A Faith For Today

By Harris Franklin Rall

Chapter 9



"How can we believe in a good God in the face of the evil in the world? Are we not driven to assume either that he lacks power and cannot help, or that he is not good and does not care?" That is the hardest question that faith has to answer.

The picture that we face is dark enough. (1) There are the evils seen in nature: suffering, the pain that is a part of all life, the scourge of disease, and the tragedies of earthquake, flood, and fire, where blind and uncontrollable forces sweep men on to destruction. (2) There is the seeming indifference of nature. We read of the sun that rises on the evil and the good; but the obverse is also true, that storm and pestilence smite good and evil alike. (3) There is the world of moral evil, most terrible of all: man's folly, lust, cruelty, and greed, man's inhumanity to man. (4) There is the apparent injustice: the innocent suffering for the guilty, children for the sins of their parents, millions destroyed in war because of the wickedness and folly of a few. (5) And there is the weakness of the good, its slow progress, continually thwarted by the evil. Why is not God reaching down to smite the evil and set good men in places of power?

One fact bids us pause. The great spirits of the race, the men who have not just played with this problem in thought but have faced it in reality, who have fought the forces of evil with courage and followed the good with devotion, these men have believed in God and in the victory of the good, and have found for pain itself a noble place in life. To them we must turn for help. In the end we may find not only some ground for faith, but a faith that is richer and more significant because it has faced this question. In any case, face it we must. For the very heart of religion is here at stake, our faith that power and goodness are somehow one in this world, and that we can trust.

There are some answers to this problem that we must reject, three in particular that have often been urged. (1) "All evil, and death first of all, is punishment for sin," writes one. But pain and death were in the world long before man and his sin, and what kind of a good God would it be who could punish the innocent for the sins of others? (2) "All sorrow and suffering are sent for our good; their purpose is the training of man." But this does not touch moral evil; and suffering lasts on when no possible end can be served. (3) "Evil is unreal; there is only God and good." All three of these positions have some truth in them, even this last. God is the final power of this world; but, explain it as we may, evil is here. Even Christian Science, denying that evil is real, confesses its reality by the time and thought it expends in trying to meet and overcome it.


The place where we must begin is not evil but the good. We take good as a matter of course, and wonder why there is evil. It should be the other way around. The good is the real problem for thought. What is the good? How can we account for all the good in the world? What kind of a world must we have for its making?

1. As to the first question, the good can be for us nothing less than life, life at its fullest and highest. The good cannot be anything outside of us, such as the things that we own. It cannot be anything negative, like the absence of toil and pain. The good means the good life: bodies healthy, strong, efficient; minds keen, informed, trained to think, rich in knowledge and wisdom; hearts broad in sympathy, endowed with patience, kindliness, and reverence for others; spirits with a vision of truth and beauty and God; wills that have learned self-mastery and can hold steadily to a high goal.

2. How can good like this be gotten? Plainly, it can never be a mere gift handed over from without, not even from God himself. Life is never something ready made; it can only be won through living. The wisest of parents, the best of teachers, can never deliver to a child wisdom or strength or peace; they can furnish sympathy, guidance, instruments for work, needed conditions, but the child in the end must work out its own salvation. When we stop to think, we all recognize this as reasonable; in any case we have to accept it as something basic to all life and being. As we have seen, it is God's way of creation: life through living, strength through struggle, knowledge by experiment, skill from practice, character through long choice of the good and living with it and being loyal to it.

3. So we face the crucial question: what kind of a world is needed as a place for man to achieve the good? Such a world will be a good world whatever toil and pain it may bring. And if it be not fitted for the making of men, then, though the skies be cloudless, though toil and pain and hunger be unknown, it will not be a good world. With many it seems to be quite taken for granted that they could easily design a better world. They are ready to say with Omar Khyym:

"Ah Love! could you and I with Him conspire

To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire,

     Would we not shatter it to bits—and then

Remold it nearer to the heart's desire ?"

But what if the power were actually in our hands? What kind of a world would we frame if we wanted one fit for the achievement of life? Now, there are four points upon which the tragic evils of life seem to hinge. (1) Ours is a world of law, an impersonal, relentless order which treats good and bad alike, with no consideration for the weakness and ignorance of men. (2) In our world all are tied together, and therefore the innocent suffer for the deeds of the guilty. (3) This is a world of pain; suffering seems to be the one inescapable law of life. (4) Ours is a world of unceasing struggle and toil, where ignorance is always entailing mistakes and bringing tragedy. Why not then eliminate these in turn and make a happy world? The plain answer, if we will look closely, is just this: so far as we can see, no world would be fitted for the achieving of life that did not have these four aspects: order, solidarity, pain, struggle. Let us look at them in turn.


A good world, good for man, good for the achievement of life, must be a world of order. No other world would be dependable, honest, or even intelligible. We do not see that at first. The order of the world seems hard and cold and unfeeling. Why does it not distinguish between the evil and the good? Why does not this typhoid epidemic spare innocent children? Why should not the cyclone turn aside when it comes to the home of a saint? The ordered world which science depicts seems so remote from the picture of a Father God watching over his children of earth. So, as William James once suggested, "there gradually steals over us, instead of the old warm notion of a man-loving Deity, that of an awful power that neither loves nor hates, but rolls all things together meaningless to a common doom."

But what would we do at this point if we were creating a world? Three choices would be open to us: a world without any order, where anything could happen at any time irrespective of what went before; a world of piecemeal order, with some Power outside constantly reaching in to interfere and make things "right"; a world of universal and dependable order, such as we have now. It is not hard to choose here. The first would mean chaos, no possible world at all. The second is almost as impossible to conceive. An occasional interference would not do: for if God were to intervene whenever there was suffering or wrong, it would have to be every day in every place. God would be a magnified nursemaid and, what is worse, mankind would remain in perpetual infancy. When once we face this seriously, the proposal becomes childish and impossible. If now we look at the third possibility, we shall find that that universal and inflexible order of nature that seems so harsh at times, is the first good gift of God, without which his other gifts would be impossible. Three points especially we can note where such a world of order is needed if human life is to rise above the brute level.

1. The order of the world is our first evidence that back of this universe there is a rational and dependable Being. Only in such a world could man ever reach the thought of a God who was both reason and righteousness, both mind and moral character.

2. Only in a world of universal order could moral character develop in man. The easy way for man is to be thoughtless, lazy, and selfish. We need not simply the high ideal to draw us, but the stern tuition of experience to drive us. If we will not learn otherwise, then the order of nature teaches us, "line upon line, precept upon precept." Under that necessity, lest we actually perish, we slowly learn industry, foresight, and self-mastery. That compulsion drives us to work with others, and so the whole life of fellowship opens to us. So the severity of God is kinder than the sentimentalism of men.

3. Only in a world of order could there develop reason in man, or would science be possible. No mind in man except as there is mind in nature to call it out! No science unless there be an absolutely dependable order! And without science, no invention, no machinery, no mastery of nature, no higher culture!

So the order of nature, that seems at first so hard and impersonal, becomes "the Godhead's most benignant grace." We see with joy that there is reason at the ground of things and something dependable in character. What seemed a barrier becomes an open door. It is an invitation to understand, an instrument for possession and rule placed in our hands, a way opened to higher life. Of this order of nature we may say in a measure what Wordsworth said in his "Ode to Duty" of the moral order:

"Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong;

And the most ancient heavens, through thee, are fresh

     and strong."


A good world must be a world of fellowship, a world in which men are bound together in closest relations. We may call this the principle of solidarity, the idea of an organicistic, or corporate, as against an atomistic, or individualistic, world. We know how many and intimate the ties are that unite us: family, community, church, industry, education, recreation, friendship, and now more and more the wider world relations. It would be hard to estimate how much of the world's suffering comes in this way. Oppression and injustice, millions killed in war, children bearing the sins of their parents, parents suffering with and for their children, young and old, innocent and guilty united in a common lot of pain—all this is possible because humanity is organic.

But who would choose another kind of world? What would the human lot be if each walked his way, individual and alone? Again we deal with a law that roots deep in the very nature of things: solitariness is death, fellowship is the way of life. There is not one high gift of life that man can reach or hold in isolation. Love, friendship, honor, justice, truth, beauty, faith—all these come to us only in fellowship. True, there is a high life that each must live in himself and for himself and in personal fellowship with God: "the nurse of full grown souls is solitude." But we gain that life in fellowship with others, and we lose it if we do not from our solitude return again to this fellowship.

The answer, then, is not a world of pure individualism, if such a world were possible, and not a selfish life of calculated isolation. It is, rather, to open the door of life to love and faith and service like Him, "who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross." That is the meaning of the lines of the Irish poet, S. E. Lysaght:

"If love should count you worthy, and should deign

     One day to seek your door and be your guest,

     Pause! ere you draw your bolt and bid him rest,

If in your old content you would remain;

For not alone he enters; in his train

     Are angels of the mist, the lonely quest,

     Dreams of the unfulfilled, the unpossessed,

And sorrow, and Life's immemorial pain.

He wakes desires you never may forget,

     He shows you stars yon never saw before,

     He makes you share with him forevermore

The burdens of the world's divine regret.

How wise you were to open not! and yet

     How poor if you should turn him from the door!"


It seems most paradoxical of all to declare that a good world must be a world of pain, for pain seems the one pure and unnecessary evil. The least part is the physical suffering; the deeper anguish is that of the spirit, the pain and sorrow of the soul. Why not a world without pain?

Strictly speaking, the question here is not that of pain but of sensitivity. Pain is not a primary matter; we might call it incidental only. The basic matter is sensitivity, the capacity for feeling. Now, sensitivity is the necessary condition of all life. There can be no life, not even on the lowest level, without feeling and response. To live is to sense the world about us, to respond to it, and adjust ourselves to it successfully. Such sensitiveness increases in range and intensity as life rises in the level, and is highest in man. It includes mind and heart as well as body: there are worlds to which man responds that no lower animal can know. Of all creatures, his sensitive spirit alone is moved by the beauty of sunset and dawn, by the majesty of the stars, by the mysteries of death and life. He alone enters into the joys and sorrows of his fellows, and takes upon his soul their burdens. His capacity to suffer and his ability to rise belong together.

Pain, like pleasure, is never an independent affair; it is incidental to this sensitivity. That does not mean that it is unimportant. It may serve as warning, too sharp to be disregarded, and so save us from physical disaster; certainly, no physician would want to practice his art in a world where there was no pain to warn and guide. It may serve also in the world of the spirit. Helen Keller, who surely knew what pain and struggle meant, who fought her way out of the prison of utter silence and darkness in which her soul had lived since childhood, spoke out of her experience when she said: "The struggle which evil necessitates is one of the greatest blessings. It makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things." Suffering "lets us into the soul of things," into the soul of God who suffers because he loves, into the souls of our fellow men. "Bereavement," writes Dean Inge, in a passage that grew out of his own sorrow, "is the deepest initiation into the mysteries of human life, an initiation more searching and profound than even happy love."

There will always remain a mystery to suffering, but one fact is clear: joy and pain are joined inextricably in life. The highest goods come by ways of Borrow and suffering, the greatest spirits have not won their insights along ways of ease, the great servants of men have known the cross.

"The cry of man's anguish went up unto God:

     'Lord, take away pain—

The shadow that darkens the world thou hast made,

     The close-coiling chain

That strangles the heart, the burden that weighs

     On the wings that would soar—

Lord, take away pain from the world thou hast made,

     That it love thee the more.'

Then answered the Lord to the cry of his world:

     'Shall I take away pain

And with it the power of the soul to endure,

     Made strong by the strain?

Shall I take away pity that knits heart to heart,

     And sacrifice high?

Will ye lose all your heroes that lift from the fire

     White brows to the sky?

Shall I take away love, that redeems with a price

     And smiles at its loss?

Can ye spare from your lives, that would climb unto mine,

     The Christ on his cross?'"

But there is another side to this picture. It is easy to overrate the amount of suffering in the world, particularly with lower animals. They have no memory of past pain, no imagination that sees it in the future. In their wild state disease is almost un known, death is usually sudden and with little suffering, and there is little of that extreme sensitiveness that belongs to man. Further, sensitivity means capacity for pleasure as well as pain, for keen awareness of every kind of good and so for deep enjoyment And even the simplest aspects of man's normal life, physical, mental, social, bring with them satisfaction and pleasure. Right living means joy in living because it means right adjustment within and without.


No world is a good world which does not give man a chance to "work out his own salvation." It would seem so easy for a good God to provide a place where all our needs were promptly met and all our ways were plain. In an oft-quoted passage Thomas Henry Huxley declared: "If some great Power would agree to make me think always what is true and do what is right on condition of being turned into a sort of a clock, I should instantly close with the bargain. The only freedom I care about is the freedom to do right; the freedom to do wrong I am ready to part with." But Huxley's remark is strangely shallow for so keen a mind as his. We might sooner agree with Gilbert Chesterton's claim: "I demand the right to be damned." We must take our choice: which would we be, men or machines? Huxley wanted to think what was true and do what was right; but a clock cannot do either. If we want character (the "do right") and reason (the "think right"), they can only come in one way: we must have the chance to choose for ourselves, to learn, to struggle, to make mistakes, and then to press on again in endless effort. When Gilbert Chesterton declared, "I demand the right to be damned," he was asserting this principle that the right to be saved and the right to be damned go together. Name the high goods of life, for individual or nation—truth, freedom, strength of body and spirit, character; they can only be had by fighting for them. And each individual in turn, each generation, must win these anew; they can never be passed on to idle hands whether by man or God. There is no glorification of war here, or of a "rugged individualism" which means no more than selfish ambition and ruthless war taken over into industry; fight with others, not against them, and not with arms. So understood, however, Browning is right in his Luria:

"Why, 'twas all fighting, all their nobler life!

All work was fighting, every harm—defeat,

And every joy obtained—a victory."

In his Brave New World Aldous Huxley has given us a brilliant, at times almost savage and indecent satire on that world of perfection envisaged by those to whom comfort is the great good and a machine-made civilization the great goal. He voices his protest against this in the person of the "Savage," who had nourished his soul on a Bible and a Shakespeare that had escaped destruction by the new "civilization." "I don't want comfort/ 7 the "Savage" declares. "I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin." And to scornful protest he replies, "All right, then, Pm claiming the right to be unhappy." What is all this but to say, No world is good that does not give me a chance to be a man; and to be a man is more than to be a beast, no matter how warm and well fed, or to be an unthinking cog in a machine?


Three mistakes are made again and again in relation to the problem of evil. (1) Men take the low view. It is not enough to ask: Is the world good? Good for what? It is not a good world for comfort, for ease, for freedom from risk and toil and pain. It is a good world for the growing of souls, for the making of men. (2) Men take the short view. They look at the moment instead of the end. But it is the end that decides, "the last of life, for which the first was made." We must "trust God, see all, nor be afraid." The world is in the making, the race is in the making, and so each individual life. And for the Christian faith the perspective includes the life beyond. With Browning's Grammarian, we

"Leave now to dogs and apes!

Man has Forever."

(3) The most common mistake is to take the part view, instead of seeing things whole. Men live on with little thought of their fellows, often with no concern for the larger world of humanity or the larger ends of God. And then when evil comes, they see only their own loss. Over against these errors we can only say, If we are to have light on this dark question, we must look at the highest, look at the end, and see things whole.

Some specific problems will help illustrate this. Here are the great natural disasters which shock us again and again—storm and flood, earthquake and fire. How impersonal these forces are, how indifferent to distinctions of good and evil, how overwhelming to helpless man! But consider. (1) These forces are part of the order of nature without which this globe and life upon it would be impossible. The earthquake is part of that process of the cooling mass, the shrinking surface, the forming and breaking of strata, all connected with the preparation of a globe for life. Storm and flood all obey the common laws for wind and water and electricity, the working of forces in a system which makes the earth beautiful and furnishes air and water for life. (2) Every one of these forces represents an order which man can know and rule and use. They are our servants—wind and flame and water—if we will but patiently learn and faithfully use our knowledge. Often the evils are a judgment on our carelessness and selfishness and unwillingness to co-operate. The conflagration that made the San Francisco earthquake so terrible, the destruction of schoolhouses in the more recent Los Angeles quakes, both could have been avoided if men had built rightly. We know how floods and dust storms, drought and famine, are in large measure due to man. Selfishness, cupidity, failure to co-operate in social control—these have destroyed forests, turned into dusty plains lands that should have been left for grazing, failed to plant trees and control water supplies, and failed to distribute according to need—for this country has never seen a time when the harvests of the whole did not yield enough for all.

Or consider the matter of sickness and death. How tragic it ofttimes is! But here is no ground for charge against God. Sickness is not an accident and not a divine "visitation." What presumption to say that it "pleased Almighty God to take out of the world the soul of the departed" ! Sin or ignorance may be back of this. Most sickness could be done away if science had the chance and society co-operated in using the knowledge gained. If you and I are not to blame in an individual case, it still remains: our life is possible only as part of a social whole and under a natural order. No man lives unto himself. We suffer together and we rise together. The piecemeal view can neither answer our questions nor show the way of deliverance. Out of this suffering, often of the innocent, there must come a sense of our social failure and sin, and a determination to work together for the overcoming of these ills.

Consider here all the suffering of body and spirit that comes from economic causes: unemployment, poverty, hunger, and that terrible feeling of insecurity that haunts so many men who cannot tell what tomorrow may bring to wife and children. Why should God let the honest and industrious and innocent thus suffer? Once more we must get away from the piecemeal view and see things whole. What God wants, what humanity needs, is a just social order. That cannot come by a divine autocrat setting right individual cases. It cannot come by outside compulsion at all. It must come from man, from a new conscience, and a common effort; and it can be made sure for individuals only as it is gained for the whole.

Upton Sinclair in his What God Means to Me tells of a man whose three children were killed in the collapse of a school building. Half crazed with grief, he would scream out his curses against God. But the schoolhouses were built according to plans which had no place in an earthquake area, faulty building materials were used, and back of both lay corrupt or inefficient government. This man of wealth, who had not concerned himself with this, or with the conditions of poverty and distress under which other men's children had to live, cried out because a divine power did not act as special guardian for his children. Paul de Kruif, whose earlier work portrayed glowingly what science had done for human welfare, writes with hot anger his book, Why Keep Them Alive? Science has opened the way to health and comfort and joy in life, he says. But vast numbers are shut out of all this. These gifts of science are for sale. The rich can buy them. Those with meager income, the unemployed with no income, must see their children do without them. Not in so many words and yet actually, by its neglect, society asks: "Why keep them alive?" The indictment stands against man, not God.

Back of all other questions, then, lies this question : If life at its best can only come with such cost, why should a good God bring forth living beings at all? The answer is: With all its pain and toil, life is good, and the God who is good wants his creatures to share it. So parents, thoughtful and loving, still bring children into the world. And men everywhere cling to life above all things; rarely, except when they have lost faith in God and hope for the future, do men leave life voluntarily.


It is a striking fact that outside the book of Job, the Bible offers no discussion of the problem of evil. It faces the facts fairly enough. The stark realities of evil, physical and moral, are nowhere set forth more frankly; the center of the New Testament, indeed, is the triumph of the forces of evil in the death of one that was wholly good. But Christianity is primarily not an explanation of evil but a way of overcoming it, not a philosophy but a way of salvation. We can only summarize this practical message here.

(1) No evil can ever separate us from the good. The highest good, and God himself, can never be lost to us if we will hold on in obedience and faith. (2) Evil is here to be overcome. There is nothing over which the spirit of man, by God's help, cannot rise triumphant. (3) Evil can be transmuted into good; we can be "more than conquerors." Insight, understanding of God and life, courage, patience, sympathy, heroism, all come out of such victorious contest. It is the Dante of exile that writes the Divine Comedy; it is the Isaiahs and Jeremiahs that, out of travail of soul, bring words of light and peace; the liberating words of a Paul or a John Bunyan come out of prison bondage; it is the Christ of the cross who says to men, "Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." (4) Christianity points to the redemptive value of suffering. The cross is not a tragedy but a triumph, not a defeat but a step forward in human redemption. The way of life on this globe from beginning to end is one of vicarious suffering: the family, friendship, the State, the Church, every human good is built upon it. Suffering is a challenge to serve; borne unselfishly, heroically, in faith, it becomes part of humanity's way to life. (5) Christianity points to a God who himself toils and suffers, who in all our affliction is afflicted and by the "angel of his presence" saves us.

Here, then, is a word for us to speak when other words fail. When a man is in the midst of the first great grief that seems to sweep away all his faith, at a time when reasoned argument has little chance, we can bring this Christian challenge: If I cannot explain this tragedy, I can show you a way out. All that is good in your life has come from God. When you have obeyed him implicitly and trusted him absolutely, you have never been put to shame. Do that now. You will find strength for each step and a light that will grow as you move on. Above all, you will be more and more sure of God, more and more certain that, though evil is here, God is here also, and God is greater than evil. So it shall be as with Tennyson's friend, who

          "came at length;

To find a stronger faith his own;

     And Power was with him in the night,

     Which makes the darkness and the light,

And dwells not in the light alone."


  • Make a list of the kinds of evil which, to your mind, make it hard to believe in a good God.
  • Taking these evils one at a time, consider them in connection with the principles discussed in this chapter (a universal order, fellowship or social solidarity, sensitivity or pain, freedom and toil). Which of these principles, or aspects of world life are involved in each of these kinds of evil?
  • What is for you the most difficult point in the problem of evil? What consideration (or considerations) have given you the most help in this problem?
  • At what points would you change the basic order of the world in view of the evils you have indicated? (It is assumed here that we cannot have recourse to a piecemeal supernaturalism, with a God interfering here and there to make special adjustments; also that we must "see things whole" and consider what would be involved in such changes and what consequences would follow from them.)


  • Leslie D. Weatherhead: Why Do Men Suffer?
  • E. R. E.; Articles on "Good'and Evil/' "Theodicy," "Suffering"
  • R. A. Tsanoff: The Nature of Evil
  • W. K. Wright: A Student's Philosophy of Religion
  • Consult also works cited with Chapters I, II, and IV