A Theodicy (Answering some questions about God and evil)

By IBD Vice President Matthew J Coombe

Originally Posted on mjcoombe.com

Incumbent to the duty of the apologist is to be prepared to not only defend the essentials of the faith (the existence of God or the resurrection) but also issues that tend to have a strong grasp on the emotions of people—the seemingly incompatibility of evil and the existence of God is one of these issues. In this paper I will address five questions and that can hinder the intellectual capacity of people to discern aspects of God (be it His goodness or even His existence) and formulate a theodicy. The questions are, 1. Why is there any evil at all? 2. Why are there the types and kinds of evils that there are? 3. Why is there the amount of evil that there is? 4. Why is there the particular evils that there are? 5. Why does God allow moral evils, and, natural evils, as He does?

Before attempting to make compatible the existence of God and the existence of evil, it should be examined from purely a neutral standpoint (if this is even possible)This is a crucial step as it sets the table to answer each of these questions. For the purposes of this paper, suppose we argue that the neutral position consists of a world that is nearly identical in every respect from this world save one major difference, there are no purported religious experiences or in fact no religions at all—no one believes in God and for all intents and purposes God does not exist. In this sense, I will refer to religion as a belief in a being or reality that transcends earth and its inhabitants. In this scenario I would like to ask the question, does this world have a problem with evil? The answer is both yes and no. Yes it has a problem with evil in the sense that people would still kill each other, still commit hate crimes, and commit all sorts of atrocities; or that moral evil would still be as equally prevalent in this world as it is in ours. Further, on top of the problems with moral evil there also the remaining problem of natural evil; earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes still ravage the land leading to death and people losing homes and property.

In another sense, even though it is clear to the inhabitants of our world that the neutral world is full of evil, it is impossible for these events and actions to actually be considered evil (from the neutral perspective). Simply put, if there is no absolute moral law (the ability to claim that certain things in all cases are evil) then there could be no breaking of those moral laws. At best, without the use of a universal standard, one could merely hold to preferences and nothing else, i.e. “I prefer to not be murdered” as opposed to “all incidences of murder are evil.” The only means of having a universal law is through a universal law giver (God), without which universality is impossible.

Any normative system of ethics would deny subjective morality as it pertains to person to person morality. Or that, it seems that a robust ethical system could not be stemmed from the preferences of any given person—there are too many limiting factors between people.  Education, culture, mental faculties, past trauma, presupposition, socio-economic status, and upbringing all affect one’s view concerning the morality of any given event. Further, if person to person morality follows, what happens if a conflict occurs? What if Dwight thinks it is perfectly fine to murder but Gareth does not like the idea of being murdered at all. What then? Obviously the scope must be bigger then a given individual.

If person to person morality fails what about having morality decided by a given group of people (such as a country)? The problem with this possibility fails for the same as the previous, different countries have different cultures, educations, socio-economic status and so on. On top of this, if a country or a culture decides what is evil or wrong, then one culture could not tell another culture that their actions are wrong—who could then, by moral grounds rightly stand up against Nazi Germany? Thus far, the neutral world has no means of proclaiming the evil of anything.

This neutral world could, via universal consensus decide that everything on vice list A(which contains things like rape, murder, and stealing) is evil and conversely everything on virtue list A ( which contains things like charity, hospitality, and bravery) is good. If this occurred, would it be possible then for universal objective evil and good to exist? The answer is still no. Even if the entirety of the world were in agreement on the morality of a given action, this would not entail objective morality, but merely subjective morality but with a high degree of agreement.

Further, if the neutral world began to exist (and by however means it did) based on an irrational cause (for there is no rational causer such as God) how could the people of this world ever hope to even formulate words about evil let alone be able to clearly delineate it; or that one could believe that the world is merely a product of an irrational cause, but if that was case, they would have no rational grounds in believing that (or anything at all).

It is only in a world that has a rational cause and an objective moral law giver that one is not only able to make coherent claims about anything in general, but also about what is right and wrong. Even when people deny the existence of absolute morality he will still act upon it. For example, Richard Dawkins has said on numerous occasions that if atheism were true that there would be no universal morality, however he has also stated on numerous occasions that he would not debate William Lane Craig because the God that he is defending committed genocide. If Dawkins were to be consistent his reason for not debating Craig would be a non- sequitur.

Therefore, it would not follow to claim that the existence of God and evil to be incompatible for evil could not even exist without an objective moral law giver in the first place. The next obvious question is, if there exists an objective moral lawgiver (such as God) why does God allow evil to exist at all? There have been several possible answers given to this question. The first is the free will theodicy, which states simply, humans have been given the ability to choose good or evil and he has chosen evil and therefore this is the source of evil.

Several key criticisms of this view are as follows. Why did God (if is omnipotent) create beings who are capable of doing evil? Is God inept in creating such a being (then He could hardly be considered omnipotent) or then is He merely the author of sin and evil (and therefore not good himself). There are three primary responses to this line of thinking. 1. From a metaphysical standpoint, the skeptic might be desiring God to do something that is logically impossible, namely, it might be beyond the capability, even of an omnipotent being), to create free willed beings that never sin. Of course God could create beings who never sin, the same way an architect could design a building with no widows. The crux of the issue is freedom. If freedom was truly given and holds, could God ensure such a being never sins? If the answer is “yes” then perhaps one would wonder “is man truly free?” It boils down to, God could create beings who never sin or commit evil, but it seems He cannot (by definition) create free willed beings who always act in a certain way.

2. There is also the notion of “trans-world depravity.” This considers the actions of free willed beings to always be one of a propensity to do evil. For example, some have claimed something like, “If I was in the Garden of Eden, I would never have sinned.” The concept of trans-world depravity would entail that not only were the actions of Adam and Eve normative, but in any possible world any two sentient and free beings would have eventual succumbed to her baser depraved desires and sinned.

3. Though freedom is able to bring about evil, without freedom there are certain goods that could never be achieved otherwise. For example, a man may wish to be told he is loved by someone. He decides that he is capable of bringing about this desire by one of two means. The first is he could create a robot that is programmed to affirm its love for him. The second option is, he could romance a woman and give her reason for her to decide for herself freely if she loves him. Suppose the man decided to do both, which scenario do you think would have made the man most satisfied, the robot doing as was contrived or the woman freely choosing? Of course as with any scenario of two people in love, there is bound to be fights and difficulties (none of which would be possible with the robot) but obviously anyone who has been in love would not hesitate to maintain that the various problems or ruts by no means entail that the love was not worth it.

On top of this, I do not think there is anyone in the world that would maintain that freedom (even if it at times can lead to evil) is itself an evil thing, I have yet to see people marching in protest on their capital with signs donning things like “Take away our freedom.” Or “More oppression, less choice!” No, in fact the opposite is usually the case, people usually are demanding more freedom. So then, freedom is a good thing, even if it brings about limited bad things.

In sum, evil exists because free will beings exist. And while people maintain that evil is bad, she will also maintain that freedom is good. It could even be noted that the unjust limited of freedom is likewise an evil.

The next question is, why are there the types and kinds of evils that there are? (In answering this question I shall also answer question 5). Generally speaking there are two main types of evil, moral and natural. Moral agents or people commit moral evils, these are willful (but not necessarily intentional) actions done by a person towards another person. Non-moral agents such as hurricanes and tornados commit natural evils.

Often atheists criticize God for either being impotent in preventing evil or evil Himself for allowing it. Richard Swinburne’s argument circumvents this line of reasoning by arguing that there exist certain goods, which cannot be achieved unless there is evil. Or that, God is justified in allowing certain types of evils because it can bring about a good, which could not come about, by any other means. Atheists often claim the best possible world created by God would be one without pain or evil. This line of thinking is misguided.

First of all consider the elements of the best possible movie. What elements would be in the movie? A good or peace is disrupted by an antagonist or natural evil. A hero triumphs over the evil. These two elements are almost always universally found in movies. Would people be willing to spend money to see a movie in which nothing happens? If there is no conflict then there is no intrigue, if there is no intrigue it could never be considered the best possible movie. Further, consider video games. What elements would be in the best possible video game? Would kids or adults be willing to spend 50 dollars on a video game in which there was no journey to take, or princess to save, or enemies to defeat? How much fun would it be to control a character that simple sits in room? Who would think that this could be considered the best possible game?

If the video game and movie analogies follow it could further be argued that the best possible world would be one that likewise had the same type of intrigue. Without pain or difficulty there could be no triumph. On top of this, evil in smaller amounts seems to bring about goodness in larger amounts  (and even prevents more evil.) For example having an illness or a disease is an evil, but the having of the disease would create antibodies that could in the future prevent further diseases in the future.

Swinburne mentions a very interesting thought experiment. This thought experiment is as follows; suppose you were given the opportunity for only a few minutes of life. This life is not an immature one or one in which the person has no awareness of his surroundings, but rather that of full cognition and understanding of the environments and surroundings. Then in those precious minutes available you were given a choice. You could either have this time spent in pure felicity in which no pain or malice entered your body or mind. Or, you could warrant this time in pain and agony. The catch is, if you chose the later or the pain, it would not be in vain but rather people would benefit from your minutes of anguish. It would be very strange that people would choose the limited felicity with no lasting effect as compared to allowing limited evil with lasting effects of good.

Both in the animal world and with humans altruism is at times necessary and always seen as admirable. Perhaps animals lack the cognitive faculties to truly appreciate another of its kind when altruism occurs, but humans have the ability to appreciate the deed and see the good in it. Considering both fictional and non-fictional examples, sacrifice for the greater good is always commendable by people. In fiction, when a hero fights to his dying breath to save people who are unable to save themselves, this is universally considered a very meaningful gesture. In war people are considered heroes if they die for others, especially if it is for a group of people. If a solider is wounded or even killed in the defense or for the safety of his kinsmen, he is often rewarded with the highest honors.

In each of these scenarios the goodness of altruism and sacrifice could only be considered good, if there existed evil or conflict in the first place. Without the conflict the goodness could not be achieved. This is the primary thesis and presupposition of Swinburne in his essay. While atheists claim that God is evil or inept for allowing evil they fail to see three primary things. The first is, that there are a certain level of and types of good that could only be achieved in a world in which evil exists. These things would be (to name a few) forgiveness, medicine, reconciliation, and repentance.

Atheists also fail to recognize that not only is the evil that is allowed by God utilized for his (and other people’s) good but also the world in which they claim would be the best possible world (free from evil and pain) actually does exist and is found in the Christian notion of heaven. Everyone would agree that evil or pain is permissible if it can bring about a greater good. For example, suppose a dog with rabies bit a boy, and to save his life the boy would have to endure a series of painful injections to prevent him from contracting rabbis and dying. The pain of the injections would then be considered acceptable because the pain and evil of the injections is of far less consequence then the pain or evil associated with death. So then, God is justified in allowing certain evils, because there are certain goods, which are only possible in a world that has evil in it.

Another possible reason for God allowing evil is seen with Hick’s Soul making theodicy. In general Hick argues that humans are not created complete. Just as a child is born with the need to grow cognitively and socially so too man is in need of certain degrees of growth. There seems to be an underlining theodicy found throughout the Scriptures that feeds this line of thinking. This theodicy is based on the superseding of God on the realities of pain and suffering, that the glimpses of pain are but shadows to the pleasures and comfort, which are found in Him.

Human thinking becomes distorted when she considers God to be something of a Hotel manager whose job is to make her feel as comfortable as possible—comfort has never been the aim of God. Just as it is good for a parent to teach her child to delay gratification, “finish your homework and then you can watch tv,” so also humans must realize the immediate pleasure or happiness is in no way the sum of human experience. Further, if immediate pleasure is not the goal, then it could rightly be applied that immediate pain is likewise not the goal.

Pleasure and pain are a part of the human life and experience and yet neither of them are meant to be the sum of human experience. What then does this tell us? Namely that,  the pleasure we feel or can feel is meant to be a taste of what one experiences in ultimate reality (which is heaven) and pain is meant to help refine that person as to groom himself and others for that same ultimate reality. Then question becomes, why would God allow evil and pain, even if it was for the purpose of an ultimate reality such as heaven? The answer to this is, God is in the business of soul winning. The ultimate reality, is the ultimate goal of man. If this is the case then God is justified in allowing evil if it could bring about the condition that a person’s soul is won.

While moral evil has been heavily addressed and given several plausible theodicies, what about Natural evil? While a man choosing to hurt or a kill another man might escape the fault of God, who but God would be responsible for a hurricane? Before answer this question it should be noted that Hick’s soul making theodicy and Swinburne’s theodicy could apply to natural evil as well. Just as a human can only learn forgiveness through being wronged, perhaps a man can only learn the power of fellowship by a group of people fighting together to build a wall of sandbags to save a community from an impending flood.

Further, while many natural evils (disasters) are given the title of “act of God.” Perhaps they should more rightly be called “act of Adam” and natural evils should be reduced to nothing more then the moral evil perpetrated by Adam. If the Jeudeo-Christian tradition is true sin and death entered into the earth when Adam sinned. His free choice cursed the planet. Before his decision to sin occurred there were no natural evils at all. So then, it should follow that essentially there is essentially only is one type of evil, moral evil.

Question 3 asks, why is there the amount of evil that there is? The logical problem questions the compatibility of evil and God, whereas the Evidential problem of God questions the amount of evil in the world. The problem with this style of argumentation is, (especially William Rowe’s formulation of the argument) is, Rowe does not necessarily have a problem with evil but rather the amount of evil. For example, he says “There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.” So then he does not have a problem with evil existing, per se, but rather to the degree and kind it exists today. This is troubling. For example, if Rowe really held to this thesis, then if God removed all evil from the world and decided to place it all on one man, lets call him “Carl” (this would entail that if any evil happened it would happen to Carl, disease, accidents, and so forth). Rowe would have to be satisfied with allowing a much lesser evil to occur (because no one else on the earth would feel the grip of evil except for Carl) for a greater evil. But it seems, even If God did allow this, Rowe would not recant his statement but would rather argue something such as, “why is God doing this to Carl?”

So then the evidential argument fails because it seems like no atheist would consider God a just being, even if he removed all the sin and death and evil from the world and put it on one person and that person suffered it all. Most likely the critics would merely shift the question to Carl’s suffering and not the worlds. Thus the problem would be shifted back to the logical problem of evil, of which no one really advocates to be a problem.

So then, the evidential problem is not really what is at issue. This being confirmed does not entail that the apologist should not be ready with a response. Consider the action of stepping on a nail. Obviously the pain from such an event is a good thing. At first one might be inclined to consider, “How can the pain of being impaled at all be considered good?” Suppose that Bob’s (the man who stepped on the nail) foot had no feeling and there was no reaction to the nail. Further, since his foot has no feeling he did not realize the nail was in there. Because he was unaware of it being inside of him he did not think to pull it out or go to the Doctor to receive a tetanus shot. Eventually the wound becomes infected and since Bob cannot feel the pain, it goes undiagnosed. This could result in an amputation or even death through infection.

So then, it seems pain is good because it can let one know when something is wrong. The next question one should consider however, is why are there varying degrees of pain. For example, if a man slowly dies of dysentery could not he just feel the pain associated with a needle prick or a slight headache instead of the constant agony? Why the excruciating pain? There are several answers to this. 1. Degrees of pain are necessary to affirm severity. Suppose that all pain was equal to that a pin prick. If this was the case then, how else would one be able to differentiate an “ice cream headache” and a migraine cause from a brain tumor? Varying degrees of pain are required for discerning varying degrees of severity. It is for this reason doctors and medical professionals use what is called a pain scale. Via the pain scale and other diagnostic tools the doctor is able to make a determination as to the best course of treatment.

2. If everything was the same sensation there likewise then could be no pleasure either. Pain is important because it can tell a person when something is wrong. Pleasure is important because it can (biologically speaking) tell us when something is right.

3. In cases of severe pain, such as previously mentioned it might be the case that if anything the more pain someone is in, the more deviant the event is from the way things are meant to be. For example suppose you saw a glass vase with the handle broken. Clearly you would be justified in maintaining the handle is meant to be connected to the vase, however, this is a relatively small deviation from the fully functional and connected vase. Further suppose that the next day the same vase was seen but this time it had shattered into a thousand pieces, it could quite easily be noted that the vase as in it is in its current state is a greater deviation from its original state. The same could be said of a person. A broken hand is a deviation from the way it should be, further a shatter or mangled hand is an even further deviation from the way it should be.  Incumbent to this line of thinking actually results in evil as evidence for the existence of a meta-narrative. If there exists in humans, a way things should always be, there must exist a meta-narrative and it would follow from this there is likewise a meta-narrator. So then, extreme pain can, if anything else tell humans that the current state of affairs that resulted in the massive pain was not the way things were meant to be. Enter once again Swinburne’s greater good theodicy, as well as Hick’s Soul making theodicy as further evidence.

The amount of evil need not only be considered in terms of severity, but also in terms of quantity. It might be of greater urgency to give a theodicy for one hundred children living in malnutrition then one dying of dysentery.  How does the apologist respond to this? The first means is as already mentioned. “Charity” is a good that can only exist in a fallen world. Every opportunity of the pains associated with starvation could be quenched with compassionate people acting upon that compassion. Further, the amount of (moral) evil is invariably limited to the free actions of free people. Or that, God could force people to murder less and feed starving people more, but then the goodness associated with people freely choosing to do the good would lose its potency. Again, God is in the business of making refined souls, not comfortable living.

To answer succinctly, pain is good in limited amounts. In larger amounts if anything it can assure one that the pain is a result of the deviation of a meta-narrative. Further, much of the moral evil can be eliminated if people freely chose to limit it.

And finally 4. Why is there the particular evils that there are? The types of evils that exist are in direct correlation with the free beings that likewise exist. If the Judeo-Christian notion of God is true, God cannot commit evil. Evil is often defined as a deprivation of what is good. Other examples of things that only exist as deprivation are darkness and coldness— neither of these things actually exist but rather are deprivations of something else. If light is completely removed from a room then there is darkness. And while machines exist that can create light, there are none that can create darkness, but rather only things that can remove light.

Further, theoretically with infinite energy there could be infinite heat. Conversely there is no such thing as infinite coldness—coldness is merely the removal of heat. Since coldness is the removal of heat this is why there is such as thing as absolute zero, this is the point of which no more heat can be removed and therefore the coldness is limited. However, the same cannot be true of the possibility of limiting heat.

If evil and God work like this, then the further one removes himself from God and His standards the more evil there is to likely come about. So then, the types and varieties of evils that exist do so because humans have freely rejected the moral consciousness written on her heart. Since this is the case the types of evil that are possible for humans are limited only by their imagination and physical limitations.

Even though God allows humans to continue on with the sin and evils, it should be noted that this is by no means a passive continuance. If God is omniscient it would follow that He would know the consequences of creating a world of free willed beings and if He is good, had even before creation, a plan of redemption. This plan is through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ represents the greatest theodicy that could ever be given.