I don’t spend much time talking to theists about the problem of evil. It doesn’t really address the existence of God, which is most often the topic of choice when atheists and theists get together. (Consider, even if God is responsible for great evil, he might still exist, and just be a pretty rotten deity, as morals go. The pantheon is littered with capricious and evil deities.) But since I’ve pretty well laid out a foundation of morality as a natural and quantifiable value judgment, I might as well cover this topic. After all, it is one of the common doubts expressed by people on the fence about their Christianity. The remainder of this post is a repost of an article from August of this year.
The problem of evil is very closely tied to the problem of hell, which I’ve dissected at length (and which you should read if you haven’t). Both problems are perpetuated by apologists trying to magically remove god from morality while simultaneously ascribing sublime morality to his actions. And both are solved by realizing that there’s no place for magic in critical thought.
The fundamental mistake is assigning morality to the wrong category. It is not an innate quality like “green” or “poisonous.” It is a judgment of value. Regardless of whether there’s a viewer, a green object has the physical properties that make it green to the human eye. But if there is no agent present, then an act cannot be moral or immoral. (Consider whether you’d call a tree immoral for falling on a deer and killing it.)
With this in mind, we can look at claims by apologists and see through them. The “mysterious ways” argument goes something like this: God’s plans and motives are so far above human conceptions that we cannot judge them. When bad things happen, they may seem to be evil or capricious, but in reality, they’re part of a larger plan, and we don’t have the knowledge or moral authority to question them.
Realizing the nature of morality, we should immediately see that we do indeed have the authority to question any act for moral integrity. God’s actions towards us do have moral value, and regardless of their part in a “bigger picture,” we feel the effects in the here and now. It’s not unlike the question of population control, consumption, and environmental change. We could institute a program of forced population reduction by killing everyone on the planet with an IQ under 90. In the long run, that would be good for the human race as well as the planet. But would it be morally right? Of course not.
Pleading ignorance of the long term plan does not absolve God of moral responsibility. In fact, things are worse for God than they would be for humans instituting forced population reduction. In our case, we can imagine that we might be forced into such drastic measures if it becomes obvious that a horrible end awaits the entire population if we don’t act drastically now. We could justify such a horrifying act by appealing to the much worse option of the entire species dying off. It still wouldn’t be good, but it would be the best of several terrible options.
But not so for God. He is never forced into anything. Everything he does is done because it is precisely what he wants to do, with no coercion or restraint by the laws of the universe. After all, he made the laws of the universe because that’s what he wanted. So any appeal to sacrifices now for the good of… whatever… in the future is a hollow argument. God did not have to do it this way. He could have done it in a way that the sacrifices didn’t have to be made, and bad things didn’t have to happen to billions of people. But he chose not to.
We also shouldn’t gloss over my hesitation in the previous paragraph. If we are sacrificing something now for some greater good in the future, what is that greater good? In the case of environmental change, we could say that we were sacrificing lives now for the opportunity to continue the human species. But what good is coming from evil being wrought on humans today? And more importantly, who is it good for? There’s no way that it could be good for the humans experiencing evil now. They’ll be dead in the future, and either in heaven or hell. Nothing on earth can possibly change their existence, since a sentence to either place is permanent with no chance of relocation. If it’s good for humans in the future, that’s fine, but we’re still left wondering why God didn’t orchestrate events so that good things could happen to us now and good things would happen to other people in the future. Finally, we must reject the claim that bad things happening to us now are better for our immortal soul. According to the plan of salvation, all that is needed for access to heaven is believing in Jesus. People who live happy lives will be in exactly the same place as people who suffered horribly if only they believe.
Like so many apologist arguments, this one is really simple. Many of us were trained to be confused by it, but that is part of the brainwashing and indoctrination. If God can do anything he wants, then he is responsible for evil. If it is part of a bigger plan, he is still responsible since he claims to be able to do absolutely anything he wants, and could have accomplished the same good without the evil. End of story. Any talk of “mysterious ways” is just a substitute for waving our hands in the air and crying, “I have no idea what I’m talking about!”