Q: How can God be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, if evil still exists in the world. If he is omnipotent and omniscient, he knows it is happening and he has the power to stop it, therefore, not doing so means that he is not omnibenevolent. If he is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then he can stop it and would stop it, but the only justification for why he doesn’t is that he is not omniscient. If he is omnibenevolent and omniscient, then he knows it is happening and wants to stop it, therefore not doing so can only be because he can’t, meaning he is not omnipotent. — A
A: Archibald MacLeish, in his play about the book of Job, had a character Nickles, who represents the devil, taunt another character, Zuss, who represents God, with this riddle, “If God is great, He is not good. If God is good, he is not God. Take the even, take the odd.” That, dear A, is your dilemma in brief.
The assumption of your question that has echoed down through the centuries is that an all powerful and all knowing and benevolent God has no logical reason not to stop evil in the world. The only possibilities are that God is not benevolent or not omnipotent. I disagree, and so did, among others, the philosopher Leibnitz. The key to exploding this theological log jam is the third quality of God, omniscience. Because God is all knowing it is obvious that God would create what Leibnitz called, “The best of all possible worlds.” Now it would seem clear that our world with all its suffering and injustice is quite far from being the best of all possible worlds. However, that is not true upon further inspection.
To understand why this world of ours is in fact the best of all possible worlds, we need to understand the origins of evil. Evil, according to Aristotle, comes in one of two types: natural evil and moral evil. Natural evil is evil caused by events in nature that bring suffering and death to humanity. Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and such are basically not the result of human sin although climate change must be considered as a contributing factor and climate change is on us. However, an above-ground or underwater earthquake are just the natural result of the cracking and moving of the earth’s crust and the earth has a moving crust because it has a molten core and the existence of a molten core makes the earth produce gasses that enable life to flourish here on planet earth. There is nothing inherently evil about the breathing in and breathing out of the earth’s crust.
Now let us consider moral evil, which is the evil in this world caused by us. Murder, war, oppression, racism, bigotry, and every example of wanton cruelty are all on us. We choose to do evil and our choices soil the world. We are able to make these bad choices because we are able to choose what we do and we are able to choose what we do because we have freedom of the will. God gave us this freedom and that freedom of the will makes us human. Animals do not have free will. They follow their instincts which coerce their actions. We alone are free to choose what we will do.
So the question now arises, “Why did God give us free will?” God could have made us like all the other animals or made us so that we always did the good but God chose to create us as choosing beings, endowed with free will. Why? The answer is that without free will we cannot love. We choose whom we shall love. We choose to love God. We choose to follow God’s law of life. Our choosing enables us to be in a covenantal relationship with God and with each other. So, Leibnitz concludes, and I concur, we are indeed living in the best of all possible worlds by a benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent God. The ways we choose evil only shows us that we have work to do to choose more wisely. The ways we choose goodness shows us that God was right. The evil in the world is on us not God. God could only take it away by making us less than human.
God has explained this in the Bible, but we do not read the Bible enough to hear its truth,
“I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
Hope this clears things up.
Take the even and the odd.
Send questions and comments to The God Squad via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.