Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Why Evil and Suffering Matter

“If there is no God, why is there so much good? If there is a God, why is there so much evil?” Augustine

In early 2004, my father was diagnosed of lung cancer. Being the optimist that he was and a lover of life, he fought hard to survive. After a series of tedious chemotherapy and other high-prized medication, still, there was no showing of positive signs to recovery. His doctor, who often assured us of his greater chances of survival, now seemed hopeless when my father had not responded to his medication the way he expected. We were stunned to see our father’s deteriorating condition. We can feel the pangs of his ordeal. But knowing that he had always been a robust fighter, he never complained nor blamed anyone for his condition. We on the other hand, the watchers, are the impatient ones. We can’t seem to understand what was happening. No amount of medical explanation could ease our worries. But my father, with Bible on hand, kept on assuring us that God would rescue us from this unfortunate event. “I will be healed,” he said more than couple of times. And all of us just can’t hold back our emotions. We were teary-eyed in the hospital room, all trying our best to conceal our weaknesses. I believe it was his Christian faith that led him all throughout his suffering. The longer we stayed in the hospital, the stronger his faith grew. Reality however bits really hard. His insurmountable faith was not solely enough to keep him alive. If only we had millions to sustain his medication, I guess my father would have never stopped fighting. But at some point, we need to decide as a family. Until finally, perhaps seeing the hopelessness of the medication with coffers almost empty, he simply uttered, “I just want to go home.” As painful and frustrating as it was, we had no choice but to grant his wish. And so off we go. And soon, off he went.

My father lasted only a month after we left Manila. While the sun was about to rise for the rest of us, it was already setting down for him. I can still remember that dawn when my aunt called me only to break the saddest news of all: Papang is gone! Those exact words still haunt me up to this day. The news of my father’s demise loosened all emotions kept inside. Afterall, it was I who was with him in every inch of his ordeal. And his strength made me feel strong too. Not until that day. My chest was on the brink of explosion. Tears were endlessly flowing as if wanting to wash away the grief that owned my every limb. The pain was unbearable if not excruciating. Papang was no longer here to comfort his little Pey. I felt lost like a little child. But I am a child no more and Papang would not want to see me this way. It was indeed difficult to clear my thoughts then but I tried hard enough to hang on desperately and rationalize everything as part of reality. On board the airplane heading home, questions lingered on my mind. “Why did something like this has to happen?” And I began to question the purpose of pain and suffering in this world, “C’mon God, my father served the ministry whole heartedly yet you took him away from us, what in the name of reason is that?” It was by far the unhappiest flight of my life. For the duration of that flight all I ever did was to control my tears and emotions. Yet tears just kept on flowing incessantly and there was no way I could have stop it. Only Papang could stop it. As the in-flight attendants were busy with their chores smiling at every passenger while serving refreshments, there I was languishing with the thought that my father was gone─ gone forever!

Years later as I witness a friend so devastated with the tragic death of his mother, killed in a car accident, an officemate whose child is stricken with an incurable disease, a mendicant afflicted with leprosy, I can’t help but sympathize with their predicament. I’m sure as human beings they too asked the same age-old existential question: If there is a loving God then why is there so much suffering in the world?

Before going into the heart of the matter, let me just dabble a bit with the philosophical aspect of the problem of evil and suffering in general and try to decimate whatever intellectual reservations you might have concerning this existential issue. For purposes of clarity however I shall be using moral and natural evil interchangeably. In any case, let me remind the reader that even in philosophical realm of argumentation God is not expendable.

The Intellectual Problem of Evil

What is evil in the first place? Evil in simple terms is a departure of what is “ought” to be. For evil to exists, goodness too must exist. Evil therefore is not something that has an existence on its own rather it is a corruption of that which already exists. To illustrate, tooth decay can only exist if the tooth exists. As Christian philosopher Norman Geisler notes, “Evil is like a wound in an arm or moth-holes in a garment. “But I must hasten to note that to say evil has no existence of its own is not the same as saying that evil is an illusion or unreal. Evil is the corruption of something good, that is to say “it is not an actual entity but a real corruption in an actual entity.” Thus, it stands to reason that evil is real and suffering is a conspicuous form of evil.

The problem of evil and suffering arises because God claims to be all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good yet evil exists. Let us focus on the two divine attributes namely, God being all-powerful and all-good. At first blush, common sense can easily point out the logical contradiction of these claims. How can God be all-good when there is so much evil and suffering in the world? Consequently, if He is held to be all-powerful then certainly to defeat evil is effortless yet the opposite seems to be true, evil never cease to exist. To reconcile the three concepts is almost logically unsound because either you have to deny any of the three concepts exists or modify the concepts altogether to achieve consistency. How then should we respond to such overwhelming evidence of suffering and evil while at the same time keeping God in the picture? Famous skeptic David Hume raised the possibility that the Biblical God does not exist in this scathing manner: Is He willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing whence then is evil? The perceived logical contradiction of the divine attributes with the existence of evil stems from an erroneous appreciation of concepts. What does it mean when we say God is all-powerful? I think it is here where the questioner attempts to explain everything away just to make his point. By all-powerful, most skeptics think that God can do everything and anything. But “omnipotence,” at least from the theistic sense, is not to be understood as “omnivolitional,” meaning God can will anything. If that be the case then God can will himself into extinction. God can will himself to make mistakes. So if we are trying to achieve coherence, then we must avoid contradiction to make the assertion logically valid and truthful. Thus, “omnipotence” does not mean that God can do everything. It only means God can do anything that which is possible. Anything that which is meaningful. He can’t make squares circles because the analogy poses mutual exclusivity. As Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft explains, “God can do everything that is meaningful, everything that is possible, and everything that makes sense at all. God cannot make himself cease to exist. He cannot make good evil.” To say that God is all-powerful, and that includes the power to make mistakes, is to create a self-contradiction. If we seek coherence on the divine attributes of God, I think the problem is not with God's nature or character but the validity of the question itself.

Viewed in this context, it would make a fool out of God to bestow free will upon human beings with no possibility of moral evil. Imagine a world without pain and suffering and we will end up like robots for we would not have the capacity to make choices and freely love. But is it correct to say that God is the creator of evil? To say that evil is a product of creation is to say that evil can exists on its own. “No, he (God) created the possibility of evil: people actualized that potentiality,” said Kreeft in the best-selling book The Case for Faith. “The source of evil is not God’s power but mankind’s freedom. Even an all-powerful God could not have created a world in which people had genuine freedom and yet there was no potentiality of sin, because freedom includes the possibility of sin within its own meaning. It’s a self-contradiction, a meaningless nothing, to have a world where there’s real choice while at the same time no possibility of choosing evil.” As one noted Biblical scholar put it, “Evil is inherent in the risky gift of free will.” Therefore, the claim that God is all-powerful is in fact logically consistent with the existence of evil.

David Hume’s emotion-laden critique of God is a valid one for it touches the heart and soul of human existence. His tirade on the divine attributes of God represents our own hidden presuppositions on the mystery of evil and suffering vis a vis the existence of a loving God. The terrorist attack in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 or the occurrence of the Nazi holocaust seems to validate Hume’s thesis. Where was God when Hitler committed genocide or when Stalin murdered his own people all for the sake of power? If indeed there is a God, and he is what he claims to be, these atrocities would have not happened. But let us pause and analyze the core of this existential question. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Here for the sake of argument Hume impliedly accepted God to be all-powerful and has shifted his critique on God’s character to demonstrate contradiction. If He is all-powerful then certainly He cannot be called all-good for refusing to prevent evil. Thus, since laws of logic dictate that contradictions cannot be true at the same time, it is therefore logical to conclude that God does not exist. How then should we debunk this type of philosophical word games? Does the abundance of evil and suffering really disprove the existence of an all-loving God? Christian apologist Dr. Ravi Zacharias has a unique method, sort of a philosophical judo in dealing with this problem: The existence of God cannot be disproved by introducing the reality of evil and wickedness. Those categories only exist if an absolute moral law exists. And an absolute moral law exists only if God exists. Implicit in the equation of Hume’s critique on God is the smuggled assumption of an absolute moral framework from which he ought to judge God as malevolent if he refuses to wield his power to defeat evil. What was he really saying when he categorized God as malevolent if he is able but not willing to defeat evil? Is he saying that such behavior ‘ought’ not to be good of a God who claims to be all-good? In any of these assertions, Hume has just invoked a moral law in raising the question, a moral law which declares: It would be immoral of God, with all the powers at His disposal, not to prevent evil and suffering in this world. Hume’s critique of God had in fact unearthed his own assumption of an absolute moral law that squarely contradicted his conclusion─ that there is no God. In other words, the abundance of evil and suffering does actually prove the existence of God rather than disproving it. Let me illustrate further on this point. Again I will borrow Dr. Ravi Zacharias’ succinct argument:

When you assert that there is such a thing as evil, you must assume there is such a thing as good. When you say there is such a thing as good you must assume there is a moral law by which to distinguish between good and evil. There must be a standard by which to determine what is good and what is evil. When you assume a moral law, you must posit a moral law giver—the source of the moral law.

The fact of the matter is it is impossible to judge evil from good unless there is an infinite reference point that is supremely good. And it is here that God is indispensable for He alone can exhaust the definition of absolutely good. “If God does not exist,” writes Fyodor Dostoevsky, “everything is permitted.” To categorize Hitler’s actions as evil one must reconsider his assumptions implicit in the statement he is making. If one is to claim that Hitler’s actions as evil can someone also disagree and say that the holocaust is perfectly right? I’m sure someone can but can he validly justify his assumptions that a moral law should be viewed as a matter of taste or personal preference? The answer is no. To call God as ‘malevolent’ for allowing evil things to happen, the questioner must in the first place, show how he has arrived at an absolute moral law from which he anchored his moral critique on God. If he has none then he will end up shooting his own feet by raising the question in the moral context. There’s no other way of doing it and the questioner is trapped with his own assumptions. Man cannot be the measure of everything. Any philosophy that has built its moral structure with the assumption that a transcendent being is expendable finds itself groping in the dark. History is replete with lessons that our judgment on what is right and wrong cannot be trusted. The horrible crimes committed by Hitler and his peers founded on a godless philosophy should alert us that man could never be the measure of an objective moral law. In sum, we could never escape reality that without God as an infinite reference point, there are no moral absolutes from which to distinguish right and wrong. Otherwise “one is like a person on a boat at sea on a cloudy night without a compass.”

Is there a purpose in allowing evil and suffering? “All is for the best in the best of all possible words,” so said Voltaire in his magnum opus Candide, a satire on misplaced optimism. But is there really an ultimate purpose behind every suffering and evil from the Christian purview? I sincerely believe there is. Albeit our world may not be the best of all possible worlds but it is the best way to the best possible world. Most of us think that because there is so much evil and pain in this world God is not dealing with it at all. At best, God is not finished yet. If He claims to be an all-powerful God then nothing, absolutely nothing is impossible. If He single-handedly created the universe, defeating evil is piece of cake. Popularly stated: If God is all-good, he will defeat evil. If God is all-powerful, he can defeat evil. Evil is not yet defeated. Therefore, God can and will one day defeat evil.

The Emotional Problem of Evil

Now that we have confronted the logical problem of evil vis a vis a loving God, let us now deal with the emotional problem of evil. Let us now look at my own existential journey so far and how I responded to it.

In the Christian worldview the problem of evil, pain and suffering is not really a problem. In fact, it is a manifestation of God's awesome character that can be summarized in a single word: love. God created the universe with a pupose. We are not here by accident or by chance chemical reactions as scientist, the so-called "brights" would like us to believe. Thus, evil and suffering must be viewed in the context of God's purposes that give meaning and significance in our lives. Sometimes things appear to be pointless and meaningless. When something bad happens that is beyond human comprehension, we don't seek refuge from philosophical or scientific theories, instead we turn to God for comfort. Then ask him why these horrible things had to happen. What is the ultimate meaning of life. What is the significance of suffering. All of these questions are deeply rooted in our nature as human beings, sort of a reflex, because we are designed to feel and question our existence one time or another.

If God does exist, how can he be called all-good while allowing my father, his faithful servant, to suffer and die? I’m sure someone out there has asked the same question and it never gets old. We could always tell similar stories of personal pain and sorrow. No one could escape this dreadful feeling of losing a loved one. The sad part in life is each and every one of us will have his fair share of pain and suffering. But the hardest part to accept in all of human existence is the fact that we will all die. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We must understand that from the standpoint of God all is not lost here. Yes it’s true that once a loved one dies the thought of never seeing him again, at least in our lifetime, is the most painful stage of the ordeal. And for sure as we struggle to understand the meaning of a ‘lost’ life God takes his share of the burden and constantly feels our pain. But we must note that God is the author of life and the power to restore it is inherent in His divine authorship. While we may conclude that a life is lost in death, God has a different way of looking at it by restoring life to the one who has ‘lost’ it. “The life that is ‘lost’ is not lost when it is in the hands of the one who made it and sustains it.” I’m sure by now my father is more than happy to know that a life with God in heaven is so much greater than the life lived in flesh.

Few years back, as I witness a close friend so devastated with the tragic death of his mother, killed in a car accident all I could mutter was, “Everything must have a purpose.” I know it was a lame explanation for what had happened but it has to be right? Surely I thought, if death is meaningless then life is meaningless too and vice versa. Be that as it may but how can we, those who are left behind to grief, find meaning in the face of suffering, say death of a loved one? When my father died, the one who suffered the most was his lifelong partner for many years─ my mother. His death made my mom plunge into the depths of depression. Moving forward without him became a day by day struggle. As her children we tried our best to comfort and remind her that all is not lost when Papang died and that we are still here to take care of her, to love her. Of course we knew how unsuccessful we are in comforting her for we could never replace the warmth of his embrace. My father indeed was a tough act to follow.

On my part,I suddenly lost interest in my law studies. My grades went down and my performance in class was gravely affected. Back then, he used to brag that his youngest son was in law school and all that he really wanted after retirement was to see my name in the rolls. Of course, he witnessed how my eldest brother took his oath as a lawyer at the PICC, but my case was a special one. I guess probably because I’m the prodigal bunso in the family. Unfortunately,the big ‘C’ took him away while I was still at the inception of my law studies. It took years before I was able to pull my act altogether.

So where was God amidst the raging storm that struck us? I believe He stood right in the middle. For those who bears the bereavement and must survive the loss of a loved one, God offers utmost comfort and healing. It is here that we Christians can find the ultimate purpose behind our sufferings. In Cries of the Heart, Dr. Ravi Zacharias made this wonderful reminder:
Across history the greatest testimonies of the all-encompassing grace of God have been demonstrated, not as psychological ploys, but because of the real presence of God in the life of one who lives with that pain. God not only gives inner healing and sustenance but the promise that those who have been separated will meet again. Relationships that are made in God never die.
I always cling to that promise that someday, somewhere in heaven our family will be whole again. And believe me, God never fails to fulfill his promises and that makes our relationship with Him so fascinating and real.

Atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said that, "Men and Women can endure any amount of suffering as long as they know the why of their existence." Ironically, I have to agree for there is some profound biblical truth in his pronouncement. Belief in God and the commitment to follow Christ makes us resilient amidst overwhelming pain and suffering. Our endurance comes not from the "primieval soup" of life but from the character of God as exemplified in the holy book. The wonder of God's character by allowing His sinless son to be crucified speak of one very important aspect of the problem of evil and suffering; that He can take even the worst of evil and turn it to good ends.

As I revisit the life of my beloved father, I realized what a wonderful life he had lived. Unlike other people, his joy of living does not come from mundane sources like material things or academic pedigree. His, came from God. Happiness to him came handily by serving the Lord through the ministry. While sophisticated philosophers struggled for centuries with existential issues on how to achieve happiness, my father had made it all appear too simple for him. In his epitaph these words are inscribed which best explains his simple yet profound biblical philosophy in life, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."

■Zacharias, Ravi K. 2008. The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheist. Zondervan
■Steele, David R. 2008. Atheism Explained. Open Court Publishing Co.
■Strobel, Lee 2000. The Case for Faith. Zondervan
■Rhodes, Ron. 2003 “Tough Question about Evil” in Who Made God (Geisler, Norman and Zacharias, Ravi K. as General Editors) Zondervan