Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Problem of Evil and Suffering: An Introduction

If you see a blind man, kick him; why should you be kinder than God. (Iranian folk proverb)
I doubt that anyone thinks we live in a perfect world. Although famine, war, earthquakes, disease, and crime are common occurrences, I am sure that most people would be happy to live without them. In fact, I would expect that most people would say that these things are an indication that all is not well with the world.

Before considering any religious problems associated with evil and suffering, we need to be clear about the terms we are using. We also need to begin by acknowledging that not all suffering is bad for us. In fact, some suffering is absolutely necessary to keep us alive and well. For example, imagine a world where there was no pain or suffering at all. In such a world, what would happen if we put our hand in a flame, or ate something healthy for other creatures to consume but is poisonous to humans? What would happen if our tooth never ached, or if we never felt any physical and/or emotional pain when someone hurt us? Even in a perfect world, it is in our best interests to experience some degree of suffering.

Of course there, is an aspect of suffering which many people believe we can, and should, live without, and this is unnecessary suffering; typically associated with the problem of evil.

In theology, a THEODICY is an argument used to justify the goodness and justice of God, in a world where there are evil and suffering. The word theodicy comes from the Greek for God (theos) and justice (dike).

Key Terms:

  • Moral evil: Suffering caused by humans
  • Natural Evil: Suffering due to non-human agents*

NOTE: It is important to be clear about precisely what moral and natural evil are, as some people argue that God cannot be held responsible for things humans deliberately choose to do to each other.

  • Freewill: When applied to human decision-making, this is the belief that people are free to act as they see fit, and especially that they are under no obligation to do bad things (or can choose/not to do them)

NOTE: The question of free will is often a key issue in ethics. Many moral philosophers argue that people need to be truly free in their decision-making, if their actions are capable of being judged and considered morally significant. In other words, if people have no choice but to act in a certain way, can we hold them accountable for what happens as a result of them doing something?

God, evil and suffering

In order to understand why evil and suffering is a problem for people in theistic faiths (those who believe in a God), we need to consider what many people believe about God. Most people believe God is all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient) and all-good (benevolent). They also believe that God is the creator of the world. However, if this is the case then the logical question arises as to why God seems to have created a world, where evil and suffering is present? The problem can be set out in the following way:

  • If God is omnipotent, then why does God not prevent evil and suffering occurring?
  • If God is omniscient, then surely God would have known that evil and suffering would have occurred, as a result of creating this world?
  • If God is benevolent, then surely God wants to remove evil and suffering from the world?
Those who argue that God does not exist often suggest that the presence of evil and suffering in the world is evidence for this. Their argument can be set out in the following way:

  • If God exists then surely God would want to, and could, deal with the problem of evil and suffering.
  • Evil and suffering continues to occur in the world.
  • Therefore, God does not exist.

Why the presence of evil and suffering does not disprove God's existence

The argument above assumes that God would, could and should do something about the presence of evil and suffering in the world. However, there might still be (and have always been) evil and suffering in the world, because maybe God is not all-powerful (omnipotent), or all-knowing (omniscient) or even all-good (benevolent). The assumption then is that God can and should do something, but what if God can't or does not want to? There is evil and suffering in the world, AND God still exists!

The fact that there is evil and suffering in the world does not mean there is no God, but simply requires us to ask questions about the character (attributes) of the God people believe exists! We need to ask if God can do something but chooses not to, then maybe God is not the benevolent being we assume God to be?

Moral evil and natural evil (myoldreteacher on Vine)

* An example of moral evil would be murder. An example of natural evil would be an earthquake destroying a city, and killing people.

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