The Problem of Goodness


From my first class in Philosophy 101 in college, the so-called “Problem of Evil” has been tossed up as the “clincher” in arguments against the existence of God. How can a good God allow innocent people to suffer? The most devastating case ever made on the subject was in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov, in the chapter entitled “Rebellion,” which is the chapter preceding the famous “Grand Inquisitor,” makes the details of his argument known. He is at an inn with his religious brother, Alyosha. A brief summary would be to say the suffering of innocent children is not worth anything good that God might do.

It’s a very strong argument – so strong, in fact – that Dostoevsky, a Christian believer, feared he had made the case too strong and did not succeed in refuting it in the novel. I disagree with his gloomy assessment.

My argument is somewhat the opposite. It is the problem of Good. Why with the world as dysfunctional as it is do we encounter transcendant goodness in the lives of some people? No one on the basis of nature and nurture can really answer it. Given the world and its headlines, why are not all people largely stockaded in their homes, armed to the teeth?

Why does a stranger volunteer to donate bone marrow to another perfect stranger? The procedure invovles pain.

Why does Mother Teresa gather up over 40,000 dying children from the streets of Calcutta in her lifetime and treat them with love and dignity – when everyone around her is just walking past the problem? Or why does one man lay down his life for others in the death camps of the Nazi’s like the Catholic priest, St. Maximillian Kolbe?

In July 1941, a man from Kolbe’s bunker had vanished, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the Lagerführer (i.e., the camp commander), to pick 10 men from the same bunker to be starved to death in Block 11 (notorious for torture), in order to deter further escape attempts. (The man who had disappeared was later found drowned in the camp latrine). One of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, lamenting his family, and Kolbe volunteered to take his place.

After three weeks of dehydration and starvation, only four of the ten men were still alive, including Kolbe. During the time in the cell, he led the men in songs and prayer. The cells were needed, and Kolbe and the other three were executed with an injection of carbolic acid in the left arm.

St. Maria Skobtsove demonstrated similar kindness in the Nazi camps after being arrested for her help with Jews. She died in prison.

And the litany of such actions grows. I do not find it hard to explain Hitler’s evil. He and the men like him were products of their time, their environment, perhaps with demonic inspiration thrown in. Hitler ordered the Berlin Philharmonic to play pieces from the Goetterdamerueng [the Twilight of the Gods] while the Russian troops entered Berlin. He existed in the most educated and enlightened country in the Europe in its day.

The serial killers, even of children, are fairly explainable. I saw an interview with Jeffrey Dahlmer before his death in prison. He sounded quite normal except for his habit of killing and eating people.

But where does transcendant goodness come from? Are some people born with a goodness gene? I do not think so. Their unanimous declaration is that they are imitating Christ without whose Divine aid none of their good works would be possible. They want no credit for their work. Mother Teresa gave away the money from her Nobel Prize.

How is it that someone forgives their enemies?

Such goodness in the world is easily outnumbered by the acts of evil, petty and otherwise. And yet these manifestations of Goodness continue.

Outside the Christian tradition, the work of Gandhi comes to mind. Though most people do not know that his ideas of non-violence were formed during a correspondence early in his life with the Christian, Leo Tolstoy. I would not deny that Divine Grace was at work in his actions.

And finally, why does there arise a teacher of goodness in the first century A.D., proclaiming that we should love our enemies and do good to those who hate us? Why does he tell us to sell what we have and distribute it to the poor. Why does he say and do what he does while the very religious authorities of his own nation sought to kill him. Why does he forgive all while enduring the pain of crucifixion?

I am not a good man. I want to be a good man. I believe that such good men exist and that it is possible to become one. I believe this because the One who was crucified said that He was God and that because He was God those who love Him could do even greater works than He.

As for the problem of Goodness – I want to become part of the problem.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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16 responses to “The Problem of Goodness”

  1. Coroebus Avatar

    “I am not a good man. I want to be a good man.”

    The nub of Orthodox spirituality, yes?

  2. Fatherstephen Avatar

    You got that right!

  3. Tracy Gustilo Avatar
    Tracy Gustilo

    “I am not a good man. I want to be a good man. I believe that such good men exist and that it is possible to become one. I believe this because the One who was crucified said that He was God and that because He was God those who love Him could do even greater works than He.

    As for the problem of Goodness – I want to become part of the problem.”

    Yes, Father, me, too. But how to break away from the “small good” (as in “living small” from your previous post). Most of the good I do (if it really is good, rather than a confused sort of following along to the limited extent I can with everyday expectations and responsibilities) is very small. Does the problem of Goodness only apply to “large Good” (as in “living Large”)?

    Is to desire to do large Good prideful and ambitious? Maybe the humble way is to go along with the everyday and stay inconspicuous. Ought we even to desire large Good at all? Are we deserving of God gifting it to us if we seek do His will (seek HIS large Good)?

    Or is there really no difference between small and large? But then how is Goodness a problem? Because there does seem to be a lot of small good in the world.

    Confused as usual in how to actually LIVE. :o]

    Btw, I’ve always thought the problem of evil is the best argument for why God must exist. There is evil. It’s not supposed to be this way. There must be a Being who can and will fix it. 🙂

  4. Fr John Bostwick Avatar
    Fr John Bostwick

    Father – just a note to thank you for your reflections. I made reference to this particular post (the problem of goodness) in my homily this morning. In the Roman Catholic Church we remember Fr Damien of Molokai, the priest who worked with the lepers. Your reflections are consistently thoughtful and helpful and I am grateful. BTW, I did give you credit for the content.
    Fr John

  5. Athanasius Avatar

    David Bentley Hart, an Orthodox theologian, has written an excellent book on the problem of evil entitled The Doors of the Sea. The book is written in response to the questions raised by the tsunami that killed so many in Southeast Asia. In that book, Hart points to the same chapter in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov to delve into the question of theodicy. He attempts to show that evil is completely against the will of God and completely unnecessary for God to show His own goodness. Although Hart does not “solve” the problem of evil, he does make constant reference to how God the Father “solves” it by sending His own Son for our salvation.

    I appreciate Fr. James’ remarks on the “problem of the good”. This too is a problem that I want to participate in. I believe that the best way for us to participate in this good is for us to participate in the Church, the body of Christ.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think evil is always small finally, and that good is infinite. Evil closes itself to God and thus becomes even smaller; Good opens itself to God and thus becomes infinite. Evil cannot become so large as to fill even the universe. God became so small that He could fill Hell and then burst it asunder because it could not contain him.Every good deed will have eternal remembrance, but even the largest of deeds of the evil will be forgotten.

  7. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    The Talmud says that to save one life is to save the entire world. I am of course paraphrasing, but who knows if our prayer or that dollar we hand out does indeed save that one life and then…
    Two Sundays ago, in the homily at church, Fr. Anthony said that it is not that we need to tell people of the faith, we have to show them our faith in how we live and when we do speak of our faith in Jesus, we can only tell them what we have experienced. What our life in Christ is like. I bring this up because Fr. Stephen placed “atheist” in the catagories and it is not enough to tell someone of God but of your experience with Him. That goodness that He has brought into our life and what that has allowed us to share with others. I really liked that; less lecturing, more living the faith.
    Just some thoughts on a great post.
    Thank you Fr. Stephen,
    Christ is Risen!
    the handmaid,

  8. Anon7 Avatar

    Upon reading your article, I found it struck a number of discordant notes. Your basic premise that the presence of good is an argument for God, as the presence of evil is an argument against HIm, is acceptable. After that though your sub-premises and presuppositions don’t carry the burden placed upon them. And to put it bluntly, you’ve got some quite sloppy thinking going on. So point by point:

    You state the the world is dysfunctional. That’s a presupposition that cannot be supported. Nor can it be refuted. Using a statement that is non-falsifiable and non-verifiable does not carry your argument forward.

    You state that no one can provide an answer for the presence of transcendent goodness on the basis of nature or nurture. That’s flat wrong. Many people have provided such answers. Some of them are quite well thought out and developed. You may wish to regard their answers as insufficient or even wrong, just as some regard your answers, but the answers exist all the same.

    You ask, “Given the world and its headlines, why are not all people largely stockaded in their homes, armed to the teeth?” Surely a bit of reflection provides you with may answers to the question. Some folks can’t read. Some folks don’t pay attention to the headlines. Some folks pay more attention to their neighborhood than the news. Some folks can do the math (x people killed, or hurt, or robbed today: 300,000,000-x people had a pretty normal day. Hey, things aren’t so bad as the headline writers want us to believe.)

    You ask, “Why does a stranger volunteer to donate bone marrow to another perfect stranger?” It seems simple enough. For a lot of folks, the principle of “do as you would be done by” is rather intuitive. Most of us have seen it work time and again.

    You stated that Hitler lived in “the most educated and enlightened country in the Europe of its day”. Really? “the most”? No one matched or exceeded it? Not France, Switzerland, Denmark, Britain, Holland, …… ? Do you really think you could support that statement?

    *Perhaps you think I’m picking on minutiae a bit much with that last. Sorry. The medium of communication here is the written word. And you’re speaking on important matters. Exquisite care would seem prudent if you are to be understood rightly.*

    You said, “The serial killers, even of children, are fairly explainable.” Wow! If you can do that, you’re gonna be famous. I’ve not heard of anyone yet who proffered an explanation that satisfied folks. Heck, most of the psychologists and pundits just say such monsters aren’t explainable. *BTW, if you want to write out the explanation, I’d want to see it.*

    You stated that the “unanimous declaration” of good people (Transcendentally good people actually. Not sure how we’d delineate them.) is that “they are imitating Christ without whose Divine aid none of their good works would be possible”. I just wonder here; is there not one non-Christian altruist or good person? Maybe not. But with 6 billion people, I’d suspect there might be.

    “Such goodness in the world is easily outnumbered by the acts of evil, petty and otherwise.” Now this seems such a silly comparison. On the one side you put the highest and rarest acts of transcendent goodness, and on the other side all “acts of evil, petty and otherwise”. What does such a comparison accomplish? Sorry, but if ever there were a fine example of comparing apples to hydrogen atoms, this is it.

    You ask, “why does there arise a teacher of goodness in the first century A.D., proclaiming that we should love our enemies and do good to those who hate us?” And your point is??? Why does similar ones arise in earlier centuries?(Confucius, Buddha, Lao Tzu pop to mind.)

    And in the same paragraph you ask, “Why does he tell us to sell what we have and distribute it to the poor?” Uhmmm….. he didn’t. He told one, specific, rich young dude to do that. That definitely was NOT a universal command. Or, if it was, that ball was quickly fumbled and lost.

    As a last point to pick on, you said, “because the One who was crucified said that He was God and that because He was God those who love Him could do even greater works than He.” And this prompts an obvious question: Why don’t they? He healed all the sick that were brought to him. He walked on water. He fed feasts to thousands starting with only minute amounts of food. Where are these great works?

    You seem a nice fellow, and I’m sure you’re a much loved priest. But when you get on atheism, as you’ve done a number of times here, you have the same myopia that affects other Christians when they talk of atheism. The same myopia that likewise affects atheists talking about Christianity, or liberals talking about conservatives, or Europeans talking about the US, or……..

    It seems that rather than working so hard to show why others are wrong, lost, unhappy, etc. more benefit could be derived from investing time in simply understanding those who don’t share your mindset. As it was once sagely put, “Seek rather to understand than to be understood.”

    Much to your credit, you’re not at all mean when you talk about atheists. But are you saying anything that isn’t “preaching to the choir”? Is what you say about atheism likely to bring any atheist or agnostic to think, “Hey, this is so right!”? Or are they going to say, “You just don’t get it.” Judging by the responses you’ve gotten to your “atheism posts”, I’d say the latter reaction is nigh universal. And honestly, what you’ve said thus far has indeed the flavor of “We’ve got it and you atheists just don’t.” Does that truly bring glory to God for all things?

  9. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Sorry for what seems sloppy thinking – no one ever accused me being overly rational.

    I would not deny goodness I encountered outside Christianity – but I would argue that I believe even that goodness to be by the grace of God. But this would not meet the logical standard you set.

    I have spoken respectfully of atheists and will continue to do so. But I think these statements are not necessarily wide of the mark. Transcendant goodness (good point) is rare, and, I think not well explained apart from God. On the other hand, I do not find evil, even of the most heinous sort to be surprising – revolting and repulsive – but not surprising. I do not need a God to explain its existence.

    As I said, with as much dysfunctionality that exists in the world (and I believe there is quite a lot) it’s amazing that we see the transcendant good that we do.

    It is the triumph of goodness in a life – overcoming the evil that could have been its modus operandi – to be surprising – and, I believe – evidence of the hand of God.

    But I’m a Christian and I will doubtless see things that a non-Christian might not. But I appreciate your response.

    I will, from time to time, speak about atheism, if only because I care about atheists, and have been through that before myself.


  10. Anon7 Avatar

    By no means would I recommend that you not speak about atheism. If you care about them, then you should speak. I only recommend that when you speak of them or to them, you should strive to avoid giving the odor of, “I know all about y’all.” or, “Y’all are a mess.” (I’m pretty sure that is not what you’re shooting for, but what I’ve read here comes across that way a fair amount.) Rather I think that you’ll reach them with an air of respect, appreciation for their courage in facing what they take to be true (i.e. there’s no God and this world and life are all there is), and some frank querying (a la, “This is what I perceive. Am I on track? Is there more from your vantage point?”

    Just my thoughts. It’s your blog, so of course you take whatever course you please.

  11. Damaris Avatar

    Father Stephen — It seems to me that you have been caring and respectful to atheists in your recent posts. You and the people commenting have speculated on what motivates atheists and what they think ina genuine desire to understand. But it’s hard to write *for* atheists in a forum like this. As Anon7 points out, what Christians take as an obvious truth from which to build their argument, atheists may question from the word go. I can’t imagine there are many people talked out of atheism. They are only loved out of it. And you can’t put your arm around someone on a blog.

    It’s understandable that a non-Christian would see your reasoning as unsatisfying, through no fault of your own (I didn’t).

    I hope I haven’t conveyed an attitude of “Y’all are a mess.” I don’t mean that at all.

  12. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Of course, the problem is that, as an Orthodox Christian, I think all of us “are a mess.” I have almost never met anyone who was not a mess – and I suspect I know more about many people on a level that many others don’t – I hear confessions – and as a priest have always been on that list you call when the mess hits the fan. Been there, seen plenty of it.

    Perhaps a place to start in conversation is right there. I believe that humanity with only the fewest exceptions is in a mess. It is manifest in their marriages, in their children, in their culture, in their economies, in their technology – you name it – the mess infects us.

    St. Athanasius thought we were tending back towards non-being. The language of the New Testament would say that it is “death” at work in us.

    This rings true of my experience in life (all 53 years of it). I have known murders in my family, drug addiction, stupid accidents, bad doctrine, theft, wars, politicians who lie, people who abandon or just forget their children. I ran over one of my own children (but she was unharmed) though I know it was not through any goodness of my own – two feet to the left or right and I would have entered a private hell that few escape. I could go on.

    But what I would describe would not be much different than any other Western male. The list would look worse if I had been born in Botswana, or China, etc.

    I have buried billionaires and heard their confessions, too. Believe me, everyone is in a mess. Believers and unbelievers.

    The difference is that I believe there is a God who not only explains the mess (as much as anything is explained) but has redeemed it.

    If someone could tell me they are not a mess, my first reaction is to assume they are living in a delusional manner. Even the Buddha is said to have “awakened” when he realized that all the world was suffering. He was right on that point. No Christian should disagree (and Buddha apparently did not believe in God).

    If you think the world is not messed up, it makes me suspect that you are still too young to know much, or somebody else is paying for your stuff. Or the delusion thing.

    I don’t think Atheists are messed up and Christians aren’t. I think we are all messed up. It is important to me that no one misunderstand me on this point.

    BTW, Some atheists are less messed up than some Christians. I hope all that is helpful to somebody.

  13. […] blog, however, has quickly become for me a daily companion. An excerpt from a recent post “The Problem of Goodness“: From my first class in Philosophy 101 in college, the so-called “Problem of Evil” has […]

  14. vanallemarktenthuis Avatar

    Thank you so much for this post. I stumbled upon it a year after you wrote it, and it touched me deeply. I am reading Karamazov for the first time now and have just read the part you mentioned above. I’ve been chewing on that chapter for days and your post is such a revelation.

    It’s the kind of encouragement I need on a constant basis, because though I’ve heard, read and debated about it a lot, I keep forgetting it. It’s like when I’m reading C.S. Lewis, nodding my head in agreement, but six months after finishing the book I’ve forgotten what it was I agreed with.

    FWIW I don’t think Anon7 is making a very strong point (opposed to that of Ivan Karamazov) in his comment, particularly because he is doing exactly what he accuses you of in his use of poor premises (for instance: I know psychiatrists that do understand the monstruous acts of human beings – in all due respect: who doesn’t?).

    But the thing that always intrigues me most in atheism is -as the commentor stated- “For a lot of folks, the principle of “do as you would be done by” is rather intuitive.” Where does this intuition come from if “this world and life are all there is”?

    Thanks again, I’ll be reading your blog regularly.

  15. TDJ Avatar

    Father, bless!

    Thank you for this piece. Very well done. I really appreciate it.

    Yours in Christ,

  16. Dan Avatar

    Wonderful reflection. I am going to mention this in my blog, along with a link. I’ll need to return now and again when the news gets me down.


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