The Problem of Evil

For centuries, theologians have wrestled with a simple problem. If there is a god, then that god would have to be all-powerful and all-knowing; any limitations would make such a being less than divine. But if there is such a being, and that being is loving and merciful, then why do terrible events befall the world? Surely a powerful and loving god would step in and do something. I feel, however, that (with apologies to the Bard) “the fault is not in our gods, but in ourselves.” The worst evil and the darkest disaster, such as the storm that has just pounded the Philippines flat and left death and desolation in its wake, is not the fault of any god above, nor necessarily the fault of the lack of such a god, but due to our own inaction. Edmund Burke probably never said “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” But my point remains regardless. If there is evil in the world, it is because we allow it.

Longtime readers will remember, however, that I am not concerned with the proof of God. I will not try to prove the existence of the divine, nor will I try to argue against it. It is, quite simply, not my issue. I don’t care if God exists, though I believe that the Holy Spirit is real—God or not, my actions would be the same. So why am I, so resolutely dedicated to the here-and-now world, addressing a theological debate? I do so because there are real lessons in the discussion for believers and doubters alike.

The “Problem of Evil” and efforts to solve it are old, quite old. But some scholars have suggested that the doubt of God in the Enlightenment stemmed in part from the devastation caused by the great earthquake that struck Lisbon in 1755. Men such as Voltaire looked at the disaster, saw the mangled bodies in the crushed churches, and came to the conclusion that there could be no loving God. Disasters and devastation have likely always made people wonder in such ways.

Disasters, however, will happen. I don’t say they have to kill so many people—see below—but the great natural upheavals of our world pretty much have to occur. Earthquakes, as I see it, are the price of mountains. The continual reshaping of our world has some important effects for life on earth, particularly the fertility of soil. Australia, a continent without volcanoes, has some of the least-fertile soil on earth. Hurricanes are the price of the change of the seasons, as they are the release of energy built up over the course of the summer. Diseases are oftentimes the price of living in close contact with animals—either for food or for companionship—as diseases usually stem from a microbe harmless in one species jumping to another, and becoming deadly in its new home.

Death itself will come. Everyone snatched from death in the midst of disaster will die of something, someday. There’s no getting around it. And what’s the reason for that? Well, an African story has it that the Creator asked the first humans if they would prefer to live forever, or die and have children. The first people, clearly, chose children. A clever myth—and yet it appears to be vaguely true. Single-celled organisms that reproduce by simply splitting in two don’t get older. Organisms that reproduce sexually and produce offspring, however, do. Living things die so that their children might be better and stronger. That principle holds true from what happens when we exercise—cells die, killed by our exertions, but the replacement cells grow stronger—all the way up to the basic principles of evolution. The principle is written across the universe, too. It appears, in a nice synchronicity, that the death-explosion of stars can trigger the formation of newborn stars, starting the process all over again. And all the complex molecules in existence, anything bigger than a hydrogen atom, came from the heart of a star that died.

So death will come. The real matter, then, is how, and when—and what we do in the face of it. If a nineteen-year-old boy dies lying face-down in a mud puddle, shot in the middle of a war, the “how” and “when” are both pretty terrible, since he died painfully and much too soon. He may have faced his end bravely, but no one would complain if he struggled for life with his last breath. If a great-grandmother dies in her sleep, surrounded by family, we should all be so lucky. But even there death can be faced well or poorly. At ninety, the way to face it well is to accept the last adventure.

Recent events have proven that no matter how strong and prepared we may, there is always a calamity stronger. The most earthquake- and tsunami-prepared people in the world, rich and ready, were still overwhelmed by the force of the earth and the onrush of the sea. So like death, disasters that are beyond our strength will come. And thus the questions are the same: how will they come? And when? And what will we do to face them?

Even if we cannot avert the disasters, even if too many die, we can still try to make things better. We can still put forth all our power to make some improvement, even if it is only a little better.

There is one other question, however: did we make the catastrophe worse? Even if only a little worse?


Making things better in a crisis is well understood. Some destructive force rips through town, rescuers and helpers rush there, the donations pour in. The selfless compassion is the only bright spot in the face of such undeserved pain, misery, and ruin. The best of humanity can come out in the worst of times. This is why Fred Rogers advised us, “Look for the helpers.” People risk their lives to save other lives, people barely rich enough to feed their kids do the best they can to feed five thousand, sweat and blood are poured out without a single thought of gain , but just because it’s the right thing to do, the only thing to do. Even in ancient times, when people knew so little that they might well have been making things worse, any compassion must have helped. The knowledge that someone out there cares, in the face of a universe that seemingly does not, is of incalculable worth. Now, when we know so much more and have such greater power, we can both be compassionate and productive.

Making things worse is less clear.

These days our thoughts are on the nation-sized storm that unleashed hell on the Philippines. Many of us are doing what we can to help. But others are pointing out that the Pacific Ocean is warmer now than we’ve ever seen, and that hurricanes draw strength from warmer water, and that human action is warming the planet as a whole. So Haiyan/Yolanda may well have been made worse, much worse, by human action.

But it now appears that “fracking” for natural gas can cause earthquakes. The tar sands of Alberta and the refineries of the Gulf Coast are making the locals sick. At any moment some antibiotic-resistant pestilence could burst forth from the factory farms that feed us—H5N1 emerged from the poultry farms of Asia. Nor is it just farms; hospitals have bred up MRSA for us.

And then, of course, there are the purely human crises.

The number-one cause of loss of life from major disasters is poverty. Don’t believe me? Watch these numbers. Hurricane Sandy hit relatively well-off New Jersey and New York. 285 people died. Compare that to Hurricane Katrina, which smacked into the rather poorer Gulf Coast and flooded some of the most impoverished wards of New Orleans. 1,833 died. But those storms hit the US. When I checked the death toll this morning, Typhoon Haiyan had claimed 1,833 people as well—but that number will assuredly climb [Edit: and it has]. Hurricane Mitch rolled into Honduras and Nicaragua and killed 19,000. The 1970 Bhola cyclone hit Bangladesh and left at least 300,000 dead, perhaps half a million. It was a Category 3. Hurricane Betsy hit the US five years before, made landfall twice, once as a Cat 3 and once as a Cat 4, and only killed 74 people.

With such clear disparities, poverty is the key ingredient for such mass disasters. And poverty is most decidedly a human invention.

Why is it that some people of the world have the ability to pack up and retreat from an oncoming storm, or to build every house in the city so well that a 6.0 earthquake doesn’t even scratch paint, and some people don’t? The whole history of human civilization is marked by a fraction dominating the majority. Practically as soon as wealth was first created, it was hoarded for the use of some against the needs of the many. Since for millennia humans had lived an approximately egalitarian life, I find that this was far from inevitable. But the divide of rich against poor was cut with the first city, and lasts to this day. Yes, the wealthy can often use their great fortune to help others. But these are, at best, scraps and leftovers from the table, and makes the wealthy arbiters of life and death. I don’t care how many millions of dollars a man may have; wealth should not grant him the powers of a god.

And then, of course, there’s war.


 Whenever there is disaster, wherever there is ruination, humans have certain gifts that they can respond with. Compassion and solidarity are the most basic. Reaching out in the face of death, even when it’s useless—indeed, especially when it’s useless—is a tremendous blessing. They are gifts that even the poor and powerless have to share.

Nowadays, we can use our knowledge of the world and our advancing technology to do more than that. We can manufacture penicillin doses in Atlanta, ship them around the world, and airlift them into Southeast Asia. We can ship in lumber from Georgia to build houses in Japan. We can ship fresh water to drought-stricken Africa and plastic sheeting to waterlogged Haiti. And we have the capacity to build up the infrastructures of the world strong enough that only the mightiest disasters can shake them down.

To my eyes, this shows that God is not cruel; we have been given all the gifts we need to at least make things better. But who did the giving—God or science or both—is irrelevant. We have these gifts. They grant us power. And, wielding that power, we have the ability to meet any disaster and at least help. That ability can reveal the great capability of the human spirit. There is no evil so vast that it cannot be helped, and, through helping, turned from pure evil to something that can be overcome, something that can strengthen, something we can come back from better than ever. We have tremendous power.

We don’t use it.

Even if we put forward every effort we could muster, we would still have much room to improve; but we are nowhere near such a level. Therefore I put it to you that there is no “problem of evil.” There is only the Problem of Insufficient Good.

The responsibility to act always falls on those with the power. That power can range from a billionaire’s fortune down to a village farmer with a little basic first aid training: money is clearly power, but knowledge is too. Which means that every one of us has some power and some responsibility. And now that you’ve read those words, you know that you have that power, and the responsibility to act on it. That may require individual action, or that may require adding strength to some push to compel the more-powerful to use their abilities for the good of all. But you now have no excuse: you must use what you know. And if you, like the wisest man, know that you don’t know anything, you must take that knowledge and use it to learn more.

But, beyond learning more, what can we do?

I’ve already mentioned a few things that our science and technology now permit. Here’s another. Meteorologist Cliff Mass’s response to Super-Typhoon Haiyan was simple: “Mankind, and the US in particular, needs to deploy on forecast, not on disaster” (his emphasis). He went on to point out that Haiyan was predicted to be an extremely powerful and dangerous storm many days in advance, but that the US Navy didn’t dispatch the aircraft carrier George Washington until two days after Haiyan made landfall. Aircraft carriers are extremely effective tools on a disaster-stricken coastline, as they have lots of aircraft that can fly in and out of disaster areas effectively, lots of medical supplies for trauma injuries, and other considerable resources. (Though I am no advocate of nuclear power, if wandering nuclear reactors must exist, using them as emergency power supply seems worthwhile.) So the George Washington‘s arrival will be a boon to rescuers… but, Mass points out, she could, and should, have been there days earlier, had she had been dispatched on the strength of the forecast. Taking up station outside the storm’s track, the carrier could have waited for the winds to subside and them moved in at once.

This is just a small example among countless, though I did want to make a note of it, as Mass’s perspective inspired this essay. I know from a veteran FEMA worker that FEMA does pre-deploy, but that’s within the boundaries of the United States. Resources from the US should have been on their way before Haiyan struck.

Not every catastrophe can be predicted, of course. There was no way to see the Haitian earthquake coming. So we can take Mass’s suggestion and apply it further out. Cities like Naples, Italy, and Tacoma, Washington, have volcanoes in their back yards, and are making plans for the eventuality of deadly eruptions (by Mount Vesuvius, of Pompeii infamy, and Mount Rainier, respectively). While Japan’s extensive preparations were overwhelmed by a 9.0 quake, the casualties would most likely have been vastly higher without those preparations. Resilient infrastructure in place ahead of a crisis can mean the difference between problem and crisis.

Building infrastructure, however, means dealing with poverty. Most people who work with the poor are working to help immediate needs—getting food into stomachs tonight, getting roofs over heads tomorrow. This is essential work. But done in isolation, it actually perpetuates poverty. Dealing only with immediate crises, however urgent, blinds us to the deeper, long-running crisis of poverty itself, and allows the system to keep rolling forward without more than a hiccup, never changing. Insufficient Good: good in full measure would not simply soothe. It would rally and rise. True Good would feed the hungry and demand to know who took their bread. True Good would clothe the naked and discover who stole their clothes. True Good would house the homeless and learn who turned them out of doors in the first place. If we are to be good, at every point we must say, “Who did this?” At every point we must say, “This cannot stand.” At every point, if we are to do good against poverty, we must look into the past to find the crimes of yesterday, and look into the future to find how to keep those crimes from happening again.

Moreover, we cannot forget the rising temperature, the record-breaking storms, the melting ice, the failing crops. It’s getting too hot to grow corn in Iowa; if that goes on, it will break the back of the United States food supply, for without corn to feed the animals there is no meat or milk. The waters are rising; in the US alone we might lose New Orleans again, and Miami is probably doomed. New York’s another low-lying city, and yet I am not so fearful for it, because of all the money that passes through that town. Other cities in the world will suffer much more. And though the storms may not grow more numerous, they will grow stronger. They say that if there was a Category Six for hurricanes, Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda would have been such a storm. It was literally beyond all standard measurements. We will soon need new ways to measure, for Haiyan was only the first, and someday we may look back on it and shake our heads at what we thought, in our ignorance, was “bad.”

So here’s another instance of Insufficient Good: we run to the rescue of Tacloban, but where were we when the greenhouse gasses poured out to warm the world? We often respond to disaster, but we should take Cliff Mass’s advice and respond to forecasts. And what’s the forecast now? Catastrophic change, if we don’t take action.

Ah, but what action?

Go to the root. What systems create poverty? What processes brew up disease? What structures lead to war? And what institutions belch out carbon on top of carbon? Looked at broadly, the answer to all the questions is the same: valuing wealth more than valuing lives.

The institutions that value wealth so highly they will leave millions of lives in the lurch

are truly vast and powerful. How can we deal with them?

Go to the root again. Banks play trillion-dollar poker games because we let them—we gave them our money and we haven’t shut them down. Take back the money and close their doors (by legal means, or by popular resistance) and they will cease to play. Coal companies sell our future for a buck because we let them—we haven’t made them keep the coal in the ground, and we haven’t stopped buying all the shiny things that the factories pump out. Governments collude in all of this because we let them—we “vote for the other guy” rather than throwing them all out.

In short, all these things happen because we give our consent. Withdraw that consent, and the institutions fall. Withdraw that consent, and the wealth-over-lives values system comes crashing down. You can withdraw your consent in so many ways. Do the research; Gene Sharp counted 192 different methods, and by now there are likely more. Learn, act, and build a new way.

I have called this new way the Economy of Love. In this context I think we might better call it the Solution of Sufficient Good. It will take sacrifice. But don’t we always sacrifice in a disaster? People send their money, make gifts of their possessions, volunteer their time and strength, and even surrender their own lifeblood (a pint at a time) to help.

Well, there’s a disaster going on now as we speak. It’s big enough, and has lasted long enough, that we call it the status quo. But it’s a disaster all the same. So make your sacrifice accordingly. Give up whatever is required—status, comfort, wealth. Take a risk. Stand up and say, “No more.” Rise and survive. Use the power you have to break the powers above.

I don’t want to prove the existence of God. But the Problem of Evil is still a problem for me because it means that right-minded and right-hearted people haven’t yet become right-acting people. All that is required for evil to triumph, they say, is for good people to do nothing. That’s true, but not all of the truth. Evil exists because we let it exist—and because we call it normal.

And it’s time for that to change.

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