One of the biggest challenges to the concept of the Christian God is the problem of evil and the suffering of innocents. People have been trying to reconcile an all-loving, all-powerful God with the existence of evil since the first revelation of monotheism. The Book of Job is a classic work on the problem of theodicy, but like all explanations, Job is not entirely satisfying intellectually or emotionally.
The most recent example of this problem is the devastation in the Philippines as a result of Typhoon Haiyan. Like many others around the world I watch in horror at the pictures of death and suffering of millions of innocent people. How can an all-powerful, all-loving God let this happen? In my opinion, this problem is the only rational argument in favor of atheism (but it is ultimately outweighed by the massive amount of evidence in favor of God). Teilhard de Chardin wrote a lot on suffering in part because of his personal experiences with suffering in World War I and the early death of many of his siblings. Teilhard viewed suffering as an inherent component of the evolutionary universe. As Nathan O’Halloran, SJ describes:
“God, who is existence itself, decides to create finite being, being that can only become perfect by means of change and growth, there will necessarily be statistical evil. All finite being necessarily involves suffering, insofar as it involves change and movement toward perfection. Teilhard sees the movement of Creation as one from the multiple to the unitary. This process requires suffering and death.”
Theologian, author and retired priest, Richard W. Kropf, another Teilhard scholar, had an interesting article earlier this week in the Huffington Post. Kropf has been a parish priest and academic scholar in Europe before retiring early to become a contemplative in Northern Michigan. Kropf has written numerous books on theology, ecology, science and faith and Teilhard de Chardin. You can find some other writings by Kropf on his website.
In the Huffington Post article, Kropf has a slightly different angle how an evolutionary theology accounts for innocent suffering:
“[A]s a theologian, I had long been puzzled by the problem of evil in the world. “When Bad Things Happen To Good People”, as Rabbi Harold Kuschner titled his best selling book, must it not be that maybe God isn’t as good as we think? Or might it not be that God is not as all-powerful as we once thought?
After I began reading, back in the late 1950s, the works of the French Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who devoted his life to reconciling evolution with Christian beliefs, one of the things that struck me most about the theory of evolution is that it gives us an “out” that takes God “off the hook”, so to speak, when it comes to the dilemma stated above. How can this be? So back around 1978 I began working on a book I called Evil and Evolution that was first published in 1984, then updated for a paperback edition in 2004.
As I reasoned and summarized it in an article I wrote in 2000, if God saw it fit that humans evolved from “lower” forms of life, then it must be that the same laws of nature that produced these other forms are also at work in us. But we know that evolution works on the basis of two principles: first, random mutation, and second, the principle of natural selection or “survival of the fittest”. While lately most of the argument has been over the latter principle (fittest individuals, fittest species, or fittest genes?) it is the first principle that is most important in regard to my thesis. Although it has been our large brains and capacity for reasoning that has enabled the human species to not only survive and to advance beyond the other animals, it has been the randomness, the “chanciness” that is built into the process that seems to be the key to our capacity for free will. For one, without the working of chance producing endless variety in the universe, what would be left to choose?”
Yet there is a lot more to it than that. Just as our distinct ability for reflective awareness (to not only know, but “to know that we know” as Teilhard often put it) depends on the sensory awareness that we share with the animal world, so too our ability to make firm decisions (free will properly speaking) depends on our ability to be reflectively aware of all the implications of what would be otherwise simply instinctive choice. In other words, unless the Creator had given chance a role in creation, we would have all turned out to be robots!
I admit that I do not find this answer entirely convincing but it is interesting enough that I purchased Kropf’s book “Evil and Evolution to learn more on Kropf’s theory. I am likely to be pleased as I had previously read two of Kropf’s books, “Teilhard, Scripture and Revelation” and “Logical Faith: Introducing a Scientific View of Spirituality and Religion” (co-written with Joseph Provenzano).
What are your thoughts on the problem of suffering? We have previously had an interesting discussion with one of the athiest friends of the blog on this issue. I would love to hear insights of others who have better answers than I have been able to come up with.