The problem of evil is perhaps the most popular and potent contemporary objection to belief in God. In its simplest form it goes like this: How can you believe in a good, all-powerful and all-knowing God in the face of the pain, suffering and inhumanity that plagues the world? Would a good God allow genocide on a massive scale, if he could stop it? Wouldn’t an all-powerful God prevent the human death and suffering caused by tsunamis and earthquakes, if he cared? Agnostics use such questions to undermine certainty of belief in God. Atheists offer these objections as evidence against belief in the existence of God. Believers also feel the negative force of evil and sometimes feel abandoned by God and threatened by doubt.
As befits a blog devoted to “thoughtfulness in religion” I want to begin at the beginning and approach the subject at the most fundamental level where the question of evil first emerges. The following two questions strike me as getting about as close to the foundation as we can get: what are the conditions under which any event or series of events could be considered evil?” And what quality is being attributed to an event when it is called evil?
Evil cannot exist unless something exists. Absolute nothingness is not evil or good. Whatever evil is, it exists as a quality of something else—of a thing, an event or a relation. If there were no things or events or relations, evil could not exist. Now imagine that our universe has existed eternally or came into existence arbitrarily and that there is no divine mind to order and direct it. Imagine further that there are no finite minds or even any living things but that physical and chemical processes that constitute the universe will continue to operate forever, the universe evolving as it has since the Big Bang. Does evil exist in this imaginary world? Can it exist in such a world? No. Even though things are continually coming into existence and going out of existence, being built up and destroyed, no event or series of events can be considered evil. Why?
At a minimum, to designate an event or series of events as “evil” is to say that something has gone wrong; evil is a misrelation, disharmony where there should be harmony. But the concept of “going wrong” makes no sense where there is no concept of “going according to plan.” And the idea of a “plan” makes no sense apart from a mind that conceives of that plan. Hence the possibility of evil depends on the existence of a real world in which the actual course of events can contradict the ideal course of events as conceived by the divine mind. If evil occurs in this real world, contradicting the divine ideal world, we can see that such evil would cause distress and disappointment in the divine being. [We are not yet speaking of God the Creator in the Christian sense. We are speaking only of an all-encompassing cosmic mind.]
So, what are the conditions for the emergence of the concept of evil? Something must exist and a flow of events must be taking place. There must be a plan that encompasses all things and events, and there must be a mind that contains this comprehensive plan. Only a mind can perceive the contradiction between the way things actually go and the way they are supposed to go. And only a mind that wills the good (that is, the way things are supposed to go) can experience distress when they go wrong. The concept of cosmic evil emerges only with the emergence of a cosmic mind/will. Hence to argue that there is no God because things go wrong is self-contradictory. The argument affirms that things do in fact go wrong (evil) but denies the necessary conditions for the affirmation that things go wrong (a plan for the way things are supposed to go).
Now let’s shift our attention to the human experience of evil. As I have shown above, if there is no divine-like cosmic mind that can conceive and will the way things are supposed to go in the world, the concept of evil makes no sense in reference to the flow of cosmic events. Imagine, then, that we have evolved by chance in a universe in which there is no divine mind, no cosmic plan and no cosmic evil. Here we are. We exist for no reason and no purpose. For our coming into existence is a cosmic event and cosmic events do not happen for reasons or purposes. But as a matter of brute fact we exist as thinking, feeling and willing beings. And as thinking, feeling and willing beings we exist also as cosmic beings in the flow of cosmic change, of coming into existence and going out of existence, of the process of building up and tearing down that constitutes the universe. And as cosmic beings we come into existence, exist for a while, then deteriorate and fall apart. Though there is no ideal plan for the way things are supposed to go, we can imagine one and wish it to be so. Though there is no divine plan for our lives we imagine our lives unfolding in an “ideal” way, that is, according to our desires. And we can perceive the contradiction between our ideal cosmic and individual plans and the actual flow of our lives in the cosmos.
As thinking, feeling and willing beings, we wish to be exempted from the cosmic processes of decay and death to which we are subject as cosmic beings. As a matter of brute fact we desire to live and experience happiness. We do not want to experience physical pain or emotional distress or spiritual suffering. When the actual flow of cosmic events contradicts our idea of the “way things are supposed to go” in our lives, we experience this contradiction and consequent distress as wrong, as a misrelation and as disharmony where harmony ought to exist. Hence on a human level evil is defined as whatever contradicts our ideal plan and thwarts our pursuit of happiness. And since this contradiction assails and destroys what we love, we hate it and rebel against it with all our energy. At the human level evil is that to which we say “No!”
But this line of thinking rather undermines the argument from our experience of evil to atheism. We’ve seen that the idea of cosmic evil makes no sense apart from a divine mind that can plan and desire the way things are supposed to go in cosmic history. You cannot argue for the existence of real cosmic evil from the contradiction between the mere human idea of the way the world should go and the human desire for life and happiness, unless you assume the existence of a divine plan and a divine mind. And if there is no divine plan or divine mind, the “evil” human beings experience is not really cosmic in nature. It is subjective, relative to the brute fact of human desires and wishes. On the supposition of the non-existence of God or anything like God, at the cosmic level genocides, hellish wars, devastating tsunamis, catastrophic earthquakes, famines, cancer and all other hateful evils are not evil. Like the deterioration of a radioactive element or the death of a star in a supernova, they just are.