Why is there evil?

(published in the Arizona Daily Star, February 12, 2023)

“If God is all good and all powerful, why is there evil?  If God can’t prevent evil, He is not all powerful.  If He can prevent evil but does not want to, He is not all good.” 

This is a typical formulation of one of the biggest arguments against the existence of God. Leaving aside the presumptuousness of the challenge–”I am willing to assume there is a God responsible for all the wondrous mysteries of the universe I cannot begin to understand, but I am still willing to argue that I know a better way to run that universe.”–on closer examination the challenge has many “unintended consequences.” 

The first issue has to do with the definition of “evil.”   Many fail to see that it is relative to the individuals and situation involved.  For example, here in Arizona the coyote is often seen as “evil” –an ugly scavenger who preys on the weak.  It is so detested that it has come to be a symbol for those involved in human tafficking.  That coyotes have families of their own that will go hungry without that scavenging, that that scavenging reduces the spread of diseases borne of rotting carcasses and makes sure other species don’t overpopulate and endanger everyone’s food supply—those benefits provided by these creatures are usually overlooked by black/white, good/evil perceptions. 

That extends to the question of death in general.  While generally seen as evil, how many can imagine a world without death?  What would happen to the quality of life for everyone and every living thing on the planet without death?  Of what purpose would anything be done to relieve pain and suffering?  After all, isn’t the goal of all laudable human inventiveness to “cheat death”?  Yet the consequences of total success in eliminating death would be…well…insufferable. 

In that context, “disasters” like earthquakes and hurricanes do cause great misery, death and destruction.  However, those same earthquakes and hurricanes generate new land forms and weather patterns that prevent droughts.  Would life on earth be better if the weather were stagnant everywhere—no volcanoes to provide rich farmland or avalanches to deliver desperately needed water to parched valleys below?  

But what of the suffering of children?  Even assuming the need for death and destruction, can’t the innocent be spared?  As compelling as such a question is for anyone with any sensitivity, at what age would death begin to be permissible?  Would a parent be more content knowing that a baby was guaranteed life until, say, 5 months or 15 years—with the Sword of Damocles ready to fall on the very next birthday?  As for the innocent, just which standards would be used to determine guilt worthy of death?  And by whom?  Remember that all the murderous tyrants of history—the Torquemadas, Hitlers and Putins of today—all believed they were doing good by their standards.  Of course, it is easy for us to argue that “But we are right!” and forget that it is the hubris of such an approach that leads to the very suffering we say we want to prevent. 

Besides, even if we could somehow come to some universally recognized set of morality, how many of us really want a world in which the good and evil are so easily identified and rewarded/punished?  As it is, many of us are worried about the Big Brother of technological surveillance of our every move.  What happens to any notions of free will in the truest sense of the word if evil is immediately recognized and eliminated? 

“How amazing are the works of the Lord!  All who delight in them should ponder them!” calls the Psalmist.  While evil and suffering can be vexing on so many levels, we would do well to remember that the God who created all of the mysterious wonders of the universe might just have a better idea of what needs to be done than we do. 

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