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To Address the Problem of Evil, Intelligent Design Is Better Situated than Darwinism

Image source: Discovery Institute Press.

In the new young adult novel The Farm at the Center of the Universe, by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jonathan Witt, something that makes the main character relatable is his struggle with the problem of evil. Why did 13-year-old Isaac have to watch his dad suffer and die? Why do Isaac and his siblings have to grow up without a dad? The questions the young protagonist asks may be more raw, but the questions I see coming into the Center for Science and Culture from our readers, friends, and supporters are just as thought-provoking. People universally want to know why there is suffering. A good, all-powerful designer wouldn’t design a world full of violence and hardship, some not unreasonably say. I want to try to address that concern, since I believe that intelligent design proponents are better prepared to answer this tough challenge than Darwinists are. 

Before We Get Started

At a fundamental level, notice that the question itself picks away at the underpinnings of Darwinian evolution. Before you can ask, “Why is there evil?” you need to ask, “Is there evil?” To speak of good and evil is to recognize something beyond the naturalistic world, as design theorists do readily. On the other hand, a strictly naturalistic outlook can’t very well censure bribery, because morality isn’t material.

Attempts to extract morality from science are embarrassing. As an example, biologists such as Edward O. Wilson and Frans de Waal look to primate behavior as a source of our moral code. In a New York Times article exploring their approach, Nicholas Wade wrote, “Biologists … believe that if morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are.” By this reasoning, morality is no more than behavioral patterning, and approving either violent or constructive social behavior is all a matter of personal taste.

If we appeal to biology alone, “evil” is rendered meaningless. Because atoms, molecules, and laws of nature do not in themselves value life, let alone goodness, Darwinists when they comment on good and evil must borrow values consistent with a design perspective.

Good Design, Bad Design — It’s All Design

Skeptics of design are also mistaken in thinking that the presence of evil undermines design theory. Identifying good or evil in the universe is a religious or philosophical pursuit, not a scientific one. An illustration will make this clear. As design proponents like to point out, an ethicist may be troubled that the Tacoma Narrows bridge famously collapsed under high winds, but it would be unscientific to conclude that the bridge, because of construction flaws, had evolved instead of being designed. Design is design, whether poor, or even malevolent.

How Could a Good Designer Allow Evil?

Coming to the crux of the matter, the presence of evil and suffering calls for justification, and intelligent design theory provides a more satisfactory answer than Darwinism does. Evolutionary theory dehumanizes mankind and our history as a desperate struggle for life, from sludge to animal and beyond. “Slay or be slain” is the rule, and coming out on top is all that matters regardless of how much suffering you leave in your wake. The justification for evil is this — did you come out the winner or the loser?

By contrast, design theory is compatible with the existence of a God who gives His handiwork free will. The paradox of free will is that it is the precondition for both good and evil. If Jack has no option to steal a Ferrari, then he can’t exercise virtue in not stealing one. If Jack easily could steal one but doesn’t, then his conduct is the more admirable. If humanity has a supernatural designer capable of making us in His own image and giving us free will, then the existence of evil is the less surprising. It would seem that this designer God valued mankind’s capacity to choose good, even if that meant giving humanity the ability to choose evil as well. God wanted free beings, not automatons.

Sure, you may be thinking, I see the importance of people being able to make moral decisions. But what about earthquakes, or my grandmother with cancer, or even my pet with an eye infection? Is there a reason for all this pain? These questions pose the problem of innocent suffering in a natural context, often called the problem of natural evil.

In The Farm at the Center of the Universe, Isaac’s cousin Charlie stumps him with a similar question. Charlie maintains that a good God would not make a world where people struggle to heat themselves or to grow enough food in cold climates. Isaac’s grandfather shows the design constraints involved:

You have to think about trade-offs. Yes, it would be nice to have warm weather year-round so plants would grow. That’s actually how it is in the tropics. But the fact that there are warm seasons and cold seasons in many parts of the Earth, and colder and warmer zones, helps circulate the oceans. If we could snap our fingers and make the planet’s temperature evenly warm year-round and pole to pole, the oceans wouldn’t circulate much, and you would end up with a lot of dead zones that had very few fish or other aquatic life.

The Farm at the Center of the Universe, p. 82

Frequently, an accusation of malevolent design unearths a system of trade-offs, optimally designed.

Recognizing design constraints doesn’t make suffering easy. Mathematician Granville Sewell has described this reality poignantly in an article here, “The Biggest Theological Objection to Design.” Sewell’s understanding of suffering is that it is the necessary accompaniment to life’s benefits and pleasures. For example, gravity simultaneously keeps us from floating into space and enables tragic airplane crashes. “We know that the laws of Nature and of life do not bend at our every wish,” he writes, “and it is precisely this knowledge which makes our achievements meaningful.” Similarly, he establishes evil as the inevitable by-product of free will, pain of loss as the risk of love. Telling of his wife’s ultimately fatal struggle with cancer, Sewell shows how depth of character, more precious than gold, comes out of suffering.

The Destruction of a Good Design

An epic-length footnote on page 497 of Stephen Meyer’s Return of the God Hypothesis suggests that suffering may be the result of man’s Fall. Meyer points out that, just as there are signs of a good original design, there are signs of its subsequent decay. He takes as an illustration the virus Yersinia pestis, responsible for the plague. This microorganism was originally harmless to us, but four or five mutations over the course of human history rendered it deadly. The bacterium shows the devolution of a good design, consistent with both a good designer and a Fall.

C. S. Lewis also wrestled with natural evil. Richard Hill, a contributor to The C. S. Lewis Readers’ Encyclopedia, edited by John West, summarizes. He writes, “[Lewis] saw nature as a being that, like man, was corrupted by the Fall. Discounting the theory of Creative Evolution (that all of nature is evolving toward perfection) Lewis viewed nature as almost synonymous with human nature: both wonderful and terrible, capable of great beauty and great cruelty, but bound to corruption rather than improvement” (p. 129). Lewis affirms nature as originally good, but now twisted. The distortion of nature’s original state is consistent with design, a design that has been subjected to abuse. A pottery pitcher, after a fall, shows signs of both design and destruction. The beauty and brokenness we see around us are not signs of evolution, but of design that has been damaged.

The Flip-side — The “Problem” of Good

Immorality and suffering are compatible with a design perspective. More than that, I believe design theory explains something even more astounding: the “problem” of good. If naturalistic, unguided selection of molecular arrangements were the rule in life, then one would predict an absence of impressively speedy hummingbirds glinting among the dazzling flowers that fuel them. Without a designer, one wouldn’t expect optimized cosmological trade-offs allowing for life and scientific discovery. Without a mind behind the universe, one would predict irrational, unprincipled behavior in humanity (if people even came to exist). On the other hand, beauty, optimization for human life, and human virtue are all highly puzzling — except in light of a designer acting in the history of the universe.

That evil and suffering could be turned to the good is even more stunning, and explicable only if there is a designer. Our earlier analogy of the broken pitcher helps illustrate. The pieces could be left and trampled underfoot — or a designer could repurpose the shards. Just as, through further design, the pieces of a broken pitcher may later form a mosaic, the heartbreak in life may serve another purpose.

In our experience, do we see this repurposing of hardship? Yes. Physical or mental pain has often been used to sharpen people’s moral senses. Those faced with death are readiest to extend apologies and forgiveness. When a beloved child suffers from a disease, hard-bitten businessmen are suddenly humbled, sensitized to the pain of others. Moved by a family member’s trials, whole lives have been spent in medical advancement or whole institutions created for emergency relief. As C. S. Lewis put it in The Problem of Pain, “Pain provides an opportunity for heroism; the opportunity is seized with surprising frequency.” Yes, good has arisen from suffering.

Does evolution account for this “good out of evil” paradox? Hardly so. Natural selection celebrates the death of weaker individuals. Rather than sacrificing to search for a cure for a rare disease, people guided by natural selection would more consistently euthanize their old or infirm to save resources for the healthiest. Darwinism would naturally select for a cut-throat population. But the designer of this world apparently had something else in mind and instilled mercy into the human psyche to accompany our weaknesses. If the designer had excluded pain and pity from the human experience, it’s possible that we would never have known the joy of bonding over a shared trial or heard a single story of self-sacrifice. Instead, like an artist with pottery shards, the designer stands ready to rework all things for good.

A Better Hope

When people ask “Why is there evil?” they aren’t simply asking for a rationalization of evil or a new scientific outlook. They want relief. Sometimes they imagine that evolution will supply a fix — we’ll evolve into peaceful, virtuous creatures, technologically distanced from all material hardship. But with the mechanism for evolution being what it is (blind breakage of brilliant biological coding), hope in a bright evolutionary future appears misguided. By contrast, an all-powerful, benevolent designer such as the one responsible for our very existence could possibly have a plan for relief up His sleeve. “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” Perhaps true hope of relief is found in seeking the one on the throne.

To Wrap Up

The problem of evil is not really a scientific issue. Yet it persists, and Darwinists are hard put to resolve it. By contrast, a few observations confirm a benevolent designer: free will and other design constraints, beauty, virtue, and the turning of evil ultimately to our advantage.

As a final thought, I’d like to point back to a real-life Lord of the Flies story that David Klinghoffer featured last fall. If natural selection were the guiding principle of our world, the character of marooned adventurers would likely pattern itself after William Golding’s novel. On the contrary, when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months in the 1960s, they conducted themselves admirably. In fact, when one boy fell down a cliff and broke his leg, the others rescued him at great risk to themselves and shouldered his share of the labor while he recovered. It’s an impressive story of hardship, and for my part, I’d say it’s a credit to our intelligent designer.