Theodicy is the attempt to explain why suffering and evil exist in a world created by an all powerful, all knowing, and all loving God. If God is omniscient, then he knows about all the suffering in the world; if God is omnipotent, then he has the power to prevent suffering from occurring; and if he is perfectly good, then he would not want us to suffer so greatly. And yet there is an enormous amount of suffering in the world. This is a huge problem for theologians and believers alike: how to justify the evil existent in world they believe was created by a loving, powerful, all-knowing God.
First, evil is everywhere; it’s caused by wars, murder, rape, slavery, genocides, and abuse of women and children. However, this type of “moral evil” (suffering caused by man’s inhumanity to man) is terrible - but it’s only the tip of the ice-burg. There is also the immense suffering caused by diseases such as malaria, AIDS, cancer, and tuberculosis - just to name a few. In the last millennia there have been 6 pandemics which have each killed between 1 and 100 million people. That number is so staggering that our brains can’t even comprehend it. Yet each number was a small child, a mother, a father, a brother or sister, a cousin, or a friend who was mourned over, as you or I would mourn over our own children. Imagine that. Malaria alone has killed between 80 - 250 million people in the last 100 years - mostly children. And don’t forget the natural disasters (sometimes called “acts of God”) such as killer hurricanes, cyclones, earthquakes, and floods. We all saw the suffering recently in Haiti and the 2004 Asian Tsunami that killed about 250,000 people each - many of which were women and children. But in just the last 500 years there have been 9 natural disasters, each of which killed at least 250,000 people. It seems as if God wants us to suffer, that He’s unaware of our suffering, or else He is a bungler of a creator who didn’t have the ability to create a world in which disease and natural disasters didn’t kill the innocent so indiscriminately.
And, if you take pity on suffering animals, how can we justify their suffering - which has been occurring for much longer than humans have been around. Animals with developed nervous systems, capable of suffering pain, have existed for 100 million years before modern humans evolved just 100,000 years ago. The animals died, and continue to die, horrible deaths: they are eaten alive, starve to death, die of dehydration, die of horrible diseases, are buried in earthquakes, or are burned alive in forest fires. Also, remember that 99% of all animal species that ever existed are now extinct because their birthrate couldn’t keep up with the death toll. The existent animals today are the lucky survivors of natural selection’s inefficient and cruel processes. Today, however, domesticated animals may have it worse off than their wild relatives - since they are bred, raised in horrible conditions, and then killed by the bucket load for our food. The number of animals killed for our consumption is staggering: in 2000 alone, 9.7 billion animals were killed just in the U.S. - many of these sentient creatures died painful deaths after having lived even more terrible lives of unimaginable suffering. This type of evil - suffering caused by natural disasters, disease, or animal suffering - I call “natural evil”.
Theologians have been struggling for centuries to find answers to the thorny problem of suffering in a world supposedly designed by a simultaneously all knowing, all powerful, and all loving God. But none of them, as I'll now try to explain, are valid explanations.
My first exposure to an attempt to explain the existence of evil was while reading the “Book of Mormon” in high school. In Alma chapter 14, Alma and Amulek are preaching to the wicked people of Ammonihah who, after rejecting the message, round-up the righteous women and children and begin throwing them into a large fire. Amulek, witnessing the horrific sight and sounds of innocent women and children being burned alive, says to Alma that they should use God’s power to stop the genocide. However, Alma says that “The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.”
According to Alma, God allows terrible suffering on the innocent so that he can later punish the wicked. However, this is like saying that if we had the power to stop a terrible crime that was occurring, such as the murder of a woman and her children, that we shouldn’t try to stop the killer, because then we wouldn’t be able to prosecute and punish the killer afterwords!? If somebody allowed such murders to occur, with full knowledge of the crime in progress, and the power to safely stop it, we would surely prosecute THAT person as well. I don’t know why God somehow gets a pass for allowing suffering that He knows about and has the power to stop. However, this justification for evil is rarely used - probably because it’s so weak.
The most common justification for suffering and evil is the free will defense. I was convinced for a long time that free-will explained the “problem of pain”. According to the free-agency defense, evil exists because humans misuse their God granted free-agency. Free agency is given so that we can choose between good and evil. God can’t stop people from using their free-agency because good can only exist if we are also free to choose what is evil. In this way, good can’t exist without evil. In the Book of Mormon, Lehi utilizes the “free-will” defense when he says “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so . . . righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.”
Nicholas Everett said the following with regards to this line of thought: “If a thug shoots me in the leg, it is certainly good if there is a compassionate person to care for me - but it would be absurd to say that the good of the compassion is so great that it justifies the thug in shooting me in the first place. The world would be a better place with neither the shooting nor the compassion.”
The other, and more damning, problem with the free-will defense is that the victims of the misuse of free-will are often innocent. In “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the irreligious Ivan Karamazov has a discussion with his brother Alyosha (who is about to become a monk) about why God would allow innocent children to suffer. Ivan recounts a story about a little girl who is abused, beat, and tortured by her parents until “her whole body was nothing but bruises”. The child, a five-year old, has a bathroom accident in the middle of the night, so her cruel parents make her eat her own excrement, smear it in her face, and then lock her in the outhouse in the cold Russian night. Ivan then says “Can you understand what a small creature, who cannot even comprehend what is being done to her, in a vile place, in the dark and cold, beats herself on her strained little chest with her tiny fist and weeps with her anguished, gentle, meek tears for ‘dear God’ to protect her - can you understand . . . why this nonsense is needed and created? Without it, they say, man could not even have lived on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Who wants to know this damned good and evil at such as price? The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to ‘dear God.’” If suffering is the ticket needed by God for our salvation, Ivan says he would “most respectfully return him the ticket.” To this blasphemy, Alyosha accuses Ivan of rebellion against God.
Ivan’s reply to this accusation is to ask Alyosha to “imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fists . . . would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?” To which Alyosha answers softly “No, I would not agree.” Dostoevsky, who believed in God, later tries to defend the problem of pain by saying it is necessary for our growth and eventual salvation. I read “The Brothers Karamazov” the year before I went to medical school. I remember being troubled by the fact the Dostoevsky couldn’t rebut his own argument to my satisfaction (as he tried to do in a subsequent chapter).
But the real destroyer of the free-will defense is the fact that much, if not most, suffering has nothing to do with people exercising their free-agency. The 2010 Haiti earthquake indiscriminately killed people in their homes, schools, or places of work. The 2004 Asian Tsunami killed mostly women, children, or the frail unable to swim or run for high ground. Free-will had nothing to do with it; nor does it have anything to do with the millions of children who die from malaria and AIDS every year today. Free-will also has nothing to do with the vast amounts of animals suffering. Neither does some greater good that could possible come from suffering, as Nicholas Everett suggests with his example of the leg shooting thug. The world would be better without malaria and birth-defects, as well as the hospitals and medications which we use try and treat them with. And for what possible greater good do animals and children, incapable of free will, suffer so much for? And why so much gratuitous suffering?
And yet God supposedly set up the world in just this way - so that suffering was inevitable. For example, He supposedly created an animal world split between herbivores, designed to avoid predators, and carnivores, optimally designed to capture prey. The upshot is that the flourishing of some animals absolutely requires the suffering of the others. Either some animals will die of starvation, or other animals will be torn to pieces and eaten. As Richard Dawkins observed, “Who’s side is God on?”
God supposedly created the world so that, after 99% of all animal species had already become extinct, humans would evolve to be able to worship Himself. But to worship this God is to worship a being who also created cancer, smallpox, and birth defects. To worship this God is to worship a being who created an earth with a thin crust that occasionally shifts suddenly - causing devastating earthquakes and tsunami’s. To worship this God is to worship a creator who designed an earth with volatile weather patterns that cause famines and floods that kill millions. Couldn’t God design a better world that didn’t have all this suffering built into it, or at least not so much gratuitous suffering? If he knew about the suffering his plan would cause, if he had the ability to minimize the suffering, and if he really loves us, then why wouldn’t He?
Some say that God allows suffering because it allows other people the opportunity to try and alleviate it. The service opportunities that God provides, therefore, helps us to grow spiritually. By similar logic, then, it would be a good thing for me to go around and shoot people in the knee-caps because it gives someone else (doctors and Good Samaritans) the opportunity to administer to their wounds, and thereby grow at the expense of others suffering. Again, we instantly recognize that this is a ridiculous immoral scenario. But is there any difference when we assume God is the omniscient “knee-capper” who causes suffering so we can have growth opportunities?
The final gasped explanation for suffering is to say something like: “God’s ways are not man’s ways. We don’t know why suffering occurs. But there must be some reason it happens that only God knows. Trust in the Lord.” However, this is not an explanation or a defense at all. It’s an admission by the believer that they can’t think of any possible explanation why God causes such suffering. By way of analogy, imagine a person on trial for murder. This person was observed by multiple witnesses shooting the victim, there’s video surveillance of the murder happening, and the defendant’s fingerprints and DNA are on the murder weapon. Then imagine his defense attorney saying to the judge: “I don’t know why my client shot so-and-so, but he’s such a good person, there must be some reason that is simply beyond our ability to understand. Let’s just trust that he had a good reason, and let him off the hook.” What would an impartial judge say to that sort of defense? The “trust in the Lord” defense of “the problem of evil” is no different.
Maybe there is a God, (not probable, but I can't prove otherwise) but whatever God is, he can’t have the properties of being simultaneously all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. That confluence of characteristics is incompatible. God must then be something else; perhaps something sadistic because of the suffering he either causes or sanctions. Or maybe God is only all knowing and all loving, but an incompetent God who bungled his creation attempt. Or maybe he didn’t know what suffering his creation would cause because he’s not all-knowing. Or maybe he is aloof to human wishes: the God of the Deists who set the universe in motion and then left us to our own devices. It seems God, if he is anything at all, can be at most, only two out of the three all-powerful metaphysical qualities people usually ascribe to him (all-powerful, knowledgeable, and loving). And if he is not simultaneously all three, then why does he deserve to be worshiped?
The foregoing makes it sound as if I’m mad at God. No - I can’t quixotically attack a myth of fiction, just as I can’t be mad at fictional villians such as Iago, Hannibal Lecter, or Cruella de Vil.
It’s better to accept the fact that evil exist in the world. That it’s just the way the world is. And because evil exists, we need to do everything we can to minimize the suffering that will surely continue. We live in a universe that is, in many ways, fairly blind and indifferent to our suffering. Mankind, rather than a God who supposedly wants us to suffer and therefore designed a world in which we would suffer, is the only hope to minimize some of the vast amounts of suffering in the world.