How Do We Explain Evil: 1999 Brown Lecture Series | First Presbyterian Church Dallas, TX

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How Do We Explain Suffering and Evil?

How does one explain suffering and evil?  

It is a perennial, universal question, the answer to which is cloaked in mystery.  Start with the premise that human suffering is poignant, but not a philosophically serious problem if there is no God.  If the Universe came into existence on its own and if life arose in a primordial pool of RNA, then life is what life is.  Humans act as they act in accord with the genes that nature gave them.  Some humans are good and some are bad, some are kind and some are cruel, but there is no moral issue, just as there is no moral issue when a wolf kills a deer or a hawk kills a squirrel.

The problem becomes much more serious if one believes that there is a God behind the Universe.  The problem is best characterized as a trilemma, a set of three propositions which are internally inconsistent.  Here is the set:

God is omnipotent (and omniscient).

God is wholly good.

Evil exists.

David Hume phrased the issue succinctly:  Is He (God) 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?

Before going on, it is helpful to remember that there are two sources of suffering.  First, there are natural causes like hurricanes, earthquakes, and disease.  Second, there are human sources like war genocide, torture, crime.  Quantitatively the latter is much greater than the former.  It is probably wise to consider natural suffering as tragedy but not evil.  It is the suffering induced by human behavior that warrants a judgment of evil.  A famous statement by Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov illustrates this:  “People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel.  The tiger only tears and claws.  He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do so.”

Returning to the trilemma, I will try to present the argument that there is no inconsistency in the three foundation propositions – using what Alvin Plantinga has called “The free will defense.”  What it will say first is that the greatest gift of God to humans is freedom…freedom of free will.  Humans alone, of all the animals, can choose against instinctual desires.  Second, moral good in the universe requires the choice for good as opposed to the choice for evil.  That follows from freedom.  There can be no moral good unless there is the possibility for moral evil.  Finally the argument will say that the great virtues of humans – the things that make humans great – can only occur in the face of evil. 

In his book God, Freedom and Evil, Plantinga has the best modern summary of the free will defense:  “A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all.  Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right.  For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what if right freely.    To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil.  The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against his goodness – for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.”

To reiterate – there is natural suffering in the world which is due to the rules of the natural universe, and there is moral evil leading to suffering which is due to humans acting evilly.  This moral evil is, of course what the Bible calls sin.

For some, however, even the suffering of the life cycle between birth and death, natural suffering, calls God into question.  “Why me, God?”  The why of suffering becomes particularly insistent if something like premature death happens to a “good” person while the wicked seem to live and prosper.  While some judge God unfair because of suffering caused by nature, most of us are readily willing to call that tragedy and are not willing to call it injustice or evil on God’s part.

Going beyond the narrow free will defense Thomas Aquinas said, “The universe would lack many good things if all evils were excluded.  There would not be the endurance of the martyrs if there were no persecution by tyrants.”  What follows – it sounds very radical but I believe it to be true – is that the existence of evil is a necessary condition for many moral goods.  The highest human virtues are expressed only if evil is experienced directly or indirectly and is accurately interpreted as evil.  There would be no need for these virtues if all were good.  If there is nothing to fear and nothing that can destroy, braveness is irrelevant.

The fact that the highest human virtues are only possible in the face of suffering and evil is why great minds in history have thought that God did not create a world of all good.  Because it would be devoid of greatness as God sees greatness.  We would thus answer the trilemma by expanding the conclusions from three to six as follows:

God is omnipotent

God is wholly good.

Natural suffering necessarily follows from the equations of the universe.

Moral evil exists because humans were gifted with free will whereby they can and do act evilly, even as they can and do perform good.

The greatest human virtues would not exist if suffering and evil were not real in the experience of humans.

Therefore God is just and good in allowing evil in the world He created.

Evil and suffering in the world may cause one to reject the possibility of faith in God.  Equally true is the fact that the experience of evil or suffering in one’s own life or an enhanced sensitivity to the effect of evil in the world upon others may cause a believer in God to undergo a crisis of faith.  On the other hand – and perhaps more frequently – suffering and distress may drive one to God for strength and understanding and hope.

For Christians, there is a final proof that this real world is the world that the omnipotent God chose rightly to create.  That proof is that He participated in the suffering in the incarnate Christ, who with unlimited love and shining courage endured evil to the point of death on behalf of every sufferer and every sinner.  One can say that in the absence of evil – in a world where only good existed as some have felt the world should be – we would never know the full extent of God’s love.  Indeed in the absence of evil there would have been no need for a Savior, no need for incarnation, and no true knowledge of the essence of God.  A great hope flows from the suffering and death of Jesus.  When Jesus died He felt utterly alone, abandoned even by God.  “Why hast thou forsaken me?” He cried.  But that God, invisible in the shattering moment of the vicarious atonement even to the Son, was there all along.  This was manifest concretely in the triumph of the Resurrection.  The lesson from that, the premier event of all of history, is that God does not protect us from suffering but He always protects us in suffering.


Daniel Foster, M. D.

Brown Lecture #5 1999