If humans are responsible for intervening in and preventing evil, does that mean God is equally so? Does divine non-intervention imply that God is either malevolent, impotent, or non-existent?
The problem of evil is often seen as the atheist’s trump card and for good reason. Our world has seen plenty of disgusting atrocities and the only natural responses are “Where is God?” and “Why didn’t He prevent this disaster from happening?” The argument, framed by skeptics, can be summed up in this popular quote from Epicurus,
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?”
The argument can also be illustrated by the following fictional example,
“Imagine that there is a young, strong man who happens to witness the rape of a woman across the street. This act is being carried out by an unarmed man who appears to be far weaker than the spectator. But suppose the spectator did nothing but observe, and when it was over, paid no further attention. Where is the difference between God and the spectator? God watches us suffer every day and yet He stands idly by even when He has the power to prevent such horrible acts. This can only mean He is either malevolent, impotent, or non-existent.”
That scenario packs quite a punch, hey? But we need to stop and think about why we feel that punch because this will be an important point further down. It isn’t the argument that’s affecting us, it is the act of rape itself that disgusts us. If the scenario used cheating at monopoly or stealing an orange from a fruit stall as an example the punch would be minimal if non-existent even though the argument wouldn’t change.
Here lies an assumption that humans are obliged to intervene in cases such as the above and if we wouldn’t accept non-intervention at a human level why do we make such exceptions for God? In order to address the argument, we need not look further than this assumption.
Firstly, the desire to intervene in such situations is incredibly noble, but we must note certain circumstances where an obligation may not apply. The assumption assumes our spectator wasn’t constrained in any way (i.e. if our spectator had his family with him and intervening would put them at risk, if there were two competing crimes happening at the same time, or he had other legal restrictions), so this should cause us to stop and think about how we use this objection.
Secondly, the argument implies that the reasons for the human spectator refusing to intervene are the same reasons God uses. Let’s see what happens if we use the same defence for our human spectator (free will) as we do with God.
God: “Child, why didn’t you intervene and stop that evil?”
Human spectator: “God, I didn’t intervene because I believe in free will, the same as you do!”
God: “But you cannot see if good will come from that evil. Didn’t I place you there and give you free will? Why didn’t you stop the criminal? Why didn’t you follow the moral compass I gave you?”
A human is simply not in the same standing as God for this objection to work. We cannot see the future or how things will play out. As many skeptics claim, we see absolutely no reason for evil to occur (even though in some cases we may be able to see how a hardship helped us in hindsight). All we can do is act and think in the present unless we were given some sort of divine knowledge that not intervening would somehow lead to a much greater good. God, on the other hand, is all-knowing. It may be possible that God is allowing this particular case for some greater good but we simply do not and cannot know such a thing, thus our spectator cannot use this as a reason to not intervene.
Skeptic’s argue that non-intervention, in cases where intervention is reasonably possible (excluding the circumstances we described above), is immoral, and we would wholeheartedly agree. Our spectator should learn from the consequences of evil and take the required preventive measures against it. Indeed, doesn’t the very presence of a spectator, in this case, suggests that God wants him to intervene? There is no reason to deny intervention on a human scale. But is it the same on the divine scale? Not necessarily.
To use a more familiar comparison, imagine that our spectator is now a large nation who keeps tabs on other smaller nations. One of those smaller nations is allowing a number of violent crimes to go unnoticed but they have the means to prevent it (such as their police force). Since the larger nation possesses more power than the smaller shouldn’t it intervene in the affairs of the other since it could easily do so?
Changing the scale from a smaller, human example to a national one shakes things up a little, for we now have two theatres of authority as opposed to one. How many times have you heard the news that one nation didn’t want to interfere with the internal affairs of another? This is known as the law of non-intervention, which is “a principle of international law that restricts the ability of outside nations to interfere with the internal affairs of another nation. At its core, the principle is a corollary to the right of territorial sovereignty possessed by each nation.”
It’s important to note that this international law is quite complex and there is no clear consensus regarding where cross-border intervention is applicable, but what we do know is that it’s only used sometimes in extreme circumstances and rarely, if ever, for smaller, domestic crimes. And even exceptions use force as a last resort.
The idea that one on a separate plane of authority is always obliged to intervene (with force) in the problems of another is not consistent with reality and bears no support from human law. Likewise, there is no apparent reason for God to forcibly intervene in the affairs of humanity in matters within our own responsibility and control. They are on completely different levels and we must not undermine our responsibility whenever we attempt to use the argument of evil against the existence of God. Our sub-authority is very real and this in no way implies that God is either malevolent or impotent if He chooses to hand it to us. Moreover, as I will argue below, we have the measures to prevent evil so this isn’t a case of God giving responsibility to one who cannot bear it.
“The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord‘s: but the earth hath he given to the children of men.” Psalm 115:16.
If we keep this in mind as we refer back to the conversation between God and our spectator we can reason that our spectator was God’s intervention, for God often works through humanity to achieve His purposes. Indeed, the moral compass (the very thought that we ought to do what is right) He has given us suggests that humanity is the dominate preventative measure against evil. God, through man, has established everything required to prevent crime, such as moral conscience, law, education, and emotional response (remember the disgust you felt when you read our scenario?) How many crimes are prevented by this system every single day?
When an act of evil does happen the only one to blame is the perpetrator. Most of the evil that happens is the result of the failures of man to act and think in the most common and effortless of ways (i.e. to value and treat others with respect and dignity). And when we act contrary to the ways God has taught us and the moral nature He has instilled in us can we really place the responsibility on another? Imagine the skeptic’s argument (that God should forcibly intervene) being used by the criminal in our scenario and you will get an idea as to who should receive the blame. God has called us to uphold and look out for the welfare of our fellow man. When our criminal or spectator abandons this calling they are betraying everything God taught them and placed within them. The problem isn’t God’s “non-intervention” but the refusal of self-intervention on the part of both the perpetrator and the spectator.
As we’re starting to see, the argument of evil itself provides the answer. We form the argument because we grieve over evil and because we grieve we have the means and will to prevent it. Whenever we witness the terrible consequences of evil that should only give us more determination to change ourselves and learn to live righteously. The solution to the problem is the face in the mirror and change always begins with us. That God should forcibly prevent evil (outside of the measures He has already taken) simply takes things out of perspective. Evil is our responsibility to prevent and correct. Refusing to acknowledge that may cause us to adopt an entitlement that would result in far worse consequences than what we already experience (remember, we wouldn’t take the argument seriously if it was the criminal who said “If God wanted me to stop He should have made me”).
This brings me to the alternatives skeptics provide, but these alternatives are either worse than what we already have or virtually inconceivable. How should God go about forcing our criminal to stop? At what point should God step in? Should his muscles freeze up whenever he tries to attempt rape but not anywhere else? Should God put an invisible force field in front of the would-be rapist? Maybe the earth should swallow him whole when he decides to carry out his act? Our skeptics claim that it is common sense that the problem of evil results in God’s non-existence but what else are they suggesting exactly? And remember, it isn’t the argument that upsets us but the act of rape itself in our scenario. A good argument should be consistent so we would have to insert these kinds of preventive measures for any and every act of sin, no matter how small it may be. If that is what we desire we should ask ourselves if we’re ready to submit to a world of complete chaos and inconsistency due to the vast amount of miraculous interventions happening around us (if one tries to argue that since God is all-powerful He should be able to make it work then the argument becomes pointless because it argues that God and suffering cannot exist for it is impossible).
Furthermore, if God forcibly halted us every time we wanted to hurt someone, for example, how long would it take before we give up on discipline and self-intervention altogether, knowing that God will always intervene anyway? How long before we cease taking preventive measures and using common sense? How long before we forget the horror of evil and become apathetic? How long before we stop trying?
I know God intervenes in our personal lives, but it is always with gentle coercion as opposed to a forceful objection. I know He has changed my life and He is still doing so, convicting me of wrongdoings and pointing me in the right direction. I’m glad He had patience with me and didn’t “intervene,” so to say, by casting judgement earlier on. The Lord is gracious, full of mercy and compassion, and He always gives us a chance to change and embrace Him. And even when evil occurs He is working through them to achieve the greatest good for those who have been hurt. There is an eternity and if those who carry out evil do not change there is punishment awaiting them. God isn’t apathetic nor is He watching on the sidelines. He’s invested in every second of our lives and He weeps for those who have been hurt.
Above all, He has promised an end to pain through the victory on the cross and it is this promise we carry to the broken and hurting. He offers a place of grace and urges us to come. Finally, there is a preventive intervention but there is also a post-event-intervention. This is where family, caregivers, and others offer care and mental support to trauma victims. Neglect at this point is often worse than the moment of evil itself and can sometimes lead to suicide. Even if we abandon our responsibility there is always another chance. It is never too late.