The Problem of Evil
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Start with three propositions and an observation:
P1 = God is all-knowing (omniscient),
P2 = God is all-powerful (omnipotent),
P3 = God is all-good (omnibenevolent),
O = Evil exists.
The propositions, taken together, conflict with the observation, so at least one of them, we think, must be false to Reality. Perhaps God is not all-knowing and evil eludes Its purview? Perhaps God is not all-powerful and evil defies Its command? Or perhaps God is not all-good and either ignores or condones evil?
Continue with a question: How do we know that the observation is true to Reality? How do we recognize evil? What phenomenon or set of phenomena do we denote with the word evil? In spite of two and a half millenia of philosophers striving to find one, we have no universally agreed-upon definition of evil. I can, however, provide a provisional working definition that we can use to discuss this problem.
In a paraphrase of Isaac Asimovís First Law of Robotics, I say that evil consists of any conscious act that is intended to diminish a person or which, through inaction, allows a person to be diminished. Intent is an important part of that definition: if a lion kills a person, itís bad, but itís not evil because the animal canít form intent in the same sense as humans form intent; but if a man kills a person, he has done evil. We live in a world plagued by people diminishing other people, robbing, raping, and murdering them, so we accept the above observation as true to Reality. Why, then, does God allow evil to exist?
Perhaps evil serves some hidden purpose that we cannot understand. Some people believe that this is the case. They claim that we cannot understand Godís reasoning and should simply accept the existence of evil as evidence of Godís inscrutability. But evil offers no benefit to Humanity: itís purely destructive. Itís simply not feasible to improve Humanity by diminishing members of the human race. It would take a malicious and/or stupid deity to employ no better means of improving us. So letís dismiss that thought and take a closer look at our propositions.
We generally associate God with the Thing that Created the Universe. As far as the Universe is concerned, that God is effectively omnipotent. It is also omnipresent, occupying every point in space at every instant of time. We might conceive the Universe as an organ of perception for God as well as the object of Godís perception. The quantum-mechanical aleatric fields and waves that fill the Universe are Godís thoughts insofar as God is capable of processing the information that they carry. In that case God is omniscient: It knows everything that exists and happens in the Universe. We are thus left to question whether God is good.
Conceptually, we contrast good with evil. Good is evilís opposite. Evil people strive to diminish others: good people strive to enlarge others. Evil people push other people down: good people lift others up. The distinction between good and evil seems clear. But that analysis is merely an abstraction. Itís a good theory, but in practice itís not very useful.
Good is not a universally true fact like the speed of light, which is the same for everyone, regardless of what anyone thinks. In spite of the best efforts of the most astute philosophers, good is an opinion, something that can differ from person to person, even if that person is God.
But Godís opinion would appear to count for more than ours do. That impression comes from the traditional solution of the problem of evil, the assertion of the existence of an afterlife. According to that assertion, after we die we get new bodies and take up residence in a new world with good people going to a good place called Heaven and evil people going to a bad place called Hell. On first impression the idea appeals to us because it offers a kind of justice for the way we treat people and are treated by people in this life. But if we go beyond that first impression, we find that the assertion doesnít solve the problem of evil at all.
First of all, we donít know what God regards as good, in spite of all the people who have claimed to know what God wants us to do. There has never been a case in which someone claimed to hear from God and produced solid evidence to support that claim. Indeed, such claims are technically blasphemy (that is, statements that tend to diminish the image of God). If God is truly omniscient and omnipotent and knows as a fact what is good, It would come to each of us individually and tell us what It wants us to know. The observation that God has never done that should tell us that It knows Itself that good is not a universal fact and that acting to impose Its opinion upon us would be evil in many cases.
Second, the generic Heaven and Hell that we see depicted in cartoons donít solve the problem of evil, because they can be evil themselves. Suppose that people who go to Heaven discover that the place is strictly vegetarian. That wouldnít be very heavenly for most people. God canít be good if It would impose that kind of situation on people.
A third objection asks, on the assumption that God is willing to impose Its opinion of good on the afterlife, why does It not do so in this life? Why doesnít God stop evil from occurring in the here and now? The answer to that question solves the problem of evil.
There is no absolute good, only individual opinion. Aware of that fact, God does not interfere with us, but, in its infinite capability, It creates an individual afterlife for each of us. Neither Heaven nor Hell, each afterlife treats its occupant well in accordance with the occupantís version of good. To describe this, we can use the old agricultural metaphor Ė as ye sow, so shall ye reap. If you spend your life planting nettles, you canít harvest corn in the next life. To put it another way, we can say that the Golden Rule is a law of physics: as you have treated others in this life, so shall you be treated in the next.
This leaves us with one major question to answer: Is there an afterlife? Thatís another essay.
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