. None of the evil and suffering that we experience, including that which was caused by the tsunami, was part of our good and all-powerful God’s original plan. And if God were to continually intervene into the world in order to stop each instance of suffering, he would inevitably be taking away freedom, and therefore love, from the world.

Now, as I said in the introduction, these philosophical arguments may ultimately be unsatisfying to someone experiencing real suffering in their own life. Next week, I’ll address the more personal issues associated with suffering.

Thoughts? Comments? Agree? Disagree? Please leave a comment below.

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