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The Problem of Evil

Louis Pernot

Translation Louise Thunin

A frequent objection to faith is to say : « I cannot believe there is a God, with all the evil there is in the world. » This is not a new question and it isn’t really an objection ; many explanations have been found in answer to it. The science which deals with this question is called « theodicy, » etymologically : the justification of God.

Among the answers usually given, there are some wrong ones.

The first is that suffering is a punishment from God, a consequence of sin.

It is certain that our errors can cause suffering, but God does not punish. And suffering, of course, affects even the just. This is explicitly expressed in the Old Testament with Job and in many passages of the Gospel (the man born blind in John 9 or the tower that collapses on the Galileans, in Luke 13).

Another idea occasionally evoked is that suffering could be a trial sent by God to test the faithfulness of the believer. It may be possible to find that notion in the Book of Job, but from the New Testament on, we cannot think of God as a source of evil or suffering for mankind. As far as testing us goes, God doesn’t need to ; he knows full well the value of each one of us.

Therefore the most widespread idea is that evil would not be caused by God but by mankind. It is true that if there are wars and massacres, they are due to the wickedness of human beings. Thus, we can think that evil comes from the fact that God has chosen to give a degree of freedom to mankind and that he cannot take it back. This is partially true. But it is difficult to imagine that God would allow certain horrible crimes against the innocent, and that he would simply refuse to intervene because of a principle. Would God be capable, in this way, of so complete a lack of compassion ? That is doubtful. Moreover, there is a lot of suffering in the world that doesn’t depend on humans : shocking illnesses that strike children, earthquakes, famines. The aforementioned explanation cannot account for natural catastrophes and is in no way sufficient.

There is, of course, the simplest and oldest explanation, which is that of dualism : the world can be seen as a battlefield between two principles, one of good, which is God, and the other of evil, which would be the Devil. But, fundamentally, Christianity is monotheistic and believes that there is only one active principle in the world, God, and the « devil » is but a convenient and generic word to designate evil in general.

In the dilemma which consists in saying that if God is all-powerful, then he lacks love, and if God is love, then he is not all-powerful, we can prefer the second hypothesis and renounce omnipotence. God’s « omnipotence » is not a Gospel concept. This expression is even totally absent from the four gospels, and the epistles (except for a quote from the Old Testament), and is only found in the Apocalypse, which repeats a wrong translation of « pantocrator. »

There is therefore no major Biblical reason to retain the idea that God is all-powerful. We can even think, on the contrary, that evil is precisely something that is not God’s will, by definition something that does not correspond to his plan, and that he cannot really prevent.

Some will say that if God is not all-powerful, then he is nothing! This is false. There is a wide margin between totally impotent and omnipotent. God can act infintitely, but he cannot do just any old thing right away. This follows an old idea the Greek Fathers had of ongoing creation. The world is not like a finished work of art on which we can judge the artist, but it is being accomplished. So, yes, there is still evil in the world, that which has not yet been completely created by God. And, precisely, God asks us to take part with him in his work, to participate in getting rid of this suffering that revolts us.

But this non-all-powerful God can still do a lot. Thus, without really knowing why evil seems to strike unjustly, we need to reassert that it is not God’s fault and that he can do an infinite amount to help the person suffering.

Whatever answer we give to the question of evil, it is essential not to hold God responsible. The theology taught in the old catechisms where it was said : « We give this up to God, may his will be done, » produced too many atheists, people rebelling against God and losing faith in a God they took to be responsible for their suffering, at a time when their faith, on the contrary, could have been immensely helpful.

Another, totally opposite solution, is Calvin’s. For him, God is absolute, all-powerful and omniscient. Therefore, everything that happens is the will of God. Since God is good, evil, in a way, is but an appearance. There is something rather true in that. We have only a partial view of things, and we cannot really know what is good and what is not. We therefore have to trust God : whatever he does is good, and if it seems evil to us, then it is because we lack the capacity to understand. What Calvin asks is an act of faith. If something happens, it is that God willed it, and therefore, it is appropriate that his will be done ; we’ll understand later on.

To illustrate that, one can say that there are two theologies : cat theology and dog theology. When the master of a pet has to inflict a painful medical treatment on his animal, a cat rebels and refuses the care ; even though it will save its life, the cat fights it. A dog, on the other hand, accepts and says to itself : « I don’t know why my master is hurting me, but if he’s doing it, it must be good for me. I don’t need to understand, I trust my master. » And so the dog, which, with one bite, could kill its master, hurting its paw, remains completely docile.

So, there again, what more are we to God than a dog is to its master ?

This is interesting, because in fact, in what way is evil, evil ? With respect to this world, few things that we consider as « bad » are really bad. When a child dies, it isn’t much materially speaking, he might just as well have not been born, and thus the death of a child is not an evil, it is just a negation of good. It is the mother’s suffering that makes it truly wrong. However, suffering comes from revolt, from refusing something. Accepting what happens with wisdom is to remove from suffering its capacity to hurt us, and is, finally, to suppress suffering.

So, indeeed, we can think this way about small things and say to ourselves : « After all, if that’s the way it is, then perhaps it’s the will of God, and maybe it’s better this way. » But in very serious cases, we seem to find it impossible to think in this manner. Yet Calvin, like others, was able to maintain this idea to the end.

Even he who saw his beloved wife, Idelette, die, and before his eyes, his only child as well, always said, « If it is thus, then may God’s will be done. »

This Calvinist theology seems hard to accept nowadays, but what we can retain from it is that in any case, all this is completely beyond us, and we will never be able to explain everything. There is therefore, certainly, in the problem of evil, at one point, a sort of act of faith in saying : « I trust in God. » And whatever the situation, never doubt his infinite goodness nor his unconditional love for us.

What the last two solutions reported here have in common, even if they are seeming opposites, is that God is a source of good only and can, in no wise, will evil.





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a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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