The problem of evil is a common objection to Christianity and with some good reason. I would even admit that certain evils in the world seem to me to amount to some evidence against the Christian God. But I think the evidence can be shown to be fairly weak when looked at logically and with the aid of scripture.
When explaining my view on this problem I always start with this question: Does God’s omnipotence mean he can violate the rules of logic? If we answer yes then a the problem of evil is not a problem for God because it is a logical problem – and he is not bound by logic. So let’s say that “omnipotence” of God means something short of breaking the laws of logic. Once we understand God is so constrained then we see cracks form in the problem of evil.
Knowledge can’t be good and not good.
Ignorance can’t be bad and not bad.
God can’t have us know what evil is and not know what evil is.
God can’t let us be ignorant of evil and not be ignorant of evil.
We can’t know what the consequences of evil are, if there is no evil to be found.
If suffering is the result of evil then can we really know what evil is unless we know the experience of suffering?
So can we know the experience of suffering without experiencing suffering?
And what about the results of good which often are the opposites of suffering – peace, joy etc.? (there seems no clear cut antonym for all the different aspects of suffering) Can we know what they are when we don’t understand the opposite? Can we know what it means to be taller or as tall as without also having an idea of shorter (or not as tall as)? It seems to me we can’t know these states without knowing something of the opposites. I can’t understand heat unless I have some concept of lack of heat, i.e., cold.
So if we think Knowledge is good then we might agree that even knowledge of evil is good. Even if this good is logically linked to our experience of evil. Now we may think well the good of knowing evil does not outweigh all the suffering evil brings. God seems to agree. But nevertheless we would still have to say knowledge is itself a good. And if we think it is good to allow us to experience all goods then we can’t exclude some goods. So it does seem there are logical restraints that means some goods entail evil.
So what does this have to do with scripture?
What was that tree God forbade Adam and Eve the fruit of? Was it an apple tree or a pear tree? No, it was the fruit of the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil”. In Genesis God commands “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Genesis 2:16-17. I mean at first that seems a very odd sort of tree, and not one I remember seeing at the arboretum. I think this should be a sign that the author of the story is not just telling us some literal event from history but is trying to make a different sort of statement about God. What does it even mean to taste the fruit that comes from the knowledge of evil? The fruit/result of knowing evil is, as we have said, suffering. Can we have knowledge of evil unless we know what it produces? I don’t think so because such knowledge would be warped. Some things that may be evil might sound pretty good if it weren’t for the suffering it caused. Knowing evil without knowing suffering is not really knowing evil. (“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.” Genisis 3:6.)
Someone can’t know suffering without knowing suffering. If someone says I know what it is like to be burned over 80% of my body – well the only way he could know that is if he was so burned or at least had that experience. If he didn’t we would say no you actually don’t “know” that kind of suffering.
But this was our decision – not God’s. He wanted to save us from this fruit. Are we to think the author just randomly chose the name for that tree or is the author inviting the reader to explore a very deep philosophical issue? What is “the fruit” of knowing good and evil that we wanted to taste? When people are so caught up in literal readings that they argue whether the fruit was a pear or an apple my stomach sinks. They are missing so much.
The text invites us to explore deep ideas about our experiences here in this life and our situation existing in this world as we do. How can we know good and evil without knowing evil? And how can we know evil if we can’t experience it? And how can we experience something that is nowhere to be seen? So the fruit of knowledge of good and evil implies the experience of evil. But the Bible expresses that God did not want this for us. But he also wanted us to be free.
God is portrayed as our parent who loves us. Every parent understands this tension between wanting our children to avoid pain but also allow them to choose their own path. Don’t go down that path, but recognizing there is value in letting us learn so giving us autonomy.
We can’t have freedom and not have freedom.
Freedom can’t be good and not be good at the same time.
God can’t have us overcome adversity without us overcoming adversity.
We can’t over come adversity if there is no adversity
Overcoming adversity can’t be good and not good.
We cannot experience all that is good if we can never experience certain goods.
I can go on and on with logical constraints that imply evil is required for some goods.
But isn’t God overdoing it with all the evil in the world? In other words we might agree we have to experience some evil and suffering to have certain goods but why so much suffering? Couldn’t God have done it better? So how should it have been done? Well we should expect the suffering should be a finite time. And of course all our lives are indeed finite – that is we die. And indeed scripture explains that our life is finite – because we chose to taste the fruit of the tree.
“22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side[e] of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” Genesis 3:22-24
Beautiful language expressing that God knew it was best we not live forever in this state that the fruits of this knowledge would bring to us. God knew that knowledge of good and evil would entail suffering. Is it a coincidence that death was brought into the world at that time? Some would say God having death enter the world at that time is really a punishment. I think the opposite. He is helping us with the mess we got ourselves in. Making our suffering here finite is the most loving thing to do. It is only after the time that we chose to know good and evil that God prevents them from living forever.
Isn’t that what we would do for those we love. We would say ok I don’t want you to go down that path because it will cause pain. But if you choose that path of pain, then you will learn, but we would try to limit the pain. And then we would make our own sacrifices to help those we love get out of the rut and back on the path where evil and its fruit (suffering) is avoided. Moreover we would want the benefits of our knowledge to be used. Good and loving relationships can be better appreciated thanks to this knowledge. That is the story of God and humanity in a nutshell.
I am reminded of a friend in college who said to get a good grade just read the first and last chapters of the book to get the overall point and then memorize a few facts in the middle that you can throw in your test or paper to impress the teacher. This is close. Jumping from the first 3 chapters of Genesis and then reading a Gospel will give you a decent idea of Christianity.
Two final notes:
Scripture is not saying knowledge is to be avoided. Remember the metaphor of a tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the *only* tree we were forbidden to eat from. “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Genisis 2. So only the tree that allows us to know these particular opposites was off limits. This suggests that any other sort of knowledge (science history etc.) would be good and not have a negative trade off. It is only this particular tree of knowledge that is off limits. That fruit logically had to be packed in a can of worms. Not necessarily the fruits of other knowledge.
Also, notice that God warns of the actions he will take – that they will die. However, he does not go into detail about why he will take that action or why knowledge of Good and evil will cause so many problems. Of course, for any such considerations to be appropriately understood by them he would need to give them knowledge of good and evil – exactly that which he was trying to avoid.