Get the newspaper off the front sidewalk and spread it out next to your coffee and toast. Or, if you prefer, fire up your iPad and prop it up beside your kale smoothie and gluten-free whatever-that-is. Now, while you savor your morning meal, scan down the page or screen at the events of the day.
Lots of entertainment news but little of substance. Gridlock in our nations’ capitals because politicians can’t work together. Arguments about the reliability of the news it itself. Petty scandals erupt like flashes in a pan. If we look a little deeper, past the front page of the newspaper and deeper than the surface of Google News, we might discover that medicine is prolonging life and alleviating suffering and disease like never before. Economics and globalization are lifting people out of poverty at a rate never before seen in human history. In the last 25 years the number people living in extreme poverty has been cut in half – that’s over a billion people raised up from wretchedness and privation. Science and technology are joining us together, educating and entertaining us in miraculous ways. Social media is joining hands across the globe, promoting interaction across vast distances. Virtual libraries and education programs are putting millions of books and classes at the fingertips of inquiring minds. The quality of our entertainment, exploded by virtual reality and blockbuster computer-generated special effects, is mindboggling. Life expectancies are greater, and standards of living higher, than they’ve ever been in human history.
And what is God up to? Apparently not much. All he seems to be doing these days is hiding in musty, outdated books. From this detached and lazy vantage point, he inspires certain gullible, backward people to become terrorists and hatemongers, conspiracy theorists and anti-evolutionists, Luddites and end-timers. To modern people, God is unnecessary at best and dangerous at worst. When a reasoned Christian makes an argument for the existence of God, the modern reaction is either a yawn or a pro-atheist polemic.
There is so little evil in the world these days that we magnify and announce it with hyperbole. Less than two hundred years ago we had a president named Andrew Jackson who was elected to office despite having participated in at least ten duels and having shot one man dead in cold blood. He was the architect and signer of the Indian Removal Act, marching sixty thousand men, women and children from their ancestral homes to reservations halfway across the country, allowing four thousand to perish from disease and privation in the process. Even more recently we had a president named Nixon who hired scoundrels and thugs to spy on his opponents and rig an election. Another performed lewd, extramarital sex acts in the oval office and lied about it on the witness stand. And yet the current president is now reviled for being coarse, misogynous, petty, narcissistic and ill-informed – and for using his office for personal gain just like the vast majority of politicians do. Before you scream and stomp, a statistical average of twenty-one prominent polls of presidential scholars and historians puts Andrew Jackson at #3 on the list of best presidents, right after Washington and Jefferson and right before Abraham Lincoln.
My granddad in basic training for WWI
A hundred and fifty years ago, our government and its people were so divided that we split into separate nations. Brother killed brother over the question of slavery. Today we have bitter, intractable political battles over public restroom laws, cake-baking rights, and imaginary border walls we’ll never afford to build. For seventy five years the menaces of socialism and communism killed hundreds of millions – the Bolshevik Revolution, Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party in World War II, Viet Nam, the Cambodian Civil War, and the purges of Stalin stacked the bodies like cord wood. Back then, out of fear that these deadly ideas would infiltrate our country, we argued about whether careers should be ruined because certain people were communist sympathizers.
Nowadays we ruin people for politically incorrect jokes they made ten years ago, for allegations as yet unproven in courts of law, and for statements taken out of context. Technological memory is forever. Human memory is much shorter, and its perspective shorter still.
Me headed out shopping in the Age of COVID-19
As I write this we’re in the middle of a pandemic which has killed 300,000 people worldwide. A tragedy for sure, but only 6% of the 50 million killed by the Spanish flu of 1918, and only 1.5% of the 200 million souls claimed by the Black Death in the 14th century – over half of the entire population of Eurasia. So when the death rate began to go down in his home state of New York, Gov. Cuomo recently said, “The number is down because we brought the number down…God did not do that. Faith did not do that…Our behavior has stopped the spread of the virus.”
Have the world’s great evils been beaten back to such a degree that God has been rendered unnecessary, and Satan put out of business? Or is God still at work, and the old serpent still tempting?
“In a universe created by a good God, why is there evil?”
Once upon a time this was the hungry question gnawing at people day and night. But that was back when unwanted babies were so routinely abandoned that the dogs of Rome never wanted for a meal, when capricious rulers could have you flogged or beheaded, when tetanus could take your life after a tiny nick with a rusty razor as it did John Thoreau, brother of Walden author Henry David Thoreau, in the winter of 1841. Nowadays the Theodicy Problem – also known as “the problem of evil” — has been answered finally, fully and definitively by philosophers great and small, from Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig to Raymond Smullyan and Benjamin Hoff. The answers are on Wikipedia and the books they wrote can be delivered to your door within the hour by Amazon.
The Problem of Evil? What a yawn.
The real questions, the burning questions we struggle with today, are much more important and complex than the tired old questions of yesteryear.
“How do we cut human population and reverse global warming?”
“How do we stop violence and war?”
“Who are the 1% — and how do we redistribute their capital it to the 99%?”
“What is the best way to enforce pay, gender, and racial equity in the workplace?”
Let’s pretend, just for a moment, that if we understood the problem of evil we’d be able to answer some of the really pressing and serious problems we modern people face today. I know, it’s a stretch. But if we really care about fighting evil, we should be willing to waste a little time on this boring old problem. So let’s try this again.
“In a universe created by a good God, why is there evil?”
First we should define our terms. For the sake of expediency, let’s leave the definition of “God” simple and open so as to make it as applicable and comprehensible as possible to the largest number of persons. Let’s say God is the creator of existence. No need to argue about whether God is conscious or unconscious, singular or plural, none of that. Doesn’t matter. For the moment, God is just the reason why there is something rather than nothing.
Now let’s define “evil.” Evil falls into two primary camps. The first is voluntary evil. This is the stuff that happens as a consequence of choices. Killing, abuse, beatings, war, all of the horrible stuff people do to one another on purpose, plus all of the things that cause harm because people failed to take action, like lives lost due to equipment faults left unfixed by sloppy engineers, child suffering due to inattentive parents, crime sprees that could’ve been stopped if a witness had chosen to testify in court, and so on.
The second type of evil is fundamental. This is the stuff that just happens, like accidents, fires, floods, lightning strikes, tsunamis and other events associated with physics and chemistry.
Disease is a grey area. Microscopic organisms are possessed of a rudimentary form of free will. They can’t come up with complex strategies or anything, but they can decide where to wander, and may have a choice between attacking this cell or that cell. Prion diseases, like Mad Cow, are caused by mutated proteins that we don’t fully understand. Don’t worry about it – once somebody figures out whether or not prions have free will we’ll know if what they cause is voluntary evil or fundamental evil. Because that’s the dividing line, by the way, between involuntary evil and fundamental evil: free will.
View from the top of the Land of Oz in NC
Fundamental evils aren’t really evil at all. They are tragedies, and they are not God’s fault. They are just things that happen – they are a part of the natural order of things that are embedded in the physics of existence. You can’t sit on the beach and experience a delightful breeze without accepting the possibility of a hurricane. You can’t nap under the shade of beautiful oak tree without accepting the possibility of being slain in your sleep by a falling limb. Fun fact: the leading cause of death in America’s immense and beautiful park system is falling limbs and trees. You have to take the bad with the good.
Voluntary evils are also not God’s fault. They are our fault. They are commensurate with free will. If you want to enjoy camping you have to accept that a bear might decide to eat you. You can’t enjoy the beauty of having your daughter treat you to a handmade birthday card and breakfast in bed without accepting the one-in-a-billion possibility that she might put rat poison in your corn flakes. You can’t create an economy that allows for the altruistic power of Danny Thomas’ St. Jude Hospital without leaving an opening for schemers like Charles Ponzi.
The astute reader will notice that God commits no acts of evil nor facilitates any tragedies. Your insurance company is dead wrong. The things they call “acts of God” are not acts of God at all.
You may be one of those people who asks, “But God could have made any set-up he wanted. Why didn’t he just make a world without the possibility of evil?” That presupposes something for which we have no proof whatsoever, which is some other form of existence. Alternate realities? Parallel universes? There’s no reason to believe there are any other ways in which the universe could be structured. But fine, just as a thought experiment, let’s ask ourselves what a universe would look like if there were no variables and no free will.
Ocean view from the trail at Fort Raleigh NC
There would be no wind, no rain, and no sun. Sunlight, you see, cuts both ways. It makes plants grow and warms the planet but it can give you a sunburn or skin cancer, so it’s strictly off limits. And, without free will, there would be no variables, no caprice, no random acts of kindness, no love, and no heroism. What makes Superman great is that he thwarts tragedy and fights evil. Our hypothetical universe is a cold, dark and unconscious clockwork mechanism, terrible and terrifying in its infinite sterility. But this beautiful universe, the non-hypothetical one that we really have, has something that is so valuable and so amazing that it’s worth the pain of tragedy and the sorrow of evil: possibility.
But the Devil’s in the details.
Yes, the world is better off than it has ever been. But let’s return to the facts with a new lens – our new-found knowledge of the difference between evil and tragedy – and examine the rosy picture I painted at the outset. What about that 80% reduction in the infant mortality rate that’s saving almost 5 million babies per year? Is that because people are making better choices, or is that just better hygiene, better information, improved education, and scientific advances? The abortion rate is holding steady at 1 in 5 pregnancies. Every single year between 40 and 50 million potential babies never see the sun or know their mother’s breast as a result of a choice to terminate a pregnancy. What does this statistic say about humanity’s ability to make good choices?
What about the falling rate of absolute poverty worldwide? Is that because people really care about one another more than ever? Doesn’t look like it. Globalization seems to be the hero. Most of the world’s poor have historically been in Africa, China and the Indian subcontinent. The improved standard of living there is responsible for the statistical trend. It’s in those areas that millions of poverty stricken people have benefitted – not from benefaction but from the greed of first world businesses looking for cheap labor and cheap manufacturing.
How about the increase in life expectancy to 78 years? Is that science or altruism? Science has saved hundreds of millions of lives through vaccines for smallpox, measles, mumps, and other diseases. The invention of statins and other cholesterol fighting drugs has driven down heart attack and stroke, two of the leading causes of disease. These are reductions in tragedy, not evil, and are due to science not an improvement in human character.
The Tower (courtesy of Wikipedia)
How about falling homicide rates and the reduction in war casualties? Can we attribute that to an improvement in human morality? Not according the Correlates of War Project. Despite what political leaders say to support their pro-war arguments, wars are almost always fought over territory and resources, both of which are functions of economic stability. Even civil wars and rebellions are economically driven by financial pressures like excessive taxation (the U.S. Revolutionary War) and extreme economic disparities between haves and have-nots (the French Revolution). The aforementioned scourge of socialism was essentially a series of resource struggles. And terrorism? It isn’t a different category of violence, it’s just a tactical choice made by an individual or force bent on winning a conflict by any means necessary. The reduction in deaths due to war and terrorism is just the other side of the poverty reduction coin, not a global peace movement resulting from a worldwide awakening.
And just because we’re currently shooting less people than ever domestically doesn’t mean that humans are significantly less evil than ever. Crime is lower because poverty is lower. Sure, firearms related homicide in the U.S. is down 29% in the last thirty years. But school shootings climbed 500% over the same period, and gun-related suicide went up too. We may be killing fewer strangers, but we’re killing ourselves and our classmates like it’s going out of style.
Furthermore, despite the fact that the world is better off than it’s ever been, mental health is overall slightly worse that it was thirty years ago – very much worse if you look at teens and the well-to-do. According to the Institute for Health Metrics Evaluation, about 13% of the world’s population suffers from one or more mental health disorders. Richer countries are more burdened by mental illness than poorer ones. In the United States the teen suicide rate has climbed 56% in the last 10 years. Depression is also on the rise. A 2018 study by Blue Cross Blue Shield found that diagnoses of major depression have risen by 33% in the last five years alone – 63% in the 12 to 17 year-old age bracket.
Is there any evidence that evil is on the decline?
With that in mind, now let’s take a look at those modern questions, the ones we seem to think are so much more pressing than the musty old problems of yesteryear.
“How do we cut human population and reverse global warming?” Cutting human population is great way to reduce the stress and strain on the planet. Simple enough — all we have to do is decide which folks can we do without and how to get rid of them. The only issue is that once you begin to look at conscious beings as a cancer rather than as an asset, you are relying on the angels of our better natures to make decisions about who lives, who dies, and how it’s done. Are people better at doing that now than they were in the past? Should we even dare to make decisions of that kind?
What about the question, “How do we stop violence and war?” Globalization seems to be working on this problem for the moment. But as soon as disparity rears its head, can we have any hope that we’ll do better than we’ve done in the past?
“Who are the 1% — and how do we redistribute their capital it to the 99%?” Based on the poverty numbers we looked at, this is already happening, as a result of globalization. But if you’re impatient, you could always put people into little bins – the undeserving rich and the deserving the deserving poor — and then decide how much money gets taken from the one and given to the other. But there’s no reason to believe that people are any better at putting people into categories then they’ve been in the past, which leads to the next question.
“What is the best way to enforce pay, gender, and racial equity in the workplace?” Don’t stop now. Press on. Keep putting people into categories as quickly and efficiently as possible – the good genders and the bad genders, the oppressed races and the oppressor races, and so forth. Just keep going that way. Pretty soon you’ll graduate from putting people into categories to putting them into train cars for shipment to internment camps, concentration camps, or ovens.
You see, what soon becomes obvious is that these modern questions are all about what to do and how to do it. But you can’t know what to do or how to do it until you know why you should do anything at all. They are downstream from the essential question of why. The problem evil, it turns out, is not a musty old riddle of yesteryear. It is not one of the many philosophical problems with which our grandparents struggled, one of those silly arguments like the Scopes Trial that once bubbled into the public consciousness and were then settled. The problem of evil isn’t a problem. It is the problem.
Exactly what is going on here? Have we ever really made any improvements at all in human morality? If so, when and how?
When we considered the problem of evil we envisioned a hypothetical universe without both choice and randomness, with the potential for neither tragedy nor evil. We have no evidence for that possibility whatsoever. But what we do know is that the universe began in a condition very close to that hypothetical cold and sterile clockwork mechanism. In the years immediately following the Big Bang, there was nothing but spinning matter and infant suns. The universe evolved into what we have now. Minerals and water on the Earth’s rocky surface evolved into proteins, and those proteins somehow became single-celled organisms. Those single-celled organism kept on developing until they became the beautiful and chaotic panoply of plants and birds and flowers and trees and lions and cows and people that we have today. Some of those animals developed self-awareness. They became human, and eventually they began to develop the ability to discern between good and evil – just as you have done by studying the problem of evil – in a manner that we cannot help comparing to the story of Adam and Eve. Once you know the difference between evil and tragedy, the truth of your inherent faults and sins never leaves you.
And yet, despite our imperfections, we have gotten better. When we look back across a short timeline, let’s say fifty years or so, we can’t see much improvement in the human moral compass. But if we look back to far enough, we can see that we have free will and we have used it. We’ve come a long way since we climbed out of the trees and began exploring the grasslands of Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago. And we’ve made quite a lot of progress in the last 10,000 or so since the invention of agriculture, and even more in the last 2,000.
Back then, during the Roman Empire, infanticide, polygamy, and human sacrifice were normalized. The master of the household was its king, and he ruled over it with total control. Everyone in it – from his wife to his servants and his servants’ children – were there to serve him both materially and sexually. Outside his tyrannical protection against starvation there was no hope of charity. That concept had not yet been invented. There were no women’s shelters, no soup kitchens, and no welfare. And there was no separation of church and state. The emperor was a god, officials were priests, legal laws were moral laws, and the governmental and religious calendars were one.
Harrowing of Hell — Fresco, by Fra Angelico, c. 1430s
But that began to change when Christianity pushed back against the status quo. A teacher named Jesus began to preach the equality of women, the sanctity of life and marriage, and the importance living in love and charity. In its first one hundred years alone, Christianity invented shelters, orphanages, soup kitchens and welfare, as well as the seed of a popular idea: a religion separate from government.
And when the empire fell, it was Christian monks who preserved books and maintained literacy as barbarians ravaged Europe. There were no universities or colleges back then either. Those were developed by Catholic Church starting in the Middle Ages. And who do we have to thank for the idea of human rights? Church Doctors like St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas were the originators of the concept of natural law. Without them there would be concept of “inalienable rights” or any “self-evident” truths as outlined in the Declaration of Independence or the U.N. Declaration of Human rights – which was steered by members of the Christian Democratic movement René Cassin of France and Charles Malik of Lebanon. And who was is the most powerful and transformative figure in the history of human rights? A black preacher named after a famous theologian – the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
And what about the science that’s doing so much to fight the tragedies of existence? A humble Friar named Roger Bacon pioneered the scientific method, a Belgian priest named Father George Lemaître was the originator of the Big Bang Theory, and Father Gregor Mendel was the world’s first geneticist. If not for the teachings of Jesus, whom we have to thank for the universal acceptance of the sanctity of human life, there would be no basis for the desire to relieve human suffering at all.
And what about us, today, right now? What if we took philosophical questions like the problem of evil with the utmost seriousness instead of thinking of them as silly, outdated, academic puzzles? What if we allowed ourselves to see that the world only gets better when we embrace our free will and acknowledge the possibility that God built into the universe he made? Isn’t it conceivable that accepting our agency as a divine gift from God, and taking our place as his partners in creation, would fight the scourge of depression, suicide and nihilism, and reverse the worldwide epidemic of pointlessness?
Draw, I beg you, a line of possibility on a graph that runs from the cold dead universe of the past, through the present, and out into the future. Try to conceive of infinite potential, of what could happen if we keep evolution and improvement going. What might the universe look like if every inanimate object evolved into a living thing? Now picture all those living things – a universe fully alive down to the smallest atom — being fully conscious and choosing to be good. Imagine every electron and every quark, every rock and tree, every creature and every person singing together in a cosmic chorus.
Wouldn’t that look a lot like heaven?