Evil and suffering


The concepts of natural and moral evil

Natural evil is evil which results from the workings of the natural world, such as natural disasters and disease. God designed and created the natural world which seems to make God responsible for the evil and suffering that occurs as a result of nature.

David Hume points to four types of evil found in the natural world:

1 – Animal suffering. Why shouldn’t nature be created such that animals feel less pain, or indeed no pain at all?
2 – Creatures have limited abilities to ensure their survival and happiness.
3 – Nature has extremes which make survival and happiness more difficult.
4 – Individual natural disasters.

Hume claims that an omnipotent God would have the power to prevent these forms of natural evil and therefore the existence of natural evil is a problem for belief in God.

Moral evil is evil which is caused by human action, such as murder and torture. This is a problem for God’s existence because why doesn’t God intervene to prevent morally evil actions by humans, such as the holocaust? Furthermore, God could have designed us with less physical ability to cause suffering and less vulnerability to suffer at the hands of other people. God could even have created us without free will and given us a good nature that would have avoided causing moral evil. This suggests that the existence of moral evil could have been avoided and is thus a problem for belief in a God who would have avoided it.

The logical and evidential problem of evil

The logical problem of evil

This is the a priori argument that evil and the God of classical theism (as defined as omnibenevolent and omnipotent) cannot exist together.

Epicurus (ancient Greek philosopher, one of the first to formulate the problem of evil)

  1. Is God willing but not able to prevent evil? Then he isn’t omnipotent
  2. Is God is able to prevent evil but not willing? Then he isn’t omnibenevolent
  3. If God is both able and willing, then why is there evil?
  4. If God is neither able or willing then why call him God?

Mackie reformulated this argument into the ‘inconsistent triad’ which argued that the God of classical theism (omnipotent and omnibenevolence) cannot exist if evil exists. Either Omnipotence, omnibenevolence or evil must not exist, since all three are inconsistent. Omnipotence entails the power to eliminate evil. Omnibenevolence entails the motivation to prevent evil. Something cannot possibly exist if there is a being with the power and motivation to eliminate it. Therefore if evil exists, an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God cannot exist. God could at most be omnibenevolent or omnipotent but not both. This is an a priori argument because the conclusion follows from a logical analysis of the definitions of the concepts ‘omnibenevolence’, ‘omnipotence’ and ‘evil’, without reference to experience.

P1. An omnipotent God has the power to eliminate evil.
P2. An omnibenevolent God has the motivation to eliminate evil.
P3. Nothing can exist if there is a being with the power and motivation to eliminate it.
C1. Evil, omnipotence and omnibenevolence thus form an inconsistent triad such that God (as classically defined) and evil cannot possibly co-exist.

This argument is then sometimes developed into an a posteriori argument by referencing our experience of evil and drawing the conclusion not just that God and evil cannot co-exist, but that since evil does exist God does not exist:

P4. We experience evil in the world.
C2. Evil exists, therefore God does not exist.

The Evidential problem of evil

This is the a posteriori argument that the evidence of evil in the world makes belief in God unjustified. There is a logical possibility that evil and a perfect God exist together, but the evidence is against that possibility actually being true.

Hume puts forward an evidential problem of evil. Hume is an empiricist and approaches the problem of evil as such. He points out the a posteriori evidence of evil in the world:

1 – Animal suffering. Why shouldn’t nature be created such that animals feel less pain, or indeed no pain at all?
2 – Creatures have limited abilities to ensure their survival and happiness
3 – Why does nature have extremes which make survival and happiness more difficult? Natural evil
4 – Why doesn’t God intervene to prevent individual natural disasters?

A God could have made this world without such evil, making it evidence against a perfect God existing. Hume says it is ‘possible’ that a perfect God exists but allows evil for reasons consistent with omnibenevolence, ‘but they are unknown to us’. Hume is arguing that whatever speculations theologians like Augustine and Irenaeus might invent about God’s ‘reasons’ for allowing evil, we have no evidence that God has such reasons.

“I conclude that however consistent the world may be … with the idea of such a God, it can never provide us with an inference to his existence.” – Hume.

“There can be no grounds for such an inference when there are so many misfortunes in the universe, and while these misfortunes could—as far as human understanding can be allowed to judge on such a subject—easily have been remedied. I am sceptic enough to allow that the bad appearances, notwithstanding all my reasonings, may be compatible with such ·divine· attributes as you suppose; but surely they can never prove these attributes.”

Hume, as an empiricist, insists that we are only justified in believing what the evidence suggests. The evidence of an imperfect world, while logically compatible with a perfect God, makes belief in a perfect God unjustified. You can’t infer perfect goodness from evil. An empirical inference from evil to belief in a perfectly good God is not valid.

Responses to the problem of evil and suffering

Hick’s soul making theodicy

John Hick’s modern Irenaean Theodicy

Instead of viewing the Fall as negative, Irenaeus views it as a necessary stage in the development of humans towards perfection. Adam and Eve are like children who go astray because they lack sufficient wisdom to do what is right. Punishment is a way to help children mature.

On the basis of the quote from Genesis ‘God made humans in his image and likeness’, Irenaeus made a distinction between man being made in: the image of God verses the likeness of God. An image is when you look like something on the surface, whereas a likeness is when you actually are like something.

Creation has two steps for Irenaeus – firstly being made in God’s image where we have only a potential for good due to spiritual immaturity. Step two is where we achieve God’s likeness by choosing good over evil which enables us to grow spiritually and morally. The idea is that encountering and overcoming evil makes us become better more virtuous people.

A biblical example Irenaeus pointed to is Jonah and Whale: Jonah disobeyed God and then the natural evil of a storm and a big fish who ate him and spat him out days later helped Jonah learn his lesson and he then obeyed God. Evil thus serves the good purpose of motivating us to be good.

Hick argued that human beings were not created perfect but develop in two stages:
Stage 1: Spiritually immature: through struggle to survive and evolve, humans can develop into spiritually mature beings.
The Fall is a result of immature humans who are only in the image of God.
Stage 2: Grow into a relationship with God

Hick argued for the Epistemic distance. This means that we cannot truly know of God’s existence. If God did make himself known to us, we would follow his commands out of obedience to his authority instead of following them because we had figured out that they were the right thing to do. Hick argued that it’s only if we have faith in God and still do good because we want to do good, rather than because we know for sure there’s a God who wants us to, that we can truly grow spiritually and morally. Peter Vardy illustrated this with the example of a peasant girl who a King falls in love with and forces her to marry him. The girl doesn’t really love the King and only does it due to obedience to authority out of fear. Similarly, if God appeared to us we would obey his authority rather than really loving what is good for its own sake, which is the morally superior move and therefore most conducive to soul making.

According to Hick everyone will be saved since a loving God would not send people to hell – universal salvation but post-mortem soul making is needed.

Irenaeus & Hick vs the evidential problem of evil

The evidential problem of evil claims that the evidence of evil in the world makes belief in God unjustifiable. Irenaeus & Hick’s theodicy claims that God allows evil because it serves the good purpose of soul-making. If the evidence supports that claim, then Irenaeus & Hick will have defeated the evidential problem of evil. There is evidence that encountering and overcoming evil develops a person’s character and virtue. This is behind the idea of character development in literature. It is also behind the idea that people become spoiled if they have too much luxury and not enough responsibility or difficulty to overcome. By going through harsh struggles, a person becomes stronger and gains compassion for others. This does seem to be a factual occurrence in life. For example, some people who get cancer gain a whole new lease on life and go about doing all the things they had always wanted to do.

Purposeless evil: some evil is purposeless. It has no chance of leading to spiritual development. For example, a child who dies of cancer. They are too young to even understand what is happening, let alone learn anything from it.

Hick replied that evil which seems pointless is part of the process of soul-making. If we believed that all evil was ultimately for a person’s benefit, then it would be difficult for us to really develop the deep meaningful sympathy that we feel for those who suffer pointlessly, which we need to develop for our own soul-making. For example, the child’s parents could learn something.

However, this seems unsatisfactory because what if the child has no parents? Or animal suffering; William Rowe gave the example of a fawn dying in a forest fire. We have evidence that such things happen, but no one would ever be able to gain sympathy or compassion from them. So, the evidence does not support the claim that God allows evil because it serves the good purpose of soul-making and thus Irenaeus & Hick fail to solve the evidential problem of evil.

Irenaeus & Hick vs the logical problem of evil

The logical problem claims that it is impossible for God and evil to co-exist. The theodicy of Irenaeus/Hick claims that evil serves the good purpose of soul-making. If this is logically possible then Irenaeus has solved the logical problem of evil.

Why create us limited? This raises the question of why didn’t God just make us good to begin with? Why bother with the first step, why not create us good?

Irenaeus answered that creating us fully developed was impossible. A fully developed soul is one which has chosen good over evil. If God made us fully developed, then he would be making us choose good over evil. But if you make someone do something, then they didn’t really choose it. Being fully developed requires having made a choice, therefore it’s logically impossible to make someone fully developed. God had to make us undeveloped and allow us the freedom to choose good over evil.

Why give us free will?: God could have created us with no free will like robots and then he could have controlled us so that there was no moral evil. Wouldn’t that have been better? Consider all of the harms that humans do to one another such as genocides. Is having free will really worth suffering such things?

The issue that some evil is soul breaking: Isn’t some evil so bad that it is soul breaking? Can’t some evil destroy a person’s character rather than build it up and develop it? Some people are crushed into a depression or post-traumatic stress disorder when they experience evil. This suggests that evil doesn’t have this positive purpose that Irenaeus suggests. Matthew 5:45.

It could be responded that there is lots of evidence of evil being soul-making. The idea of ‘soul making’ is very close to ‘character development’ in literature or film. By going through harsh struggles, a character becomes stronger and learns more. This does seem to be a factual occurrence in life. For example, some people who get cancer gain a whole new lease on life and go about doing all the things they had wanted to do. In that case, arguably those whose souls are broken by evil, for example a cancer patient who became depressed by their diagnosis, simply failed to rise to the challenge of evil. Evil serves the good purpose of soul-making by providing us with an opportunity to become better people by choosing good over it. Just because some people fail to make that choice doesn’t invalidate Irenaeus’ theodicy.

However, it seems harsh to, for example, say to a cancer patient that they failed to rise to the challenge if they become depressed by their situation. Arguably that is logically incompatible with omnibenevolence.

The free will defence

Plantinga’s free will defence argues that evil exists because of free will. His argument intended to respond to Mackie’s logical problem of evil, which argues that it is impossible for God (as classically defined) and evil to exist together. Plantinga argues that it is possible for God and evil to exist together because evil is the result of free will. Moral evil results from human actions, natural evil results from the free will of demons and Satan. This raises the question of why God gave us free will at all though. Wouldn’t it have been better for us to live in a perfectly good world yet not have free will? Plantinga argued that if God didn’t give us free will, our universe would have no value. Not that it would have been of negative value, but that it would have been value-less. Therefore, no matter how much negative value you think giving us free will results in, value itself would not be possible without it. So you have to accept that our universe is better for having value despite the downsides.

Mackie’s criticism of the free will defence. Mackie claims that it is logically possible for a world of humans who have free will to always make good choices. In that case, God could have created such a world. The fact that God did not do that suggests he is either not powerful enough or not loving enough to do it.

Plantinga’s response: The first morally sufficient reason for God allowing evil is that it is actually not logically possible for God to create a world where free agents always make good choices. The possibility of a world of free creatures only choosing good depends on their free choices, which God cannot control without taking away their free will. Thus although a world where free creatures only choose good is technically possible, that doesn’t mean God can bring it about since its existence depends on particular free choices being made (i.e. good ones) which God cannot cause without taking away free will.

Plantinga then falls back on his point that a world with free agents is better than one without them to show that the evil caused by free will is worth our existing with free will. Therefore, God had a morally sufficient reason for creating this world. This explains how it is logically possible for moral evil to co-exist with an all-loving and all-powerful God.

Natural evil is clearly not the result of the misuse of human free will, so it seems to be a problem for the free will defence.

Plantinga’s second MSR is how Plantinga deals with natural evil. Plantinga puts forward two suggestions. Firstly there is the possibility that “God allowed evil to enter the world as part of Adam and Eve’s punishment for their sin in the Garden of Eden”. Secondly, natural evil could possibly be the result of satanic energies.

Arguably the creation story in Genesis regarding Adam and Eve and the existence of the Devil and his responsibility for things like natural disasters is quite a far-fetched claim that we have a lot of scientific evidence against.

Plantinga points out that all he needs to do in order to defeat Mackie’s logical problem is think of some possible reason that God could have for allowing evil which is logically possible. It doesn’t matter how unlikely the reason is, if it is logically possible then it shows that God and evil could possibly co-exist, which means Mackie has failed to show that they cannot possible co-exist.

Arguably it is impossible for an all loving God to unjustly punish all people for the actions of their ancestors.

General issues with the free will defence:

Arguably we do not have free will. Arguments for determinism apply.

Arguably the gift of free will and the resultant possibility of the reward of Heaven for choosing rightly is not worth the suffering free will causes. Dostoyevsky.

This doesn’t solve the evidential problem of evil.

Process theodicy as presented by Griffin

Process theologians take the problem of evil to pose a challenge, not to God’s existence, but to our view of what God’s attributes and nature are. The key feature of process theodicy is a challenge to the traditional view of what omnipotence is.

Omnipotence and Genesis. Traditionally, most theologians agree with Aquinas’ view of omnipotence, which is that God has the power to create any logically possible state of affairs. This view is based on Creatio ex nihilo, which means ‘creation from nothing’. Since God created the universe from nothing, he must be powerful enough to do anything logically possible. This is based on Genesis 1:1-3:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

Griffin rejected creatio ex nihilo. He pointed to an alternative translation:

“In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth, the earth being without form and void, and darkness being upon the face of the deep”

In this second translation, it suggests that the earth already exists, as it is ‘being’, but in a formless state. This suggests that matter has existed eternally in a simple chaotic formless state and God’s act of creation was to give form and order to it, but not to actually create it from nothing.

For Griffin, the bible therefore does not suggest that God has the power to do absolutely anything. God’s creative act introduced into the universe the process of increasing complexity. Turning chaos into form was the first step. The process of evolution is also part of this process, increasing the complexity of living things over time. This allows for beings like us to exist which has the benefit of allowing good experiences, but brings with it the downside of the possibility of suffering.

Coercion vs persuasion. Process theologians argue that the traditional view of God’s omnipotence is coercive, meaning it is a form of domination that simply overpowers resistance and forces a thing to do what God wants. This seems to be incompatible with free will however, since a human being who is truly free cannot be controlled, otherwise they would not have free will. Process theologians argue that viewing God’s power as coercive is thus incompatible with free will. Griffin claims it is a ‘common notion’ that we do have free will, and therefore we should view God’s power as persuasive, not coercive. This means that God cannot directly coercively control things in a way that would prevent evil. The best God can do is attempt to persuade things to be better which takes a long time.

Griffin claims that the universe is in God, which is called a panentheistic relationship. God therefore is not a transcendent being with direct coercive control but is the ‘soul’ of the universe. Just like our minds cannot control everything going on in our body, but can encourage things in a more positive healthy direction long-term. This also means that God suffers with us when we suffer from evil.

Natural evil results from what Griffin calls ‘low-grade’ material things like molecules, which are very difficult for God to influence since they lack the mental ability to respond to persuasion. God can only affect such things through long-term influence of beings that have free will who might then affect the ‘low-grade’ things into a better order. Therefore, God’s power over us is not absolute and so he does not have the power to coercively prevent moral evil.

The issue of the God of process theology being worthy of worship

The God of process theology has such diminished divine power that it is not worthy of worship.

Process theologians respond that it is the God of classical theism that is not worthy of worship and that its notion of omnipotence is incoherent because coercive omnipotence is incompatible with free will.

Furthermore, process theologian C. Mesle argues that the greatest strength possible is actually to endure evil and suffering without giving in to hate, as exemplified by M.L King, Gandhi and Jesus. We should reassess our view of what it means to be the strongest possible being to involve not coercive power but the willingness to suffer in pursuit of love and peace.  This is what God does and it requires much more strength than it would to simply crush anyone who stands in the way of love and peace.

Roth’s critique of process theology

Roth argued that a God who lacked the ability to stop the genocide at Auschwitz would not be worthy of worship because there is no point worshiping a being who cannot save us from terrible situations. Roth claims that, for Griffin’s view of God, “the best that God could possibly do was to permit 10,000 Jews a day to go up in smoke”.

Griffin responds that it is better to worship a God who lacked the power to prevent the holocaust than to worship one who had the power but didn’t. Griffin argues that this shows the differences in what people find worthy of worship; for Roth it is simply brute power whereas Griffin argues that is not the message derived from the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Griffin concludes “Roth finds my God too small to evoke worship; I find his too gross”.

We’ve got two choices – believe in a God who could’ve but didn’t or a God who would’ve but couldn’t.

The issue of process theology vs the bible

Process theology vs the bible. God is presented as having coercive power in the Bible.

Liberal view of the Bible can counter this view.

Griffin vs Hick & Plantinga. You can use process theodicy to criticise free will defence and soul-making because they rely on the traditional view of omnipotence that Griffin is criticising. Griffin is arguing that a God with the traditional view of omnipotence who could thereby have stopped the Holocaust, yet who therefore chose not to is “gross”.

Hick argues that although God had the power to stop evil, that would remove our chance to benefit from it through soul-making and would also undermine soul-making by destroying the epistemic distance. Hick’s argument is that these explain why an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God would allow evil, therefore he would reject that idea that such a God who didn’t stop the holocaust was “Gross”.

Plantinga argues that God allows evil because it is impossible for us to be significantly free without allowing evil and our being significantly free is has more value than the resulting evil has disvalue. Therefore allowing evil is something an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God would do because it is worth it since the value we gain from free will is greater than the disvalue we suffer from its misuse.