Wrestling with the Problem of Evil

There’s a lot of pain and suffering from which it seems no one is completely immune. It only takes a moment to think of the last heart wrenching tragedy to which the media-machine has forced our undivided attention. And for some of us, the pain and suffering is right there in our midst.

The existence of pervasive pain and suffering in the world has long been a challenge for belief in God. It is not, however, a problem for all views of God. Zeus, for example, was not above committing the worst of evils. In fact, as one of my former lecturers put it, no one put the bumper sticker “Smile Zeus Loves You” on their chariot since the love of Zeus was often a prelude to rape, in the minds of the ancient Greek. Pain and suffering and the actions and events most of us will label as “evil” are problems only when the theist thinks God is essentially all powerful and good. Evil is not a problem for the ancient Greek religious person precisely because Zeus is not essentially good (probably also not all powerful, for that matter). Evil is also not a problem for the theist who thinks God is not all powerful. This is exactly where Rabbi Kushner landed in his famous book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. After his young son died, having suffered for many years with a debilitating and exceedingly painful disease, Kushner concluded that God does the best He can do (He’s essentially good) but the world has spun out of His providential control (He’s not all powerful). So the problem of evil is resolved, though only at the great cost of one of His perfections.

No one put the bumper sticker “Smile Zeus Loves You” on their chariot since the love of Zeus was often a prelude to rape, in the minds of the ancient Greek.

So here’s the problem with which we who believe in an all powerful and good God should wrestle: If God is all powerful, then He should be able to bring about a world where there is no evil. If God is perfectly good, then He would want to bring about a world where there is no evil. But there is evil. So, the claim is that the existence of an all powerful and good God (God* hereafter) is logically incompatible with the existence of evil in the world. In argument form:

1.  If God* exists, then there would be no evil.
2.  There is evil.
3.  Therefore, God* does not exist.

(Many theists point out that the atheist cannot affirm premise 2 since if they do not believe in God, then there is no good or evil. An atheist has to say that good and evil are either useful fictions or reducible to something like pleasure and pain, respectively. But on both of these, evil does not really exist. I do think that the atheist has a problem here, but the argument can be made by recasting the problem in terms of pain and suffering. The thought would be that an all powerful and good God would be able to and want to eradicate all pain and suffering. To create a world with pervasive pain and suffering seems morally wrong, and thus there couldn’t be a good God, or so goes the argument.)

It is worth noting that some religions do in fact deny the existence of pain and suffering (that is, they deny premise 2) and say that it is merely an illusion. This is hard to take seriously and I imagine would be a hard sell for most grief counselors (and hopefully not something your anesthesiologist believes). So denying premise 2, it seems to me, is not an option. Thus, the entire case here hinges on whether or not there is good reason for believing or rejecting premise 1.

There was a time when this argument was taken by the broader philosophical community to be a knock-down-drag-out argument against the existence of God* (again, it can’t get one all the way to atheism in its full sense, that there is no deity whatsoever). But there has been a complete reversal on this (which almost never happens in philosophy, by the way), where even many atheists will admit that the argument is no good, at least as stated. The reason is that it is too strong. Premise 1 asserts that God*’s existence is logically incompatible with there being any evil (or pain and suffering) at all. All it would take to defeat premise 1 is one instance of evil for which God* is justified in allowing. An all powerful and good God could allow pain and suffering so long as this was the means to achieve a greater good, only achievable through allowing the evil.

An all powerful and good God could allow pain and suffering so long as this was the means to achieve a greater good, only achievable through allowing the evil.

Standardly it is thought that free choice is a good that is only achievable by allowing for the possibility of evil. This is referred to as the free will defense. Let’s suppose Joe has himself a girlfriend named Susie. Let’s also suppose that things are going really well for Joe and Susie until he finds out that Susie is being paid off by his parents to date Joe. The whole thing, he comes to conclude, is a fraud. Isn’t it of a far greater value for Joe to be with someone who freely chooses to be “with” him? But notice if there is freedom of choice, there is the possibility of being rejected. Likewise, God could have created individuals who were constrained to sing His praises and follow His wishes all the day long, but this seems to be of a far lesser value than creating ones who could freely choose to worship Him. But free creatures do not have to choose to worship or follow the dictates of God, otherwise they wouldn’t be free. So if God creates free creatures, then He thereby allows for the possibility of these creatures choosing the wrong. But if free and genuine worship is of a far greater value than robotic and forced worship (if forced actions can even count as worship), creating ones who would freely worship justifies allowing for at least some evil. Thus, premise 1 is shown to be untrue. It is not the case that if God* exists, there would be no evil since the possibility of evil had to exist in order for God* to achieve the good of free worshippers.

This version of the argument has become quite rare given the free will defense and other defenses of this sort. Peter Van Inwagen, a specialist on this topic, has said:

“It used to be held that evil was incompatible with the existence of God, that no possible world contained both God and evil. So far as I am able to tell, this thesis is no longer defended.”

Van Inwagen is of course referring to professional philosophers, and it is of course quite possible and even likely that one would encounter this formulation or something like it in discussing these issues with regular folks (where philosophers are certainly irregular in various respects!). And there are some professional philosophers who apparently haven’t gotten Van Inwagen’s memo (See William Lane Craig’s recent debate with Alex Rosenburg). The overall rejoinder to someone who is raising this problem is that so long as it is even just possible that God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil, then the existence of evil is not a logical problem for God’s existence. There are other arguments from evil that raise more difficult problems, but seeing how to deal with the logical problem provides a basis for engaging these.

I’ll end here with a few concluding thoughts that I find very helpful when wrestling with issues of evil. What a lot of people seem to find compelling in seeing evil as a problem is that it seems like it would be so easy for God to decrease the suffering in the world, given His omnipotence. There are at least two responses for why this is misguided. First, this idea suggests that the point of life is for us to be happy and pain-free. But this is not the case. God didn’t create us to merely be pleasured in life. On the Christian view, God created us to know and bring glory to Him, so the quantity of pain in the world is not obviously in tension with this end in the same way that it would be if God primarily wanted us to be pleasured. Secondly, we can’t separate God’s omnipotence from His omniscience. God, being omniscient, literally knows all truths—not just what is the case but also what would be the case were things to be different. So could God have prevented the holocaust, for example, given His omnipotence? Sure, but given His omniscience perhaps He knew there would have been a far worse evil as a result. We, by contrast, are simply not in a position, given our finitude, to know what states of affairs would obtain were God to have limited some moral or natural evil. It is easy to say that if we had God’s omnipotence, we would make the world a far better place. But this is irrelevant unless we also had God’s omniscience too.