The tragic recent events at a suburban movie theater in Colorado, in which a gunman killed 12 people and wounded 58 others, is a vivid and painful reminder of the degree to which senseless evil and profound suffering exist as part and parcel of the very fabric of human existence.
It also serves to highlight and underscore, in deeply personal and immediate terms, the difficult conundrum faced by many people of faith whenever tragedy strikes. Why does a supremely good and all-loving God tolerate the very existence of such evils? Why does a supremely mighty and all-powerful God permit such untold levels of pain and suffering to plague and torment his creatures?
Twenty-four-year-old suspect James Holmes is accused of opening fire in a theater auditorium packed with spectators attending the sold-out Friday, July 20 midnight premiere screening of the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, at the Cinemark Century 16 cinema in Aurora, Colorado (a suburb of Denver).
The shooter allegedly lobbed in smoke bombs and/or canisters of tear gas, wearing a gas mask as well as additional protective tactical gear, including bulletproof body armor. He was armed with a .40-caliber Glock semi-automatic pistol, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a military-style semi-automatic assault rifle capable of firing several dozen rounds per minute. All of these weapons were evidently purchased legally, together with over 6,000 rounds of ammunition. Additionally, the suspect’s apartment was filled with flammables and explosives, and was rigged with potentially deadly booby traps.
According to FoxNews.com, Aurora police believe that the suspect “planned the attack with ‘calculation and deliberation’,” and that the “the booby trap trip wire at his apartment was ‘meant to kill’ the first person who opened the door to the apartment… specifically to kill a police officer who might have opened the door.”
The shooter’s rampage at the Aurora movie theater left 70 innocent victims in its wake. Of these, ten died at the scene, and two others later died at the hospital. Another 58 were wounded, some of them critically. The youngest fatality was a six-year-old girl.
If we also include the agonizing emotional trauma suffered by the families and friends of those who were killed and injured by the gunman, together with the anguish felt by the community at large in the face of this atrocity, then of course the total number of people who have been victimized to whatever degree by this gunman’s deeds expands exponentially.
This is evil. This is suffering. And in the face of such evil and suffering, horrified individuals can only ask themselves, “Why?”
At times of tragedy or injustice, and in the face of seemingly senseless suffering, many turn to religion or spirituality for answers, or at least for comfort.
But religious people have been asking God “why?” in such situations for a very, very long time.
One of the college classes that I have taught is an introduction to the philosophy of religion. Philosophy, as an academic field of study, basically boils down simply to critical thinking. Philosophy of religion, as a sub-discipline within that field, specializes in applying critical thinking to religious concepts and claims, to see whether they are logically coherent and able to withstand critical scrutiny and rigorous logical analysis.
For example, is the concept of God a solid, logically coherent concept? Or, if you really analyze the concept, might it actually turn out to be logically self-contradictory in some manner — and if so, perhaps fall apart under closer analysis? Do purely logical, strictly rational arguments for or against the existence of God really hold water, when examined under the microscope? These are the sorts of questions which philosophy of religion (and theology, too) has wrestled with for ages, and continues to wrestle with today.
One of the really big (and really perennial) questions that both theology and philosophy of religion still wrestle with is known as “the problem of evil.” Why is evil a philosophical or a theological problem? Well, because it seems to pose a serious challenge to the very coherence of the God concept itself — or at least to the usual ways in which most people think of or conceptualize God.
When most monotheists (Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others) think about the nature of God, they generally affirm two things: God is both omnipotent (all-powerful) as well as “omni-benevolent” (all-good). Few traditional believers in God, I suspect, would doubt or dispute either of these two claimed divine characteristics.
Now, really think about those two claims for a moment, and let all of their ramifications sink in.
If God is really, truly, absolutely 100% all-good, then God would necessarily be unequivocably against all evil whatsoever. Evil in whatever form, to whatever extent, or for whatever reason would be utterly unacceptable to God. Simply stated, a fully all-good God would have a “zero tolerance policy” for evil.
And if God is also really, truly, absolutely 100% all-powerful, then God would necessarily have it within his power to prevent the existence of evil from ever arising in the first place. He would, in short, have the means to fully enforce his “zero tolerance policy” against evil.
And yet, evil exists.
Philosophers and logicians spot a serious seeming self-contradiction here. After all, if God is all-good, then God would not want any evil whatsoever to exist. If God is all-powerful, then it is certainly within God’s power to ensure that no evil whatsoever has even a chance of existing.
But evil does exist.
How, logically, can this be so? If God is all-good, as well as all-powerful, then how can the existence of evil possibly be accounted for? Or is there perhaps something fundamentally flawed in this very concept of God?
At this point, many people of faith (including many of my students) almost instinctively invoke what has come to be known in the philosophical and theological trades as “the free will defense.” This is based upon the notion that God granted human beings free will. According to this defense of God’s goodness, God simply gave us all free will, and then let us go our own way; if we misuse that gift of free will, then that’s our own fault — not God’s.
But hold on, for just a moment. Does this really let God off the hook?
First of all, even if this “free will defense” is logically sound, it really only lets God off the hook for what philosophers and theologians call “moral evil.” Moral evil refers to the evil deeds that human beings deliberately choose to inflict upon each other, of their own free will.
But there is another entire category of evil altogether, which philosophers and theologians distinguish from “moral” evil. This second category is generally referred to as “natural evil,” and it refers to such non-humanly-motivated “evils” that befall us such as natural disasters or diseases and the like.
All too often, nature herself is the direct cause of untold human (and also animal) suffering. Earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, tsunamis, avalanches, volcanic eruptions, lightning strikes, forest fires, flash floods, famines, severe droughts, disease epidemics, animal attacks and so forth all constitute examples of how nature can result in massive numbers of deaths and other casualties.
And yet nature itself, most people of faith maintain, was created by God. But how could an all-good God create a world so prone to so much violence? Why would a benevolent God design a cosmos and build into its very fabric natural laws that are so prone to causing so much innocent pain and suffering? Why did a presumably loving God create cancer and malaria, or ebola viruses and Guinea worms?
Some Christians respond by arguing that this is “a fallen world,” its original perfection somehow degraded by the introduction of sin (the direct result of the misuse of our God-given free will), and that this “fallen” state of affairs accounts for the presence of such deadly and pain-inducing “natural evils.”
Even if so, however, a problem remains. If human free will was indeed “God-given,” then God (being omniscient, as well as omnipotent and omnibenevolent) surely must have foreseen that we would misuse it, to grievous effect. Yet he nevertheless gave it to us, knowing full well that we would misuse it. Was God morally justified in doing so? (Critics have compared this to a human parent giving a loaded gun to a baby to play with, knowing full well what will inevitably happen.)
There’s also the little matter, critics further sometimes point out, that if God created us, and if we are inherently prone to “sin” or to otherwise misuse any free will that might be given to us, then it would seem that the real blame for such an inherent potentiality must ultimately rest with the divine Designer. If humans were divinely created, and if humans possess any inborn potential whatsoever for wrongdoing, then such an inherent potential had to be put there by our creator. How is this anything other than a design flaw?
Additionally, some critics continue, God refrains from interfering not only with our exercise of free will, but also with the painful and often deadly results of such exercise. It’s one thing (and perhaps a morally questionable one) for God to allow humans to misuse their free will; it’s another thing, they sometimes suggest (and arguably an even more morally indefensible one) for God to stand by and simply allow nature to take its course whenever such misuse of free will occurs. Why doesn’t God, if he is really good and loving, at least interfere with the results of someone’s harmful exercise of free will, in such a way as to prevent innocent victims from being harmed or killed?
After all, any loving human parent might allow his or her child to exercise its free will while playing on a playground; but if that child freely chose to wander into oncoming traffic — or to freely push a playmate into traffic — wouldn’t that loving human parent do all in his or her power to prevent a catastrophic result by yanking the endangered child to safety, thereby sparing it of the devastating negative consequences of its own free choices? Wouldn’t an omnipotent and loving Heavenly Father be expected to do at least as much?
It seems to critics of theism that God has evidently made it a matter of divine policy not to interfere with how we humans exercise our free will; whether we do so for better or worse, God seemingly restrains himself from interfering to spare even innocent bystanders from their dangerous and often deadly results. Again, critics wonder: is this moral? Is this divine “hands-off policy” (or divine “non-interference directive”) logically consistent with a God who is held to be all-loving?
Yet another problem arises when we consider what amounts to a form of the so-called “scandal of particularity.” When natural evil manifests itself in the form of a raging wildfire, one home may burn to the ground, while the home right next door escapes unscathed; the fortunate family whose home and possessions remain intact may rejoice at what seems to them a benevolent miracle, a sign of God’s blessing and favor — but where was God for the family who lost everything they owned? When moral evil rears its ugly head in the form of a rampaging gunman, one child is shot and dies, while another child is shot but lives (or perhaps “miraculously” escapes injury altogether). Why did God spare this family from unimaginable heartache, but not that family?
Does God play favorites, or is he arbitrary and capricious? To simply say “it was God’s will” seems, to many, to be little more than an admission that we simply do not have the answers to such troubling questions. Skeptics may reasonably doubt that any such answers can even exist. People of faith, by contrast, may remain faithful that such answers do exist, even if we ourselves are not privy to them.
In light of all of this sort of thing, some thinkers have concluded that, logically speaking, God must either be less than all-good, or less than all-powerful (or both). Some can live with such a modified form of theism — indeed, they may see no logical alternative. Others have concluded that the sheer existence of evil and suffering itself constitutes so huge a logical stumbling-block for traditional monotheism that it must be abandoned as illogical and therefore false.
On the basis of all the evidence, then, many atheists have abandoned theism because they feel forced to conclude that since evil clearly does exist, an infinitely powerful and infinitely good and loving God simply cannot exist; the two (God and evil) are just mutually self-contradictory. For such thinkers, the reality of evil and suffering necessarily rules out the reality of God.
Other thinkers reach opposite conclusions. Theists have developed counter-arguments that attempt to respond, point by point, to the argument that evil (moral evil and/or natural evil) rules out God, maintaining that God is both all-good and all-powerful despite the existence of evil and suffering. Critics of theism, in turn, respond with “counter-counter-arguments” that critique such theistic defenses. The debate over the problem of evil as it relates to the reality or otherwise of God remains a lively one, showing no sign of abatement. Neither side has yet produced an argument so compelling as to be universally accepted by both camps as an ultimate and logically undeniable “knockdown” argument, finally and forever settling the matter one way or the other.
Most people of faith, of course, simply do not take logical argumentation that far; for the majority of the populace, faith alone is sufficient (even if it might arguably be logically problematic). A 2008 Pew Forum poll indicates that 92% of Americans believe in God (or in some sort of spiritual Higher Power), so the problem of evil is hardly causing a widespread abandonment of religious faith, or a massive increase in atheism. In the face of evil, suffering, and tragedy, a majority still seeks solace through their faith in God, the problem of evil notwithstanding.
But episodes of “moral evil,” such as that of the recent Aurora, Colorado cinema massacre (or of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, in which two gunmen killed 13 and wounded 21 others, or the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which a gunman killed 32 and wounded 17 others), do give us pause for sober theological reflection. So, too, do episodes of “natural evil,” ranging from the several recent wildfires in Colorado (which destroyed hundreds of homes, displaced thousands who were forced to evacuate, and resulted in some loss of life) to events such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (which killed at least 1,836 people) and the tsunamis that devastated Fukushima, Japan in 2011 (leaving 20,000 dead), Haiti in 2010 (212,000 dead), and the Indian Ocean in 2004 (280,000 dead).
In the wake of such tragic events, some find their faith called into serious question. Others instead find their faith strengthened, turning toward it with even greater zeal. Whatever their final effect upon any individual, such events at least draw many of us toward ever deeper reflection and introspection regarding the very nature of, and the religious meaning or spiritual significance of, evil and suffering.
Current events can have a profoundly compelling way of drawing our attention to what might otherwise seem like mere armchair theorizing and purely academic argumentation. Tragedies of the sort that we see in the news all too often (and that directly befall far too many innocent victims) have a way of removing such seemingly abstract questions and problems from the realm of mere philosophizing and forcing us to confront them from the very depths of our being.