Thursday, May 22, 2014

Reflections on the Problem of Evil

Every living and breathing human being will come face to face with the question of evil in the world.  Without a doubt, we know that there is something wrong with us, something awry with the world around us.  Our encounters with evil pose a problem for all worldviews, but many feel that evil poses a particularly thorny difficulty for Christianity.
The oldest variation of the problem of evil, known as the logical problem of evil, originates with the Greek philosopher Epicurus:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

The 18th-century Scottish skeptic, David Hume, revived Epicurus’ objection against God based on evil in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.  The logical problem of evil argues that God and evil are not logically consistent.  The short form of the propositional argument is simple:
If God exists, then evil does not exist.
Evil exists (i.e., it is false that evil does not exist).
Therefore, God does not exist.


The logical problem of evil is more helpfully worked out in a way that makes the connection between God and evil explicit.
1. If God exists, he is omnipotent (possesses all power), omniscient (has all knowledge), and omnibenevolent (is completely good/loving).
2. An omnipotent being has the ability to prevent evil.
3. An omniscient being has the knowledge of how to prevent evil.
4. An omnibenevolent being has the desire to prevent evil.
5. Therefore, if God exists, there is no evil.
6. There is evil.
7. Therefore, God does not exist.

Epicurus, Hume, and the 20th-century philosopher J. L. Mackie believed that the logical problem of evil demonstrates that the existence of evil disproves the existence of the Christian God.  But does their argument do so?  Is Christian belief in God and evil logically incoherent?  Must we give up either belief in God or acknowledgement that there is evil in the world?  In a word, no.
Christians will generally affirm that God has a prima facie desire to prevent evil, that is, a desire to prevent evil, all other things being equal.  But why should we assume that all other things are equal, or that there is nothing else worth considering?  As the prophet Isaiah reminds us, God’s ways are not our ways, neither are God’s thoughts our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8).  Perhaps it would be better to affirm that:
            4`. An omnibenevolent being has the prima facie desire to prevent evil.
Might there be something that overrides this prima facie desire to prevent evil?  Certainly.  Here are two suggestions.
First, perhaps God is accomplishing some greater good through evils that He permits to occur.  Thus, two contemporary philosophers argue, “God allows evil in order to bring about some greater good—a good which could not be brought about unless evil existed as its precondition.” (Cowan and Spiegel, The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy, 297) Some good outcomes, perhaps, can only be achieved by permitting a degree of evil to occur.
We can find support for that line of thinking in common human experience.  For example, a parent takes their infant to the doctor to receive shots.  The infant indubitably experiences shots as an evil, something they would rather not encounter.  Without a doubt, the shots hurt the young child.  Why, then, do parents subject their children to such evil?  Because the shots are achieving a greater good, inoculation against deadly diseases, that could not be attained without the apparent evil of the shots.  The evil is achieving something better.  What Christians believe occurred on Good Friday, similarly, is an appalling evil (the unjust conviction, torture, and execution of Jesus of Nazareth) that God permitted and utilized to accomplish an infinitely greater good (the atonement of sin, the redemption of human beings).
Thus, the Christian can ultimately argue that:
4``. An omnibenevolent being “has a morally sufficient reason to permit evil, and thus an ultima facie desire not to prevent evil (i.e., a desire that overrides his prima facie desire to prevent it).” (Cowan and Spiegel, 298)
If it is the case that an all-loving God has sufficient reason to permit evil, then there is no logical contradiction between the existence of God and the presence of evil in God’s Creation.  This response to the logical problem of evil is known as the ‘Greater Good’ defense.
There is a second path Christians can take to respond to the logical problem of evil, a path known as the ‘Free Will’ defense.  Perhaps the greater good that justifies God’s permitting evil is the creation of significantly free creatures.  Alvin Plantinga, a prominent contemporary Christian philosopher, thus argues that “A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all.” (Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil, 30)
But, the skeptic might argue, could God have created free creatures who always (or at least more frequently than they do) choose to do good?  It seems that it is at least logically possible for God to have created such creatures.  Nonetheless, Plantinga points out, even an omnipotent God cannot create just any logically possible world.  After all, God clearly could not create a world in which God does not exist, because God is, by traditional Christian definition, a necessarily existing being.  He either exists in all possible worlds or he does not exist at all.  Thus, although it is logically conceivable for God to create a world in which he does not exist, such a world is not actualizable—that is, God cannot bring it into existence.
It seems likely that even an omnipotent God could not have created a world in which significantly free creatures always chose to do good.  Why not?  Because in such a scenario, those creatures would seem to be not significantly free after all.  Thus, the Christian argues that the skeptic’s second premise (An omnipotent being has the ability to prevent evil) also needs to be refined.
2`. An omnipotent being possesses all power, but it is not logically possible to create a world with free-willed creatures who will always freely choose good.  That is, God cannot create a world with moral good but without moral evil.
Both of these Christian responses to the logical problem of evil—the Greater Good defense and the Free Will defense—seem to successfully show that there is no logical contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil.  God and evil can both exist without incoherence.
The skeptic may not be finished questioning the Christian worldview, however.  Perhaps their logical presentation of the problem of evil fails; but there might be life yet for an evidential version of the problem of evil.  For example, William Rowe, an atheistic philosopher, acknowledges that the existence of God is compatible with the existence of evil.  For Rowe, it is the type and amount of evil that we experience in the world that makes God’s existence highly improbable.  Rowe and others believe that God’s existence is inconsistent with gratuitous evil—evil that does not serve some greater good.  Thus:
(a)    If God exists, there would be no pointless evil.
(b)   There is pointless evil (i.e., it is false that there is no pointless evil).
(c)    Therefore, God does not exist.

Rowe and others acknowledge that shots and even Christ’s crucifixion can theoretically be evils that are used to accomplish some greater good that would be otherwise unattainable.  Nonetheless, Rowe believes that there are numerous examples of evil in the world wherein there is no greater good being attained.  Such evil is known as gratuitous—it is evil that does not make a point, does not serve a greater purpose, does not accomplish some greater good.  Gratuitous evil, Rowe argues, is logically incompatible with the existence of God.  One of the two must go.
The Christian can happily agree with Rowe that ‘one of the two must go.’  Perhaps the Christian might want to question Rowe, and suggest that the existence of God is perfectly compatible even with the existence of gratuitous evil.  For the moment, let us set that aside, and assume with Rowe that ‘If God exists, there would be no pointless evil.’  Why does Rowe then conclude that ‘There is pointless evil’?  Simply because Rowe sees many examples of evil wherein he can find no greater good or purpose that is being accomplished.  We might even heartily agree with Rowe at this point, and acknowledge that there is evil in the world that, to our knowledge, does not accomplish some higher purpose.
But why should that surprise us?  A central affirmation of the Christian worldview is God’s transcendent omniscience.  God knows all things.  As mentioned moments ago, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are His ways our ways.  Why would we expect, as God’s creatures, to understand the full range of thought of the infinite eternal Creator?  Ought we not rather to expect that God will often be accomplishing things that we cannot possibly even comprehend given our limited intellectual resources and temporal perspective?
Recall our example of parents inoculating infants against diseases through the perceived evil of shots.  Can the infant comprehend why his parents allow him to suffer?  No—the infant has insufficient intellectual capacity and an underdeveloped base of experience to draw from.  In reference to God, we stand in much the same relationship—we have insufficient knowledge and experience to understand what God is up to when He permits particular instances of suffering and evil.  Thus, the Christian is motivated to question premise (b)—perhaps, after all, there is no pointless evil; at least, it seems, we cannot be certain that God does not have a purpose for permitting the evils we experience.
Might we go even farther?  I think we can.  William Rowe suggests that God and pointless evil are incompatible.  Let us agree with him, just for the sake of argument—that is, let us grant the truth of premise (a), that ‘If God exists, there would be no pointless evil.’  As a Christian, however, I have great confidence in the existence of God.  My knowledge of God’s existence is based upon the general and special revelation discussed in chapter 4, as well as my own experiential awareness of God’s reality and presence in my life.  Thus, I believe that:
(b`) God exists.
I certainly have more confidence in the truthfulness of (b`) than of Rowe’s (b).  If, however, it is true that God exists, then given premise (a), a different conclusion follows:
(c`) Therefore, there is no pointless evil.
In other words, if I am confident in the existence of God, I can accept Rowe’s claim that God and pointless evil cannot co-exist and yet reject his conclusion.  Instead, I will be led to believe that there is no pointless evil, and cases where I cannot see the greater good that God is accomplishing through an apparently pointless evil, there nonetheless is a greater good.

Once again, we see that there is no logical contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil.  We may not know all that we wish to know, but we can nonetheless be confident that God has a purpose in the world’s evils.