Chapter 7: How Explain the World’s Evil?

Dear Mr. Brown: Letters to a Person Perplexed about Religion
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 7: How Explain the World’s Evil?

Dear Mr. Brown:

I have felt sure that, if our correspondence continued, the problem of evil would certainly turn up. Indeed, I have been rather surprised that it has not turned up before this, for plainly it is the most enormous obstacle confronting faith in a good God. Even as a young man you feel this but, as you grow older and see more and more of what Keats called "the giant agony of the world," you will feel ever more deeply the seeming contradiction between Christian faith and the hideous, tragic evil on this earth.

So, let us not mince matters! There is a dark side to this universe which, at least at first sight, seems utterly inconsistent with faith in a good God. Consider what we have recently read in newspapers. A volcano erupts, killing people, burning villages, ruining farmlands. An earthquake, followed by a tidal wave, strikes North Africa, destroying a whole city and slaying thousands. Lightning blasts an airplane, which falls a blazing mass upon a home and kills all the family, as well as all the passengers. Rivers overflow their banks in disastrous floods, demolishing churches, homes, schools, exhibiting a ruthless indifference to everything that Christian faith holds sacred. Such pitiless events are not human sins; they are nature’s deeds. As John Stuart Mill put it, "In sober truth nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another, are Nature’s everyday performances."

Why the ruthless evolutionary process -- parasites, insects, beasts with claws and beaks, preying on one another? Why cancer cells and polio? Why little children born blind, deformed, perhaps Mongolian idiots? And when one turns from nature’s pitiless acts to man’s, the suffering is so dreadful that one wonders how any God there may be can stand it. So, in one of Richard Jeffries’ books, a young boy looks long at the picture of Christ’s crucifixion until, perturbed by its cruelty, he turns the page to escape the sight of it, saying, "If God had been there, he would not have let them do it." And yet -- strange paradox -- it is at Calvary that Christian faith most clearly sees God revealed.

First of all, then, don’t think that you are outside the Biblical tradition when you complain that this is a difficult world in which to believe in a good God. From Moses, crying, "O Lord, why hast thou done evil to this people?" and Gideon, exclaiming, "If the Lord is with us, why then has all this befallen us?" the Bible is full of honest questioning concerning the goodness of God in a world like this. Elijah cries, "O Lord my God, hast thou brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?" Habakkuk complains, "Why dost thou look on faithless men, and art silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?" Jeremiah asks God, "Wilt thou be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?" The Book of Job is history’s classic confrontation of the problem of evil. "I loathe my life," says Job, "I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God . . ., Does it seem good to thee to oppress, to despise the work of thy hands and favor the designs of the wicked?" As for the New Testament, remember that cry from the cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" The Bible is a book of triumphant faith -- yes! But not blind faith. It faced all the cruel facts that make faith difficult.

Moreover, don’t think that you lack good Christian company when the world’s evil causes you to doubt God’s goodness. John Knox won Scotland for Christ, but in those days when he was chained in the galleys, his soul knew "anger, wrath, and indignation, which it conceived against God, calling all his promises in doubt." Increase Mather was a doughty Puritan defender of the faith, but dark times came when in his diary he wrote, "grievously molested with temptations to atheism." Martin Luther was a man of tremendous faith, but once he wrote, "Who among men can understand the full meaning of this word of God, ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’ Anyone who genuinely believes these words will often say . . . ‘The Angel Gabriel is my servant, Raphael is my guardian, and the angels in my every need are ministering spirits. My Father, who is in heaven, will give them charge over me lest I dash my foot against a stone.’ And while I am affirming this faith, my Father suffers me to be thrown into prison, drowned, or beheaded. Then faith falters, and in weakness, I cry, ‘Who knows whether it is true?’ " That is much stronger language than you used in your letter -- very much stronger. You are in good company when you find the problem of evil difficult to solve. Plenty of people who ended with victorious Christian faith have gone through experiences like Luther’s.

Moreover, remember that all the great religions have had to wrestle with this problem. Hinduism has its trinity -- one God with three faces. One face, austere and aloof, is Brahma, the Ultimate Reality; another face, gracious and gentle, is Vishnu, the Savior; the third face, cruel and frightening, is Siva, the Destroyer. Buddhism starts with the pessimistic premise that to exist is itself an evil, and that to escape from existence and its multiplied rebirths by the suppression of all desire, even the desire to live, is the way to nirvana. Zoroastrianism tried to solve the problem by believing in two deities, the god of light and the god of darkness, and traditional Judaism and Christianity tried the same solution in a modified form by positing Satan over against God. I never think of that endeavor to rid God of responsibility for evil by believing in a bad anti-God, without recalling the primitive tribe which one of our missionaries found in Africa. They believed in a good god, but, alas! they said that he had "a half-witted brother," who was always messing things up. Thus picturing Satan, or God’s "half-witted brother," or what-you-will, as the devilish source of the world’s evil is no solution of our problem. For an all-powerful God of love then has Satan to explain. No! The ancient question still remains: "Si deus bonus, unde malum ?-- If God is good, whence comes evil?"

Moreover, this question is nowhere presented in so acutely difficult a form as in the Christian faith. For there God’s goodness is pictured in such terms of mercy and compassion that one sometimes despairs of reconciling such grace with the world’s hideous evils and mankind’s frightful sufferings. "God is love"; "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son" --against that background you are right in feeling that the problem of evil reaches its most difficult form. A materialist faces no such dilemma -- what else except ruthlessness and pain could one expect in a mindless, purposeless physical system? But if God is love, no wonder an American surgeon says that, if ever he comes face to face with God, he will carry a cancer cell with him and will show it to the Almighty, crying Why?

In one of Hugh Walpole’s novels one of the characters, a young man, says, "You know there can’t be a God, Vanessa. In your heart you must know it. You are a wise woman. You read and think. Well, then, ask yourself. How can there be a God and life be as it is? If there is one He ought to be ashamed of Himself, that’s all I can say." So, you too are tempted, sometimes at least, to feel indignant doubt. You are not alone in that. But now let us see if this is really the end of the matter.

Certainly to let the problem of evil drive one into atheism is no solution of our perplexity. For, if there is no God, then one faces the problem of goodness, beauty, truth, all that is lovely in music and art, all that is admirable in character, and that problem of good seems to me far more important and more difficult to solve than the problem of evil. Any way you look at it, this is a mysterious world, but of all the ways in which the mystery can be stated none seems to me so improbable, so irrational, as to say there is no God, no Mind or Purpose in the universe, and all that is beautiful and right here is the accidental result of physical atoms going it blind. To be sure there is a dark side to life, that often seems inexplicable, but there are also glorious aspects of life which need to be explained. As Archibald MacLeish sang it:

Now at 60 what I see,

Although the world is worse by far,

Stops my heart in ecstasy.

God, the wonders that there are!

Mothers and music and the laughter of children at play, great minds discovering truth, great artists creating beauty, towering characters, Christ over all, lifting human life to new levels -- there, in goodness, is the problem I want solved, and atheism has no explanation to offer.

Let us start, then, with the proposition that God is, and try to see what light we can shed on the mystery of evil. We may help ourselves by imagining ourselves in the place of God, facing the responsibility of creating and managing the universe. Just what would we do about the major causes of human suffering?

First, there is the law-abiding nature of the universe. A little child falls out of a tenth-story window, and the law of gravitation is merciless. Cause and consequence, bound together in unbreakable succession -- how much of the world’s agony springs from that! But if omnipotence were put into our hands, would we abolish nature’s law-abiding order, and let creation become chaotic, haphazard, fortuitous, undependable? As Dr. J. S. Whale exclaims, "If water might suddenly freeze in midsummer; if the specific gravity of lead might at any time become that of thistledown; if pigs might fly or the White House turn into green cheese -- man’s life would be a nightmare." So, despite all the agony that nature’s law-abiding forces inflict on mankind, we would not dare substitute a lawless for a law-abiding world.

Second, obviously our world is not finished yet. It is in the making -- a creative process is afoot here, with a long evolutionary story behind us and unforeseeable possibilities ahead. Call that exciting, if you will, but think of the suffering that has been and still is involved in being born into a world racked by growing pains. Conceivably, God might have made a finished universe, perfect, static, all-complete, with nothing more to be done in it. Let your imagination dwell on that possibility! Do you like it? Can you conceive anything more intolerably boring? Could creative minds or courageous characters ever develop in such a finished paradise? No! Despite the agony involved in an evolutionary universe, we would not dare to substitute a static world with no progress in it, no future of open doors before it, nothing to work and fight for, nothing to surpass and improve.

Third, we have the power of choice. If I should tell you that Gene Neely made the all-American team in football, played a crack centerfield in baseball, that he could handle a golf course in the eighties, and was a master at tennis, you would say, would you not, that he must have had a magnificent physique. Upon the contrary he had only one arm. He lost the other as the result of a gunshot wound. But, you see, he was not a mere thing, a robot helplessly pushed about by circumstance; he was a person with the power of decision, who could choose his own kind of response to any situation, and stand up to life, saying, Come on now, I’ll show you! Just because we are human beings we are not automatons; we do make choices and decisions, we do exercise this power of personal initiative. But think of the evil that mankind suffers from the misuse of this marvelous power! Most of what Gibbon calls "the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind" come from the ignorant or wicked abuse of our free will. All the way from intimate personal hurts and tragedies to the vast catastrophe of war, how much of human agony springs from the personal choice of evil instead of good! What Caliban said to Prospero in The Tempest,

You taught me language; and my profit on’t

Is, I know how to curse,

the whole world, in one way or another, is saying today, You taught me physics and my profit on’t is, I know how to make the H-bomb; you taught me flying and my profit on’t is, I know how to destroy whole cities; you taught me the conquest of distance and my profit on’t is world-wide total war.

Nevertheless, if you were in charge of the universe, would you dare to take from man his freedom of choice and make him a mere puppet, a marionette mechanically pulled by the strings of circumstance, with no liberty to shape his own conduct, no power to make decisions? Well, when I think of Gene Neely and millions like him, I am sure that I would take the calculated risk which the Creator took when he gave man power to choose between good and evil.

Fourth, another source of human suffering is the fact that we are not merely separate individuals, but are woven together, by loyalty, love, mutual need and interdependence, into homes, friendships, communities. This fact of inescapable fellowship is alike the source of our deepest joys and our most heartbreaking tragedies. "Where I love, I live" is at once a beautiful and a dreadful fact. A catastrophe befalling my children or grandchildren would be to me a far more tragic hurt than anything that could happen to me as an individual. Let your imagination play upon this universal source of heartbreak, until you feel how much of mankind’s agony is due to the very relationships which make life most worth living, but in which the ills that happen to one thereby happen to all who most dearly love him. Then picture yourself as the Creator, managing this universe, and tell me whether you would dare make men and women isolated individuals, incapable of affection or loyalty, with no families, no friendships, no capacity for fellowship or fraternity. What an utterly useless, meaningless world that would be!

You see what I am driving at. These four factors -- the law-abiding order of the world, the progressive, evolutionary nature of the world, the human power to choose and to decide, and the human loves and loyalties that create homes and friendships -- account for all the tragedy and suffering on earth. And yet, were we possessed of the power to eradicate a single one of the four, we would not dare to do so. Do not misunderstand me! I do not think that this answers all our questions. Countless protests and queries still confront our minds. Why cancer? -- to that kind of question I can find no adequate reply. Why did the evolutionary process have to involve such beastly cruelty? Why the kind and degree of deprivation and suffering which, far from building character, almost inevitably cause madness and depravity? Nevertheless, from the facing of the fourfold source of human suffering, I do come to a reassuring conclusion: on the basis of no-God I can see no possible explanation of the problem of good, but on the basis of faith in God I can see the wide-open possibility of Mind and Purpose here and of an ultimate outcome which will vindicate the Creator.

Meanwhile, there is a very important implication in what I have been saying, which many people miss. They call God omnipotent or all-powerful, as though that means that God can do anything whatsoever, that he confronts no limits, faces no obstacles, but has a free hand to do anything he pleases. That, however, is nonsense. Grant God’s existence, a being involving mind and purpose, and at once it is obvious that there are all sorts of things he cannot do. He cannot make two plus two equal five or create a triangle the sum of whose angles does not equal two right angles. He cannot give man the power of choice without granting him power to choose evil as well as good. Whatever purpose he may have in mind, he must fulfill conditions to achieve his goal. He cannot eliminate all hardship, risk, pain, and difficulty from life and still expect courageous characters and venturesome minds to develop here. Omnipotence is not magic. God could not make Hitler a good man without Hitler’s consent and co-operation. Read the Bible with such facts in mind, and see how far from being all-powerful, as many conceive that term’s meaning, God is pictured as being. Throughout the Bible God has a struggle on his hands. He is up against something. He will conquer in the end, but even for him the price is costly. God in the Bible does not sit in blissful solitude, throned on high in absolute all-mightiness. He is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that means that he is a God with purposes for this world which face enemies and have to be sacrificed for.

Well, how inadequate are human words to deal with such deep mysteries! Go as far as we can, but then,

There is a veil past which we cannot see.

But I am convinced of this: the no-God theory leaves the most important facts in human life utterly without possibility of explanation, while theism opens wide the door to an outlook on life which makes even the world’s evil seem ultimately soluble.

In the meantime evil presents us with a problem not merely speculative but very practical. How to be the kind of person who can stand up to life, face its difficult challenges and hardships, and carry off a victory in quality of character and useful living -- that central problem confronts us all. Jesus never said, I have explained the world, but he did say, "I have overcome the world." I happen to be writing this on Good Friday. Nearly two thousand years ago they spat on him, jeered him, scourged him, crowned him with thorns, and crucified him. How little they guessed the outcome! They were committing history’s worst crime, and it has turned out to be mankind’s supreme blessing. No cross, no Christ! I tell you there is a Power behind and in this mysterious universe who will yet bring victory to the best over the worst, and will vindicate the faith of those who have believed in him.

Cordially yours,