In this series, I am attempting to approach the topic of suffering from a variety of different angles. As I mentioned in the first post, I am using the term “suffering” to sum up the famous Problem of Evil. I talk about the Problem of Evil at length in this post on Alexander Campbell, but perhaps it would be beneficial to state the problem outright, the original statement of which is generally credited to Epicurus:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?”
So basically the issue is, if God is good and powerful, why does He allow evil and suffering to exist in the world?
Now, it’s a fair question to ask if all suffering is evil or the result of evil. As humans we admittedly have very limited perspectives, and sometimes things which are good for us certainly don’t seem good at the time they occur (think about an infant getting a vaccine, for example). Regardless, evil certainly exists in the world, and a lot of suffering occurs because of it.
Philosophers and theologians and people who discuss this topic will often distinguish between two kinds of evil: moral evil and natural evil.
Generally speaking, moral evil refers to the evil acts that people choose to commit. A lot of the suffering which occurs in the world happens because people choose to do things which cause harm to one another. Fatal car accidents caused by alcohol consumption, child molestation, ISIS beheadings, and the Holocaust are all examples of moral evil. People do foolish and terrible things which cause a great deal of suffering for others.
Really, this type of evil is easier to explain, at least, if you have a robust view of human free will. As I discussed a little in this post, I think a theology which embraces the idea that God created humans with free will is important and makes the most sense of the teachings of Scripture. The basic idea is that God created people out of His love and desires that we love Him in return. Certainly God could have created us like robots who had no choice but to “love” Him, but a coerced feeling like that wouldn’t really be love at all. To enable us to choose to love Him, God also gives us the ability to reject Him, and when we abuse our freedom of will, all sorts of bad things can happen.
When it comes to moral evil, you can blame God for the way He made the world (though, based on the previous paragraph, what other options were available?), but really, the blame lies with people who make bad or evil choices.
Natural evil generally refers to those “random” things which occur, not because of the actions of people, but as a result of the world “naturally” operates (I put those two words in quotations because they are loaded with some major assumptions). Hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, genetic conditions and human decay and death in general are examples of natural evil.
Now, human choices can still exacerbate natural evils and make the suffering greater than it would be otherwise (certain behaviors can make illness more likely, social problems like poverty can increase the amount of suffering which comes from natural disasters, etc.), but for the most part, people have no control over natural evil—we suffer simply because we live in a world where these types of things occur.
Because of this, I think natural evil is a little harder to explain away. We can understand when negative things happen to people who deserve them, and we can understand, as horrible as it is, when people suffer because other people choose to do evil. But why do we live in a world where natural disasters kill so many unsuspecting people? Why do children get cancer and die? Did God design the world this way, and if so, why? If God didn’t design the world this way, what happened to it for everything to get so messed up?
In the next post, I’ll try to take a closer look at natural evil, and specifically, the idea of chaos: the element of randomness in life which we can’t control which has potential for unleashing great suffering. For me, as the parent of a little girl with a genetic condition, this is one of the really tough areas of examining suffering theologically.