Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord! Job 1:21
Perhaps the most popular argument against the existence of God is based on the timeless question: "If there is truly a good God, then why is there evil in the world?" Typically the argument runs as: "Since our world is full of evil and a good, all-powerful God would never allow for evil, God therefore cannot exist." This argument involves more emotion (usually anger) than reason, but the question is important to consider. It can be phrased many ways and a few will be considered here.
First we must consider the meaning of evil. There are two kinds of evil: moral and physical. Moral evil is willful sin, while physical evil is natural harm. Examples of moral evil are murder, adultery, fornication, theft, sorcery, abortion...(Didache 2:2). Examples of physical evil are famine, illness, natural disasters and death. Now evil is not something in itself, but a lack of something that should be present, e.g. a lie lacks in truth. God does not create evil since it is not a thing to be created. Evil is an imperfection, lack or void in God's creation.
Focusing first on moral evil, the question could be phrased as: "If there is a good God, then why did He create morally evil people?" In considering this question, we must realize that God does not create evil people (Gen. 1:26-31). Being all-knowing, God does knowingly create people who will be sinners, but knowledge and control are different. God created us with the gift of free will - the ability to willfully choose Him or reject Him. We choose to sin - to reject God - through willful disobedience. This rejection is a void in God's plan for us.
God wants us to love Him, but without free will, we could not sincerely love Him. We cannot be forced to love someone. If God created us without free will, we would be living machines and not made in His image and likeness. God permits moral evil to the extent that He gives us free will. Thanks to us, the moral evil in the world is the result of our choice.
Focusing next on physical evil, the question can be stated as: "If there is a good God, why are there pain, suffering and death in the world?" Perhaps a harder hitting version is: "If there is a just God, why do good people suffer?" Now suffering does serve a purpose in the material world. Pain retards us from damaging our bodies. I do not put my hand in fire mainly out of fear of pain. The pain of angina can warn us of an impending heart attack. Athletes endure extreme physical hardship and suffering in order to discipline their bodies for better performance in sports, realizing that no pain means no gain. Even for good people such suffering is not totally absurd.
Material things operate according to physical laws. For example, fire operates according to the laws of thermodynamics. The same laws which allow us to heat our homes during the winter, can allow our homes to burn to the ground. To prevent the latter evil would require a miracle - a suspension of physical laws. God permits physical evil to the extent that He does not perform one miracle after another in order to stop suffering, thus causing the ordinary to become extraordinary. Physical laws also apply the same to both good and bad people (Matt. 5:45).
Perhaps the real question is not why does God allow for physical evil, but why did God create us in a material world? Some suggest that God created us in an imperfect material world so that we would not rely on ourselves but come to love and rely on the perfect God (2 Cor 1:8-9). We were created with a desire and hunger which can only be satisfied by God. This void of happiness calls us to Him. In the words of St. Augustine: "...for You have made us for Yourself, O God, and our heart is restless until it rests in You." [Confessions I,1,1] St. Irenaeus of Lyons (190 A.D.) has another thought:
...where there is no exertion, there is no appreciation. Sight would not be so desirable if we did not know what a great evil blindness is. Health, too, is made more precious by the experience of sickness; light by comparison with darkness; life with death. In the same way, the heavenly kingdom is more precious to those who have known the earthly one. But the more precious it is, the more we love it; and the more we love it, the more glorious shall we be in the presence of God. God, therefore, permitted all these things, so that we, instructed by them all, might in future be prudent in all things, and, wisely taught to love God, might abide in that perfect love. [Against Heresies IV,37,7]
As more thoughts, suffering and sacrifice can help us overcome our selfishness. Also God is Holy, so His creation is seperated from Him and thus imperfect.
The Book of Job in the Bible deals with this problem in a beautifully poetic manner. Job is a righteous, God-fearing man (Job 1:1); however, God allows Satan to inflict Job with horrible disasters and disease to test his loyalty. Satan wants to show God that Job's faith is false (Job 2:3-7). Under intense suffering Job argues with "friends" about the suffering of the innocent. Towards the end God enters the debate and responds:
Who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance? Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answer! Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding... [Job 38:2-4; NAB]
Will we have arguing with the Almighty by the critic? Let him who would correct God give answer! [Job 40:2]
God responds by telling Job that His wisdom and power are beyond man’s ability to understand. Also man is not in control of the universe: his virtues alone do not ensure earthly happiness. Job humbly closes the debate with the words:
I have dealt with great things that I do not understand; things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know...Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes. [Job 42:2-6]
The Bible here suggests that we should accept suffering and trust in God. Later in the Bible, Jesus Christ responds this way on the Cross.
Now for Christians the suffering and pain of this life can become the joy and glory of our eternal life. In the Bible, St. Paul connects physical evil (death) with moral evil (sin):
Therefore as sin came into the world through one man (Adam) and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned. [Rom 5:12; RSV]
Through Adam's sin (i.e. original sin), we all sin and suffer death; however, God is merciful. Christianity offers hope:
For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. [1 Cor 15:21-22]
Christ's death on the Cross fills the void caused by sin. Even though we suffer pain and death for our sins, God being sinless accepted, as a man, pain and death on the Cross for our salvation. Love involves sacrifice, and Christ has set an example for us:
Although He (Jesus) was a Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered; and being made perfect He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him. [Hebrews 5:8-9]
"If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." [Mark 8:34; Also see 1 Peter 2:20-21; Phil 1:29]
As Christians we can hope in eternal happiness - thanks to suffering and Jesus Christ. As St. Paul promises:
...we are children of God, if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. [Rom 8:16-18]
In our suffering we share in the suffering of Christ (Col 1:24) so in heaven we may share in His glory (1 Peter 4:19).
Our sinful world is the unfortunate result of human choice; not even Satan can force us to sin. Pain, suffering and death are integral parts of the material world due to Adam's sin, but Christianity offers hope through the suffering of Jesus Christ. Evil in this world is not a disproof of God, but a constant reminder of our need for the perfect God of the Bible (2 Cor 1:8-9).
Suggested reading: Boethius The Consolation of Philosophy, (A Classic work dealing with the problem of human free will & an all-knowing Creator, written in 524 A.D.)
Printed with permission from A Catholic Response, Inc.