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The godly problem of evil

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Evil Web 1 The godly problem of evil

For many years, I lived in a two-house compound at the edge of the woods. Around my porch, I stocked feeders with sunflower seed, ears of corn and wild bird seed and delighted in watching a half-dozen squirrels frolic up and down trees, munching food, spilling seeds that attract fluttering birds.

One day, something hideous happened. A large brown hawk swooped down, seized a shrieking squirrel, killed it with terrible talons and flew away with the body. I was stunned and sickened.

I felt rage at the vicious hawk. But I simmered down, realizing that hawks must live by eating smaller animals. They can’t eat berries. They have no choice but to be killers.

This set me to brooding: Why is nature so cruel — with sharks ripping seals apart, spiders paralyzing insects, cheetahs slaughtering baby antelopes, cobras killing Indian children, foxes killing rabbits, gulls swallowing baby turtles, to give just a few awful instances?

If all of nature has been designed by a loving, compassionate, merciful Father, something is out of whack. Surely, such a Creator wouldn’t make ruthless predators like the hawk that killed my half-tame squirrel.

And the problem involves many other horrors besides killer animals. Why would a beneficent Creator design breast cancer to kill women, leukemia to kill children — and viruses and parasites to ravage so many around the world? Why would a loving Creator craft tornados to kill defenseless mobile home residents, hurricane floods to drown multitudes, volcanos to exterminate islanders, and famines to starve so many?

If there’s “intelligent design,” as Creation advocates contend, what does all this say about the designer?

In philosophy, this dilemma is called “the problem of evil.” It has been debated ever since Ancient Greece — and nobody has found a credible answer. Epicurus asked how a kindly Deity could do nothing about rampant suffering. Voltaire cited a ghastly Lisbon earthquake as an example of sheer cruelty. Thinkers have pondered variations of this puzzle through the centuries.

Rabbi Harold Kushner discussed another aspect in When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The book ponders the baffling puzzle: Why did God let the rabbi’s son die of a horrible disease — despite all prayers?

Most intelligent clergymen discreetly stay silent on this maddening question. But a few shallow thinkers offer answers. Charles Colson, the Watergate crook who underwent a fundamentalist conversion, wrote a book titled The Problem of Evil. In it, he contended that the all-loving God created a pure paradise in Eden, where people never got sick, animals didn’t eat each other (lions ate grass, presumably), and natural tragedies didn’t occur. But when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they brought evil into the world.

I’m amazed that a former White House lawyer had such a childish concept of reality. And he missed an obvious point: If disease, death, disasters and devastation came to the world as punishment for fruit-biting, it’s inescapable that the merciful God either sent or allowed the horrors. Thus, they’re attributable to him.

For thinking people, there’s only one possible answer to the age-old problem of evil: The all-loving Father proclaimed by many faiths cannot exist. Simple logic makes this conclusion unavoidable. Logic doesn’t preclude a sadistic Creator — but it rules out a compassionate one.

I wonder why this obvious bit of reason never penetrates the world of theology.

This article is adapted and updated from a piece that originally appeared in the June-July 2003 issue of Freethought Today.

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