(I will be using male and female personal pronouns for god in this post, because it’s far less cumbersome than using “god” over and over or other weird contrivances like “godself.” Also since god’s probably not a dude or a fine lady, she will remain androgynous throughout the post, for we are not 100% of his existence. Also “god” instead of “God” is used because one is a concept, and one is a personal name that seems to give away the answer before the homework has been done. And the homework’s been going on for awhile.)
Epicurus stated the problem of evil in terms similar to this: “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” (Hume, 63).
Evil is a fact we have a hard time evading. It saturates the news and berates everyone’s lives. If it’s not pestilence, famine, tornadoes, animals experiencing pain in the wild, hurricanes, or AIDS, it’s rape, war, fraud, theft, murder, torture, unemployment, extortion, or betrayal. I’ll define evil as meaningless, purposeless, and unnecessary pain. Applied to some of the items above, it is never justifiable to rape someone and it is necessary. I guess unemployment could have a reason—a boss legitimately doesn’t have the resources to pay the staff she once did, and has to make cuts somewhere, but this definitely doesn’t speak for all kinds of unemployment. My definition of evil would also allow for momentary pain to avoid a grander evil. Let’s say someone pushed an old woman out of the way of a bus, breaking her hip and a few ribs. While we’d feel sorry for her pain, most would not call the person who saved her life evil.
Hume states that the deity is assumed to be somewhat similar to humans, but at an infinitely higher degree. “[God’s] justice, benevolence, mercy, and rectitude…is infinite; whatever he wills is executed: But neither man nor any other animal is happy; therefore, he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite; He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end; But the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity: Therefore, it is not established for that purpose…In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?” (Hume, 63) Put more plainly, if even we humans can see the inconsistency here—i.e., that if the ability and will exist to enact something, then certain outcomes should follow—would not the deity, if she existed, note this inconsistency and want to clear it up? Is there something keeping god’s omnipotence or omnibenevolence at bay?
While some have posited a god with less than godly attributes (a powerful being, but no all-powerful; a moral being like us who isn’t perfect, or is indeed capricious like some of the ancient gods), theists have generally not taken this route. One theistic response to the problem of evil is the free will defense. God allows human beings free will to attain the highest moral good, given that morality has no meaning without the existence of evil. What would an honest person even mean, if there was no possibility of theft, cheating, and lying? What would charity mean if there was no possibility for indifference, name calling, senseless beating, or injustice?
The problem I have with the free will defense is that it neuters god’s free will. I think theists and atheists alike can agree that if god exists, god would have free will that he would exercise it sometimes. So we have free will. Where’s god’s? Does human free will automatically determine that god doesn’t intervene in ANY human action? If that is so, that might throw the problem of god’s omnipotence back at her. In fact, it makes the her look quite impotent. Why would such a being deserve worship if that being has a free will but NEVER uses it? Another related reason for god’s non-intervention is that he has a legitimate reason for doing so that cannot be disclosed, similar to presidents keeping certain intelligence from the public for national security or to the prime directive in the Star Trek universe. Even if this is allowed, what then would people want to do with a god who didn’t help them in their time of need? Friends lend a hand in time of need. Even if god only intervened 2% of the time in human affairs (I’m assuming benevolently here; most theistic faiths leave god wide room for wrath), that would be great.
Another thing that’s hard for me is that the whole problem of evil seems merely a logical/rational exercise. There is hard evidence for evil (which even that is open to interpretation) and that is what humans have to deal with, but then we are arguing about something/someone unseen from what is seen. It almost seems pointless to talk about since this unseen tends not to (dramatic understatement of the millennium) interact with the visible. There’d be no discussion if he showed up. However, even if god did show up, court cases are always pitted against one another using the same evidence, so I guess the problem of evil still would exist. So for now we’re left with conjecture. And conjecture is none too comforting in life’s difficulties.
And the free will argument also only applies to human made evils. What of the evils of nature? Even if we don’t attribute the word “evil” to natural disasters, they’re pretty dang uncool to all living things. And nature’s built that way. If she did design it, why did god design things to go like this, where there are regular seasons for certain disasters (e.g., tornadoes, hurricanes)? Would life have been too boring without these? One could posit that even here, natural disasters provide an opportunity for humans to be altruistic. Let’s say that’s the case. In so doing, what has that made god into? If she created the course of nature to have disasters in seasons or throughout the year, he has also provided opportunity for many people’s free will to be savagely impugned (dying because of a natural disaster that did not necessarily have to be introduced into the created system). In my definition of evil (meaningless, purposeless, unnecessary pain), god’s creation fits the bill. Unless she decides someday to reveal his meaning, purpose, and necessity for inflicting (sorry, allowing to be inflicted) such pain.
I am open to the possibility of being profoundly wrong. When I was gathering sources, I found there was enough to write a pretty lengthy paper on, so I went with going over only a few general sources. There’s probably some stuff I missed. Maybe I even misrepresented something on accident (In the future, if I do subject blogs like this, I will spend more time with the subject to give it a fair treatment. For now, I’ll stick with individual books and reflect on them.) If you want the sources I was going to look at on the problem of evil, email me at ilostmyprayerhanky at gmail dot com. If you have positive or negative comments, leave them below. If you have a book or article I should read, just tell me about it in the comments. I already have enough to read as it is. Unless it’s too dang profound for me to ignore. Just be honest with me. You don’t have to be respectful in your comments if you wish, but expect respect from my end. I’ve tried to put my trolling ways behind me.
Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998. pp. 58-66
Quinn, Philip L. “Philosophy of Religion.” In Robert Audi (ed.) The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. pp. 696-700
Yandell, Keith E. Philosophy of Religion: A Contemporary Introduction. Routledge Contemporary Introductions to Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1999. pp. 123-165