Why does God let bad things happen?

Published on 23 Aug 2016
Earthquake Ecuador  Credit J Lance for EU

There is no fully satisfactory answer to this problem.  There are two largely different issues which need to be considered. The first is what is often called ‘natural evil’, which is to say, that the physical universe is so ordered that many of its inhabitants are such as to be subject to physical harm in various ways; the environment can cause damage and disease resulting in suffering.

But while it is not hard to imagine a world in which there is no pain or suffering or death, it is not obvious how this might be done without  as many difficulties being created as one might hope to solve.  A world in which no living organism – living organism or animal or human – could ever die would arguably be worse overall than the world we have.

A similar point can be made about our moral failures, in particular about the ways in which our moral failures damage one another. I think it a fair point to say that the value of the gift of freedom and moral responsibility is in the end more important than the fact that we can so easily misuse that freedom.

The root problem in this entire question is the difficulty in weighing various distinct kinds of benefits and harms against one another. I  am not convinced by the cheap ‘solutions’ to the problem of evil, such as Job’s comforters offer to explain his misfortunes:  that he must have sinned grievously against God; or his children must have done so and brought the ire of God upon his whole family, and so on.

The author of the Book of Job will, the best manner of a Platonic dialogue, have nothing to do with such facile ‘solutions’ to the question ‘Why is Job suffering?’ In the end he admits that the complexities of creating and ordering a world  as God has done are way beyond our ability to calculate what might be for the best.

If we ask precisely which improvements in our universe would we make in the set-up of the universe in order for us to have a world in which people were free and ever-saintly, and our environment perfectly adapted to all our needs, I think we would be hard put to propose realistic overall solutions which could realistically be integrated with a universe such as ours.

Gerard J Hughes SJ