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Puzzles About G-d

by Rabbi Dovid Gottleib

God is good -- indeed, He is perfect. And He knows about and can control everything that happens in the world. How then can there be evil? And there is evil! God can prevent it, and, being perfect, it seems He ought to change it. So how can evil exist?

This is not just an abstract philosophical problem. We want to feel that God knows us, and cares about us and for us. Rampant evil without any explanation makes it hard to feel that way. A person may give up his belief in God altogether in the face of evil. Or he may deaden his sensitivity and close off part of the world from his religious perception. In the first case he suffers spiritual death. In the second case he drastically limits his spirituality by limiting the contexts in which he can relate to God. If the intellect can provide a solution to this problem, his capacity to experience God will be restored.

Here is the solution: Evil can only exist if it is a necessary means to a greater good. For example, when a doctor inoculates a child to immunize him against a disease, the pain is evil. How can we prove this? Simply that next year, when they invent a pill for the same immunization, we do not expect the doctor to continue to use the injection. But now, when the injection is the only way to immunize the child, we tolerate the evil pain for the greater good of the immunization. All the evil in the world is like the pain of the injection.

Many people have experienced near-death, or even clinical death. They see visions, a tunnel or a light, and they hear voices. In addition, when they recover, they have a different appreciation for life. They speak about how precious life is -- what a wonderful gift it is. They treasure each day, each opportunity, and each experience. They are more alive after the experience than they were before. Their lives are better -- more focused, more sensitive, more profound. They are better off than they were.

Now a near-death or clinical death experience is full of pain. Physical pain, fright, despair, and emotional devastation can all be present. Nevertheless, what comes out of the experience is a great good. Most people who have had such experiences are grateful for it.

It does not take such an extreme experience to have a good effect. Often enough it can happen through more ordinary events. Injury, divorce, loss of job, death of a relative or friend, betrayal, loss of money -- these events and others can cause a person to question his life. What is really important? What am I doing here? What should my goals be? What are my priorities?

Often these questions are not asked because the answers seem so obvious. "I will finish my education, get a job, get married, have children, contribute to my community, have fun and ... eventually die. That's it." The "Why" question never arises. But when something disturbs the pattern, then the questions come. And sometimes answers come too.

Sometimes the answers call the whole picture into question.

"My own suffering made me see how much pain there is in the world. So I resolved to do something about it."

"I saw how much I needed support, so I now put much more into my relationships than I did before."

"I realized that I was relying on things that are transient -- not reliable. I decided to search for something in life that is really permanent, really absolute."

These people will be grateful for the experiences that lead them to their new insights and orientation to life.

The experiences were painful, and yet they led to a better life. Now some of the pain we experience in this world is God's way of trying to wake us up. "You are lost in the sandbox, you are playing with the electric trains. That is not what life is about! Look again!" In this way God uses evil to bring about good.

Free Will

Free will is what makes man capable of spirituality altogether. Why do we not describe animals as kind or cruel, just or unjust, fair or unfair, generous or miserly? And why do we not describe machines in these ways? The answer is that they don't make free choices. They are completely determined by their internal "programming" to do what they do. If people were like that, they would not be responsible for their actions. It is only because we make free choices that we are responsible, and then those choices can be kind or cruel, just or unjust etc.

So our ability to perfect ourselves depends upon free will. Now what does free will itself depend on? There has to be a reasonable psychological balance between the choice of good and the choice of evil. Our motivation has to be divided so that free will can decide between them. If we are not attracted in both directions, free will cannot make a choice.

The balance is achieved by giving the person two parts, the soul and the body. One is naturally attracted to good, and the other to evil. The person is thus pulled in both directions, and the free will can make the choice.

World Balance

But this is not enough -- soul and body. The world has to be balanced between good and evil also, otherwise we will not be psychologically free to choose.

For example, suppose every time you do something good, there is an immediate, tangible reward. And every time you do something bad, there is an immediate, tangible punishment. Then when the choice comes, you know the consequences. The payoff is clearly all on one side. These are not balanced choices.

To have balanced choices, the good must often lead to loss and suffering, while the bad must lead to profit and pleasure often enough that the body is really drawn to the bad, and the person is really divided within himself.

This is one reason why there is evil in the world. Why must good people suffer and bad people prosper much of the time? Because if it were not so, good people would not be good! They would simply be choosing their own benefit and avoiding their own loss. Being good means choosing the good, and in order to choose the good -- really choose it -- you have to be prepared to suffer for it. Only then is the choice balanced, so that the good is chosen for its own sake. Only then can the choice of good express goodness rather than self-interest.

The Need For Evil

Why should the body be regarded as naturally evil? Can anything created by God really be evil?

As we explained before, evil can exist only when it is a means to a greater good. So the body is a vehicle for good, even if it is naturally evil.

What do we mean by "evil?" Here there is a problem. We call two different kinds of things evil: suffering and crime. When there is suffering, we want to know how God can allow it in His world. When innocent people suffer (or even partly guilty people suffer far more than their bad actions deserve) it seems unfair, wrong -- evil.

Crime is also evil, even if no one suffers. Stealing ten dollars from a millionaire is wrong -- evil -- even if he will never notice the theft.

Now why should we use the same word for two such different types of things? The answer is that the root of all evil is one thing: being out of touch with God. If God is hidden or distant, if a person is "cut off" from God, that is evil.

Suffering and crime hide God's presence. That is why they are both called evil. God's purpose for the creation is a joyous relationship with Him. Pain is not the purpose. It is only a means. Thus when we see pain and suffering we do not perceive God's presence. He is hidden in the pain.

Free will enables man to express God's presence. When h does God's will, then we see God in the person's actions; When a person commits a crime, when he violates God's will then his action hides God's presence. We do not see God in him. We only see something opposing God's will.

So suffering and crime both hide God's presence. That is why they are evil. Now according to this definition of evil, God Himself does evil.

Does God Do Evil?

Let's take it apart. The root of evil is being separated from God, His being hidden. The whole creation hides His presence. The appearance of nature makes the world look as if it has no direction, no purpose. It was made that way intentionally. God hid Himself, and that is evil.

But, this evil has a purpose. We said before that if He had not hidden himself, then we would not have free will. Without free will we have no good at all. So this is like every case of evil: means to a greater good. But that does not take away the fact that it is evil, evil that God Himself does.

So now we understand why there is evil in the world. Yes God created the world in order to do good, to benefit His creatures. He created the world to express His love of His creatures. But in order to do that, He gave us free will, and that has a cost. The cost is that God hides His presence, and that means that we temporarily live with evil. He also uses suffering -- evil -- to help us focus our lives, to become more alive.

This changes the way we experience the pain and human failure that touch our lives. The hurt is real and should not b denied. But together with the hurt, we should remember the purpose. It is like the doctor. However much he apologizes, the surgery still hurts. But when it is over we thank him, because we know it was for our good. In the same way, we can feel grateful that God cares enough for us to bring us to the best possible circumstances, even though we might be in pain at the same time.

Once the intellect understands the purpose of evil, we can experience God, and even love Him, in the midst of the evil. It will no longer be a barrier to living in a conscious love relationship with God, and a fully spiritual life.

Reprinted with permission from



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