As long as people have been free to question religion, the “problem of evil” (wikipedia link) has been debated countless times, rarely with any productive outcome on either side. The problem is expressed most simply by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
This is obviously a problem for believers in a god who believe their god is perfect, just, and all-powerful. Despite remaining a serious challenge to the omnipotent god, the argument hasn’t changed many minds. The standard response from Christians and Muslims generally follows a few lines of reasoning:
1. God gave us free will, and allows people to hurt each other so that we can be judged fairly.
This really isn’t an answer to the problem of evil at all, but it’s the one most often taught in Sunday school. What about the evils that have nothing to do with people? Mental illness, childhood disease, and deaths caused by natural disaster wreak unspeakable damage on our race. These things have nothing to do with free will.
2. God allows terrible things to happen so that we can be tested. Upon pointing out the obvious flaw in (1), we usually progress to the argument that god has a plan and allows things to happen for reasons he alone knows. Maybe it’s so that we can grow through trials. Maybe it was their time.
Do we really believe that god decided it was “the time” for more poor people in the 2010 Chilean earthquake (Wikipedia link) of than for rich people, as the majority of deaths were in poorly-constructed neighborhoods? Can we honestly suggest to those who lost loved ones in the Japanese tsunami of 2011 (Wikipedia link) that every single person who had to face the “trial” of losing a loved in that tragedy just happened to be located all along the Japanese coast?
3. God created the world and lets nature run its course.
This argument is often made in an attempt to reconcile a world with evil and a god who is good: rather than relenting on his power or goodness, it seeks to limit his involvement. The “watchmaker” god approach to the problem of evil, however, doesn’t work either. If god is omnipotent and omniscient, all variables would have been under his control when he made the universe. Whether he actively causes earthquakes or built a world he knew would have earthquakes is irrelevant – he still knew the outcome and chose to act in a way that would result in the death and suffering of innocent people.
Unfortunately, using age-old arguments like the problem of evil to point out the logical flaws in Christianity isn’t very effective. Theologians are well aware of the problem, and have made plenty of arguments trying to explain it away. Whether sound or not, they are complicated and will quickly lead away from the point. The less doctrinally-aware members might not fully-understand the arguments, but they’ve probably heard a church leader explain it. Unfortunately, familiarity tends to breed an unfounded sense of knowledge. “Oh, I’ve heard this before, so I don’t need to really think about it.”
The Problem of the Automaker
Because so many people believe they have answers to the problem of evil, I find it helpful to put a new twist on the same concept. It’s especially helpful if your new mental exercise takes into account the most common objections. This is what I’ve attempted to with what I call the the Allegory of the Automaker:
Imagine an automaker that is building a car with perfect knowledge about its defects and safety concerns. The company and its president knowingly design a car with a few major design flaws. As a result, the vehicle will sometimes explode violently at some point when approaching speeds over 50 miles per hour, resulting in almost certain death for the driver and all passengers. Despite knowing this, the automaker continues to sell the car. The known defect results in thousands of deaths. Would we not find the decision makers in this case guilty for the deaths of the drivers?
If the automaker does wrong by creating vehicles they know will kill, why would we not hold god guilty for the death and suffering caused by natural disasters, mental illness, disease, etc.? If god exists, he not only allowed evil, but actively participated in creating suffering and pain by creating a world where such horrors are common.
Some may say that death isn’t that big of a deal, and that people will be judged justly and those who go to heaven will be happier. This line of reasoning trivializes death, and therefore life. If losing your life is no big deal, your life isn’t very important. If our lives are trivial to god, why are we even here? More to the point, a god who cares for neither human life nor the pain of friends and family who lose loved ones cannot truly be called benevolent.
We cannot simply give god a pass because he’s supposed to know more than we are – such an argument assumes the end in the argument, and turns a blind eye to tragedy and reality. The nature of the very world god is said to have created testifies against a benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient god.
Originally published May 2014. Updated January 1, 2015.