The most ancient and persistent objection to God’s existence is the problem of evil. How can a loving, powerful God allow so much evil and suffering in the world? Believers and nonbelievers alike must wrestle with this difficult question. Nonbelievers struggle with the atheist conclusion that morality is an illusory and ungrounded evolutionary artifact, in which case there may be no basis to complain about the unfairness of suffering, and believers battle with the apparent contradiction between God’s goodness and the suffering in the world.
Freedom in the Universe
As we grapple with the question of evil, we must first recognize that humans cause much of it. Humans, not God, murder, torture, defame, persecute and rape. Because humans have free will, they can do terrible and immoral things. But free will is essential if humans are to relate meaningfully to God. For humans to truly love God, they must be free to choose or reject that love. For God to stop all evil in the world, our freedom would have to be removed, and with it our capacity to truly love God. God cannot give us free will while at the same time restraining us from evil acts.
It is more difficult, however, to understand why a loving God would allow suffering from natural disasters or diseases. The Rev. John Polkinghorne refers to these as a consequence of physical evil. These cause incredible destruction and pain, but are not linked to human agency. As Dr. Francis Collins writes, “Science reveals that the universe, our own planet, and life itself are engaged in an evolutionary process.” The mechanisms that God used to create humans — like the misspelling of a gene during cell replication — can also produce pain and suffering — if that misspelling leads to cancer. Likewise, the same forces that produced a life-sustaining planet including the laws of physics, chemistry, weather and tectonics, can also produce natural disasters. As with the free will of humans, God cannot constantly intervene in these areas without disrupting the inherent freedom of his creation and disrupting his consistent sustaining of all the matter and energy in the universe. Without this consistency, science would be impossible, and moral choices would be subverted. If God blocked the consequences of human moral choices, like committing murder, and natural events, like tsunamis, every time they led to evil results, then moral responsibility would disappear and the natural world would become incoherent.
Although evil challenges the existence of a good and loving creator, complaints about the unfairness of evil can also be interpreted as support for God existence. If there are no external standards of morality, what is the basis for moral claims? Why can we say that torturing children is wrong?