The problem of evil—that great suffering is permitted by God in this world—haunts many people. It seems that if God really loved us, then he would do something to assist us. So, if he does nothing, it appears that he doesn’t really love us, in which case he isn’t all that good. But if he isn’t good, then he isn’t God. As such, it seems that God cannot exist, because great suffering does occur in the world.
God can’t create us as free agents and then interfere with our actions without undermining that freedom.
The initial luster of this argument begins to fade when we consider the necessity of a natural medium’s role in the interplay between morally free physical beings. God can’t create us as free agents and then interfere with our actions without undermining that freedom. Were my knife to turn to butter every time I tried to stab it into you, the action of murder would be hindered. We might think it a better world where no murder was possible. But then we might consider how much worse the world would be had God not already restricted the kinds of powers that we have. We cannot, for example, act directly upon one another’s minds. Our science fiction writers have for decades been imagining what horrors we should perpetuate if we could. Therefore, God’s inaction is not caused by a lack of love, but by the greater love of having created us with free wills that generally require non-intervention.
God abides by no policy of absolute non-intervention, leading us to reasonably wonder why, if God respects our freedom, do interventions happen?
However, the historic Faith is marked by God’s intervention—sometimes small, sometimes large. The Incarnation is the greatest intervention to date. When God answers a prayer for a cancerous growth to disappear, that is a minor intervention. Angels that suddenly appear and rescue people in car accidents are also minor interventions. God’s rescue of his people from slavery in Egypt was a major intervention. So, God abides by no policy of absolute non-intervention, leading us to reasonably wonder why, if God respects our freedom, do interventions happen? It seems that the problem of evil really finds its teeth because of divine intervention. Why does God intervene to save Harry but not Sally? Why does he go so far, but not further? And if not further, then why start?
Of course, when our car is hanging off the bridge, we desperately want to believe in the possibility of intervention. We want one last hope that maybe some good can transform our disastrous situation. And, I suppose, that partly answers the worry, because each act of God is some “good.” Thus, divine intervention adds goods to the system, something that cannot but reduce the amount of overall evil. So, maybe the real problem isn’t about evil, but about the fairness of God’s intervention. If life were fair, then we would expect an equal distribution of plusses and minuses. We have a penchant for assuming that equality is good.
But life isn’t fair and never has been, with or without divine intervention. Even a cursory look at human history proves that God does little to render equal the living conditions of people at different times and places. Our generation is inundated with good fortune compared to the people in England under the Viking attacks. If we really wish to make a case about fairness, we, at least, have no standing. Apparently, fairness isn’t the point. So, perhaps God trades in justice (our getting what we deserve) rather than fairness (everyone getting the same thing).
Then how is it just that God acts to save Harry? Maybe the issue isn’t what didn’t happen for Sally (the issue of fairness). What did Harry do to warrant divine saving (the issue of justice)? When I look at Harry’s life, I see a suspicious lack of virtue. When I look at Sally’s life, I see her long-suffering kindness. It’s hard, then, to make out how the divine intervention calculation could be a matter of justice either. The Scriptures emphasize the accuracy of this analysis. Job’s friends are condemned for assuming his calamities were due to his own evil. Daniel’s three friends are about to be thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to worship a gigantic statue of the pagan king. But they don’t expect divine rescue as a reward for their faithfulness. They say as much to the king: our God is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, but if he doesn’t, we still won’t worship your damn statue! And, finally, when we look to Jesus’ temptation by Satan, it is Satan who demands that God ought to rescue Jesus if he throws himself off the top of the temple. Jesus shrugs this off as nonsense. Thus, moral quality doesn’t appear all that relevant to divine deliverance.
How does God decide upon whom to offer his interventionist mercy? Here we are brought to silence.
So, if God’s acts of intervention aren’t matters of fairness or justice, then what remains? Mercy? Probably. What else can we appeal to? But why? How does he decide upon whom to offer his interventionist mercy? Here we are brought to silence. We don’t know. God’s calculation is beyond our ability to conceive. God said as much to Job. Job couldn’t answer basic questions about the natures of bodies and animals. How could he expect to understand divine providence and intervention? We might think ourselves far smarter than Job. We can now answer nearly all the questions God posed to Job. Are we then in a position to judge God? Hardly. Were God to show up and “Job” us, his new and advanced questions would leave us in just the same state of befuddled silence as Job was.
However, if we appeal to the infamous doctrine of indiscernible ends, where we say that God’s ways are a mystery to us and it all comes down to faith, aren’t we cheating? Aren’t we just refusing to provide an answer to the problem of evil? No. Here’s why: we already have an answer to the problem of evil. The free will theodicy makes clear that we are responsible for the greatest amount of evil in the world, not God. We are the ones who scream at our wives, invade neighbor kingdoms, ignore the poor, swindle our business partners, and assault children. How we find the gall to blame God for what we do is perhaps the better question. And the natural evils—death, illness, and natural disasters—all follow from living in a mortal but physically ordered world. Evolution is the name of the game. Our bodies devastate nearly every single invader, because our immune systems are shockingly good. But as we evolve, so do our predators. Life devours life. That’s the natural mortal order. Complaining that we mortals have to die is a real head scratcher. So, the presence of moral and natural evils in this world poses no challenge to God’s goodness. And if, by divine intervention, God chooses to add goods to this world, that’s up to him. If he doesn’t provide more goods than he already chooses to add, that’s also up to him. If he doesn’t provide us a calculus to understand the reason why he adds the amount he does and not more, again, that’s up to him. We have no argument, no standing really, to demand an answer from the Most High. We ought, instead, to be thankful that he intervenes at all. When you are dangling over that bridge, you don’t object to the notion of divine intervention!
But perhaps we aren’t pushing this problem far enough. Maybe the issue isn’t why God doesn’t add a few more goods into the world here or there, but why he doesn’t just end it altogether? We know from our Scriptures that at some point God is going to call it quits on human political independence, that he will send His Son into the world not as savior but as King and Judge. But how is this supposed to happen if new free agents (babies) are constantly being born? If God delays sending His Son in order that they might grow up and choose freely to love him, then while he is waiting for their growth, another swath of babies will have been born. So, why does God wait at all? If he plans to send his Son in 2210, why not 2110? Or 2310? What could possibly change the equation? Or, better, what is the equation? Not the calculus for the date—not that silliness—but the reason for God’s bringing on the final judgment when he finally does? The worry here? What is the point of it all? It seems like human beings continue to crawl onward, the cycle of good and evil never ending. As Nehemiah said, the sword in one hand, the trowel in the other, ever building up, ever tearing down. It begins to feel tedious. And, if God could end it all tomorrow, why doesn’t he?
Here again, we just don’t know. We have no means to gaze into God’s mind and understand his larger objectives. We are asked, simply, to trust him. Has he not provided us with enough proof that he is trustworthy? We know by philosophy that God is good. We know from revelation that he sent His Son to us to make the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf. We know from experience that he has given us the Church and the Holy Sacraments as a means to pre-beatific unity with him. Given his trustworthiness in the things that we can see, can’t we just trust him in the things that we can’t?
Adam and Eve were asked the same thing. Don’t eat of that tree, said God. Why? Silence. God didn’t say. The serpent offered his dubious explanation. God didn’t intervene to counter it. The test for Eve and her husband wasn’t an appeal to the intellect, but an appeal to their love for God: “Without knowing why I ask, please, just do it for me.” They didn’t. But Mary did. And we can too, if we choose to say as she did, “Lord, be it unto me according to thy word.” Faith that God knows what he is doing leads away from a feeling of pointlessness back into hope. What does God want for us? To love him and our neighbors. It’s always the same requirement. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how much suffering is currently in the world and whether its distribution is either fair or just, because through it all we can still choose to love. And that’s the point.