Some Questions About the Problem of Evil

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Okay, fellow humans, help me out with my quandry. Here is a brief overview of the problem of evil, and then some questions.

First, it is an old question. It constitutes one of those objections to our experiences as human beings that require an answer form every generation of Christians. In other words, there is more than one conceptual image at work. Simultaneously, the “problem of evil” demonstrates what seems like inconsistencies in the truth claims inherent in Christianity (specifically) and theism (generally). However, there is some evidence to suggest that the problem is unduly complicated by misunderstanding the nature of those truth claims. For example, in its classic formulation the problem of evil reads like this, “If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil. Evil exists. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn’t know when evil exists, or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.” Perhaps a less technical, but sufficiently succinct way to put it is, “If God (who is completely good and powerful) exists, then how can evil also exist?” Clearly, this creates a neat little problem for Christians and theists. If you deny that evil exists, you seem foolish. If you deny that God is ultimately good or utterly powerful, you seem to be denying the concept of God. Consequently, the argument is set up as an “either/or” – either evil is real or God (as conceptualized by theism, especially Christianity) is real, because they cannot co-exist. This is a decidedly deductive construction of the problem. There are also inductive forms of the problem. In terms of theism, though, the ontological defense of God’s existence is valid and true (and convincing) – therefore, for a theist, inductive forms of the problem of evil and facts about evil “cannot constitute even prima facie arguments against the existence of God,” and are a moot point.

So, briefly, what are the ways in which theists have sought to unravel the apparent contradiction between these two facts?

First, some authors have suggested that suffering and evil are part of God’s plan in “building the soul” of a person. In other words, suffering and evil build endurance, patience, and faith. If you suffer, you are better for it. This, of course, is only as satisfying as the extent to which your imagination allows you to be comfortable. Surely, the suffering that an athlete in training endures is beneficial. The suffering a mother in child-birth endures is beneficial. However, do you think that a small child that suffers through Leukemia receives a benefit commensurate to her suffering? Do you believe that innocent Jews that suffered through the Holocaust and died were benefited from their suffering? So, the extent of the argument may only be appealing to the extent you see a benefit. What if, then, the benefit were eternal?

Second, some theists have tried to posit that “evil” is not a thing or being. It is a result of free will, and so the existence of evil is the consequence of God allowing humanity to have free will. Consequently, God created humanity in his image, and the result as a free agent that may and does choose to act in morally evil ways. Thus, the real conflict exists between God’s desire for humanity to reflect his glory, and for his plan for creation to be executed as conceived. God could force humanity to behave, but he would be violating his own will in providing humanity with a will. In other words, “good” is only good because evil is an option.

Third, and finally, the “Need for Natural Laws” is summarized by Michael Tooley:

“first, it is important that events in the world take place in a regular way, since otherwise effective action would be impossible; secondly, events will exhibit regular patters only if they are governed by natural laws; thirdly, if events are governed by natural laws, the operation of those laws will give rise to events that harm individuals; so, fourthly, God’s allowing natural evils is justified because the existence of natural evils is entailed by natural laws, and a world without natural laws would be a much worse world.”

This touches on Christian notions of Original Sin. When humanity exercised its free will against God’s will, it brought about certain changes in God’s creation that resulted in natural laws and states of affair that created patterns of destruction, violence, and suffering. Consequently, evil is only a problem in the temporal sense. Once Christ returns and sets everything to rights, there will be no “problem of evil” of which to speak. There is an infinitely good, knowledgeable, and powerful God that will have dealt justly with all the suffering and evil caused by humanity’s exertion of free will.

There are others, but I find something interesting in this whole debate. It is the designation of things and events as either “good” or “evil.” The reason I find it interesting is because the very notion of a “problem of evil” is designed to express the contradiction between the existence of a Christian God and the events we experience in life. However, the very language used to conceptualize the problem are dependent on the existence of said “morally good God.” If God did not exist, then neither would the moral designation of the good over and against that of evil. If there is no good God, can there even be evil? Of course, we wonder about the issue of suffering. What is our justification for giving moral designation to suffering? Am I suffering when I experience pain? If God does not exist, how would I have a standard of good by which I could compare the wrongness of suffering or the evilness of violence? How would an atheist that actually framed the question without presupposing that God exists maintain the tension of the original contradiction? Assume the atheist position is correct. There is no God. We have evolved socially, emotionally, morally, etc. If the notions of good and evil are both innate to the evolutionary process of humanity, how do we distinguish between them? Perhaps, I have unfairly changed the topic of the discussion, but I fail to see how the problem of evil exists without the existence of God. Doesn’t that mean that God has to exist?

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7 Comments

  1. Interesting questions, Shawn … I can only come at them from the perspective of an occasional Bible lecturer. My students often come to Jewish and Christian scripture with your first assertion, that the Bible’s God is “omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.” They often add “omnipresent.”

    However, even the most superficial reading of the Bible–especially the Hebrew Bible–renders all these adjectives suspect.

    For me, then, a Biblical understanding of God doesn’t begin with an a priori statement that God is “omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect” … though it may want to end there.

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  2. William Hasker has written a book about this called The Triumph of God Over Evil. In it he takes N.T. Wright’s ideas from Evil and the Justice of God—focusing more on how the biblical narrative takes evil as a given and focuses on what God is going to do about it—and yet also works in the traditional theological concerns typically labeled “theodicy”. It’s a great book that deals with all kinds of distinctions between “evils”, such as the death of humans and other creatures over the course of evolution, or pain that alerts us to danger, or the problem of torture (Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor story).

    I’m not sure that I’m prepared to answer whether or not the “problem of evil” presupposes the existence of God. The problem is that I PRESUPPOSE the existence of God and can’t find a way out of that. But my moral imagination tells me that others who do not (or cannot) presuppose God’s existence would, on their own terms, still insist on the idea of evil being a problem.

    I’m comfortable with not having a clear answer to this for a few reasons:

    1. Most importantly, a clear answer often is a form of evil, at least in the face of suffering. What I mean is that Christ himself didn’t meet human suffering with explanations, and I must necessarily follow Christ.

    2. Related: as a follower of Christ, the center of the gospel is God’s response to evil, not the problem of its existence. In this I’m right there with Hasker (and Wright).

    3. I pretty much take it for granted that God is not “all powerful”. Most constructions I hear of “all powerful” might apply to a vague, universal, abstract concept of “god”, but they don’t resemble the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That particular god seems to be constantly facing new challenges that don’t make sense according to the common usage of the word “omnipotent”. My last post at the Charismanglican blog was a sermon based on this idea: The Struggle of God to Keep His Promises.

    There are huge swaths of Christianity that would consider me a heretic for denying God’s omnipotence, but it seems self-evident to me that given the choice between the god I know through the biblical narrative and church tradition and some vague, universal, abstract concept of god, I’ve got to go with the Jews. I mean…who’s the heretic, exactly?

    4. The biggie for me is that, for Christians, Jesus is the image of the invisible God. In other words, I know God through Jesus. Isn’t it self-evident that the crucifixion is, whether by choice or nature, the enduring symbol of God’s weakness? Something about who he is limits or confines his power. I’m not coming up with anything new when I say what I think makes God vulnerable: it’s love.

    Nietszche was right to pity us 🙂

    Reply

  3. Shawn, among your final questions, I think the toughest for the atheist must be the one which asks, ‘What is our justification for giving moral designation to suffering?’ Because this is a question he must ask himself as well, whether he knows it or not. The theist definitely has a horse in that race, but the atheist maybe sees it too much as part of the theist’s rationale for God’s apparent inaction – not realizing that it is the basis for the whole point that the atheist is trying to make with his questions about God and evil in the first place. Which is at least tangential I think to the point you are trying to make with the post as a whole.

    I believe, for instance, that we could not even ‘see’ evil in any given situation if we were not cast in some kind of image of Godness. The atheist meanwhile takes this issue of noticing good and evil kind of on the run (or on the sly) by simply assuming that whatever equipment we have has an material evolutionary basis. Again, this is one of the points I think you are trying to make.

    One thing this kind of discussion needs to address is the fact that belief in God itself is obviously not required for morality – the atheist is as legal-moral as the theist. However, the theist holds that some kind of grace or Godness is required which the atheist simply takes for granted. Like the guy who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. The theist understands (as I do) that the atheist is taking for granted a power that is divine – the ‘divining’ of good from evil. Again, I think this is close to the point you are trying to make at the close of your post.

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  4. Reductio ad absudum. The atheist’s argument is not weakened by assuming the existence of God or objective morality.

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  5. Joshua,

    My immediate problem with arguments against the existence of God always begins with the kinds of issues you raise. Exactly what is meant when we say God? Now, my theological position on the nature of God is probably far more informed by historical theology, philosophy, and science than it is the Bible (Gasp). In other words, I prefer the stance of “negative theology” over most others: God is transcendent (the other), and since we are his creation what can we say we positively know about him? Clearly, we know his actions in Scripture, and we know what he is not. Nonetheless, I’m not sure I accept the way this problem conceptualizes God. Furthermore, I have never understood why anyone would submit themselves to an argument where their opponent gets to set all the parameters of the argument.

    Joey,

    See my comments to Joshua, but I will add the following: the construction of God as “omni” or “infinite” seems to have its origin in Reformed theology of one variety or another. This notion of God serves the theological framework of predestinarianism very well. In fact, one of our earliest predestinarian scholars also happens to be one of our first/best refutations of this problem. Augustine needed to deal with the existence of evil, because his theology was slanted toward predestinarianism. I am just thinking off the top of my head, here (a dangerous thing on the internet) – so, I don’t know that this will stand up to scholastic criticism, but it sounds good to me.

    John,

    You said, “I think the toughest for the atheist must be the one which asks, ‘What is our justification for giving moral designation to suffering?’” This is the sense that I have had about the whole issue. First, why does an atheist attempt to give moral designation to something they would clearly argue against in another context? Second, how does an atheist call something “good” or “evil” in any meaningful sense without the moral standard set by a moral authority? Don’t we just end up talking about the impossibility of infinite regression again? I may be mistaken, and I’m just looking for clarification.

    Willie,

    Forgive me for calling you a troll, if you aren’t. Nonetheless, this comment smacks of “trollishness.” What are you saying can be reduced to absurdity? You say, “The atheist’s argument is not weakened by assuming the existence of God or objective morality.” You’re just gonna leave that hanging out there? We’re supposed to believe it, because “Willie” says so? I have met some very thoughtful, courteous, and engaging atheists. So far, you’re not shaping up to be one of the more impressive atheists that comment here at theophiliacs.

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    1. In what must be a rather uninteresting and pointless response, I must admit that this is not something I that I turn over in my head very often, at least not yet. I know that the classical arguments concerning it will be incorporated into my theological education, but for now, simply reading on my own, it’s not a problem that presents itself very often to me.

      What is interesting to me is how the “problem of evil” is not payed much attention in the post-critical theologies I read. Perhaps because the “linguistic turn” doesn’t demand answers outside of a recognized “language game?”

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  6. Joshua, My immediate problem with arguments against the existence of God always begins with the kinds of issues you raise. Exactly what is meant when we say God? Now, my theological position on the nature of God is probably far more informed by historical theology, philosophy, and science than it is the Bible (Gasp). In other words, I prefer the stance of “negative theology” over most others: God is transcendent (the other), and since we are his creation what can we say we positively know about him? Clearly, we know his actions in Scripture, and we know what he is not. Nonetheless, I’m not sure I accept the way this problem conceptualizes God. Furthermore, I have never understood why anyone would submit themselves to an argument where their opponent gets to set all the parameters of the argument. Joey, See my comments to Joshua, but I will add the following: the construction of God as “omni” or “infinite” seems to have its origin in Reformed theology of one variety or another. This notion of God serves the theological framework of predestinarianism very well. In fact, one of our earliest predestinarian scholars also happens to be one of our first/best refutations of this problem. Augustine needed to deal with the existence of evil, because his theology was slanted toward predestinarianism. I am just thinking off the top of my head, here (a dangerous thing on the internet) – so, I don’t know that this will stand up to scholastic criticism, but it sounds good to me. John, You said, “I think the toughest for the atheist must be the one which asks, ‘What is our justification for giving moral designation to suffering?’” This is the sense that I have had about the whole issue. First, why does an atheist attempt to give moral designation to something they would clearly argue against in another context? Second, how does an atheist call something “good” or “evil” in any meaningful sense without the moral standard set by a moral authority? Don’t we just end up talking about the impossibility of infinite regression again? I may be mistaken, and I’m just looking for clarification. Willie, Forgive me for calling you a troll, if you aren’t. Nonetheless, this comment smacks of “trollishness.” What are you saying can be reduced to absurdity? You say, “The atheist’s argument is not weakened by assuming the existence of God or objective morality.” You’re just gonna leave that hanging out there? We’re supposed to believe it, because “Willie” says so? I have met some very thoughtful, courteous, and engaging atheists. So far, you’re not shaping up to be one of the more impressive atheists that comment here at theophiliacs.

    Reply

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