Why Does God Allow Sin and Suffering?
There is a real mystery here, and we can only give partial answers.
Here are some of mine . . .
Two Kinds of Evil
We need to recognize that there is more than one kind of evil.
When we use the word "evil," we often mean moral evil (sin), but historically it was frequently used for other things, such as suffering.
These two forms of evil are linked: It is a sin to cause needless suffering, for example.
This brings us to an important question . . .
Could God Stop These Evils?
Yes. God is omnipotent. He is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.
Without his action, the universe would never have come into existence, and without his continued action, it would cease to exist or go "to nothing" (Latin, ad nihilum--where we get "annihilate").
God could have prevented all sin and suffering by not creating the universe.
And he could end all sin and suffering simply by allowing the universe to cease to exist.
You might call this "the Annihilation Solution."
So what doesn't he?
The Problem in a Nutshell
The Christian understanding of God is that he is not only all-powerful but all-good as well, which is what gives the problem of evil its puzzling nature.
At first glance, it would seem that an all-good God who has the power to end all sin and suffering would do so.
Since he doesn't, that has led skeptics to argue that God either doesn't exist--or that he isn't all-good or all-powerful.
Are these the only alternatives?
A False Start
One possibility, which I will dismiss quickly, is the suggestion that God might not be all-knowing. Some have thought that, while he's good enough and powerful enough to prevent evil, he isn't all-knowing and so doesn't have the knowledge needed to bring his power to bear on the problem.
For simplicity's sake, I'm going to fold that into God's omnipotence. If he's all-powerful, that would include the power to know what he needs to use his power effectively. So we don't need to be detained by that option.
There are, though, other possibilities--ways to show that an all-good, all-powerful God might still allow sin and suffering to exist.
For example, consider the way of ending them that we mentioned above: God could annihilate the universe. That would end sin and suffering instantly.
"But wait!" someone might cry. "I like the universe! It's where I keep all my stuff!"
And it's true that annihilating the universe would have costs as well as benefits.
On the plus side, it would mean getting rid of sin and suffering.
On the minus side, it would mean getting rid of every good thing in the universe as well.
Many people might look at that and say, "If that's the only alternative, it's reasonable for an all-good, all-powerful God to allow the universe to continue to exist, despite the evil it contains."
But is it the only alternative?
A Perfect World?
If God is omnipotent, would he be able to arrange it so that the universe was perfect--that it never had sin or suffering in it?
If so, then annihilating the universe wouldn't be the only way to avoid these evils. God could have stopped them by never allowing them to come into being.
The devil would still be a happy angel. Mankind would still be living in the garden. Everything would be great!
So why didn't God just do that?
What's Love Got to Do with It?
Many have suggested that the reason has to do with free will.
While the concept of free will can be understood in different ways, one common understanding of it involves the capacity to make a free decision between good and evil.
Since people do choose between good and evil, and seem to do so freely, one can argue that God apparently values this kind of freedom.
It's commonly thought that the reason he does so is that, if he didn't let people freely choose between good and evil then they would just be puppets--programmed robots.
For us to love God--or each other--under such a situation would seem hollow, it's been suggested.
For love to be worthwhile, it has to be freely chosen.
On this proposal, God values free will--and the quality of the choices that flow from it (e.g., real love)--and thus tolerates the bad choices that can also result from it (i.e., sin and the suffering it causes).
He couldn't wipe out the latter without wiping out the former as well.
He thus tolerates evil for the sake of allowing good to be freely chosen.
What are we to make of this argument?
An Important Insight
We've already seen that many people would think it rational for God to allow the universe to continue to exist if the only way to get rid of sin and suffering were to annihilate all of creation.
If so, it is reasonable for an all-good, all-powerful being to tolerate evil for the sake of greater good, at least if there were no other way to remove it.
It's also plausible that God could not prevent sin and the suffering that comes from it if he is going to allow free will of the kind we're discussing.
And it's plausible that this kind of free will is valuable, that the goods which it enables (e.g., love) would be robbed of something very important--perhaps their whole essence--if they were not freely chosen.
Many people have thus thought that we have a plausible account of why an all-good, all-powerful God would tolerate sin and suffering.
And I agree. I think we've uncovered an important insight.
Yet it doesn't completely remove the mystery that surrounds the problem of evil. There is still more to say.
But that will have to wait for future posts. (This will be the beginning of a series :-)
In the meantime . . .
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