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When you teach at a small Catholic school, theodicy is a question it’s relatively easy to get students excited about: how can God permit the world to be so full of suffering? The problem is finding a good reading to engage students’ interest, one that isn’t full of formal logic’s technical jargon. (We’re talking first-year non-majors taking a required class.) So far, alas, when I’ve found such jargon-free readings, they tend to be exclusively about the “problem of evil.” Which makes them useless.

Evil, per se, is something of a red herring when it comes to theodicy. Evil is what we think of first, after the human-inflicted horrors of the twentieth century. And yet evil is the easy part. Why is there evil? Because human beings have free will, of course, and it’s good for them to have free will. Now, there are some problems with the free-will defence, questions that Augustine grapples with in On Free Choice of the Will – why is it good for humans to have free will, if it leads to all these evil acts? But the answers to those problems are pretty well thought out – determinate good is just not as good as freely chosen good.

The tougher part of the problem is those sufferings for which free will is no defence. I think people understood this part better before the twentieth century, when human-caused suffering was lesser than the suffering of natural disasters – when, as Susan Neiman notes, the one-word reply to claims of God’s goodness was not Auschwitz but Lisbon. Young children, too young to have committed any serious wrong, die in earthquakes, in hurricanes and tsunamis, from tuberculosis. Old people get afflicted by ALS, a cruel degenerative disease that makes people prisoners in their own bodies. This is “evil” only in the old sense, where “evil” just meant “bad” – this isn’t something that we did, a bad action, it’s just a bad thing that happens. Some theologians have tried to come up with justifications for this as well; but it’s much harder to justify these natural sufferings. Can we really say that the torturous drowning of innocent children is justified as part of a larger plan?

People smarter than I am have answered yes. Maybe we can still legitimately believe in God in the face of natural suffering. But let’s not distract ourselves from the real issue by calling it the “problem of evil,” and allowing believers to get out of it with the far-too-easy answer of free will. Call it the problem of pain, as C.S. Lewis did; or call it the problem of suffering, a more common answer. But don’t weasel out of the problem by claiming it’s all about evil. There’s no point in explaining how God could permit Auschwitz if you can’t also explain how he could permit – or cause – Lisbon.