The problem of evil

One advantage of being in IT is that you often at least hear of cool things before other people do. You may or may not choose to adopt them, but at least you’ve got a choice. Thanks to Mr. Icon, I got an early gmail account, Great, unfortunately, I don’t have an uncommon name. Starting about a year ago, I began receiving email for a moderately important newsman. Last week, for a pastor in Michigan. In both cases, people apparently know the person has a gmail account, but they can’t remember the permutation of the person’s name. I always let the sender know that they’ve got the wrong person, but now I’m starting to think that either: a) I need to create a disambiguation auto-response that goes out if I’ve never seen your email address before; or b) we should just give up and form our own knockoff of the Village People. We’ve got an engineer, a newsman and a minister. Now we just need a fireman and a cowboy. Any volunteers?

So far, the email to the pastor is from just one person. A woman, about my age who seems to work at the church. Even though I’ve let her know that she’s got the wrong person, I’m still getting emails from her. They aren’t personal, they seem to be generic inspirational messages, perhaps sent out one email at a time to a distribution list. The one I received Friday took me back to junior high church youth groups with it’s pop religious sentiment and included the following story:

A man went to a barbershop to have his hair cut and his beard trimmed.

As the barber began to work, they began to have a good conversation.

They talked about so many things and various subjects.

When they eventually touched on the subject of God, the barber said:

“I don’t believe that God exists.”

“Why do you say that?” asked the customer.

“Well, you just have to go out in the street to realize that God doesn’t exist. Well me, if God exists, would there be so many sick people? Would there be abandoned children?

If God existed, there would be neither suffering nor pain. I can’t imagine a loving God who would allow all of these things.”

The customer thought for a moment, but didn’t respond because he didn’t want to start an argument.

The barber finished his job and the customer left the shop.

Just after he left the barbershop, he saw a man in the street with long, stringy, dirty hair and an untrimmed beard.

He looked dirty and unkept. The customer turned back and entered the barber shop again and he said to the barber:

“You know what? Barbers do not exist.”

“How can you say that?” asked the surprised barber. “I am here, and I am a barber. And I just worked on you!”

“No!” the customer exclaimed. “Barbers don’t exist because if they did, there would be no people with dirty long hair and untrimmed beards, like that man outside.”

“Ah, but barbers DO exist! That’s what happens when people do not come to me.”

“Exactly!” affirmed the customer. “That’s the point! God, too, DOES exist! That’s what happens when people do not go to Him and don’t look to Him for help.

That’s why there’s so much pain and suffering in the world.”

Now, I don’t want to tar everyone with the same brush, but this is just silly. It’s the kind of argument that you would fool a 5 year old with. Normally, I would just ignore it, but it hits a bit of a nerve for me. The first part is the problem of evil, inelegantly expressed.

The problem of evil has interested me for about 20 years now. In fact, it has interested me since before I even knew what it was called. The typical formulation is how can an all knowing, all powerful and all good god allow evil to exist in the world (or more harshly, how could evil exist without having been created by god)? The fact that there is evil is proof that either god does not exist or that he is not all knowing, all powerful and all good – which essentially amounts to non-existence. There are several standard answers to the problem of evil, none of which are particularly convincing.

One answer is to suggest that the evil we perceive is not really evil at all, but is in fact a good that we can not perceive. This strikes me as a giant cop-out. It asks us to deny the evidence of our own minds as to the evil of some acts. Moreover, a plain reading of the Book of Job suggests that god did allow the devil to torment Job as a test. Job’s family and children were killed for no other reason than to see if Job would be true to god. That sounds more like some sort of bad, co-dependent relationship than a good deed in disguise.

The second answer is to suggest that a world without evil is impossible, even for an omnipotent god. This is also a cop-out in that it sets limits on the power of a being defined by his omnipotence.

Another answer was put forth by the Jesuits: evil is exists because of a) original sin; and b) free will. This is clever and at least has the advantage of not trying to suggest that there is no evil. There are some problems. Original sin is the sin committed by the first man and woman and pass on to all of their descendants. This bothers me in part because Adam and Eve are clearly allegorical and were not actual people. So in essence, eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and falling from grace is a metaphor for giving up the innocence of being an unthinking animal and becoming consciously aware of the world, our place in it and how we have a choice over our behaviors. As an allegory, it’s a good one. But it also means that original sin was not the sin of Adam and Eve as passed on to their descendants, but that original sin is a term given to the basic nature of mankind. As such, you can easily ask why did god create mankind with a sinful nature. The answer to that is typically free will. But that’s really no answer at all. Leave aside that I don’t think that free will can be proved to exist (another topic for another time), giving free will to a creature with a sinful nature ensures evil. Free will to a creature without a sinful nature would not guarantee evil.

I could go on a lot more here, but suffice to say that the problem of evil is a rather interesting theological and philosophical question, so seeing it expressed in the first half of the email above interested me. And then I read the second half which is flat out demeaning to the brain god (or evolution) gave people. In particular:

First, christians should be offended by the statement that there is pain and suffering in the world because people don’t go to god and look to him for help. There is an implication, but not a direct statement, that christians do not have pain and suffering and that if you went to god, nothing evil would happen to you. This is dangerously close to the doctrine of prosperity, which would be considered a heresy if christians concerned themselves with such things any more. Nowhere in the bible does it say that god materially helps people who believe in him. He may help them with acceptance, but then I suspect that belief in anything helps with acceptance so that’s not proof of god’s existance.

Second, the problem of evil is a theological problem because the postulated god is: a) all knowing, b) all powerful, c) all good, and d) the creator of everything. That evil exists is a direct challenge to the union of these attributes. In contrast, the author does not postulate the same attributes in her barber. I suppose you could do that. I suppose you could say that barbers are: a) all knowing, b) all powerful, c) entirely anal retentive when it comes to hair, and d) response for the grooming of creation. That being the case, an unkempt hippy (like myself?) would be a challenge to the existence of our super barber. So the author’s analogies are inexact and when corrected to allow for an omnipotent, anal-retentive barber, really don’t seem to help the god argument that much.

Finally, the author of our story is making an argument by analogy which is bad logic. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some analogies. I tend to think in analogy. But it’s a bad practice to argue from analogy. In essence, the argument boils down to: you say that object A with attributes A1..An does not exist because of the evidence of X. But what if we said that object B with attributes B1..Bn does not exist because of the evidence of Y. We can see that object B exists. We can’t see object A, but because B exists, then A must exist. Nope. Logic doesn’t work that way.

It’s this kind of fuzzy thinking that used to drive me crazy when I was in those junior high church groups. I guess it still drives me a bit crazy or I wouldn’t have just spilled so many electrons over it. I don’t mean to suggest that everyone involved in religion is a muddled thinker. In fact, I know that is not the case. My one small request is that churches limit the sending of emails to those that can think logically. Probably too much to ask. Maybe I’ll just adjust my spam filters.


  1. Heather said,

    April 13, 2008 @ 6:27 am

    Bart Ehrman of “Misquoting Jesus” fame has been making the rounds on NPR (he was on Fresh Air and at least one other show) with his book on this very topic, “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer”. Haven’t read it, but have been meaning to at least grab it from the library. It sounds like very good reading and touches on exactly what you discussed.

  2. etselec said,

    April 13, 2008 @ 12:56 pm

    You and I started this discussion at one GB but never got very far with it. I was surprised at the vehemence of your reaction against my liking C.S. Lewis’ “The Problem of Pain”, but now that I see more of your interpretation, I can see why you dislike the book.

    I personally dislike the kind of allegory that was in the email you receive – it implies that because one avoids the barber (or God), one is a bad person, defective, and the cause of their own suffering. That is utter B.S.

    My own interpretation of the reason for evil is more along the lines of the analogy I commented previously. We’re the goldfish and (to me) God is the aquarium keeper. We just don’t have the capacity to understand most of what happens in our lives at the level of someone divine. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t evaluate our own experiences and use our free will to make the best choices we can, but we’re (all of us, no matter how saintly) going to fail at that a lot of the time. The idea that we bring our own misfortunes upon ourselves, while true to some extent, is actually giving us way too much seemingly-divine power to choose our own destinies. Sometimes s*** just happens.

    Anyways, I think we will always be on opposite ends of these arguments, but I wanted to clarify my position. And if serious evil hadn’t happened to me at some point, I would not be a Christian today, so I do think it’s a weighty subject.

  3. cec said,

    April 21, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

    If I had a dollar for every time I wound up saying, “sorry for the late response…”

    Heather – thanks, I’ll have to check out the book.

    Celeste – ugh, sorry for sounding vehement at GB. I suppose that’s the danger of being a barroom philosopher. 🙂 FWIW, I definitely didn’t think that you didn’t think the subject was important. One of the reasons I like discussing religion with you is that we wind up on opposite sides of an argument, but both of us have had to think through our positions at different points in our life. So rather than relying on what was taught to us growing up, we both have well thought out positions.

  4. Bayrak said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 5:23 am

    do you know any information about this subject in other languages?

  5. cec said,

    April 29, 2008 @ 9:22 am

    unfortunately, I don’t have any information in other languages. one good place to start might be wikipedia in the language you are interested. they have a good overview of the problem of evil

  6. bayrak said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 3:26 am


RSS feed for comments on this post