There is probably no greater argument for God’s non-existence than the problem of evil. Theodicy, a term used by philosophers and theologians to define the problem of evil, is a problem for theists because if God exists as an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving God, why is there evil and suffering?
The atheist would argue, for the most part, that if God did exist and was all-knowing and all-powerful, then there would not be any suffering. The problem is not a new one, and philosophers have dealt with this question throughout time. Indeed, in the Christian tradition, there have been many attempts to deal with and solve this problem, yet each solution falls short of being satisfactory.
Of course, when speaking of evil being freely done by humans, we can more easily provide a solution to the problem by arguing that humans have free will, and thus human actions to do evil are the choices of those humans. Someone chooses to hurt another human being, and thus the evil being done is by human volition.
But even in these instances, we are faced with a theological problem. For example, although it was the planning and choosing of terrorists to board planes on September 11, 2001, a plan and choice that ended the lives of thousands of innocent people, the questions is, “Why did God not stop them?”
If God is all-knowing, and thus God knows the future, why did God not stop the planes from taking off, or stop those men from boarding the planes? But, even if God may not be considered all-knowing, surely traditional concepts of God tell us that God is all-powerful. If so, why did God not use that power to stop the planes just as they were about to crash into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania? Are there things that God cannot know and that God cannot do?
But perhaps the most scathing question about why evil happens concerns the very character of God. If Christians believe anything about God, it is that God is love, and as a benevolent God, we would hope that God would intervene when evil is being done. And yet, there is evil. What does this say about God’s love for humanity, particularly when innocent humans suffer in multitudes? Does God truly love?
An even larger problem is that of the suffering caused by natural disasters. Though humans may have an influence on the way our environment operates, the existence of natural disasters throughout the history of the world serves very well the argument for God’s non-existence. Or, at the very least, if a being known as God does exist, that being does not exist as the God we humans have defined as all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. In this regard, the atheist’s argument is valid.
But perhaps what troubles me the most as a theist who is riddled with doubts and questions concerns the story from Genesis 22; the story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Now, I know we read this story and say “All’s well that ends well,” rushing past all that happens in the story to the happy ending, but this skirts the heart of the problem we are faced with in this text. God, according to this story, actually commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son in order to test Abraham’s loyalty.
Does God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac match anything we know of God’s character? What kind of God forces this kind of test on a person? Could God not have tested Abraham in another way? Could we say that God, for all intents and purposes, would have been the author of this evil act if Abraham would have gone through with it?
I know, I know, he did not go through with it because “God stopped him.” But what if God had not stopped him? Or, what if God had called out to Abraham to stop what he was doing, but Abraham did not hear God, or he was confused about what to do and he went forward with God’s original command? Would this make Abraham guilty of murder, or God?
All of this might be splitting hairs, but with such an important question as the problem of evil, we need to be as thorough as possible with our questions, and we ought to deal honestly with God’s explicit and active role in evil or at least in God’s complicit and inactive role in allowing evil.
Why? Because the problem of evil is not just an abstract philosophical and theological problem. It is a very personal problem, and none of us are free from suffering. And, when we do experience suffering, life becomes disoriented, and the expression “it feels like my world is falling apart” is very appropriate.
For theists, like myself, however, there is no good solution to the problem of evil, although for me it is easier to see God as not being all-knowing and all-powerful than it is to question God’s benevolence. But though each solution is inadequate, I do think we can follow the pattern of many of the psalms of lament that not only express the anguish of human suffering, but that also offer a model for protesting God’s involvement, or at least God’s neglect.
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” These opening words of Psalm 13 express the honest pain the psalmist feels as he questions the love and providence of God. He takes his anger to God in a bold and honest prayer of accusation, blaming God for forgetting him, for hiding from him, for not loving him.
The reason he can call out to God with such raw and honest language is that God is the only one to whom he can bring his prayers of protest that call out to God for help, particularly when the pain, the suffering, the loss is so overwhelming. Even Jesus, in his most agonizing moments of death, screamed in protest to God, “My God, My God. Why have your abandoned me?”
Theodicy will continue to remain a conundrum. Some have been so confounded by the problem that they have abandoned a belief in God. While I have not reached the point of completely abandoning my belief in God, I am often confused by God’s justice and I can only cry out, “How long, O Lord?”