Evil: A Guide for the Perplexed
(Note: a shorter version of this review can be found here)
Chad Meister’s Evil: A Guide for the Perplexed is a remarkably concise and accessible introduction to the “problem of evil”. Meister summarises a quarter century of academic debate and philosophical reflection in a book that can be read in an evening. He also finds time to critique Hindu and Buddhist responses to evil, and to present a moral argument for Christianity based on the gravity of evil and suffering. Meister has provided students, teachers and pastors with a robust response to some of the deepest questions that a human can ask. Why do I suffer? What can I do about it? Is there any help? Can I dare to hope?
Mesiter begins his discussion with the logical problem of evil, which was presented most effectively by JL Mackie.
i) A wholly good being always eliminates evil as far as it can.
ii) There are no limits to what an omnipotent and omniscient being can do.
iii) So, if a wholly good, omnipotent and omniscient being exists, it eliminates evil completely.
iv) Evil has not been eliminated completely.
v) Thus, a wholly good, omnipotent and omniscient being does not exist.
Alvin Plantinga provided a rebuttal to this argument with a free will defence which questioned premise (ii). There are limits on omnipotence; to create beings capable of achieving virtue God must give those beings the gift of free-will. An omnipotent God cannot force a free being to choose the good. So if God created beings with free will – be they humans or angelic powers – omnipotence could not prevent them from freely choosing evil.
Plantinga’s defence attributes earthquakes and famines to fallen angels; this seems a little implausible, to say the least. But a defence need not be plausible to be successful; remember, Mackie claimed that the existence of God and the presence of evil are logically incompatible. To rebut this charge the theist need only show that they do not entail a contradiction.Plantinga shows that it is logically possible that evil might not have its source in God’s will; it is also logically possible that God could have reasons for permitting evil in his creation; so the “logical problem of evil” fails.
It is widely (although not universally) accepted that the logical problem of evil has been answered. However, William Rowe has articulated an evidential problem of evil, which claims that a good, omnipotent and omniscient creator would eliminate every purposeless or gratuitous evil. We can summarise the evidential argument:
- If there is a God, he will not permit evil which does not bring about some greater good.
- There are evils which do not bring about some greater God.
- There is no God
Why should we believe that there are evils that do not bring about greater goods? Consider all the murders, rapes, massacres and other atrocities in our world. Is it really conceivable that each of these instances of suffering were necessary to bring about some greater good? Isn’t it possible that in at least one of these instances the suffering was unnecessary? Couldn’t a good God have prevented at least one of those evils without losing a greater good? It is surely plausible that the world would be no worse off in the absence of some of those evils.
Meister counters that absence of evidence of a divine purpose is not evidence of absence. Humans have limitations that might prevent them from knowing all the goods that God is aware of. This is an appeal to Stephen Wykstra’s famous “noseeum” defence. Consider insects so small that they are invisible to the naked human eye. If an entomologist were to tell you that your arm was covered in such insects, it would not be rational to deny this because you cannot see any insects. You are not in an epistemic position to detect these creatures with your eyes.
Similarly, consider the gap between God’s mind and ours. Meister argues that the gap is so great that God might have knowledge of values that we cannot detect. We cannot detect any good that would realised by certain instances of intense suffering. However it would be false to infer that no goods are realised by these instances of intense suffering. We are not in an epistemic position to detect all the goods that God knows of. Horrific evils might be necessary to bring about these greater goods.
However, there are dangers in leaning too heavily on this defence. As Meister acknowledges, if God knows of values that we cannot even conceive of, we cannot rule out goods that would justify God in permitting any amount of evil whatever. So, if human life was nothing more than a seemingly endless series of intense pains and emotional traumas we would not infer that there was good evidence that God did not exist. It would always be possible, given the gap between our mind and the divine mind that God could know of values that would justify even infinite suffering!
Furthermore, if no amount of suffering or dysteleology can count as evidence against God, it is difficult to see what could count as evidence for God’ existence. Theists often argue that there are contingent and valuable states of affairs – life, for example – that are best accounted for by God because God has the power and motivation to bring them about. If we concede that our grasp of what God values is very limited, then we have few grounds to claim that we know what God would desire to bring about. Design arguments could be undermined on this point.
It seems better, then, to challenge Rowe’s assumption that God must not create a world in which individuals undergo gratuitous evils. Peter van Inwagen points out that Rowe must depend on the moral principle: “If one is in a position to prevent some evil, one should not allow that evil to occur-not unless allowing it to occur would result in some good that would outweigh it or preventing it would result in some other evil at least as bad.”
But why should the Christian theist accept that principle? If God were to intervene to prevent gratuitous evils, he would have to intervene not once, but continually. This would significantly undermine human freedom and responsibility. It would leave us with a world in which parents could casually starve their children, because God would miraculously intervene to prevent their deaths. So God cannot intervene to deal with every gratuitous evil. Peter van Inwagen goes on to ask:
“…if he prevents only some horrors, how shall he decide which ones to prevent? Where shall he draw the line?-the line between threatened horrors that are prevented and threatened horrors that are allowed to occur? I suggest that wherever he draws the line, it will be an arbitrary line.”[i]
Note: it is not that evil is a necessary consequence of free-will; rather, the possibility of evil is a necessary condition for the existence of free-will. God did not decide that the world was to contain vast amounts of purposeless evil-or any evil at all. But he did have a reason for allowing the possibility of evil; if he had not, we would have lost great goods like free will. Unfortunately, the possibility of evil has led to a reality in which much suffering does not directly increase the amount of good in the universe. God must allow many gratuitous evils to occur, or he will fatally undermine human autonomy and responsibility.
However,suppose God created a world in which every human life contained more good than evil (unless that human chose a life with more evil than good in it.) Not only would the universe contain more good that evil; every human being would have the opportunity of living a life with more good than evil in it! We would have no good reason to believe that God would be under some obligation to prevent every gratuitous evil. Of course God would need an afterlife to provide goods which would overwhelm experiences of suffering. But Meister advances several arguments to show that belief in an afterlife is quite reasonable.
In his last chapter, Meister deals with horrendous evils. These are instances of suffering that seem to render a human life worthless; a person enduring such suffering could rationally claim “it would have been better that I had not been born.” Meister draws on Simone Weil and Marilyn McCord Adams, and points out that there are eternal goods which can overwhelm and redeem the most horrendous events. While we cannot imagine the greatness of heaven or the New Creation, we know that they will surpass our wildest expectations. So, arguably, we can conceive of goods that could overwhelm the most horrendous suffering.
Meister (quite correctly) rejects the doctrine of impassibility, and reminds readers of the scriptures that teach that God has suffered. The Father gave his only Son; the Son was tried and tested just like every other human. God the Son has suffered for us and with us. God’s capacity for suffering is precisely proportional to his greatness, as is his ability to overcome suffering. In fact, this gives us a practical reason to embrace theism, because theism teaches that evil will not have the final word. This is a prophylactic for cynicism or despondency.
The torture and murder of the innocent Son of God would seem to be a paradigm case of a gratuitous, horrendous evil. Yet, even after Jesus cried out to the Father who had seemingly forsaken him, he surrendered fully to his Father, placing his life into his hands. So our suffering can enable us to identify with Christ, who endured horrendous evils and suffering. “In affliction,” argues Meister “we are at once both at the greatest distance from God but potentially as close as possible. The choice is ours – whether we receive the invitation of closeness, and so receive the amazing goods offered by God, or reject that invitation and so experience hell on earth.”
And the experience of redemption will be all the sweeter for those who have endured the darkest exile. Intimacy with God is not a secular good, but a sacred and eternal value. It might not be a good that Rowe recognises, but it is certainly one that we can conceive of. It is also possible that some experiences of divine healing would not be possible without the existence of seemingly random and horrendous evils. So the theist has defences against the evidential problem of evil. Can we go further, and provide a complete and convincing explanation for evil?
Theodicies are different beasts than defences. A theodicy attempts to vindicate the ways of God in the world by providing an explanation for the presence of evil. “Free-will theodicies” attribute the presence of evil to the human decision to rebel against God. Natural evil is, in part, the divine response to human sin. Meister rejects this response because science demonstrates that natural evil predated humans by millions of years. This is thin ground, to my mind, for rejecting a free-will theodicy. First, many would argue that a community of embodied creature with free-will is only possible in certain worlds, and those worlds will all contain natural processes (like plate tectonics) that make gratuitous evils possible.
Second, it is specifically human suffering – not animal suffering – that a good theodicy seeks to answer. William Rowe famously argued that a good God would intervene to save a fawn dying in a forest fire. Why did Rowe choose a fawn, and not a rat or a wild pig? They would suffer as much as the fawn. We have a tendency to attribute human feelings and beliefs to certain animals, and not to others. To be fair, Meister is interested in the suffering of all animals, not merely the cute creatures. But we need to ask “how much suffering is that exactly?” Animals lack rational agency and the emotional lives which give human nature value. Michael Murray has argued that animals might also lack:
“…the cognitive faculties required to be in a higher-order state of recognizing themselves to be in a first-order state of pain. Those that can on occasion achieve a second-order access to their first-order states of pain, nonetheless do not have the capacity to regard that second-order state as undesirable.”[ii]
Animal suffering is not comparable to human suffering if animals lack this capacity for self-awareness. Furthermore – and crucially – in the Christian tradition humans alone are in God’s image. We would matter to God in ways that animals would not. If an animal lacks the moral significance of a human person, then a utilitarian justification for animal suffering is possible.
Perhaps close fellowship with God would have allowed humans to avoid many natural evils, or to access miraculous healing. When humans broke free from God they lost these resources. Or perhaps God would have created the New Heavens and New Earth if the first humans had remained obedient. Once they rebelled, God put eschatology “on hold” until he had brought the human race back to order. So the Augustinian theodicy retains its coherence. How does it compare to Meister’s preferred “soul building” theodicy, which argues that humans were born to suffer, so that we could learn courage and compassion?
No doubt humans can learn these virtues in a fallen world; perhaps this partly explains why God allows a fallen world to exist. But when we encounter evil, we instinctively feel that this is not how the world was meant to be. Evil is scandalous; I am not sure that “soul building” theodicies can adequately account for that fact. It seems more likely that we are suffering the consequences of a fall because we have broken fellowship with a God of limitless love and power. In any case, evil is so chaotic and irrational, that I am not sure that we will ever develop a theodicy that will be entirely persuasive. The church will simply have to settle for good defences and offer good reasons to trust God when the darkness seems overwhelming. Thankfully, Meister demonstrates that we have adequate resources to give that answers that are needed.
[i] “Neo-Cartesian Theodicies of Animal Suffering,” Michael j Murray with Glenn Ross, Faith and Philosophy, Volume 23, no. 2, (2006), pp.169-90.