The Problem of Evil

I received an e-mail the other day from a former student who continues to keep in touch due to a mentoring relationship we developed while she was in university. This most recent exchange, though personal in its focus, highlighted a human tendency that has universal implications, as it opens out on nothing less than a traditional ethico-theological quandary, the problem of evil.

This young woman — I’ll call her “Sylvia,” in reminiscence of Sylvia Plath — has a lifelong propensity to emotional extremes, has suffered from suicidal thoughts (and, on occasion, more than thoughts), has been through rounds of professional counseling since her mid-teens, and endures repeated and debilitating bouts with lethargy, aimlessness, and helplessness. And her problems don’t stop at spiritual incontinence and confusion. She also has a serious genetic health condition which has led to multiple surgeries and a need for permanent care and monitoring. This constitutional weakness contributes to her emotional struggles; the emotional weakness, in turn, causes a carelessness about eating and sleeping that exacerbates her health problems.

“Sylvia” frequently resolves to make a new start, to become more steadfast and stoic, or simply to stop blaming the world for her problems and pull her life together by her own will. Just as frequently, she falls back into hypersensitivity, self-loathing, and emptiness, which, again, compromises her physical health. Her problems are real, and (in my opinion) compounded by the psychological medicine toward which she is repeatedly pushed by doctors and family members focused, I daresay, more on their own peace of mind than hers — as well as by the sporadic and inconsistent use of these medications with which she abuses herself due to recalcitrance and scattered thinking.

Within the past week, she had been hospitalized for illness and general exhaustion, and the evening before she sent her latest message, she had suffered from a headache so severe that it resulted in vomiting. After relating some of her latest health troubles and emotional valleys, “Sylvia” summarized her condition within the context of her Christianity: “These days, I pray to God to stop hurting me.”

She meant that not as an angry outburst, but rather as a sincere hope that God, who must be presumed to have ultimate control of her fate, might finally decide she had been through enough and let her off the hook.

To which I replied to “Sylvia” with the following challenge:

You have punished yourself mentally and physically for so long that you are suffering the results of that now. Maybe instead of praying to God to “stop hurting you,” you should be thanking God for sending you this important warning. Maybe He is telling you, “Let’s go, Sylvia, it’s time to stop following this destructive path and start taking care of your soul and your life now!” Sometimes, “bad news” is actually good news. You just have to learn how to listen to the message.

The error in her prayer, given the tone in which she meant it, was not that it was a self-pitying accusation against God, but rather that it entailed a narrowminded perspective on God’s will, one based on the all-too-modern presumption that suffering as such is an unqualified evil.

The “problem of evil,” as that theological debate has been labeled for hundreds of years, is essentially reducible to this problem: If there is a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-benevolent, then why does evil exist? In other words, would an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-benevolent First Being allow humans to suffer in all the ways humans are known to suffer? The expected and intended answer, of course, being “No.”

I have always believed this “problem,” so formulated, is a loaded question, as it assumes and implies much that would need to be unpacked and justified on its own terms, before one could properly address the question itself on its face. As a result, direct replies to the question as it stands — replies such as the popular medieval response, “God allows us to suffer as a test of our moral (free) will” — always seem inadequate and almost like unfalsifiable theories, because those who offer such replies have taken the bait and effectively granted the unstated assumptions and implications of the question, rather than challenged them.

The chief assumption entailed by the standard formulation of the problem of evil is that our transient suffering constitutes suffering from an ultimate or God’s eye perspective, such that the presence of evil in our experience establishes the essential reality of evil.

Before explaining this point and its implications, it is necessary to clarify that by “evil,” as that concept is used in formulating the so-called problem of evil, what is meant is “that which causes human (or, in some modern iterations, also animal) suffering.” That is, if humans were naturally impervious to suffering, there would be no such thing as evil in the proper sense (i.e., the opposite of “goodness”). When people ask, “If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, then why is there evil in the world?” they mean “Why is there human suffering?”, where this suffering includes the physical or emotional pain caused either by others’ harmful actions or by natural calamities, and also perhaps spiritual pain of the sort resulting from one’s own “evil” acts, such as the suffering caused by guilt, remorse, or self-degradation à la Dorian Gray.

Why, ask the philosophers, would any of this suffering be permitted to occur as elements of our nature or of the world’s constitution, if our world (including our personal souls) were truly the effect of a causal God who is good? This is the question that I think theologians falsely accept as a logical trap from which they must escape, when they leap in to provide their various complicated answers, without first assessing the value of the question.

If God is perfect, and the world is His creation or emanation, then insofar as the world is not identical to God, i.e., insofar as the created or emanated world exists as something definitionally distinct from the Perfect Being, that world is necessarily imperfect, which is to say that to the extent that the world as such exists, it is ipso facto not perfectly good. Thus, to ask, “Why didn’t a perfectly good God make the world perfectly good?” is merely to ask, “Why did God make a world?”

In other words, the “problem of evil” is logically reducible to the question, “Why is there a world?” Perhaps this question would make sense as an instance of divine self-doubt, should such a thing be possible; but it seems incoherent as a question asked of the perfect (complete) by the imperfect (incomplete). Therefore, the proper and correct answer to the question “Why would an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-benevolent God make a world with suffering in it?” is “Because it would not be a world if it lacked nothing of the good; it would simply be God.”

One might ask at this point why the non-divine world’s inherent imperfection, as I have just explained it, has to entail evil, understood as the cause of human suffering. This entailment is intrinsic to the relationship between God qua Goodness Itself and the world qua imperfect representation — that is, imitation — of Goodness Itself. To imitate something is, in the final analysis, to desire to be that thing, whether in some respect or entirely. Hence the Platonic and Aristotelian inference that composite (i.e., enmattered) life is essentially motion, and that the ultimate cause of this motion is the desire for the Good. But desire, insofar as it is unfulfilled, is pain. To desire is thus to suffer in some way. To desire the Good fruitlessly is to suffer more than to desire it fruitfully. This explains both the suffering caused by Nature’s calamities and the suffering caused by human evil, the latter being nothing but action undertaken in complete ignorance of the Good.

Furthermore, Perfect Being, as complete, is necessarily without potential (matter), and therefore essentially intellectual (rational) in character. Thus, the desire for the Good, in the fullest sense, is a desire for an intellectual goal — wisdom, if you will. Suffering is therefore the subjective experience of: (1) every failing grasp, false step, or fruitless path we pursue in quest of wisdom (the Good); and (2) every seemingly inescapable, externally-imposed limit to our quest.

It follows that we suffer because we are material beings, or to the extent that we are material beings. And yet without that suffering, or some measure of it, we would not be living at all. Life, as a composite substance, is inseparable from suffering, as motion is inseparable from desire, and desire from the Good.

To summarize with a reiteration, then: To ask, “Why would a good God allow evil to exist?” is logically reducible to asking, “Why would God create a world?” There is in this question no challenge to either the existence or the goodness of a divine or ultimate being. The question, unpacked in this way, is merely a variation on the basic and immortal metaphysical puzzle: If there is a highest being, what is its relationship to the human world subordinate to it?

A further observation, related to the unwarranted assumption of the problem of evil, noted above: Our suffering is suffering to us, but might it not be quite the opposite of suffering to God? There is a basic error in believing that our suffering is absolute suffering, namely the error of assuming that God exists for us, rather than we for Him — that is, that we are God’s goal rather than He ours — and hence that our immediate perspective on the significance of our private, transient experience is the ultimate or primary perspective, which is to say that it represents the Truth.

Seen in this light, the question, “Why would a perfectly good God make a world with suffering in it?” is less a clever moral or logical challenge to the pious or theological man, than an example of a peculiarly small-minded form of hubris. An all-too-human hubris, if you will. The folly of the composite, transitional being mistaking itself for pure form.

Or as I said to “Sylvia”:

Maybe instead of praying to God to “stop hurting you,” you should be thanking God for sending you this important warning. Maybe He is telling you, “Let’s go, Sylvia, it’s time to stop following this destructive path and start taking care of your soul and your life now!” Sometimes, “bad news” is actually good news. You just have to learn how to listen to the message.

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