The Problem of Evil / Suffering

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1 The Problem of Evil / Suffering The problem: If God is perfectly good, he must want to abolish all evil. If he is unlimitedly powerful, he must be able to abolish all evil. But evil exists. Therefore, God is not perfectly good, or he is not unlimitedly powerful -- or God simply does not exist. Note: Evil is a moral category, so if the problem is framed in terms of evil then one is implicitly acknowledging the ontological moral reality of good and evil (moral realism). If one is not a moral realist, then one should not frame the problem in terms of evil. But the basic issue still remains, for the problem can be expressed in terms of suffering. (Buddhism, for example, does not acknowledge an ultimate distinction between good and evil and thus it speaks of the problem of suffering, not the problem of evil.) Distinguishing the questions / problems: Pastoral problem Logical problem Evidential problem Distinguishing perspectives from within which the questions emerge: The believer Given the authority of Scripture as divine revelation and the teachings of Scripture, how should we understand and respond to the evil and suffering in the world? The not-yet-believer Given the nature and magnitude of suffering and evil in the world, why should I accept what Christians say about God and evil? Distinguishing kinds of evil or suffering: Moral evil Natural evil Evil / suffering that results from the choices and actions of human beings. Any evil or suffering that is not moral evil -- e.g. suffering caused by earthquakes, diseases, storms, etc. 1

2 The Logical (Deductive) Problem of Evil. The logical problem of evil maintains that the following propositions constitute a logically inconsistent set; they cannot all be true. (1) God exists. (2) God is omnipotent. (3) God is omniscient. (4) God is omnibenevolent (all good). (5) God created the world. (6) The world contains evil. There is no explicit contradiction in (1) (6), so any contradiction must involve implicit premises. Possible implicit premises: (2b) (4b) God can do anything. A being who is wholly good will eliminate evil as much as possible. Both (2b) and (4b) can and should be qualified (can God do what is logically contradictory?), and when we do so there is no contradiction between (2), (4) and (6). Moreover, the logical problem of evil can be answered satisfactorily by providing one or more propositions which are possibly true and which, when combined with (1) - (5) entails (6). (B) is such a premise: (A) An omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God who created the world exists. (B) God created a world in which evil emerged and God has a good reason for doing so. (C) Therefore, the world contains evil. (A) and (B) together entail (C), which is equivalent to (6) above. Thus the set is consistent, and the logical problem is answered satisfactorily. It is not necessary to provide God s reason for creating a world in which evil emerges, nor is it necessary to show that (B) actually is true, in order to demonstrate that (1) - (6) are consistent. All that is required is that (B) be possibly true. 2

3 The Evidential (Inductive) Problem of Evil. The evidential problem of evil claims that the mere presence of evil, or the amount and nature of evil in our world, while perhaps not logically inconsistent with the existence of God, nevertheless seriously counts against God's existence. The reality of evil / suffering provides good reason for not believing in God. A response to the evidential problem of evil should emphasize that (1) moral evil (and in some sense natural evil as well) is due to the abuse of free will (sin); and (2) God permits evil in general as well as specific evils either to make possible some greater good or to avoid some greater evil. Why did God choose to create this particular universe, knowing that human beings would abuse their freedom and sin? "God judged it better to bring good out of evil, than to suffer no evil to exist." (Augustine). Some general principles: 1. The reality of evil / suffering is probably the greatest single intellectual obstacle to belief in an all-good and all-powerful God. Evangelical Christians sometimes minimize the force of the challenge, appealing to our limited understanding of God s ways. It presents a cluster of issues which must be taken seriously. The nature and magnitude of evil and suffering in our world is staggering and it must be taken seriously. 2. The problem of evil / suffering should not be considered in isolation apart from other evidential factors that support belief in God s existence. If one only considers the reality of suffering / evil, and does not also consider positive evidence supporting the reality of God, then it is not reasonable to believe in an all-good and all-powerful God. But evil / suffering present one set of factors that must be assessed along with the many other positive factors in determining whether God exists. Although the reality of evil / suffering by itself does count against the reality of an all-good and all-powerful God, on balance there are good reasons for concluding that in spite of evil the God of the Bible does exist. 3. Every worldview must provide some explanation for the reality of suffering and evil. The adequacy of a worldview is in part a function of its capacity to provide a satisfying explanation for suffering / evil. Moreover, every worldview has some unanswered questions when it comes to evil and suffering. 3

4 4. If there is a problem of evil, then there is also a problem of goodness. There is much goodness and beauty in the world; why is there goodness and beauty in the world? How do we account for goodness? Why is it that people typically expect things to be good and are outraged when evil / suffering occurs? If there is no good creator God, why should we expect things to be good? Three Popular Christian Approaches to Theodicy: Free will defense: Most of the evil (most moral evil) in our world is a consequence of God's creating humans (and angelic beings) with significant moral freedom. Evil is the result of the misuse of moral freedom. Philosopher J.L. Mackie ( ) pressed the question: Why did God not create man so that he freely always chooses to do what is right? [ Evil and Omnipotence ] Alvin Plantinga (b. 1932) responded: There are some states of affairs that even God cannot bring about. If we are really "significantly free", even God cannot guarantee that everyone will always freely choose to do what is right. [The Nature of Necessity] The dispute between Mackie and Plantinga is partly over what it means for an agent to act freely. Plantinga accepts incompatibilism, whereas Mackie accepted compatibilism. The free will defense makes sense with incompatibilism but is difficult to reconcile with compatibilism. Compatbilism says free will is compatible with soft determinism -- viz. to be free with respect to an action means that the agent is not coerced or compelled by external factors to act against his/her will, wishes, or desires. Incompatibilism or libertarianism maintains that free will is not compatible with any form of determinism. Natural law theodicy: Why doesn t God just intervene in the natural order to prevent devastating earthquakes, fires, floods, etc.? Natural law theodicy says the existence of predictable, orderly, law-like natural processes, which can have both beneficial and harmful effects, is necessary for the development of stable, mature, and free persons. God cannot simply intervene in the natural order and change the laws of nature in order to prevent babies from drowning or fire from burning. 4

5 Soul-making theodicy: What didn t God create a paradise in which there are no trials or hardships? Answer: What kind of a world did God intend to create? What is the purpose of our existence here? Part of God's purpose in creating is that human beings will be gradually brought into conformity to the image of Jesus Christ. We cannot develop into the kinds of beings God wants us to be without undergoing hardships and trials, facing real challenges in a difficult environment. Real obstacles and challenges, with real consequences, are necessary in order for us to mature and become morally and spiritually shaped into Christ s likeness. Each of these approaches has important insights, but each is limited in its explanation and leaves broader questions unanswered. Is There Gratuitous Evil? Is there gratuitous evil evil or suffering that serves no useful purpose at all or that exceeds the limits necessary for achieving some greater good? Many theists and critics of theism agree that if there is gratuitous evil then an all-good and all-powerful God does not exist; gratuitous evil and traditional theism are incompatible. This is a difficult question and one must navigate the issues carefully, but I am not convinced that gratuitous evil is incompatible with traditional theism. Perhaps we are conceding too much to the critic here. In any event, here are some helpful principles for working through the criticism of gratuitous evil: 1. The theist does not need to be able to specify just how it is that evil / suffering (either the reality of evil and suffering in general or any particular instance of suffering) do serve God s greater purposes. It is sufficient that the idea of there being a greater good in God s overall purposes be plausible. 2. How could any finite human being, from our limited perspective, ever know whether there is gratuitous evil? How could we know that x amount of evil and suffering is justified in serving some greater good but x + 1 amounts of evil exceeds this and is unjustified (can we really think of evil in quantifiable terms)? 3. The idea of gratuitous evil is from our perspective to some extent relative to particular worlds. Suppose that in our present world x is regarded as the greatest evil and is considered to be gratuitous. Imagine then another world in which x does not exist, but there are other forms of evil and suffering. In that world it would not be x but something else y that is regarded as the greatest evil and thus unjustified. And so on. 5

6 4. Even if it is granted that God allows for the reality of evil in general because its presence can be used by God to accomplish a greater good according to his purposes, it does not follow from this that every particular instance of evil or suffering in the world contributes to a greater good. The problem of evil is merely one among a broader set of factors relevant to the issue of the truth of Christian theism. In one sense, evil and suffering do provide negative evidence against Christian theism. But evil and suffering must also be assessed in light of the other positive reasons for believing in God s reality, in a cumulative case argument for Christian theism. There is also a sense in which if Christian theism is true then we should expect to see a world marked by evil / suffering as well as goodness / beauty. Ultimately, the Christian response to evil / suffering is found in God s action in Jesus Christ -- the incarnation, the cross and the resurrection. Evil does not have the last word: Death has been swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54). Moreover, the realities of this present world do not comprise the final chapter in the struggle with evil. Evil and suffering will be destroyed, resulting in the fulfillment of God s purposes in a new heaven and a new earth (Rev ). The task in apologetics is to show that this vision at the heart of the Christian gospel is reasonable and makes sense, and therefore people ought to embrace the gospel as true. 6

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