On 12 January of this 2010, as many of you have probably become aware, Haiti experienced a 7.0 earthquake, the largest ever in its history. The earthquake devastated the entire island, leaving catastrophic damage and rising casualties. The horrific images and stories emerging from Haiti have caused many to question the existence of a divine being. How could God allow such unimaginable suffering to occur in the lives of millions?
The Problem of Evil
“Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”
David Hume phrases his question a bit differently. He asks,
“Why is there any misery at all in the world? Not by chance, surely. From some cause then. Is it from the intention of the Deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty. Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive….”
The contradiction many see is that evil would not exist if God really is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. From the existence of evil, they conclude that there must be no God.
Harry Potter and the Problem of Evil
The school year after Harry’s godfather is murdered, Harry and his two friends return to Hogwarts to continue their education. In all past years, they have been taken from the train station to the school in carriages that are self propelled. This year, though, something is different. Harry sees grotesque, horse-like creatures called Thestrals pulling the carriages. What’s more, he is the only one (besides Luna) who can see them – to all others, including his closest friends, they are invisible. As he and Luna talk, Harry discovers that it is because both he and Luna are the only ones to have ever seen and experienced death.
What might this have to do with the problem of evil? Keep reading.
Augustine and the Illusion of Evil
St. Augustine, rather than deny the existence of God, chooses to deny the existence of evil. He claims that evil is an illusion, and simply the absence of good. If something exists, then it must be good, and what we call evil is just the absence of that good. Since evil doesn’t exist, there is no contradiction in God existing as well. He says in prayer,
“And it was made clear to me that all things are good even if they are corrupted… So long as they are, therefore, they are good. Therefore, whatsoever is, is good. Evil, then, the origin of which I had been seeking, has no substance at all; for if it were a substance, it would be good.…
“To thee there is no such thing as evil, and even in thy whole creation taken as a whole, there is not” (Confessions, Book 7, Chapters XII and XIII).
Dostoevsky and the Reality of Evil
Dostoevsky, in a section entitled “Rebellion” from The Brothers Karamazov, tells the story of two brothers, Ivan and Alyosha. Alyosha wants to dedicate himself to God and become a monk. Ivan spends the section trying to convince Alyosha that such an endeavor would be a waste, as there may be no God at all. Ivan tells his brother of hideous evils that have occurred all around them. To make the evils that much more poignant, he confines his comments to evils involving only innocent children.
As a caution, the following descriptions are quite violent.
Ivan first describes the Turks, who burn villages, murder, and rape women and children. They nail prisoners to fences by their ears and leave them till morning, at which point the prisoners are hanged. They cut unborn children from their mother’s wombs, and toss babies up in the air only to catch them on the points of their bayonets before their mothers’ eyes. They take small children, point pistols at their faces, and after making the children laugh with glee suddenly pull the trigger.
Ivan tells the story of the “Frenchman Richard,” an illegitimate child who was given at age six to some shepherds on the Swiss mountains by his parents. The shepherds taught him nothing, and scarcely fed or clothed him. At age seven he was sent to herd the flocks in the wet and cold. He longed to eat the mash given to pigs, but was beaten when he stole from them. When Richard grew old enough he left and lived on the street as a thief until he was executed for the murder of an old man.
Ivan tells of a Tartar father who beat his daughter with a birch covered twig so that it stung more. He would beat her until she screamed, then until she could no longer scream, and finally until she could only gasp “Daddy! Daddy!” He was brought before a court, but quickly acquitted. Ivan tells of Russian parents who beat, thrashed, and kicked their five year old girl for no reason until her body was bruised. They shut her overnight in the cold and frost in a privy because she didn’t ask to be taken up. He own mother smeared her face with, and forced her to eat, excrement. The daughter beat her heart with her aching fists, and wept alone.
Ivan last tells of a Russian general. An eight year old boy of a servant threw a stone and hurt the paw of one of the general’s dogs. The boy was taken and shut up all night, then in the morning he was stripped naked before all the servants. The general shouted at him, “Run!”, and as the boy ran, sent a pack of dogs after him. Before his mother’s eyes the dogs catch him and tear him to pieces.
After concluding the stories of these atrocities, Ivan then asks Alyosha:
“Tell me yourself, I challenge you – answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature – that little child beating its breast with its fist, for instance – and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth“ (emphasis added).
“No, I wouldn’t consent.” And he agrees that other men would share in that sentiment.
Are such evils as Ivan describes an illusion?
Haiti and the Reality of Evil
When we look at a map of the island, it is hard to comprehend what took place there. We are detached from the suffering, and, from our vantage point where we see only colors of decreasing intensity, evil might be considered only an illusion.
But the earthquake in Haiti is not just a red and yellow ripple. It is death. It is suffering. It is real. It is evil (albeit mostly natural evil).
Almost half a million people are homeless. These homeless are without basic needs like nutrition, sanitation, clean water, or other essential services.
Hospitals have collapsed all over Haiti, leaving hundreds of thousands without a source for much needed medical care.
Roads, airports, and even phone networks have been damaged, creating difficulty in communicating or getting aid to where it is most needed.
Dead bodies are being buried in mass graves. Others have been left to rot in the humidity and heat, leaving the smell of decomposing bodies to waft in the air. Some bodies have been burned, or taken to dumps to be buried in trenches dug by earth movers. Some estimate that as many as 200,000 have been killed
Violence and looting has broken out where distribution of supplies has been slow. A 15-year-old girl named Fabienne Cherisma was killed by police for looting. She was shot in the head after taking paintings from a wrecked shop.
There are growing fears of child-trafficking in Haiti, where orphans are in danger of being snatched up and flown out of the country to face all the horrors that child-trafficking entails. Children sleep next to the corpses of their dead family because they don’t know where to go.
Augustine was wrong. This evil is not an illusion. This evil is real.
Harry Potter Once Again
There are some who believe, like Augustine, that evil is an illusion, only the absence of good. They may not say it in so many words, but numbers of Christians are able to reconcile their faith with the evil in the world almost effortlessly. They defer to their faith, and hold fast to scriptures like Isaiah 55:8. These individuals are like Ron and Hermione. They cannot see the creatures pulling the wagon, and take the feat for a magical illusion.
Yet these people who believe that evil is an illusion must not have seen the evil that Ivan describes, or the evil that we see on the news each night, or the images on TV and the internet of the evil that is taking place in Haiti as we speak. When they, like Harry, finally do experience the evil in the world, when they really understand the horror that is happening all around them, they understand that there is no illusion. Evil is not just the absence of good. Evil is very real.
This is a problem that merits serious consideration. This question deserves more of an answer than simply that God is good and in control.
Continuing the Series
- Part 1 – Haiti, Harry, and the Reality of Evil
- Part 2 – The Christian Conundrum
- Part 3 – The Mormon Solution