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The Problem of Evil
Many people believe that the problem of evil is the most serious challenge to belief in God. The idea that the existence of evil provides a good reason to deny the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good God is called the problem of evil. Moral evil has to do with the sinful things that people do such rape, murder, theft, lying, and so on. Natural evil is a calamitous event that brings pain and suffering upon people such as an earthquake, tornado, tsunami, hurricane, and so on. Both kinds of evil will be addressed in this paper.
When discussing the problem of evil, it is helpful to carefully define omnipotence. Omnipotence does not mean the ability to do anything that we can imagine; it means unlimited power. Since God has unlimited power, He cannot have any weaknesses. Hence, He cannot sin. He cannot act in imperfect ways. Moreover, God cannot do logically contradictory tasks, but this does not mean that He is limited in power. He cannot do them because there is something wrong with those tasks. They are pseudo-tasks; they are not objects of power. You cannot eat and not eat at the same time. You cannot sit down and not sit down at the same time. The reason why you cannot do these things is because there is something wrong with the nature of those tasks, not because you are lacking in power.
There are two versions of the problem of evil- the logical problem of evil and the evidential problem of evil. The logical problem of evil states that the theistic claim that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good is inconsistent with the theistic claim that there is evil in the world. The logical problem of evil assumes that a wholly good being would be always opposed to evil and that He would eliminate evil as far as He could. The evidential problem of evil says that the existence of evil makes God's existence unlikely. The evidential problem of evil does not say that God's existence and the evil's existence are logically incompatible with each other. The following is William Rowe's classic formulation of the evidential problem of evil:
1. 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.
2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
3. There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.
Allow me to paraphrase what Rowe is saying. The first premise means that there are instances of pointless evil. (A pointless evil is an evil that does not serve a greater good.) The second premise is saying that an omniscient, wholly good being would not allow any pointless or unnecessary evil. God would only allow evil if it served a greater good. Rowe concludes by saying that an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being does not exist.
In this paper, I will address both versions of the problem of evil. I will argue that there is a morally sufficient reason for God to allow evil so God's existence is not logically incompatible with evil's existence. I will also argue that there are no pointless evils so William Rowe's argument has one false premise. Hence, his argument is unsound.
Throughout the centuries, people have thought of the different morally sufficient reasons why God would allow evil. I do not believe that there is one and only one reason why God allows evil. There can be multiple reasons why God allows evil. God can allow some evil in order to improve our character. (This is called the soul-making theodicy.) Tribulation produces perseverance and proven character (Romans 5:4) and tribulation can be caused by moral and natural evil. Timothy Keller, a Christian pastor, wrote about a man who attended his first church. He lost most of his eyesight after he was shot in the face during a drug deal. His character was dominated by selfishness and cruelty to others. The loss of his eyesight humbled him and he realized how poorly he had been treating other people. He changed his ways and started to love people and they were amazed. He admitted that this tragedy taught him a big lesson.
When God allows some natural evil to take place, it can provide us with the opportunity to develop a God-glorifying character. Our world requires us to peacefully co-exist with each other so that we can successfully respond to its challenges. When an earthquake or tornado causes people to suffer, many people will have the opportunity to show their love and compassion towards those who are suffering as a result of these natural disasters. If they do not show their love and compassion towards those who suffer as a result of some natural evil, they can become aware of the fact that they need to be more loving towards other people. They can have the motivation for being more compassionate.
Some people object to the soul-making theodicy by saying that it implies that we should have a passive response towards evil. Moreover, they would say that it undercuts any motivation for people to prevent evil. However, this objection begs the question because it ignores the central point of the soul-making theodicy, which is that by actively responding to moral and natural evil, we can achieve moral growth in compassion, love, generosity, sympathy, perseverance, trust, and so on. Responding passively to evil does not spur our moral growth. Building friendships through adversity can be achieved by taking the initiative to oppose evil.
Another reason why God allows evil is to display all of His attributes and perfections. God's greatest goal is to glorify Himself. He wants to make His glory known. God wants to display both His love and His wrath. He wants to display all of His attributes to the fullest possible extent. If God did not allow evil, we would never see God's unmerited favor and mercy towards sinners, God's ability to forgive people of their sins, and God's wrath towards sin. God wanted us to see that He can love people in spite of their sin. The deep compassion and kindness of God in spite of our sin helps us to appreciate God's love.
God wants to display the full range of His character. He wants to magnify His worth. God has to allow evil in order to display His mercy towards sinners. If God did not display His mercy, then He would not be magnifying His character to the fullest extent because there would be some of His character that is not manifested. When God's mercy is contrasted with His wrath, God's mercy is magnified to a degree greater than it would be if He had not shown His wrath.
One reason why God allows natural evil is so that He would not make it difficult to practice science. The practice of science assumes that the future is like the past and that the world is orderly, predictable, and knowable. If God were to produce miracles whenever natural disasters would otherwise occur, then this would disrupt the cause and effect relationships in this world to such an extent that the world would be unpredictable. We would not be able to predict the occurrence of hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, and so on. It would be difficult to practice science if the world were unpredictable. There would be little incentive to learn about the natural world.
When God allows a believer in Christ to experience trials and those trials are caused by moral or natural evil, then God can use those trials to prepare them for heaven. Light, momentary afflictions can produce in the lives of Christians an eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). Difficult times can wean us from the world and they can dispose us to look to God for our consolation and support. Moreover, they can induce us to contemplate the glories of God and heaven. The glorious enjoyment of God in heaven far outweighs any suffering that a believer in Christ may go through. For the believer in Christ, suffering is temporary, but the enjoyment of heaven is permanent. Even though the Apostle Paul went through many trials in his life, he kept his mind focused on Christ. He was looking forward to the day when he would see Christ face to face.
I have discussed some of the morally sufficient reasons why God allows evil and this addresses the logical problem of evil. Next, I will address the evidential problem of evil.
I would argue that there are no pointless evils contrary to Rowe's first premise of his argument. Given the existence, nature, and character of God, there can be no pointless evils. God exists and He is in control of all things. Nothing happens without His permission. God's decision to permit something or not to permit something is always done in accordance with His infinite wisdom and infinite goodness. God has infinite wisdom and He always chooses the best course of action. God is perfect and all of His decisions are perfect. All of the reasons He has for carrying out things are always good reasons. God has the unlimited power to carry out His plan. Allowing pointless evil would be contrary to God's character and God does not act contrary to His character. However, many people believe that some wicked acts are pointless or unnecessary.
Some people find it hard to believe that God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil when He allows certain evil acts such as rape, mass murder, terrorism, and so on. Some wicked deeds are so heinous that we cannot conceive of a justifiable reason for their occurrence. My response is that just because we cannot imagine how God can have a morally sufficient reason for allowing a particular instance of evil does not mean that there are no morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil. In other words, just because we cannot conceive of something does not mean that it does not exist.
Some people think that if God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing a particular instance of evil, then it is reasonable for us to assume that we will always be aware of that reason. However, given certain truths about God and ourselves, we should not assume that we would always be aware of that reason. God's ways are past finding out; they are not like our ways. God's ways can be inscrutable. We are finite and limited, but God is infinite. He has infinite wisdom and understanding. God can have reasons for doing things that are beyond our knowledge and experience. According to Marilyn McCord Adams, we can be ignorant of God's reasons for permitting evil because we are too cognitively, emotionally, and/or spiritually immature to comprehend them. We are like a two-year-old child who cannot understand his mother's reasons for allowing him to have surgery. Hence, it is reasonable to believe that we will not always see the morally sufficient reason that God has for allowing evil.
As evil is encountered in this world, some people will think that there is a logical inconsistency between God's existence and evil's existence. Since God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil, God's existence and evil's existence are not logically inconsistent. I have discussed God's desire to allow evil to shape our character, to display all of His attributes, to not make the practice of science difficult, and to prepare us for heaven. Some people think that pointless evil counts against God's existence, but I have shown that there are no pointless evils. We can assume that we will not always be aware of the morally sufficient reason that God has for allowing evil because we are too cognitively, emotionally, and/or spiritually immature to comprehend God's reasons for permitting evil. Both of the logical and evidential problems of evil have been addressed.
1. See William Rowe, 'The Evidential Problem of Evil,' in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, 3rd ed., Eds. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, p. 355.
2. Timoth Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Riverhead Books, 2008, p.25.
3. 3 See Marilyn McCord Adams, 'Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God,' in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, 3rd ed., Eds. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, p. 371.
4. 4 See Marilyn McCord Adams, 'Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God,' in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, 3rd ed., Eds. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, p. 371.