• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

A Cinematic Tour of the Problem of Evil

Virgin Spring

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then where does evil come from?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?


Gruesome and tragic headlines from the past few months have thousands of people of faith scratching their heads, asking: why does God allow this evil to happen? Isn't he supposed to be all-loving and all-powerful? The question is even more pressing for people who are directly involved and suffering enormously.

This problem - known to philosophers as "the problem of evil" - is as old as the book of Job. Many theologians and artists, from Augustine and Aquinas to Dostoevsky and Thornton Wilder, have grappled with this fundamental question. In fact, we can survey the theological problem, its emotional gravity, and its strongest resolutions by looking at a handful of excellent films.

Oxford mathematician and philosopher John Lennox has often emphasized two very important things about this classical problem from the outset. I'll follow his lead here.

First, we have to first acknowledge that there is both an intellectual and emotional component to the problem. Secondly, both components amount to one of the best (if not the best) arguments against God that there is - and believers need to be humble enough to admit it.

With those preliminaries in mind, let's take a look at six films that wrestle with this problem: The Virgin Spring, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, The Seventh Seal, Signs, The Tree of Life, and Shadowlands:

These two Woody Allen films sum up the intellectual side of the problem of evil (also neatly summed up in the Epicurus quote at the top of the article). In Hannah and Her Sisters, his character - who is in the middle of a profound existential crisis - asks: "If there's a God, why is there so much evil in the world? Just on a simplistic level, why were there Nazis?" In Crimes and Misdemeanors, a jaded humanist at a family Seder says that Hitler "got away with" the slaughter of 6 million Jews. Where was God in the Holocaust? Why didn't he stop it? Or at least punish the wicked after it happened?

Brothers KaramazovCountless theologians and Christian thinkers have wrestled with the problem of evil on this intellectual level, as Woody Allen often does. For example, writer Fyodor Dostoevsky made the suffering of innocent children the sturdy basis of his character Ivan's atheism in The Brothers Karamazov. Theologian David Bentley Hart calls this argument against God "far and away the best argument" (nota bene all you atheists), and the one that occasions his own periodic loss of faith.

In Allen's films, the solution is often just comic diffusion: "How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don't know how the can opener works." But there have been noble attempts at solving the problem of evil intellectually, which include emphasizing the notions of free will, the fall of man, and the permission of evil to bring about greater goods. In the movie Shadowlands, Christian intellectual, apologist, and former atheist C.S. Lewis - played by Anthony Hopkins - says that confidently that God allows suffering because "we are like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. Blows of his chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect."

But to the soul of someone whose child was just kidnapped, or who has just been diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of cancer, such legalistic answers mean little - especially when the suffering looks so senseless, and so preventable. These answers may address why God permits evil in the abstract; but why is he permitting it right now, in this way, to me, to my child? At this point, no amount of intellectual maneuvering will do - the problem is, as philosopher Peter Kreeft calls it, "not just an intellectual experiment," but a "rebellion of tears." This is the emotional side of the problem of evil.

ShadowlandsWe see this side very clearly in that same movie, Shadowlands. CS Lewis, who was able to speak eloquently about the problem in the abstract, is personally devastated when he has to confront suffering in his own life: the loss of his first and great love, Joy Gresham, to cancer.

"Don't tell me it's all for the best," he says to his colleagues, who are fellow intellectuals and theologians. He anticipates their best answers and doesn't want them. A kindly priest tries anyway: "Only God knows why these things have to happen." But Lewis is totally unsatisfied with this response. "It won't do. It's a bloody awful mess and that's all there is to it."

The power and pain of the emotional side of this problem is also masterfully portrayed in two Ingmar Bergman movies: The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring.

The Seventh Seal, which has the famous scene of a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) playing a game of chess with Death, meditates over and over on the silence of God in the midst of great despair, and even questions his existence - a motif that is obviously very relevant for those going through great suffering.

But The Virgin Spring, which is about a young girl who is unexpectedly raped and murdered, gets right to the heart of the matter. After the horrible act of violence, the girl's father collapses and prays: "The death of an innocent child...you allowed it to happen. I don't understand you." Remembering when he watched this movie for the first time, director Ang Lee said: "I'd never in my 18 years of life seen anything so quiet, so serene, and yet so violent, and so fundamentally questioning God."

To my mind, though, the two films that deal most brilliantly with the problem of evil are Signs and The Tree of Life, for this reason: they provide the hope of a resolution, one which engages both the heart and mind.

Signs, on the face of it, doesn't seem like it's about this philosophical problem at all; the M. Night Shyamalan sci-fi thriller follows a family in a small rural town dealing with crop circles and an imminent alien invasion.


But underlying the film is a profound meditation on the problem of evil. The protagonist Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a former Episcopalian priest who renounces God after his wife is killed in a random, horrible traffic accident. For Hess - as for C.S. Lewis and countless others who have wrestled with the problem - theological explanations seem to fall short. Something is missing; it's God's voice, offering some reassurance, where instead there's only silence and what seems like indifference.

The key scene in the film comes in a discussion between Hess and his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) about the arrival of the aliens. Hess explains that there are two groups of people looking at the alien lights in the sky in two different ways: one group feels that they are on their own, and sees everything, including these lights, as evidence of blind luck, coincidence, even chaos; the other feels that "there'll be someone there to help them," and sees signs and miracles where the first group sees coincidences.

When Merrill asks his brother which group he falls into, Hess describes his dying wife's last moments: her innocent body pressed against a tree by a totaled car, her eyes glazed, and her lips saying" See. Swing away." What sign could that be? It was only the random firing of neurons, electrifying the memory of some baseball game right before his wife's unexpected death. From that moment on, he decides: "There is no one watching out for us. We are all on our own."

This is a glimpse into the darkness and despair wrought by the experience of suffering. It's not that God doesn't love us - it's that he was never there at all.

Tree of Life

The Tree of Life presents a similar pain and loss. We watch Jack (Sean Penn) wander in a state of spiritual desolation, contemplating the loss of his younger brother at the age of nineteen. In a flashback, their mourning mother is comforted by a well-meaning neighbor, who says: "Time heals...the Lord gives and takes away." But these platitudes are like band aids on a festering wound; they do nothing, heal nothing. "Why?" the mother whispers in a voice over, calling out to God. "Where were you?"

In both of these films, we see that the mind wants explanations about God's ways. But the suffering heart needs to hear his voice, to know that he cares, or that he's even there at all. And both films, in their way, reveal that voice.

In Signs, a bundle of seemingly unconnected and random threads - including Hess' wife's last words - suddenly weave into a big and beautiful tapestry that makes sense of everything. This restores Hess' faith that someone has been watching out for him; that his profound loss and his wife's painful death are ugly threads that will, in some way, end up a necessary part of a perfect whole. As we saw in Shadowlands, this isn't a message Hess could hear from a friend or neighbor - instead, he had to "hear" it from God, and see it in his own life.

Sean Penn's character Jack in The Tree of Life also "hears" God's voice toward the end of the film, through a transcendental vision that points to the "why" of suffering:

This glimpse of the ultimate reality of eternity stirs hope in Jack's heart that "all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well" - not in spite of suffering, but because of suffering. Suffering is the groundwork laid in order to build shared, everlasting love.

Neither Signs nor The Tree of Life denies the problem of evil, or tries to explain it away. There are grim portrayals in both movies of random illness, evil acts, and tragic death - lived realities that hurt like hell.

But when Hess put his clerical collar back on, and when "Agnus Dei" ("Lamb of God") is sung during Jack's vision of eternity, a very particular picture of God is brought to mind: not God as puppet master pulling the strings, or a judicial authority punishing us for our own good, or (as Christopher Hitchens called him) a celestial Kim Jong-il. Instead, we glimpse a "suffering God"; one who, as atheist Slavoj Zizek brilliantly put it, "is agonized, assumes the burden of suffering, in solidarity with the human misery."

The image of God himself beaten, stripped naked, humiliated with thorns, and nailed to a cross to die contains one of the most powerful "words" - the Logos - that suffering people looking for God's voice can see and understand. Why is it such a powerful response to the problem of evil? Because the cross literally connects suffering and weakness and pain with divine life, with God's love. (This doesn't mean that pain ceases to be pain - or that suffering should be idealized for its own sake. As trappist Thomas Merton put it, Christianity faces suffering and death "not because they are good, not because they have meaning, but because the resurrection of Jesus has robbed them of their meaning.")

Even for those with this essential faith, intellectual problems still linger. For example: Why do certain people suffer so much more than others? How could eternity ever "undo" or "excuse" the horrible damage that has been done, especially to innocent children? And what about the suffering of animals - does that go unredeemed?

I think Hess and Jack would continue to wrestle with these questions beyond the final frames, just as we all do in our lives. But we see a fundamental hope taking root in both characters, grounded in a distinct understanding of who God is. This understanding, if we share it, matters; it means that when confronted with atrocious human evils like the Holocaust and asked "where was God," we're compelled to say: right there in the gas chambers, lifting up the suffering.

What other films exhibit the problem of evil?

Originally posted at By Way of Beauty. Used with author's permission.

Matthew Becklo

Written by

Matthew Becklo is a husband and father-to-be, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • sleepyhead


    With regards to the problem of evil, if it was our choice to come here, and we as spirits discovered how to inhabit these human bodies, as opposed to God putting us here, then it would be wrong for God to intervene unless certain predefined conditions were met. For example suppose someone you knew decided he wanted to hike up Pikes Peak. He got half way up and he was tired. Suppose you had the power to levitate him to the top of the mountain. If he called you on the phone and asked for a levitation would you do it? It would be better if the individual continued climbing rather than you levitating him.

    May all your naps be joyous occasions.

    • how did you end up being in your body? How do you know you were a spirit first? In fact it was your mom's choice for you to be on this earth. Gladly, for you, she chose life and not to purge you as a simple problem.

      • sleepyhead

        Hello Ce Gzz,

        I don't know if I was a spirit before coming to earth. I don't know how I got into my body. I was just attempting to point out that we don't know if God actually puts us in our present bodies. I was just pointing out that in order for the "problem of Evil" to be an effective argument we must assume that we didn't have any choice with regards to our coming to earth in our present circumstances. If we as spirits chose to come here then the Problem of evil argument falls apart.

        May all your naps be joyous occasions.

        • Well it doesn't fall apart then! :)
          The Grace may fall upon your days!

        • Doug Shaver

          I was just pointing out that in order for the "problem of Evil" to be an effective argument we must assume that we didn't have any choice with regards to our coming to earth in our present circumstances.

          I so assume. Why shouldn't I?

      • Doug Shaver

        Gladly, for you, she chose life and not to purge you as a simple problem.

        If my mother had chosen otherwise, I can assure you that I would never have raised any objections.

        • Ce Gzz

          If your mother had chose to abort you...HECK! we would not be having this comments from you Doug!

          • Doug Shaver

            If I had not been born, some unknown fraction of the world's history for the past 68 years would have been at least slightly different, but the only difference that matters from a moral perspective is how much more or less suffering has occurred because I was born. I have no idea whether my life has resulted in a net increase or decrease in the world's suffering. But, if you're going to tell me what I should feel glad about, I can tell you that it makes no sense to me to feel anything one way or the other about having merely existed.

          • Ce Gzz

            Pathetic! Sounds like a wasted life there!

          • Doug Shaver

            Perhaps. I'm not done with it yet.

  • Raisinhead

    No answers given here. More of the 'have faith, just wait' argument. Not addressing the intellectual questions.

    • sleepyhead

      Hello Raisinhead,

      While the article writer probably had to conform to a predefined dogma I felt my response did address the intellectual question of how can God allow this or that to happen. Was there a particular question you wanted answered?

      May all your naps be joyous occasions.

      • Raisinhead

        Whilst Sisyphus might be an interesting moral fable, I'm unclear about its intellectual or logical argument. Must we simply struggle to be moral beings? IMO there is no intellectual reason (by definition I mean earthly sense) for an omnipotent God to allow child cancer yet they do. So that must mean there is an unearthly reason beyond our understanding. In which it is to our senses arbitrary and not worth basing a moral structure on , even less a religion. Castles I sand my friend.
        May all your pillows be duck down fluffy.

        • sleepyhead

          Hello Raisinhead,

          Suppose that the earth is only one of many worlds we are able to experience, that there are other worlds some better and some worse. Suppose that this omnipotent God had the power to eliminate child cancer in this world. Would it be morally reasonable for him to do so?

          Suppose you had the power to level Mt. Everest so that no one would ever die climbing it. Would it be morally reasonable for you to do so?

          May all your raisins be sun ripened.

          • Susan

            >Suppose that this omnipotent God had the power to eliminate child cancer in this world. Would it be morally reasonable for him to do so?

            Yes. The ball is in your court.

            >Suppose you had the power to level Mt. Everest so that no one would ever die climbing it. Would it be morally reasonable for you to do so?

            No. I am forced to take into account the many non-human life forms who would suffer and die if I levelled Everest and I think that's a moral issue (although not one that is ever seriously considered in defenses of YHWH). Also, the climbers are driven to a risk vs. reward game that most of them would seek out elsewhere if there were no Everest. Without the spectre of death vs. the trappings of success, Everest would not be interesting to them.

            What Everest has to do with child cancer in discussions of morality is beyond me. Children are not inexorably drawn to challenge cancer the way a tiny percentage of adult humans are drawn to challenging Everest.

          • Michael Murray

            It's free will Susan. Obviously the price of God allowing people to climb Mount Everest is that little babies have to die of cancer.

          • Max Driffill

            It is a bizarre pairing. The first bit (Level a Mt to prevent the deaths of 1-12 people a year who approach the mountain knowing full well it is not uncommon for the mountain to kill such adventurers) misses the fact of self-selection.
            Sleepyhead, are you not missing the informed consent implied in Everest climbers. Death would not surprise them. Nor would surprise their families and significant others (however much it would sadden them).

            The kids with cancer part neglects the random destruction such pathology heaps on so very many people.
            1.The child of course would prefer not to be dying of cancer. This is a fearful, and horrible prospect
            2. It heaps grief on to parents, grand-parents, siblings, friends and even neighbors.
            3. There is no self-selection for this challenge. No family drew straws to see which of their kids would be given cancer so they could try to beat a challenge.
            How can this in any way be a positive?

    • mr. right

      Watch william lane craig's video about the problem of evil.

      • Raisinhead

        Mr Craig fails spectacularly to discuss the nature of evil in the world and instead masturbates over his training in rhetoric. Evasive to the point of duplicity. Atheists need prove nothing about God. It's not that we simply don't 'like a god who would allow suffering'. It's that that understanding of theology is one more reason not to believe in God. Craig is somehow arguing that bone cancer in children is necessary or probably necessary to some degree to bring people to God if he is omniscient and yet doesn't seem to be an interventionist god apart from that one time in Galilee (oh how convenient). Craig tells us that the example of Jesus shows us that we can bear suffering. Well, whoopie-do. What other choice is there? He tells us that enduring suffering is a trade off against the chance for eternal happiness. Let's look at the childhood case again:
        1.The child of course would prefer not to be dying of cancer. This is a fearful, and horrible prospect
        2. It heaps grief on to parents, grand-parents, siblings, friends and even neighbors.
        3. There is no self-selection for this challenge. No family drew straws to see which of their kids would be given cancer so they could try to beat
        a challenge.

        How does this bring people to God?

        If this is god, then god is an evil, capricious tyrant. But luckily there is no such thing as God and we must accept, in the existential sense, that the universe is full of hazards and we have no choice but to bear and endure without reward.

  • Susan

    >Why do certain people suffer so much more than others? How could eternity ever "undo" or "excuse" the horrible damage that has been done, especially to innocent children? And what about the suffering of animals - does that go unredeemed?

    >This understanding, if we share it, matters; it means that when confronted with atrocious human evils like the Holocaust and asked "where was God," we're compelled to say: right there in the gas chambers, lifting up the suffering.

    I am not the least bit compelled to say that. You'll have to explain what would compel me to say that.

    • Michael Murray

      The Nazi's were pretty good at compelling people to say things. The Inquisition was no slouch either by all reports.

  • Vicq_Ruiz

    I think a reasonable way for a Christian to confront the problem of evil is to submit to the possibility that the definition of "evil" as it applies to God's nature does not by any means have to correspond to the definition of evil which he has placed in the hearts of men.

    To put it succinctly, "Do as I say, not as I do".

    And as an atheist I would find that explanation not at all at odds with the facts of human existence as observed.

  • 42Oolon

    God was there, in the gas chambers, "lifting up the suffering". How do you know this? How do you know God was not there guiding the hand of the Nazi's instead? I think if you are honest, all you can say is that you believe God is all good and all powerful. He has the power to stop the Nazi's, childhood leukemia, molesting priests etc., but he does not. We do not know why he allows evil, but we have Faith that it is part or a larger, good, plan. Obviously, we cannot know much about that plan because it sure looks like he is allowing enormous amounts of purposeless evil. This places significant limits on what you can say about what you know of God's plans or his standards of morality. You are certainly speculating when you make assumptions about his unseen actions in places like the gas chambers of WWII. I think this all places huge limits on what you can say with any certainty of your understanding of God from the Bible, or the observable Universe.

  • Max Driffill

    Here is a clip from a movie that I think handles the problem of evil in the Bible: the movie is God on Trial.


  • Chiefy

    Interesting idea, Sleepyhead. If we chose to come into this world, I would like to know what the terms were. Did we get a random assignment, anywhere on Earth? If we flunk out, do we go to hell, or back to start? Might make a good fantasy story, but it sure doesn't line up with any theology I know of.

    I think the answer is not that difficult. Obviously whatever god is, it is not omnipotent.

  • mr. right

    Click (with Adam Sandler) shows how the character's avoidance of suffering by clicking away the hard parts of his life can lead to a worse state of emptyness because he skipped moments of joy intertwined with struggle. The angel of death tells him one moment that the clicker automatically skipped through parts of his life accordingly to his previous living pattern, "you were rushing through life because of work way before I got here, so every time family was in the way of work, the clicker chose work"; simply referring to how we ourselves can be the root of our own evil.

  • Sasha Dence

    From a Christian p.o.v. suffering is the result of sin. But I think, I'm coming to believe, sin is almost always misunderstood. I think it is a lot more complicated than most people understand it to be. In reflecting on my own life, I can see in times past where I was actively sinning but I have to say, except in a couple of instances, I didn't realise that what I was doing, or the thoughts that lead to sinful attitudes, could (and did) cause suffering. It is only in retrospect that I can see many sins clearly as sins. I think what is true of me is likely true of a lot of people. We do not really know we are agents of evil when we are. Thinking about it, I think I expected evil to be a lot more obvious - a lot more clear in terms of how I felt at any given time. I thought I would know when I was entering a place called 'evil'. I have to say, I often didn't. I mean, if I was told not to take cookies, and I did, I knew at the time and I'd feel that guilty fear that I was doing something wrong. But some sins, especially sins not considered sinful by a particular culture, are only sins if you deeply think about what you are doing and your motives as well as trying ot imagine the implications. For eg., if you lived at a time when owning slaves was socially permissable, and you treated your slaves well, you could believe yourself to be doing nothing wrong in owning them, that slavery is evil might never enter your head. Similarly, if you lived in Germany in the '30''s and 40's you might have no real idea that your gov't was criminal. I mean, 60 million people weren't all psychopaths. To live as sin-free -- and thus, cause as little suffering as possible -- requires a lot of work. I believe this is because we simply do not literally, as in our own bodies, feel the pain we cause. For eg., I remember a student complaining to me that i brushed her off when she asked me for material from classes she missed. When I thought back to the incident (which I barely remembered) I could see that I did, or likely did, because I routinely said to students that asked for stuff they'd missed, "get notes from another student". The main thing, is I didn't feel what they felt. I had to learn it. For someone else this would be automatic. We're not connected by nerve endings to each other and only become so if we choose to. I suspect (although I don't know) that feeling the effects of what we say and do in someone else *was* automatic before sin severed our connection to God, each other, and the non-human creation. Sin is a rupturing force. After the fall, after the big disconnect, to be sinless and thus not cause suffering requires exercising imagination -- trying to *be* someone other than yourself. It is an ongoing effort of will and imagination; also the willingness to suffer yourself, to repent, when you realise that you've engaged in something you, on reflection, realise causes suffering. It requires knowing that you could have been compliant with nazism or stalinism were you raised under those regimes. I can think of many many examples. Did we know, at the time, that splitting an atom would cause Hiroshima? Did we know that inventing the internal combustion engine could (and did) lead to global ecological collapse, the extinction of 60% of species etc. We could have drawn a straight line at least hypothetically, from those inventions to their mis-use. Did the first settlers in North America fully comprehend that they couldn't steal land that wasn't theirs? Or were all those people intentionally malicious as we think of evil people being? Frequently, I don't think we always know when we're arrogant, cold, stupidly reckless or cruel. A lot of sin that causes suffering -- is a kind of ignorance of the heart -- a kind of lack of imagination, deep feeling or deep reflection. Knowledge isn't really cerebral. I think real knowledge, the kind that activates when we're about to sin, is feeling. We couldn't hurt a child because we ourselves would suffer so much. But we might, I don't know, be willing to put a toddler in daycare.Our culture is perfectly fine with that. I myself was until I once stayed in one all day. What I mean by all of this, is I think we often don't know ourselves as well as we think we do and we don't understand how deep our own capacity to cause suffering is -- how much power we have to make others suffer. Causing suffering is just a whole lot easier than I thought it would be when I was younger and first started wanting to be good. Sin is easy! As the priest says in Les Miserables, famously said, it's gravity. Going down is so much easier than going up. I think, when I was younger, I thought evil would be obviously evil and thus -- rare -- clearly abnormal. I also think we don't really understand Love and what it demands of us or what compassion, co-passion, i.e. co-suffering *with* others and non-human life entails. But Christ did -- hence The Passion.