Mar 25, 2010
If I would believe in God, I would have to explain evil. The monstrous horrors of this world, whether perpetrated by humans or accidents of nature, form the strongest argument against the existence of God. To theists, it’s “the problem of evil,” which they struggle to resolve. To atheists, it’s “the argument from evil,” which they wield like a sword.
Here’s the question I can’t escape: If God exists, did God create evil? My question challenges the consistency of the concept of God. After all, if God is all powerful and all knowing, how could God not have created evil?
Christian philosopher Nancey Murphy argues vigorously that God did not create evil, but then adds, “I believe that God created the universe knowing full well that it would be a universe containing vast amounts of evil. But if God is good, then God must have known that the amount of good would have to outweigh the evil.”
“You’re rationalizing,” I goad her. “I asked you if God created evil, and you said, ‘No.’ Now you’re telling me that God created the world knowing there would be evil, provided that the good would outweigh the evil, which sounds to me that God did in fact create evil.”
“No,” Murphy responds. “God created the world in such a way that it would produce the outcome that he wanted. And to put it perhaps in overly anthropomorphic terms, God wanted creatures with whom he could have a relationship. And in order to have such creatures, like us, the universe had to be almost exactly the way it is, with the laws of nature producing the kinds of suffering that we’re all aware of, such as plate tectonics generating earthquakes and tsunamis, complex events causing famines, etc. So my understanding of natural evil is that it is a predictable, unwanted, but necessary byproduct of the way God had to create the world if God were to have free creatures, loving creatures, like us.”
“To avoid admitting that God created evil sounds like philosophical timidity,” I say with no malice.
“God foreknew that there would be tsunamis, but God does not cause them,” Murphy responds.
“That’s a fine distinction,” I say.
“It’s a radical distinction,” she says.
“God is not intervening to cause the evil directly, I agree, but God set up the laws so that they would absolutely occur,” I suggest.
“God set up the laws so that evil events would occur, but God did not intend that they would occur,” she counters.
“That is indeed a fine distinction.”
“It may sound like splitting hairs to you,” Murphy states, “but I think it’s a very significant difference because it’s a matter of whether you are attributing evil intent and evil action to God or whether you are attributing the permission of evil to God and assuming that God is grieved by that suffering as we are, only infinitely more so.”
Splitting hairs? Here’s what I cannot reconcile. If God is all knowing, then before God created the world, God knew the monstrous evil that would result. And if God is all powerful, God could have created any world God wished. And this is the world we’ve got? If God exists—which because of evil is a bigger “if”—there’s got to be more to this story.
Gregory Boyd, a Christian theologian and evangelical pastor, has a radical explanation for what causes evil. “I would argue,” he says, “that every aspect of creation that doesn’t align with God’s benevolent character is a result of some conscious will other than God’s. … There are angelic beings which also have free will, and just as humans can use their free will for evil, these angelic beings can use their free will for evil—they have ‘say so,’ and some of that ‘say so’ affects creation itself.”
“Are you talking about Satan?” I ask helpfully.
“Satan, the devil; yes—demons too,” Boyd laughs, but he is quite serious. “Many people today don’t believe that there are principalities and powers and demons and those sorts of things. I realize I’m going out on a limb.”
Boyd asserts that if he came to believe that Satan and his demons did not exist, he would have trouble defending the existence of God, as he says, “on the basis of natural evil.” That’s consistent, I thought; I respect that.
“So if Satan is responsible for creating evil and God is responsible for creating Satan,” I ask syllogistically, “doesn’t that make God responsible for creating evil?”
“No,” Boyd answers. “God is responsible for creating spiritual and human beings as free agents, and the very nature of free will means that you can choose to go this way or go that way—simplistically, good or evil. It’s no different than saying that if God creates a triangle, it has to have three sides; if God creates a free agent, it has to have the two possibilities.”
Boyd continues, “God had a choice to make. God could have created a world where humans and angels were programmed to always make the right choices and do the right things or a world where humans and angels had free agency. The advantage of a robotic world would be that there would be no evil; the disadvantage is that it couldn’t have moral virtue and genuine love. The disadvantage of creating a world with free agency is that it is going to contain evil; the advantage is that it can now produce moral virtue and genuine love. … Evil may be inevitable, but that doesn’t make God responsible for it.”
So, according to Boyd, evil is enabled by the free will of humans and devils/demons. But still, if God created everything, how could God not have created evil?
Not to be impolite, I weary with arguments. Maybe Islam says something new.
Islamic scholar Mahmoud Ayoub knows something of evil. He is blind.
“Among the monotheistic religions,” Ayoub begins, “Islam can be said to be the least dualistic; that is to say, in the end, God is responsible for both the good and the evil in the world. Evil, however, has to be differentiated. Natural disasters, however evil they may be, are seen as part of the human trial, in that God is testing people. Evil is a divine trial that people should endure with patience and steadfastness, and those who do so will eventually be rewarded by God.”
I note that, in general, Christian philosophers work to explain how God did not create evil.
“But then who?” Ayoub asks rhetorically. “In Christianity, the problem of evil becomes, in the end, a problem without a final solution. It is sometimes explained somewhat by the idea of original sin and the human fall. This is not in Islam, no. … In the Quran, there are verses which make God completely responsible for every good and every evil in creation. But there are also verses which make God the author of good, but human beings the authors of evil. In the final analysis, I think one would have to say that, the Quran being a book not of theology but of guidance, human beings are co-workers with God, and together they try to make this world a better world.”
Ayoub makes a final point. “Often, natural evil becomes, in the end, a source of good. For instance, I try to do the best I can in life with my blindness. Blindness is an evil, I cannot deny it. But people, according to Islam, must thank God for all things, the good and the evil. And I’m often asked, do I thank God for my blindness, and I say, ‘No, why should I thank God for my blindness? I would like to enjoy art, nature, all these things that remain in the dark for me. But I thank God for the ability to deal with it.’”
So the Islamic God is responsible for both good and evil. I like that. At least Islam’s God and the world of evil seem internally consistent. That doesn’t make Islam’s God exist, of course—but internal inconsistency would be an instant defeater.
Eastern religions have a radically different view of evil. Hindu physicist and philosopher V.V. Raman asserts that “from the Hindu perspective, God is beyond the categories of good and evil, up and down, and so on. From God’s perspective, there is no such thing as good and evil as we perceive them from our perspective. But it does not follow from the Hindu vision of God that there is no such thing as good and evil or virtue and sin. Quite the contrary. What it says is that we run into contradictions when we try to transfer these enormously significant but human categories to the almighty and to the divine.”
He continues: “At the same time, our view of God, as with most religions, is one of absolute goodness, absolute mercy, and so on. Now these qualities cannot be there without their opposites. And therefore, if there is to be a God with these attributes, and if that God is the creator of everything, then such a God cannot but help create the opposite attributes also.”
Raman says that “from the Hindu perspective, just as there are laws of physical nature, there are also laws of moral nature. These are explained in terms of the law of karma, which means actions, good or bad, that have an impact either on one’s self or on others. Now the suffering that we see, or the good fortunate that we enjoy, all these are results of what we, ourselves, have done previously.”
Does “previously” imply a previous life? I ask.
“That is the extension of this hypothesis, if you want to take it that way,” Raman responds. “The idea of reincarnation is closely linked to the idea of the law of karma.”
Karma as natural law, requiring consequences for evil, has appeal. But I see no credible evidence for reincarnation. I do like the Hindu God being beyond good and evil, which seems consistent with God’s transcendence. But if God is so aloof from evil, how could God be all good? And if subject to the karmic law, all powerful?
Can anyone rise above religious traditions? Christian philosopher Keith Ward’s take on evil cuts against the traditional grain.
“If you think that God is the creator of everything in the universe,” Ward begins, “then I think you just have to bite the bullet and say God created evil. So evil, if it’s real, and I think it is, is created by God. So the notion of creation involving evil is no longer a problem. Because you just say, well, that’s it: God created evil.”
Ward suggests that “it’s the notion of goodness and omnipotence that causes the problems.” The way he approaches it: “Although the idea of God’s goodness is perfect beauty, perfect worth, perfect value, this does not require a universe without imperfection,” he says. “So the goodness of God doesn’t require that God is kind to everybody. Goodness doesn’t equal kindness. Goodness is just inherent perfection. If you think of it that way, it may help by saying ‘from the perfect imperfection can spring.’ Why? Well, because imperfection might be necessarily implied in different sorts of perfections. An example is mountain climbing; part of the reason I enjoy it is that it has risk. If it didn’t have any risks, I wouldn’t enjoy it. Now, risk means somebody is ultimately going to be killed. And so why should people like dangerous sports? The point here is there’s something intrinsically good about that sort of existence that you wouldn’t get in an existence without any risk at all.”
Must we then assume that God is not capable of creating a world with all of the things that are good without bringing along this enormity of evil?
“Putting aside the enormity of evil,” Ward replies, “I think God is not capable of creating a world roughly like our world with us in it without creating quite a great deal of suffering. For example, if you take the evolutionary account of humanity, then destruction is involved essentially. Unless animals die, you’re not going to get new sorts of animals evolving. So evolution presupposes death.”
But what about that enormity of evil? I do not forget it.
“Assuming God is good,” Ward says, “then I think what you have to say, considering all the suffering of conscious human beings, is that there has to be a life beyond the life on this earth. All victims of evil must be given a good which overwhelmingly outweighs the evil they have suffered.”
Ward concludes by asserting that “God is justified in actualizing any world in which no individual suffers evil which cannot ever lead to good. I don’t mean that evil is a means to good. I mean that once they’ve suffered evil, their lives must achieve goodness. So ‘creatable universes’ are universes which may contain a great deal of evil, but that evil is never unredeemable. And I myself think that our universe is just about on the edge of a creatable universe.”
Evil exists. That’s for sure. If God exists, God either created evil or did not create evil. That’s simple logic. If God did not create evil, and if God is all powerful, all knowing, and all good, there’s heavy explaining to do.
Free will is what’s usually invoked to save God from this awkward predicament.
The prophet Isaiah said of God, “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am Jehovah, that doeth all these things.” There are rebuttals, of course, as with all in the Bible (the Hebrew word translated as “evil” may not mean our modern sense of evil). And many who believe in God do not accept the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.
My personal sense is that if God exists, then God did create evil. I see no other way to get closer to truth.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with Nancey Murphy, Gregory Boyd, Mahmoud Ayoub, V.V. Raman, and Keith Ward in “Did God Create Evil?”—the eighth episode in the new season of the Closer To Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series (47th in total).
The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Thursday, participants will discuss the current episode.
P.S. Click here to visit our Closer to Truth archive.