The problem of evil has been one of the most debated, as well as one of the most popularized, issues in philosophy. It concerns the existence vs. the nonexistence of god and the necessity of evil. It can be broken down logically, but it is better displayed with an example. The problem of evil can be seen represented in the 1947 poem “Who But the Lord?” by Langston Hughes.
I looked and I saw
That man they call the Law.
He was coming
Down the street at me!
I had visions in my head
Of being laid out cold and dead,
Or else murdered
By the third degree.
I said, O, Lord, if you can,
Save me from that man!
Don’t let him make a pulp out of me!
But the Lord he was not quick.
The Law raised up his stick
And beat the living hell
Out of me!
Now, I do not understand
Why God don’t protect a man
From police brutality.
Being poor and black,
I’ve no weapon to strike back
So who but the Lord
Can protect me?
In that second stanza, the two lines “O, Lord, if you can, Save me from that man!” in poetry this is known as an apostrophe. That is a device when a character calls out to a being that is not there, such as a dead person. In this poem the character calls out to God, and God does not answer. The character calls out to God for the very reason that he needs to be protected from evil, but even then he is still beaten in the end.
While the focus of Hughes’ poem is more on racial injustice than religion, it illustrates the point well. One of the many variations of the problem goes as follows: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” This is often contributed to the philosopher Epicurus, summarized by the theologian Lactantius. However the actual authorship remains debated.
The point remains, if God is an omnipotent being, then how does evil exist without God himself being at least in some form evil? Philosophers and theologians have debated back and forth about this issue for centuries. The first argument being that of course evil is a subjective term, so something is not inherently evil in itself but only evil depending on who is viewing it. This is a largely amoral argument, and doesn’t sit well with many people. This sort of attitude leads to the justification of some evil acts on the basis that they cause good, another point used when discussing the problem of evil.
The second issue is that many people claim free will, or more simply any human action at all, creates this evil. This is a sort of pessimistic view, but still a valid one. It claims that as humans have the ability to choose their actions, the result of those actions create the very evil itself, not god. I always found this argument to be curious just based on the fact that it uses free will to justify both evil and God. The discussion of God and free will has had an odd history, and for many people the Doctrine of Predestination pops up in their heads, but nevertheless it is a valid argument. To me it seems in many ways the existence of free will negates the omnipotence of God, and therefore changes the entire essence of God for so many defending it.
Another point when discussing the problem of evil is that our definition of evil may not be the same definition used by God. It can follow that many goods follow up from evil, and therefore are justified in their existence. For instance, compassion towards a person in need is one good, or people coming together to form strong bonds after a tragedy. While this makes sense, it still doesn’t negate that God must be partially evil, or at least not powerful enough to prevent the force of evil in the first place.
The last issue that will be addressed here is one often used in dinner-table discussions of the problem of evil. That God allows evil to test his followers. This argument has been used in many of the worlds religions, and by many individuals to justify their own suffering. How many people will say to themselves “This evil is God testing me and in the end I will be rewarded” and what is the basis of it’s logic? This answer is sufficient for some people, and for others it is not. It is very easy to say the suffering one is currently feeling is only a superficial evil to eventually reach God’s greatest good.
The reason I appreciate Hughes’ poem quoted above is that it marks the era leading into the civil rights movement, it’s a statement saying “God won’t fix our problems, only we can.” And the very same is true today. There have been many people to respond to all sorts of statements, my goal was merely to summarize the issue and give some personal input on them. In the end the problem of evil really does come down to a stalemate, the problem can be debated all day, but only to reach a brick wall every time.