If humans are responsible for intervening in and preventing evil, does that mean God is equally so? Does divine non-intervention imply that God is either malevolent, impotent, or non-existent?
The problem of evil is often seen as the atheist’s trump card and for good reason. Our world has seen plenty of disgusting atrocities and the only natural responses are “Where is God?” and “Why didn’t He prevent this disaster from happening?” The argument, framed by skeptics, can be summed up in this popular quote from Epicurus,
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?”
The argument can also be illustrated by the following fictional example,
“Imagine that there is a young, strong man who happens to witness the rape of a woman across the street. This act is being carried out by an unarmed man who appears to be far weaker than the spectator. But suppose the spectator did nothing but observe, and when it was over, paid no further attention. Where is the difference between God and the spectator? God watches us suffer every day and yet He stands idly by even when He has the power to prevent such horrible acts. This can only mean He is either malevolent, impotent, or non-existent.”
That scenario packs quite a punch, hey? But we need to stop and think about why we feel that punch because this will be an important point further down. It isn’t the argument that’s affecting us, it is the act of rape that disgusts us. If the scenario used cheating at monopoly or stealing an orange from a fruit stall as an example the punch would be minimal even though the argument wouldn’t change.
Looking at the argument itself it implies that the reasons for the human spectator refusing to intervene are the same reasons God uses. Let’s see what happens if we use the same defense for our human spectator (free will) as we do with God.
God: “Child, why didn’t you intervene and stop that evil?”
Human spectator: “God, I didn’t intervene because I believe in free will, the same as you do!”
God: “Did I not give you a driving moral compass?”
A human is simply not in the same standing as God for this objection to work. We cannot see the future or live in the future to see how things will play out and, though we may think we do, we do not have free will to resist. It arrests us. As many skeptics claim, we see absolutely no reason for evil to occur. All we can do is act and think in the present unless we were given some sort of divine knowledge that not intervening would somehow lead to a much greater good. God, on the other hand, is all-knowing. It may be possible that God is allowing this particular case for some greater good but we simply do not and cannot know such a thing, thus our spectator cannot use this as a reason to not intervene.
Skeptic’s argue that non-intervention, in cases where intervention is reasonably possible (excluding the circumstances we described above), is immoral, and we would wholeheartedly agree. Our spectator should learn from the consequences of evil and take the required preventive measures against it. Indeed, doesn’t the very presence of a spectator, in this case, suggests that God wants him to intervene? We may believe in God’s absolute sovereignty, however, we ourselves live and move in the relative. He has given us adequate measures to prevent evil.
“The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord‘s: but the earth hath he given to the children of men.” Psalm 115:16.
If we keep this in mind as we refer back to the conversation between God and our spectator we can reason that our spectator was God’s intervention. Indeed, the moral compass (the very thought that we ought to do what is right) He gave us suggests that humanity, on the earth, is a preventative measure against evil. God, through man, has established everything required to prevent crime, such as moral conscience, law, education, and emotional response (remember the disgust you felt when you read our scenario?) How many crimes are prevented by this system every single day?
When an act of evil does happen the only one to blame is the perpetrator. Most of the evil that happens is the result of the failures of man to act according to his moral conscious (i.e. to value and treat others with respect and dignity). And when we act contrary to the moral nature God has instilled in us can we really place the responsibility on another? Imagine the skeptic’s argument (that God should intervene) being used by the criminal in our scenario. God has called us to uphold and look out for the welfare of our fellow man and when our criminal or spectator abandons this they are betraying everything God placed within them.
As we’re starting to see, the argument of evil itself provides the answer. We form the argument because we grieve over evil and because we grieve we have the means to prevent it. That God should forcibly prevent evil (outside of the measures and coercion He has instilled in us) simply takes things out of perspective. Refusing to acknowledge that may cause us to adopt an entitlement that would result in far worse consequences than what we already experience (remember, our law enforcement would not take the argument seriously if it was the criminal who said “If God wanted me to stop He should have made me”).
This brings me to the alternatives skeptics provide, but these alternatives are either worse than what we already have or virtually inconceivable. How should God go about forcing our criminal to stop? Should his muscles freeze up whenever he attempts rape but not anywhere else? Should God put an invisible force field in front of the would-be rapist? Maybe the earth should swallow him whole when he decides to carry out his act? Our skeptics claim that it is common sense that the problem of evil results in God’s non-existence but what else are they suggesting exactly? We should remember that it isn’t the argument that upsets us but this particular example of evil in our scenario. A good argument should be consistent so we would have to insert these kinds of preventive measures for any and every act of sin, no matter how small or inconsequential it may be.
If that is what we desire we should ask ourselves if we’re ready to submit to a world of complete chaos and inconsistency due to the vast amount of miraculous interventions happening around us (if one tries to argue that since God is all-powerful He should be able to make it work then the argument becomes pointless because it attempts to argue that God and suffering cannot exist, despite God being all-powerful).
Furthermore, if God forcibly halted us every time we wanted to hurt someone, for example, how long would it take before we give up on discipline and self-intervention altogether, knowing that God will always intervene anyway? How long before we cease taking preventive measures and using common sense? How long before we forget the horror of evil and become apathetic?
I know God intervenes in our personal lives. I know He has changed my life and He is still doing so, convicting me of wrongdoings and setting me in the right direction. I’m glad He had patience with me and didn’t “intervene,” so to say, by casting judgement earlier on. The Lord is gracious, full of mercy and compassion. And even when evil occurs He is working through them to achieve the greatest good for those who have been hurt, if not now then most definitely with Him in eternity, for we have all been saved by Christ’s death on the cross. God isn’t apathetic nor is He watching on the sidelines. He’s invested in every second of our lives. Above all, He has promised an end to pain through the victory on the cross and it is this promise we carry to the broken and hurting.