Prayson Daniel writes about Christian author C. S. Lewis’s attempt to deal with the problem of evil here and here. Lewis, who suffered tragic loss at an early age, became an atheist when young, but later converted to Christianity. Lewis directly addressed the challenge of the atheists’ argument — why would an omnipotent and benevolent God allow evil to exist? — in his books The Problem of Pain and Mere Christianity.
Central to Lewis’s argument is the notion that the freedom to do good or evil is essential to being human. If human beings were always compelled to do good, they would not be free, and thus would be unable to attain genuine happiness.
One way to illustrate the necessity of freedom is to imagine a world in which human beings were unable to commit evil — no violence, no stealing, no lying, no cheating, no betrayal. At first, such a world might appear to be a paradise. But the price would be this: essentially we would all be nothing but robots. Without the ability to commit evil, doing good would have no meaning. We would do good simply because we were programmed or compelled to do nothing but good. There would be no choices because there would be no alternatives. Love and altruism would have no meaning because it wouldn’t be freely chosen.
Let us imagine a slightly different world, a world in which freedom is allowed, but God always intervenes to reward the good and punish the guilty. No good people ever suffer. Earthquakes, fires, disease, and other natural disasters injure and kill only those who are guilty of evil. Those who do good are rewarded with good health, riches, and happiness. This world seems only slightly better than the world in which we are robots. In this second world, we are mere zoo animals or pets. We would be trained by our master to expect treats when we behave and punishment when we misbehave. Again, doing good would have no meaning in this world — we would simply be advancing our self-interest, under constant, inescapable surveillance and threat of punishment. In some ways, life in this world would be almost as regimented and monotonous as in the world in which we are compelled to do good.
For these reasons, I find the “free will” argument for the existence of evil largely persuasive when it comes to explaining the existence of evil committed by human beings. I can even see God as having so much respect for our freedom that he would stand aside even in the face of an enormous crime such as genocide.
However, I think that the free will argument is less persuasive when it comes to accounting for evils committed against human beings by natural forces — earthquakes, fires, floods, disease, etc. Natural forces don’t have free will in the same sense that human beings do, so why doesn’t God intervene when natural forces threaten life? Granted, it would be asking too much to expect that natural disasters happen only to the guilty. But the evils resulting from natural forces seem to be too frequent, too immense, and too random to be attributed to the necessity of freedom. Why does freedom require the occasional suffering and death of even small children? It’s hard to believe that small children have even had enough time to live in order to exercise their free will in a meaningful way.
Overall, the scale of divine indifference in cases of natural disaster is too great for me to think that it is part of a larger gift of free will. For this reason, I am inclined to think that there are limits on God’s power to make a perfect world, even if the freedom accorded to human beings is indeed a gift of God.