The problem of evil is a problem because evil won't go away. Or at least, it seemingly won't.
Usually people call this conundrum a problem because it poses an intellectual challenge to the viability of any religious view that believes in both an all-powerful God that is also thoroughly benevolent.
And yet, when tragedy strikes on such a massive level, so close to home, one deals with it on the existential and not philosophical level. That's what our church did yesterday, as we worship relatively close to the Theater where a man shot so many people. That's also what many of our pastors did all weekend, being with the families of victims.
And so we lament. We grieve. We get angry with God. We ask 'why?' and we seek some kind of consolation in a good God and in others whom we love.
These are all good and necessary responses. I pray we do them for weeks and months to come. These are the most important responses, and shall remain so. Thankfully, we have Scriptural language in the Bible to commend all these responses.
And yet... and yet, latent in the minds of most Americans remains this towering critique of Christianity. I propose to offer a few thoughts on this philosophical level, not because it's better, but because I see it creep up in many places, and I think the following thoughts might prove useful.
I suppose my ultimate question is really this: if you aren't a Christian, how do you deal with the problem of evil?
An atheist, one who adheres to philosophical naturalism and survival of the fittest, can't with any degree of internal coherency be outraged at evil. Ultimately, the question lies in a moral category that's a fabrication of the real and material. One simply wills to live, wills to survive, and violence is inherent in nature. No, if you feel some sense of outrage and justice at atrocious acts, it must come from somewhere else. Not atheism. The problem of evil with atheism is strange, since to be consistent the atheist can't really believe in evil.
Many eastern religions present a case for either moving beyond desire and pleasure and pain altogether (Buddhism), or absorbing oneself into the all-pervading impersonal god (most streams of Hinduism) who dissolves the categories of good and evil into one another. Escaping the pain nor dissolving the dialectic can account for our sense of demand for moral culpability, our sense for fairness to be restored. Nay, the problem of evil is just as much a problem for eastern religions.
Obviously, without recounting every possible belief a person can have, I admit the problem of evil is a problem for Christians. And yet, I think Christianity can adequately account for evil, even without answering every situational crevice and redounding every possible scenario of evil. But to account for this evil, we must tell a story.
There once were two people who knew God completely, the way no humans on earth had ever known him. For some reason heretofore unknown and unexplained, God put a tree in the garden they lived in and weren't allowed to eat of it. That was the only negative request of God. Lots of good though: have children, name animals, enjoy the vegetation. And yet, some wily snake convinced them that it was good to eat fruit from the tree- where did the snake come from?- and so they did, and so the curses began. Complete fellowship with God was broken; how could God trust his people if they didn't do the one thing he asked. And so evil enters the world, except for that it didn't, because where did that snake come from after all?
Christianity doesn't provide all the answers, but it does provide some of them. Because of that first fall, all humans share in the guilt of the curse, and we are slaves to our selfish ends. The line of evil doesn't cut across cultures, nations, or people. It cuts through the middle of all of us. Somehow, we can create evil. And that evil isn't one-dimensional: it's mental, emotional, psychological, and willful. It comes in all shapes and sizes.
This complexity gathers steam as we consider the character of God. Christianity still rejects God's ineffectuality or sadistic reign: he's still powerful and he's still good. And yet, how? Well, the Bible tells us we can get angry at him, so if we admit that we're not trying to placate some impassionate God, that starts us upon the right track. He's a personal God, both acting within the affairs of humanity and from without. Somehow, he knows and loves but allows things he hates. Unmistakably, this is a difficult challenge to Christianity, and yet this option is preferable to a God who doesn't care, who can't do anything about it, who doesn't exist, or who is in fact evil.
How do I trust that God isn't really a sadist? Because he does not declare himself immune from it. God becomes human, experiences human pain, and then bears all the wrath of God upon the cross- human evil accumulated upon his body and soul. Christ suffers.
I can't answer your question about where God was last Friday morning. I'm numb, and angry, and confused too. But John Stott can tell you where he was 2000 years ago:
I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as 'God on the cross.' In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering. 'The cross of Christ ... is God’s only self-justification in such a world” as ours....' 'The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak; they rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.”
John Sott, The Cross of Christ