Beyond the Grade is a series of posts sharing minimally refined reflections written in response to and in dialogue with students’ ideas. See previous post, “Everything Happens for a Reason, But What does That Mean?”
If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, then why is there unnecessary evil—so much unnecessary pain and suffering? Reason and commitment to intellectual integrity demand that we confront this challenging question.
Wouldn’t a perfectly powerful being have the power to ensure all unnecessary evil was remedied? Of course, otherwise they wouldn’t be “all powerful”—omnipotent. And wouldn’t a perfectly good or omnibenevolent being want to eradicate all unnecessary suffering? Again, the answer is clearly, yes, otherwise the claim of perfect goodness would confound our basic understanding of goodness. Finally, wouldn’t a perfectly knowledgeable or omniscient being possess the knowledge of the outcomes that would follow their omnipotent actions in the world? The simple answer is yes.
The natural question that then follows is, why is there so much unnecessary pain and suffering in the world? This is more than an abstract philosophical question.
Let us briefly consider two examples of evil, each of which is as revolting to the conscience as it is relevant to the question before us.
On May 24, 2022, 19 elementary-aged children and two teachers were massacred by a 18-year-old with an AR-15 at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. 11-year-old survivor, Miah Cerrillo, explained, in testimony before Congress, that she covered herself in another student's blood to avoid being killed.
In January 2018, an eight-year-old girl, Asifa Bano, living in a village in India, was abducted and repeatedly abused by a group of adult men who aimed to terrorize the ethnic Muslims in the area. The men then strangled and bludgeoned her before disposing of her body.
How can it be that God is perfectly good, powerful, and knowledgeable even as evils such as these occur and persist?
Given that no reasonable person will be able to argue that “good” has come out of children being repeatedly violated or gunned down in their classroom, we are left with a difficult and serious question: How can it be that God is perfectly good, powerful, and knowledgeable even as evils such as these occur and persist?
The Problem of Evil
This is what is called “the problem of evil.” It is a pivotal topic in the philosophy of religion that theologians and philosophers have taken up throughout the ages. We are called to examine the apparent conflict between God’s perfection and the myriad manifestations of evil in the world.
Either God can't stop Satan and therefore is not all-powerful, or God can stop Satan and is all-powerful.
Students confronted with this dilemma sometimes postulate Satan as a solution to the problem of evil. But there’s a problem with this explanation. If God is all-powerful, then God could eliminate Satan, right? If you were to say that God "can't stop Satan," then God can't be all-powerful. So we have to decide, which claim is true:
Either God can't stop Satan and therefore is not all-powerful,
Or God can stop Satan and is all-powerful.
If God isn't all-powerful, then the problem of evil is at least partially resolved. We can simply conclude, God is perfectly good and objects to unnecessary suffering, but can’t prevent Satan from causing it.
But if God is all-powerful, then we're right back where we started: why would an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God allow Satan to cause such harm in the world? That would be akin to Batman having the ability to put a stop, once and for all, to the Joker, but choosing not to. If that happened, we’d question Batman’s intentions. To make matters worse, God, unlike Batman, is unlimited in creative power. If all-powerful, God could make anything that is logically possible—anything imaginably true—a reality. This leaves us with some questions to ponder, to say the least. This does not mean that there is a clear-cut or obvious answer.
The philosophy of religion offers a variety of competing responses including the free-will defense, which attempts to explain the apparent conflict between God’s goodness and the evil that is permitted. Others rebuke the free-will defense and advance the Argument from Evil to insist that no such being exists. Whatever else may be true about the broader matter, for our purposes we can at least conclude that the claim God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent does not seem logically compatible with the claim that Satan explains the evil in the world. An all-powerful being who knows everything would have no problem dispensing with such a being, should they wish to do so. Perhaps the answer to the problem of evil lies elsewhere.
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An interesting thought although I think we make the mistake of assuming that our concept of good and evil is the same as the way God thinks of it. Maybe God doesn’t make such a distinction between good and evil like we do, in part because they actually see everything whereas we don’t. While I’m agnostic as to the existence of God, I have given a fair amount of thought to their existence. It’s perhaps hubristic of us to think we can know the mind of God.
Perhaps God is all good and has a reason why they allow the devil to do the things that they do. We just don’t know what it is. Doesn’t mean we’re powerless to do anything and shouldn’t try to stop evil from coming about.