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The Problem of Evil

But is there not a fatal flaw in all this argument? I refer to the greatest difficulty for theism, namely the problem of the evil and suffering so manifestly present in the world. I think that this problem holds more people back from religious belief than any other, and those of us who are believers can never be unaware of it, or untroubled by the challenge it presents. Could one really claim that so apparently dysfunctional a universe was one that exhibited design? Does not our very sense of value, to which I have appealed, make us rebel against a strange and bitter ‘creation’?

The questions proliferate. Is not evolutionary history a tale of struggle and competition, of death as the necessary cost of life, of the blind alleys of extinction that have dealt death blows to 99.9% of the species that have ever lived? Is not the role of chance, in the evolutionary interplay of chance and necessity, the conclusive sign that the universe’s history is, as Macbeth said, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?

I do not wish to deny that these are serious questions. But, in an unexpected way, science’s insights have been moderately helpful to theology in its wrestling with the problem. The key concept, in fact, is evolution itself. It is historically ignorant to suppose, as the modern myth does, that Darwin was opposed by solid ranks of obscurantist clergymen when The Origin of Species was published in 1859. In both Britain and the United States there were Christians, like Charles Kingsley and Asa Gray, who welcomed his insights. Kingsley coined the phrase that, in a nutshell, sums up a theological understanding of evolution. He said that God had done something cleverer than producing a ready-made creation, for God had created a world “that could make itself”. If there is a God who is the God of love, then creation could never be just the divine puppet theatre. The gift of love is always the gift of a due independence, as wise parents know in relation to their children. The God of love must be one who allows creatures to be themselves, and to make themselves by exploring the endowment of potentiality given to creation. ‘Chance’ simply means historical contingency - this happens rather than that. It is not automatically to be given the tendentious adjective “blind”, as if it were an unambiguous sign of meaninglessness. Rather, it may be seen as signifying the shuffling exploration and realization of fertile possibilities, by which creation makes itself. This due independence of process is a good gift, but it has a necessary cost attached to it. Raggednesses and blind alleys, a well as fruitful outcomes, are inescapable accompaniments of this evolving self-realization. Biology even helps theology a little with the deep question of theodicy, the problem of the evil and suffering of the world. Exactly the same biochemical processes that enable some cells to mutate and produce new forms of life - in other words, the very engine that has driven the stupendous four billion year history of life on Earth - these same processes will inevitably allow other cells to mutate and become malignant. In a non-magic world, it could not be different, and the world is not magic because its Creator is not a capricious Magician. I do not pretend for a moment that this insight removes all the perplexities posed by the sufferings of creation. Yet it affords some mild help, in that it suggests that the existence of cancer is not gratuitous, as if it were due to the Creator’s callousness or incompetence. We all tend to think that if we had been in charge of creation we would have made a better job of it. We would have kept the nice things (flowers and sunsets) and got rid of the nasty (disease and disaster). The more science helps us to understand the process of the universe, the more, it seems to me, to cohere into a single ‘package deal’. The light and the dark are two sides of the same coin.

Contributed by: Sir John Polkinghorne

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The Problem of Evil

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Purpose and the Cosmic Conclusion


 John Polkinghorne

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