Evil in our universe

We have to acknowledge squarely that evil is part of our evolving universe

All of us, sooner or later in life, come to experience some tragic suffering that affects us deeply. It may be an illness that causes us much pain and anguish. It could be the loss of a close relative or a partner. It could be an accident we witness from nearby.

One occasion which I personally remember was the earthquake that destroyed the town of Agadir in Tunisia in 1962. I was passing through the Mediterranean on my way to the Lebanon at the time. I remember listening to radio reports on the rescue efforts: how some victims were dug up from below the rubble of stone and clay. But on the third day, when the stench of the corpses blew inland from the sea, the desert rats moved in. They scavenged the dead bodies and ferociously attacked whatever victims were still buried alive.

The picture not only filled me with horror, it also brought home to me the central question of suffering. Why is death part of human life? Why does death strike some people sooner than others? Why does it need to be so violent, so painful, so degrading to human dignity?

Almost naturally our thought then moves to God. Why doesn’t he do something about it – that is, if he exists! Ever since the Greek philosopher Epicurus seized on human suffering to deny God’s existence, doubters, critics and spiritual seekers, have counted suffering as an argument against God.

This is how the question is often formulated:

“If you were all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, and you were going to create a universe in which there were sentient beings – beings that are happy and sad; enjoy pleasure, feel pain; express love, anger, pity, hatred – what kind of world would you create? Try to imagine what such a world would be like. Would it be like the one which actually does exist, this world we live in? Would you create a world such as this one if you had the power and know-how to create any logically possible world? If your answer is `no’, as it seems that it must be, then you should begin to understand why the evil of suffering and pain in this world is such a problem for anyone who thinks God created this world”.

J.CORNMAN and K.LEHRER, Philosophical Problems and Arguments, New York 1974, pp. 340-341.

In other words, we would not create a world with earthquakes, Alzheimers disease, Down’s Syndrome, droughts, locusts or whatever makes innocent people suffer. It is particularly gratuitous suffering, suffering that could be avoided, that is incompatible with the existence of an omnipotent, good Creator, we are told. Even the fact of one fawn trapped in a forest fire and suffering pain as she is burnt alive, suffices to show God does not exist (see: W.L.ROWE, Philosophy of Religion, Dickerson 1978 p.89; `The problem of Evil and some varieties of Atheism’, American Philosophy Quarterly, 16(1979) pp.335-341).

Traditionally, believers have attempted to defend God by pointing out that God is God, and therefore not obliged to follow our rules of kindness or justice. Moreover, God may have a greater good in mind. He may allow suffering because it somehow fits into a wider scheme of things which we, as human beings, are not aware of.

Such traditional arguments can be found in J.HICK, Evil and the God of Love, San Francisco 1978, pp.70-78; J.M.TAU, `Fallacies in the Argument from Gratuitous Suffering’, New Scholasticism 60(1986) pp.485-489; F.SWINBURNE, The Existence of God, Oxford 1991, pp.200-224; B.DAVIES, `The Problem of Evil’, Blackfriars (1992) pp.357-375.

But if there is a Supernatural Creator God who uses the suffering of innocent people for some other purpose in a master plan, it makes matters even worse. It would show that God has a `corrupt mind’. “If gratuitous suffering is inflicted on anyone, it is bad enough. But if it is inflicted for a purpose, to be planned from eternity – that is the deepest evil. If God is this kind of agent, he cannot justify his actions, and his evil nature is revealed” (see: D.Z.PHILLIPS, The Concept of Prayer, London 1970, p.93; K.SURIN, Theology and the Problem of Evil, Oxford 1986, pp.80-85).

I think the objection has a point. The idea of a scheming Manager God who inserts bouts of suffering into a machiavellian master plan is repulsive. To pursue this line of argument would obviously put us on the wrong track. But is this the only way open to us?

We have to acknowledge God’s awesome neutrality

Is it not obvious that our major problem lies with the image of God we have projected, the human-look-alike imitation-king who rules a two-tier world? It would be better if we started from the facts as we know them.

In evolution all living beings compete for food, space and opportunities to grow. Hawks eat blue tits, blue tits eat caterpillars and caterpillars eat leaves. When a lion kills a springbok, it is bad for the springbok but a meal for the lion and its cubs. What is good for one creature is evil for another. So whose side is God on? Should we not say that God is not on anyone’s side? He/she remains neutral (see: B.LONERGAN, Philosophy of God and Theology, London 1973).

Ultimate Reality that keeps the whole universe in being, the Life Force that drives our world from within, supports the whole process equally, sharing in its successes and failures, in its triumphs and defeats. Hard though it may be to take for us, human beings, God’s creative power was also in the earthquake that destroyed so many lives in Agadir and even in the rats that smelt an easy meal. It is the awesome, universal, impersonal, all-pervading presence of God.

Now suppose that in the course of evolution pain develops as a sensation that tells an animal something is wrong. Leaves do not feel pain as far as we know, but a squirrel does. Because it knows pain, it will avoid tearing its fur on thorns and will learn not to attempt ambitious jumps. Pain and sorrow protect us. Visiting a leprosy hospital in India, I was surprised to see how many lepers had maimed hands and feet. This is not directly due to the leprosy, I was told. Because lepers lose sensation in their limbs, they do not notice when a spade hurts their foot or when their hand is scalded by fire.

So a fawn suffers pain in a forest fire not because some scheming God wanted to inflict evil, but because fawns themselves evolved pain to enhance survival.


Living in our kind of universe – where black holes gobble up stars, where one species preys upon the other and where an unwary pedestrian can walk under a bus, does tell us something about God. “A genuine, religious defence of God begins by accepting creation as it is, including its evil, as a visible expression of God’s nature, rather than dictating a priori what a divine expression must be like” (see: L.DUPRÉ, `Evil-a Religious Mystery: a plea for a more inclusive model of Theodicy’, Faith and Philosophy 7(1990) pp.261-280; here p.267). It is small wonder that many natural religions attributed a darker side to God. Hindus revere Shiva as God’s destructive power, and Kali as the goddess of death.

God’s impersonal power is balanced by God’s interest in us as persons, God’s seeming harshness by manifestations of LOVE, as I will show in subsequent chapters. But there is no harm in dwelling a little on God’s fearsomeness as it is revealed to us in reality. Since we are part of this world, we can be crushed by physical forces bigger than us. Since we are vulnerable biological systems, we are subject to disease, degeneration and decay. One day we will certainly die. These are facts. We do not improve matters by refusing to think about them. We have to acknowledge our fragility. We have to accept the evils that come our way – evils, that is, to us, though they may be good to other creatures.

Laying a hand on our mouth

By acknowledging our fragility, we are actually admitting, in different words, that we are contingent, that we depend in being, that we receive life as a gift, that in the last analysis we owe the life we enjoy to God. In religious terms, it means that we adopt an attitude of humility, of honestly assessing our total dependence while not minimising our human powers and our human dignity.

As autonomous human beings we will continue to improve the quality of our life as much as we can. We will do everything in our power to minimise human suffering – and the suffering of animals. But we will refuse to escape into a self-made dream that will one day be shattered. We will accept illness, accidents, disaster as part of our human condition. We will face death as the inevitable end of our life on earth. And we will, humbly and honestly, stand before God asking him/her what life is all about.

In the Old Testament we find the fascinating story of Job, a prosperous farmer who loses his house, his livestock, his wealth and all his children. Covered with sores and scolded by his wife, he sits on a dung heap bemoaning his fate. Four friends come to console him. They accuse him of secret sins for which, they say, God is punishing him. Job strongly denies this. In the end he challenges God directly, complaining bitterly about his isolation:

“The night rocks my bones,
the pain that gnaws me knows no rest.
Suffering ties me like a tight garment,
it chokes me like the collar of my tunic.”

Job 30,17-20; T.ROYCE, `The problem of Job’, Religion from Tolstoy to Camus, New York 1961.).

In the end God appears with his verdict. He condemns Job’s friends for accusing him wrongly. Job’s misfortunes were no punishment for sin. But God also chides Job. `How do you dare to find fault with your Creator?’, God says. And God shows him the marvels of the world: the untameable ocean, the numerous stars, the variety of fascinating creatures. Job then humbles himself.

“Behold, I am of small account,
What answer can I give you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
I have spoken once – I said too much;
twice, but I will proceed no further.”
(see: Job 40,45).

Let us return to the question that was put to us earlier in the chapter: `If you were God, would you create a better world than the one we have?’ The temptation is to say `yes’ and to imagine ourselves to be the mythical divine Designer who dreams up a utopia for human beings – but do we really know what we are talking about?

Granted, suffering is an enigmatic feature of our evolving universe. But do we know enough to balance its value against alternatives?



The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of God as Love