Theodicy

Question:  Why does God allow evil?

Easy:  I don’t know.  Next question?

Really, I’m kind of surprised that people regard this as a serious challenge to faith.  Besides the monstrous impiety of presuming to judge God, just imagine what it would take to have a serious intellectual problem.  God has no obligations to creation; it’s shear gratuity that He decides to keep us in existence from one moment to the next.  Given that He doesn’t have to create anything, if He does create something, it’s hard to complain that what He made isn’t good enough.  But suppose we demand that God have some reason for the perfections He has withheld from granting to His creation, even though this is the height of ingratitude.  What would I have to know to say that God’s doing or not doing such-and-such doesn’t make sense?  I would have to know why He created the world, what His overall plan for creation is, which of course I don’t.  I would have to know what effect such-and-such will have not only on the entire future history of mankind, but on all peoples’ immortal souls, on the choirs of angels and the legions of demons, and perhaps on planes of existence of which I cannot even imagine.  It’s absurd to imagine I would ever know enough to criticize God.

The point of the “why,oh why,is there evil?” is moral posturing.  The person who says it is trying to show that he is more morally sensitive than theists.  “Why,oh why,is there sin?” means he is more outraged by sin than theists, and hence more righteous.  “Why,oh why,is there suffering?” means he is more outraged by suffering than theists, and hence more compassionate.  It’s easy, it seems, to be more compassionate than all the saints.  One might think that, if anyone had a right to pull the more-compassionate-than-thou act, it would be people like Vincent de Paul, Las Casas, or Mother Theresa, but they must not have been as compassionate as all of these rich college students who are so scandalized by the suffering of innocents that they decide to sleep in on Sundays.

35 Responses

  1. This has been very well put, in my opinion, by a Marxist atheist (Terry Eagleton):

    The Creation is the original acte gratuit. God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it, not a scientist at work on a magnificently rational design that will impress his research grant body no end.

  2. By the way, I should emphasise that there are non-theists, even anti-theists, who are genuinely very compassionate and make real sacrifices of themselves to comfort their fellow men. But it’s these real sacrifices, not mere stated outrage at the idea of a God who would allow suffering, that is the sign of their compassion.

  3. Well said.

    It is also significant that this pseudo problem became commonplace among the most comfortable, least suffering and most compulsively distracted people ever to have sleepwalked through their lives on earth.

  4. Process theology. Good and evil are dependent on each other. Just like grass, rabbits, and foxes seem to be the worst of enemies they are each, separately, impossible without the whole of it.

  5. In particular, the work of an American of Huguenot origins, William Porcher DuBose.

  6. You’re begging the question. Christian theology teaches that God LOVES us. It is perfectly reasonable to ask: “If that is so, then why do bad things happen to us? Why is the world we live in mostly bad? Why does everyone suffer? Why do the wicked prosper?

    Sure, God is God and he can do anything he wants, but in light of real human experience, Christian theology is woefully lacking.

  7. A God that is bound and limited by rules about good and evil is not omnipotent.

  8. I don’t think I made my point very well, so let me try again. Christian theology tries to explain the presence (domination?) of evil in the world by suggesting that God could not do certain things without running afoul of logical rules, such as evil being necessary for the appreciation of good.

    Clearly, an omnipotent God would not be bound by any rules at all. Obviously, if an omnipotent God exists, then evil exists because he wants it to.

    Intellectual gymnastics aside, Christian theology is quite inadequate to explain this.

  9. I deny that there is such a symmetry between good and evil. Evil does depend on good, because it is a corruption of good and a privative absense of good. It is fundamentally parasitic. Good needs no reference to anything outside itself. It can get by just fine without evil, as we see in the plenitude of Being and Goodness that is God.

  10. “Christian theology tries to explain the presence (domination?) of evil in the world by suggesting that God could not do certain things without running afoul of logical rules, such as evil being necessary for the appreciation of good.”

    Christian theology says no such thing. In fact, it is inconsistent with the metaphysics behind classical theism to say that evil is necessary or good requires evil in any way. Process theology types may say dumb stuff like that, but they are turning their back on the entire Christian (and Muslim) theological tradition. The correct answer to the question “Why does God allow evil?” is, for us, “I don’t know”. We can certainly speculate on reasons He might have, but this is nothing but speculation. Its only use is to rebut claims that there is no conceivable reason why God might allow evil, and thus that the classical theistic conception of God must be fundamentally flawed. One can imagine several reasons why He might, but I think it would be presumptuous for us to say that we know which in particular it is (or if it is even one of the ones we’ve thought of).

  11. I may be a red haired heretic, but I have absorbed enough of St. T. Aquinas to understand that no sufficiently robust Christian apologetics will be created without finding foundation points that can be set on pre-christain certainties.
    Process theology is (very) pre-Christian. Indeed, the bulk of it can be found in the Hindu Upanishaids that are, for the most part, maybe 5000 years old. A fairly good form of it appeared in the early 18th century in what is now Ukraine under the appearance of a lunatic rabbi who went by the name of the Baal Shem Tov and who founded the modern cHassidic movement.
    Later process theologians like W.P.DuBose were accepting of Darwinian Evolution/natural selection and in fact saw this as a natural ally for their holy project..

  12. Charles Williams agonized meditation on this topic is well worth reading – as essay usually entitled What the Cross Seems to Me (but I can’t find it online). I blogged about it here:

    http://charltonteaching.blogspot.com/2011/09/bedrock-of-reality-according-to-charles.html

    But it seems likely that evil (and suffering is the evil most apparent to moderns – perhaps the *only* evil apparent to moderns) is not – at root – an objection to a loving God, but a part of the human condition: it is data not an argument.

    Because there is a debate among atheist evolutionary theorists which is almost the same – George C Williams (one of the major evolutionary theorists in the late 20th century – whose work was summarized by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene) wrote an agonized review concerning the horrors of nature, and the piling-up of suffering which was the hateful mechanism of natural selection.

    Many evolutionists are thick-skinned, busy, progress-oriented optimists; but the less self-absorbed and more compassionate among them have long been aware of the vileness (from an atheist utilitarian perspective) of the world they describe and theorize.

    My point is that the problem of pain is not distinctive to Christianity, but is present among the most convinced of atheists (I think all evolutionary theorists – except me, recently – are atheists, usually evangelizing atheists).

    And it *is* a mystery. Like everything else. Does a baby expect to understand everything about the world into which it is born? We are babies, why should we expect to understand everything? If we babies do ‘understand’, it can only be at the baby level of ‘what effect does it have on me, on my comfort’.

    But, as Charles Williams makes clear, Christianity is the only religion which has as focus God’s direct and personal and unmediated participation in the suffering of the world. This does not solve the mystery, but it does make a difference.

  13. What Buck Swamp said about begging the question. The problem of evil is older than monotheism, but is particularly acute for monotheistic religions. The Sumerians had no trouble explaining evil: men were created to be slaves to the gods (i.e., to build them temples, to make sacrifices to them, etc.). But to say that God loves us does call forth the problem of evil. Especially so if you also believe in a Heaven in which man will have free will – for that disallows the free will defense which is the usual response besides the “it’s a mystery and it doesn’t bother me” option which you chose.

    In itself, the problem of evil has nothing to do with moral posturing of atheists – which, I agree, is ridiculous.

  14. Pre-Christian certainties are great–my ideas about good and evil have their roots in the neo-Platonists after all–but I want to avoid pre-Christian fallacies. The idea that good depends on evil seems to me gravely wrong; it would mean that evil isn’t really evil and that God isn’t really God.

  15. True, we do not know WHY God allows evil. The salient point in all this metaphyical rhetoric is that God, if he exists, DOES allow evil, and that Christian theology is unable to explain that fact in such a way that God comes out both omnipotent and loving.

  16. This is an important point rooted in the classical theistic convertibility of goodness with being, which renders evil (failure to be) an ontological subordinate of good. It also means that pure goodness (pure being) is conceivable while pure evil is a metaphysical absurdity: such would have to be pure nonbeing; but if it were nothing, there would be nothing to describe as pure evil. So evil really does depend on good for its existence, while the reverse is not true.

  17. I should have said “Christian apologetics tries to explain . . .” rather than Christian theology.

  18. Nothing in classical theism, at least, requires that God be capable of doing the impossible.

  19. Christianity does not and cannot recognize any debt to any pre Judeo-Christian thought. Remember: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

    Anything that incorporates and RECOGNIZES older traditions is no longer truly Christian, just as water is no longer truly oxygen.

  20. Proph said, “Evil really does depend on good for it’s existence . . .”

    My reply: If he exists, evil really does depend on God for it’s existence

  21. Unfortunately, at least on the surface the Sumerian explanation of the presence of evil is more logical than the Christian one. Would it were not so.

  22. Buck, I suggest you learn about a subject before proclaiming on it so confidently. The Fathers and Scholastics never had a problem with profiting from pre-Christian thought, because anything that is true, they reasoned, must have its roots in the Logos. The Logos operated in the world long before the Incarnation.

  23. Again, yes, but not in an interesting sense. The good on which evil depends is held in existence by God.

  24. Bonald, I bow to your appeal to authority, and I recognize your superior knowledge on all relevant subjects, but we Protestants proclaim the bible to be superior in all ways to the ruminations of various medieval and modern church scholars, and I stand by my assertion that Christianity does not rely on pre-Judeo Christian scriptures or philosophy for its doctines.

    However, your deficiency is not in learning, but rather in common sense. You are one of those Christians who cannot deal with the problem of evil, so you attempt to minmize it. This inability to give satisfactory explanations for the reality people experience is why Christianity is steadily losing influence in the modern world.

  25. The very question presupposes that religion as we know it is ‘correct’ in assuming that there is a God and that reality is active in the world of men? The first may be true, the second more open to question.

    As a humanity, we have all been conditioned or indoctrinated, for all of history by ‘theological’ exegesis, particularly by those with their own ‘religious’ claims and agendas, to accept that a literal proof of God is not possible for faith. And thus all discussion and apologists ‘theodicy’ is contained within this self limiting intellectual paradigm and bubble of presumption, especially evident in the frictions between science and religion. It would now appear that all sides squabbling over the God question, religious, atheist and history itself have it wrong! That bubble could now burst at any time!

    The first wholly new interpretation for two thousand years of the moral teachings of Christ is published on the web. Radically different from anything else we know of from history, this new teaching is predicated upon a precise and predefined experience, a direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power to confirm divine will, command and covenant, “correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries.” So like it or no, a new religious claim testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment criteria of evidence based causation now exists. Nothing short of a religious revolution is getting under way. More info at http://www.energon.org.uk

  26. Hello Buck,

    I’m afraid I misjudged you before. I thought you were trying to say that a Christian must believe that there was no valid human knowledge before the Incarnation, and therefore Christianity must be false. That sounded so dumb and dishonest that I gave a rude reply, but now I see that that’s not what you’re saying at all. Your claim is that no particular pre-Christian philosophy is needed to have faith in Christ, and that sounds reasonable enough.

    I doubt that this issue is at fault for the decline of Christianity in the modern world. Is there more suffering or a greater consciousness of sin in modern times than previously? If not, I don’t see why theodicy would now be a problem when it wasn’t before. More important, I would say, is the presence of a rival belief system–secularism, liberalism, whatever you want to call it–that has been aggressively working to make converts.

    I actually am trying to return to what I take to be the Biblical sensibility about these things when I refuse to speculate and present God’s reasons when I don’t know them. The Bible makes no attempts to excuse God. Job and St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans almost seem to rub it in that God can do whatever He wants, and He doesn’t owe us any explanations.

  27. God’s love is volitional: the will for our own good. This periodically requires corrective punishment, sometimes violent corrective punishment. There’s at least one potentially useful explanation — I’m sure there are others.

  28. As Abbé Bremond says of our knowledge of divine things, “In the course of the normal development of man there occur moments in which the discursive reason gives place to a higher activity, imperfectly understood and indeed at first disquieting,

    This higher activity—this hidden inhabitant—is intuitive rather than logical in its methods. It knows by communion, not by observation. It cannot give a neat account of its experience: for this experience overflows all categories, defies all explanations, and seems at once self-loss, adventure, and perfected love

    Like bathing in a fathomless ocean, or breathing an intangible and limitless air, it gives contact and certitude, but not understanding: as breathing or bathing give us certitude about the air and the ocean, but no information about their chemical constitution.”

    We do not understand, but, at least we know why we do not understand.

  29. Sorry, my writing is often hurried and imprecise. I am not, nor do I claim to be, a religious scholar. But I imagine that the leading cause of individual crisis of Christian faith is the problem of evil in the world (I know my own have been). I don’t think it is something Christians can safely ignore.

  30. One more point and I will shut up and go away: Perhaps it is merely our modern worldliness that makes us less able to accept the old platitudes, which were sufficient comfort in less complicated times. But whatever the reason, the real influence of Christianity is waning almost everywhere. Modernity is unmaking disciples of all nations.

    I have always been taught, and still somehow believe, that faith in Christ can have nothing to fear from the Truth.

  31. As Bremond also observes, “Heroic sanctity, the instinct of sacrifice, the redemptive power of suffering: these solid facts are quite incompatible with naturalism but entirely harmonious with the world of spiritual reality to which the soul tends in contemplation.”

  32. Bonald wrote above:

    I actually am trying to return to what I take to be the Biblical sensibility about these things when I refuse to speculate and present God’s reasons when I don’t know them. The Bible makes no attempts to excuse God. Job and St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans almost seem to rub it in that God can do whatever He wants, and He doesn’t owe us any explanations.

    This brought to mind something I read recently in Pascal’s Pensées:

    It is an astounding fact that no canonical writer has ever made use of nature to prove God. They all strive to make us believe in Him. David, Solomon, etc., have never said, “There is no void, therefore there is a God.” They must have had more knowledge than the most learned people who came after them, and who have all made use of this argument. This is worthy of attention.

  33. One recalls St Augustine’s description of God as “Sicut naturarum bonarum optimus creator, ita voluntatum malarum justissinus ordinator” De Civ Dei XI 17 [As He is the most good creator of good wills, He is the most just exploiter of evil ones]
    .

  34. Evil is not merely a “problem” that atheists erect as a way of avoiding the decision of faith. I know this from personal experience with very great evil. The evil that struck my family out of the blue was not at all a problem for my faith, thank Heaven. Indeed, it deepened my faith immeasurably – and not because of the miraculous blessings that we also experienced, but, precisely, because of the tragedy that can never be erased, and that has wounded us all, permanently, forever. Yet I know – I know personally – that there are many other people who, faced with similar sorts of tragedies, lose their faith completely. The spiritual dimension of the problem of evil is orthogonal to the philosophico-theological dimension. When the evil struck us, I became interested in evil as a philosophical puzzle for the first time, and realized that I did not have a good understanding. This happened at the same time that my confidence and trust in God expanded immensely. He was a very present help in trouble.

    I now feel that I have a pretty good philosophical and theological handle on the problem of evil. It no longer feels like a mystery to me. And that understanding has almost *nothing to do* with my life as a Christian, or with my relationship with my Father. It’s like the difference between a solid understanding of the physiology of the pain of hitting your thumb with a hammer really hard, and the actual experience of hitting your thumb with a hammer really hard.

    But I can see all too well how it might have gone the other way for me. Had I not been fortunate in my catechesis, I might have lost my faith as I sojourned there in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. So, the catechesis is *important.*

  35. 1. Creatures are necessarily fallible.
    a. God cannot create creatures that are different from him and that are omniscient. For only God can be omniscient.
    b. God cannot create creatures that are different from him that do not have the capacity to disagree with him. Only God can have the will of God. A creature that is not god must, by definition, have a will that is just its own, and that is therefore somehow different from God’s. To be a creature at all therefore *just is* to be liable to disagree with God, whether “on purpose” or not.
    c. A creature cannot therefore know what it ought to do as well as God knows what it ought to do.
    d. All this is to say that God cannot create a creature – any creature – that is not free to diverge from his will.
    e. It is also to say that God cannot create a creature – any creature – that can fully know and understand the context and consequences of its decisions, as God understands them.
    f. So creatures – any creatures – are prone to Fall. It’s the only way to make creatures. They are *necessarily* fallible. Their failure is not necessary, but their fallibility is. [thus the existence of a Heaven in which free saints and angels do not sin does not at all vitiate free-will theodicy.]
    2. Failure is not inevitable, but it is very likely.
    a. Among a population of quintillions of creatures, that together comprise a causal system – a world – the likelihood that one of them will fall is very great.
    b. Why would a creature – particularly a rational, intelligent creature like a man, or a seraph – decide to Fall?
    c. Because, not being omniscient, a wholly innocent creature could not know ex ante – *metaphysically* could not know ex ante – what sin or evil meant; could not know why sin is bad. To a wholly innocent creature inhabiting a sinless, utterly pleasant world, “bad” would be a meaningless term, an empty category – or, rather, not even a category, but rather mere noise. The only aspects of a sinful course of action that would be apparent to such a wholly innocent creature would be the good ones.
    d. To such a creature, God’s warning about the apple would seem important. But he would have no idea why he should heed it. To a wholly innocent creature, “should” would be an empty category, like “poiyt4ch” is to us.
    e. This would be so even for a rational creature with an IQ of 80 bazillion, like Lucifer. Before his Fall, evil would have been to Lucifer what the sight of the sunset is to a man who has never seen: simply not out there as a consideration.
    f. This is not to make evil comprehensible. It is only to point out how it can seem attractive – for the evils of a course of action are inapprehensible to an innocent creature, and are to him therefore not at all compelling [and, indeed, are not even actual]; he apprehends only the goods thereof.
    g. A Heaven populated with saints and angels who had witnessed or been evil would be much more likely to result in stable righteousness than a Heaven populated with souls who had never experienced sin at all. Such souls would know well what horrors they avoided by refraining from sin.
    3. Our causal system has members that have Fallen. Lucifer fell, engendering spiritual evil; as a consequence our cosmos then fell, engendering natural evil; so, eventually, Adam fell, engendering human evil. The matter of this world was by these Falls permanently and irremediably deflected from its original, immaculately virtuous course. Unlike God, creatures are all contingent upon other events, and their constitutions are therefore strongly influenced by their predecessors. Only thus can they be causally related to those predecessors. Every one of us is therefore tainted, simply by virtue of our membership in this world. We inherit the influence of our sinful causal inputs. Thus the sins of the fathers are visited upon their sons, to the seventh generation. Such is Original Sin. This inheritance is inescapable. It goes along with the causal coherence that alone makes a world a world. The only way to prevent this inheritance is to unmake the world. And, NB: to unmake a single sinful act, to prevent a single one of its dire consequences – for the world at large, or for the future of the sinner himself – is to unravel the whole causal order.
    4. To unmake the world would itself be a very great evil. Genesis makes this pretty clear. God promised Noah that he would never again simply destroy evil. Rather, he would work with it. The world would be allowed, indeed enabled, to run its course, to work its way. God would support that, and work with it. At the Omega, He will nevertheless still be all in all. He will not be gainsayed – how could that be possible, mutatis mutandis? – He will work his will, despite creaturely evil, indeed by way of creaturely evil.
    5. So, it makes no sense for us to complain about the evil God allows. The only way he could prevent that evil altogether would be to prevent our existence in the first place.

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