***If you would prefer to listen to this post, you’ll find an audio player below where you can hear the podcast version***
No issue has caused me to question my Christian beliefs more than what is often called the problem of evil (which mistakenly implies that there is a solution somewhere waiting to be discovered). I’m not alone in this; ever since the Greek philosopher Epicurus (342-271 BCE) first questioned the existence of God due to the existence of evil in the world, people have faced this problem and often walked away from the faith of their childhood. The reality of suffering in light of the professed goodness and power of God is the catalyst that is most responsible for the shift in my own theological views.
In the book, The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the brother Ivan is wresting with the difficult issue of how God could be called “good” or “just” as long as there is the suffering of innocent children in the world. He tells a story to his brother Alyosha about the suffering of a child at the hands of her cruel parents who abused and tortured her.
“Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to ‘dear, kind God’! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But these little ones!” *
Like Ivan, I am compelled to believe that intentional harm done to the most vulnerable is something that simply would not be allowed by an all-good God if that God has the power to stop it.
And yet, an estimated 1,000,000 children were victims of commercial sexual exploitation each year**. If that number were only ONE, and you had the power and the will to stop it from happening, would you simply stand by, saying that you had great plans for that child’s life and that all will work together for good? Of course not. Yet, I have spent much of my life defending a version of God who does just that, while I’ve also said that it’s all a mystery and we can’t possibly know God’s purposes in allowing such evils.
Knowing this, I can no longer accept the narrative I was given about God by evangelical Christianity. To believe that there is an all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing God who allows the suffering of the most vulnerable is to be left with a contradiction that must be acknowledged, even if one is willing to live with that. But why maintain this contradiction just to hold on to theology as some kind of existential security blanket?
Where does this leave my belief in God?
Of any topic, this one is most likely to sound like I am presenting some kind of apologetic for atheism, which I am not. I think this issue is most especially damning to Christian beliefs about God, not theism in general, and I accept that some people have figured out a way to look past this issue in a way that satisfies them enough to remain a theist (though I doubt that most believers have taken the issue into serious consideration). I am much more willing to entertain the idea of a deity who lacks the power to change the horrific evils of the world, but suffers and mourns over it as we do. This would probably be more along the lines of process theology, which you can learn more about by looking up Charles Hartshorne. (1897-2000).
Christian theology has left me entirely unsatisfied in its attempts to explain our existence and come to terms with our mortality and with the problem of evil. I simply can no longer suffer a theology that tries to explain away the torment of a child by saying all is well because God is going to make it better in the end. Again, the words of Ivan Karamazov from The Brothers Karamazov echo this same idea:
“If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future?” ***
The turmoil of Ivan Karamazov is also mine, and that’s probably the most significant reason that I’ve left religion behind.
* Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov (AmazonClassics Edition) (p. 214). Kindle Edition.
** Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, by Alliance 8.7
*** Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. (p. 216).