For my Philosophy and Literature class back in the fall of senior year, we had to write a philosophical dialogue. It was probably one of the most challenging (because it was the first time our professor gave an assignment like this) yet fun to write. Hope it’s enough to get you thinking about the topic. Comments are well appreciated! Here goes.
God and Evil
We were watching the news, Henry and I. He was visiting for the weekend. We have been good friends since high school and despite our vast differences, are still able to stand each other and enjoy each other’s company while maintaining a purely platonic relationship. The headlines were not much different from the evening before: crazy weather across the country, Ebola crisis, protests, more protests and issues in the Middle East.
“I don’t want to sound apathetic but it’s the same news every day. Are things ever going to get better?” Henry said right after turning off the TV.
“Everything happens for a reason,” I said.
“Shush. Don’t say that,” he replied.
“Why not? Don’t you agree?” I asked.
“I don’t know if I agree. I don’t know what to make of it. It just seems like a formulaic answer you Christians — ”
“Watch it, now,” I interrupted. Henry has a tendency of subconsciously personalizing his attacks on Christianity and it makes me uncomfortable. He told me to stop him when he does it.
“Sorry,” he said.
“It’s okay, go on. You were talking about it being a formula?”
“Yes, I meant to say that it seems to be the answer Christians give when they don’t know what to say in response to suffering. Why can’t it just be?”
“I’m sorry if it comes across that way. I don’t know. Maybe it is a go-to response for some people but you know that’s not what I was doing, at least I hope you do, right?”
“Yes, I know you are trying to comfort me but really, all that statement does is make me doubt more.”
“Well, for one, what kind of God, the benevolent one in which Christians worship would allow rampant injustice and unaccountable suffering in this world? Imagine telling a couple whose baby boy died that ‘everything happens for a reason’. What kind of sick reason would that be?”
I was stumped by this, with absolutely nothing to say in return. Moments later, I responded:
“I see. You are right. That would be really hard. I can’t imagine a reason. And it is hard to reconcile that with the idea of a benevolent God. Maybe the better thing to say would be that God can work all things together for good. That He can turn the worst of situations around to bring something beautiful out of it. Would that satisfy you?”
“You’d have to try harder”, he grinned.
“But on this note,” he continued, “Christians will accept that, since the verse is meant for you guys only, right?”
“I sense sarcasm on your part but I don’t blame you. I won’t go against that either. But let’s go back to the question of suffering. Do you really think that the problem of evil somehow shows that God doesn’t exist?”
“Yes. I can’t reconcile suffering and a God who loves.”
“Well, what is your notion of suffering?”
“No one’s asked me that before. I guess it’s going through difficult things.”
“All difficult things?”
“Maybe not. Let me rephrase that. It’s going through difficult things without a choice.”
“So if someone were to choose to smoke and later develops lung cancer then that wouldn’t be suffering because they chose to smoke, right?”
“Indirectly, yes. It’s not to belittle their pain, they are still suffering in a sense but not the kind of suffering I am thinking of.”
“Then if a man who exercises regularly, doesn’t smoke and eats healthily gets diagnosed with stomach cancer – that’s suffering?”
“Yes. If the person had no part to play in what he is going through, that is suffering.”
“So a poor orphan who grows in up in the Bronx is suffering because he didn’t choose that life whereas a teenager who rebels against his parents, leaves home and ends up on the street and gets into a fight isn’t suffering because he chose it.”
“Yes, that would be right.”
“So you believe that everyone should have the choice of what happens to them and shouldn’t have to suffer from things outside their power to control.”
“And since suffering is real then God cannot exist because if He did there would be no suffering.”
“Ye— Wait, you’re trying to trap me. I know what’s coming. And I’ll answer it before you say it. I am not saying that God cannot exist for sure, but the idea of a benevolent God is not compatible with suffering.”
“Surely one who claims to love the world and gave His only son could not stand to watch the world suffer and do nothing about it? This God who is so powerful, according to your beliefs, can surely eliminate evil in this world? If not, at least He can and should bend circumstances so that there is no suffering.”
“But you forget – the way God gave His only son was to allow him to suffer and die. Even when Jesus prayed to be spared (if it be God’s will), God didn’t change his mind. Allowing suffering doesn’t lessen God’s love for the world.”
“Well, to some extent you are right. But I don’t even believe Jesus died, so that doesn’t speak to me.”
“Right. Okay, then, you clearly do not think that God is all powerful and good because suffering does exist. So let’s go along with your idea of God for now. What is he like?”
“If I have to concede that there is even a God, maybe it’s just a supernatural being that can’t be known. Logically speaking, we can’t really know. Maybe it’s Buddha, or the millions of Hindu gods, who knows.”
“So you find it easier to believe in the existence of other gods but cannot bring yourself to imagine that the ‘Christian’ God exists?”
“I didn’t say I believe that but it sure does make more sense and doesn’t have as strong a claim as you Christians make about your God.”
“Ah, I did it again, didn’t I? I’m sorry. But for the sake of argument, and since we seem to be going at it for a while, can’t you just humor me? You know I am not really talking about you and my mouth often runs ahead of me.”
“Fine, just this time then. You have to treat me to a burger tomorrow,” I said with a grin.
“Great! But anyway, I respect your view though I want to go back to the point that you touched on but only briefly.”
“Which one? I said many things.”
“You were saying that God should bend circumstances so that there is no suffering.”
“Ah – yes. What about it? I haven’t changed my mind yet” he said, with a smirk on his face.
“What would you say regarding natural disasters and war? Should God prevent both from ever taking place?”
“It’s both quite different. Natural disasters are, for the lack of a better word, natural after all and outside men’s control but war is attributed to humans. But if it comes down to it, I’m sure this ‘powerful’ God can stop both so why doesn’t He?”
“Well, first of all do you think humans have free will? Or do you think everything is determined? We won’t go into who determined it, if any.”
“That old philosophical question. I guess we won’t be sleeping anytime soon.”
“I suppose so.”
“We all have free will. But at the same time, there are circumstances outside our control. So while we can make our own choices, the choices we make affect others. So I guess it’s a mix of both?”
“That certainly seems feasible and in this case, I agree with you. Even without bringing God into the equation, it makes sense. But there is an imbalance in people’s ability to choose, don’t you think?” I replied.
“Yes, some people have more freedom to make choices. Slaves in the past had choices made for them. So I would say some people don’t get to choose at all, which is really sad.”
“If a powerful God did exist, then He must allow an equal amount of freedom to all to make choices. One shouldn’t have more freedom over the other. Is that safe to say?”
“And since God is good, it doesn’t make sense for Him to allow suffering unless the ‘suffering’ is borne out of one’s own choices, is that correct?”
“I suppose so.”
“So a person shouldn’t be made to be a slave but if he willingly chooses to be a slave it is okay.”
“I don’t know why anyone would want that.”
“Let’s just assume there are.”
“Maybe one in a million but yes, I guess that would be okay.”
“Do you agree with slavery?”
“Are you kidding me? ‘Course not!”
“I honestly find it hard to believe that Christians in the past thought it was okay. But that’s beside the point. Now, if God exists, he wouldn’t allow slavery because it’s not good and because those who are slaves have no choice and are suffering. I am just following your own train of thought.”
“Yes, you are right.”
“You forget the people who started the slave trade chose to do so. So maybe God, if he exists, should’ve stopped them from making that choice since he is all powerful and is good.”
“Then that would be full on determinism, right? If God dictated all the choices that men were to make to allow only good ones, men would only be His puppets and there would be no such thing as free will.”
“I don’t like where you’re taking me but yes.”
“I’m not trying to convert you, don’t worry. I am honestly just curious to what you think.”
“How about this. There are two kinds of powerful Gods, your job is to decide which of them is more ‘powerful’. The first God is one who for the most part, gives men free will but when they are about to make bad choices that will harm others, prevents them so no one suffers. Evil will not exist in the world due to God’s power in preventing it, or eliminating it fully.”
“That sounds like a perfect world to me”, he cut in. “I could believe in a God like that.”
“Or maybe you just want to. But anyway, the second God is one who gives men free will and maybe there are outside circumstances beyond men’s control and not necessarily God’s doing but we won’t go into that for now, and this God doesn’t stop the evil. He doesn’t manipulate people’s choices so that they only do good. But what He does is to bring good out of evil. What He does is redeem a fallen world. He brings beauty out of ashes and even in the darkest of situations, offer a glimmer of hope. Which one will it be?”
“I know what you want me to say but I can’t bring myself to say it.”
“No, you don’t have to say it. But think about it. I wrestle too. It is hard but I can’t stop believing just because I don’t understand.”
“Why can’t you? Be like me. If you have doubts, just throw it all out the window. You don’t really know if God exists, anyway.”
“I have doubts, no doubt about that. But for me to turn my back on this just because I don’t understand isn’t an option. God is bigger than me anyway.”
He rolled his eyes. “You Christians and your faith. I have to say though, that the fervency of your devotion gets to me sometimes.”
“Maybe that’s why I’m the only Christian friend you can stand talking to.”
“And also the one that annoys me the most.”
“I must be getting to something if I’m annoying you that much. What is it?”
“That second kind of God you talked about is starting to get to me. For the sake of argument, I’d say it would seem that He would be a more powerful one. But you haven’t proven anything.”
“True, I haven’t. But at least I got you thinking about it. Why do you think He would be a more powerful one?”
“Suffering is undesirable and pain seems purposeless. If someone can really bring something good out of it that would be pretty admirable.”
“You’re starting to see the light,” I joked.
“I don’t. The idea sounds good. But nothing in this world convinces me that it’s that way. Look at the news – it’s all horrible.”
“Think again. Not of humanity’s suffering but the way in which they learn from it and the people they become because of it. We just watched Malala’s speech yesterday. Is that not hopeful enough for you?”
“The youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner from Pakistan? That was inspiring for sure. But how does that relate?”
“She suffered just because she wanted to go to school. That’s totally unthinkable in our society. And I don’t even need to run through her story by you to know if it’s real suffering. Look at her now. She is being a voice for those who have no voice. She is advocating for rights to have an education and is creating waves. The world is listening.”
“Even though what happened to her was bad, her story is making changes in the world.”
“Yes, you are seeing it.”
“It’s a glimmer of hope in the darkness. But you can’t prove God’s hand in it.”
“I wasn’t trying to. I’m just trying to make you see that suffering isn’t always pointless. When people come out from it their stories are able to impact those who have similar experiences. The point here is that evil can have a purpose, we just need to look at the bigger picture.”
“But if there wasn’t evil in the first place, we don’t need a bigger picture.”
“Yes, but then it brings us back to the question of free will. The gift of free will means that men are free to make choices and some choices men make are bad ones. To eradicate all evil and evil intent is to infringe on human freedom. God is powerful but He is not a dictator. He doesn’t force people to believe Him. He lets men choose.”
“And the more powerful God, as you suggested and I agreed, to some extent, allows evil because it’s part of free will but brings about good from it, in the long run. Is that what you’re arguing for?”
“I guess you can say that. Are you starting to see why you can’t say a loving, powerful God doesn’t exist just because evil exists?”
“Okay, maybe you have convinced me a little. But don’t get too excited, I still don’t believe He exists. Or at least, I don’t know if He does. I don’t know if I’ll ever come to a conclusive decision like you.”
“That’s alright Henry. At least you’ve thought about it.”
“There’s one more thing I’d like to ask though while we’re on this.”
“What if God doesn’t exist? What would you do? You’ve believed him your whole life. Doesn’t seem to me that you’re going to turn back on your faith.”
“That’s a good question. I don’t know. If this Christianity business is a total lie, then I am a fool. But I have nothing to lose.”
“Hmm – that’s not a very satisfactory answer. I want to bug you about it more, just for old times’ sake,” he said, while putting his hand on my shoulder. He looked at his watch, “Wow, it’s midnight already. I guess I’ll let you off.”
“Thank you for being so considerate. Looks like I won today,” I said.
“No way!” he replied.
We both laughed.