[I]t is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.
~ St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Logos of God, 1.4
The problem of evil is one of the most challenging and studied theological and philosophical problems. In academic discussions, it is typically formulated as follows:
- If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
- If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
- If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
- If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
- Evil exists.
- If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn’t know when evil exists, or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil.
- Therefore, God doesn’t exist.
While discussing the soundness of these premises is worthwhile in its own right, I do not think it actually represents the problem of evil, not as most people experience it anyway. That is, far more important, I think, is what has been called the existential problem of evil. It sounds more like this: “How could God let my mom die?” I do not think any answer to the theoretical problem will do unless it also addresses the existential problem.
Another problem I have with the problem of evil, as defined above, is that it isn’t neutral. But evil is a problem for everyone.
Perhaps a better way of framing it is as follows, taking St. Athanasius as representative of the traditional Christian response:
Claim 1: God is all-good Claim 1: God is all-good
Claim 2: God is all-knowing Claim 2: God is all-knowing
Claim 3: God is all-powerful Claim 3: God is all-powerful
Claim 4: evil exists Claim 4: evil exists
I cannot reconcile claim 4 with claims 1-3. I cannot reconcile claim 4 with claims 1-3.
Therefore, such a God must not exist. Therefore, evil must not exist.
Both of these formulations must be qualified. The atheist version, if that is one’s perspective, only rules out the conception of God given. A god like Zeus, for example, might not be all-good or all-powerful or all-knowing, and thus the premises might not be sound. But I’m sure that atheists have other good reasons for not believing in Zeus. I’m really not concerned about the debate at all, so I’ll move on.
In the Christian version, we must examine more closely what is meant by the statement: “evil must not exist.” This would seem to be contradicted by experience, again directing us to the existential side of the problem. What is meant, however, is what St. Athanasius says: evil is “non-being,” “negation,” “antithesis of good.” What we should really say is evil must not exist in itself. It is a privation of good.
This runs me into another problem that I have with purely theoretical attempts to address the problem of evil. Many very intelligent people have written some very large books on the subject, and I do not mean to lump them all together. It’s just that some theodicies—defenses of God in the face of the problem of evil—seem to accidentally defend evil instead.
Understood rightly—as St. Augustine did, for example—if evil only exists as the corruption of what is good and true and beautiful, then it cannot really be explained. It’s hard to express what I mean, but I’ll give it a shot.
One cannot explain why the statement 2+2=5 is false in the same way that one can explain 2+2=4. Or rather, scratch that. It is the same, but that’s the problem: the way one shows that 2+2=5 is false is by showing that 2+2=4 is true.
What this boils down to is that evil is irrational. And irrational things cannot really be explained. Evil is tragic, chaotic, unjust, dark, ugly, and empty. I would call it a mystery, but I take that word to be a good thing. Evil is the antithesis of mystery as well.
Thus, however wonderful theoretical solutions to the problem of evil are, if they do not touch the existential, I find them to be useless. Again, St. Augustine is a great example of someone who never separated the two. Thus, while acknowledging its importance (and while running with the “evil does not really exist” solution), we must turn to the existential.
The real problem with the problem of evil, to me, is not really intellectual but emotional. The problem is despair. The solution is hope. But that’s a tall order.
We can look around ourselves and see everything good and true and beautiful about life corrupted by evil, falsehood, and ugliness. Put bluntly: the problem is death. And we need a “hope beyond the grave” sort of hope.
The atheist does not claim such hope. I do not say this as an insult, criticism, or argument. Rather, “hope beyond the grave” is the stuff of religion.
And for Christians it is dogma. As the Creed states, “I expect the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.” If it is true, then we have every hope in the world that what is wrong will be set right, that the irrational will be overcome by reason, that death will be “swallowed up by life” (see 2 Corinthians 5:4).
On the other hand, if we’re wrong (pace Pascal), “we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Thus, we still have a problem: hope.
Again, asking the forgiveness of my apologist co-religionists, I do not believe this to be, primarily, a theoretical problem either. We have a problem of death and corruption that leads to despair. What we need is to see and experience life and incorruption in order to have the hope we need. Those who grieve will not be talked out of despair. We need resurrection. We need redemption.
As an Orthodox Christian, I believe the paschal hymn, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” I do not know this to be true because of some argument. That kind of certainty is pretty illusive when it comes to a problem like this. No, I know it only in a relational sense: I know Jesus, and he gives me life.
What we need are more people who are able to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4), despite the death all around us. That gives people hope that they can do it too and that what they have now will carry over into “the life of the age to come.”