The Problem of Good: Thinking about God and Evil with “The Giver”

One of the great questions that fixes the attention of thinkers in our generation about the existence of God is the Problem of Evil. The argument is so simple it is almost sublime. I summarize the argument here in this Prezi (if it doesn’t work on your screen, click here):

Usually, God is defined in these three key ways:

  1. Omnipotence: God is able to do all things that can possibly be done.
  2. Omnibenevolence: God is all-good, all loving, without evil.
  3. Omniscience: God knows all things which can be known.

Granted these three things, we are left with what I call the Omnitrilemma:

There is evil in the world and people suffer. Yet, God is powerful enough to stop evil, is totally good, and knows perfectly well it will occur. One of the attributes most fall:
God does not know that evil will occur, or
God is not willing to stop the evil, or
God is not able to stop the evil.

Granted that God knows evil will happen—even I know that!—and is able to stop the evil, why might God not be willing to? This is the problem of evil? As C.S. Lewis put it:

“If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.” The Problem of Pain, 16.

In teaching, I’ve discovered that few students have problems grasping this logic. Philosophers can make it more precise, but the steps are pretty clear. Even people who believe in God can appreciate the logic as it sits. Beyond the intellectual steps, we feel the contradiction of a good, strong God who created a world with such pain. I push the point home in class by listing the most deadly disasters of history: storms, wars, disease, and childbirth. But anyone who has held a dying child, or has felt lost in the fog of depression, or has felt their dreams slip away knows that something isn’t right.

In thinking about this problem, though, we not only have a Problem of Evil. We also have a Problem of Good. I lay the problem out here in this Prezi (again, if it doesn’t work on your screen, click here):

The reverse logic swings the pendulum the other way. What would a world without evil look like? C.S. Lewis anticipates this question:

“We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of this abuse of free will by His creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound-waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void” (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 24).

A world where evil was not allowed is a world in which we have no real freedom. We might protest, though: Is that freedom really important? Here are some consequences of a world without evil:

  • without evil we wouldn’t be able to develop traits like patience or appreciation or thankfulness
  • what would be the use of courage or honour or bravery without evil?
  • what would the world be without a sense of risk?
  • it is probably true that there wouldn’t be true love without free will—love has to be chosen freely; it can never be contrived

Perhaps you aren’t convinced. In class I used a book and a film to drive the Problem of Good home.

First, I used The Giver by Lois Lowry. It is a brilliant book that immediately captures the problem of a world where evil is disallowed:

“It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.” Thus opens this haunting novel in which a boy inhabits a seemingly ideal world: a world without conflict, poverty, unemployment, divorce, injustice, or inequality. It is a time in which family values are paramount, teenage rebellion is unheard of, and even good manners are a way of life. But Jonas has been chosen for something special. When his selection leads him to an unnamed man -the man called only the Giver -he begins to sense the dark secrets that underlie the fragile perfection of his world” (Digital Book Jacket).

Despite all its flaws, the recent film starring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, and Brenton Thwaites does capture the world of Sameness in The Giver. I think the trailer captures some of the uniformity that is meant to protect people from evil:

The Giver in book form is more complex it how it understands the evil behind the good veneer of the totalitarian state–the pretended utopia. The movie, however, does capture how a world without pain means we will live in a world without love.

This little clip can’t quite do it justice, but in the film we discover that the two concepts are entwined. In order to eradicate prejudice and hatred, we eradicate differences, thus losing individuality. And in order to get rid of pain, we must lose the risk that allows us to love. Lowry’s invention of a young adult dystopia invites us to ask “what if?” questions and play out some of the answers. In doing so, we discover that love, courage, and truth are dangerous things.

The second approach I took in introducing the Problem of Good was to watch the film, The Invention of Lying. This brilliant Ricky Gervais-Jennifer Garner film has an unusual premise:

It sounds like an idea that religious people–people who claim to believe in Truth–could sign up for: a world where we simply aren’t capable of lying. But as the film explores, beyond social embarrassment, a world without lies lacks great things. What do we gain in a world with lies? The opportunity to not tell the truth means:

  • we get fiction and fantasy
  • we get belief and hope
  • we get love
  • we get Ricky Gervais

What do we lose in a world with the potential of telling a lie? Is the loss worth it?

We can never know. These fictions allow to explore utopias. I had always thought that “utopia” came from the Greek eu + topos, i.e., “good + place” It actually came from ou + topos, i.e., “no + place.” Though I think we can read ambivalently, “utopia” is a nowhere place because a place of human existence without pain or loss or evil is impossible. It always slips into totalitarianism or inhumanity (and the latter is usually the result of the former).

While the world we live in seems a poor fit to the God that believers worship, that inconsistency that we call the Problem of Evil leads us always to the Problem of Good. Unless we are free to do evil, we can never do good. Unless we are free to lie, we can never have hope. Unless we are free to dishonour, we can never be faithful. And unless we are free to hate, and free to display our hatred to the world, we can never be free to love.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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14 Responses to The Problem of Good: Thinking about God and Evil with “The Giver”

  1. CesarAKG says:

    “Unless we are free to do evil, we can never do good. Unless we are free to lie, we can never have hope. Unless we are free to dishonour, we can never be faithful. And unless we are free to hate, and free to display our hatred to the world, we can never be free to love.”

    The question is, in a world with a loving, omnipotent and omniscient god, why people chose to to hate, lie, kill, and dishonour? Why there are people that believe in such a god and does such things? And why people that don’t believe in any god don’t do evil?

    Why people chose to do evil, when they can chose to do good? Or is it that you can’t chose to love, be compassive, and so on? Is it determined by your genes or something you haven’t control? Is it a learned behavior? As you learn to walk, you learn to deal with negative emotions and impulses, and learn deal with it in a positive way?


  2. The underlying illusion is to think that there is no pain which serves any good end – “… the ground-breaking medical discovery is that leprosy does its damage by destroying nerve endings. People who lose pain sensation then damage themselves by such simple actions as gripping a splintered rake or wearing tight shoes. Pressure sores form, infection sets in, and no pain signals alert them to tend to the wounded area. Most people view pain as an enemy. Yet, as my leprosy patients prove, it forces us to pay attention to threats against our bodies. Damaged faces, blindness, loss of fingers and limbs – all occur as side-affects of painlessness. Who would ever visit a doctor apart from pains warnings?” [Dr. Paul Brand]
    “First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God.”!” [LADY JULIAN OF NORWICH]


    • Yes, that’s the illusion that I’m trying to disenthrall our culture of. I think “heaven has flames,” to misquote another apologist. I think love has edges, and the universe has meaning with the pain in it.
      The best atheist challenge came form C.S. Lewis as a youngster (and a 100 others since): the trade off is not worth it. I can’t dispute that, really, because the value statement is non-falsifiable. But, watching my son grow and having watch my father’s little son perish with him, I still think it is worth it. Regardless, this is our reality.


      • Elaborate a little on your comment – “watching my son grow and having watch my father’s little son perish with him,” if you would please, I don’t see the context here of what you are saying.

        BTW, two more underlying illusions about pain that you will have to help people “un-learn” are:-
        1. there is nothing to which pain is preferable
        2. pain is the ultimate of evils

        You are coming up against the atheists “deadly” argument against Christianity here and the logic always goes something like this:
        1. If Christianity is true, then God is both benevolent toward humankind and infinitely powerful.
        2.If God is benevolent toward humankind and infinitely powerful, then He will see fit to it that we do not suffer.
        3. God does not see to it that we do not suffer.
        Therefore: Christianity is false, since God is either not benevolent or not powerful, to which the presence of suffering testifies.


        • Strictly speaking, I’m still in theism. As the cross takes suffering into itself, it is there that Christianity offers a unique response.
          But yes, that’s the logic. Behind that is that God must know all.
          What I meant in that obscure sentence about son and father is that I have suffered, and I still think this world worth it for the suffering. But I acknowledge that it is always a very dangerous for someone of privilege (class or race or gender or global space) to pass off suffering. Still, I’m convinced that this God is good for creating this world, despite the pain.
          I happen think it is in the most comfortable ages that we find pain and evil the most intolerable.


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