If God is all-good and all-powerful, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?

This question, the age-old “problem of evil,” is probably the greatest argument of all time against the existence of God. And the question has both a “global” and a “local” presence—it’s a logical dilemma puzzled over by philosophers, and an emotional struggle every sufferer will face. It’s both academic and everyday.

When we are with someone who is suffering, it’s often best to avoid words altogether and stick with tears, silence, and prayers. In my pastoral role I often have the privilege of sitting with people in deep grief. In those moments, it usually does more harm than good to offer encouragements, or even interpretations. The best thing is simply to sit with them in the darkness. As my brother Dane puts it, “That Romans 8:28 comes before Romans 12:15 in the canon doesn’t mean it should in our counseling and friendships.”

But sometimes, either for someone else or for ourselves, we must provide an answer to the “why?” question. When we see deep suffering, does it mean God doesn’t care, or can’t help it, or isn’t there at all? One of the best strategies for responding to this question, rather than meeting it head on, is to come alongside it and draw attention to a clue in the question itself.

Crooked Lines, Straight Lines

Richard Dawkins, after recounting the abundance of cruelty and suffering in the natural world, provides an eloquent expression of the problem of evil:

On the day I originally wrote this paragraph, the British newspapers all carried a terrible story about a bus full of children from a Roman Catholic school that crashed for no obvious reason, with wholesale loss of life. Not for the first time, clerics were in paroxysms over the theological question that a writer on a London newspaper (The Sunday Telegraph) framed this way: “How can you believe in a loving, all-powerful God who allows such a tragedy?” The article went on to quote one priest’s reply: “The simple answer is that we do not know why there should be a God who lets these awful things happen. But the horror of the crash, to a Christian, confirms the fact that we live in a world of real values: positive and negative. If the universe was just electrons, there would be no problem of evil or suffering. On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of this bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune.

This passage has a strong rhetorical effect. But then there are some puzzling vocabulary choices as well. What does Dawkins mean by calling school bus crashes “meaningless tragedies”? Dawkins is appealing to more than his mere personal dislike of crashing school buses. Calling them “terrible” and “tragic” appeals to a broader standard. On what basis does Dawkins smuggle in these essentially moral, evaluative terms? Dawkins dismisses the answer given by the priest, but he seems to miss the point: The issue the priest raises isn’t whether we can expect tragedies to occur, but why they constitute a problem.

C. S. Lewis gave classic expression to this difficulty: “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.”

You cannot get an ought from an is. A school bus crash is not a “tragedy” unless a school bus shouldn’t crash, any more than a crooked line isn’t crooked unless a straight line exists. But if there’s nothing beyond nature—if the strong devouring the weak is how we all got here, and thus the world has always been—then why shouldn’t school bus crashes occur?

Or take a more horrific example of evil, like genocide. Every reasonable person acknowledges such events aren’t simply painful or unpleasant but actually wrong. But if blind processes within a closed system are the sole cause of our existence, such events are not qualitatively different from a shark eating a seal, or a Venus flytrap liquidating a bug. That is simply the universe doing what it’s always done. Such a universe can be disliked, but we have no grounds to see a “problem” with how it’s operating. As the poet Stephen Crane put it:

A man said to the Universe,

Sir, I exist!

Nevertheless, replied the Universe,

That fact has not created in me

the slightest feeling of obligation.

Live and Die on this Day  

This point recently came home to me with force as I watched the 2011 film The Grey, which narrates a number of oil men trying to survive against a pack of wolves after their plane crashed. The film, as I take it, is an exploration of nihilism and death: the dialogue, the plot, even the very setting (the harsh Alaskan wilderness) all emphasize the crushing inevitability of death. The basic message seems to be: “Death is all there is, so go out with the bang.” The poem recited throughout the movie and during its climax reminds me of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night”:

Once more into the fray

Into the last good fight I’ll ever know

Live and die on this day

Live and die on this day

Liam Neeson’s character recites this poem throughout the movie, and then one final time at the end in the wolf den. In a touching moment just before his climactic death, after all of his friends have died, he cries out to God, pleading for a sign, and he hears nothing in return.

It is touching and (to use Dawkins’s vocabulary) tragic. But then it strikes me: Why is it sad? Within the boundaries of nihilism, it is not easy to see why the depiction of death should have such emotional force.

On terms of pure nihilism, why should Neeson’s character expect to hear anything from God? If death is truly all there is, why do we long simply to “live and die on this day”? Or, if “that good night” is all there is, and it is indeed “good,” why not go gentle into it? The very fact that nihilism is so bracing and disturbing makes us wonder if it’s the whole answer. Crooked lines beg for explanation.

Problem of Good

The problem of evil is a problem for everyone. If God exists, we have to explain why evil is here. But if God does not exist, we have to explain why we find “evil” objectionable. The Christian can struggle with evil; the skeptic must also struggle with good. The Christian can weep over crooked lines; the skeptic must explain what makes them crooked.

The Christian can struggle with evil; the skeptic must also struggle with good. The Christian can weep over crooked lines; the skeptic must explain what makes them crooked.

For the Christian, the explanation for evil comes through the notions of createdness and fallenness, and then ultimately through the cross—through the “why have you forsaken me?” which is the ultimate “terrible tragedy,” the ultimate crooked line, the ultimate “last good fight.”

In the meantime, these answers don’t remove the mystery and sting of evil. The Christian can enter into the skeptic’s struggle with evil; we feel that evil is staggering, unthinkable, blinding, oppressive; we can admire the grim determination with which Liam Neeson walks into the wolf den; we can appreciate the sentiment, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

But we also have some sense as to why death is so tragic; we know why we are all rooting for Neeson against the wolf; we are able to affirm both the chilling darkness and also the aching beauty of the world. And beyond that, in the empty tomb we have hope that one day evil will be put down forever, and every crooked line made straight.

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