● Cancer is one of our most prolific killers - an insidious disease that takes the lives of millions of people each year, all who unexpectedly engage in a fight for survival and often lose. In 2016, 8.9 million people around the world died from cancer. In 2015, the figure was 8.8 million (statistics taken from Our World in Data and World Health Organisation).
● Natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes continue to produce prolific death toll rates with one of the worst incidents occurring in 2004 - the Indian Ocean tsunami – taking the lives of almost 250,000 innocent humans. Many would have drowned or been crushed.
● The Black Death, also known as the Plague, was an outbreak of disease that fatally infected at least 50 million people during the early renaissance period throughout Europe. One form of the disease would result in flesh turning black, boils erupting all over the body, and buboes appearing in the groin area. By the end of its wrath, it had wiped out half of the European population.
Further examples of evil include the millions of Jewish people who died in the Holocaust, the thousands of children who died today of starvation, and the countless victims of other natural disasters (such as floods, hurricanes, and heatwaves), all of whom were clearly not to blame for their unfortunate disposition. I predict that the majority of these people were law-abiding citizens who never did anything so drastically wrong that it should warrant death. There seems to be an obvious injustice in the world, an imbalance of good and evil.
Although many of us are fortunate enough to live until old age, life is certainly not without its fair share of hardship along the way. For every human being, pain, suffering and death are inevitable. The severity of evil may vary; some of us may live moderately happy lives with occasional turmoil, others may be stricken into a life of never ending misery. It all depends on the lottery of birth, an inevitable predisposition that dictates our lives. Each person must simply accept the cards they are dealt with. It is fallacious to think that you could not have been born into slavery in another century, poverty in another country, or suffer from an illness that results in constant physical and mental anguish. Conversely, you may have been born into royalty. This indifference is alone puzzling. Yet what is even more frustrating, and just as apparent, is the fact that good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people, all the time. So where does God fit into the picture?
It is a question that has dawned mankind for centuries, with the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus being the first to propose the perplexing problem in the following form: if God is all-powerful and loving, then why is evil permitted? God is often described in many of the leading monotheistic religions as an infinitely altruistic creator. So how do we reconcile this image of God with the apparent suffering in the world?
An immediate response to moral evil is that it is entirely a direct result of human free will. Murderers, rapists, and paedophiles all have a choice, and ultimately they make the wrong one. This is still debateable, in the sense that our actions are very often due to environmental, sociological, or psychological factors we cannot control. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that a proportion of evil is attributed to the wrongdoing and negative consequences of human decision-making. One could argue that we failed to condemn Nazis or slavery for far too long, and in a similar fashion we are yet to condemn the killing of animals or warfare. But what are we to say of natural evil to which humans are not directly attributed?
Various solutions have been proposed over the years. The ancient Greek cleric Irenaeus suggested that God did indeed want us to suffer, for without suffering, true compassion could never prevail. Modern proponents of this theory include prominent theologians John Hick and Richard Swinburne, who believe that God acts rather like a mother scolding her child. God has intentionally littered the world with natural evil to ensure we morally develop - without poverty there is no generosity, without grief there is no compassion, no pain no gain, and so forth. Evil is essentially one giant learning curve.
Upon closer inspection, this solution is not without its problems. Take an individual who suffers from Epidermolysis bullosa (a disease in which the skin is relentlessly sore and blistered) - the person will inevitably live in constant pain. Why is it that this person should suffer rather than anyone else? If it is so others can morally develop, it is unsettling to think that this comes at such a high price. The individual themself hardly benefits from the suffering they endure, especially if they die young. So what is God’s reason for their unfortunate predicament?
The process in which we arrived (evolution) is, for the most part, a brutal, pessimistic venture in which many of us suffer at the hands of its shortcomings. And if we take a glance back in time, our human ancestors over the last 100,000 years endured terrible suffering, mainly due to an absence of modern medicine. Bacterial diseases were usually fatal. Childbirth was in fact the most common cause of death (for both mother and child). If you were lucky enough to survive it, then life expectancy was around 30 years. The horror story of our biological history is very much overlooked when contemplating the sheer amount of evil that has prevailed.
Couldn’t God just help us out once in a while and abolish cancer or stop a hurricane in its tracks? Hick defends God’s lack of intervention by postulating ‘epistemic distance’, the notion that God wants our souls to mature purely and therefore chooses never to prevent any evil occurrences. He has left us to our own devices with an adequate amount of suffering, allowing us to develop effectively and efficiently. In this sense, God is unable to answer prayers or engage in miracles. Yet the problem here is that many religious believers seem to think that God is very much active and immanent in the world. We hear all too often of miraculous claims when prayers are answered, or victims of some tragedy narrowly escape death and declare it to be the work of God. This unavoidably suggests that the God we are dealing with is a random, arbitrary, and capricious God. Why would God choose to save one and not others? As the atheist Christopher Hitchens remarks in God is Not Great (2006), “If Jesus could heal a blind person he happened to meet, then why not heal blindness?”
Other solutions tolerate the concept of evil simply as a punishment. St. Augustine of Hippo, an early influential Christian theologian, held Adam and Eve accountable. The notion of original sin is here taken quite literally: the world was created good – “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31), however Adam and Eve’s misuse of free will resulted in the ‘fall of man’ (Genesis 3). Creation was subsequently tainted by their actions and natural evil was bestowed upon the world as a form of ongoing punishment.
There are some obvious problems with Augustine’s theodicy. Firstly, it is exclusively a Christian response in which one would have to accept the Old Testament as literal (even though many theologians these days are happy to concede it as allegorical). Secondly, the solution directly conflicts with one of God’s attributes – can a God who punishes still be omnibenevolent? Thirdly, I am dubious that the world was once wholly good – are we really to believe that lions lay with lambs and birth pain was non-existent? This is something which evolutionary history most certainly disproves (being red in tooth and claw at its roots). And finally, why would God give us free will and then condemn us for using it? If I were to invent a robot that could choose to perform good deeds, but I programmed it in such a way that it could also choose to perform bad deeds, I could hardly hold the robot accountable for its actions if it chose to act badly. These ideas are explored in philosopher J.L. Mackie’s paper Evil and Omnipotence (1955) which attacks the typical monotheistic God for not inventing a more amiable way in which humans could act virtuously without violating free will.
Salvation is the trump card which many theists posit as a final explanation as to why God is still in our good books. We all have the opportunity to redeem ourselves and rebuild the right relationship with God in the afterlife, which apparently salvages his all-loving nature. However, God has still permitted the killing of billions. If God couldn’t create without some degree of suffering, then one could ask why he bothered in the first place. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s magnum opus The Brothers Karamazov (1880), one of the main characters, Ivan Karamazov, purports that even one child who suffers should have deterred God from creating the world. The afterlife may be pending, but who would accept eternal happiness at the hands of unjustified blood? Is this the sort of God we would want to worship?
The problem of evil has been documented in modern literature and media alike. An array of failings in resolving the riddle are explored in Bart D. Ehrman’s God’s Problem (2009), where the author (who had lost his faith when contemplating the issue) investigates much further into biblical scripture. The documentary Tsunami: Where was God? (2006) takes its audience on a journey to Indonesia, India, and Thailand to investigate the shocking aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami and discover whether Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists have kept or disregarded their religion in the face of adversity. Morgan Freeman’s The Story of God (2016) is another inquiry in which one episode sees Freeman travelling across the globe exploring alternate perspectives on evil, such as Zoroastrianism – the religion that believes the world is a battle between good and evil.
After evaluating the problem at large, it is unsurprising that my conclusion intends to refute the traditional monotheistic God; the logical inconsistency is lucidly apparent. This means one of two things: either God's attributes need revising, or no God exists at all. Both are equally worrying, yet the latter seems more probable. Richard Dawkins states in River Out of Eden (1995), "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference".
I do find that many of us are reluctant to face with candour the amount of evil that exists, which I hope to have demonstrated is horrifically prolific. We cannot confidently confirm with any certainty that there is anything to read between the lines when it comes to nature. In terms of how we deal with evil is evident – we try to avoid it. There are secularist ethical theories (such as utilitarianism) which are based on the principles of promoting pleasure and avoiding pain. However, the idea of assigning meaning and purpose behind the natural distribution of pain and pleasure I think is flawed, and in acknowledging this we can at least be candid about our position in the universe and help each other deal with evil honestly, rather than judge our position on outdated and illogical ideas about an all-loving, all-seeing, and all-powerful creator.