Friday, October 22, 1999

The Problems of Evil

(This is a slightly revised version of a talk I gave to the faculty of the University of St. Thomas, Houston, 3/4/93. I welcome reactions that would help me correct it and expand it.)

Reflective persons in general join atheistic philosophers in posing a familiar dilemma: if God is all-powerful, he could prevent or eliminate the evil in his creation; if God is perfectly good, he would want to do that; so, whence evil? That describes in a nutshell what philosophers and theologians call "the problem of evil." Among those charged with the care of souls, the most common response is that evil is not a problem to be solved in an intellectually satisfying way, but rather a mystery whose weight is to be borne in faith and trust. That response is often dismissed as a copout--and not only by skeptics and waverers. Most of us can empathize with the anger of those whose sufferings bring home to them the truth in Jimmy Carter's politically costly reminder that "life is unfair." My main purpose in this paper is to trace the most important step one must take in order to see why the usual pastoral response, far from copping out, is in fact the only reasonable response.

That step is to realize that there is no single problem one may uniquely designate as "the" problem of evil; hence my title. Once one realizes what the distinct problems of evil roughly are, one may then determine which is the one theists cannot solve. But I shall show that, if theism is true, then theists shouldn't be faulted for failing to solve it.

The best way to begin outlining the different problems is to distinguish the two main sorts of solution: defense and theodicy. A defense aims to show that there is no logical inconsistency among the following set of statements: (a) God created the world; (b) God is all-powerful and perfectly good; and (c) there is evil in the world. Let's call that triad of statements 'E'. Each member of E is an essential tenet of classical theism, which is often criticized by process theists and other pagans on the ground that the members of E are jointly incompatible. If successful, a defense would show that they are jointly compatible, and I for one believe that a successful defense is possible. But theodicy is more ambitious than defense. As the term's etymology suggests, theodicy is meant to justify God's causing or permitting such evil as we find in the world. Accordingly, a successful theodicy would not merely show that the members of E are jointly compatible; it would also explain why it makes good moral and metaphysical sense that they are all true.

On the face of it, theodicy is attractive to any theistic thinker. For if success were possible, then there would in principle be a solution to the problem of evil that ought to satisfy any rational person, even if human blindness and perversity would in practice preclude its satisfying everyone. Apologetical enthusiasm has led many Christian thinkers through the centuries to convince themselves that the resources for success are at hand. Some have even believed themselves to be deploying them. Like many people, however, I am unmoved by such theodicies. I don't know of any that do more than convince the already convinced, and I find that many of them serve chiefly to generate further difficulties where none had existed. But that hardly suffices to discredit theodicy. Indeed, the question whether theistic thinkers should embark on so ambitious an enterprise depends on how the problem of evil should be conceived.

Some people seem to believe that adherence to any form of classical theism is positively irrational without someone's showing just how the theistic scheme of things makes sense of evil. From their point of view, theists ought to produce a theodicy; for it would not be enough for the theist to show, by explicating the pertinent concepts, that the members of E are mutually compatible. It would not do simply to show in such an abstract way that one can maintain each of those propositions without contradicting oneself; a proper solution would also show just how their joint truth would, or could, mollify those offended by the unfairness of life.

Since I have no space here to evaluate any particular theodicy in detail, I shall content myself with arguing that classical theism affords little reason to believe that theodicy is either possible or desirable. The reasons for that show that it is wrong to insist that theists must regard the problem of evil as the sort of problem to which a successful theodicy would be the only solution. People who conceive the problem in that way would thus be mistaken about what a mature and intelligent theistic faith would involve.

I have two reasons for taking that line. The first is essentially scriptural. Consider the key locus canonicus of the problem of evil: the Book of Job. Its eponymous hero is depicted as a just man, blessed by and pleasing to God; but God decides to test his fidelity by giving Satan permission to visit a host of terrible and undeserved evils on him. After Job has lost his possessions, his children, his social status, and his health, so that he is utterly bereft and covered with incurable running sores, his friends visit him and try to help him make sense of it all. Their initial tack is pedestrian: since God is just, Job must have done something, or be the sort of person, to deserve such suffering after all. Even poor Job has no trouble showing what nonsense that is; he complains about the prosperity of the wicked and his own suffering as an innocent, inviting the Almighty to answer his suit. Job's friend Elihu then takes a slightly more enlightened tack: without harping on the theme that Job deserves his afflictions, Elihu insists that God "does not keep the wicked alive, but gives the afflicted their right" (Job 36:5). Still, Elihu does not altogether abandon the conventional wisdom, saying of God's dealings with the righteous that "he does not withdraw his eyes from the righteous, but with kings upon the throne he sets them forever, and they are exalted. And if they are bound in fetters, and caught in the cords of affliction, then he declares to them their work and their transgressions, that they are behaving arrogantly" (36:7). God's answer to Job out of the whirlwind, which directly follows Elihu's speech, can be summed up quite simply: you don't know what you're talking about. "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?" (38:4). How can a creature like you be wise enough to know what is ultimately for the best? Job's response is to stop whining and to humble himself before God, who rewards him by restoring his fortunes. And so the story ends.

Some exegetes, I'm told, interpret the happy ending as a later addition by rabbis concerned to reinforce the conventional wisdom that the just are rewarded even in this life. I like that interpretation not because I know it to be true, but because if it is true, then the original work would have been truer to life. As far as we can tell, there is no statistically significant correlation between virtue and good fortune in this life. But the most important lesson of Job is that we necessarily lack the knowledge we would have to have in order to know that it is wrong for God to preside over such a state of affairs. In order to put God in the dock and convict him fairly, we would have to marshal all the relevant evidence; in order to do that in turn, we would have to occupy his vantage point, so that the entire scheme of things would be spread before us, and the genuine alternatives to that scheme would be perfectly clear. If we didn't know it already, biblical theism teaches us to admit that such is impossible.

Paradoxically, however, that admission rules out theodicy. The very vantage point we would need to occupy in order to know that God is behaving badly is the one we would need to occupy in order to know just how well he really is behaving. Classical theism is committed to the claim that God's omnipotence and perfection are compatible with the evil in his world; but the same tradition precludes saying precisely how evil squares with God's omnipotence and perfection. If any Christian doubts that, they should remind themselves what religion they profess. Christianity teaches that the only-begotten Son of God, the King of the Universe, gave us a chance to escape the thralldom of evil first by becoming a perfectly good man and then, at his Father's behest, getting himself tortured and executed as a serious public nuisance. As St. Paul tells us, that is absurdity to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews; the Greeks and Jews here are figurae for anyone disposed to reject a God who does not behave as we would in his place.

My other reason for rejecting theodicy comes from natural theology. Let me illustrate it by contrast with a picture of evil drawn from the dogmatic theology of traditional Christianity.

On the supposition that Christianity is true, we may say that the more troubling aspects of the human condition are the consequences of an original sin that was freely committed. We are prone to doing evil because we inherit a corrupted will from our first parents, and we are subject to death and certain other evils because the Fall disrupted the harmony that God intended to obtain both internally (between our souls and bodies) and externally (between ourselves and Nature). The Easter liturgy tells us that original sin was felix culpa, a happy fault, because it gave God the opportunity to redeem us from that situation. Now if God has indeed done so, we are each of us free to cooperate or not. And if one believes, as do I and most of those present, that this is how things are, one may well say that things are thus basically good. But one must admit that it is possible for an all-powerful, perfectly good God to have set things up otherwise. In particular, God could have so made rational creatures that they would always freely choose the good, inasmuch as the occasion for choosing wrongly would never have been allowed to arise. If Christianity is true, such will be the situation of those who will have achieved eternal salvation on the Last Day. Why couldn't it always have been the situation of rational creatures? They might have enjoyed such liberty of spontaneity as would have enabled them to choose among a variety of morally acceptable alternatives, some of which would have been better than others; but they might not have enjoyed such liberty of indifference as would make it genuinely possible to pursue evil alternatives. For the scheme of things might not have left room for any such alternatives. If that had been the case, then original sin would never have been committed, and nobody would now suffer from its consequences. Would it not have been better for God to set things up in that way?

Well, we are in no position to answer that question either affirmatively or negatively. Just as we have no business condemning God for not making life easier and fairer than it is, so too we cannot know that life as it is is better than, or even as good as, it might have been otherwise. Theodicy requires knowledge that we necessarily lack, and it is arrogance to pretend to such knowledge.

That suggests two things. First, to fault classical theism for being unable to ground a theodicy is unfair, for it would be to fault theists for lacking a breadth and clarity of vision that nobody can attain in this life whether classical theism is true or not. Second, it seems that defense, rather than theodicy, is the only response to the problem of evil that is open to theists. And if the problem be conceived primarily as an intellectual one, that is true. But the problem so conceived is narrower than many people seem to think.

People sometimes talk as though the presence of any evil at all in the world poses an objection to believing the Creator to be all-powerful and perfectly good. St. Thomas Aquinas considers and rebuts such an objection in the article from the Summa Theologiae where he purports to prove that God exists. Surely he is right to maintain that the omnipotence and goodness of God are manifest partly in the fact that out of evil he can bring a greater good. To a much lesser extent, we do that sort of thing all the time: we learn from mistakes; we cure diseases; we find that some pleasures are all the greater for the pain that must precede them; and most important, people sometimes become better through suffering. We are, if you like, more powerful for all that: whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. That is how God has arranged things.

Such occasions often arise in the first place because of physical evils. We live in a material universe whose order entails a continuing cycle of production and destruction, growth and decay, birth and death. In every generation, there are those who believe that such a universe is necessarily a bad thing to exist, since the good of such a whole necessitates (sooner or later) bad things for each of the parts. Some even think of death as the greatest of evils, even though there is no reason to believe that immortality with the sort of life we now have would be any more desirable than possible. Belief that material existence is evil is one of the major factors motivating Hinduism in some of its forms, Buddhism, forms of dualism such as Manichaeism, and Gnosticism. I cannot speak to the religious psychology of Indians and Orientals; but when an Occidental believes that the material universe is intrinsically evil, I cannot help suspecting an unconscious resentment arising from their discovery as an infant that the world is not ordered for their uninterrupted benefit. Such a person needs therapy, or perhaps simply grace--not philosophical argument.

I take more seriously the arguments of people inclined to blame God for the moral evil there is in the world, assuming that we can be and do nothing without God. For as I've already suggested, God could have created a world in which rational creatures always freely choose rightly--but He hasn't. Of course, if God were fully responsible for our all our actions, then we would have no business complaining that life is unfair: we would be mere natural objects, unfit for either reward or punishment. But assuming that some of our actions are rationally free, it would be equally wrong to say that God is as fully implicated in our evil free actions as in our good ones. For that would entail that God bestows privations and defects even as he bestows being and perfection. That is impossible, since whatever is God can have no privations or defects to bestow. Those come from the individual creature, who in the nature of the case cannot be absolutely perfect like God nor even (if it exists in space-time) be perfect relative to its kind. I have heard some people say in reply that in that case, it would have been better if God had never created, or created us, at all. All I can do with such people is shrug and invite them to join me in drinking a good bottle of wine.

What really bothers most of us is not just any old evil, but the disproportionate suffering of the innocent. It is indeed deeply troubling that humans who in no way deserve their sufferings--such as children who have not reached the age of reason--are sometimes killed or brutalized rather than improved by their sufferings. Sometimes it is Nature herself that does this, as with plague, famine, accidents, and natural disasters; but it is especially galling when the killing or brutalization comes at the hands of people who ought to know better. The most eloquent testimony to the anguish this can cause may be found in the words of the character Ivan in Dostoievski's The Brothers Karamazov, which I shall save time by recommending rather than quoting. What makes Ivan and those he represents so indignant is the conviction that even if the disproportionate suffering of the innocent could be rationalized as contributing to an incomparably greater good for all,that would be no justification whatever. Thus it is intrinsically evil, irrespective of the big picture, for an all-powerful being either to inflict or to permit such suffering.

Most theodicies cannot even address Ivan, much less confute him. To deal with Ivan, we must confine ourselves to defense rather than theodicy. But what is the defense?

The Ivans of the world assume that there are certain moral norms that objectively bind not only all humans but any rational agent whatsoever. Up to a point, that is true. We would, for example, have no more reason to put faith in God if he broke his promises to us than we would to trust another human being who behaved that way. One of the reasons why it is said that God is perfectly good is that he can't do things like break promises. But the Ivans also seem to include the following among such norms: if one can prevent or eliminate disproportionate suffering for the innocent without doing or allowing greater harm to ourselves or to others, one ought to do so. And if that norm were intelligibly applicable to God, the problem of evil would be so intractable as to resist even defense.

The argument would go something like this. God, who is all-powerful, could have created a world in which no such suffering took place, which would a fortiori have been a world in which precluding such suffering would not have allowed or brought about greater harm. But given both his omnipotence and the disproportionate suffering of the innocent, it seems that God cannot be accounted perfectly good. The three propositions framing the problem of evil--i.e., the members of E--thus seem jointly incompatible if the proposition that there is evil in the world be narrowed to read: "The innocent sometimes suffer disproportionately, which is evil."

The difficulty with that argument is that there is no reason to believe that this world's innocents would be better off for being spared disproportionate suffering than they are by undergoing it. For in the sort of world where innocents would be spared such suffering, the innocents of this particular world could not have existed at all. Whether innocent or not, we are fragile creatures subject to the mischances of nature and other peoples' failings. In particular, none of us today would have come into being if the sorts of physical and moral evils that cause disproportionate suffering had not contributed to our ancestry. Hence, a world in which suffering precisely matched desert would not be a world in which the actual descendants of the first couple could have existed. Such a world might have contained rational creatures, even humans, but not you and me. Hence, the price of preventing or eliminating the disproportionate suffering of actual human beings would have been denying us existence altogether.

Of course, the Ivans of the world might want to insist that the price would have been well worth God's paying. But whether or not one agrees with that, it is by no means clear that God is immoral for not paying it. Indeed, if classical theism is true, then it is an a priori truth that God is incapable of moral evil. And so it would be wrong-headed to charge the theist with logical or conceptual inconsistency for asserting the three propositions of E. Of course, the Ivans might still object that, rather than establishing the mutual compatibility of those propositions, this result simply exposes the difficulty of establishing their incompatibility. And if this were the end of the debate, then indeed I will have had to confine myself to making a mere debater's point. But I think the theist can and should go further than that.

Consider first a question with which my undergraduate mentor once challenged me: "Which is better: to bum in hell forever, or never to have lived at all?" The only possible response is the one I had wit enough to give: "Better for whom?" Certainly not for those who avoid hell by not coming into being: for then they would never have existed, and hence one could not say that there was ever anyone there to have benefited by avoiding hell. Certainly not for God: God cannot be improved by anything at all, much less by refraining from creating reprobates. How about the rest of us? For the reason I have given, the rest of us would not have been around to benefit either. In general, if people who get a raw deal had never existed, then nobody who has actually existed would have existed, and hence nobody we care about would have been there to be better off. Given as much, we can isolate that problem of evil which really is insoluble and show why its insolubility doesn't matter.

Existence for us means actuality, actually living, which in turn entails achieving some measure of perfection, even if a very limited one. Evil of any sort exists only as a privation of good so conceived. Hence, it is conceptually impossible for there to be a world in which evil generally outweighs good; for the sorts of beings inhabiting such a world would not be actual enough to be viable. In particular, and given that nobody would have been better off if suffering precisely matched desert, one can rightly say on conceptual grounds alone that it is good that the actual human beings there have been, are, and will be, exist, with exactly the lives they have had, have, and will have. Indeed, since all actuality comes from God, and to be actual is to have achieved some measure of goodness, then whatever exists other than God necessarily manifests and communicates his goodness. That constitutes a good reason for creating in the first place, and that is sufficient reason why this world exists.

In that light, a particular problem of evil arises and defies satisfying solution. We can indeed say that there is good reason to create us; but there is no reason for God to have created this world rather than some other world whose innocents would not have suffered disproportionately. God could indeed have created such a world; though it would not have contained us, it would have been good, since whatever world God might have created would have been good, for the reasons I have given. And so the question arises: why didn't God create such a world? There is no answer to that question. It is not that we are too ignorant to discover the answer; it is rather that there is no fact of the matter for us to fail to discover. For whatever other world God might have created, his ultimate reason for creating would have been the same, and sufficient.

The problem of evil thus appears as a mystery. If any world must be prevalently good, and if one cannot even in principle answer the question why God created this world rather than some other, then the only recourse for somebody bothered by the problem of evil is to trust that God acts well, even though life sometimes suggests the contrary. This result is defense rather than theodicy because it doesn't "justify" God's decision to create this world with all its apparently disproportionate suffering. Nor does it cause one to stop being bothered by the problem of evil; like the biblical prophets, we should always be troubled by that problem. But by pointing to the limits of what is and what can be known, it does show that the statements comprised by E are mutually consistent. Given both the goodness and the hardness of life, one can ask no more of classical theism.

©1999 Michael Liccione. Permission is granted for private, non-commercial use of this article. Reproduction or use for any other purpose without the express written consent of the author is prohibited.