Planes fly into towers, gunman empty magazines into classrooms, tsunamis wipe out cities, cancers steal our loved ones away, and people hurt us every day. Pain and suffering is everywhere in this world. It strikes without warning, at any time, at anyone, without prejudice. Such is the nature of evil. And yet, some believe that this world is governed by a God that is pure love, all knowing and all powerful. But how can this be? If this God were real why doesn’t He do something? Why does He allow evil to destroy our lives and ravage our hopes? The extent of our personal suffering is enough to lead one to believe God is not who He claims to be. Or worse, God does not exist.
This is particularly the claim atheologians make. The presence of evil in this world has long since been used to show the undeniable lack of God’s existence for centuries. And as far as they’re concerned, the theist is irrational to believe in both a good God and evil. As mathematician and science writer Martin Gardner once summed up, evil “… is probably why most atheists are atheist,” (Gardner 214). In this paper I will present the atheist’s argument of the problem of evil and then thoroughly explore the many responses theists propose to reconcile the problem of evil with God. One noteworthy response is the freewill argument. Other responses seek to clarify exactly who God is to reconcile His existence with evil. And some address evil with a theodicy, which is a proclamation of what God’s reasons are for evil in an effort to argue He is just in permitting evils. In due course, my goal is to show that the theist does have rational grounds for believing in an all-loving and all-powerful God that exists within a world of evil. That is, that the problem of evil is of no problem at all for the theist.
Before beginning, I believe there are three important points that should be clarified. First, many of the arguments made here are for the purpose of defending a theistic worldview, not for solving personal conflicts people may have with instances of evil in their lives. As Alvin Plantinga, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and the inaugural holder of the Jellema Chair in Philosophy at Calvin College, writes, “Neither a defense or a theodicy, of course, gives any hint to what God’s reason is for some specific evil- the death or suffering of someone close to you, for example- might be… neither is to be thought of first of all as pastoral counseling. Probably neither will enable someone to find peace with himself and with God in the face of the evil the world contains. But then, of course, neither is intended for that purpose,” (Plantiga, The Freewill Defense, 338).
The second point to make is that there is no guarantee that the arguments made here address and justify all accounts of suffering. Laura Waddell Eckstrom, a professor of philosophy at the College of William and Mary, believes, “A fully justificatory account of suffering may be unattainable for us,” (Eckstrom, 399). So if you find yourself unsatisfied with the answers found here it does not mean that there is no satisfactory justification for evil. Instead, it just means that this essay was not sufficient in doing so. The purpose of this essay is to provide rational reasoning to defend the notion that a loving and all powerful God and a world of evil can together exist.
The another point to make is clarification of which God exactly will be under the microscope. Many people have different ideas of who God is and what evil is. For the sake of the arguments relevant to this topic, the God in question is the classical God of western theism. That is, the God of the Holy Bible. This is the idea of God that is most thoroughly defended and attacked in western philosophy and most relevant to people in western culture. Therefore, all arguments explored here will be to that end. Other personal conceptions of who God is may be irrelevant.
The last point to settle is the use of the term “evil.” I’ve encountered many people that do not approve of the use of “evil” in this topic of debate because, to them, it assumes that evil exists as a supernatural entity. To clarify, my use of the word evil here is merely to remain consistent with historic usage of the word from both theologians and atheologians alike. Despite not believing in supernatural evils, atheologians often utilize the word in these discussions since the nature of the argument is whether evils are consistent with a loving God. To debate such a topic one must assume the hypothetical situation evils exist first. Lastly, my use of the word evil is used in a fashion that is interchangeable with “pain and suffering,” and ultimately that is the intent of this paper: To explore the arguments for and against the existence of the a loving and omnipotent God in contrast with a world full of pain and suffering.
So… What is the Problem?
There are two problems with the presence of evil. There is the logical form of the problem which postulates that the presence of evil is inconsistent with the existence of a theistic God. The acknowledgment of this contradiction is one that predates Christianity. As the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) pondered, “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both not able and willing? Whence then is evil?” (as quoted from Pojman& Rea, 276).
In more modern times we see this same skepticism. Oxford University philosopher John L. Mackie (1917-1981) writes, “In its simplest form the problem is this: God is omnipotent, God is wholly good, and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three positions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false. But at the same time all three are essential parts of most theological positions: the theologian it seems, at once must adhere and cannot consistently adhere to all three,” (Mackie, 299). According to Mackie, if you give up one of the three, the problem of evil is solved. Since evil is an obvious truth one must choose between compromising on God’s goodness or ability to prevent evil (Mackie, 300). The other form of the problem of evil is the evidential problem which argues that the randomness and profusion of evil in the world is better supported by the atheist worldview than the theist’s.
Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), known for his skepticism of the Judeo-Christian worldview, writes, “… you can never possibly prove, that animal or, at least, human happiness in their life exceeds its misery, you have yet done nothing; for this is not, by any means, what we expect from infinite power, infinite wisdom, and infinite goodness. Why is there any misery at all in the world? Not by chance, surely. Is it from the intention of the Deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty,” (Hume, 283).
Whether it is the logical or evidential problem, the atheologian charge is that a God with the attributes that the Judeo-Christian tradition requires could and should prevent the evil we experience in this world. And yet, evil is everywhere, so something is off, which is a fair charge to make. Since we experience so much evil in this world one might be inclined to wonder if God isn’t capable of defeating the evil, doesn’t care, or simply put, doesn’t exist. Obviously, this is no small issue, and no small task to solve.
So the ball is in the theologian’s court to defend their beliefs. Plantinga writes,“… the claim is that the facts of evil constitute a defeater for theistic belief for those who are fully aware of them- and if for the theistic belief, then also for Christian belief… understanding of evil and its place in God’s world is an important goal for Christians, one where philosophers can perhaps be of some help.” (Plantinga, Supralapsarianism, 355).
The Logical Argument
First we should tackle the logical problem of evil. The logical argument is as follows:
1) God exists and is omnipotent, omniscient, and good.
2) Evil exists
The logical argument finds these two statements in contradiction with each other. If two statements are logically inconsistent it is impossible for both of them to be true. What needs to be proven, however, is that the two are inconsistent. So additional statements are needed to be added to the first two premises to make them true, and conversely for the atheist, additional statements are required to display the fallacy. For example:
1) God exists and is omnipotent, omniscient, and good.
2) Evil exists
3) An omniscient and good being will always prevent evil.
Now we have an additional statement to show the fallacy between 1 and 2. But this argument is only successful if premise 3 can be shown to be true. This is where theists object for there are arguably situations where evil occurrences lead to greater goods. For example; a few soldiers may die in battle in order to protect a town full of innocent civilian families. So it would be a fallacy to assert that God would always prevent evil, since some evils may lead to greater goods.
The atheologian can counter argue that an omnipotent God could achieve a good outcome without the need for any evils. But this counter argument depends on definitions of omnipotence and evidential greater goods, topics worthy of examination later. If we revised the argument to instead read:
1) God exists and is omnipotent, omniscient, and good.
2) Evil exists
4) A good and omnipotent being prevents evil when there is no evidential occurrence of good that outweighs it.
But alas, this new premise is also flawed because it relies on evidential observations of good outcomes, which is needless to say, impossible. Much more will be covered on this impossibility later, but clearly the logical argument cannot stand on its own. It requires additional premises to prove that evil and God are inconsistent with each other, and these additional premises can each be counter argued, as will be discussed shortly. William L. Rowe, professor emeritus of Philosophy at Purdue University, affirms the weakness of the logical argument, “… it is reasonable to conclude that the logical form of the problem of evil is not much of a problem for theism,” (Rowe, Philosophy of Religion, 117).
The Freewill Defense
The evil of this world is often broken down into two categories: Moral evil; the evil of man, and Natural evil; the plight of disease, natural disasters, etc. To address moral evil, theologians adhere to the Freewill Defense which postulates that the evils committed by man are because of man’s freewill, and God does not override this free will because doing so would override the freedom, thus ending freewill. That is to say, God values a world containing free creatures more so than a world with no free creatures.
Plantinga illustrates why the freewill defense is necessary with an illustration of “other worlds.” God may be omnipotent to create other possible worlds, but in order for such other worlds to be actualized, God would need to suppress people’s freewill in order to provide all possible variability that are opposed to what people freely choose. Since God cannot (or chooses not to) suppress people’s freewill, such possible world’s cannot be actualized. And therefore, God could not create just any world He pleased without suppressing freewill, but since He would not suppress freewill there is only one possible outcome for an actual world: the one in which we have free will to make morally bad decisions. Therefore the existence of evil is an unavoidable inevitability. Plantinga calls this effect Transworld Depravity, (Plantinga, The Free Will Defense, 347). Since everyone is morally free, at some point, in all possible worlds, someone will freely choose to commit a moral evil. Thus there can be no possible world in which there is freewill and no moral evil.
Now, if God created a world in which people only do right, then people are no longer free. Instead suppose God creates a world with free humans, capable of good and evil. In this scenario, any evil the humans act freely on cannot be faulted of God. In other words, there are only two scenarios: No evil or no freewill. So the arguments may be summarized as God, though omnipotent, is incapable of creating a world in which there is no evil and free humans.
Thus the original logical problem can be refuted by adding two additional statements that show that God’s omnipotence and evil are not inconsistent.
1) God exists and is omnipotent, omniscient, and good.
2) God cannot create a world in which humans are free and there is no evil.
3) A world with evil and freedom is better than a world with no freedom and no evil.
4) Evil exists
Bible scholar J.B. Phillips (1906-1982) wrote on this defense, “Evil is inherent in the risky gift of freewill… It is worth noting that the whole point of real Christianity lies not in interference with the human power to choose, but in producing a willing consent to choose good rather than evil,” (Phillips, 88-89).
The Value of Freewill
One strong counter argument to the freewill defense is that of freewill’s value. Atheologans are quick to point out that a world in which there is no freewill and no evil is much greater than a world with both. Freewill causes pain and suffering and lack of freewill does not cause pain and suffering. So a truly loving God would have definitely sacrificed freewill to spare us pain and suffering.
Such an argument is strongly opposed by theologians. Early Christian theologian St. Augustine (354-430) writes of free will’s inherent value, “Such is the generosity of God’s goodness that He has not refrained from creating even that creature which He foreknew would not only sin, but remain in the will to sin. As a runaway horse is better than a stone which does not run away because it lacks self-movement and sense perception, so the creature is more excellent which sins by free will than that which does not sin only because it has no free will,” (St. Augustine, 14-15).
This notion is shared by German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716) as well, “… in accordance with order and the general good that God allowed to certain creatures the opportunity of exercising their liberty, even when he foresaw that they would turn to evil, but which he could so well rectify, because it was not fitting that, in order to hinder sin, God should always act in an extraordinary manner. To overthrow this objection, therefore, it is sufficient to show that a world with evil might be better than a world without evil…” (Leibniz, 285).
Now one might object that these statements from Augustine and Leibniz are merely opinions. Thus the theist needs a way to show that freewill with evil is better than no freewill and no evil. There are two arguments used to defend the value of freewill. The first is proposed by Plantinga who contends that there is a way to argue that a world with evil is of a higher value than one without. He uses the doctrine of Supralapsarianism, which is the doctrine that God decreed to permit humanity to fall into sin and to save some of the fallen. From a Christian perspective we have a world with good and evil. But this world also has a God of abundant love, grace and mercy, and an incarnate Son who provides atonement for our transgressions and wrongs. In such a world, what amount of evil could even stand to match such a God, and such a redemptive path of salvation?
Such a world is better than a world where everyone is always good and righteous. Plantinga argues that any world with the incarnation and atonement is of greater value than any world with no incarnation and atonement (Plantinga, Supralapsarianism, 359). Thus if God were to create a very good world, one which exceeds the goodness of all others, He would have created a world with atonement and incarnation. And incarnation and atonement is only relevant in the presence of evil.
He writes, “… this gives us a very straight forward and simple response to the question ‘why is there evil in the world?’ The response is that God wanted to create a highly eligible world, wanted to actualize one of the best of all the possible worlds; all those worlds contain atonement, hence they all contain sin and evil,” (Platinga, Supralapsarianism, 359).
The other way to defend freewill’s value is more along the lines of St. Augustine’s opinion; arguing conversely that there is no value in a creation that has no free choice. Such a world may be free of pain and suffering, but it would likewise be devoid of all valuable emotions, and more importantly, choice.
The late and great Christian apologist Paul E. Little explains this view, “But many ask, ‘Why didn’t God make us so we couldn’t sin?’ To be sure, he could have, but let’s remember that if he had done so we would no longer be human beings, we would be machines, mere puppets on a string. How would you like to be married to a mechanical doll? Every morning and every night you could pull the string and get the beautiful words, ‘I love you.’ But who would want that? There would never be any love, either. Love is voluntary. Our choices voluntary… God apparently thought it worth the risk of creating us as we are, and this is the reality we face,” (Little, 133). Little brings up a critical point: If God is loving, and love requires choice, then humans require the ability to choose love in order to engage in loving God. Without freewill humans could not engage in loving God.
So there are essentially two views for arguing the valuable nature of freewill and evil versus no freewill and no evil. One can either argue that the incarnation of God and subsequent atonement are such profound goods that they override all evils, and such an incarnation and atonement are only possible in a world of evil. Or you may argue the value of freewill by identifying the lack of value in not having freewill along with the inconsistency between love and no freewill. Since these positive and negative views do not contradict each other, they can both be maintained simultaneously, surely establishing the value of freewill.
In analyzing the freewill defense a contradiction always seems to appear: The contradiction between God’s omnipotence and inability to control freewill. Omnipotence is casually defined as the ability to do anything and everything. Naturally the, the skeptic begins to wonder why a being with omnipotent capabilities, such as that of the theistic God, does not find ways to solve the problem of evil by controlling freewill. As mentioned earlier, God may allow certain evils to prevail in order to facilitate future greater goods or prevent future greater evils. And surely God values freewill. Yet, to the atheist this seems rather crude or primitive for a being capable of doing anything.
Mackie believes it would be fallacious to say that God requires evil for good, because that would compromise God’s omnipotence by suggesting that he is subject to casual laws in which there are only certain terms by which you can reach certain ends. That is, means which can only be evil. He writes, “Unless a favorable answer can be given to this question, the suggestion that evil is necessary as a means to good solves the problem of evil only by denying one of its constituent propositions, either that God is omnipotent or that ‘omnipotent’ means what it says,” (Mackie, 302).
Mackie asks why God, as an omnipotent being couldn’t have just made humans as creatures that always freely choose good. To which he says, “Clearly, his failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and wholly good,” (Mackie, 304). He further argues that freewill choices are made from character. So why wouldn’t God instill in us character that chooses right always? So in order for God to escape responsibility for evil, choices must not be based on character but instead on randomness, and if freedom is just randomness, how can we say it is good, or better (Mackie, 305). “… there is a fundamental difficulty with the notion of an omnipotent God creating men with freewill, for if men’s wills are really free this must mean that even God cannot control them, that is, that God is no longer omnipotent,” (Mackie 305).
This is commonly referred to as Mackie’s Paradox of Omnipotence. That is, can an omnipotent being create other beings that he cannot control? If you say “Yes,” then God can make beings He cannot control and he is therefore not omnipotent. If you say “No,” then there is something God cannot do, so he is therefore not omnipotent. But as solid as this paradox seems as an argument against God’s omnipotence, it is very similar to the classical paradox of the stone: Can God create a stone so heavy he cannot lift it? And just as the classical stone paradox has been thoroughly refuted, so is Mackie’s paradox refuted.
The route around Mackie’s Paradox involves a correct definition of omnipotence. Plantinga clarifies, “Most theologians and theistic philosophers who hold that God is omnipotent, do not hold that he can create roundsquares or bring it about He both exists and does not exist. These theologians and philosophers may hold that there are no non-logical limits to what an omnipotent being can do, but they concede that not even an omnipotent being can bring about logically impossible state of affairs or cause necessarily false propositions to be true.” And later, “What the theist typically means when he says that God is omnipotent is not that there are no limits to God’s power, but at most that there are no non-logical limits to what He can do…” (Plantinga, Freewill, 332). Rowe agrees, “So there are many things that God, despite being omnipotent, cannot do. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude from this that God’s power is somehow limited, that there are things he cannot do which, if only his power were greater, he could do,” (Rowe, Philosophy, 7).
Now for many theists this might be a hard concept to swallow, because it is accepting that God is limited in some way. It might seem blasphemous to say God is limited in power and ability. But if you really think about it, this is what we read of God in the Bible. We read that God cannot change or deny himself (James 1:17, 2 Tim 2:13). Aren’t those limitations? What about committing to evil or killing Himself? Aren’t these things that God cannot do because they are contradictory to his nature? Technically speaking, committing evil or killing Himself is contradictory if God is good and eternal. So it is appropriate to say God has limitations in that He can only do what is not a contradiction in terms, or a contradiction of His character.
Granted, not everyone agrees in God having limitations despite scripture, and in this case, if God can do anything, even the logically impossible, then there is no problem of evil because it can simply be explained away as God doing something that is impossible, existing as a loving God amidst a world of evil. So whether you believe in a God with logical omnipotence or illogical omnipotence, one can argue away the problem of evil coexisting with God.
Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, seems to pull form this notion of God being limitless, writing, “If an omnipotent being can do what is logically impossible then He can not only create situations which He cannot handle but also, since He is not bound by the limits of consistency, He can handle situations which He cannot handle,” (Frankfurt, 92). So if one presupposes a limitless God not bound by consistency, then really no contradictions can be charged against God.
If one counter argues with a claim that God is capable of controlling our freewill, but refrains from doing so, Mackie counters that God should only then control evil wills and refrain from controlling good wills. The only reason for God not to control evil is if he places more value in freedom then what is right and wrong, which would contradict the doctrine of sin, (Mackie, 305). But if we expand on Mackie’s notion that God should have created humans with the freewill that always choose right, then we find ourselves right back at square one, with humans not having freewill. Never opting to choose differently than what is right because God created you to always choose right is not freewill. It would very well contradict freewill. The will is not free unless we are capable of choosing and acting on any choice. Additionally, Mackie’s claim that God placing more emphasis on freedom then right and wrong doesn’t contradict the doctrine of sin. That is merely an opinion. The fore-planned incarnation and atonement of sin through Jesus Christ shows that God values freewill to a very high degree in that He prepared atonement for the very creations He knew would ultimately choose wrong. If God valued right and wrong over freewill He would not have created human beings destined to choose wrong. So whether you believe God created human beings with freewill He cannot control, or created human beings with freewill that He can control, but chooses not to, God creating humans with freewill does not undermine His omnipotence.
The Evidential Problem
With the logical problem satisfied, and the free will defense addressing moral evils, it is necessary to look at natural evils as well, which is highlighted in the evidential problem of evil. The evidential problem does not necessarily argue that evil and God are inconsistent, but instead argues that the randomness and profusion of evil fits the atheist’s world view better than it does the theist’s.
Let us start with the claim that the evil in the world is excessive. Many argue that because there is more evil than good in the world that there must likewise be more evil than good in God, or no God at all as Hume seems to suggest in his works. Philosophers tend to differ in their responses to this issue. Leibniz argues first that the overwhelming goodness in all other animals may compensate for man’s moral evils, and then second that goodness has an immensely greater value than evil so that the goodness of even a few saints can compensate for a vast population of evil. Plantinga argues that Christ’s incarnation and atonement warrants some significant level of evil in the world, as such a ministry and subsequent sacrifice would be over excessive in a world where evil is no more than a person here of there committing a very minor sin. Then again, God’s love is so great, maybe He would endure just suffering for such few and minor mistakes, (Platinga, Supralapsarianism, 364). Additionally, the level of evil may in fact be the counter factual to freedom in a world as good as ours. Who could know? But lastly, and most importantly, how do we gauge the level of evil in this world? By watching TV, and tallying good things and bad things on a table? At what point is evil acceptable and not acceptable and excessive? To suggest we have too much evil in the world is an arbitrary assertion for anyone to make. So it becomes quite the illogical claim to say there is too much evil in this world, more so than to say evil is incompatible with a loving God.
The randomness of evil, on the other hand, seems to be a much greater concern. Under situations where a greater good may be experienced through evil of, let’s say, pain and suffering, there is no issue with theism. Rowe writes, “For as we’ve seen, there are times when experiencing intense suffering is very helpful in that it may cause us to act quickly to remove ourselves from extremely harmful situations. So the capacity to experience intense suffering is helpful to us,” (Rowe, Philosophy, 119-120). But the evidential problem seeks to reference evils in which a greater good is not apparent, thereby excluding itself from evils in which a greater good are achieved.
Since the freewill defense only applies to humans, the freewill defense doesn’t apply to animals since they have no concept of good and evil. Yet animals suffer and experience pain. So it initially seems that animals suffer from pointless evil. An evil that, if God exists, God could have prevented without thereby losing an outweighing good or having to permit an evil equally bad or worse.
Let’s say a rabbit suffers a severe injury from a landslide, the injury kills the animal after a slow and painful few days. It would seem that such an evil is pointless, with the only God-based alternative being an evil God, or a God that doesn’t care, or no God. Yet the theistic notion is that God is omnipotent and good. So why do we see pointless suffering?
The argument then follows:
1 There are pointless evils
2 If God exists there can be no pointless evils.
3 Therefore, God must not exist.
This argument, however, requires two assumptions:
A Humans are capable of determining pointless evils.
B An omnipotent and good God would stop pointless evils.
So a thorough investigation of these assumptions is required in order to determine if the argument for the evidential problem of evil is sufficient.
The position of the skeptical theist is that the first assumption of the evidential argument, that there are pointless evils, has not been proven. Rowe explains using the analogy of a fawn burned in a forest fire that dies after succumbing to days of intense pain and suffering, “… to the skeptical theist, we have no adequate reason to think it is even likely that there is no good that would justify God in permitting either the fawn’s terrible suffering or any other case of suffering of which we are aware… because we cannot think of or even imagine a good that would both outweigh the fawn’s suffering and be such that an all-powerful, all knowing being could not find some way of bringing about that good, or some equal or better good, without having to permit the fawn’s terrible suffering,” (Rowe, Philosophy, 121).
Situations of horrible pain and suffering may seem pointless to us, and at times make no sense, but we’re still limited by what we as humans are capable of observing and knowing. An all-knowing omniscient God, on the other hand, is not limited in such ways. So our inability to grasp any particular good that may emerge from a situation does not mean that there is no good that may emerge from the situation. This leaves us in no position to judge God, or question His existence, in the presence of seemingly pointless evils.
Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, Stephen Wykstra, illustrates this concept as an empty garage. If you looked into a garage and saw no dog you could conclude there is no dog in the garage. But if we were to look into the garage and see no fleas, it would be incorrect to conclude that there are no fleas in the garage, (Rowe, Philosophy, 122). So just as seeing no fleas in the garage does not mean there are no fleas in the garage, not comprehending any good that can come out of an evil situation does not mean there isn’t any good that can or will come out of an evil situation.
Another valid analogy is the good parent analogy. A good parent disciplines their child, sends them to the dentist, makes them get painful vaccination shots, etc. All these things to the child seem to be evil situations full of pain because the child does not have the knowledge of the parent who knows that discipline will teach their child right from wrong, the dentist will remove harmful cavities, and the vaccination will prevent a crippling infections later in life. These pointless evils to the child are acts of responsibility and love to the parent. Though it can be argued that this analogy cannot apply to evil overall, it is very applicable to many instances of evil, and it serves to prove that just because we are unaware of greater goods achieved or greater evils avoided doesn’t mean that they are not so.
However, just as mentioned prior, this philosophy of greater good and greater evils is not knowingly applicable to all circumstances. So its applicability is slightly limited. Rowe sees this philosophy as limited as well, “It seems quite unlikely that all the instances of intense suffering occurring daily in our world are intimately related to occurrences of greater goods or the prevention of evils at least as bad; and even more unlikely, should they also somehow all be so related, that an omnipotent, omniscient being could not have achieved at least some of those goods (or prevented some of those evils) without permitting the instances of intense suffering that are supposedly related to them,” (Rowe, Inductive, 310).
Additionally, the same logic of our limited awareness goes both ways. Just as the atheist cannot prove that there are pointless evils, the theist can likewise, not prove that all evils lead to greater goods or the prevention of greater evils, since both would require omniscience on behalf of the theist or atheist. Though the notion that there are instances of evil that God could have prevented losing a greater good or permitting a greater evil can never be proven as truth, it can be justified as a rational belief.
God the Pleasure-Maximizer
One of the most critical concepts in need of clarification in the debate over evil and God is God’s character. Just as God’s omnipotence needed clarification, God’s role in providing for humanity should also be explained. Contrary to common opinion, whether by theists, atheists or agnostics, God is not a pleasure-maximizer. God is not a genie whose purpose is to serve us in order to create a paradise-like life for us. Yet, this twisted idea of God is very popular in western culture, and if it were true, of course there would be a huge dilemma between God and evil.
Atheists in particular tend to think God’s aim was to make the world a hedonistic paradise, and since God failed to do this He must not be omnipotent, or again, maybe just doesn’t exist. However, if this is not God’s aim then the contradiction is null and void to a certain degree. Philosopher and theologian John Hick (1922-2012) wrote, “They (atheologians) think of God’s relation to the earth on the model of a human building a cage for a pet animal to dwell in. If he is humane he will naturally make his pet’s quarters as pleasant and healthful as he can,” (Hick, Evil and Soul-Making, 351). Any failure to provide such a cage must be the result of the shortcomings of the owner. Hume makes a similar argument using the analogy of an architect. But if life’s purpose is not to be pampered, we would not expect such a hedonistic paradise of a world.
Hick continues, “… if our general conception of God’s purpose is current, the world is not intended to be a paradise, but rather the scene of a history in which human personality may be formed towards the pattern of Christ. Men are not to be thought of on the analogy animal pets, whose life is to be made as agreeable as possible, but rather on the analogy of human children, who are to grow up to adulthood in an environment whose primary and overriding purposes not immediate pleasure but the realizing of the most valuable potentialities of human personalities,” (Hick, Evil and Soul-Making, 351).
Just as in the Christian worldview we call God our father, as we are His children, a good parent does not provide unrestrained pleasure to his children at the cost of growth. Thus the world should not be judged by the amount of good and evil in it at any particular time, but instead judged by its primary purpose of soul-making. Hick writes, “The good that outshines all ill is not a paradise long since lost but a kingdom which is yet to come in its full glory and permanence,” (Hick, Evil and Soul-Making, 353). Marilyn McCord Adams, a research professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, agrees, “It does the atheologan no good to argue for the falsity of Christianity on the grounds that the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, pleasure-maximizer is incompatible with a world such as ours, because Christians never believed God was a pleasure-maximizer anyway,” (Adams, 384). So if we make the move away from the idea of a loving God that wants to make our lives pleasing and easy, and instead envision a loving God that wants us to grow and mature, which can often occur at the price of pain and suffering, many of the problems of evil are no longer problems at all.
The Cruelty of Non-Action
Another characteristic of God in need of clarification is that of the consequences of non-action. Some have argued that since a man capable of preventing a crime, who chooses non-action, is therefore an accessory to the crime, then likewise, God not preventing evil is an accessory to evil, or does not exist. This claim is one supported by Mackie, that one eliminates evil as far as they can. Since evil exists, God must not be good, or does not exist.
Granted, instances where greater goods are secured and greater evils eliminated are solutions to this issue, it has already been shown that these circumstances cannot apply to all situations. Plantinga argues another solution. He provides an example in which a friend is stranded on a deserted road freezing to death while you are at home with a car and could very easily go retrieve your friend and save his life. But you don’t know he is stranded, so you don’t go out and save him. Does this mean you’re a bad person? Of course not, because you were unaware. So Mackie’s argument can’t be considered necessarily true, since there may be situations in which no action is taken, and yet, no goodness is lost on the being that took no action.
Now one might revise Mackie’s statement to say that; every good thing always eliminates evil that it knows it can eliminate. But this isn’t necessarily so either, because I could have two friends stranded in opposite directions of each other with only enough time to reach one of them. Despite knowing of the evil, it is logically impossible for me to rescue both simultaneously. So an evil may persist, despite my knowledge of it, and yet my goodness does not come into question.
Likewise it may be logically impossible to eliminate an evil without causing a greater evil, so the original lesser evil is permitted. Either way, Mackie’s premise can’t be necessarily true because there could be logical impossibilities preventing even an omnipotent being from eliminating particular evils. This takes us back to the skeptical theist argument. It would be fallacious to fault God for non-action if we’re not omniscient in knowing all available constraints and possibilities related to a particular instance of evil.
A number of theodicies are also utilized to further address the problems of evil. In particular, Hick presents a theodicy of soul-making. Unlike skeptical theism which questions our ability to comprehend the results of evil scenarios, Hicks instead emphasizes the good that comes out of evil scenarios.
Hick argues that an environment devoid of evil would likewise be devoid of spiritual growth. This is something I believe most of us can all agree on. That is, many trials and tribulations in our past have made us into better individuals today. Hick takes this notion to argue that the absence of evil would leave humans spiritually and morally undeveloped. Little agrees, “Sometimes, in his infinite wisdom, God knows that there are things to be accomplished in our character that can be brought only through human suffering. To shield us from suffering would be to rob us of a greater good,” (Little 135). This is confirmed in scripture in Romans 5:1-4.
A counter argument to Hick’s theodicy is that evil tends to occur randomly and meaninglessly, without even a hint of constructive purpose observable. Hick proposes an insightful response to this argument in that the random and seemingly pointless nature of evil occurrences is in fact what makes it effective as a constructive soul-making experience. If evil followed a just and non-haphazard pattern, people would avoid wrongdoing out of fear rather than duty, and if it were noticeable that good always came out of suffering then misery would no longer evoke a heartfelt sympathy or sacrificial aid from others. Hick writes, “This picture we are working with is thus developed and teleological. Man is in process of becoming the perfected being whom God is seeking to create. However this is not taking place- it is important to add- by a natural and inevitable evolution, but through a hazardous adventure in individual freedom,” (Hicks, Evil and Soul-Making, 350).
Hick concludes: “It seems then, that in a world that is to be the scene of compassionate love and self-giving for others, suffering must fall upon mankind with something of the haphazardness and inequity that we now experience. It must be apparently unmerited, pointless, and incapable of being morally rationalized. For it is precisely this feature of our common human lot that creates sympathy between man and man and evokes the unselfishness, kindness and goodwill which are among the highest values of personal life,” (Hick, Philosophy, 60).
But this soul making theodicy cannot account for all evils like an animal dying slowly from sustained injuries or a child brutally tortured and murdered by a psychopath. A good and omnipotent God capable of preventing such an event should prevent such death. Though one may resort to one of the other defenses, such as that of free will or skeptical theism to solve these issues, the soul making theodicy cannot stand alone. As Rowe concludes, “…it’s reasonably clear that suffering often occurs in a degree far beyond what is required for character development,” (Rowe, Inductive, 311). So although the soul-making theodicy does not apply to all circumstances of evil, it does indeed apply to many instances of evil in one’s life.
Divine Intimacy Theodicies
Another theodicy that looks to address instances of evil in someone’s personal life is the Divine Intimacy Theodicy. This theodicy comes about from philosophers who doubt classical approaches to the problem of evil. Adams, for example, prefers an approach where evils are defeated on a personal level, and each life God grants He grants for a good life in which evils do not happen for no reason. She writes, “… I suggest, to exhibit the logical compossibility of both dimensions of divine goodness with horrendous suffering, it is not necessary to find logically possible reasons why God might permit them,” (Adams, 387).
Adams believes this can be done by understanding the context of the individual’s life, and giving that individual a life that is, overall good. From a Christian point of view, God is an unconceivable greater good of which intimacy with leaves no doubt as to whether any person afflicted by evil believes their life is worth living. The book of Job in the Bible parallels this line of thought. Job is a good servant of God, and yet after losing his family, possessions, and his health you begin to wonder why God would do all these things to Job. Yet, at the end you see that Job enters into a very intimate and profound relationship with God that overshadows all his misfortunes.
Eckstrom similarly believes that through suffering we achieve a more intimate experience of God that we never could have before (Eckstrom, 392). She writes, “Why would the divine agent permit instances of evil? Perhaps a reply applicable to some instances of personal suffering is this: in order to provide occasions in which we can perceive God, understand him to some degree, know him, even meet him directly,” (Eckstrom, 393). Plantinga likewise writes, “An absolutely central part of Christ’s mission is his suffering; it is through this suffering that he atones for human sin and enables human being to achieve union with God. But then if it is a good thing that creatures resemble Christ, it is a good thing that they resemble him in this respect as well,” (Plantiga, Supralapsarianism, 363). In scripture we see similar parallels; Acts 5:41, Philippians 3:10-11, James 5:10-11, and 1 Peter 4:12-14.
Suffering can at times parallel the sufferings of Christ in a way that it becomes a privilege to share in some of His experiences. They can provide a oneness with God. It can also lead to sympathies, as Eckstrom writes, “Shared experiences facilitate dialogue in providing something in common about which to converse, and they make possible understanding that is beyond words, communicated perhaps with understanding looks and gestures… Victims of a similar sort of oppression or injustice understand each other in a way that outsiders to their experience cannot,” (Eckstrom, 395). And later, “Consider how this might work, in particular, for a Christian theist. One in the midst of dealing with deep betrayal of loyalty, for instance, might call to mind the thought, ‘As I have been rejected, Christ was rejected even by his close friend, Peter,’ and take comfort in this sympathetic identification,” (Eckstrom 400).
Does this mean we should welcome suffering to a degree where we would seek out suffering as a means to know God further? Of course not. Such a theodicy is not supporting an agenda of self-endorsed suffering. Though many Christians in the past and in the present will often inflict harm to themselves in order to achieve this. Ultimately, the intimacy with God would needs God’s orchestration as the result of sufferings incurred under His will. One shouldn’t expect such intimacy as the result of self-affliction. On the other hand, it seems to be a common theme, among mature Christians, like the apostle Paul, to welcome the opportunity of suffering. Granted, suffering may not always lead to intimacy with God, but it does often do, and thereby, meaning can often be found in suffering via this theodicy.
Muchausen Syndrome is a disorder in which someone seeks medical aid in an effort to seek attention, or the abuse of another in effort to seek attention. Like a father that throws his children into a river so that he may heroically save them. Some atheologians level this charge against God in that He is using people like means and not ends? Such actions are unfair because God uses our suffering to achieve His own ends, ignoring our autonomy. Why would a God of perfect love have me suffer to actualize a good world or a good for anyone other than myself?
Plantinga offers a variety of answers: Perhaps God would ask us if we, on our own freewill choose to suffer for the sake of someone else. And God, with knowledge of how we would respond only subjects us to suffering for others that we would have in retrospect agreed to be subjected to (Plantiga, Supralapsarianism, 366). That if one knew what God knew, and had His foresight, they would willingly choose to suffer. Just as a parent knows best for their child, God knows best for us.
Plantinga writes, “Suppose he (God) therefore actualizes a highly eligible world that includes incarnation and atonement, and in which human beings fall into sin, evil, and consequent suffering. Suppose also that the final condition of human beings, in this world, is better than it is in the worlds in which there is no fall into sin but also no incarnation and redemption; they receive God’s thanks, enjoy greater intimacy with him, are invited to join that charmed circle. Then God’s actualizing the world in question involves suffering for many human beings; his reason for permitting that suffering is not that thereby the suffering individuals will be benefitted (his reason is that he wishes to actualize a highly eligible world, one with great goods of incarnation, atonement, and redemptions). Nevertheless his perfect love perhaps mandates that he actualize a world in which those who suffer are benefitted in such a way that their condition is better than it is in those worlds in which they do not suffer,” (Plantiga, Supralapsarianism, 367).
Then the question naturally follows: Why does a loving God create such a tragic and painful way to get to know Him? Doesn’t the permission of suffering as a way of fostering intimacy suggest a cruel God? We can then go back to the Divine Intimacy Theodicy, which adopts the classical notion that God only allows evil and suffering when it is necessary to bring about a greater good or lesser evil. The theory also does not claim to apply to all instances of suffering. Eckstrom defends the theodicy, “… perhaps, some occasions of suffering are necessary for certain individual’s coming to love of and intimacy with God. The objector may counter that some persons experience God in moments of great joy and beauty. Yet this may be true while it is also true that other persons’ paths to God are paths through suffering,” (Eckstrom, 399). So suffering may not be the only way to achieve intimacy with God. As Eckstrom points out, intimacy may be achieved through joy and beauty. And since pain and suffering is not the only means to reach intimacy with God, and as Plantinga believes, the benefit is to create the most eligibly good world with incarnation and atonement, then the Muchausen Syndrome charge made against God can be dropped.
As can be seen by these theodicies, the theologian places value in suffering. This value even extends to natural evils in which disasters, famines, and accidents cause pain and suffering but can’t be considered the result of human freewill. Yet, some have suggested that these values could not be secured from moral evils alone. So why are there natural evils if theodicies can’t address them all? So even though God may have a cause for moral evil due to man’s freewill, we still don’t have an all-encompassing answer to why natural evils occur at all.
The traditional answer is that all of creation is fallen because of moral evil as found in Romans 5:12-13, and 8:21-22 . Thus, the natural evil is the result of man’s free decision to choose evil, sin, which brought death into the world. Some theologians and philosophers take this a step further and trace it back to Satan’s doing, since he was Eve’s tempter, and therefore the ultimate source for the evils that would plague humanity from thus forth. Plantinga admits that the answer is not widely popular with scholars, though there doesn’t seem to be evidence argued against the idea. After all, if we are assuming a classical theistic worldview to see if a defense or theodicy can solve the problem of evil, why would we overlook the role of Satan, a major player in the theistic worldview?
Does this mean that an earthquake or thunderstorm is due directly to satanic action? Does that mean these disasters are God’s doing? What we can deduce from scripture is that originally man was created to have union with God in a state of righteousness which was devoid of pain and suffering. However, when man sinned in his free will, this union was severed, and therefore, man became exposed to a world in which pain and suffering becomes “possible.” It then becomes possible for natural disasters to occur, which man has subsequently dealt with since. This reasoning would conclude that God isn’t the origin of natural disasters, but separation from God leaves us in a world where such disasters are possible.
Another view regarding this issue recognizes the natural component of natural disasters. Earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and floods are a natural occurrence in a world of ever changing weather patterns. To state such weather anomalies didn’t exist prior to man’s first sin requires God to micromanage the weather to prevent extreme anomalies from occurring in the first place. Or that these weather patterns were happening, but the garden of Eden was somehow isolated from such possible occurrences, perhaps because of its “ideal” location. Though the latter notion seems troubling since God’s intent was for man to multiply and flourish, which would inevitably require living beyond the garden of Eden. Either way, removal of God’s “secure” relationship with man then left man exposed to the elements. With this considered, one should not look for absolute purpose in natural disasters if they’re just a product of living in a world where we’re separated from God because of our sin.
Expanding on this notion of the natural component of natural evils, it is possible to explain why natural evils occur based off a simple acceptance of the laws of physics required for life. That the very laws of physics that make life possible in our universe make natural evils inevitable. As Gardner writes, “If someone loses balance at the edge of a cliff and topples over, you can’t expect God to suspend gravity in the region and allow the person to float gently down. If a piece of heavy masonry dislodges from the top of a tall building, and is on its way toward the head of someone on the sidewalk, you can’t expect God to divert its path or turn it into feathers,” (Gardner 215). This view stands apart from the traditional view of God in which He alters the laws of physics and performs miracles to intervene, as is performed in the Bible fairly often. Instead, it is argued that such manipulation of the laws of physics would create catastrophic results elsewhere whether locally or across the universe. Thus, God may be capable of breaking the laws of physics, but does not for these reasons. Or God is not capable of breaking the laws of physics He originally set in place because it would be a contradiction, similar to creating a three sided square. In the later case, God’s omnipotence is not jeopardized since omnipotence is only doing what is logically possible, and breaking the laws of physics is viewed as a contradiction.
Gardner goes on to say that, “Such tragedies are the terrible price we pay for a universe with unalterable laws of velocity and momentum. If God were obliged to prevent all accidents that kill or injure, he would have to be constantly poking his fingers into millions of events around the globe. History would turn into a chaos of endless miracles,” (Gardner 215). Gardner brings up a great point that not only summarizes his position, but also provides an argument that can be applied to the concept of the traditional God that can break the laws of physics. And that is one of endless arbitrary interventions of “endless miracles.”
Consider all the people in the world and all the times we experience the wrong end of the laws of physics, whether as benign as stubbing a toe or as extreme as burning alive in a forest fire. Should we expect God to prevent all of these mishaps? Even stubbing your toe? If not, which situations of natural evils should He permit and which should He prevent? How can we decide where the seemingly arbitrary line is drawn? Especially when so many of these situations have potential greater goods. Stubbing your toe on the curb conditions you to be more aware of your surroundings that help you avoid more serious injuries in the future, and deaths in wildfires lead to the design and development of protective materials and strategies that have saved the countless other lives of firefighters working to put out wildfires. Thus one might argue:
- Natural evils are inevitable given the laws of physics
- Certainly not all natural evils would be prevented based off their potential for greater goods and soul making.
- Arguments from skeptical theism suggest that we are in no position to determine which natural evils should be and should not be prevented as we do not have omniscience ourselves.
- Therefore, one cannot conclude that the existence of natural evils disproves the presence of the traditional concept of God.
So whether one maintains the traditional concept of a God capable of breaking the laws of physics in true miracle form, or a God that cannot break the laws of physics because it would be contradictory, a theist has grounds for maintaining that God is not made inadequate by the presence of natural evils. Especially once the inevitability of natural evils in this world is acknowledged.
Now of course our minds may wander to imagine incredibly heinous crimes and horrendous evils. Such crimes and evils seem unjustifiable. Even under the theodicies past mentioned, it appears that not all suffering can be justified?
Russian novelist and philosopher Fyodor Dostoevsk (1821-1881) voiced his doubts in the story Rebellion in which the character Ivan Karamazov struggles with the thought of the torture of children, “All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I cannot answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I’ve only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear.” (Dostoevsk, 296). And later, “Imagine you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature- that little child beating its breast with its fist, for instance- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?” (Dostevsk, 297).
Adams notes that most solutions to the problem of evil are generic and global (Adams, 385). Generic in that the reasons are general and sought to cover a large variety of evil. Global in that they apply to some underlying feature of the world. She writes, “… God cannot be said to be good or loving to any created persons the positive meaning of whose lives He allows to be engulfed in and/or defeated by evils- that is, individuals within whose lives horrendous evils remains undefeated,” (Adams, 385-386). Adams believes that evils not justified on an individual level cannot be justified by global defenses. For example, does knowledge of God’s creation of freewill allowing evil in anyway ease the pain of the parent whose child was brutally tortured and murdered. If anything such events would only cause the parent to doubt further. Though Plantinga would argue, as I have previously mentioned, that the role of defenses and theodicies is not to ease the personal pain of those who have suffered, but instead to justify the theist worldview as a rational worldview, as I likewise argue.
Adams continues, “Would the fact that God permitted horrors because they were constitutive means to His end of global perfections, or that He tolerated them because He could obtain that global end anyway, make the participant’s life more tolerable, more worth living for him/her?” (Adams, 386). So Adams believes there are no neutral grounds for reconciling horrendous evils and God. The only legitimate solution is found in the Christian worldview of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection, (Adams, 389). As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us,” -Romans 8:18 (NIV). Which has value coming from a man that was stoned and thought dead, imprisoned, beaten multiple times and shipwrecked out at sea and eventually executed.
Adams believes, like Plantinga, that the only solid answer to this dilemma of horrendous evils and heinous crimes can only be resolved upon reflection of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. As Little once wrote, “The ultimate answer to the problem of evil, at the personal level, is found in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ,” (Little, 134).
A God Who Suffers
Acknowledgement of the incarnation and atonement of Christ is too many, unsatisfactory. These reasons may be motivated in doubt of Christ’s existence or exact history. Another is a misconception over a key characteristic of God: Suffering. Many theistic scholars believe God suffers over our suffering. This seems to oppose the classical notion that God does not suffer: The doctrine of impassibility. Again, we find ourselves at a crossroads, much like that of the issue over what God’s omnipotence really means. This time the question is whether or not God suffers.
The Bible seems to support the notion that our God is one who suffers: Gen 6:6, Exodus 32:9-10, Psalms 78, 68:19. But does this actually count as proof God suffering? John Calvin believed that God did not suffer, but that in order for Biblical authors to communicate God’s intent and will, such anthropomorphism was allowed. “Since we cannot comprehend [God] as he is, it is necessary that, for our sake, he sould, in a certain sense, transform himself… Certainly God is not sorrowful or sad; but remains forever like himself in his celestial and happy repose; yet because it would otherwise be known how great God’s hatred and detestation of sin, therefore the spirit accommodates himself to our capacity… God was so offended by the atrocious wickedness of men, [he speaks] as if they had wounded his heart with mortal grief,” (As quoted in Owen, 249). However, such an opinion of God’s impassability requires a series of reinterpretations of an otherwise straightforward reading of scripture.
There are, on the other hand, philosophical arguments outside of interpretations of scripture to support the doctrine of a suffering God. One argument is the philosophical notion of love towards a beloved, in which when someone truly loves another, the concerns of the loved one become the other’s concern as well. If your beloved is troubled, you’re likewise troubled. This notion is extended to God. For if He truly loves us so much, then our troubles and concerns are likewise bestowed and shared by God. Though it can be conversely argued that this behavior only applies to human love, not Godly love.
Yet, it does logically make sense. For if one says they love their spouse, yet have no grief, sorrow, or passion at the knowledge of their spouse’s suffering then their claim of love for their spouse comes into question. If God truly loves us then we would expect such passion under circumstances of misery. (Eckstrom, 396).
Some argue that a God who suffers with us is not a God of worship, but a God of pity. Some argue that God may act out love and justice without suffering. Ekstrom argues otherwise, “Noble sorrow at witnessing a tragic occurrence is a good. Hence it would seem that God’s goodness and love include sorrow, as well as joy, over the world. This sorrow is arguably not a defect, but a strength or an asset, a part of being supremely good,” (Eckstrom, 397).
Plantinga agrees with the doctrine of a suffering God, “Some theologians claim that God cannot suffer. I believe they are wrong. God’s capacity for suffering, I believe, is proportional to his greatness; it exceeds our capacity for suffering in the same measure as his capacity for knowledge exceeds ours.” (As quoted in Eckstrom, 395). Little likewise agrees, “No pain or suffering has ever come to us that has not first come through the heart and hand of God. However greatly we may suffer, it is well to remember that God is the great sufferer,” (Little, 139). As it is written in Hebrews 4:15, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin,” (NIV).
Additionally, the doctrine of a suffering God seems to correlate with the divine intimacy theodicy. For if our God is a God that suffers, suffering would thereby be a means to better know God and experience intimacy with Him. This idea would indeed bolster the plausibility of the Divine Intimacy Theodicy.
The Arbitrary End of Evil
A common layman’s critique of God juxtapose to pain and suffering in the world is the frequent questioning of “why didn’t God stop that from happening?” and “why did he allow that to happen?” God’s seemingly lack of action to stop evil is viewed as a failure on God’s part or evidence of non-existence. However, the theological answer to this issue lies in the arbitrary nature of solving these problems of evil. After all, what evils do we expect God to stop and God to allow? We tend to project our own personal standard for what God should have prevented. But this of course varies from person to person. Thus for God to stop particular evils and not others, God would never satisfy everyone’s arbitrary opinion. The only real solution would require God to end all evil. But for God to end all evil comes with quite unfavorable consequence for humans. Ending all evil would literally end “all” evil, which includes all sinning humans. As in, you and I. Naturally we don’t wish for God to end our lives, but instead all the “evils” we personally don’t agree with. But such is not compatible with the Bible’s description of a God of pure justice and righteousness.
The Bible provides two excellent examples of this: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-40, and 2 Peter 3:4-9. Through these verses it is communicated that God’s final judgement extends to all people, both good and bad. But God, in His love, does not wish for anyone to die without being reconciled back to Him. And if God has foreknowledge of who will eventually choose, in their own freewill, to be reconciled back to Him, then God will, out of love, delay this overall ending of life. That is, at least until all who will choose Him, do choose Him. Until this final day occurs, we must instead live in a world where pain and suffering exists. From this perspective, our continued existence in this hard world of suffering is contrasted by the great hope God has placed in us to be reconciled back to Him.
The last and final way to address the problem of evil is a very clever method known as the G.E. Moore Shift. This argument is named after the former professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, George Edward Moore (1873-1958), who proposed an interesting way to negotiate particular arguments. In his argument you begin with the possibility that God exists, and if so, there would be no pointless evils (Rowe, Philosophy, 129). The argument reads as follows:
1 ) God probably exists.
2 ) If God exists there are no pointless evils.
3 ) Thus, probably there are no pointless evils.
This argument may seem too simple, but take a moment to think about it. All that the theist needs is rational grounds to believe God exists for premise 1. If the theist has rational grounds for premise 1, then 3 follows from 1 and 2. And of course, there are indeed many various arguments that lead one to believe God does indeed exist; Cosmological, Design, Origin of Life, Religious Experiences, etc. Any one, or all, of these gives the theist rational grounds for maintaining God exists. And with that, the conclusion that there probably are no pointless evils provides rational grounds for refutation of the evidential problem of evil. Though one could always invert this argument to align with an atheologian’s agenda by restating premise 1 as God probably doesn’t exist. And if this is done the conclusion could conversely read, Thus, probably there are pointless evils. Since the atheologian has rational grounds for believing God does not exist, it can suit their needs as well.
So the shift doesn’t solve the problem of evil completely, but it provides rational grounds to defend the theist’s belief in God amidst the presence of evil. It is thus successful, because the atheist charge is that a loving all powerful God amidst evil is an irrational and contradictory belief, or one better supported by the atheist worldview. But with the G.E. Mooreshift, theists have rational grounds for maintaining God exists, and therefore rational grounds that there are no pointless evils. Ultimately, rational grounds is all that is needed to refute atheist claims that evil is a problem for God.
Final Thoughts on the Problem of Evil
So ultimately theists have a variety of different avenues to utilize in combating skeptical claims against the existence of God in the presence of evil. It can be shown that there is no satisfactory argument for maintaining that there is a contradiction between a loving God in a world full of evil, as is shown by the failure of the logical argument of evil and the omnipotence paradox, and conversely, the applicability of complimentary theodicies such as soul-making and divine intimacy.
As for the evidential argument of evil; the free will argument, soul-making theodicy, divine intimacy theodicy and traditional Christian theology of resonating evils originating from Satan’s fall, all provide a satisfactory explanation for instances of moral and natural evil. But as the evidential argument of evil asks; which worldview better supports the existence of evil in the world? It is now clear that both the atheist and theist worldviews can give an account for evil, but deciding on which one is the most suitable is quite a difficult argument to make. Mostly because such a question will always receive an answer that is most aligned with a person’s strongest presuppositions. The theist with faith in God will always understand evil as better explained within the confines of their worldview. While the atheist who believes in no God and a world of random haphazard pointless events, will conversely adhere to the notion that evil is best explained within their worldview. Just as the G.E. Mooreshift relies on an initial presupposition on whether God exists or not, likewise, the problem of evil will always be addressed by each individual depending on their presupposed worldview on whether or not God exists. The true test of whose worldview is most likely to be true must then extend outward into proofs and arguments for God’s existence, or lack thereof.
In the meantime, evils are sure to continue in this world as horrendous and heinous as the ones prior. Amidst these evils the faith of theists maybe shaken, while the faith of atheists is further entrenched, hopefully it has been successfully argued here that the classical theistic notion of an all-loving and all-powerful God is reconcilable with the evil of this world. It is my hope that after reading this essay the theist’s faith is not plagued with doubt, and the atheist not felt vindicated, the next time tragedy rears its ugly head.
“My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.” -Psalm 119:50 (NIV)
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St. Augustine, The Problem of Free Choice, Volume 22 of Ancient Christian Writers, (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1955)