The Problem of Evil: Seven Points

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One   Some have argued that evil and suffering are logically incompatible with the existence of God. This argument can be set out quite simply:

i)   A wholly good being always eliminates evil as far as he 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, he eliminates evil completely.

iv)  Evil has not been eliminated completely.

v)   Thus, a wholly good, omnipotent and omniscient being does not exist.

However, we can question premise (ii). As strange as it sounds, there are limits on omnipotence: logical limits. 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 omnipotence could not prevent them from freely choosing evil.

The point is that it is logically possible that there are greater goods which God could not bring about without permitting suffering in his universe.

Two It is widely (although not universally) accepted that the logical problem of evil does not prove God’s non-existence. However, the evidential problem of evil aims to establish that God’s existence is improbable given the existence of evil. It  claims that a good, omnipotent and omniscient creator would eliminate every purposeless or gratuitous evil. A gratuitous evil is an evil which does not bring about a greater good.

Given the amount and variety of evil in the world,  there is probably at least one gratuitous evil. Therefore,  God probably does not exist. 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 probably evils which do not bring about some greater God.
Probably, 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.

Perhaps the theist could counter 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. 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. Perhaps 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.

Three Peter van Inwagen has a different response to the evidential problem of evil. He points out that the evidential problem of evil depends 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.” ‘The Argument from Particular Horrendous Evils‘ Peter Van Inwagen Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 74:65-80 (2000)

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.

The argument is that God must allow the possibility of danger, suffering and loss or he will fatally undermine human responsibility. If humans are to grow in compassion and faith, there must be challenges. If humans choose to live without God, and without the good, there must be consequences. Facing a dangerous world while in rebellion against its creator is a terrible consequence. And if God were to continually intervene to mitigate those consequence he would significantly undermine human autonomy. We would become his play things, and not free agents.

So some features of the world, like free-will, justify instances of intense suffering which might be gratuitous in this sense: the individual who undergoes the horrendous suffering gains no greater good from that suffering. The suffering remains gratuitous for that individual in this lifetime. Yet, if there is an afterlife every human life could contain more good than evil (unless we choose perdition.)  And if human beings have the opportunity of lives with more good than evil, then it is not obvious that God would be obliged to eliminate every gratuitous evil.

 Four But Christians must also face the problem of 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.” However, Christians believe 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.

Five The Scriptures teach us that God is not aloof from suffering. 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 defence against cynicism or despondency.

Six We can choose to have faith because the alternative is unbearable. If atheism is true we are the insignificant consequence of  meaningless processes. We would have to concede that love is not stronger than death. We would lose all hope of justice and redemption; yet, can we live without hope? The problem of evil argues that a good God would have had no reason to create mankind. Evil so outweighs good, it would have been better if Earth was as lifeless as the moon. Can anyone seriously believe that this is the case? Wouldn’t that entail that we wish that Earth was lifeless? Are there no grounds for believing that our suffering can be redeemed and defeated?

Seven  The Christian story gives us great reason to trust God even when we cannot understand his reasons. The torture and murder of the innocent Son of God would seem to be a paradigm case of a gratuitous, horrendous evil. Yet God raised his Son from the dead to create the greatest good imaginable. God is great enough to bring good out of the Crucifixion. The evidence of the resurrection gives us a certain hope that God can end all suffering and heal all wounds.

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