There is pervasive evil in the human spirit. It helps me to think of it the way many theologians do, as an absence of good. But the devastation that human beings inflict on one another also makes me wonder whether the evil in us is a permanent presence rather than a remediable deprivation.
“Moral” evil, as philosophers refer to it, is the result of human freedom’s running amok. There is surely enough of it around to account for a large amount of undeserved suffering in the world. But it cannot account for all such suffering.
“Natural” phenomena such as earthquakes, sunamis, famine, and disease offer a surfeit of reasons to question whether evil is wholly the result of human beings’ less than humane acts of omission and commission. It is nature, and not a misguided humanity, which is at the heart of the problem that evil poses for faith.
In specific, it is natural catastrophes and not human actions, which raise the deeper questions about (a) whether we live in a created order at all, and (b) whether its Sovereign is powerful and benevolent enough to overcome their destructive consequences. Sadly, religious authorities all too frequently respond to questions like these with denunciations for asking them in the first place.
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?, God is reported once to have asked. (Job 38:4) Although the question may have been meant only to be humbling, it also comes across as insulting. It strongly implies a discounting of every believer’s right — and in my view, calling — to ask questions in the interest of separating the wheat of truth from the chaff of opinion.
To be sure, believers, inquirers, and sceptics alike are at a disadvantage, when the issue is reconciling nature’s occasional rampages with the idea of a powerful and benevolent deity. The author of the Book of Job was right. We must never forget that we were not present at creation.
We do not even yet see things as a whole. This means that we can neither claim nor deny that were we to see “the big picture,” we would somehow know how and why natural catastrophes are not really “evils” at all.
Even so, because we cannot help asking, we have the right to ask a still deeper faith-question: is this world the best that God could have created?