“If there’s a God, why does He allow evil and suffering?” is one of the great philosophical questions of history. To atheists it’s a favorite go-to for bludgeoning unsuspecting believers with an “unanswerable” rhetorical challenge. To sufferers it’s a question not uncommon when suffering is at its worst. And even to believers it can be a question that demands blind faith in place of having a clearly understood answer.
So why does God allow evil and suffering? There are actually a number of very sound and simple reasons, and in contrast to what the nonbelievers want you to think, they aren’t so difficult to understand…if you actually want to.
One of the clearest and most straight forward answers is that we have a loving Father who has a plan for us that enables us to grow and progress AS A RESULT of facing difficulty. The simple and undeniable fact of the matter is that we grow when we are stretched, and being stretched is often uncomfortable, sometimes painful. But regardless we become stronger when we face adversity. We increase in character when we overcome challenges. We find greater happiness and self-reward when we survive pain and discomfort. Pain, though temporarily limiting, ironically is what allows us to become ultimately stronger and happier. This is the way it is because this is the way we are. And because of this, in His transcendent goodness and love, God allows us to experience what we might consider uncomfortable, even evil experiences.
“Yeah, yeah, growth…progress…blah, blah, blah…whatever!. But there is some stuff that happens in this world that a merciful god just would never permit!” Is this what you’re still thinking?
Ok, let’s take a different look at it.
Often it is said that there can’t possibly be a God, because if there were, He would step in to save people from the horrors of this world. This seems reasonable to us mere mortals. In fact it seems logically correct…well, right up until you start to get specific. That’s where it get’s a bit tricky. That’s where the answers get even more difficult. And that’s where, often lacking any compelling rebuttals, the naysayers like to pack up and leave the party. Because further examination of this classic, emotionally charged rhetorical challenge to God’s mercy or existence falls grossly short once pushed from the idealistic logical generalizations to the unavoidably specific details. Let’s explore it a bit and see where we end up.
So, God is supposed to step in when evil takes place. That’s the demand, correct? Okay, so when exactly is God supposed to step in? At what point? At what moment? That’s the question left unanswered. And unanswered questions are just so annoying so let’s figure out the answer.
At what point is God to say “nope, not gonna happen” to evil? Certainly at the point we might experience pain would be a good place to start, agreed? But, there’s a hitch. As the great philosopher The Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride boldly and rightfully stated, “Life is pain. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.” He was right. The sad reality is that life is indeed full of pain. So how much of “life” should God be sparing us from?
We can likely agree that really, really, REALLY bad, truly terrible, horribly scary, national-news-level evil should be prevented, right? Definitely Holocaust level pain should be taken away. Six million innocent people being rounded up and killed should be stopped by God, right? I think we can all agree that is about as horrific as evil gets, so that’s definitely one to throw out. Six million is way too many. Let’s cut back on the evil at least by a million or so. What if it were reduced by a million people so only five million people were slaughtered? Or better yet what if we moved the decimal point over so it was only five thousand? Or how about only five hundred? Ok, what if it were only five innocently people killed by a powerful lunatic – is that ok? Certainly only the most cynical person would be settled with even just five people murdered. Even one would be too many for the average non-psychopath, so the number would most definitely have to be zero people murdered. Okay, that settles it — murders are evil, so no more murders. A merciful God would eliminate all of them. Done. Murderous people no longer get to be murderers because God will stop them every time because murder is evil. Whew! Minority Report utopia here we come!
And now that murder is done away with, we’re all good, right? Oh nope, natural or accidental death still happens. Losing a child must arguably be the worst experience anyone could suffer through, and eliminating murder doesn’t stop that. So accidental or natural deaths have got to go. No more children dying. Children of parents must all be permanently immortal, otherwise we would run the risk of suffering that horror, and that would be evil. So because everyone has parents, and everyone is necessarily a child of a parent, everyone is included. Good, God can make all people immortal. Problem solved.
But wait, what about suffering in general? Even if you can’t die, you could still experience horrific injury that would most definitely render you in an infinite existence of pain. For example, you could sever your spinal cord and then you’d be paralyzed forever. FOREVER. That wouldn’t be good. Or what about a brain injury that leaves you without consciousness or cognition? You would live forever in a hospital bed or mental hospital as a vegetable (with a very high hospital bill). No bueno. So all serious injuries need to go. And while we’re at it, any injuries are bad. Broken bones, lacerations, heck, hangnails are the worst thing ever, aren’t they? God certainly needs to stop all injuries, otherwise that’s just incomprehensibly unmerciful, and no god would be unmerciful, so injuries are out! Whew.
But what about emotional pain? (Dang, emotional pain!) Some of us are born different looking and bound to take an emotional beating from our peers. Some of us come out shorter, fatter, skinnier, uglier. Some of us stutter. Some of us are born with Down syndrome or palsy. Some have a hair lip, missing limbs, or huge birthmarks in places clothing doesn’t hide. Some are born with skin color that isn’t accepted by others. Some can’t catch a ball. Some have bad hair days…every single day. In fact most of us are born with some kind of physical issue that could be mocked mercilessly by others (and probably has). Ridicule, mockery, persecution, and bullying don’t stop just because you can’t die, get sick, or get injured. So these differences have to go. From now on we all either look like Brad Pitt or Marilyn Monroe, otherwise God just isn’t merciful. (Sweet, I’ve had my eye on Brad Pitt’s nose for awhile now.)
That solves it. Oh, wait, there’s poverty, hunger, and inequality all over the place. Living in squaller, eating garbage, or not enjoying the social status of others can be as painful as any physical pain. Not to mention, living without a new Ferrari in the garage can be brutal. These things have to be stopped. Surely if there were a god, He wouldn’t want me to drive a subcompact with cloth seats. Surely. So that’s it — trust funds for everyone and strict communism will fix that problem. God must step in and enforce financial equality so no one has less ability to shop at Bloomingdales than anyone else, otherwise mass suffering would be present, and that would be evil. God has no choice but to let us all win the lottery, all day, every day. Things are really looking up.
How about persecution? Isn’t persecution a form of evil? Attacking someone about their beliefs is definitely not kindness. Therefore, an atheist rhetorically assaulting a believer for their faith in an “unseen” god in an effort to harm their beliefs, or worse, in an attempt to bully or humiliate them, is guilty of evil. Such attacks can cause significant emotional harm. Regardless of whether the basis of belief is acknowledged by the attacker the desired result of the attack is a clear example of immediate evil. Accordingly, we can’t have religious persecution either. God must intervene. No more atheist’s attacking believers. (uh oh)
How far do we go here? Look back at any achievement you’re proud of — is that pride rooted in how easily you achieved it? Probably not. You likely fought through pain, struggle, possibly malicious and even evil opposition, but in the end you prevailed, and you’re darn proud you did. You EARNED it, in spite of the pain, possibly even because of it. And now you’re stronger for it. Your effort and persistence over the adversity gave you the reward, but the pain is what made that reward legitimate. Should we follow the atheist’s logic of God’s necessity to eliminate evil and subsequently have God take away your future achievements? Should He take away your wins? Your victories? All would have sprung from a bed of difficulty, and thus should have been prevented by a merciful God, according to the skeptic’s claim. But would taking away what you have earned and instead turning you into a Brad Pitt-shaped marshmallow kept in a climate-controlled museum display be a merciful thing for God to do?
Hmm, this playing God thing was supposed to be more simple than this.
Evil exists because God allows it to, FOR OUR OWN GOOD. Horrible things happen because people choose to do horrible things to other people, and this is an unfortunate reality of life. Is it good that six million people were slaughtered simply because they were the “wrong” race? Of course not. But if you ask Victor Frankl, a sufferer and eventual survivor of that atrocity, about whether only evil came from such mayhem his answer might just surprise you, and it might just also confound the atheist’s assertions. Ultimately, there isn’t a moral line you can draw for God between the equally destructive extremes of pure evil and sanitized safety without hypocritically rendering Him both impotently uninvolved and destructively unloving…thus falling well short of godliness and ironically well short of the atheistic ideal of what He should be.
God doesn’t intervene against evil because God is not the small-minded men who insist that pain is evil within a vacuum. Adversity is the soil we grow in. Without it we wither into nothing. With it we are everything we treasure about ourselves. Evil itself is not good and never will be, but without it we would never know good and become better than what we are (and that would in fact be evil).
Playing God isn’t as simple as the atheists’ demand it to be and it definitely isn’t as simple as even we believers would like it to be. But one thing is simple: the next time someone insists that there can be no god because God doesn’t prevent evil, tell them they’re lucky that He doesn’t prevent evil because they would have gotten prevented long ago. (oops, that last line might have been a little evil.)