Revisiting the Problem of Goodness


I first wrote and published this reflection back in May. It seemed relevant to recent discussions. I have added an additional reflection at the end that I think is worthwhile. I hope you find this useful. 

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.


First I will state that the mystery of goodness is a mystery. I believe all goodness comes from God – for so I have learned the universe – but having said that is not the same thing as saying that I fully understand it in any form. The Scriptures are clear that “[God] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Unbelievers are capable of good as well as unbelievers. If this were not so we could sort one another out with ease. But it’s simply not the case.

So why do we believe in God? This is where the reasons begin to go all over the map – though there needs to be a common core. That core is to be found in Christ Himself. Belief in God cannot finally be belief in an idea or a principle or even the nature of the universe for He is none of those things. The heart of our encounter with God is that He has made Himself known to us as person – indeed as persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A modern Western should not assume that he knows the meaning of those words, for the Church certainly means by them something quite different than common English usage. For the moment I will let it suffice to say that to know God as person means we can only know Him in freedom (both on our part and on His) and we can only know Him in an act of love (both on our part and on His). It is these latter realities that makes arguments about the existence, non-existence of God only marginally useful. God who is not a principle or an idea cannot thus be proven as though He were. In preserving our freedom He is also not necessarily obvious. He is readily knowable but not knowable of necessity. It is quite possible to look at the universe and come to a conclusion that there is no God.

I have always marveled at this latter point – sometimes wondering why it is not other than it is. And yet I am convinced that it is in the very humility of God that things are as they are. It would have been quite possible to have walked by the cross of Christ and assumed there was just one more Jew dying on a cross. The Gospels are a witness of faith, not a newspaper.

And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name (Jn. 20:30-31).

So what are we left with? We are left with God. Nothing will substitute for Him – not argument or reason – not miracle or magic. And we who know Him should want nothing more. Our lives should be and become a living witness to the Life of God. If they are not, then why should anyone listen to us? As for others, they will come to faith as mysteriously as we did. Whoever heard of a single means by which people came to Christ other than the single means of grace? The last time I checked the Spirit blows where it wills and you can’t tell where it comes from or where it goes.

Thus we believe and we pray and we lean more deeply into Christ and God adds to the Church daily such as should be saved. And we, following the lives of the saints, should pray for everyone as if they were already further in the Kingdom of God than we.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


8 responses to “Revisiting the Problem of Goodness”

  1. Rob Grano Avatar
    Rob Grano

    Great post, Fr. Stephen!

    My favorite treatment of the problem of evil is by Orthodox theologian David B. Hart, in his little book THE DOORS OF THE SEA: WHERE WAS GOD IN THE TSUNAMI?. Hart takes Ivan Karamazov’s argument (which he agrees with, by the way) and frames it in such a manner so that the “walking, talking” answer to Ivan’s argument becomes Elder Zossima! It’s a marvellous book that completely transformed my whole outlook on the ‘problem of evil’ question.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    Hart is a amazing writer – sometimes thick, but always literary. I feel flattered. In a course I taught several years back on Dostoevsky, I made the same point concerning Ivan. The Elder is the answer. It reinforces the Orthodox contention that the answer to the questions we put is ultimately a life lived not a syllogism.

    Syllogisms are interesting, but they are only mental constructs. Only reality is the answer to anything that is a real question.

  3. David_Bryan Avatar

    “Only reality is the answer to anything that is a real question.”

    Too true. I’m only now beginning to realize that moving from bulleted lists of theological points to an actual life lived in faith and love allows us to bear witness as person, embodying that which God wills us to be. It’s people who “become all things” to other people, since the body, the emotions, and the virtues are engaged — we’re no longer operating solely on the level of the mind, and so we’re open to “taste and see that the Lord is good” in spite of the world.

  4. Dave Bennett Avatar

    Great post Father Stephen! A life lived IS better than a syllogism. After reading so much philosophy and seeing its ill-affect or unaffectiveness on those who read it, it’s hard to believe syllogisms any more.

    A life for God and good, truly is a life worth living!

  5. Erik Avatar

    I feel a bit sorry for old Ivan K. and I wonder if he isn’t a little misunderstood. He’s a thinker, after all, who thinks with his guts. (Typical Russian?) The problem of evil is not an abstract problem for him — not a matter of syllogisms, but an urgent existential question. He despairs of living in a world of suffering, of being deeply implicated in that suffering, of loving life in spite of that suffering, and he sees no way out but to drain the cup and, eventually, return his ticket. A minor turn of thought, a bit of grace, and he would be ready to understand Zossima’s admonition to take responsibility for all sin — “to be responsible for all, on behalf of all.” An atheist who understands that the problem of evil remains a problem, even if we get rid of God — we could do with a few more thinkers like Ivan.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar


    You are a merciful man.

  7. Kevin P. Edgecomb Avatar

    Father, I think it good to bring up that Dahmer repented and turned to Christ while in prison. A short article on this, written by the prison chaplain, is here.

    As much as anyone else, I can only speak for my own sins. I need reminders like this that forgiveness is not just for some people, and that as hard as it is for me sometimes to forgive even some petty irritation, Almighty God, who sees all my wickednesses, would forgive them all. How could one not turn in gratitude to Him for that, to give up sins and unforgiveness (or at least try to!), and live a life of thanksgiving?

  8. worldquilter Avatar

    All your commenters are so learned, and my comment is so comparatively shallow – reading this entry made my heart sing.

    The PROBLEM of Goodness. Wow. Thank you.

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