There’s even a word for reconciling this paradox

NPR’s All Things Considered did a deep thought piece on the problem of evil last night. All summed up in 3 minutes 48 seconds, including the reporter’s name check at the end.

When a human tragedy occurs on the scale of the Newtown shootings, clergy are invariably asked an ancient question: If God is all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent, why does he allow such misfortunes?

There’s even a word for reconciling this paradox: theodicy, or attempting to justify God’s goodness despite the existence of evil and suffering.

And thus the stage is set – it’s this recurring problem, so recurrent that there’s even a word for it, but it’s not really a problem, it’s just a paradox, so don’t worry, by the end we’ll have shown why you don’t have to worry about it and can just go back to sleep until the next human tragedy on the scale of the Newtown shootings (that happens in the US in a particular way to a particular kind of people). There’s a word for reconciling this paradox, so listen while we show you how it’s done.

First he talks to a rabbi. (Yes, since you ask, this is one of those “a rabbi, a priest, and an imam” stories.)

“I saw a bumper sticker once that said, ‘God is good. Evil is real. And God is all powerful. Pick two,’ ” Folberg says.

“The idea was to say, if one accepts those three propositions as true, then they’re logically inconsistent. And how do you wiggle your way out of that issue?”

You cannot wiggle your way out, the rabbi continues. You have to admit that we live in a world that is, by turns, beautiful and shattered.

Folberg says he draws instruction from his own faith, which says, “I have a responsibility as a human being — and in my case, as a Jew — to look at what’s broken in the world, to mend it and then, using old Jewish language, to be a partner with God in completing the work of creation which is incomplete.”

Ah, isn’t that lovely. But notice how it doesn’t answer anything. Notice how it doesn’t get you anywhere. Notice how it doesn’t in the least “reconcile the paradox.” Notice how you don’t need god or “faith” for any of that – notice how completely compatible with secularism and atheism it is. Yes, we all have a responsibility as a human being to try to make the world better. What’s god got to do with that? Nothing. “Faith”? Nothing. So we’re where we were. Rabbi Folberg added nothing.

Next comes the priest.

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and contributing editor at the Jesuit magazine America, says that for Christians, suffering, violence and death are never the last word.

“We believe in eternal life,” Martin says. “It does give people hope for those who are killed, for those who die, that they will be in God’s eternal rest.”

So what happened in Newtown is fine then. Is that it? It’s just not a problem, because they’re better off dead? So the more Newtowns the better?

That’s not what he means, but it is pretty much what he said. This is why theodicy doesn’t work, except for people who are determined to hang on to the hope while remaining blind to the brutality of the god who provides it.

Moreover, Martin says, God is not a theological abstraction; he is present in our suffering. He understands pain.

“Remember that God’s own son died a violent death,” Martin says. Jesus died horribly … but there is no easy answer — there is no adequate answer — to this question which theologians call the Mystery of Evil.”

And which philosophers call the problem of evil. Notice the difference. “Mystery” allows theologians and priests to just say “we dunno” without having to treat that as undermining the whole enterprise.

Notice the result. Nothing. We’re where we were. Rev. Martin added nothing.

And then comes the imam. (No points for originality here.)

Part of the paradox of theodicy is rooted in our very nature, says Imam Jihad Turk, religious adviser at the Islamic Center of Southern California and president of Bayan Claremont Islamic graduate school. Islam shares this belief with the other Abrahamic faiths, Turk says.

“Theologically, we would look at it from the point of view that part of what makes us unique as a creation of God is that we have free will,” Turk says. “And for free will to be meaningful, we have the choice between good and evil. And if we only had the choice to do good then it wouldn’t be a meaningful free will.”

And if we only had the choice not to shoot up classrooms full of young children and teachers, it wouldn’t be a meaningful enough free will.

Meh. God could jam the gun, and the shooter could be arrested and (in a better world) rehabilitated.

Finally at the end we get a wild card: a Sikh! Wo, I take it back about the points for originality.

But the Sikh is the one who goes the full distance and pins the blame for evil on atheism.

In August, an alleged white supremacist walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., and randomly murdered six people. It’s believed the assailant mistook Sikhs for Muslims.

The wife of Balhair Dulai, director of the board of trustees at the temple, was one of three people wounded in the attack. Dulai believes the killers who did mayhem in his temple and in Sandy Hook school had something in common: They dwelled in darkness.

“Evil comes when there is no God,” Dulai says. “And when there is not God’s love, the conscience allows evil to creep in. When evil creeps in, then these things tend to happen.”

Oh no you don’t. You don’t pin that on atheism, you creep. God’s love my ass. “God’s love,” as we have just seen, is fully compatible with 26 people killed at a school and with all the other horrors that happen every day all over the world. You do not get to pin violence and murder on atheism.

The final word? A gem of banal emptiness.

So why does a good God allow evil? These four faith leaders agree on this: Beware of anyone who says he or she has the answer.

Then stop telling us there is a good god!



  1. davidhart says

    “this is one of those “a rabbi, a priest, and an imam” stories”

    “And then comes … Imam Jihad Turk”

    Seriously? That does sound suspiciously like a made-up Muslim name, like Naughtius Maximus…

  2. unbound says

    More than two millennium of musing, and no closer to solving the Problem of Evil.

    Well, actually, there is only one solution so far, but none of the cast of characters that NPR interviewed can admit to that…

  3. says

    Evil comes when there is no God

    Well, actually I think he got that part right. Just not in the way he thinks. If there was a god and it had the properties and abilities most religions ascribe to it, evil wouldn’t exist. But we know evil exists, we see it every day (ironically often perpetrated in the name of some god). Thus, either there is no god or if there is one it’s nothing at all like any religion imagines: it’s either evil or just doesn’t give a shit.

  4. Sercee says

    Hein, I often suspect that if there was a god and it had all those properties that the world would actually be much worse…

  5. says

    This is why theodicy doesn’t work…

    That may also be why part of my brain always misreads that word as “the idiocy.”

    Beware of anyone who says he or she has the answer.

    Yeah, people who actually try to find real answers are a threat to people whose “authority” is based on nothing but fear, ignorance, manipulation, and made-up stories. This is classic know-nothingism, and they’re not even trying to hide it anymore.

    Evil comes when there is no God.

    So when people do evil in the name of their God(s), that means the said God(s) aren’t really there?

    What I find most sad and disgusting about this religious bullshit, is that none of the bereaved persons are likely to stand up and tell those empty-headed theosophists to go fuck themselves and quit trying to capitalize on another massacre of innocents to make themselves feel important.

    It’s not just the “blame the gays” crowd, like Mike Hickabee et al, who are preying on suffering people; it’s self-serving wankers like these who try to pretend their supernatural beliefs have something good to offer.

  6. Rodney Nelson says

    Raging Bee #8

    So when people do evil in the name of their God(s), that means the said God(s) aren’t really there?

    According to William Lane Craig, if they’re really doing “God’s work” then it’s good, even if it would be obviously evil under other circumstances.

  7. Aratina Cage says

    Programs like that make a great case for why we should not listen to or support NPR. At least they didn’t ask the pope, I guess?

  8. Anthony K says

    Remember that God’s own son died a violent death.

    But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.

    Get the fuck back here and suffer through a crucifixion like a human, coward.

  9. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Theodicy or theidiocy?

    “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?”

    Thank you. Mr Hume.

  10. Wowbagger, Antipodean Dervish says

    There are myriad things I can’t do. I can’t fly under my own power. I can’t teleport to the other side of the planet. I can’t instantly turn my skin green or my hair purple or my toenails six feet long.

    God has limited my free will to do those things; why not do the same with harmful acts against other people?

  11. Lyanna says

    To be fair, I don’t think Dulai was pinning violence and murder on atheism. “Lack of love”, even God’s love, doesn’t mean atheism. From many believers’ perspectives, a theist may have no notion of God’s love, and an atheist may have a very good notion of it, even if the atheist denies the existence of God. Just because we think God doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean that we can’t feel the love of God in our hearts, etc.

    The funny thing to me about theodicy is that believers could just ditch the problem by abandoning the concept of omnipotence. There you go, problem solved!

    Except they don’t want to do that, because so much of religion is a dick-waving contest. Their god has to be all-powerful, so that humans (and other gods) have to be totally abject before their god, and can’t question or thwart it. Their god has to be able to beat up everyone else, because ultimately religion is about power.

  12. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    No, Didaktylos. Epicurus was the first man said to have used the argument. However, the precise version I quoted was Hume’s from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

  13. Acolyte of Sagan says

    From the OP

    theodicy, or attempting to justify God’s goodness despite the existence of evil and suffering.


    “Evil comes when there is no God,” Dulai says. “And when there is not God’s love, the conscience allows evil to creep in. When evil creeps in, then these things tend to happen.”

    Why does that sound to me like Al Capone’s henchmen justifying burning down the business of somebody who refused to pay protection money?
    “Hey, Mr. Capone offered you his friendship, you refused that friendship. When you refuse Mr. Capone’s friendship, bad things happen. I mean, it’s not as though you weren’t warned that Mr. Capone isn’t the kind of guy you want to reject, rejection really hurts and offends him.
    Now, how about a loan from Mr. Capone to rebuild your factory? You know it makes sense.”

  14. Recreant says

    @15- And let’s not forget the numerous passages in the bible where god interferes with a person’s free will. That defense is a non-starter as far as I’m concerened.

  15. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Lyanna @ #16 said

    Just because we think God doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean that we can’t feel the love of God in our hearts,

    That reminded me of a quote I once read, so long ago that I’ve forgotten who it was by (a 19thC theologian, if memory serves) , which went something along the lines of

    “The proof of god’s omnipotence is that he affects and effects matters without actually having to exist.”

    It’s almost ‘Python-esque’;
    “He martyred himself to the glory of god.”
    “But there is no god.”
    “I know. See how powerful god is!”

    One really cannot win against this kind of (un)thinking.

  16. Bjarte Foshaug says

    As I have commented previously, I don’t put much stock in the argument from evil. If there is one thing that does not represent any kind of problem for believers in Yahweh, it’s evil. If anything we should be talking about the “problem of good“. That having been said, the “free will” defense is – if at all possible – even worse (even if we grant the existence of free will, which, for the record, I reject).

    I once argued with a seventh-day Adventist and made the point that if humans were created perfect (as they had to be if God is to be absolved from all responsibility for the existence of imperfection), they would never use their free will to chose away their own perfection, since any possible motive or intent underlying such an appalling choice would by necessity make them imperfect to begin with. In short:
    – “Free will means the ability to make an imperfect choice if you want to.
    – “Perfection” means you don’t want to.

    To put it differently. Choosing to become evil would in itself be an evil choice that could only be made by somebody with evil intentions to begin with. Hence the choice itself could not be what brought evil into being in the first place. The regress never ends….

    Unfortunately for him, he was in the habit of answering atheists before ever reading their arguments, so he went ahead and played the Free Will Card as if I hadn’t dealt with it at all (“Don’t forget that humans have free will, therefore…”) before digging his own grave and jumping into it: “People cannot be perfect unless they have full freedom to chose and voluntarily chose to do the right thing.”

    I rest my case.

  17. Bjarte Foshaug says

    Another point is this: Even if we exclude all the evil Gods like Yaweh from the argument a priori, if God himself has free will, then either there has to be a possibility that God will chose to become evil any moment, or it is possible to have free will without having any inclination to chose evil, in which case humans could be created with free will and no inclination to chose evil. BTW aren’t people also supposed to have free will in the afterlife? If the inclination to chose evil is an inescapable consequence of free will, shouldn’t we expect evil to arise again (and again and again ad infinitum) in the hereafter?

  18. 'dirigible says

    If there isn’t an answer to the question “does this exist?”, then its truth value is false.

    Just saying’.

  19. yahweh says

    The ‘problem’ of evil is that it disproves the existence of benevolent, all powerful gods. The solution is to take your brains out and shoot them.

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