Sunday, 22 January 2017

Why does God allow evil?

Here's a thing. The Problem of Evil is a terrible terrible argument philosophically. It's terrible. Rubbish. Just awful. It's an emotional knee jerk reaction to stuff people don't like. It hasn't got any actual weight as an intellectual problem. 

But people are hung up on it. And we shouldn't be surprised about that. People in general do favour their emotions over rationality.

It's human nature to put our feelings first, even when reason points in a different direction. When you do philosophy, you have to get in the practice of switching off emotion for a while, otherwise you can cloud your judgement. It's not always easy, and in tricky subjects like the worldwide suffering of humanity, it can seem cold and heartless. But them's the breaks.

Quite often, the Problem of Evil won't even be presented as any kind of logical philosophical argument or syllogism. It'll usually just be the question "Why does God let bad things happen?"
You don't have to have studied philosophy for long to know that a question is not the same as an argument!
A question is looking for an answer. You don't know how to explain something, so you ask someone else if they can. An argument is an attempt to make an explanation that you already have stick.
So given that there's this big question casting a large dark shadow of doubt over people, we should wonder if there's an answer.

And this is a thing that plagued me before I began my journey into Christianity. There were so many questions like this that were in common knowledge, yet nobody seemed to even have the beginning of an answer. We'd say "If God exists, why do bad things happen to good people?" and then shrug our shoulders and move on thinking "I guess we'll never know".
There was a time where I thought it was perfectly reasonable when I heard people saying stuff like "I think it's likely that there was a man in history called Jesus who was a good teacher, but I don't know for sure."
But then I discovered these things called 'reading' and 'research' and 'critical thinking'. It was amazing the results that I got. Answers are out there. Just go have a look.
So, after that lengthy sidetrack, let's get on with the question of the day. "If God exists, why does he let bad things happen to good people?"

Ok. First off. You have to look at this question as an internal problem for the Christian worldview. You have to try and look at things through the lens of Christianity. You're going to get confused if you try to pin it onto an atheistic world, because it won't stick.
So, if I drop here a couple of things to keep in mind, it should help.
1) God is the greatest possible being. He is goodness incarnate. Being goodness incarnate means he is a perfect balance of love, mercy, justice (that one's important), and also logic.
2) Seeing that we believe in Christianity for various other reasons, and we believe that God is as described, yet we do see that bad things happen to good people, we can imagine that even though we might not fully grasp the intricacies of the plan, we can quite comfortably believe that God has good reasons for allowing evil.
We might think certain things look terrible from where we stand now, but we have complete confidence that on a day we meet God, we can ask him 'why?', and he'll tell us something that will make us go 'Oh right. I get it now.'
3) But we don't even have to wait that long. We have enough revelation in the Bible to help us understand at least as much as we need to.
4) God's purpose for humanity in this life is not to give us perfect happiness and comfort. He's not a nanny or a comfort blanket that stops any booboos. He has a more important plan, and our purpose is to be a part of that.
None of us should feel like we are owed a pain-free life. Especially considering that God himself became a man, faced temptation, and was finally humiliated, tortured, and executed in the most brutal way possible. If God did that to himself, then why should we expect better?

Philosophers know that there is no contradiction between the statements "God exists" and "Evil exists". This is why the Problem of Evil falls flat. And because we know there is no contradiction, we don't have to worry about the problem. But it's still good to have some idea of the answer.

I keep teasing you with this, like I'm about to lead into the answer don't I? And then I go on about something else. Bear with me, I'm building up to it. I just have to lay the groundwork otherwise you might misunderstand important stuff.

So. The problem of evil from a Christian perspective is part of a picture that we know there is an answer to, even if we don't know what it is. It's just like any scientific theory where they keep testing something a certain way and they keep getting the same result, but there's a mystery ingredient that they can't figure out. The theory isn't wrong, it's just incomplete.

So when somebody says "If God exists why does evil exist?", and then somehow go from that to concluding 'God doesn't exist', you can quite clearly see that there is no logical reasoning going on there. Partly because not knowing an answer doesn't mean that there is no answer to be found, and partly because of the completely arbitrary choice to say 'God does not exist', instead of 'Evil does not exist'. 

Check out the Moral Argument, if atheism is true, then evil does not exist. So if an atheist takes the problem of evil as proof that God does not exist, that's just betraying their own bias, when they could just as easily say 'evil does not exist, but maybe God does'.

Ok. So let's get started on this theodicy! (theOdyssey)
God wants to have a perfect world. Every choice he makes reflects the most logical way of achieving that.
Heaven will be that world. Now Heaven doesn't exist yet. Heaven, according to the Bible, will be some time in the future after Judgement Day, when God rebuilds the world and cleans out all the bad stuff. We will get our physical bodies back and have our desire to sin removed.
So we have this promise several times in the Bible, that we have to suffer for a short time now in preparation for a much greater good in the future that will last for eternity. And when you compare, what, an average of 80 years to eternity, the suffering might not be such a big deal. It's the needle injection that lasts for a few seconds but saves you from months of illness.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. -- Romans 8:18
For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. -- 2 Corinthians 4:17
So that's one angle. The suffering we experience now will be put right in the future.
But that doesn't fully explain why we need suffering at all. Don't worry. There's more.
The greater good. God uses our suffering in ways that have benefits somewhere down the line. These benefits are more important than the pain. And it doesn't always mean our personal pain will be balanced by our personal benefits. We might never see what good came from our problems, but there could be some butterfly effect that helps somebody else. Like I said before about the needle vs the illness, sometimes our pain will be better for us personally in the long run. But in other cases, someone who is ill might be an inspiration to complete strangers who begin fundraising to find a cure that will help millions in the future. That first ill person might die before a cure is ever found, but they still had a part in saving a huge number of others later on.

So that's two parts of the theodicy. A promise that in the end it will all be worth it, and in the meantime all our suffering will have some kind of butterfly effect that helps the world in some way. The good will outweigh the bad.

This stuff is still pretty vague though. And as I said before, through a Christian eye view, when our faith is strong because of other reasons, these answers can be enough to satisfy us.

But don't worry all you skeptics out there! There's yet more to come!

You might not be satisfied with an answer that sounds a bit like "just trust us that everything happens for a reason". I get that. Christians have that trust already, so the answers are fine for us, but when you're still working at getting that trust into your system, it's not gonna cut it for you.
So how about some examples of the greater goods that can only exist if evil and suffering is out there?

The big one, the main one that most Christians will go to is free will. Because free will is hugely important.
God wants a perfect world right? In his nature as the embodiment of love, he wants the maximum amount of persons to share his love with. But you can only have love if it is freely given by moral, emotional agents. If you build a robot and program it to say "I love you" and give you affection on demand, that's not real love. That's some poor imitation. In God's perfect world of the greatest good, he has to have the real stuff, not fakeys.
He could have created an endless supply of mindless drones that praise him, but he wants real people with real minds who genuinely want to be there.
For that to even begin to work, God has to give humans free will. We can choose to follow him, or choose to rebel.
Obviously, his preference would be that we follow him, and he doesn't like it when we rebel, but he knows that the end game requires him to let the rebellion happen. It's for the greater good. That perfect world won't exist unless he lets some bad stuff go on now.

And that's an important distinction to make. God allows rebellion and sin to happen. He doesn't cause it, he doesn't make people do it. We're all tempted by bad things, and it's our choice to resist or give in.

Of course, because God allows people to choose sin, that means there are consequences. When people do bad things, bad things happen. And when someone chooses to do a bad thing, God can't just step in and put a forcefield around them to stop them doing it. That would be a violation of their freedom to choose.
So because God needs us to have free will for the perfect world to work, we are forced to live with the consequences of people choosing to do evil.

Most evil in the world can be traced back to the choices that humans make. There are countries where people are sick and starving. Meanwhile, wealthier countries that have excess food and medicine could help them out, but the selfish drive for profit gets in the way of that. War has been a massive problem throughout history. It's pretty much always caused by someone who is hungry for power.
Pretty much any evil deed is motivated either by personal greed for money, power, or sex. Basically people who put their own desires before other people's.
So while people are free to choose between right and wrong, and so many choose wrong because it makes them feel good, this means many people who choose right suffer the consequences of selfish actions.

But as I said before, God can use the negative consequences to create other good effects.
Often the best way to look at something bad that happens to you, is to take it as a life lesson. If you learn something important from it, you grow in character, and wisdom and experience. That in itself is incredibly valuable. 
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” -- Romans 5:3-4
On top of that, again as previously touched on, bad things happening to good people can be a motivator for other people to do great things. Finding cures, fundraising, building hospitals and schools, saving lives, improving society in general. All this stuff is character building and about working towards a greater good.

If you keep your heart in the right place, and still keep your faith, and still want to follow God, then when the Judgement comes, and the New Earth is created, God will keep all the good that you have in you and remove all the bad, the temptation to sin, so you will still be you, but just the best possible version of you.And it will have been your free choice to be a part of that and have your sin washed away.
On the flipside, those who put their sin first and care more about it than God or goodness, will be left to it. It's all about your choice. And in that is just one more reason for suffering to exist. Punishment for doing evil. I'm not going to dwell on that one, but you have to admit, it's a vital part of justice.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” -- James 1:2-4, 12
So, more about the greater good. If it wasn't for badness in the world, there would be a whole lot of incredible virtues that would just not exist. It seems obvious that a world full of virtue is better than one that's indifferent.
Take these examples:
How can you have courage if there is nothing to fear?
How can you have charity if there are nobody with needs?
How can you have honesty if there is no deceipt?
How can you have heroes if noone needs saving?
Or even, how can you be excellent if there is no such thing as indifference?

So, quick recap. Suffering in this life is necessary because it is a result of free will, second it's required for us to grow in character and become stronger people, and third it allows us opportunities to do good and prove ourselves. Finally, at the end times, if we want to be a part of perfect goodness, sin will be removed from the world, and we will be the best possible version of ourselves in Heaven.
It's clear that suffering is a vital part of God's plan. You wouldn't be able to get the same results of a perfect paradise, full of free thinking, loving people by any other way.

But there's one more layer to dig down into that might still be a niggle to some. Where does evil come from?
We already covered that a lot of it is the result of free will. Most of it probably. You could even put in that bracket victims of natural disasters like tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanoes. Some people freely chose to live on fault lines and despite knowing the hazards of staying there, they don't move away - or maybe they can't move away because of the free will of someone else who makes it impossible for them.

But we still have a difficulty when it comes to things like diseases. Some of them could again be a product of free will; things like pollution, diets, lack of exercise, and so on might be contributing to the causes of illness. But there could be something more fundamental to this.
"He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together." -- Colossians 1:17
God sustains the existence of the world. Everything ticks because he keeps it ticking.
There are a number of places in the Old Testament (e.g. Isaiah 64:7 "for you have hidden your face from us") that suggest that even though God sustains us and is still there, he has taken a step back and hidden himself to some extent.
In doing this, in taking away some of his power and separating himself from us a bit, this would cause some cracks to appear in creation. Just like where light doesn't shine, there is dark shadow, if God isn't actively putting his goodness onto his creation, there can only be decay.
By stepping away from us just a little bit, God is showing us what the world could be like without him. As he is still mostly present, we can imagine that things would be a whole lot worse if he withdrew completely!

During the course of most of history, we can see the pain caused by God stepping away from us. But he also reminded us of what life will be when we walk with him. He arrived on the planet as Jesus and taught love, forgiveness, and tolerance, while also healing the sick and turning sinners away from their temptations.
So again, it was a small taste of what life can be.

In this we can see the difference between a world with God, and a world without him. God doesn't want to lose anyone to sin, but he has given us the freedom to choose it if that's what we really want. But why would you want it... unless you're crazy?