Unit 2: Supernatural Evil in Second Temple Judaism
Unit 3: Satan and Demons in The New Testament

The Problem of Evil

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In this lesson, we will discuss the problem of evil in Christianity and other monotheistic religions.

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Why do evil and suffering exist in the world? Since the Sumerians invented writing 5000 years ago and recorded their thoughts, we have literature, myths and epics from virtually all cultures that grapple with this fundamental question.

If the world is governed by a divine being, why does this deity allow evil to exist?

Why does this supposedly kind and just deity allow good people to suffer while the evil prosper?

How this deity allow terrorists to crash planes into buildings? Or let a mass shooter wound or kill hundreds of people enjoying a concert?

Why does this deity allow evils like Category 5 hurricanes to destroy cities or earthquakes to bury hundreds of people in rubble or wildfires to wipe out acres of land, houses, farms and people’s livelihoods?

Why does this deity allow poverty, mass genocide, cancer and disease and other ailments of misery to exist?

Trying to narrow down and define “evil” itself brings up challenges. Is evil a natural impulse we have developed from our primitive instincts? It is a learned behavior that is shaped by our parents, teachers and broader community? In other words is it nature or nurture – or both – or something else entirely?

Maybe it’s a function of our desire for individuality and uniqueness. If we appear “different” to others, if we rebel against our parental or societal standards, are we cast as the “other” and therefore seen as adversarial or wicked?

More generally, is it possible to broadly define evil so that it encompasses the atrocities of war, child molesters and mass murderers, white collar fraud, or a natural disaster that destroys homes, families and livelihoods.

A dictionary might define evil as “the opposite of good” or something that is “morally reprehensible” but those definitions seem so broad as to be almost meaningless.

Rather, we experience evil personally – the act causes us physical pain, or mental anguish and suffering or is a violation of our rights or appears as an act of injustice.

It can be helpful to categorize evil into two primary types:

  1. natural evils, that include death, disease, natural disasters – things we might call “acts of God” and
  2. moral evils, that involve human malice and greed

While humans are capable of great love, compassion and empathy for others and working towards positive solutions like cures for diseases and other ways to improve the world, they are also responsible for biological and nuclear weapons, hatred of others not like themselves, and moral character deficiencies like pride and brutality. The same person who is generous and caring in one scenario can quickly turn hostile or seek revenge if they feel betrayed or disrespected.

The basic problem of evil in Christianity and other monotheistic religions comes down to the following:

If God created the world, and we believe God is all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), and wholly good, kind and merciful (omnibenevolent), how can evil exist?

In other words, if God exists, then evil should not exist. However, evil does exist, so how do we explain that?

As the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE) wrote:

“God… either wishes to take away evils, and is unable;
or He is able, and is unwilling;
or He is neither willing nor able,
or He is both willing and able.

If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or why does He not remove them?”

In the upcoming lessons, we will look at how the Bible addresses the problem of suffering and evil in the world.

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