The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.Galileo Galilei1
Has the beauty of creation ever made you wonder if there is a creator? Many brilliant scientists themselves through the ages have concluded that there must be a divine source for the universe.
There is order in the life cycle of every creature, design in the placement of our solar system, even logic in the structure of the molecules and atoms that make our world. You could argue that it all points to a master plan.2
But then along come disaster, disorder, and pain. Suddenly all our theories of providence, logic, and order go right out the window. A tsunami wipes out a village. An act of violence kills an innocent bystander. A child is abused. You lose your job. Your best friend is diagnosed with cancer.
We can’t help but ask that age-old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there evil in the world? If there is a benevolent God, how can this be a part of his plan? We find ourselves wondering if God is watching, if he cares, or if he even exists at all.
The Real Problem
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to these questions. But removing God from the equation doesn’t seem to help us understand evil. How can we explain why the 2004 South Asian tsunami that killed 125,000 people happened?
“Plate tectonics,” answered the famous atheist Richard Dawkins.3 That’s true. A movement in tectonic plates was the physical mechanism of the natural disaster, but does that really explain why it happened?Are we left to live in a world where evil is simply random, a brute fact of physical forces? Dawkins thinks so; only science can explain evil and only science can prevent it—or at least warn us so that we can take cover.
In one way, Dawkins is right. Scientists certainly unravel the intricacies of our complex natural world. They make sense of physical phenomena and undeniably advance the cause of humanity. Let’s be honest. No one wants to return to the health care of medieval times.
But science has yet to prevent poverty. Or warfare. And let’s not forget that Hitler’s gas chambers and the atomic bomb were products of science. Technology does not diminish evil; it only gives us more efficient options.4
When we boil it down, a purely scientific explanation of evil seems unsatisfactory. Perhaps this is why Albert Einstein said, “The real problem is in the hearts and minds of men. It is not a problem of physics but of ethics. It is easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil from the spirit of man.”5
Another Explanation for Evil
How does religion explain evil if it exists in the “hearts and minds” of humans? Did God put it there—is this his fault? The Bible is an ancient book that chronicles, among other things, various evils that have taken place throughout history. Whether or not you agree with its overall message, the Bible offers an intriguing explanation of how evil originated.
Genesis, the first book of the Bible, says that when God created humans, he gave us authority over the earth: to cultivate and steward its resources for the benefit of all.6 He also gave us free will to make our own choices. Like a child whose parent tells her not to play with matches, we can choose to trust God’s wisdom on important matters or reject it and do things our own way. As such, we might choose to “play with fire” and consequently burn ourselves.7
However, this brings up another question. Couldn’t God have just made humans incapable of bad choices and saved us all the trouble? Perhaps, but then we would be like robots, taking orders from God, doing only what he commanded, and never thinking, feeling, or choosing for ourselves.
According to Christian thought, that’s not what God wants. God wants us to seek him and be able to experience a genuine relationship with him.8 So he created us in his image, giving us all the creative desire, free will, and moral responsibility that he himself has.9
The Selfishness of Evil
In spite of this, the first humans chose to trust in themselves, not God. The story of Adam and Eve is well known. Whether or not it happened literally—in a garden with a serpent and an apple—isn’t what matters; what’s important to realize is that it still happens today. Nothing has changed. Given the choice between trusting our own instincts or God’s, we often choose ourselves. We’re still the rebellious children playing with matches. And with every act of selfishness comes the consequence—getting burned.
Whether you’re religious or not, we all have to admit to causing some of our own troubles. Many of our wounds are self-inflicted. So let’s own up to it: some of the “evil” we experience is our fault. We burn ourselves.
But we also burn others. We all have the scars to show from people who have lied to us, broken promises, or even abused us for their own gain. So while evil is not always the direct result of our own actions, it is still a consequence of humanity’s selfishness. And the cumulative effect of all our selfish choices is a world of poverty, war, ecological disaster, and, yes, even bad days at the office. It’s why we live broken lives with broken relationships in the broken systems of a broken world.
Why does God let this go on? According to the Christian understanding of God’s nature, he is never the source of meaningless evil. But sometimes he permits us to encounter the effects of a world rendered imperfect by selfishness. Maybe it is to alert us to our need for him, our need to trust in him rather than ourselves. Or perhaps God knows that experiencing some suffering in our lives often leads to a greater good.
We may never fully understand his ways or how our lives unfold each day. But we are not left without hope. Evil has not won out. In every story of brokenness lays the potential for redemption.
- Galileo Galilei, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2005).
- For more on the design of the universe, see Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006) and Alister E. McGrath, A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
- Richard Dawkins, “The Theology of the Tsunami,” originally published in Free Inquiry 25:3 (April/May 2005), 12-13; available at: http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=dawkins_25n3.
- Consider the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Whether or not it was morally justified or “a necessary evil” to end World War II, the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed roughly 120,000 people instantly. Another 120,000 died within four months from lingering effects of radiation. The overwhelming majority of all casualties were civilians. Human civilization has never known a more brutal man-made instrument of death. If an atomic bomb was detonated today, the destructive impact would be exponentially greater.
- Quoted in L. L. Loring, “Lag in Ethics,” Los Angeles Times, 10 April 1955, Pg. B4, 10. Originally from Albert Einstein’s interview with Michael Amrine: “‘The Real Problem Is in the Hearts of Men’; Professor Einstein says a new type of thinking is needed to meet the challenge of the atomic bomb,” New York Times, Sunday Magazine, 23 June 1946, SM4.
- “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’” The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Genesis 1:26.
- The “story” that best illustrates this choice in the Bible is found in Genesis 2:15–3:7. Adam and Eve are told not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but, having been given the free choice to trust God or not, they chose not to. Some take this story as literal, others as a figurative representation of humans in general. There are many other stories in the Bible where God allows people the choice to disregard his wisdom and incur the harmful consequences of their decisions.
- A robust (and dense) philosophical articulation of human free will as the explanation of evil is found in Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974).
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Genesis 1:26.
- Photo Credit: EmiliaUngur / Shutterstock.com.