The Problem of Evil: Part 1: Defending a Hideous God

Shadia B. Drury

The so-called problem of evil belongs to Christianity in a way that it does not belong to Judaism or Islam. In Judaism and Islam, God’s power is fundamental, but his goodness is questionable. When the God of the Old Testament behaves badly, the Israelites usually talk back. Every time God decides to slay the Israelites in the desert for worshipping other gods, Moses managed to talk him out of it by shaming him, saying in effect: “What will the Egyptians think of us? They’ll say he [God] took them out of Egypt just to slay them in the desert” (Exodus 32:10–14; Deuteronomy 19 and 28). Moses succeeds in shaming God into behaving himself: “And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” Unfortunately, the Israelites are not always successful in deterring the ruthless brutality of the monotheistic God. In the Old Testament, God orders the Israelites to smite and utterly destroy all the inhabitants of the Promised Land—the men, women, and children of the Hittites, Hivites, Jebusites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Canaanites. He forbids the Israelites from showing any mercy to these inhabitants, making any covenant with them, or marrying their daughters. And when they object to his genocidal commands, he threatens to wipe them off the face of the earth (Deuteronomy 6:15).

Like the Jews, Muslims make no bones about the fact that they live under an all-powerful but somewhat brutal God. They think of God as a gabar—an Arabic word for someone who does as he pleases without regard to anyone else. Unlike the Jews, Muslims are not inclined to challenge him. They see no option but to submit to his undeniable power. Literally speaking, Islam means “submission” or “surrender.” It’s the only reasonable thing to do in the face of such reckless power. The Muslim act of prostrating oneself before God highlights the helplessness of the believer in the face of such overwhelming power. But it might also arouse God’s mercy.

If there is a creator, why must he be so harsh? In response to this sentiment, Christianity tries to rehabilitate the God of the Jews; it tries to make him into a paragon of virtue—though without depriving him of his omnipotence. Christians insist that God is all-powerful and all-good at the same time. But if that is the case, then it is natural to wonder why there is so much evil in the world. The Christian answer is that God gave us freedom, but we have abused it. Human beings are therefore responsible for the evil in the world.

It’s indisputable that human beings are the source of much of the evil in the world. But it is certainly not the case that they are the source of all the world’s misery and senseless suffering. Why do volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, famines, and diseases inflict such terrible misery? Why must innocent children be buried alive in rubble as a result of earthquakes? Why are blameless people swept away to terrible deaths by tsunamis? How can a good God allow so much misery if he is powerful enough to stop it? This question was put to Benedict XVI by a little girl from Japan after the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. “I don’t know,” was the reply of this font of wisdom.

The problem of evil can be easily avoided by saying one of two things. Either God is not omnipotent or he is not always good. But Christians will not accept either one of these solutions. They refuse to give up on either God’s power or his goodness. They insist on squaring the circle. They insist that God is all-powerful and all-good at the same time. But how can that be? Some classic Christian responses have been provided by C.S. Lewis, but far from solving the problem, they make it worse.

In The Great Divorce, Lewis surmises that we are too attached to the world and the people in it. He tells us that all this love of the world is unhealthy. In destroying the world and the people we love, God makes it possible for something bigger and better to grow in the midst of the loneliness and desolation of his “surgery.” We might come to realize that the world is chimerical and insubstantial, that our love of the world is misguided, and that real love is possible only through God. So by taking away what we love, God opens the door to a richer kind of love—the love of God, of course.

In The Reason for God, Timothy Keller, an evangelical minister for a megachurch in New York, provides a bromide version of Lewis’s view. He tells the story of a man who was shot in the face and lost his sight. According to the man’s own testimony, his blindness led him to become a much better person. Keller surmises that his blindness led to “spiritual growth.” The moral of the story is that God always has a reason for doing what he does, even if it is not obvious to us.

Lewis and Keller do not seem to realize that their effort to solve the problem of evil makes their God even more hideous. Imagine a teenage girl with a strong attraction to a young man who is not aware of her existence. She is convinced that if he were to love her, he would live happily ever after. So, she kills his girlfriend. After the murder, the depraved girl suffers no pangs of conscience; she tells herself that it was a necessary “surgery” to secure his happiness. She surmises that in his loneliness and desolation something wonderful might bloom—he might fall in love with her. How could his love for a pitiful creature like his girlfriend compare with love for her wondrous self? His new love will be magical; it will expand his horizons and enrich his soul! How is the God defended by Lewis and Keller any different from this murderous megalomaniac?

To those who suffer from the senseless ferocity of God, Lewis says (in what became a typically Islamic posture)—surrender, believe, let his will be done, and all will be redeemed—“in the end.” If they deny that future bliss could make up for a life of suffering, Lewis says, then they deserve to rot in hell. God offers you redemption; if you reject heaven, it’s your fault, because “Hell is a state of mind.” In other words, Lewis blames the victims for God’s brutality and for their suffering. He blames them for clinging to the wretched world instead of denouncing it in favor of God’s offer of redemption.

Imagine what would happen if things did not work out as my psychotic teenager expected. Suppose the young man did not fall in love again; he could not forget the love that was so cruelly snatched from him. Instead, he grieved for her to the end of his days. What would my murderous megalomaniac say? Taking her cue from Lewis’s God, she would say, “Hell is a state of mind! It’s his damned fault for not loving me instead. All the agony would have turned to glory. All would have been redeemed—if only he had not clung so stubbornly to that pathetic object of his desire and let my will be done.”

My imaginary psychotic is a blend of Lewis’s God and the teen played by chanteuse Avril Lavigne in her music video The Girlfriend. In her video, Lavigne relentlessly pursues a young man whom she finds attractive while attempting to humiliate and kill his girlfriend. The girlfriend is clobbered with a golf ball; she loses consciousness, almost drowns in a lake, and ends up submerged in a portable toilet. The message is: Be assertive. Embrace your raging hormones. Stop at nothing. Destroy every obstacle to your desires. Now, in view of the fact that Lavigne is adored by impressionable pre-pubescent girls around the world, the video is a shocking incitement to crime. Like the God defended by Lewis, Lavigne is a monstrous role model.

It is natural for people who worship what they believe to be a good God to emulate him. Interestingly, Lewis is opposed to making Jesus a role model. He rejects the idea that Jesus was a great moral teacher. In Mere Christianity, he points out that if Jesus were not God, he would be intolerable. Clearly, Lewis believes that what is appropriate for God is not appropriate for human beings. In my view, this flies in the face of two of Lewis’s most important tenets—the objectivity of the good and the goodness of God. If you insist that the good is objective and independent of arbitrary will, as Lewis does, then what is good is good regardless of who does it. But even though Lewis argues that the good is objective, he claims that whatever God does is good, even if it seems terrible. So, even though he insists that God is good, he tells us not to use God as a moral compass. But what is the point of insisting on the goodness of God if he cannot be emulated? Christians since Augustine have raged against the pagan gods because they set a bad example. Christianity was supposed to produce a God worthy of being emulated.

In conclusion, to resolve the “problem of evil” Lewis makes arguments on behalf of God that can be aped by my imaginary psychotic to defend her sadistic violence. So, far from defending God, Lewis turns him into a murderous megalomaniac. It is no wonder that the history of religion has been so bloody and murderous. The character of God as Lewis understands it incites crime. It explains why those who do terrible things in the name of God are not evil people perverting religion but true believers who see nothing wrong with imitating a hideous God that they mistakenly believe is the personification of goodness.

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).


The so-called problem of evil belongs to Christianity in a way that it does not belong to Judaism or Islam. In Judaism and Islam, God’s power is fundamental, but his goodness is questionable. When the God of the Old Testament behaves badly, the Israelites usually talk back. Every time God decides to slay the Israelites …

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