In the best of all possible worlds, only good things would happen to good people. But in possibly the only world that actually exists, good people don’t always get what they deserve, and even the best people sometimes behave badly. Why should this be? If there were no God, the answer would be simple: shit happens. But if there is a God, things get more complicated, since shit happens regardless.
Among the religiously inclined, the Gnostics worked out perhaps the most straightforward explanation for our afflictions. This pagan cult, which flourished during the early Christian era, believed the world we live in is evil, controlled by a lesser deity called the demiurge. (This would certainly explain all the shit.) Manichaeism, which counted St. Augustine among its adherents before he converted to Christianity, took a middle position. The Manichees believed that spiritual forces of good and evil battle it out for supremacy in the universe – a notion familiar to Star Wars fans. Jews, Christians and Muslims all insist that God is both supreme and good, which means they must account for the mischief that has occurred on his watch.
Leave it to St. Augustine to figure out how evil can thrive in a world God created and still presumably controls. Rejecting the dualistic scheme of Manichaeism, Augustine argued that evil has no independent existence. Just as darkness is merely the absence of light, evil is what happens when we are deprived of good. Because we are creatures endowed with free will, we can choose not to be good, thereby opening the door to all sorts of mischief. The suffering that ensues is not something that God inflicts upon us but rather is the consequence of our own poor choices.
An immediate objection to this line of argument is that the consequences are often felt by guilty and innocent alike. However, by Augustine’s reckoning, no one is truly innocent, since all are tainted by original sin. Adam and Eve opened the door to trouble through their poor choices in the Garden of Eden, and the door has stayed open ever since. The stage thus is set for the many trials and temptations that afflict the human race.
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you,” cautioned the Apostle Peter. Shit happens, in other words -- but not without purpose. St. Paul, who at times came across as a glutton for punishment, commented that “we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” In other words, suffering isn’t all bad, since it builds character. So even though God didn’t bring evil into the world, something good can still come of it. Augustine reasoned that “were it not good that evil things should also exist, the omnipotent God would almost certainly not allow evil to be, since beyond doubt it is just as easy for Him not to allow what He does not will, as for Him to do what He will.”
By such contortions did the church fathers persuade themselves that an omnipotent God could preside over a world that daily makes a mockery of its creator. But then, God doesn’t preside over the world; we do. It says so in the Bible, right there in the Book of Genesis, where God created humankind in his own image and gave us dominion over his creation. One might well argue that our heavenly Father, who is supposedly omniscient as well as omnipotent, should never have handed over the keys to the family car knowing we would smash it up. But sometimes the only way we learn not to smash up cars is to smash one up and hope we don’t kill ourselves in the process. Granted, the human race is on an extremely long learning curve. But then, this is no ordinary task. We are, despite appearances to the contrary, still a chip off the old block, and we are learning through painful experience to be just like him.
1 Peter 4:12