Shiur #17: The Problem of Evil in the World

  • Rav Chaim Navon


A.        What is the Problem?


The problem of evil or injustice in the world has occupied humanity since antiquity. In modern western philosophy the term for the attempt to reconcile evil with the existence of a benevolent God is called theodicy. In traditional Jewish philosophy the problem is formulated as "tzaddik ve-ra lo, rasha ve-tov lo" – the suffering of the righteous and prospering of the wicked. Long before scholarly attempts to reconcile this reality began to be formulated, Avraham – the first monotheist – protested against the injustice that he encountered:


God said: “Because the cry of Sedom and Amora is great, and because their sin is extremely grave, I shall go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to its cry which has come to Me; and if not, I shall know…” And Avraham drew near and said: “Will You then destroy the righteous together with the wicked? Perhaps there are fifty righteous within the city – will You still destroy them, and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in its midst? Far be it from You to do such a thing; to slay the righteous along with the wicked, that the righteous shall be considered like the wicked. Far be it from You; shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” And God said: “If I find in Sedom fifty righteous, within the city, I shall spare the entire place for their sake." (Bereishit 18:20-26)


Close inspection of the argument shows that Avraham is not protesting against the fate of the righteous; rather, what disturbs him is that they suffer the same fate as the wicked. This is a fundamental element of the problem of evil in the world. If there were some clear hierarchy for the righteous and the wicked, then even if both classes suffered, we would understand this to be divine justice: perhaps even the most saintly individual has many more transgressions to his name than the merits that he has acquired, and therefore he is unworthy of any sort of positive reward. What disturbs us is the injustice: the fate of the righteous seems no better than that of the wicked. Sometimes righteous people suffer even more.


The prophets grappled with the same question. For example:


You would be right, O God, were I to contend with You; yet I will reason these matters of justice with You: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are all those happy, who deal most treacherously? (Yirmiyahu 12:1)


And of course there is the Book of Iyov, which is devoted in its entirety to this very problem. In fact, the issue of evil in the world is the only philosophical problem to which an entire book in the Tanakh addresses itself. We may assume that the reason for this is that the issue is not an abstract, theoretical one, but rather a most agonizing, existential problem.


It is important to understand that the problem of the existence of evil in the world arises from the fundamental assumptions of Judaism. The two central prepositions that we assert with regard to God are: a. that He is goodness and truth; and b. that He is power and might. The combination of these two statements produces our question: if God is good, and also omnipotent, why does He not fashion the world as a good and just place?


Irish historian Arnold Toynbee once remarked that the Jews take pride in being the first monotheists; this suggests that in the religious realm, all that they care about is numbers. What is the great difference between faith in three gods (or twenty, for that matter), and faith in One God? One answer is that One God is the source of both morality and power. When there is a multiplicity of gods, power is divided among them. But justice cannot be divided: a semi-justice and another semi-justice together make one great injustice. Therefore, the pagan gods were amoral and immoral – as is apparent in the stories of Greek mythology, for example, and even the ancient Greek philosophers scorned their moral value.


The Gnostics, a group of ancient pagan Christian philosophical sects, believed (under the influence of Zoroastrianism) in two gods: a god who was good but weak, and a god who was evil and powerful and who ruled the world (the demiurge). This is the epitome of the pagan view: power and goodness as two separate entities. Judaism believes in the unity of power and goodness, and therefore expects the world to behave morally. Unfortunately, reality is quite different. Hence - the problem of evil.


B.        The Rambam's Approach

In the first book of the Guide, the Rambam deals mainly with the question of religious language. In the second book, he focuses on theoretical theological questions, such as the existence of God, the creation of the world, and prophecy. In the third part he moves on to specific issues, including some that continue to be debated to this day. It is here that the Rambam formulates his important and famous position on the question of evil:


Men frequently think that the evils in the world are more numerous than the good things; many sayings and songs of the nations dwell on this idea. They say that a good thing is found only exceptionally, while evil things are numerous and lasting. Not only common people make this mistake, but even many who believe that they are wise…


The evils that befall man are of three kinds: The first kind of evil is that which is caused to man by virtue of the fact that he is subject to genesis and destruction, or that he possesses a body. It is on account of the body that some persons happen to have great deformities or paralysis of some of the organs. This evil may be part of the natural constitution of these persons, or may have developed subsequently in consequence of changes in the elements, e.g., through bad air, or thunderstorms or landslips. We have already shown that, in accordance with the divine wisdom, genesis can only take place through destruction, and without the destruction of the individual members of the species the species themselves would not exist permanently…


The second class of evils comprises such evils as people cause to each other, when, e.g., some of them use their strength against others. These evils are more numerous than those of the first kind…


The third class of evils comprises those which everyone causes to himself by his own action. This is the largest class, and is far more numerous than the second class. It is especially of these evils that all men complain, only few men are found that do not sin against themselves by this kind of evil… This class of evils originates in man's vices, such as excessive desire for eating, drinking, and love: indulgence in these things in undue measure, or in improper manner, or partaking of bad food. This course brings diseases and afflictions upon body and soul alike…. Those who are ignorant and perverse in their thought are constantly in trouble and pain, because they cannot obtain as much of superfluous things as a certain other person possesses. They as a rule expose themselves to great dangers, e.g., by sea-voyage, or service of kings, and all this for the purpose of obtaining that which is superfluous and not necessary. When they thus meet with the consequences of the course which they adopt, they complain of the decrees and judgments of God… (Guide, III:12)


The Rambam prefaces his discussion of the problem of evil with the assertion that people overstate its importance: there is less evil in the world than people imagine – even wise people. It is possible that the Rambam alludes here to the words of Rav Sa'adia Gaon:


All goodness in this world is connected to evil; all joy – to heartache; all pleasure – to sorrow; and all happiness – to anguish. And I find that in terms of quantity either they are balanced, or the sorrowful elements outweigh the joyous ones. (Ha-nivchar Be-emunot U-vede'ot, 9:1).[1]


Why do people make this mistake? Because they view themselves as the center of the universe, such that they tend to view any problem or suffering that they encounter as possessing cosmic significance. In fact, individual people are unimportant in relation to reality as a whole, and therefore the blows that they suffer from time to time do not indicate any general problem with reality.


The Rambam wrote a letter to his disciple, R. Yosef ben Shimon, upon the death of "his young daughter." Some authorities understand this as a reference to the Rambam's own daughter. In the letter he writes:


My son, do not mourn and do not be grieved, neither over a male nor over a female… for there is no scheming in this reality… [Rather,] a person should consider and focus on the good in the matters of the general reality of the species, rather than considering and focusing on the good in his own private affairs. (Iggerot Ha-Rambam I, Shilat edition, p. 262)


Nevertheless, one must still address the various sufferings that befall the individual and explain them. The Rambam enumerates three types of suffering that man encounters.


The first type of damage arises from the nature of the world. A righteous person may die in a hurricane when his car is swept away as he is on his way to deliver food parcels to poor families. Such catastrophes are the inevitable result of man being human and mortal. God created man, and the entire world, out of finite material. He did so in order that there would be a turnover of individuals, so as to ensure the survival of the human race. The alternative would have been to create a small number of people and creatures that would have lived forever, never bearing offspring (for the world is not capable of supporting unlimited numbers of living things). God's choice, then, was to create the Earth's creatures out of finite material – and this material can be harmed and damaged in various ways. However, instances of such damage are few in relation to the other two types – as we shall see.


The German philosopher Leibniz proposed an explanation for the problem of evil in the world – or theodicy, as it is known amongst philosophers – similar to that set forth by the Rambam. He sums up his response to the problem of evil by positing that this world is the best of all possible worlds. In other words, like the Rambam, he acknowledges that the world is not perfect, but it is the best world that could exist. We have seen already that the Rambam does not hesitate to state that there are some things that God cannot do: not in the sense of limiting God's power, but rather in the sense that such things are themselves not logically possible. A pseudo-philosophical problem that confounds many young people is the question: can God create a boulder that He Himself cannot lift? The simple answer to the question is that the concept of "a boulder that God cannot lift" is meaningless; it is an empty set, mere words. One might ask, by the same token, whether it is possible for God to create a four-sided triangle. The very concept makes no sense, and therefore the question itself is meaningless. Admittedly, the question was indeed debated by philosophers, and Descartes maintained that God could in fact create a four-sided triangle.


Nevertheless, this was not the Rambam's view, and he expands his explanation concerning the nature of physical matter to other spheres, as well. For example, he states that God could not create a world that is matter, but which does not feature death and other disasters. This is in no way a diminishing of God's power; quite simply, "a world in which there is matter but in which there is no death" is an empty set. It can't exist.


Nevertheless, we must still explain why God does not prevent catastrophes in certain individual instances. Why could He not intervene and stop the hurricane from killing the righteous individual going about his deliveries? God created the world in such a way that it features hurricanes. And in an encounter between a hurricane and a human being, the hurricane wins. But why could God not halt that particular storm as it approached and threatened someone who did not deserve to die?


The second type of evil is the damage that people cause to one another. This, too, is relatively infrequent. The Rambam maintains that God cannot be blamed for damage inflicted by people. However, here too we must ask: why could God not prevent this damage? Why does He not send a bolt of lightning to strike a robber who breaks into the home of a righteous person?


The most common form of damage, according to the Rambam, is the sort that a person inflicts on himself. A person lives a wild, lawless, promiscuous lifestyle, with no heed to the dangers to his health or to the dictates of morality, and then he blames God for the damage that his lifestyle brings upon him. But someone who smokes three packs of cigarettes every day, for forty years, cannot blame God for his lung disease. Mental illness too, according to the Rambam, arises from the excessive pursuit of indulgences. Unlike the pursuit of actual necessities which are defined and limited, the pursuit of indulgences has no end, and it leads a person to ongoing physical and mental turmoil. Someone who gives himself over to superfluous luxuries will ultimately endanger himself in the attempt to obtain them.


Seemingly, it is clear why God does not intervene to prevent the damages that a person brings upon himself. However, if we consider the matter from the perspective of reward and punishment, the problem still exists. For example, negligence in wearing a seat-belt does not, by law, carry the death penalty. It is certainly nowhere near as serious a crime as murder. So why does God not intervene where necessary to limit the harm that may be caused to a person who forgot, just once, to fasten his seat-belt?


The answer to all of these questions is the same: the Rambam limits God's active intervention in the running of the world. In his view, the problem of evil in the world is directed mainly towards the original planning and foundations: why did God create a world in which these various sorts of injustices are able to happen? The Rambam does not address the question of why God does not intervene in any specific instance and prevent harm or injury, because in his view, God does not intervene in the world on this level. We will take a closer look at his view of divine providence in our study of chapter seventeen of Book III. In the meantime, we will suffice with the brief overview that we have presented here.


The Rambam's answer to the problem of evil in the world is very precise and focused, in philosophical terms, but somewhat disappointing on the existential level. As we have seen, his answer consists of two parts. First, a great proportion of the evil in the world is inflicted by man upon himself, such that there is no room to blame God: "Man's foolishness perverts his way, and his heart frets against God" (Mishlei 19:3). Second, the other evils are the random and inevitable products of the nature of the world. Surely, this is of no comfort to a person who is experiencing any form of real suffering.


Translation by Kaeren Fish


[1]  Rav Sa'adia Gaon concludes, on this basis, that a person's true reward comes in the World to Come.