How can a good God allow so much evil in the world? Historically, this question has posed the single most important atheist challenge to theism, and is one of the most vexing theological problems. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that evil is “a mystery.” This side of Heaven, we can never fully understand why God freely created a world in which He knew there would be pain and suffering. Still, the Catholic faith offers an approach to this problem that can be deeply satisfying.
Why do some atheists find this question an insoluble dilemma for religious believers? One famous statement of the problem comes from the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume wrote, “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” Some thinkers, like Atheist J. L. Mackie thought this dilemma positively disproved the existence of God. Others, like philosopher William Rowe, think it just counts as good evidence against God’s existence. What are we to make of these claims?
The Catholic answer to this problem was stated most succinctly by St. Thomas Aquinas: “This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.” (S.T. 1.2.3. ad.1) God is able to bring such a good out of evil that even the worst evils we experience can be overcome. Sometimes this greater good may be apparent to us. Far more often, it will not be apparent. But whether we recognize this good or not, this answer solves the logical problem of evil. A child who gets his immunization shots may not understand why a parent would subject him to suffering. But the fact that there is a reason means that the parent is neither cruel nor capricious.
But are there good reasons for believing that evil and suffering may be purposeful? Absolutely. To begin with, the Catholic holds that God’s goodness and His providence follow simply from a proper understanding of the evidence for His existence. Philosophically, Catholics defend the idea of God as Subsistent Being, Being itself. God is not just one powerful being among many. He is the ground, condition, and source of all being. As such, God is perfect. He lacks noting in His Act of Being. There is no potential good that He has failed to actualize. To understand the positive case for God’s existence, therefore, is, at once, to understand that God cannot fail to be absolutely good. Whatever God has brought about is also good. His providence (which includes allowing limited evils) cannot fail to bring about the greater good He intends.
But there is another reason to believe in God’s goodness, derived from revelation. Catholics believe that God has revealed his purposes for us in Christ. God wills to raise us up to a participation in His divine life, to a destiny that far outstrips our every natural capacity. God’s plan for this elevation is the most sublime mystery of all. In the person of Jesus, God himself has entered into solidarity with us our suffering. By giving up himself, Christ has displayed the depth of His love for us. Furthermore, Catholics believe that we can enter into solidarity with Christ. We can positively offer our sufferings to God through Christ. In this way, they take on a supernatural dignity and purpose.
How can we confront the problem of evil? There are only a very few options.:
1) The atheist concludes that God does not exist, that my pain and suffering are meaningless, and that reality is absurd. For the atheist, the best I can do is suppress my pains through various forms of escapism.
2) The deist or pagan may conclude that a god exists, but that He is impotent, detached, or malevolent. Again, my only hope is “suppress and escape.” For the Catholic, these first two philosophies are hardly distinct. An impotent or malevolent God is really no God at all.
3) The Christian believes that God does exist, that He loves me intensely, that He loves all things, and intends all things for good (including my pains) even if I cannot see the reason. Inspired by both reason and faith, I entrust myself to this providence.
4) The Catholic, finally, confesses that my pains and sorrows are redemptive through their union with the passion of Christ. God condescends to include even me in His plan for redeeming the world.