The Problem of Evil: Actually, It’s Complicated

How can we speak about the problem of evil, suffering, and damnation without glibness?

(photo: Register Files)

See also: It’s Complicated: Islam and violence | The rock God can’t lift | No salvation outside the Church | Are Muslims and Jews our brothers and sisters?

“God had to take her,” says a grieving father at a bereavement support group in the 2010 film Rabbit Hole, starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. “He needed another angel. He needed another angel.”

I would be very reluctant to take issue with a thought or sentiment that a person in grief found helpful. But I couldn’t imagine saying something like this to a person in grief — and I can well understand the waspish response from Kidman’s character, also grieving a child:

“Why didn’t he just make one? Another angel. I mean, he’s God, after all. Why didn’t he just make another angel?”

To be fair, the grieving dad also says “we can’t know why …  only God can know why.” This is partly true, but incomplete. Then there’s “It’s just part of God’s plan.” Also true, but potentially misleading, since it may be thought to suggest that God wills evil.

The reality is that the problem of evil — the problem that theodicy sets out to address — is too difficult and too mysterious for brief, simple answers, and attempts to answer it in brief and simple ways are invariably glib and unconvincing. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say: 

If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist? To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice. Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question: the goodness of creation, the drama of sin and the patient love of God who comes to meet man by his covenants, the redemptive Incarnation of his Son, his gift of the Spirit, his gathering of the Church, the power of the sacraments and his call to a blessed life to which free creatures are invited to consent in advance, but from which, by a terrible mystery, they can also turn away in advance. There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil.” (CCC 309, emphasis in original)

Not long ago a friend wrestling with certain aspects of the mystery of evil put this searching challenge to me:

I realize God’s ways are not our ways, but if I did parenting like God does … In what way is letting evil continue to flourish and not punishing evildoers (even, seemingly, with logical consequences) in their natural lifetimes ever useful in getting people to see sinfulness as more than “a bad life choice … So what?”

Imagine if someone like Osama bin Laden had to face earthly, and early, consequences for his nefarious deeds? Might he have repented early on?

It just seems like there are a great many people whose riches or influence effectively shield them from having to deal with the results of their sin. Why should they have to spend an eon in purgatory when five years in jail would’ve changed their life forever?

God doesn’t feel the sorrow of God’s creation as it suffers the horrors of the effects of sin, and largely the sins of the powerful, who have the means to create almost untold suffering for many millions.

But I am not satisfied with some grim idea that “Hitler will get what’s coming to him! Hoo boy, that’ll be the day!” accompanied with some macabre hand washing gesture and a malevolent sneer. I want to be seated next to Hitler at the wedding feast of the Lamb and rejoice that he, too, is there.

How can we respond to such a challenge, as Catholic Christians, without glibness?

Here’s my attempt:

  1. My starting point theologically for thinking about such questions is this: I begin with the conviction, the belief, that a) good exists and b) God is it.
  2. In the fullness of his infinite being is the standard and origin of all that we call good, true, and beautiful. Nothing can be truer than truth itself, more beautiful than beauty itself, better than goodness itself, and when we talk about truth, goodness, and beauty in themselves, we are really talking about God.

    To seek to know truth with the mind, to choose goodness with the will, and to love beauty with the heart is already to seek God, whether the seeker knows it or not.

  3. My starting point existentially is thus one of trust. Trust in God is my foundation, my first response, my beginning premise. I cannot not-trust the goodness of God any more than I can disbelieve truth-itself or be repulsed by beauty-itself.
  4. Existence in general and evil and suffering in particular confront us with many questions and complications. I don’t ever want to pretend the answers are simpler or easier than they are, or that we don’t have to worry about struggling with them as long as we have Faaaiiith, or that it’s just a Myyssstery so don’t worry about it.

    But for me the struggles begin from a place of trust.

  5. That doesn’t mean that I’ve never had doubts or crises of faith in my life. The question “Suppose there is nothing there?” can never, I think, be dismissed finally and forever in this life.
  6. I can dispense forever with some religious and worldview options — Mormonism and the Watchtower, for instance, and even Islam and Hinduism — but the first, radical question of “Something or Nothing?” is too fundamental, too close to the roots of our finitude and fallibility, to be answered with total psychological closure forever. (This is as true for the honest atheist as it is for the honest believer. We may be divided by many things, but we share the same finitude and fallibility and thus the same lack of immutable certitude.)

  7. That said, I am firm in my answer of faith to the question — Something, not Nothing — and the persistence of the question does not trouble me. Jesus Christ shows me God, and I encounter God in the beauty and order of creation; in the goodness and love of other people, especially fellow believers; and in the interiority of my own being: in conscience, in awe and gratitude, in love.
  8. I believe that I know God, and far more importantly that I am known by God, and in that belief is the foundation of trust.

  9. I trust the goodness and love of God and I believe that I know him, but I also recognize that I don’t know God far more than I do — more precisely, God is necessarily far more unknowable than he is knowable. In an absolute, univocal sense, we cannot know what God is, only what he is not; the only straightforwardly true statements about God that we can make are negative statements, apophatic theology.
  10. Our best positive statements about what God is — for example, “God is love” — rely on analogy (if not metaphor). In other words, to say “God is love” means something like this: There is in God something that is in some way like human love; or, rather, human love in some way reflects or resembles something in God.

    But that is still not literally and univocally true, because I said “in God,” and nothing is “in” God, because divine simplicity means that God is not composed of parts, so there is no “in” or “out” when it comes to God.

  11. Nevertheless, the analogy of love tells us this much about God: When we love someone, we will their good — and God wills our good. More precisely, he has created us with a vocation, a calling, to beatitude, to the fulfillment of our deepest human longings, to the supreme and definitive happiness of the greatest possible knowledge of and union with God himself.
  12. We are made for love, to share forever in the eternal love of the Blessed Trinity. All of this is the foundation for my fundamental stance of complete trust in God.

  13. Although our faith assures us that we are created for beatitude, obviously we are not in that state now, or anything remotely approximating it. The world is full of pain, evil, ignorance, doubt, disappointment, unbelief, loneliness, depression, hatred, and misery, all of which contrasts absolutely and enormously with the beatitude we believe is our calling or vocation.
  14. Furthermore, while some people appear to live lives arcing in some way toward the beatitude we believe is our vocation, others appear to be glaringly headed the other way, or at least making no progress in the right direction.

  15. Some, but by no means all, of the distressing state of affairs described above can plausibly be linked to human choices and freedom.
  16. The case that love must be free, and that freedom to choose love and happiness entails freedom to make less happy choices, does not appear to be a full or final explanation of the problem of suffering, but it can credibly be proposed as part of a larger answer.

  17. The analogy of God as a parent — as Father — is sanctioned by scripture and tradition and is accorded the highest possible authority both in the Gospels and in Christian spiritual and liturgical practice. For all that, it is analogy, not literal or univocal truth. Clearly God is not a father in exactly the same sense that I am a father, and he does not parent us as we parent our children.
  18. We can see at least some of the reasons for this: Being omniscient, he can take a much longer and wider view of things than human parents; being transcendent and wholly other, the kind of causality he exerts on creatures is different in kind from the causality of creatures on one another. Still, this too is at best part of the answer.

  19. One way of dealing with the limitations of analogies is with other analogies. For example, consider the analogy of God as Author of the universe: of the story of creation, human history, and of your life and mine.
  20. A good author, standing outside his work, aware of the whole and knowing the end from the beginning, may permit characters he loves to suffer things that no decent character in the drama would permit another character to suffer if they had the power to stop it.

    Depending on the nature of the story, the author may do this all the while intending good things for his characters, and bringing them in the end to the happy and satisfying ends he intended, or perhaps he will reward some characters in keeping with their choices and punishing other characters in keeping with theirs.

    Even human writers find that literary characters appear to take on a life of their own, making “choices” that surprise the author, and which the author would feel dishonest in repressing. God, of course, is an Author who can give his characters real freedom, not only a literary evocation of it, and the choices we make really play a role in guiding us to our destiny. In that way God gives us the dignity of being co-authors with him in the story of our lives.

  21. While the author of such a story may choose to reward or punish the characters for their good or evil actions at the end, while the drama is unfolding it may be quite different. The virtuous heroes suffer unjustly; the treacherous villains enjoy the fruits of their scheming — for now. If for some reason we had to abandon the story two-thirds of the way through, we might be very dissatisfied with the unresolved state of affairs.
  22. In a way, the better a dramatist the writer was, the more dissatisfied we might feel, since the injustice of the drama would be very persuasive and plausible in order to make the coming climax and denouement as cathartic and satisfying as possible.

    In the same way, we are in the middle of the story now. Of course there are problems. That is what the story is about. Do we trust the Author?

    Like God as Father, God as Author is an analogy. It doesn’t explain everything, but I think this, too, offers a partial but valuable insight.

  23. Very generally speaking, in this life we can see patterns according to which better choices tend to lead to more happiness in this life, while worse choices tend to lead to more unhappiness.
  24. Expressions like “Virtue is its own reward” and “What goes around comes around” attest the common experience that consistent fair play, honesty, hard work, respect, and so forth tend to get better results than consistent selfishness, dishonesty, laziness, insolence, etc.

  25. Very generally — but far from universally, and with ample glaring counter-evidence. Were this not the case — if good choices always immediately led to good outcomes in this life, and bad choices always immediately led to bad outcomes, then, as Robert Bolt’s Thomas More says in A Man For All Seasons, “common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes.” (I’m quoting here from the slightly more expansive stage play, not the film.)
  26. Is God interested in a world in which “common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly”? Does he want human beings who are equally “like animals or angels,” with angelic behavior proceeding from simple animal motives?

    Perhaps not. Perhaps this is why, as More goes on to say, “in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought.” Thus we “have to choose, to be human at all,” precisely so that “we must stand fast a little — even at the risk of being heroes.”

    Perhaps, just as love without choice is meaningless, so virtue without struggle is worthless, or at least not the virtue God wants to reward. Not with the rewards he means to give.

  27. In a world where vice was always immediately punished and virtue was always immediately rewarded, where would Christ be, when he came? As the most virtuous of men, he would be universally honored and revered. Chief priests, scribes, and kings would bow before him. He would never be doubted, insulted, or persecuted. If the system worked perfectly, he would never suffer in the slightest. There would be no passion, no crucifixion, and perforce no resurrection.
  28. This would dramatically highlight his goodness, of course. But would it show us the depths of love for us as profoundly as the crucifixion? He can still take on our humanity, but can he take on our brokenness, our suffering? How can he, if suffering is always apportioned to wrongdoing?

    For that matter, is there a place in such a world for pity, compassion, charity? If suffering always means the person deserves it, then wouldn’t all charity be a form of enabling? Wouldn’t all self-sacrifice for the needy be a form of injustice?

  29. In his divine nature, God doesn’t “feel” the sorrow of creation because the impassible (changeless) God in his divine nature has no passions (feelings or emotions) of any kind, and the perfection of his infinite beatitude can neither be increased nor decreased. 
  30. In his incarnate humanity, on the other hand, the Son of God entered into time and space, experienced passibility and passion, and took the weight of the world’s wretchedness fully on his shoulders. The blood he sweat in the Garden and bled on the cross was our blood; the lacerations of his flesh at the pillar were our wounds; in his “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” is all our wretchedness and abandonment and anguish.

  31. The salvation of ten billion times ten billion souls cannot increase the impassible perfection of God’s beatitude, nor can his beatitude be diminished by the damnation of every soul in hell, or by the sum total of all mortal sins or all the worst horrors of earthly suffering. 
  32. This does not mean that God doesn’t “care”! It would be very wrong, indeed blasphemous, to imagine God as negatively “apathetic” in the sense of having no interest or wishes in the matter. 

    Remember, it was in the infinite perfection of his impassible beatitude that God chose to create the universe, although there was not the slightest necessity or advantage to himself in doing so (e.g., it’s not like he was lonely or bored and needed the diversion). He created us purely and solely for our benefit, our beatitude. Thus we rightly say that he created us in love. 

    So God, too, wants all to be saved — and “all” includes Hitler. Whether Hitler will be saved, I cannot say; what I can say, and what I am content to say, is this: a) It is right for us to hope for Hitler to be saved, and b) Whatever God does is best and just.

    I can’t be troubled in some radical or existential way by the thought of Hitler going to hell, or even by the thought of me going to hell. (I certainly can’t be troubled by the thought of purgatory.)

    I can’t be troubled by it, because as dreadful and horrible as the idea of hell is, for me the whole question begins and ends — and this I take, with comfort and reassurance, to be the work of grace in me — with trust in God’s goodness and the rightness of his judgments.

    If God saves both me and Hitler, blessed be he; even if he casts us both into hell, blessed be he. “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?”

  33. Finally, against all the unjust suffering and unjustly rewarded evil in the world, Christian faith proposes that redemption of Christ overcomes all suffering and evil in a radical, transcendent way that puts all wrongs and hurts in the world, as it were, retroactively.
  34. The years the locusts devoured are restored — not just the devoured crops, but the years themselves. Suckitude and evil don’t just go away eventually or get punished or remunerated. Evil is undone in a way that reaches back to the beginning.

    We have no framework in which to imagine such a thing, at least not in a literal, univocal way. Yet this is what our faith proposes. Omniscience conceived this unfathomable plan, and omnipotence proposes to carry it out, through the battered and slain and resurrected flesh of Jesus, the taproot of a restoration that will spread through all of time and space, from the most shattering supernova to the smallest crying child.

    I don’t say it glibly, but when we have said and thought and believed all that can be said and thought and believed, in the end there remains a mystery and a call for faith and trust.

    Can we trust God with this?

    I do.

    See also: It’s Complicated: Islam and violence | The rock God can’t lift | No salvation outside the Church | Are Muslims and Jews our brothers and sisters?