The Problem of Evil: A Parable

In a recent interview with the BBC, the archbishop of York, John Sentamu, responded pretty clumsily to the obvious question: how can you believe in an all powerful, all merciful God when you see the entirely unnecessary suffering in Haiti. While acknowledging his belief in an all-powerful and all-good God, his response was something along the lines of “God is there, ministering to the suffering, weeping with the bereaved” (he was wrong footed by the question, to be fair, so his response was much less eloquent, but I think that’s basically his point). Here’s a parable:

A man is alone, sitting outside an aging building: the main school for a small country village. It is a wooden building, raised off the ground, with a crawlspace underneath. As he sits there outside the school he notices that there is a blazing fire spreading quickly in the crawl space. The detritus of years has made it a tinderbox, and the fire is taking hold. He realizes that soon the school will be consumed with fire; many inside are likely to die and many others will have horrific injuries. He realizes that many families will loose their precious children, and beloved men and women of the teaching staff won’t be going home to their families. He thinks about the weeks of raw, desperate grief, the months of dark loneliness and the years of haunted memories.

Looking around he sees the entrance of the building, mere yards from where he is sitting. Just inside the door he spies a fire alarm. It would take just a few steps to reach it, smash the glass, and have the school evacuate before the fire breaks through the floor.

The man sits and watches. After ten minutes he starts to hear screams inside, then the first few people start to scramble out. Then gradually more and more, with increasingly horrible injuries.

The man gets to his feet. He feels no remorse for his inaction, but he is deeply moved by the suffering and pain he is seeing. He runs over to the building, smashes windows and helps a few petrified children to safety. He comforts those who are in pain. As the first parents arrive on the scene, altered by the smoke, he empathizes with their loss and trauma.

Is this man merciful? Is he good? Is he benevolent?

If this were a real situation, with a real person, all of us would want to see him punished.

The man didn’t light the fire, he didn’t store the flammable material under the school, he didn’t badly design the building, or cut corners on the fire inspections. But we’d rightly hold him responsible for the deaths of those children.

His actions were sociopathy of the worst kind. His sympathy and kindness are ghoulish and manipulative. Given his failure to act, they are deranged emotions, not honorable ones. They are worse, in some ways, than if he had simply left. Care and sympathy at this stage are mocking acts.

It seems to me that Sentamu’s god should be thought of in just the same terms. It seems to me a world in which Sentamu’s god was real would be a dark and malevolent place.



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4 responses to “The Problem of Evil: A Parable

  1. Agreed, he would be dark. But in my generous moods (not common, mind you), I think these people do not believe in a good that interacts with the world, but only one that comforts the mind in suffering. They claim otherwise, of course. But we often claim what we do not embrace.

  2. I am ashamed of Sentamu’s reply, Ian. If I were him, I would simply say that It is possible that God has good reason(s) to allow suffering and evil.

    I would also reverse the problem of evil, with the problem of good since these problems make sense if and only if God exist. For if God does not exist, then Richard Dawkins correctly capture what we are to observe.

    Dawkins wrote, “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”(1995 River Out Of Eden p.133)

    I would love to hear your thoughts Ian.

    Your newly blog follower,

  3. Ian

    Thanks Prayson, and welcome to the blog! Can you sat a bit more about the problem of Good? Are you saying that, because we can recognize that some things are good, then we can’t just say that the world is a random parade of chance with no evil and no good? We have to account for how something can be good without God? Its an interesting question I’d be happy to post on, I just want to be sure I understand your question. Thanks again for commenting!

  4. Thank you Ian for a response. I know there are many important things than sharing your thoughts with me. I am deeply grateful(Your blog is awesome, I deeply enjoy your thought).

    I am not saying because we can recognize that some things are good, then we can’t just say the world is a random parade of chance with no evil and not good. I am saying, from an naturalistic point of view, good and evil are simply “pitiless indifference”. Thus there is no problem of evil, if and only if, naturalism is true.

    In 2nd edition of The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, Charles Darwin beautifully capture what I wish to argue. He wrote “If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive−bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker−bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.”(Darwin 1909: 100)

    For “nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent.” contended Richard Dawkins’ in Rivers Out of Eden, taken Darwin thought even further, “This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous—indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.”(Dawkins 1995: 96)

    The problem of good comes in when we start thinking that things/affairs ought to be good.


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