Pointless Evil Versus God’s Existence?
Some critics object to the Christian God’s existence as follows: If God exists, then there shouldn’t be any pointless evil in the world; but there is pointless evil in the world; therefore, God does not exist.
Should we be persuaded by this objection? I don’t think so.
Let’s get clear on the objection. A pointless evil is a horrendous event for which there is no moral justification. For examples of such events, critics point to the deaths of innocent schoolchildren in an earthquake, or, say, to a fawn severely burned in a forest fire, suffering several days before dying. Surely, an all-good God would want to stop such pointless evils. Surely, an all-knowing God would know how to stop these evils. Surely, an all-powerful God could stop such evils. But the pointless evils exist. Therefore, God does not exist. Or so the objection goes.
The objection seems strong: there definitely are horrendous evils in the world; many of these evils do appear pointless; plus their horror tugs powerfully at our emotions.
Seemingly strong objection or not, wisdom requires that we should think carefully about matters having to do with God (whether one is a believer or not). Significantly, it turns out that careful thinking can weaken the logical if not emotional force of the above objection.
Two points require attention.
First, if we assume, for the sake of argument (as the objector does), that there is a God, then it follows logically that we should expect a huge intellectual gap between the human mind and the divine mind. Put it this way: If there is a God, then we humans would be like kindergarteners and God would be like Einstein, but much much smarter. In other words, intellectual humility is philosophically appropriate here.
Second (following closely on the heels of the first point), the critics’ claim that there is pointless evil in the world should be revised, for accuracy’s sake, to read as follows: there is apparently pointless evil in the world.
Think about it. If we kindergarteners happen to be with Einstein in his laboratory, Einstein would have reasons for doing what he is doing—and we would not be privy to all of his reasons. Why not? Because we simply couldn’t understand them. So, to a kindergartener some things Einstein does would appear pointless, whereas Einstein would know that they are actually not pointless.
Allow me to drive home the previous point. In the book The Fight (InterVarsity Press 1976), former University of Manitoba psychiatry professor John White (1924-2002) tells of an incident when he and his toddler son were far from home (and far from medical help) and the little boy fell, deeply gashing his chin. Realizing immediate medical attention was required, White used what was available—eyebrow tweezers, thread, household needles, but no pain relievers—and proceeded to stitch up his tiny son’s large wound.
White writes: “I agonized over [my son’s] ordeal as I gripped his tender skin with eyebrow tweezers and brutally jabbed a sewing needle again and again into his chin.”
We can easily imagine the bewildered and terrified boy saying or thinking something like the following (if he had the vocabulary): “Daddy, please don’t hurt me! Why are you doing this to me? I thought you loved me?! I don’t understand! Please don’t let this pointless evil continue…”
On the Christian view of God, our knowledge situation is like that of the toddler who is suffering apparently pointless evil, and the father is like God who has reasons—morally sufficient reasons—for allowing the pain. Like the boy, we are simply not privy to all of God’s reasons.
Significantly, given the evidence of God’s power, knowledge, and care in having created life itself and a universe finely-tuned for life, plus given the evidence of this God coming to our world in the man Jesus to suffer and die for us, as well as defeat death via His resurrection—that is, given this wonderful evidence of divine love—it is reasonable to believe that, even though we may not know all of God’s reasons for allowing apparently pointless evils, God has good reasons.
Yes, horrendous evils are horrendously evil, but, if God exists, it’s reasonable to think they’re not pointless, appearances to the contrary. Therefore, the objection fails.
And hope prevails.
(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, located in Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)