1. What simple fact about the world persuades many people that there can’t be a God?
2. Write a brief report about moral evil. Make sure that you:
(a) Give a clear definition of moral evil.
(b) Give examples to illustrate your answer.
3. Describe one of the stories used by the character Ivan Karamazov to challenge belief that God is benevolent (good).
4. Do you think that the suffering of children shows that God either doesn’t exist or isn’t benevolent (good)? Explain your answer.
5. Write a brief report about natural evil. Make sure that you:
(a) Give a clear definition of natural evil.
(b) Give examples to illustrate your answer.
6. Explain why the process of evolution is thought to challenge the belief that God is good?
7. What three questions are often used to summarise the problem of suffering? Copy and complete the sentences below:
‘If God is omnipotent …
‘If God is omniscient …
‘If God is all-loving …
Does suffering and evil show that there is no God?
Sometimes when people are faced with a big problem they choose to hide their heads in the sand and not face up to the issue. Certainly some people who believe in God may want to try to ignore the problem of suffering or respond with simple pat answers. It would, however, be unfair to say this about religions as a whole. It is often forgotten that Dostoevsky, the creator of the character of Ivan Karamazov, was a very religious man. We will focus our attention on some Christian approaches to suffering. If you have time you may want to investigate what some other religious traditions say about suffering.
When faced with the reality of suffering, theologians have often presented arguments in defence of God. This type of argument is known as a theodicy. Probably the best known theodicy is the free will defence. It is rooted in the idea of God creating humans with free choice. Before we look at it closely it is important to understand some of the ideas found in the story of Adam and Eve.
According to traditional Christian teaching all suffering is rooted in the story of the first sin, the sin committed by ‘Adam and Eve’ in the Garden of Eden. The story presents a vision of a perfect world, free from suffering, evil and even death. This good world becomes very good after the first humans are created in the image of God13. However, this world is wrecked by the actions of Adam and Eve when, in their freedom, they disobey God by eating from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Some theologians believe this story should be understood literally (i.e. that everything in it happened exactly as it says). They suggest that the action of Adam and Eve literally brought guilt and misfortune upon the human race. All natural and moral evils result from this actual event.
Other theologians believe that the story is better understood as an allegory. This was certainly the view of the influential early Christian writer Augustine. He believed that the story of Adam and Eve represents the human struggle between good and evil.
If Genesis is best understood as an allegory then it could be that:
• The serpent represents the temptation to do bad things.
• Adam and Eve’s nakedness represents human innocence (maybe echoing the innocence of young children).
• Adam and Eve’s desire to ‘cover themselves’ represents human guilt and shame.
‘If there is a perfectly good spiritual being (God) then it’s perfectly possible that there’s also is an evil spiritual being (the Devil).’
This approach is centred on the belief that humans are radically different from animals. An animal can only ever act on instinct; humans are free to choose how to live. This means that we can positively choose to do good things or negatively choose to do bad things. The story of Adam and Eve is often used to illustrate this human capacity to freely choose to do either the right or the wrong thing. The message of the story is that suffering and evil occurs when people deliberately choose to do evil things. The free-will argument suggests that humans, in their radical freedom, often choose to do evil rather than good. This choice is at the heart of all moral suffering.
Augustine said that when we choose to do evil things we depart from being what we should be. In other words we fall short of being what God intended us to be.
In other words, we can choose to be all that we should be. Or we can choose to be less than we might be – less than God intended us to be.
St Thomas Aquinas
Aquinas said something similar, arguing that human beings have fallen short of their true nature. Because of our bad (evil) choices we ‘defect from being’.
According to these theologians the blame for suffering lies entirely at the feet of humans.
‘Do you think that it’s possible for God to have created humans such that they would always choose to do the right thing?’
Traditional Christian belief would say ‘no’ to the question above. If the answer was ‘yes’ then it would appear that God would have had to create a race of ‘puppet-like’ creatures who simply obeyed Him without thought or question.
Probably the central idea in Christianity is that humans find meaning and purpose in a ‘love’ relationship with God and each other:
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.’14
Most would suggest that love can never be forced or controlled. Love appears to demand free choice. If God had created puppets instead of human beings then any possibility to freely love would seem to be impossible. The free-will defence says that if we are to have real opportunities for choice (and the real potential to love), then we must also live in a world where pain is a real possibility.
The character Ivan Karamazov was clearly unimpressed with the free-will defence. He was suggesting that the price of human freedom, the suffering of even one child, is too high. His thought of suicide is his complete rejection of the freedom offered by God.
‘Do you agree with Ivan that the suffering of one child is too high a price to pay for human freedom?’
There have been other well-known theodicies. If you’re interested you could investigate how they attempt to suggest why it’s possible to reconcile belief in God with the reality of evil and suffering. Appendix 3 will get you started.