Officially, I have two unfinished written pieces – completely unrelated – and am in the middle of reading five books.  Yeah, I have no idea why I can’t get to an outcome with anything either.  It is SUCH a mystery.  You’d think Liv and I would have been with Daphne and Velma this weekend instead of Tammy and Maddy…

So anyway, as I started to type and feign concern for my about-to-add-to-the-ongoing-adjectives-and-ailment-list, I remembered.  I remembered a paper I had written, in the most difficult class and graded by the most difficult professor (Read: A-, whatever.) The Autobiographical Statement and Bible Exam were actually my two favorite assignments, because they did not involve any extreme challenges, making it impossible for me to totally lose my cool in a grading situation from an excess of competitive fervor.

And in that I don’t have the wherewithal right now to either read or write, here it is.  A paper which answers a very important question.

Philosophy of Religion

The Problem of Evil

This seminar paper will reflect upon the problem of evil as a case against the existence of God.  While it may seem too beautiful a fall day to spoil with talk of evil, it is necessary for ongoing education in philosophy to face its reality as we continue to be surrounded by evil people and evil situations daily.

1.     The Hidden God 

One obvious challenge to ethical monotheism is the question of evil, or “the hidden God.  Why doesn’t God just make God’s existence known in some definitive and spectacular way?  For instance, it would be a great deal easier for people to believe in God if He/She/It would simply deposit a billion dollars in a Swiss bank account in their name, or perhaps save them from some active and immediate peril, right?
 
Jesus once commented upon the apparent indifference of heaven to affairs of the earth when he observed, “the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.”[1]  We should not, in other words, read too much into the significance of a drought or a flood.  Such things just seem to happen, and happen without any moral meaning.  This is consistent with the understanding of faith as arriving at its convictions based upon “things not seen.”[2]  Faith does not depend upon sight, and in the case of evil, it must operate despite sight. 

The ancient Greeks understood this mystery as well and erected a statue in the agora of Athens dedicated to “the unknown God.”  This became the basis for a sermon given by St. Paul to the skeptical philosophical crowd of Athens.[3]  And some think that in direct response to this sermonic attempt, St. Paul later wrote of God’s deliberate plan to “hide” the gospel from the wise of this world in the apparent weakness and foolishness of a crucified Christ.   

Luther made much of the distinction between the “hiddenness” of God, the Deus Absconditus, and the revealed God of Scripture.  He contrasted the hidden God with the revealed God and insisted that our knowledge of God must begin always with the revealed God within history and not from speculations arising out of the mystery surrounding the hidden God within history.  Despite all appearances to the contrary, we must trust God’s revelation even when, and especially when, history appears indifferent to our welfare.    

But the category of history as an arena of God’s providence certainly suffers as a result of this.  So much so that Luther speaks of history as merely God’s “sport,” and Shakespeare makes this even more pointed by saying of history that it is: “a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”[4]
 
For classical theists, Jews, Christians and Muslims, the problem of the contradiction between the world as it ought to be and the world as it is, between the revealed will of God and the hidden will of God, must be addressed and an answer of some kind offered.   

2.     The Skeptic’s Challenge 

David Hume would phrase the challenge in this way: “Is God willing but unable?  Then God is impotent.  Is God able but unwilling?  Then God is malevolent.  Thus he argues that God cannot be both omnipotent and beneficent at the same time.   

In its most succinct form, it can be stated as follows:  

“If God is “GOD,” then He is malevolent.

If God is “GOOD,” then He is impotent.

Otherwise, when cometh evil?” 

Similarly, the skeptic can turn the teleological argument for God’s existence on its head.  For instance, if God is the great designer of the world and the world supposedly then reflects His “order” and “purpose,” then does not the reality of evil represent a considerable fly in the ointment?  Is it not an insurmountable obstacle to belief in divine providence when God’s providence appears sublimely indifferent and callous to the moral problem of evil in history?  What kind of divine teleology can possibly justify such historical carnage? 

Does the character of such a dysteleological world reveal something of the character of God?  Given the way the world is, what must its designer be like?  We could even frame the question as a “product liability suit.”  Since we hold human manufacturers liable for their hazardous products, why not hold God liable?

This very complaint is brought forcibly home in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov where Ivan tells his brother Alyosha “I do not accept God’s world,” because it is a world in which innocents must suffer.  Ivan then relates the story of a general who uses hounds to hunt down and tear to pieces an innocent boy, a serf.  He then asks Alyosha what should be done to such a man.  Alyosha says softly, “Shoot him.”  Thus, Ivan and Alyosha agree, one who knowingly permits the suffering of innocent children deserves to be shot.  Thus, Ivan and Alyosha agree:  any being, human or divine, who knowingly permits the suffering of innocent children deserves to be shot.  Isn’t God just such a being?!  This is the protest of moral atheism. 

Thus, the problem of evil represents the most compelling argument against ethical monotheism’s concept of an all-powerful and all good God.  This is more than just an existential problem, though it is certainly that.  It must be taken seriously as an intellectual challenge to consistent theism. 

Our text takes up the problem of evil on two fronts, as a logical problem and as an evidential problem.

1.     The Logical Problem of Evil

As a logical problem, it is asserted that the existence of God is logically inconsistent with the existence of evil.  It is logically impossible for an omniscient and omnipotent good being to continence evil.  Evil’s existence is not necessary. 

But Alvin Plantinga argues in his Free Will Defense that human freedom necessarily entails the possibility of evil.  Evil is a necessary corollary to human freedom.  You can’t have one without the other.  God can only forestall the occurrence of moral evil by excising the possibility of moral goodness.   

But why cannot God create free creatures who always do what is right, whose moral character is fixed?  Plantinga argues that freedom requires a real ability to choose otherwise, i.e., an objective choice must exist.  This is the incompatibilist view of freedom, namely that freedom is incompatible with determinism.  God cannot determine the actions of free persons.   

But others argue for a compatibilist view of freedom, that freedom and determinism are not in conflict.  Freedom does not require the actual ability to choose otherwise, but only a subjective perception of choice must exist.  So, even if we really cannot do otherwise, so long as we believe that a real choice lies before us, we are free, even if all of our choices are predetermined to be good choices.  
 
Plantinga responds by arguing that significant (i.e., not trivial) moral freedom be defined as follows:  A person is free with respect to an action A at a time t only if no causal laws and antecedents conditions determine either that he performs A at t or that he refrains from so doing.”  If that is the case with freedom, then morally significant freedom is not compatible with any form of determinism.

So, it was not a fundamental error for God to create free creatures, creatures free to sin, free to rebel, free to despair, free to turn against God.  Otherwise God would have created creatures so determine in their moral character that they cannot rebel, so that they can only choose the good, the true and the beautiful.  And if that were the case, then what kind of a world would result?  What kind of creatures would we be?  Is the choice between being a rebel or a robot?  

John Locke states that God puts us into a world in which the challenges of life, including evil, exist because God is good.  If God had placed us in an antiseptic and anesthetic world without pain, if God were to hand us all we need and preserve us from any dire consequences of our own choices, then we would lack all incentive to cultivate our mind and talent.  We would, so to speak, live like pigs and just contentedly wallow in the muck.  Without pain and suffering, in other words, mankind “would be a very idle, inactive creature, and pass his time only in a lazy lethargic dream.” 

Socrates made a similar point in Plato’s Symposium.  Since only the gods are wise and have everything they need, we humans are necessarily erotic and needy creatures, longing for wisdom and plenty.  And because we lack perfection, we must, therefore, strive for it.  Thus, philosophers both ancient and modern have understood that suffering is part of the price we pay for freedom and as a goad to human excellence.
 
In fact, wealthy societies tend to be at grave risk of becoming soft, of degenerating because things are too easy.  In this respect, soft times are hard times.  This is not to romanticize evil as really something intrinsically good, or to become positively giddy about human suffering and pain.  But it is to put evil into a coherent metaphysical context.  And because suffering and evil can never be abolished, this helps to mitigate and curb, to confine evil and suffering to more bearable proportions. 

2.     The Evidential Problem of Evil 

While Plantinga’s Free Will Defense may withstand logical arguments about the incompatibility of belief in God and evil, others argue that belief in God is implausible given the facts of evil.  Here the challenge is to square belief in a good God with the evidence of evil in the world and history.  It may be logically possible for God to exist, but is it plausible given the actual state of affairs as we know it? 

Statistically speaking, given the amount of evil present in the world, is this the kind of world one would antecedently expect from a being who is extremely intelligent, benevolent and powerful?  But such an inductive approach to the question of evil would require an alternative world with which to statistically compare, of which we have none.  And the worlds we otherwise create for ourselves as theoretical models, are mere caricatures, and defined by our own presuppositions which thus prejudice the experiment.

To use the prima facie evidence of evil as an argument against the existence of God is to treat theism as a kind of large-scale metaphysical hypothesis for which we anticipate certain specific consequences of how things are suppose to be.  If theism is true, then we expect a certain kind of world will naturally follow.  Pointless or gratuitous evil simply should not exist, and if it does, then it is unlikely that God exists.

A theistic response might challenge the notion of “pointless or gratuitous evil” by arguing that evil serves a purpose, albeit hidden from our view.  This is typical of arguments that attempt to justify evil in the plan of God, arguments otherwise known as “theodicy,” a justification of God.   

While it may be specious to claim knowledge of God’s hidden purposes in allowing evil, it is reasonable to believe that God may indeed have such a purpose and that we do not have access to it.  This is called “The Cognitive Limitation Defense,” and it holds that, as Calvin would put it, “our thimble full of wit does not entitle us to judge the ways of God.”  

This claim of the inscrutability of divine purposes brings this question to a stalemate of sorts.  One either puts their trust in God despite the evidence, as in the case of Job, or one curses God and dies, as so advised by Job’s wife.[5] 

Thus, a choice is to be made in life.  Pain can either drive us towards heaven or towards hell.  It can produce character and hope within us or it will produce a nihilistic loss of all meaning and all hope.  Helen Keller observed that: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” 

Both humans and animals feel pain, but only humans find meaning in pain, be it positive or negative.  While suffering has little inherent value, its presence in our life challenges us to overcome its meaninglessness.  It can be therapeutic to suffer in so far as suffering forces us to face life’s mysteries.   

The real anguish in suffering and pain is its apparent randomness and meaninglessness.  It crushes as often as it ennobles.  Like the rain, it falls upon the deserving and the undeserving alike.  But in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl noted that “suffering ceases to be suffering in some way the moment it finds meaning.   

So, while we cannot choose the circumstances of life in which we are placed, we can choose how we view such circumstances.  This power of choice, this ability to rise above the dehumanizing effects of evil, reflects the spiritual freedom and nobility of the human person in the face of suffering. 

3.     Defense and Theodicy
 
The two (2) types of responses to the argument from evil are either a defensive one or a more positive one.  Defense aims at establishing that a given formulation of an argument against theism from evil fails to achieve its purpose, while theodicy aims to offer a positive explanation of why God might allow suffering and evil in the first place.
 
The defense approach regards theodicy as unnecessary in as much as the theist is entitled to their belief and nothing the non-theist argues categorically undermines their basic belief.  This is the line taken by Plantinga et al.   

Whether or not a positive theodicy is a viable enterprise is subject to debate.  History is replete with examples of theodicy, all of which have been subjected to intense criticism.  Gottfried Leibniz (1646 – 1716) is one such example in his argument that “tout est bein!,” and Voltaire’s Candide is the withering criticism in the form of a devastating lampoon. 

Various themes show up in theodicy, such as “all’s well that ends well,” which is to say, it will all be shown to be for the best once we reach the end.  This is a utilitarian argument, namely, the ends justify the means.   

Another way to illustrate this argument is to compare history to a musical score and to say that the ultimate harmony of the universe’s music requires a minor note or two in history.  Or to change the analogy to cooking, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.  (I must TOTALLY have salmonella by now…just sayin’).
 
Again, this kind of argument stresses that the music or recipes may not make much sense to us at any particular moment in the process of playing or cooking, but that’s because we cannot hear the whole score or see the end from the beginning.  And since it is eternity’s music being played out slowly through time, it only makes sense for those ears that are finely tuned to the cadence of eternity.

Needless to say, theodicy is a tenuous project at best, but three (3) general approaches deserve our review. 

4.      Global Theodicies 

The three (3) theodicies deserving of more extended treatment are 1) Augustinian theodicy, 2) Irenaean theodicy, and 3) Process theodicy. 

  • Augustinian Theodicy
Augustinian theodicy traces itself back to St. Augustine (354 – 430), a major theologian in western Christianity.  The universe is the creation of God and is, therefore, essentially good.  Evil has no metaphysical standing and is, therefore, essentially only a privation of the good. 

Thus evil lives off the good parasitically.  It cannot exist on its own.  Evil has no metaphysical rights or intrinsic meaning except as a demonstration of the privation of goodness. 

How evil got its start is wrapped up in the mystery of the fall of creation and the perversity of human freedom and finitude, and it cannot be explained otherwise. 

Or, as St. Athanasius would put it, “What is evil is not, but what is good is.  Evil is the lapsing of being back to nothingness.  This theodicy reflects the metaphysical understanding of western culture, summarized nicely in the following six words:

      Being before truth.

        Truth before goodness.” 

Working backwards, moral goodness is rooted in a life that is lived in accordance with knowledge of the truth of things, and the epistemic truth of things is derived from their being, from their ontological relationship to God as their creator.   

Evil, therefore, is not only epistemic falsehood, it is ontologically non-existent.  It is only a mirage within history, and so it will not abide the test of eternity. 

  • Irenaean Theodicy

This metaphysical theodicy of Augustine from western Christianity is complemented by another form of theodicy, namely, the Irenaean theodicy, derived from St. Irenaeus (130 – 202), a major theologian in eastern Christianity.   

Irenaeus begins with original creation, and he argues that it is an error to equate original innocence with original perfection.  For there to be moral maturity, we must grapple with temptation over time.   

Thus, evil is a necessary ingredient to moral maturation, and marks out a specific stage in the spiritual evolution of all humanity.  Paradise was not lost per se, for it ever remains before us as the goal of our spiritual quest.

John Hick calls this “soul-making theodicy,” and goes so far as to say that it is important for such spiritual growth that the world appear to us as meaningless as possible.  This atheistic appearance of the world is critical to the rise of real faith, similar to the test of Abraham.   

  •  Process Theodicy
Finally, process theodicy is more radical still, while being based upon a similar understanding of the moral evolution of the world.  In process thought the relationship between God and the world is one of organic becoming as opposed to crystallized being.  Change, development, evolution, contingency, growth, are all embraced as the process by which the divine being works out His will. 

Continuing along this line, process theology denies that God’s power is as arbitrary as it is usually conceived.  They would argue that God, by virtue of the act of creation itself, has freely limited His own power and submitted Himself to a plan that allows for the contingencies of history to direct its progress.  The life of the world and the life of God are inextricable.  

Historical contingency, an inherent by-product of our being morally free to choose alternatives, is understood as compatible with God’s determinate will in as much as the process will lead us back to God eventually.  And in this journey through time God’s divine power is experienced as persuasive and not coercive.  Thus, God’s being is now so joined with creation that God is involved in a prolonged process of self-actualization through history, of realizing His true nature through the redemption of our often misguided moral choices. 

The future is open, but it need not be seen as a threat.  Rather, it is to be viewed as an opportunity.  Yet, the risk of creation’s future is real, and the process of moral evolution is costly.  God’s self-giving love, which gives to us our very being, with all of its possibilities for good or ill, defers its power to “letting being be,” leaving us to work out our own precarious existence through time.  In this process, evil is a necessary risk, and it is the risk the Creator must be willing to pay for creating free creatures at all. 

      To summarize these efforts to justify God in the face of evil:

  • Augustinian theodicy works from a metaphysical argument about the ontological meaninglessness of evil per se. 
  • Irenaean theodicy works from a moral argument about the utilitarian purpose of evil. 
  • And process theodicy works from both a metaphysical argument about the intrinsic nature of God’s relationship to creation, as well as the moral evolution of history as God continually redeems us from the consequences of our own moral choices.

5.     Horrendous Evil and Theodicy
 
By now it should be clear that the challenge of all theodicy is the presence of horrendous evil, be it natural or moral, within history.  Can theism withstand such a repeated assault upon our existential moral sensibilities?  Does not the cumulative evidence of repeated barbaric instances of evil begin to tilt the scale of history away from theism eventually? 

The Christian answer is the gospel, namely, the incarnation of God in Christ and thereby the identification of God with all our experience of evil in the godforsaken experience of Christ on the cross.  God meets us in the world and in our own suffering, not in majestic power, but in the form of a servant, one who himself became obedient unto death, even the death of a cross. 

So, the classic Christian answer to all arguments from evil is Jesus Christ crucified.  God does not stand idly by, coolly observing the suffering of his creatures.  He enters into and shares our suffering in order to save us from ourselves.

6.     A ‘Learned Ignorance’ 

Finally, it should also be noted that belief in God’s benevolence is intellectually reasonable even when one does not understand God’s reasons for allowing evil.  We may have a reason for our belief even if we do not know what that reason is because there is a difference between having a reason and knowing a reason.  I am, for example, justified in believing that there is a prime number larger than 3.096 x 1019 even though I don’t know what that number is.  
 
So, if my answer to the problem of evil is “I don’t know,” why should that be a problem for belief?  Is it not often the case that I have a good reason for believing that a certain person (a physician, a parent, a boss, a President of the United States, etc.) has a justification for some action or another even though I may not know what the justification is?

So the fact that we don’t know why God permits evil does not change the fact that we do know that God was prepared to suffer on our behalf to overcome it.  Even though evil is the greatest objection to the existence of God, at the end of the day, God is the only solution to the problem.  And if God does not exist, then we are locked in a world without hope, a world filled with gratuitous and unredeemed suffering.  Only faith in a God who suffers with us and for us can withstand such despairing nihilism.

Therefore, from a Christian perspective, “I don’t know” may sound like a lame answer to the question of evil; yet, Calvin called this response “the pious cultivation of the ‘learned ignorance‘ of faith.” 

Far be it from me to argue against Calvin.  Or especially, God.


[1] Cf. Matthew 5:45
[2] Cf. Hebrews 11:1
[3] Cf. Acts 17:16 – 34
[4] Macbeth Act 5, Scene 5
[5] Cf. Job 1, 2:9, 13:15.