Does a good God allow “gratuitous” evil?

In the latest episode of Unbelievable?, Josh Parikh and Cory Markum square off over this question: Does the existence of evil presuppose the existence of God? In my view, the answer is obvious: The moment you call something “evil,” you are appealing to objective moral facts, which themselves depend on the existence of a Judge who defines what is good and bad. As Tim Keller argues in his masterful book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, in making an argument against God on the basis of the existence of evil, you end up “relying on God to make an argument against God.”[1]

If I were Parikh, the Christian debater, I would have exposed the sentimentality that atheist Markum depended on to suggest that evil is incompatible with God’s existence. He began by citing the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in which hundreds of thousands—disproportionately children—died in one fell swoop. Surely a good God wouldn’t permit this!

Parikh should have intensified the problem: In other words, if Markum is right, he doesn’t go far enough. By what logic does a good God allow not only the deaths of hundreds of thousands in a tsunami, but even the death of one person, for example, whose trailer park was struck by a tornado? Unless Markum can justify even one death, he’s neither helping nor harming his case by appealing to scale. Logically, multiplying the problem of one death from “gratuitous evil” adds nothing to the problem.

Besides, as C.S. Lewis points out in his masterpiece The Problem of Pain, no one suffers more than one death.

Suppose that I have a toothache of intensity x: and suppose that you, who are seated beside me, also begin to have a toothache of intensity x. You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x. But you must remember that no one is suffering 2x: search all time and all space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone’s consciousness. There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.[2]

Years ago, I read an online debate between N.T. Wright and agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. When Ehrman made this inevitable appeal to what Lewis calls the “sum of suffering,” Wright pointed out his logical inconsistency. Ehrman never grasped the point, unfortunately. Because it is a good point…

Or it’s a bad point inasmuch as it works against us believers in the Christian God. Again, either we can justify one person’s death from so-called “gratuitous evil” or we can justify no one’s death from it. It’s that simple.

Later in the episode, Markum appeals to the massive scale of animal suffering as another spin on the argument. What about a baby bat with a broken wing who dies a seemingly gruesome death in bat guano by being eaten alive by creatures living in the guano?

How is this not a facile example of anthropomorphizing animal pain? By all means, nature is red in tooth and claw, but Markum’s argument only holds water if we ascribe human-like self-consciousness to the bat—as if the animal were thinking (paraphrasing the Carpenters song), “I’ve only just begun to live/ So much of life ahead…” While many animals experience pain, God has designed them such that they are unaware that they are themselves experiencing it. They’re not capable of thinking, “Why is this happening to me?” They lack any awareness of regret, or remorse, or a sense of their own mortality—things that often makes human suffering so painful.

Again, Lewis tackles this question in his book. Other Christian apologists have done so more recently.

Besides, has Markum not heard the Disney song (by way of Tim Rice and Elton John) “The Circle of Life”? It’s good and necessary for the ecosystem that organisms in the guano feed on the baby bat. Right?

After all, when the cheetah attacks the antelope in the National Geographic special, we always feel awful for the antelope. But if we’re going to anthropomorphize, let’s anthropomorphize all the way: Let’s follow that cheetah as she feeds the antelope carcass to her cubs. Isn’t that sweet? (I’m a cat lover. I think it’s sweet when a house cat leaves a dead squirrel on the doorstep.)

Nevertheless, I agree with Parikh that the cross of Jesus Christ represents the worst evil the world has ever known. If God can redeem even that evil, then he can surely do the same with all lesser forms of evil. Suffering may be “gratuitous” in the sense that it isn’t necessary to fulfill God’s purposes, but it’s never meaningless—which is to say, it never happens outside of God’s providential purposes.

Does that make sense?

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 103-4.

2. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 116-7.

13 thoughts on “Does a good God allow “gratuitous” evil?”

  1. Makes sense to me.

    I would also recall that it is our belief that God originally created us to live forever. It was when we ate from the tree that death was introduced. It came directly from the disobedience of man, but then that’s another sermon.

    1. Absolutely! Thanks for this reminder. Christian apologists spend too little time speaking of the theological meaning of evil and suffering—in part because their interlocutors would reject it out of hand. It’s also important to say that demonic forces influence our physical world.

  2. Yep. That’s what happens when you try and play on their turf. They reject the supernatural out of hand, but everything about God is supernatural. They think that we are irrational and that God is a myth. That’s not a very good basis for starting a discussion, so I usually say, “whatever….”. (learned that one from my kids in the 90’s 🙂 )

    1. I think “playing on their turf” may be a necessary starting point, but we shouldn’t stay there very long.

  3. pain is part and parcel of the human condition. to us, through the Cross, it has great meaning. From wondrous love we are created, for wondrous love we exist, but it’s on His terms this love is offered, and on His terms we have to accept. our pastor here just gave one of the best sermons ever I heard. it was about Jacob blessing Joseph’s sons. Joe didnt like how papa crossed his hands, and dad said no this is how I meant it in the larger context of God’s story. God does that a lot, He crosses us up, does the unexpected, surprises us. Thus it is with pain. sometimes He lets pain in or persist when our plan is “not so much, God”

  4. Interesting comment about C.S. Lewis’ point that the “maximum” amount of pain is whatever one person most endures, not some “composite.” However, to my mind this still leaves open the question whether it should make any difference that out of the total number of persons, a substantial majority end up in ETERNAL pain, to one degree or another, in hell.

    The only way to answer that query in a “pro-Christian” or “good God” fashion which will stand up to scrutiny (IMHO) is that each and every one of those persons in such pain are eternally suffering as a result of their own choice(s). God gives the freedom to act (necessary in a “love universe”) which offers to each person the highest possible good and eternal enjoyment (love). All persons can either accept or reject that “love offer.” In rejecting it (choosing their own selfishness instead), they also forfeit all the “good” that “comes with” God and resign themselves to an eternity away from the presence of God (which results in “outer darkness” and an “absence of pleasure”).

    But what about “fire and brimstone” thrown in to boot? In other words, not simply “banishment,” but also “punishment.” In my estimation this comes down to two explanations. First, providing a “maximum motive” to everyone to accept the “love offer”–eternal bliss versus eternal pain lie in the balance. “I lay before you life and death, bliss and pain; therefore, choose life!” Second, the “bad” things that the “rejecters” of love do in their selfishness and ultimate disregard of God and the interests of others really are such “bad things” as to warrant such severe punishment. (And, the DEGREE of such punishment surely will bear some relation to the degree of “evilness” of each suffering person. Just as, conversely, those who “choose love of God and our ‘neighbors'” will receive “bliss” to a greater or lesser degree based on how strongly they say, “Yes!”, as it were, or to use a figure.)

    Is this whole system “worth it”? Ultimately, “Who are you to question God? Shall the thing formed say to him who formed him, ‘Why did you make me this way?'” But I don’t think it is merely a matter of “deferring to God” in the end. Instead, in the end, all persons will see that a “love universe” really is the best one, and that everyone who rejects “love” and chooses varying degrees of “selfish disregard” in its place deserves what they get as a result. “Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess….” Not because they “have to,” or are “forced to,” but because they cannot but do so once everyone sees the “latter end.”

    1. Good stuff here, Tom. It’s speculative, but that’s sort of what we’re forced to do by scripture, which doesn’t directly answer some of our burning questions. If I recall, you’re a Molinist? (God’s knowledge of how we WOULD respond to the gospel in different circumstances ensures that everyone is given a fair opportunity to receive the gospel. In other words, if they don’t accept Christ, then that means they wouldn’t have done so had they lived in any other time or place.)

      1. And what would be your response to the statement that I’ve heard many times: “Who would say ‘no’ to the gift of eternal life if they knew what was at stake?”

      2. First of all, the demons revolted despite fully knowing all about God and being fully aware of what they were doing. Second, many, many people who DO hear the gospel message reject it. Jesus quotes from Isaiah, “seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear.” It is not a stretch to say that others have the “same type of hearts” as those people, and would therefore do the same given the opportunity.

        Personally, I don’t know how anyone could make such a foolish choice; yet, consider some murderers who know that they will face the electric chair, yet murder anyway–they are willing to take the consequences because they so hate the person they want to kill.

        Also, there is an element of “faith” involved. You can hear the message, yet be willing to “take the risk” that perhaps it is not true, so that you can go on living life as you please. Somewhat like cheating on a test, knowing you will fail if caught, but being willing to take the risk that you won’t get caught.

        An example of someone who heard but still was unwilling to believe is King Agrippa, who, upon hearing Paul expound the gospel, said, “Almost thou persuadest me to become a Christian.” Paul says, “I would that you were not almost, but altogether as I am, except these chains.” So, what more could God have done? A private audience with the greatest preacher of the day, yet rejected the message. It is not God’s fault that the message was not “mixed with faith” so as to accomplish salvation.

      3. Good point about demons… Yes, I think people do wish to go on living the way they choose; they don’t want to surrender to Christ. Also, we have to be clear on the difference between merely believing in God or in facts about Christianity, versus having genuine faith. If we believe there’s an important distinction between those two things, then it becomes easier to imagine that this distinction will hold up on Judgment Day.

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