The Hardest Question in Theology

A little background. This started out with me trying to come up with a different way of summarizing the major answers to the question, “Why does God allow evil and suffering in the world?”. But it was late. And I was tired. And this is what came out. Let me know what you think. But don’t tell my wife.

Why do the innocent suffer? Why does God allow earthquakes? How could Adam and Eve sin? Do we have free will? No problem. I can handle these questions. But the one that really ties my theology in knots, the one that keeps me awake at night, preventing me from fully understanding how God could possibly be good, loving, all-powerful, and holy, is quite simply this: Why does God allow cats?

the problem of evil in theology

Here’s the conundrum:

  • God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-benevolent.
  • Cats are evil.
  • Cats exist.

Taken together, these create a real problem. How can cats exist if God created everything and God is all that we hope and believe him to be? Either God is not who we think that he is, or he has created something inherently evil. That’s what keeps me awake at night. (Well, to be more exact, what keeps me awake at night is my wife’s cat pawing at the door, meowing loudly, and then jumping on my head. But that leads directly to me being awake in the middle of the night trying to figure out why cats exist.) Theology is hard.

Over the centuries, people have proposed a variety of solutions. Looking at each closely, I think we can see that they all have some weaknesses.

1. The Wimpy God

This approach solves the problem by denying that God is all-powerful. He simply lacks the power to prevent the existence of cats. He’d like nothing better than to protect us all from these evil creatures. But he can’t. Maybe they were created by some other really powerful being (more on that in a moment), or maybe they just happened by chance. Whatever the cause, God simply doesn’t have the strength to limit this evil.

2. The Evil God

Taking a step in the wrong direction, this argument affirms God’s power but denies his goodness. God created cats because he’s mean. He knew full well how annoying cats would be, and he was fully capable of preventing them from coming into existence, but he made them anyway. He’s a powerful but evil deity. Not good. (Some will try to avoid the implications of this argument by saying that God is not evil; he’s just less than perfectly good. The problem is that “good” and “evil” don’t work like this. True goodness, like perfection, is an all-or-nothing deal. If God created evil, then he’s not perfectly good. And if he’s not perfectly good, then he’s evil. That’s how it works.)

3. The Twin God

This one is actually a subset of the first, but it’s common enough that I thought it should get its own category. Here God isn’t really responsible for the existence of cats; some other deity is. And the two deities are pretty evenly balanced. (Indeed, in many worldviews, they need to be perfectly balanced or the whole universe falls apart.) And the problem is that God’s twin brother likes cats (thus making him God’s evil twin). God is perfectly good and would prevent the existence of cats, but he can’t because his power is limited by his twin brother. (That’s why this is a subset of the first answer.)

4. The Ignorant God

Have you ever done something and only realized later what the implications would be? On this view, that’s what happened with cats. God made them without realizing what would happen. And, since kittens are pretty cute, I can sympathize. It’s tempting to say that God just made a bunch of cuddly little balls of fur without knowing that he was accidentally allowing demon spawn into his wonderful new creation. It was an accident. Humans had Pandora’s box; God had cats. It happens.

5. The Nice God

This approach actually fits with my theory that cats are really the result of a mad science experiment gone awry. God isn’t directly responsible for the existence of cats; he simply allowed them to come into being. He permitted their creation rather than doing it himself. Unlike some of these others which seem clearly unbiblical, this one appeals to people because it makes it sound like God is still all-powerful (he could have stopped it) and all-good (he didn’t create them himself). But the problem is in the combination of those two ideas. If he’s powerful enough to stop the evil and good enough to want to stop the evil, why didn’t he stop the evil? Just appealing to God’s “permissive will” alone isn’t going to cut it. We need some explanation of  why he permitted. And that’s where the next one comes in.

6. The Purposeful God

God permitted the existence of cats because they have a purpose. Cats themselves are evil, but they serve to produce some greater good. And since they fit into the “greatest good,” it’s okay that God allowed them to exist. Most commonly you’ll hear one of three reasons: (1) Cats serve the greater good by displaying God’s glory (e.g., their evil helps us see how amazingly good God is). (2) God allowed cats to come into existence because he wanted his creation to be free, which meant allowing it the freedom to head down evil paths. Or, (3) God allows stumbling blocks (like cats) to exist because they’re necessary for his people to grow into full maturity. (On this last view, even Adam and Eve were created relatively “immature” and needed to grow into God’s perfect plan.) Regardless of which version you choose, all three argue that God allows the existence of evil (cats) because he has some greater purpose in mind. The big problem here is that this sounds like “the ends justifies the means.” God can create a horrific evil like cats, but it’s okay because he’s doing it for really good reasons. I can think of all kinds of things I could justify that way.

7. The “Being” God

In its simplest form, I love this one. It goes something like this: (1) God is the perfect expression of true being. (2) True evil is the complete opposite of God. (3) Therefore, true evil is the absence of all being. (4) Cats are truly evil. (5) Therefore, cats do not exist. Unfortunately, this one is a little hard to affirm in its simplest form when my wife’s cat is sitting on my head. Explained a little better, though, what it means is that evil doesn’t really have its own existence. The things that we call “evil” are simply good things that have become corrupt and disordered. I suppose, then, that this approach would view a cat as some good thing that has become corrupted (maybe a hamster?). Even in this more nuanced form, though, this approach still has problems. Some don’t like the fact that it means “evil” doesn’t really exist – you only have corrupted forms of goodness. And sometimes you just want to be able to say that someone or something is evil. But more importantly for our purposes, it doesn’t really answer the question. It offers an interesting definition of evil that might be worth exploring, but it doesn’t really tell us why that evil exists (or, more accurately, why corrupted forms of goodness exist). So it’s not much help here.

8. The Relativist God

This one has become increasingly popular in recent years. Here we simply deny that cats are evil. Who are we to say what is evil anyway? Some people thinks llamas are evil, others fear ferrets. The simple truth is that there is no evil. Everything is inherently good. We just need to view things in the proper light. If you don’t mind destroying the entire concept of “evil,” this seems like a great solution. But it’s a little tough in light of both reality (dismissing evil is easy in the abstract, but it’s much harder when the cat is sitting on your head) and scripture.

9. The Mysterious God

This approach simply gives up. The question is too difficult. I could wrestle with the existence of cats until the sun comes up and the cat wants back in, and I still wouldn’t be able to come up with an answer. My belief in the goodness and power of God is unshakeable, and the existence and evil of cats is undeniable. How you put the two together is a complete mystery.

As you can see, it’s a terribly difficult problem. I’m not yet ready to admit defeat and cry “Mystery!”. But I still haven’t reached a satisfying conclusion. Maybe someday I’ll unravel this puzzle. Until then, I’ve kicked the cat outside and I’m going back to bed.

Comments

comments

16 Responses to “The Hardest Question in Theology”

  1. Noel Heikkinen March 19, 2012 at 6:31 am #

    Bravo.

  2. Lisa March 19, 2012 at 9:15 am #

    Or, there’s the possibility that because G-d is good, what He created is also good (cats). That would mean that our minds are too limited to understand why some things that seem evil are really good (cats). Some of us are at a higher level of enlightenment (holiness) and can see the goodness of cats, like your wife.

    • Marc Cortez March 19, 2012 at 9:34 am #

      I will quickly confirm that my wife has a higher level of both enlightenment and holiness. So no argument there. But cats are really good? Absurd. I suppose next you’ll be trying to convince that pickles are good too.

    • Chris Rindy June 4, 2012 at 11:15 pm #

      Is it a possibility that you’re all insane. By the way if you people didn’t get the memo god nor any other being of higher existence or intellectual superiority exists.

  3. Marc Cortez March 19, 2012 at 9:35 am #

    BTW – Pickels are an outstanding example of the idea that evil is actually the corruption of something that God created to be good.

  4. Jerome Wernow March 19, 2012 at 6:50 pm #

    Ah Hah … you in a moment/epoche of #9-ness have “bracketed” your knowledge of cats and God, suspending all judgments about their existence in relationship to one and Other in the context of goodness and evil in the external world; and thus suspended the question while waiting for a Johannine Blue Bolt moment. Husserl would concur-me too ;-) Let me know if or when it happens!

  5. Brian Roden March 20, 2012 at 9:58 am #

    One problem: Aslan is a big cat.

    • Marc Cortez March 20, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

      I think the idea that lions and tigers are just big “cats” is actually a myth promoted by the feline-industrial establishment. I think Aslan would be totally on board with the idea these little “cats” are thoroughly evil. Actually, I think he’d see them as imposters tarnishing the good name of lions and tigers everywhere.

  6. Marshall March 24, 2012 at 4:09 pm #

    Can we say that cats are a partially-formed example of something that will be beneficial when God completes His work? The potter’s thumb not yet smoothed out sort of thing. God’s judgment is from ends, not from transient forms. Call this the “Lazy God” hypothesis – God manages “by walking around” whenever possible.

  7. Roger P. Downey October 16, 2012 at 1:35 am #

    Have you also, though I imagine it must be hard, that it is simply YOUR opinion that cats are evil? After all, some people love and hate dogs which are viewed as faithful and as Man’s best friend. I’m also going lend this idea to you….some cats are evil, some are good. Animals can develop personalities of their own just like people, so it would only be fair to address their nature as such. Saying that, I enjoyed your little bit o’ writing!

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