I recently spoke with a good friend who describes himself as non-religious. He is gifted with a sound mind, clear speech, and above all else a heart that cares deeply for others. At some point in the conversation we began talking about God, and he claimed that such a figure probably doesn’t exist. What, I asked, makes him think so? He responded immediately that the existence of suffering was hugely problematic for him. Why, he argued, would God allow such an abysmal catastrophe as the suffering of children and innocent people?
In the traditional religious view, this line of reasoning can only be understood as a harmful and dangerous heresy. Any ideas which potentially counteract or destabilize one’s religious adherence, especially one’s faith in God, should be strictly discouraged. But from a more contemplative perspective, we might understand my friend’s argument as doing a service to religion. It isn’t a deviation of faith to question one’s relationship with God—even before it exists—nor is it unbecoming of God to be critical of him. A well-stated position against God is still something of theological interest, especially if its resolution can inspire more people to belief.
But what counterargument could I possibly give to his objection? We are all horrified by the existence of suffering. From our very beginning nature has looked on, seemingly indifferent to our state, leaving to ourselves the task of security, comfort, and well-being. In such a hostile world it does appear like God doesn’t exist — or at least, has abandoned us completely.
I didn’t have an answer to my friend’s question, and I probably never will. All I can say is that its burden should be shared by all of us, religious and non-religious alike. Here I’ll attempt to outline my thoughts on the problem, which has led me to a specific view among the Sufis that I find helpful. As always, the wisdom of a more ‘mystical approach’ to religion can give us insights that the conventional orthodoxy cannot.
A questionable God
What kind of character is God supposed to be? Popular wisdom tells us that he is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving. But this explanation leads to more questions than answers. Take the first contention, that God is omnipotent: this suggests that for any given event, God could have chosen to do otherwise. This idea leaves us with an unsettling conclusion. Are we willing to accept that everything in this world was deemed acceptable by an all-loving God?
This question has a rich history in theology. Lactantius was an early Christian author best known for his apologetic texts, which gave responses to popular arguments against religion. He attributed a particularly strong one to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, which has since been known as the problem of evil. In short: how could an all-powerful and all-loving God permit the existence of oppression, suffering, loss, and so on?
Ironically, Lactantius is now better known for his formulation of the problem rather than a solution to it. The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, trying to grapple with the existence of evil, claimed that we live in the ‘best of all possible worlds’: given the constraints of physical laws and free will, this is the best that God can do. But this idea is refuted by our most basic moral intuition. We can easily imagine an alternate universe with just one less starving child, or terminal illness, or horrific shooting — all of them preferable to our own. Surely these slight amendments would be within the capabilities of an all-powerful God?
The problem of hell is an even stronger version of this paradox. Forget the wickedness of this world: in many religions we are taught that God has prepared an eternal and unrelenting place of torment for non-believers. Again, we are left with a cosmic figure who appears to insult our basic moral decency. Given a seemingly infinite set of choices, would any morally good figure create such a wretched destination as hell?
The problem of evil and its variants represent a major counterargument against the existence of the Abrahamic God, to whom omnipotence and omnibenevolence are commonly attributed. It’s an enduring problem which, as we’ll see, spans from the time of our earliest religious texts into the present day.
Responding to evil
Attempting to reconcile the goodness and omnipotence of God with the existence of evil is a theological pursuit known as theodicy. There are a number of responses we can give to the problem of evil.
The first is to reject the premise of the argument and amend our idea of God. To get out of the contradiction, we can either claim that God isn’t all-powerful or that he isn’t all-loving. If he isn’t all-powerful, then he can be all-loving but tragically incapable of helping us. If he isn’t all-loving, he can be all-powerful but indifferent to our state. But neither of these alternatives seems adequate. A God who is limited seems impotent, and a God who is not all-loving seems cruel. Cruelty and impotence are not characteristics we want to ascribe to God — at that point, it seems preferable to deny his existence altogether.
The second response is a rather masochistic one, and might be called the ‘divine justice’ response. It states that evil only appears undesirable from our perspective: in reality, it’s the manifestation of a cosmic retribution whose fulfillment is the ultimate good. This is precisely what is accomplished by the Christian doctrine of original sin, which posits that humans earn the evil of this world as our birthright. Rather than being an evil in itself, for example, suffering becomes precisely what we deserve, wicked creatures that we are.
The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga argues for another response to evil, known as the argument from free will. This theodicy relies on the idea that free will is the highest of all values, so high that it justifies the existence of evil. His argument can (very briefly) be summed as follows:
“It is possible that God, even being omnipotent, could not create a world with free creatures who never choose evil. Furthermore, it is possible that God, even being omnibenevolent, would desire to create a world which contains evil if moral goodness requires free moral creatures.”
Implicit in Plantinga’s argument is the idea that we bear the burden of evil due to our free will. In essence, he argues that evil was the price we payed for our freedom: a freedom which includes the possibility of suffering and pain. Of course, some of us might object to this purchase: “give me no life, and no suffering”. Nonetheless, Plantinga’s ideas represent a very popular response to the problem evil.
The Book of Job
Another possible response to the problem of evil comes to us from the Old Testament. It is to emulate the example put forth in the Book of Job and refute the question altogether. Granted, this is not so much an answer to the problem: if someone seeks a rational explanation for evil, they will be disappointed. But nonetheless, it’s a solution to the problem of evil insofar as it instructs us on how to properly orient ourselves to it.
The Book of Job is a story which resists our most deeply-held moral intuition that good people deserve good and evil people deserve evil. In this way, the story acts as a theodicy: a perspective on why good and evil are not always compensated in the way we want. Job is a supremely moral character who enjoins in good, shuns the wicked, and deals ethically with others. Despite this, however, the man is suddenly afflicted with tragedy after tragedy, losing all his property and succumbing to a terrible illness. It is clear to anyone who reads the story that a character as virtuous as Job does not deserve the fate which befalls him.
A pious man, Job’s first reaction is to hold steadfast to his faith: God deals us both good and evil in this world, ‘he gives and he takes away’. However, as his will to live is shaken, he becomes increasingly disillusioned with his present state and comes closer to cursing God. Job is frustrated by the difficulties in worshiping a God who allows such a grave and blatant violation of basic moral decency, allowing one of his most dedicated worshipers to suffer so much.
It is noteworthy that Job’s affliction begins with a discussion between God and Satan about the authenticity of mankind’s faith. Satan takes the position that men like Job are only pious because God has blessed and provided for them. God, wishing to prove Satan wrong, causes Job to suffer in order to test his faith. The implicit notion here is that authentic faith is not contingent whatsoever on the events of the world: we may enjoy highs, and we may endure lows, but our reliance on God should be an unshakable constant.
Eventually, Job is visited by three friends who counsel him and try to explain his suffering in terms of the classic Jewish philosophy of retributive justice. Simply put: God only allows those to suffer who have committed some sin. They therefore encourage Job to repent, but a flabbergasted Job knows in his heart that he has been absolutely pious and faithful.
The notion of retributive justice as it is applied in this context is similar to the Christian solution to the problem of evil, which consists of the doctrine of original sin. In fact, original sin represents the ultimate form of this notion: not a single person, even the most pious among us, can object to the existence of evil since we are innately evil ourselves. Thus, this intuitive reaction to evil can be perceived both in the notion of retributive justice articulated in the Jewish tradition and reiterated by Job’s three friends as well as the Christian notion of original sin.
The only character who moves outside of this Judeo-Christian paradigm is Elihu, who comes across Job and insists on the unknowable and all-encompassing nature of God’s wisdom. Elihu’s counsel is significant because it is the only one which emphasizes a kind of lack in our human understanding of the matter. He does not claim to have the answer to the questions that Job is putting forth. By so doing, he rejects that we can make sense of the existence of evil, replacing whatever sense of certainty was offered by the previous three speakers with a radical acknowledgement of our ignorance and finitude.
Finally, in a quintessential moment of deus ex machina, God intercedes in the discussion, his voice emanating from a mighty whirlwind. During his speech, he rejects the solution put forth by Job’s three friends: Job is not guilty of some unknown evil, for which his suffering is a form of retribution. God takes Job through all the products of creation: the earth, the heavens, and the awe-inspiring Leviathan. Having experienced this dazzling display, Job retracts his objection and is comforted. A brief epilogue informs the reader that Job lived the rest of his life in happiness and prosperity, enjoying many children and bountiful property.
The ‘Jobbean subject’
Living in the modern age, we understand that the story of Job should not be taken as a literal biographical account. Like any other religious text, it should instead be read as a source of wisdom and guidance. The question we should ask after reading the Book of Job is: what orientation towards life is being prescribed here?
By the end of the story, we are clearly set up to favor Elihu’s interpretation of Job’s condition rather than that of his three friends. The narrative encourages us to move beyond the typical Judeo-Christian concept of retributive justice, whereby a person who suffers must always be guilty of some unknown sin (the Jewish view) or is already a naturally-born sinner, sick onto evil (the Christian view).
But what alternative can be given to the fact of evil? Recall the transformation that Job undergoes at the end of the story. His dramatic encounter with God is transformative, but crucially, it doesn’t come by way of a rational argument. It seems like more of a reminder, almost an act of intimidation, perceptible when God asks Job “where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?”.
The story, then, articulates a certain subjective position which was first mentioned by Elihu and finally embodied by Job at the end of the narrative, after he witnesses the sublime and all-encompassing power of God. It is a state of submission by which we forfeit the right to question evil, acknowledging an irreducible gap between our pursuit of the good and the natural order. The ‘Jobbean subject’, then, represents the person who has fully integrated the existence of evil into their life, such that he no longer toils over its rational explanation.
This explains why the Book of Job has sometimes been compared to the philosophical orientation known as materialism, which posits that the physical world is primary to our subjective experience. The story reminds us that yes, nature in all her spontaneity has absolutely no relation whatsoever to our best laid moral plans: the good may suffer, and the evil may prosper. Job is reminded that the material realm is totally indifferent to our suffering: there is nothing ‘inscribed within’ physical reality that reflects our moral intuition.
The final thing we can say about the Jobbean subject is that his orientation is characteristic of genuine faith. If a person goes through life expecting worldly compensation for his piousness, he has not sufficiently grasped the stakes of religious belief. Even if a person lives his whole life doing good, and dies comfortably with many bounties from God, we are still inclined to say that something about his faith was inauthentic if he experienced his worldly life as something that was owed to him, rather than being humble in the face of God’s blessings.
The insight of Rumi
Jalaluddin Rumi was a poet and mystic who is among the most well-known Sufis who ever lived. Sufism is best described as a ‘mystical’ sect of Islam which emphasizes one’s subjective orientation towards God. Like many Sufis, Rumi never attempted to formalize his thoughts, preferring to speak to students directly and inspire them through speeches, song, and poetry.
The text Fihi ma Fihi is a collection of Rumi’s interactions with students. On one occasion, a petitioner comes to ask the master a question, and he receives an intriguing answer that bears highly on our discussion of the problem of evil:
Someone asked whether or not there is harm in putting one’s hopes in God and expecting a good recompense for having done good and good works.
“Yes, one must have hope and faith, or, expressed another way, fear and hope. Someone asked me, since hope itself is a good thing, what fear is. “Show me fear without hope,” I said, “or hope without fear, for these two are inseparable.” Since you ask, I’ll give you an example. When someone plants wheat, he of course hopes that it will grow. At the same time, however, he is fearful that some blight or disaster may befall it. It is obvious that there is no such thing as hope without fear. Neither fear without hope nor hope without fear can be imagined” [Fihi ma Fihi]
If we read the petitioner’s question carefully, we can understand it as a reformulation of the basic problem underlying the Book of Job. In short: what is the nature of authentic faith? As a Muslim, the petitioner knows that his belief should not be contingent on the blessings of this world: God gives, and God takes away, far beyond any expectations we might have. However, it does seem intuitive to expect some kind of recompense for dutiful faith. Is it acceptable to expect a good reward in return for pious acts?
Rumi’s response is to affirm that we can expect God’s blessing on one condition: we acknowledge that our hope is inseparable from the fear of God. In other words, Rumi formulates authentic faith as an irreducible duality of fear and hope. As soon as a person hopes that his crops will grow he also fears that they won’t. Our relationship with the natural order, cruel and indifferent to us, is reflected by an investment that makes us both hopeful and fearful.
What does this conception of fear and hope mean for the problem of evil? It means that even our most disgruntled reactions to the evils of this world — all its suffering, loss, and nonsensical violence — can also be understood as the strongest expressions of hope. The religious skeptic who objects to God on the basis of worldly evil is implicitly expressing hope towards his ideal version of reality. No sooner do we formulate our critique of God on a moral basis than do we supplement what we see with what we want to see: a posited state of affairs that we understand as being a more just situation.
And this is the proper response to the problem of evil, from a Sufi perspective: to notice that the very question is founded on a specific relationship with God and the world as a whole, characterized by an irreducible duality of fear and hope. Confined as we are to a material plane of existence, which presents us with inexplicable situations that frustrate our categories of good and evil, the only recourse available to us is to hope for what is good and fear what is evil. The strength of the Sufi position lies in its refutation of a rational explanation of evil and its reiteration that a subjective orientation is all that is available to us.
Causing fear and greed
Like many Sufi teachers, Rumi derives most of his religious thoughts from the Quran. Verses of the Quran vary drastically: some are highly symbolic, others, like administrative or legal rulings, are more literal. The freedom provided by ‘reading into’ the symbolic verses represents something of a paradox for traditional Islamic schools, who seek to preserve a singular meaning of the text. Thus a distinction has been made in Islamic theology between tafsir, the more conventional interpretation of a verse, and ta’wil, a hermeneutics which emphasizes a hidden and esoteric understanding of the text.
In the case of the preceding quotation from Fihi ma Fihi, Rumi may have been inspired to his particular answer by a ta’wil of following Quranic verse:
“It is He who shows you lightening, [causing] fear and greed, and generates the heavy clouds. And the thunder exalts with praise of Him [Allah] — and the angels, in fear of Him — and He sends thunderbolts and strikes with them whom He wills while they dispute about Allah ; and He is severe in assault.” [13:12–13]
To a native of the Arabian desert, the sight of heavy clouds was an ambiguous event, preceding both life-giving rain and a vicious storm. Upon seeing a flash of lightening, then, he would at once be filled with hope and fear, caught in the mercy of awe-inspiring nature.
In this verse, we can understand lightening (barq) as characteristic of God’s relationship to mankind. The Quran’s injunction to praise and fear God simultaneously is not an artificial construction: it is a subjective orientation that follows intuitively from our most basic human condition as finite beings who nonetheless strive to greater ends.
The wisdom we can derive from living in “hope and fear” is to posit the problem of evil as a central tenet of the human experience. As finite beings who can nonetheless project future situations and strive morally, there will always be an irreducible distance between what exists and the possibilities of our most daring aspirations. To this reality we can neither be solely hopeful, nor solely fearful, but live embracing both aspects. This is to live a fully integrated life, in all its miracles and all its catastrophes.
Finally, it’s a nice coincidence that this verse mentions God sending lightening “while they dispute about Allah” — here we are reminded of God’s position at the end of the Book of Job, where his interjection through the storm also serves to settle a dispute about his impenetrable nature. This represents yet another connection between the contents of this verse and the problem of evil.
The problem of evil is among the most enduring paradoxes of religious belief. Philosophers of every era have grappled with the notion of an all-powerful and all-loving God who nonetheless allows evil, loss, and suffering to afflict even his most pious devotees. Guided by the prophet Job’s encounter with the sublime power of God, and the Sufi perspective that hope and fear comprise an irreducible duality, we conclude that this problem represents a gap in our ability to understand the world: it is religion, itself, which occupies this gap, providing us a proper orientation towards the existence of evil.