Why Should God Let Evil Happen? (1997)
Realistic and Insightful
Against Philosophies of Depression and Abandonment
(For Christians and Non-Christians)
by Luke Wadel
Actually, one of the things we can rejoice in most is the fact that God allows evil to happen to us.
Let me begin with a typical and true story, sad in the beginning but happy in the end. Not long ago, a lady I used to know came to me in tears and told me that she had long been thinking of committing suicide. She had gone through several types and degrees of tragedies in the last few years. The people she worked with were miserable and working conditions were poor. A family member was crippled for life from an injury. Her marriage was falling apart, and one day, she lost her concentration while driving, hit someone, and was sued.
This poor lady was not alone; so many people at one time or another experience great evil. And the question always is, "Why did God allow this to happen?" We ask this over and over again, but God seems silent. Then, when we can't find the answer, this causes the greatest pain of all: that we seem to be abandoned by our Father and God. Indeed, this was the greatest sadness for the lady mentioned above. But after discussing these matters as we will here, she went home with a new thinking and new resolutions, not only much happier, but even happy that God in his love allowed her to experience the problems she did. I write this so that you and your loved ones can find the same consolation, peace and happiness when and if tragedy strikes.
"It is a mystery," we often hear. There will always be a certain amount of mystery surrounding the matter, since the question cannot be answered as if it were mathematics. That is not to say that we are without an answer which satisfies the intellect and more. It is fitting that the answer contain some mystery, since the problem itself reaches so far beyond the intellect; evil can reach the depths of the whole person. The fullness of the answer is found therefore not in a formula but in the depths of infinite and healing Love Itself.
There are two parts to this treatment. The first is by a very readable and insightful non-Christian Greek philosopher, Epictetus. No obscure theorist, Epictetus offers very practical and compassionate advice, and stern answers to the pessimist. Yet he is a philosopher: what we think has everything to do with our happiness in the face of evil. The second part begins where the philosopher left off and carries the answer much further thanks to the insights of Christian theology.
As a final note, if you have experienced evil, people are here for you! The Church is here for you. I am here for you, to do what I can, even if just to listen, no matter who you are or what creed you accept. Email me, and I will get back to you as soon as possible.
Part 1 - Epictetus
You have a choice on where you begin reading. Epictetus treats the problem of evil by first proving that God undeniably exists in spite of our experience of evil; then he moves on to discuss small to moderately serious evils (I recommend that most people start here); finally, he discusses great misfortunes.
Note on the Text: Most of these texts have been copied and pasted from a public domain text whose translator is unknown. My editing has been limitted to the fixing of punctuation and to making the translation real modern English. For example, "Olympia" as the site of the early Olympic Games has been changed to "the Olympics." And Epictetus' philosophical monotheism has been brought out in using the standard, recognizable title "God" instead of using a misleading "literal" translation.
Discourses of Epictetus, Bk. I, Ch. 6: On Providence
It is easy to praise Providence for everything which exists or happens in the world, if a man possesses these two qualities: the faculty of seeing what belongs and happens to all persons and things, and a grateful disposition. Without both of these qualities, one man will not see the use of things which are and which happen; another will not be thankful for them, even if he does know them.
If God had made colours, but had not made the faculty of seeing them, what would have been their use? None at all. On the other hand, if He had made the faculty of vision, but had not made objects which fall under the faculty, what again would have been the use of it? None at all. Well, suppose that He had made both, but had not made light? In this case too, they would have been of no use. Who is it, then, who has fitted this to that and that to this? And who is it that has fitted the knife to the case and the case to the knife? Is it no one? Indeed, from the very structure of things which have attained their completion, we are accustomed to show that the work is certainly the act of some Artificer, and that nothing has been constructed without a purpose. Do not each of these things demonstrate the Workman, and do not visible things and the faculty of seeing and light demonstrate Him? And the existence of male and female, and the desire of each for uniting, and the power of using the parts which are constructed - do not even these declare the Workman?
If they do not, let us consider the constitution of our understanding according to which, when we meet with objects we can sense, we do not simply receive perceptions of them, but also examine, analyze, enhance, and discover universal laws with every kind of logical and ingenious thought. Is not even this sufficient to move sceptical men, and to induce them not to forget the workman? If not, let them explain to us what it is that causes each several thing, or how it is possible that things so wonderful and like masterpieces of art should exist by chance and from their own proper motion. . .
Well then, God constitutes every animal, one to be eaten, another to serve for agriculture, another to supply cheese, and another for some like use. For these things there is no need for depth of thought. But God has introduced man to be a spectator of Him and His works - and not only a spectator of them, but an interpreter. For this reason it is shameful for man to begin and end where irrational animals do, but rather he ought to begin where they begin, and to end where nature ends in us; and nature ends in contemplation and understanding, in a way of life conformable to our true nature. Take care, then, not to die without having been spectators of these things.
But you take a journey to the Olympics to see the work of Phidias [or some other athelete], and all of you think it a misfortune to die without having seen such things. But when there is no need to take a journey, wherever a man is, he has no less than the works of God before him. Will you not desire to see and understand them? Will you not perceive either what you are, or what you were born for, or what this is for which you have received the faculty of sight? But you may say, "There are some things disagreeable and troublesome in life." And are there none in the stadium? Are you not scorched [by summer heat]? ... Are you not wet when it rains there? Have you not abundance of noise, clamour, and other disagreeable things? But I suppose that setting all these things off against the magnificence of the spectacle, you bear and endure.
Well then, have you not received faculties by which you will be able to bear all that happens? Have you not received greatness of soul? Have you not received manliness? Have you not received endurance? And why do I trouble myself about anything that can happen if I possess greatness of soul? What shall distract my mind or disturb me or appear painful? Shall I not use the power for the purposes for which I received it, and shall I grieve and lament over what happens?
"Yes, but my nose runs." For what purpose then, slave, have you hands? Is it not that you may wipe your nose? "Is it consistent with reason that there should be running of noses in the world?" Nonsense; how much better it is to wipe your nose than to find fault.
[Consider stories of heroism.]
What do you think that Hercules would have been if there had not been such a lion, and hydra, and stag, and boar, and certain unjust and bestial men, whom Hercules used to drive away and clear out? And what would he have been doing if there had been nothing of the kind? Is it not plain that he would have wrapped himself up and have slept? In the first place then, he would not have been a Hercules, when he was dreaming away all his life in such luxury and ease; and even if he had been one, what would have been the use of him, his arms, the strength of the other parts of his body, his endurance, and noble spirit if such circumstances and occasions had not roused and exercised him? "Well, then, must a man provide for himself such means of exercise, and to introduce a lion from some place into his country, and a boar and a hydra?" This would be folly and madness: but as they did exist, and were found, they were useful for showing what Hercules was and for exercising him.
Come then: do you also -having observed these things- look to the faculties which you have, and -when you have looked at them- say: "Bring now, O God, any difficulty You please, for I have means given to me by You and powers for honoring myself through the things which happen"? You do not so; but you sit still, trembling for fear that some things will happen, and weeping, and lamenting and groaning for what does happen: and then you blame God.
But what is the consequence of such meanness of spirit besides unholiness? And yet God has not only given us these faculties by which we shall be able to bear everything that happens without being depressed or broken, but, like a good king and a true father, He has given us these faculties free from hindrance, subject to no compulsion, unimpeded, and has put them entirely in our own power. He has not even kept for Himself any power of hindering or impeding. You who have received these powers free and as your own use them not; you do not even see what you have received nor from Whom; some of you being blinded to the Giver, and not even acknowledging your Benefactor, and others, through meanness of spirit, betaking yourselves to fault finding and making charges against God.
I will show you that you have powers and means for greatness of soul and manliness, but what powers you have for finding fault and making accusations, you show me.
Book III, Ch. 26: Those Who Fear Want
"What, then, if I fall ill?" You shall bear illness well. "Who shall tend me?" God, and your friends. "I shall lie on a hard bed." But you can do it like a man. "I shall not have a proper house." If you have one, you will be ill all the same. "Who will give me food?" Those who find it for others; you will be no worse off than [the famous slave] Manes on your sick-bed. And what is the end of your illness? Nothing worse than death.
Will you realize once and for all that it is not death that is the source of man's real evils, of a mean and cowardly spirit, but rather the fear of death? Against this fear then I would have you discipline yourself! To this discipline let all your reasonings, your lectures, and your training be directed; and then you will know that only so do men achieve their freedom.
The Manual of Epictetus, 11
Never say of anything, "I lost it', but say, 'I gave it back'. Has your child died? It was given back. Has your wife died? She was given back. Has your estate been taken from you? Was not this also given back? . . . As long as He [the giver, to Whom we belong] gives something to you, take care of it, but not as your own; treat it as passers-by at an inn.
Part 2: Christian Thought
Whether "This Life is Not Worth the Pain"
I was asked recently how I could think that life is worth living if one innocent child suffers. This is the point of those atheists who get ensnarled in the problem of evil. But G.K. Chesterton clarifies the issue for us:
At any innocent tea-table we may easily hear a man say, "Life is not worth living." We regard it as we regard the statement that it is a fine day; nobody thinks that it can possibly have any serious effect on the man or on the world. And yet if that utterance were really believed, the world would stand on its head. Murderers would be given medals for saving men from life; firemen would be denounced for keeping men from death; poisons would be used as medicines; doctors would be called in when people were well; the Royal Humane Society would be rooted out like a horde of assassins. Yet we never speculate as to whether the conversational pessimist will strengthen or disorganize society; for we are convinced that theories do not matter.
So that atheistic, one-sided delving into the problem of evil and its horror ultimately leads to most radical evil and total slaughter. A philosophy of evil that does not see beyond evil to the much greater and existent Good ultimately leads to absolute and violent self-contradiction. So the Christian and the true philosopher therefore contradicts that contradiction: No, it is better to live past temporary evils and conquer them with the totally virtuous life. Life then annihilates death, and love reduces suffering to be as nothing.
The atheistic philosophy does give rise to the greatest tragedy that could happen in a person's life: suicide. I at least have heard the reasoning often enough. To any person thinking about it, I say again that I and many others are here for you to do what we can for you. We are here to listen to you, to talk with you, and to be with you: You have compassion and friendship here. But the pain of the one who considers suicide is only one side of the tragedy. The pain of the family of that person is unimaginable and possibly longer-lasting. Suicide is so evil. Let's be frank now, because that's what's needed. To go through with it while retaining one's facultees is the most cowardly, selfish, hurtful and unnecessary thing a person could do. Suicide is not giving one's life for another, as when a fireman gets trapped in a blazing building while trying to save lives. Suicide is taking one's life so as not to face and live with smaller and temporary problems. And look, all of life's problems are small and temporary in the light of eternity. We owe it to ourselves, to our families and friends, and those whom we can help in the world to stay alive and do good.
If a person does not have family and friends to help, there are ways he can get new family, of various types. One can start by realizing that are all one human family. Many of our brothers and sisters need selfless volunteers and are dying without them. Many again are dying of loneliness, that you could save them from, if you only try. Let a desire to help others with their pain conquer our selfish desire to leave the world. Multiplying other people's pain and destroying life does not solve the problem of pain. And do not suppose that God, the Creator of our life and family is going to be very happy about a suicide. Will he be forgiving? I say, don't test him!
Our Highest Duties, Our Highest Happiness
To everyone I say, let us seek happiness. Let us consider what is most important in life, and what gives our lives meaning. It is not that we can play sports, be paid lots of money, or be business success stories. No, it is that we be the best we can and help others. Life is worth living if we are examples of virtue. Material things and spectacular activities are secondary. Physical beauty especially is practically irrelevant in the great scheme of things. One man said to me about old Mother Theresa, "I would be so happy if I could just touch her." Selfless, constant, and heroic love attracts, but the most beautiful person can be real hell to live with. So we must be mature about it.
So, do we do good to people? Do we set an example of love and patience? Do we have self-control and wisdom? You know I speak the truth about these things.
Why Did God Not Make a Better World?
According to Christian and Jewish theology, the world which has always been filled with great storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, tidal waves, etc. presented no threat to man as originally created. Adam and Eve, as they are called, were given such knowledge and perfection of mind and will that such awesome spectacles presented no dangers, but only edified by reminding them of the power of God. Their wills, however, were human and therefore free. They chose to throw away their perfection of soul and lost the knowledge and wisdom which would have preserved all their descendants, all mankind. To the non-Christian and non-Jew, this genesis may be regarded as a real theoretical possibility. Obviously, scientific laws cannot be applied to find out the spiritual qualities of these first humans. At least suppose this were true. The question becomes, "Why does God not miraculously intervene whenever evil threatens?"
Where is That Miracle We Ordered?
We think that God should take all of our difficulties away. I ask you to consider what more easily happens spiritually in families dealing with tragedies, and then in families with no tragedies. Look into your soul now, with honesty. How much time do you tend to spend giving yourself selflessly to your brothers and sisters, parents, spouse and children? Is there anyone you have ever neglected for periods of time in any way? Now imagine that that someone was in constant pain. How much would you give to that person then? Would not your patience and kindness be so much greater to him or her? Would you not give more and give more easily? How much less will you tend to fight over small matters with the person? Well then, what a good thing it is that God allows evil to happen in physical or even mental ways to unite you in love, virtue and spirit. To comment on the mental, I point out that we are all imperfect mentally: we forget important things; we have poor self-discipline; our emotions are often out of whack; we cannot be the success stories that we want to be. So to various degrees we all share in mental inadequacy, and I point out that we can live with it. We do live with it, because we have to, and life goes on.
Perhaps you will say that there are cases where people walk away from their brother in need. That is true, and I could tell some heart-wrenching true stories. But these are due to persons' misuse of free will, and cannot be blamed on God. For the real tragedy here is not the need but the brother who leaves. In the meantime, the needs and sufferings of our brother tend to help us to love much better, and that tendancy alone is worth it. As a very successful person once lamented, he has every physical blessing in the world: full health, lots of money, an education and job security, but no happiness since he has not love. He also says that if he did not have such an education which brings in the money, the job and the security, he would have had the time to find someone who would make him happy. Let us be thankful for our smaller tragedies.
So it comes down largely to this: we human beings are almost never heroic saints without suffering. We do not always "fight the good fight" very well. We are so given to laziness or selfishness when we could be doing good. So the argument becomes, "Why, then, doesn't God force our free wills so that we are perfectly loving, perfectly virtuous, and there would be no more use for suffering?" It is the fact that God does not force our wills that we are capable of loving each other. For love is in essence freely given, is it not?
Again, to be loved and to love is the most wonderful thing. It is even worth the capability brought by this freedom to commit sin. But if you are still unsure about this, go out and love people selflessly and constantly; watch happiness blossom and smiles come back onto faces; then you will be sure.
In summary, this thinking helps us see that God should allow many natural calamities such as diseases and other natural disasters. We see now that in so many things which we blamed God for in the past, he was actually acting in our best interest. I do not say that he caused diseases or pain so that we might be virtuous and happy, only that he allowed them to happen to us.
This is not to say that we should allow any evil to happen to our little children. Some say, "But we are God's little children!" Yet God knows that we adults who grapple with such metaphysical questions are not little children. We are adults who can be expected to think and be virtuous in an adult way. But we can take a lesson from the little children, who more naturally place a lot more trust in God -who sees the sides of ourselves and of things that we do not see- and who accept his Fatherly will.
"But I prayed! I asked God to take this suffering away." Our asking and praying do not change the principles that we have been speaking about. Sometimes the miracles we want are not the best thing for us, that is, not in the best interest of our happiness or our ability to help other people by being examples of heroism, patience, and virtue in general. I take two examples from my own life to illustrate the joy and use of unanswered prayer. First, I am getting married because God did not answer a prayer of mine constantly prayed for years in great earnestness. I am ecstatically happy that he did not give me what I wanted. Secondly, I might easily have become an insufferable "sports jock" if God did not permit me to suffer throughout my life from moderate-to-severe asthma. I have had many near-death experiences, and it is a wonderful inspiration to philosophical and theological investigation, let me tell you. I did not see these things at the time, but the suffering was really worth it. May God bless you with "unanswered prayers."
We are by no means close to having all the answers. What I have said applies to many situations but not all. There will always be this kind of limitation to some degree, but I think we can still proceed further.
What about whole families and cities being destroyed by floods, earthquakes, and the like? Why does God allow death on such a grand scale? This is where Christian theology comes in and offers us so much consolation.
Jesus once came to a house where a woman's precious daughter had died. The woman, in tears, told Jesus it was too late for her to be healed. What Jesus said and did next gave to the woman and to us a view of life to be taken very much to heart. Speaking of the dead child, he said, "She is only sleeping." Then he woke her up; he brought the little girl back to life. As Christians, we believe that God will, at the end of time, bring every person back to life. Philosophically, we might expect such a treatment from so loving creator. He will wake us up, give to each what they deserve as well as immortality and other gifts. Families will be reunited in heaven forever.
And so I say to people who ask why God allows death, that they are asking why God allows us to sleep. For death is now nothing more than a long sleep, after which we will wake up and recieve gifts at the end of the world. That is not quite so bad anymore, is it?
Certainly, it beats living forever in this world where sin causes everyone so much pain, which is what we seem to want. There will be no sin or pain in heaven. God will purge our souls of sin before we reach heaven, and separate those deserving of heaven from those who would rather hurt and destroy. Thank God.