The Origin of Evil & Suffering

The Origin of Evil

There are a number of different approaches to explaining the origin of deception and evil. Before reviewing the theistic approaches to evil, let's first consider as a basis of comparison an approach that assumes no Creator.

If the earth and all of the life on the earth exist because of a set of random natural events, then the existence of evil is also the result of the same natural developmental process. Without a Creator to set the standards, there is no absolute moral law. Therefore evil does not exist fundamentally. It exists only within the attitudes of thinking creatures. Certain events that are defined as evil by some people may be within the range of proper behavior in the view of others. So the definition of evil may vary from one society to another or among individuals within a society. People who commit crimes within a society may sincerely believe that their actions are justified by need and that society is unjust in defining their actions as crimes. So, when society punishes an individual for errant activity within this paradigm, he is not being punished for doing something that is fundamentally evil, but because his actions are outside of the bounds of social acceptability according to people who are in power.

Most people agree that certain actions, such as murder, theft, dishonesty, and so forth, are fundamentally wrong regardless of local social customs. A possible explanation for the human attitudes towards fundamental good and evil is social evolution. Accordingly as humans have evolved physiologically, human society has also evolved, along with its basic standards. Based on this assumption, society is still evolving and will continue to change. It is clear that a society's definition of evil changes over time. For example, in ancient Greece it was not evil for parents to abandon a child with a birth defect so that he would die, yet today such action is deemed barbaric. Although abandoning a helpless child seems reprehensible to us now, it was perfectly acceptable according to the social definitions of good and evil at the time.

So within this paradigm, evil exists by social definition, which is usually based on conflict between individuals, between individuals and society, and between societies. And conflict exists because of the competitive nature of life.

Now let's consider theistic approaches to explaining the source of evil.

Many religions, modern and ancient, explain the source of evil using the philosophy of dualism, which states that the universe is under the dominion of two opposing principles, one of which is good and the other evil. Under this doctrine God (or the gods) created both good and evil in order to give purpose to existence. Without both good and evil as available choices, people would not have the free agency to choose for themselves. There would be no purpose for existence. Dualism teaches that good and evil exist as opposite poles of the same condition and that each makes the other possible. As a result, righteousness cannot exist without unrighteousness because unrighteousness is the counterbalancing pole of righteousness. In other words righteousness exists only because it is better than something else, and unless there is something for it to be better than, namely unrighteousness, it doesn't exist. Thus, dualism teaches that a righteous god cannot exist unless there also exists unrighteousness to glorify his righteousness. He could not have become a righteous god until evil also came into existence or unless he created evil.

Dualism also teaches that joy cannot exist without misery because a person cannot be joyful unless he is more joyful than someone else is. Thus, someone must be miserable in order for someone else to experience joy, or at least a person must experience misery before he can experience joy. Dualism is the philosophical expression of the "zero-sum game".

There is no fundamental reason in this concept for good to be desirable or for evil to be undesirable since they are merely two opposing forces. Since it teaches that both were created by God, then in either case people would be undertaking actions within the range of God's creations.

Dualism was the basis of Zoroastrianism, which espouses the teachings of Zoroaster, a philosopher who lived in Persia, probably in the sixth century B.C. It contradicts the Bible and is rejected by Christianity, but that has not stopped people from creating religions that attempt to fuse the dualistic creed of Zoroastrianism with Christiainity. An early example of such fusion is Manichaeism in the third century A.D.

Such fusion can lead to some bazaar conclusions. For example, this concept would indicate that the existence of evil and the resulting opposition in all things were intended by God. It would imply that God wanted Adam and Eve to fall and that He even forced them to fall by giving them contradictory commandments. If the captain of a ship commands his pilot to wreck the ship, then the wreck is the captain's responsibility, not that of the pilot. Similarly, if God forced Adam and Eve to commit the first sin on earth, then it was actually God's sin, not that of Adam and Eve. So, if dualism is applied to the Biblical creation event, then it would imply that God placed sin on earth by committing the first sin Himself.

In contrast, the Bible is unique among the world's ancient religious documents in its explanation for the origin of evil, which it labels sin. But in order to understand the explanation, one must first understand the very purpose for existence itself, which is based on love.

The New Testament contains different Greek words that are translated into love in English (and sometimes into charity in the King James Version). One of these, phileo, means "to have ardent affection and feeling" and refers to an emotion.  Probably much usage of the word "love" in today's English refers to this kind of love.  The other, agápe, is more than an emotion. It refers to a personal commitment that results in selfless action. It is the agápe love that is the characteristic term of Christianity. So Christian love does not refer to infatuated gushing feelings, it means freely giving of oneself to someone else without expectation of compensation. And it is meaningless unless it is unconditional through free will. The ultimate expression of agápe love is to give one's life on behalf of another person. (John 15:13)

Although I indicated in the chapter Healthy Skepticism that "Biblical faith is rational and objective," agápe love is irrational.  In his book Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them (Zondervan 2003, page 55), John Ortberg reviews the Biblical story of four friends who lower their paralytic friend through the roof of the house where Jesus is teaching in order to present him to Jesus for healing.  These four men had nothing to gain except the possibility of personal ridicule for cutting the hole in the roof on behalf of their disabled friend.  There was no rational justification for their act, just their love for their friend.  With regard to those four friends, Ortberg writes, "Jesus sees a group who posses and act on an irrational commitment to the well-being of one of its members."  This is the core paradox of the gospel of Christ: it is only through loving without any desire for reward that we receive the full benefit of love.  If we are motivated by a desire to earn "stars in heaven" or a position of personal worthiness, then our actions are not agápe love - they are not love at all.

When God created people in his own image, He created us with the ability to love in the same way that He does. God's love is so perfect that from our perspective He is the personification of Love. (1 John 4:8,16) God so loved the world that his own Son voluntarily died in atonement for our sins. (John 3:16) He told us that all of the commandments are based entirely upon the commandment to love Him and to love one another. (Mark 12:30-31) This is the whole purpose of creation: to create people who love as God loves. Only individuals who can to choose through their own free will whether or not to love can love. A robot that is preprogrammed for perfect obedience cannot love. But the ability to choose to love and obey God also includes the ability to choose to rebel against God and disobey Him. And disobedience of God's commandments is the Biblical definition of sin. It is the misuse of freewill that results in sin. God did not create sin. (1 John 2:16) It is created by the misuse of freewill by those who are created by God. (James 1:13-15)  He does not revoke free will when people use it to sin because if freewill were revocable it wouldn't be freewill.  So, God allows people to become sinful, that is He "gives them over" to a sinful nature.  "He gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done." (Romans 1:28) And people invent sin. "They invent ways of doing evil..." (Romans 1:30)

So the world is full of sin, or in other words, evil. (1 John 2:15-17) Everyone misuses his freewill and sins. (Rom 3:23) Only God has the ability to have freewill without misusing it. But through the plan of salvation we can place our complete trust in Him, and He will transform us. That is, He will justify us through His atonement even though we have sinned, and through our experience with free will He will sanctify us so that we will ultimately be able to use our freewill perfectly as He does. (Matt 5:48)

The Origin of Suffering

Since the origin of suffering is directly related to the origin of evil, this issue requires understanding of the previous one. So, if you haven't read the explanation for evil, I suggest that you read that before proceeding with this.

The existence of evil explains why people, acting alone or in groups, do unkind things to other people, such as deceiving or injuring. It even explains why people harm themselves with bad decisions and bad habits. But it doesn't fully explain by itself why people suffer injury from causes that do not appear to be of human intent, such as many diseases and natural disasters. For example, how do you answer when someone asks, "Why did a little 3 year old boy drown in a lake during a family picnic?" Or, "Why were several people killed when rainstorm caused a landslide that buried a small town?"

For those who believe that there is no Creator and that human existence is the accidental result of a random series of events over billions of years, the answer is quite simple: since existence itself is an accident, we must accept that accidents happen - good, bad, and neutral. Philosophically this is labeled existentialism, which basically means that life has no fundamental purpose, or that it is meaningless, and ultimately futile and absurd. So, the corresponding solution to suffering is to make the most of life because this is all you get, and if you have misfortune beyond your ability to overcome, then that's simply the luck of the draw.

There are several religious approaches to dealing with the problem of suffering. As I previously mentioned, dualism teaches that joy cannot exist without misery, or in other words, there must be opposition in all things. Accordingly, God created misery when he expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden so that mankind might have joy. And, misery and suffering are necessary parts of God's eternal plan. So the answer to the question about the little boy drowning is that it was part of God's plan. Essentially, God wanted the little boy to drown and for his parents to suffer, or He at least set the cosmic wheels in motion that resulted in the suffering of the boy's parents.

Another approach is Docetism, which teaches that suffering and pain are not entirely real. According to this doctrine, the physical world is less perfect and less real than the spiritual world, and suffering belongs only to the lower order of reality. The corresponding solution for suffering is to use mind over matter and elevate oneself above the physical world. As a result, healing is achieved by awakening to the reality that suffering only reflects a distorted sense of reality that it has no true foundation. And when suffering is caused by illness, medical solutions are rejected.

The Bible informs us that suffering and pain are real and that they are the consequence of actions that are contrary to God's will. When God expelled Adam from the Garden of Eden, He said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, `You must not eat of it,' Cursed is the ground because of you." (Gen 3:17a, italics added) Mankind has caused the ground, that is the earth, to be cursed through sin, which is disobedience to God. God has not cursed the earth - people have cursed the earth because of their sins. "The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth." (Isa 24:5-6a, italics added) God continued by describing the results of Adam's curse on the earth: "Through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return." (Gen 3:17b-19, italics added) So hard work and pain began on the earth with the expulsion from the garden and will continue until the New Jerusalem at the end of mortal time when sin has been eliminated. "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Rev 21:4, italics added) Pain and suffering are the natural result of sin.

Jesus makes it clear that suffering is part of the human condition of living in a fallen world. (John 16:33) If someone indicates an inability to believe in a god who would allow suffering, then the god that he or she is searching for is not the God described in the Bible. Jesus explained that a person's suffering is not necessarily caused by his own sins, or even the sins of his immediate parents, but that God will nonetheless make use of suffering as long as it exists to achieve his purposes with mankind. (John 9:1-3) Jesus also explained that an individual's suffering is not correlated to his own personal sins (Luke 13:1-5) and that the devil causes suffering (Rev 2:9-10) The apostle Peter explained that we would suffer unjustly, that is not because of our own sins. (1 Pet 2:19) And that we would also suffer from our own sins, and that we would also suffer as a result of doing good. (1 Pet 2:20; 3:17) Thus, the Bible explains that suffering is the result of sins of mankind, and people often suffer as a result of the sins of others.

So one might ask, how can suffering always be linked to the sins of mankind? The links are perhaps easy to see when a person:
· suffers from a disease that is brought about by his own bad personal habits,
· is injured or killed as a result of taking excessive and inappropriate risk,
· suffers from a disease that is caused by environmental problems that were in turn caused by the greed of others,
· suffers because he has been deceived, cheated, or injured by another person.
· loses his job because of a poor economy that may have been brought on by greed and bad judgment of business leaders,
· suffers as a result of war or other forms of human aggression, or
· is killed in a highway accident by an intoxicated driver.

But what about people who are injured or killed as a result of natural disasters? It appears that the linkage between suffering and the sins of mankind are sometimes complex, and in the case of some instances, such as natural disasters, the link is counterintuitive. Only in the past few decades have science and mathematics begun to deal with the logic of extremely complex systems through the new field of chaos theory. During the 1960's Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist at MIT working on a project to simulate weather patterns on a computer, discovered that infinitesimal changes in inputs to the simulations caused enormous changes in the results. This discovery, which became labeled the butterfly effect, demonstrates that very small changes in the initial conditions of a complex physical system can lead to very large changes in the system's subsequent behavior. It is the classic example of chaos, as small changes lead to large changes. Because of these results from chaos theory, it is often said that a butterfly flapping its wings near the Amazon could change tornado patterns in Texas. So, although it seems intuitively that the sins of mankind cannot cause suffering through natural disasters, chaos theory demonstrates that intuition is inaccurate in evaluating causes and effects in complex systems. I am not suggesting that the link between the sins of mankind and the suffering of mankind can be demonstrated using chaos theory. However because of the complexities of the system, there is no rational basis for rejecting such a link simply because it is counterintuitive and beyond the comprehension of mankind.

Toward the end of the book of Job, God answers Job regarding the reason for suffering. But the answer is not a simple one. God doesn't say it was because Job was being tested or that he was being purified in a refiner's fire, although God may have applied those purposes to suffering. Sin wasn't given as the reason even though sin on earth is the original cause of suffering. Nor did God explain that suffering is a necessary part of the eternal plan. Instead, in his answer in Job 38:1-40:2, God explained to Job that there are complex cause and effect relationships in the functioning of the world that are beyond Job's comprehension.

God allows suffering in a world occupied by people to whom He has irrevocably granted free will, a world in which people have misused that free will to create evil, and thus suffering. Although suffering is the unfortunate result of living in a fallen sinful world, it is not futile: God uses suffering to administer justice through discipline and to test and strengthen faith and bring us to Christian maturity. (Mal 3:3; John 15:2; Heb 12:7-11; 1 Pet 1:6-7) And righteous suffering leads to personal growth and eternal joy. (Rev 7:14-17) Although choices made by humans caused suffering on the earth in the first place, God gives purpose to suffering. So for those who suffer in faith or who develop faith through suffering, their suffering is not in vain. (See C. S. Lewis’ Thoughts on the Problem of Pain and Suffering.)

The Stockdale Paradox is an example of faith that is tempered and proved through suffering. It is named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest ranking US military officer in the "Hanoi Hilton" prisoner-of-war camp during the Vietnam War. He was tortured repeatedly during his eight-year imprisonment without any prisoner's rights, without a set release date, and without certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again. In an interview he stated "I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade." Many people were unable to withstand the extreme suffering of Vietnam POW imprisonment. When Stockdale was asked who didn't make it, he said, "The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart." He also said, "This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end - which you can never afford to lose - with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be." (Good to Great by Jim Collins, HarperCollins, 2001, pages 83-85)

In the end, God is in control.  Although He did not create sin or suffering, He uses those aspects of existence, along with righteousness and joy, for his purposes.  And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Rom 8:28)

© 2004 William C. Hamer