Waves of destruction wash away belief in God's benevolence December 30, 2004 Compassion is the best response when humanity faces the problem of evil, writes Edward Spence. "Why did you do this to us, God? What did we do to upset you?" asked a woman in India this week, a heart-wrenching question asked in common these past few days by Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians. Nothing could have prepared us for what happened when the tsunami unleashed its terror. So we seek answers where answers are hard to come by, in either secular or sacred realms. Traditionally, the Judeo-Christian God, considered the most supreme and perfect being in the universe, has been ascribed the following necessary attributes: omniscience (all-knowing), omnipresence (present everywhere at all times and at once), omnipotence (almighty and powerful) and benevolence (all good and caring). How, then, did a God as powerful and benevolent as this allow such a thing to happen? If he is benevolent then he cannot also be omnipotent, for a God who has both these attributes would have wanted to, cared to and been able to prevent such a catastrophe. Perhaps, though omnipotent, He is not benevolent. That might explain why, although it was within His power to stop the tsunami, He simply chose not to: God has His own reasons and we are not to ask why. However, this answer will not suffice since by definition God is perfect. Being perfect, He must of necessity not merely be omnipotent but benevolent as well. Advertisement AdvertisementA possible solution to this problem, traditionally known as the problem of evil, was offered by the heretical Manicheans, who believed not in one supreme being but two: one good God responsible for all the good things in life and another bad God, Satan, responsible for all the evil in the world. St Augustine, a follower in his early 20s, became an ardent critic of this doctrine, thinking a weak God powerless to defeat Satan was not worth worshipping. Philosophically, if God is perfect, then there can be only one perfect God, not two. In any case, evil is an imperfection and thus not a characteristic that can be attributed to God. If the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are at play and the deaths caused by the tsunami are a cosmic payback in the form of karma, does that offer a solution, albeit a philosophical one, to the problem of evil? I think not. For how can children, some as young as a few months, who had not yet lived their lives, deserve to be punished so cruelly for their past sins - especially when they have not been offered the promised divine opportunity to atone for those sins through another life? Even if solutions are forthcoming to these philosophical conundrums, humanely speaking they make little sense. Perhaps that is why some people remain sceptical about the presence of any divine providence ruling over us. A compromise solution, between secular scepticism and a psychological need for the sacred, was offered by the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Although believing in gods, he claimed these divine beings would not want to diminish their heavenly happiness by mingling in the sordid affairs of mortals. For Epicurus, the gods were not crazy but simply indifferent to both human joys and sorrows. When it comes to social or natural evils, we are all alone. But if natural disasters are merely random events caused by the uncaring and blind forces of nature, does this offer us any comfort or meaning in the face of the apocalyptic events on Boxing Day? Even if our heads offer us such solutions, our hearts refuse to follow. For the problem of evil is an existential problem that confronts our own individual mortality and vulnerability to unknown and unexpected disasters. Ultimately, heartfelt tears shed in earnest and with compassion, with offerings of charity for those who have suffered, are more meaningful than any theological and philosophical treatise on the problem of evil. Especially at Christmas when, according to the gospels, love is the single core message. Perhaps this is the essence, if the legend is true, of what God learnt from us when He walked and suffered as a man among us. Ultimately, the problem of evil confronts us not as a puzzle to be solved but as a mystery to be experienced. And as Jesus and Plato before him indicated, the meaning of the mystery of life can be found only by experiencing another great mystery - the mystery of love. Dr Edward Spence is a philosopher at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University.