‘This is the End’ and the Problem of Evil

ImageSpoiler alert: I watched This is the End last night, a smart comedy about a group of friends left behind after the Rapture. It’s like Left Behind but funny and well-made.

I’d sort of forgotten that there are a significant number of folks who actually take this Biblical prophecy seriously. For me, it seems like both evidence and decency deny the possibility that we live in a world with an omnipotent deity. Evidence-wise, it’s not like anyone’s conclusively proven that God does not exist. There’s just nothing for Him to do: evolution takes care of the diversity of life, and the Big Bang takes care of the origins of the universe. Sure, you can ask, ‘What caused the Big Bang?,’ but if your answer is ‘God’ then I can turn around and ask ‘What caused God?’ In other words, God doesn’t explain anything. He may well exist, but all of the stuff that we see in the world can be more simply explained without Him. As Bertrand Russell put it, “If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God…”

Decency-wise, the Problem of Evil seems to me to be insurmountable. I don’t see how it’s possible to reconcile the manifest horror of the world with a God who is both all-powerful and benevolent. Ivan Karamazov makes this point in The Brothers Karamazov when he describes a child who was torn to pieces by hounds on an aristocrat’s whim. Camus makes the same point in The Plague, where he describes the slow, painful death of an infected child. How can one accept a world where such things happen, and accept the Creator of such a world, without abandoning any human conception of justice or decency? The only way I can see to resolve the Problem of Evil without making God either impotent or malevolent is to deny that evil really exists, to say that the torture of children isn’t really so bad when you look at it in a wider context. Camus forcefully argues in The Plague and The Rebel that the latter amounts to quietism, to the abdication of responsibility to fight for good and against evil and an acceptance of whatever happens as right. In other words, it’s power-worship.

Consequently, the Problem of Evil forces us to choose between God and justice. You can worship God and His Creation, or you can stubbornly insist that things ought to be better, but you cannot do both. You cannot say that God is all-good and all-powerful and that His world is less than perfect.

So when I’m reminded that there are millions of people who not only believe in a Creator God (people believe all sorts of odd things, yours truly included) but endorse Him, it saddens me, because this seems like they’re basically rejecting moral responsibility and replacing it with obedience. Such transcendence of ethics via faith is what Kierkegaard counsels in Fear and Trembling: divine commands trump ethical responsibility. Personally, I’m unable to distinguish between trans-ethical obedience to God and trans-ethical obedience to the Fuhrer; I do not see an important ethical difference between Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice Isaac and Adolf Eichmann’s readiness to sacrifice Jews. Living as a moral agent is different from living as an amoral servant.

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