Why is there so much evil and suffering in the world? What can we say about natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes? And how can a just and wise God allow all this to happen?
These questions have been grappled with by human beings for centuries. More recently in the increasingly secular world we live in, they have been used by atheists as an argument to disprove the existence of God. How do theists refute this?
The first challenge is to define evil. There are generally three approaches:
- Deny evil really exists, and that it is basically the absence of good
- Acknowledge that evil exists in absolute terms
- Acknowledge that evil exists in relative terms
The first definition is problematic, for denying that evil and suffering exist does not make it any easier to bear. It makes the problem seem like an illusion but does not solve it.
The second and third definitions acknowledge that evil and suffering is real and does indeed occur, and is often categorised into natural evil (physical phenomena that causes harm to man, such as disease and illnesses, to natural disasters like earthquakes, volcano eruptions, and hurricanes) and moral evil (pain and suffering caused by man’s misuse of free will, such as criminal acts, war or greed).
The former, natural evil, raises the obvious question: why did God create the world in such a way where man suffers such calamities?
The latter, moral evil, is intimately linked to free will, for although these are caused by human beings rather than God, the question that arises is: why did God create human beings with free will, such that they can choose to kill, hurt or oppress others?
To answer these, scholars in the Islamic tradition differentiate between the immaterial and material worlds. The immaterial is the realm of abstract concepts, intellects and the afterlife where things are not subject to change or fluctuation. Whereas the material world – in which everything tangible exists – is by its nature full of possibilities and unlimited potentialities that we could ascend to, as well as our fair share of evils and sufferings that we cannot deny exist.
By its very definition, the material world cannot be perfect, as it is in a state of becoming and fluctuation, unlike the immaterial world where everything is fixed. In the material world’s state of becoming, these billions of beings, humans and animals, earth and sea, have lots of potentialities, scenarios and choices, which may, in turn, result in lots of clashes, conflicts and problems.
Here, the second approach is problematic as it considers these problems as absolute. But what may be evil and problematic for one being may not be for another.
For example, in the hierarchy of the food chain, it may seem cruel for a wolf to attack in a man in a forest and eat him. The family of the man would suffer as a result of his death due to this natural evil, but equally the wolf has benefited. The creation of the wolf is not bad in itself, nor is the fact that it gets hungry, nor that it eats meat. It is simply part of the material world. However, it is only when something conflicts with human interests that we think it is bad. The same logic could be applied to other natural evils such as earthquakes, flooding and hurricanes. Rather, it could make more sense in the bigger picture, to consider evils as relative, even though from a human-centric point of view, we may feel wronged.
Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that we think everything should be subservient to our interests or that we’d like to live in a perfect world free of any problems.
However, even for moral evils where the cause is the human being, two human beings may have conflicts of interest and clash with each other as a result of the free will within each of us. Is having free will bad in itself? Of course not – for then there would be no challenge in life, and therefore no opportunity for growth, movement and achieving any of our potentialities.
In this way, it is impossible to have a material world free of problems, for by definition the world is imperfect and in a state of flux. Does this mean that God has no power to stop them or that He is indifferent? Not necessarily. Does this mean that mankind should not try our best to avoid man-made problems such as war, famine, theft, that are avoidable? Of course not.
But a realisation that clashes, problems and evils are part and parcel of this material world with its unlimited potentialities and human beings with free will – as opposed to the fixed and unchanging immaterial world – may help us put some perspective into the age-old discussion of the problem of evil.
“Why is there so much evil in the world” in conversation with Dr Rebecca Masterton and Dr Isa Jahangir will take place at the next The Paradigm Shift event on 10th November 2018. For more information visit our website here.
- Dr Mohammed Ali Shomali (2016), Lessons on Islamic Beliefs, Institute of Islamic Studies
- Would a good God allow suffering?
- Shaykh Mansour Leghaei, Ultimate Questions in Philosophy of Religion