Such evils are a "scandal," a stumbling block. Why would an all-good, all-loving, all-powerful God allow people to commit such atrocities against each other?
In this blog post, we'll flesh out one of the most common answers to this question, unpacking it point by point.
Why Does God Allow Evil? What if He Didn’t?
To best approach this question, let's consider an alternative world. In this alternative world, God does not allow us to be evil. What exactly would this alternative world look like?
In this world, no one would be capable of unloving behaviors toward each other. No one would want to deprive another, so there would be no theft. No one would feel threatened by another person, so there would be no back-biting. No one would hate anyone, so there would be no genocides.
So far so good, but let's dive deeper. How exactly would this alternative be possible?
Example of Theft
Take theft, for example. In this hypothetical world, God prevents us from stealing. To understand how God might go about this prevention, we need, briefly, to analyze theft. How does the act of theft unfold, and where might God intervene?
For a theft to occur, the thief needs to recognize that a certain object or property could be useful to him. He then needs to desire that property. Next, the thief needs to conceive a practical plan for obtaining the property. Finally, he needs to be able to actually put the plan in motion.
If God does not want to allow theft, He could intervene at any one of these stages. He could prevent the thief from recognizing the utility of the property. He could stop him from desiring it. He could keep him from seeing any practical way of obtaining it. Or finally, He could intervene externally to foil the thief's plan.
What would be the consequences of each of these interventions?
Intervention at the Step of Desire
Suppose God were to prevent a man from recognizing the value of money, in order to keep him from robbing a bank. The man would, consequently, be unable to ask the bank for a loan. He would not be able to conceive of the bank's money is valuable to him. It's hard to see how he could conduct any sort of transaction at all, given that the value of money would make no impression on him. In fact, the same logic would have to be applied to anything else he could steal. Our potential robber would be unable to view anything as valuable, and would not have any reason to eat, move, or take any action.
Intervening in the process at the step of desire would have exactly the same consequences. The potential thief might understand the value of money, or a tool, or food, but would have no desire for it.
Intervention at the Step of Imagination and Intelligence
What if God kept the potential thief from seeing any practical way of stealing the property? Once again, this would involve radically diminishing his imagination and intelligence. If a potential shoplifter is unable to consider picking up an object, or a potential murderer is unable to consider giving someone a firm push, then it's hard to see how they'd be able to consider anything at all.
Finally, suppose God intervened externally to prevent evil. Perhaps people would coincidentally oversleep on days when someone was waiting to kill them. Or perhaps bank robbers' feet would miraculously stick to the pavement whenever they were about to enter the bank.
There's no denying that an all-powerful God should be capable of this intervention. In the next section, we'll sketch out why this intervention would also be unsatisfactory.
Why Does God Allow Evil? Consider God's Goal
What exactly do we suppose God's goal is for His creation? Specifically, what is His goal for human beings?
It would be highly presumptuous to claim to comprehend God's goals fully. Still, it's possible to reason based on what we know. Specifically, it's possible to reason based on God's all-lovingness.
If God is all-loving, then it's reasonable for Him to want to create beings that can love. To love someone is to desire good for them. If God is supremely good and supremely loving, then the capacity to love is a great good, and it's reasonable for God to desire to give this capacity to us.
Love Requires a Choice
The problem is that the capacities in us that make loving behavior possible are the same capacities that make unloving behavior possible. Love requires a choice, and we can't choose if we can't imagine, desire, and put our desires into action. To show love, we must be able to recognize our beloved, desire good for them, and act on that desire. More fundamentally, however, we have to be able to choose.
Thus, if God wants us to be able to love, He can't interfere too heavy-handedly in our decision process. Not only must He allow us the capability to imagine, but He also must not interfere whenever we imagine tortures for each other. If He did, he would be removing our ability to choose, and thus our ability to love.
Similarly, if God glued the bank robber's feet to the pavement, He would in effect be removing the robber's choice. Thus, while He would avoid allowing us to behave unlovingly, He would also destroy our capability for love.
To Allow the Possibility of Love, God Must Allow the Possibility of Evil in the World
Why does God allow evil?
If God is to create a being capable of love, then He would have to allow this being to make that love its own. For this being to make that love its own, its action of loving has to come, in a very real sense, from itself. Love can't simply be programmed into it, as behaviors are coded into software. Computers can be very beneficial for us, but we don't call them loving.
As in many other things, C. S. Lewis says it best:
“If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will?
Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.”
“A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water.
And for that they must be free.”
Love is something that is free, not programmed; allowed, not forced.
It requires us to be whole, not lobotomized. We must be able to direct our imagination and desire if we are to lead it to what we love. We must be free to choose our actions if we are to indeed act out of love for one another.
To further explore this topic, see our post, "Why Does God Allowing Suffering?" This in-depth article discusses suffering caused by humans, the suffering caused by nature, and 5 opportunities of suffering caused by our imperfect world.
A Catechesis for 'God Butchers': The Metaphysics of Time and Eternity: Author Matthew Tsakanikas discusses fighting the new atheism—'God Butchers'—in the wake of suffering, darkness, and pain.
Fr. Spitzer on How to Pray for Your Enemies and Forgive: Jesus mentions forgiveness more often than any other injunction in the New Testament. Fr. Spitzer shares the power in a prayer for your enemies.
A Reminder of the Opportunities in Suffering: With Christ, we can put our suffering to work for us and the world—and find opportunities to grow in virtue and to grow the church as a whole.