April 11, 2007

The Problem of Evil: An Essay

Kenji finished filling his cup with Pepsi and placed it on the tray in front of him next to a plate with a pair of pizza slices. He picked up the tray and, careful to avoid several chirping freshman girls in their rush to get to the taco line, paid for his meal and walked into the cafeteria. He searched the room, and noticed his friend Parmenio sitting alone at a corner table fiddling with a pair of chopsticks, the steam from his bowl of chow mein beginning to wane in the darkening light of the mid-afternoon sun. Kenji smirked and walked over.

“You look glum,” he said, “which means that you either just came from that 'world issues' class, or Shawna dumped you again.”

“You know,” replied Parmenio, “I'm still not sure why I decided to take that class. It does nothing but confuse me. And now we're supposed to write a twenty-page paper explaining in minute detail a solution to the problems of poverty. I'm about this close to failing as it is, what with that last paper on environmentalism. Can you believe he actually told me to stop wasting paper with my essay?”

Kenji winced. “Ouch. You should've emailed it to him.” He began stuffing his face.

“No kidding,” replied Parmenio. “He says he won't accept essays like that though. I'm telling you, the man is evil.”

Kenji looked up from his pizza. “Evil? Isn’t that a touch harsh?”

Parmenio shrugged, swirling the noodles around the dish with his chopsticks. “Well, maybe. To tell you the truth I'm not even sure there is such a thing as good anymore.”

Kenji sighed, suddenly aware that his evening had just become a lot longer. “How can you possibly think that there's only evil unless you have something to compare it to?”

Parmenio dropped the piece of beef he'd managed to snag. “What are you saying, that evil can't exist without good?”


Parmenio looked indignant. “Whatever man. You're the philosopher, not me. Maybe there isn't such a thing as a good professor. I dunno. It'd be nice if good would show its head more often, because frankly its existence without showing its face is beginning to feel an awful lot like it doesn't exist at all.” He went back to his attempt to pick up the chunk of beef.

“Rough day?”

“Yeah. No sleep because I had to work on that paper, and Shawna's getting antsy about some trip she's going on – Africa this time, to save some other poor kid from another horrible government – and then I got that other paper back, rubbing salt in an open wound. Now it's festering.”

Kenji rolled up his sleeves, wondering why it felt like the cafeteria had become warmer. “Ok Parm,” he said, “let's talk about it. You say there shouldn't be any evil in a world run by good?”

Parmenio sighed. It was always this way – a careless, offhand comment led to another fruitless debate. He'd begun to loathe the day he'd told Kenji to take that first philosophy class back in their freshman year. At the time, it'd seemed like a good idea, but instead of losing his rather irritating religious ideals, Kenji became more convinced about lots of things he believed, the very things that Parmenio didn't quite agree with. “You're one of those people who believe some sort of all-powerful god runs things, right?”

“That's a crude way of saying it, but you know I am.”

“Ok, and by your definition, God is perfectly good, omnipotent, and omniscient.”

“Right again,” said Kenji, a look of suspicion beginning to creep over his face.

“Would you say that this perfectly good God of yours prevents all the evil he has the power to prevent?” Parmenio paused as Kenji considered this, then added, “because I sure would.”

“I don't know if I'd accept that,” said Kenji, finally, “but for the sake of argument let's say yes. I reserve the right to change my mind later.”

“Fair enough. So this God of yours, being omnipotent and omniscient and all that, must have the power to prevent all evil, right? So if there were a God such as you describe, there would be no evil. But I know that there's evil – I've had a crappy day – so there must be no God.”

“Modus tollens.”


“Your argument, the last bit is modus tollens.”

“What, the 'if Q then ~P, ~Q, therefore ~P?' THAT modus tollens?” Parmenio looked smug.

“Mind your P’s and Q’s,” scoffed Kenji, “it’s the other way around!”

“Sorry. If P, then ~Q, given ~P, therefore ~Q?”

“Closer. Usually we say, 'If P then Q, given ~Q, therefore ~P. See the difference?”

“Um ...” Parmenio paused, considering the diagram Kenji had just drawn on his napkin. “Oh, I got it. Sure. What were we saying?”

“You tried to convince me that because there's evil in the world, there must be no God.”

“Ah. So what say you?”

“You're full of crap.”


“Think of it this way. When you say that 'a perfectly good, omnipotent God would eliminate all evil from the world,' what are you really saying?”

“Are you challenging my premise?”


“Just making sure. Um, I dunno, maybe I'm saying that a good God shouldn't like evil?”

“No, it's more than that. You're saying that you have certain assumptions about what 'good' is, especially in its relationship to evil, and you aren't considering the bigger picture. You have to think of this in terms of the bigger story, not just a so-called 'logical' argument.”


“I'm saying that the world is never that simple. You have to take into account God’s motivations, His emotions, what make him a ‘being’ instead of a machine, his communal nature as a trinity. But above all, freedom. You have to take freedom into account.”

“What's freedom got to do with it?”

“Everything! Go back to the beginning, and suspend judgment for a second. Why would God create the world? He's omnipotent, omniscient, and all those other omni's, and if he’s communal he’s not exactly lonely, so what use is it for him to create a world in which he knows that evil will plague his creation and therefore will plague him?”

“None. I don't understand how you can believe in a God like that.”

“I said you should try to suspend disbelief for a moment.”

“I did. The moment passed.”

“Right.” Kenji paused, looked at the napkin, and then shrugged. “Ok, I guess I'll answer my own question. God is love. The two are inseparable because the ultimate good is love and if God is good then he must be love. With me so far?”

“Yeah, I'd buy that.”

“Have you ever heard the saying, 'if you love something, set it free'?”

“I have. I tried that with my last girlfriend, she didn't stick with me.”

“I know, I had to put a piece of pizza on your desk to get you to smile again.”

“You know, the smile was out of spite, I don't actually like pizza.”

Kenji's eyebrows shot up in surprise. “But you're Italian!”

“So? What's being Italian got to do with liking pizza?”

“You know, I'm not sure. The point is, without being able to freely choose evil – in other words, without even the possibility of evil – God couldn't create a world in which his people loved him back. It’s not that the end justifies the means, it’s just that one necessarily comes with the other, and given the choice, God still wants a world in which people can freely love him.”

“I don't know if I follow. You're saying that since God is love, then he'd want to be loved, but in order for people to truly love him back he had to create beings that could freely choose to love him? Even if only some of them or even none of them in reality actually chose that love?”

“Yes. A created world in which we are free is a natural outpouring of God’s love.”

“Then why couldn't an omnipotent God create beings that could freely choose to love him and would freely choose it every time?”

Kenji paused to consider this. “What you're saying is a contradiction. If God could determine the outcome then it wouldn't really be freedom, would it?”

“Sure it would,” said Parmenio, “because he'd have created them to freely choose it.”

“I don't buy that,” replied Kenji, “it sounds inconsistent to me. Let me ask you this – would you rather Shawna love you because you chose her knowing she'd love you, or do you prefer that she love you despite your obvious flaws?”

“I'm hurt, you think I'm flawed?”

“Just answer the question.”

“Look man, if this is about me not liking pizza, you're the one gaining weight, not me.”

“Seriously,” insisted Kenji, “answer the question.”

“Well ... I suppose if I had to choose I'd say I'd prefer her to love me despite my supposed imperfections. But I also wish I was perfect. And that I could fly or something.”

“I find your lack of wit disturbing,” said Kenji, a hint of a smile in his eyes.

Parmenio smirked. “Even granting that evil was a natural outcome of free choice, why does it have to be so … well, evil for it to work? Couldn’t God have limited the sorts of evil we’re capable of or something? Does it have to suck this much?”

Kenji sighed before washing down the last bit of pizza crust with the rest of his Pepsi. “Again, it wouldn’t be freedom if God put limits on it. We could always choose to be good, but whiny people always insist that the evil they do is not their fault.”

“Well that settles it then,” said Parmenio, “I believe you! There’s a good reason for evil!”


“No, but the look on your face was priceless.”

“Well, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree.”


“No. That would really mean I’m tired of arguing, but I’m not. Are you?”

Parmenio sighed. “Honestly? Yes. It would seem that we can run each other in circles of logic and still get nowhere.”

“Finally, something we can agree on,” said Kenji, looking triumphant. “You know, I feel like I missed something, like if I could just say it the right way you’d see what I see.”

“No,” replied Parmenio, “I’m fairly sure that we just have different assumptions from having grown up in different places, done different things, lived in different cultures, and it would take a lifetime for me to be able to fully understand your assumptions, and you mine. Maybe someday.”

“Quite so,” agreed Kenji.

“That, and I have to get going to class.” Parmenio dumped the chopsticks onto his tray and picked up his backpack. “See you tonight.”

“Bye,” said Kenji, “and good luck with that paper.”

“Thanks,” said Parmenio. He paused, before adding, “but I think I may just ditch the class. We can’t solve all of the world’s problems in the classroom, I think it’s going to take going out and actually doing something about it instead of just talking; one more paper won’t solve poverty. Maybe I’ll go with Shawna on her trip instead, I might still be able to get the money I paid for the class back.”

“Good on ya,” said Kenji. “Maybe there’s hope for us yet. See you later.”

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