An old friend of mine (I’ll call him “José”) was in town recently, having had some business to attend to at the county courthouse, and he invited me to lunch.
Initially, I resisted. The middle part of the afternoon is my favorite time to work, as the office is a bit quieter during this time than it is during the frenetic mornings.
However, my friend was apparently aware of my inability to refuse a free meal. When he offered to pay, I had to grudgingly accept his invitation.
José works in law and possesses a keen mind with a talent for logical deduction. It sorts well with his choice of vocation.
In fact, he is rather fond of bragging, in a deadpan and self-deprecating manner, that he has never lost an argument except with his wife. “But that doesn’t count,” he says. “Because she doesn’t play by the rules.”
It seems to me, more and more, that I never know where a conversation will start or how it will end. Perhaps there is something about me, maybe I put out a strange sort of “come and ask me about obscure philosophical topic” vibe to which certain people respond.
Nevertheless, as my friend and I were finishing our meals, we started to move away from the small-talk pleasantries, and work. For it appeared that my friend had a somewhat “ulterior” motive for asking me to lunch on this day.
José had recently dealt with a case that was rife with tragedy and horrifying details, such that it had greatly afflicted his conscience.
“I just don’t understand how a divine being with any sense of justice could even tolerate the sort of things I see from time to time, let alone all the evil in the world.”
You see, my friend does not believe in a God of any form. His belief is that the origin of the universe is a “moot point” due to the fact that it exists presently.
In all of the conversations we have shared over this subject, the argument typically boils down to evidence. We usually end our conversations by “agreeing to disagree” with to what or Whom the evidence points.
However, on this afternoon, the essence of his inquiry rested upon that ancient controversy: the Problem of Evil.
Epicurus of Athens (341-270 BC) is credited with organizing the issue thus: “If a perfectly good God exists, then evil does not. However, there is evil in the world. Therefore, a perfectly good God does not exist.”
It is an alleged paradox that is easily untangled once all the facts of the matter are laid bare.
Now, more ink has been spilled on this issue than even proponents of a playoff system in college football could muster, and enough obnoxiously earnest first-year philosophy students have bloviated on this topic to put it up there with the “chicken or the egg” question. So I am not going to exhaust the few minutes I have left to elucidate my own overwrought reconciliation of the issue.
All the same, I empathized with my friend’s concern and I was humbled that he entrusted me with so profound an issue. However, I could not resist attempting to turn the tables on a man who possessed the skill to perhaps give me a run for my money.
“Would you, for the sake of argument, be willing to grant that a truly benevolent God is able to provide a morally justifiable reason for the existence of evil in the universe?” I asked. “Though you may not know what it is or, if you do know, you do not agree?”
After a moment’s hesitation, a slight smile tugged at the corner of his face, but he agreed that this was as acceptable condition.
“Then, I tell you, such a reason exists,” I said, grinning like the cat who had eaten the canary.
His slight smile disappeared. “Hold on, you’re not getting out of it that easy,” José said.
Rightly so, as it was a kind of a nasty rhetorical trick, but I explained that the problem of evil is not a problem at all once evil is rightly understood. For, as Augustine was teaching way back in the fourth century, evil has no substance of itself, except that it is a corruption of that which is good.
I rambled on about how I believed the issue to be more psychologically-based than philosophical or even theological. I talked a bit longer than I should have perhaps, but after a while we both grew silent for the first time that afternoon.
The waitress was hovering, having long since taken away our plates and refilled our glasses at least three or four times, plus we both needed to get back to work.
Still, I couldn’t resist getting in one final parting shot.
“Next time, I’ll buy,” I said, smiling at him. “Then you can explain to me how an atheist accounts for the existence of good in the world.”