If there’s one thing that really soured me against traditional theology, it was religion’s inability to account for bad things in the world. This is called theodicy, and it’s a question that has plagued theologists since the early days of the Christian church. There’s lots of ways to formulate both the question and the answer depending on how you conceptualize the distinct elements, but here are some of the ways people generally phrase the question today:

First, if God is all-powerful, all-knowing, always available, and totally Good in every way (to the pedantic sesquipedalian: omni-powerful, omniscient, omnipresent, and omni-benvelolent), then how can evil and suffering exist? If He’s good, then he would extinguish the bad, but if he can’t then he isn’t all-powerful. But if he’s allowing it then he must not be all-good. Or if he doesn’t know its happening then he isn’t all-knowing. It is a logical paradox similar to the old thought experiment: “can God microwave a burrito so hot that He can’t eat it.”

A lot of people would say that God is all of these omni-things, but that evil is a corruption in the perfect world God created. It happened because of Adam and Eve and continues to exist because of humans’ free-will. God has given us a method of salvation through Jesus Christ, which is a demonstration of his goodness. This idea of evil as corruption of God’s perfect world, something that God didn’t create, is generally attributed to Augustine but has had many iterations throughout time. Today, it might be simply thought of as, “humans make evil.”

Another answer is one by a philosopher called Irenaeus. His answer was that God must have created everything, evil included, but that this was a way in which we could develop our moral character. Humans would need free-will in order to choose good, and they would need an evil option available to choose from, otherwise we might never know if we were moral or just following a prescribed path. Part of this thinking is that God can only create perfectly because God is perfect, so this world must be perfect or at least the best-possible-world. It also means that the trials we face are part of the natural plan God has for us, a plan which involves us truly having a moral choice. So yes, in this idea “God made evil,” but it was a necessary component of the world He planned to allow us to achieve our moral development.

Both the Augustinian and Irenaean ideas are conflated in a lot of casual believers’ mind, which may or may not be that important. Definitely, we hear a lot of believers talk about “God’s plan,” and the basis of the theology is rooted in this second-century idea: that God created a world in which we could choose good or evil. For many, whether God created the evil option or not isn’t that important: maybe God is so perfect that He can’t introduce evil into his perfect creation, or perhaps he created everything including the evil things as part of one perfect whole. Ultimately, there is evil, we’re able to choose it, and this choice represents our sense of morality. Theodicy is not a defense as much as it is a justification; is there a reasonable way in which evil can exist in God’s creation? Both versions of the answer prescribe the same moral response.

The problem is that, no matter the justification, it seems so cruel. If the suffering and evil in the world is a result of humans’ corruption of God’s perfect plan, then why shouldn’t God save us? Of course the answer is that He did through the sacrifice of his son, but why can’t that salvation have a more direct effect on our daily lives? Like, why must believers still experience sickness and poverty, natural disasters and accidents, the loss of loved ones or the lack of physical basic needs? If we were really saved, why should we only reap the benefits in an afterlife about which we have no information? If the real life benefit of belief is so powerful, why can’t it save me from the real things I’m dealing with right now?

Of course, if this is all some sort of moral trial it makes sense that it might really be this hard. But why is God so malevolent to create the circumstances of a trial in which the suffering is so great? Does this all-powerful being really require such grave proof as, say, a killed child or a terminal medical diagnosis to develop the moral character which is His plan? Why does the path for others seem so low-impact by comparison? How can this be the most perfect world possible when I can so clearly imagine little ways in which it could be immeasurably better? How can this be the best possible world when I can do things to make it so much better, even things that would be generally seen as immoral?

Of course, I’ve been equivocating “evil” and “suffering,” which the church has always been careful to extricate. Just think of those self-flagalating monks; suffering can be for the greater glory of God! That’s easy to conceptualize and hard to live; its easy to think that illness is a trial or test of faith, but when you’re actually gravely sick with no hope, its much harder to look God in the face and know He wanted this for you. Again, that’s all part of the trial, in theory! But how Stockholm-Syndrome to be forced to worship and praise the same God that’s asking you to suffer so greatly.

Theodicy isn’t a proof of the existence of God of course, but the lack of compelling answers does make for a proof against the conception of God it entails.

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