Forget for a moment the question of why there is evil in the world. Ask: why is there good in the world? Bad things happen to people, but have you noticed that good things do too? We’re easily inclined to say that life should be better than it is. But why aren’t we inclined to think that life should be worse? If there is philosophical merit in the first question, there should be some merit in this reciprocal question, and in fact this question should be paramount for people who hold to certain philosophical worldviews (more on that in a minute).
Of course the age-old question, despite my sanguine title, is not about the existence of good but rather the opposite. The issue of evil and suffering remains the all-time league leader among vexing philosophical, theological, and – frankly- psychological problems. Why must all human beings endure so many hardships in this world? Life is so riddled with painful elements, from the minor discomforts and inconveniences facing us in day to day living all the way to the shocking and disturbing tragedies that scar our collective historical memory.
The problem of evil, pain, and suffering is as old as human beings. It is found in the most ancient texts. One of the oldest biblical writings is Job, maybe as gut-wrenching a book as can be found from antiquity. There was never an era or epoch when the question of suffering wasn’t foremost on people’s minds. And even though so much of life has become so much more comfortable for us in the contemporary world, this question still plagues people. It remains, as theologian Hans Kung once called it, “the rock of atheism.” Every popular and provocative atheist book of the last decade has basically been, at bottom, about this one topic. Even when we think a famous person’s disbelief is owing to something else, it usually isn’t. The agnosticism of Darwin, for example, was based upon this issue rather than what people are likely to assume it was. The issue was philosophical, not scientific. He had far less of a problem imagining an intelligent designer working behind the scenes than he did imagining why the designer would let nature be so savage in so many ways – right up to and including the death of his own beloved daughter.
All of that being said, our present culture is not exactly known for deep contemplation of anything. So not surprisingly the problem of evil and suffering is frequently raised by people who think they may be onto something profound for the first time. I heard an interview not long ago in which a localized NPR radio show called “Radio West” spoke to theologian and commentator Al Mohler about recent tragedies in the news (marathon bombings, Oklahoma tornadoes, etc.). Upon hearing Mohler articulate a fairly classical Christian understanding of evil in the world, the host and a few callers reacted as though they had never heard this talked about with any depth prior to that conversation.
Still, the question of why so many bad things happen remains something we cannot get off of our minds. But I wonder why it does not occur to us to ask the inverse question of why people get to experience so many good things in life. If God is watching, we instinctively perceive that he is to blame for all of the bad things that go on; but what about the good things? The 19th Century Victorian poet Christina Rossetti wrote, “Were there no God, we would be in this glorious world with grateful hearts and no one to thank.” Have you ever seriously contemplated the “Problem of Good”? People who do not believe in any sort of ultimate goodness should be particularly confounded by this question. Think of it: if no person like God exists, if from the start no purpose lay behind the origin and structure of this universe, and if the only game being played out is the strictly biological one, why should there be such varied experiences of joy in the lives of people? “Nature is a wicked old witch,” wrote the late evolutionary biologist George Williams. She is “red in tooth and claw” as Tennyson famously put it. Why, then, are there creatures like ourselves with so much capacity for so much rich enjoyment of life?
Philosopher Peter Kreeft offers an argument for God along these lines, focusing on the aesthetic qualities of our lives. We have a strange capacity to do far more than just eat, sleep, reproduce, survive and rear our young so as to make our genes successful in the brutally competitive struggle that characterizes survival of the fittest. We can enjoy all of these elements to a greater degree than you would think the blind processes of nature would allow. Kreeft considers the deep fulfillment we find in relationships, the way we enjoy fine food and great music, the power of profound stories and the way art can capture the imagination . At times these things can border on the sublime. The kind of love and longing that C. S. Lewis (one of Kreeft’s favorite people) talked about as a key to his spiritual awakening is part of the true and intense beauty of living, even in a place where disease, crime and ultimately death cause us so much grief and angst. If we are going to ask why the latter, shouldn’t we also ask why the former?
And it’s not as if Lewis had too easy a life to comprehend tragedy and sorrow. The man who wrote a personal and probing book on the topic (The Problem of Pain) after the death of his wife had also seen the trenches of WWI, from which he was sent home wounded, and had years later lived through the Nazi bombing raids over London, during which his voice was heard weekly on BBC radio broadcasts reading words he had written to help bring calm and focus to the frazzled, frightened public. Those radio addresses, written and delivered during one of that city’s darkest periods, went on to become the chapters of one of the all-time best-selling books: Mere Christianity.
The good things in the world present as much a riddle to us as the bad things. Both beckon us to ultimate questions. The only reason we would obsess exclusively about the issue of pain and evil, while never pausing to consider the other side of the coin, is the near-sighted sense of entitlement to which we’re all naturally prone. We take the good things for granted, as if they are the norm or the default, and the bad things shock our senses as the inexplicable exceptions.
The late atheist pundit Christopher Hitchens was fond of likening the universe to a cosmic North Korea ruled over by a dictatorial deity. But as sure as Hitchens suffered his share of problems, right up to the problem of his own withering health, did he not also experience a life of many enjoyments? Did he not secure an outlet as a writer and a platform for fame? Did he not fill rooms with people who enjoyed his sardonic wit and lined up for his autograph? Did he not rub elbows with important cultural and political voices during a very long public career? Did he not spend many a fine meal regaling the table with his sharply sarcastic critiques of so many things in the news? Why would the all-powerful ‘Kim Jong Ill in the sky’ be so good to him as to allow all of that? Why would that cruel cosmic meanie give so many pleasures to a man who railed against him ceaselessly?
If the world is ruled over by a figure of omnipotent viciousness and cold cruelty, we should expect a thousand times more hardship in life than we experience. Likewise if the story of human history is nothing more than the story of a race of creatures on a distant galactic outpost where, by a crazy long-shot, a zillion factors lined up to make their existence possible, then all of our eloquent lyricizing and philosophizing about good and evil amount to nothing more than sounds going out into the atmosphere and never beyond it. As Doug Wilson put it, “the material universe doesn’t care about any of this foolishness, not even a little bit … it’s all just part of a gaudy and very temporary show. Sometimes the Northern lights put on a show in the sky. Sometimes people put on a show on the ground. Then the sun goes out and it turns out nobody cares” (Letter from a Christian Citizen).
Yes the problem of good and the problem of evil both force our attention and require us to consider more seriously the kind of reality in which we live. No response is neat and tidy so as to satisfy us completely, but, like Wilson and unlike Hitchens (the two men, incidentally, are featured in a series called Collision that highlights their uniquely antagonistic friendship through several public debate appearances), I would maintain that the Christian understanding of things makes more sense of good and evil than the alternatives.