“Is (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. He is able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”
-- David Hume, paraphrasing Epicurus
How does one reconcile God’s existence with the undeniable existence of evil in the world? If God is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, how can he permit evil to exist?
That was the question participants wrestled with in the latest session of Everyday Religion in a World of Many Faiths, a free, online class offered by the Ansari Institute.
“How does one reconcile God’s existence with the undeniable existence of evil in the world?”
“The 20th century saw terrible human atrocities and suffering,” Professor Adnan Aslan said as he began the conversation. “In that century, close to half a billion people died from smallpox; more than 200 million lives were taken in war and democide (the murder of people by a government) and roughly 12 million died from AIDS—most of them last in the last 15 years of the century.
“For most theists, there is a God who exists as an all-powerful, all-knowing, and wholly good being. Certainly, if this kind of being exists, he would destroy evil and suffering.”
Students offered several perspectives on this dilemma. For instance, Paula Spart said God allows everything that happens for a reason. Pamela Young said evil exists because of separation from God, adding that some bad things, such as natural disasters, were unfortunate but not evil. And Ronnie Ansari said everyone has the freedom to choose God or evil.
Such freedom, Aslan said, is crucial to understanding why evil exists. He cited philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s free will defense, which argues that God created a world with free creatures who could choose either good or evil. A world where people do good more often than evil is significantly more valuable than one where human beings aren’t free, Plantinga argued; and ultimately, God could have prevented moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.
“When we encounter evil, what is needed is redemption. Religious faith and practice can be used in order to fight and overcome evil.”
While Aslan praised the free will defense as a strong counter-argument to the problem of evil, he added that philosophy cannot answer the question of how humankind can overcome evil.
“The problem here is, how can we overcome the suffering and calamities that happen to us?” he asked. “Can religious faith and belief in God help us to fight against evil? Definitely. When we encounter evil, what is needed is redemption. Redemption is not a part of philosophy, but is part of religion. Religious faith and practice can be used in order to fight and overcome evil.”