I don’t have a picture for this post. I don’t have a symbol. But allow me to paint one with words.
I have a friend whose wife might be leaving him. Of late their home has been flooded with tension, tears and strife. His three year old daughter has been putting band-aids all over her body. She knows she hurts, but she can’t find the wound. It’s heartbreaking to find out at such a young age that there is no band-aid for the soul. Isn’t it?
One picture. So simple, so poignant, so problematic. Band-aids don’t mend broken bones, or stitch up shattered hearts. Logic doesn’t lessen the sting of loss. Answers don’t always sooth personal anguish. What ever we say on this topic, we need hope beyond band-aid solutions because the dark underbelly of life has robbed us of their usefulness.
Maybe someone can turn that into an artistic expression?
There is the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil. Within the intellectual problem of evil there is the logical argument and the evidential or probabilistic argument. The intellectual problem is in the realm of the philosopher. The emotional problem falls under the provinces of the counselor, pastor, priest, rabbi, good friends etc. This post will respond to the logical problem that claims that the reality of evil makes belief in the traditional concept of God irrational.
‘Does the existence of evil make belief in God irrational or dumb? The most familiar statement of this argument comes from the pen of David Hume (who was following Epicurus):
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is Malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”
So basically, in light of evil, God is either wicked or wimpy and the traditional God of theism cannot exist. Evil exists, so this God cannot.
Look at these four propositions:
- God Exists
- God is all-good
- God is all-powerful
- Evil exists
In order to make belief in God irrational the proponent of this argument has to show that holding to all four of these propositions involve embracing a contradiction. Here is the problem: there is no explicit contradiction contained in the above four statements.
Let me give you a few examples of explicit contradictions: God can’t exist and not exist at the same time and in the same sense. God can’t create humans and not create humans when the term humans is used at the same time and in the same sense. These are examples of explicit contradictions and the above four propositions don’t contain one. So is there, perhaps, an implicit contradiction? In order, to show that this is the case the proponent of this argument has to produce some additional premises. Philosopher J.L. Mackie is famous for his attempt to do so. He wrote:
“The additional principles are that good is opposed to evil, in such a way that good things always eliminate evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From these it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists, and that evil exists, are incompatible.”
In order for Mackie’s thoughtful argument to succeed in proving the irrationality of theism in light of evil, his additional premises have to be necessarily true. But are they? Let us look at the concept of omnipotence first. Is it necessarily true that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing?
Most theists have not thought so (Descartes & possible William Ockham would be notable exceptions). Rather, God’s omnipotence implies that God can do all things that are intrinsically possible and in accordance with God’s nature. For example, God cannot do evil, or cease to exist. God cannot produce logical contradictions, like creating a round triangle or creating humans with free will, while simultaneously not creating them with free will (apply the same time/same sense rule). Nonsense remains nonsense even when we prefix the words ‘God can’ before the nonsensical statement. Therefore, it is not necessarily true the that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. This qualified understanding of omnipotence alone causes Mackie’s argument to fail.
How about the other additional premise: good is opposed to evil, in such a way that good things always eliminate evil as far as it can. This also does not seem to be necessarily true. For example, on a human level good parents, doctors and dentists at times intentionally impose pain and suffering (an evil in itself), but they do so to make possible a greater good. Taking your baby to get his or her shots would be a good example, or taking your four year old to the doctor to have his arm intentionally re-broken because it wasn’t healing properly. From the perspective of the young child this would seem like an unnecessary pointless evil, but the parent knows there is a morally sufficient reason to permit it.
All this to say, God may have a morally sufficient reason to permit evil that justifies all that occurs, even if that reason is beyond our ken. A morally sufficient reason would include 1. the good produced must sufficiently outweigh the evil permitted. 2. the good brought about would not have occurred without allowing the possibility of the evil 3. it is within the right of the person to permit the evil.
Various reasons have been suggested for God permitting evil like the free will defense or the soul-making theodicy. We are not, in any of these responses, stating that God does evil, or that evil somehow becomes good but, rather, that some good may not be achievable without the possibility of evil. For example, it seems that apart from free will we cannot speak meaningfully about love, moral responsibility and virtue etc. No free will, no moral evil. No possibility of moral evil, no genuine possibility of moral good etc.
Regardless of how convincing we may find these responses, the fact still remains that it is possible that God has a morally sufficient reason to permit evil and, therefore, it is not necessarily true that a good thing always eliminates evil, if to do so, would make impossible a greater good.
This is the logical version of the problem of evil. Most skeptics have abandoned it because of the difficulty of producing a genuine contradiction. But there is also the evidential version of evil advocated by philosophers like William Rowe and Paul Draper. In this approach evil is not incompatible with the existence of God, but evil constitutes strong evidence against the existence of a loving, all-powerful God. This approach has also sparked interesting debate amongst philosophers of religion, but perhaps some one else can investigate that issue.
Let us not forget that evil and suffering is an emotional, existential problem as well. This is the realm in which most people wrestle with the problem.
Theologian Douglas Hall once wrote, “Of answers to the ‘problem of suffering’ there is in fact no lack! Only, all of them flounder on the rocks of reality, at the cry of one starving or derelict child. The only satisfying answer is the answer given to Job – the answer that is no answer but is the presence of an Answerer.”
This is the emotional problem. Hall’s answer may not be ours, but this is where the rubber hits the road. How do we suffer in a way that is meaningful and not meaningless, purposeful and not purposeless?
 Douglas John Hall God & Human Suffering: An exercise in the Theology of the Cross. p. 118