An Essay on the Problem of Evil

[Note: I wrote this research paper as a requirement for an Introduction to Philosophy course I took at the local JC in Merced back in the Fall of 2015. I cannot find the Works Cited page so please forgive that not being included.]

On November 13, 2015, eight terrorists walked into various venues in Paris, France, with automatic weapons, injuring over 300 people and killing 130, including the terrorists who were wearing suicide vests. Evil opened fire on a Friday night in Paris resulting in pain and suffering. This is all too familiar: someone with a gun or several men with guns walk into a crowded venue and follow through with bad intentions, killing several and injuring many more. Events such as these stand in a long line of tragedies reaching back into the mists of history which present a difficult problem for those professing faith in an all-good God. In this paper, I will analyze two arguments which seek to reconcile the existence of  an all-good God with the existence of evil. I will then conclude that while these arguments are logically consistent, the absurdities of God and evil are reconciled by faith.

The classical summation of the problem of evil is found in Lactantius’ treatise “On the Anger of God.” As an early church father Lactantius is writing to defend the Christian faith and summarizes the argument which is attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus:

God, [Epicurus] says, either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? or why does He not remove them?[1]

18th century philosopher David Hume said that Epicurus’ old questions were still unanswered in his time and put the problem in a succinct form: “Is [God] 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?”[2] Simply, though hopefully not simplistically, the problem of evil is if God exists and is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, why is there pain, suffering, and evil in the world He created? Either He does not exist or if He does exist He is weak, ignorant, or mean.

Since the problem is so old, many theists have worked to bridge the gap between the existence of God and the existence of evil. These attempts to reconcile two seemingly contradictory positions through a consistent account are known as theodicies. For example, Lactantius said that evil was necessary so that one might gain wisdom because to know evil is to know good. If evil is taken away, so too is wisdom taken away.[3]

Modern philosophers have also grappled with a solution to the problem of evil. For instance, philosopher Gottfried Leibniz approached the seeming contradiction of evil and an all-good God logically. Leibniz grants there is evil in the world, affirms God made world, and says He could have made it without evil or not created it at all, however, Leibniz argues that this is the best of all possible worlds God could have created. Even though there are imperfections in part of creation, it is necessary for perfection in the whole, a principle he illustrates through mathematics. Further, the evil in the world may accompany greater good, like how an Army general prefers victory with a slight wound over no wound & no victory. Leibniz points to theologians like Augustine and Aquinas who likewise reasoned that God permits evil to bring about greater good. So God gave liberty to certain creatures (humans), knowing they would choose evil so He could act in an extraordinary way and gave this universe the greatest noble gift, viz. the Incarnation of the Son of God.[4]

Contemporary philosophers have also sought to provide an explanation for the problem of evil. For example, in “Dialogues on Good, Evil, and the Existence of God,”[5] John Perry utilizes a fictitious conversation between a theist (Miller), a non-theist (Wierob), and a non-biased judge (Cohen) to develop a theodicy. In this skit, Perry explores the Leibnizian idea that the world can contain a little or even a lot of evil because it contributes to greater good. God may have a plan for the world that requires suffering. There is a greater story or metanarrative where suffering promotes greater good which may escape finite minds.

The difficulty which is identified in Perry’s skit is producing a consistent story which balances both the existence of real world suffering and evil on the one hand, and the existence of the all-good God of Christianity who created this world on the other. Perry’s theodicy comes in three parts. The first part is human freedom. Essentially a world with free moral agents is better than a world of robots. This is also how evil enters the world, viz. free creatures exercising freedom. The second part centers on the afterlife. The possibility of an afterlife is common sense the world over and everyone envisions virtually the same thing: justice, i.e. all wrongs are set to rights. The third and final part consists in the possibility of powerful free creatures who choose to cause suffering on earth, viz. the devil and his minions. While objections can be raised to each of these parts (and Wierob does this), it is conceded that the theodicy is logically consistent.

Towards the end of the skit, Wierob admits, “I can’t say that I see a contradiction in your story. It is fantastic and absurd.”  Perry through Wierob has given us the point: continued faith in an all-good God in spite of the existence of evil in the world He created is absurd. While syllogisms (Leibniz) and theodicies (Perry through Miller) can be produced which aim to reconcile the existence of God and evil, it is still absurd to believe in an all-good God. In fact, for most people the problem of evil is not a logical problem. Their problem lies with the absurdity of an all-perfect God allowing evil in His world.

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard would no doubt agree that faith in the Christian God having sufficient reason for permitting, allowing, or even causing evil in the world is absurd. In Fear and Tremblimg, Kierkegaard writes about “the knight of faith” operating “on the strength of the absurd” and “all that can save him is the absurd, and this he grasps by faith…Faith therefore is …the paradox of life and existence.”[6] He illustrates this through Abraham in the Old Testament and the command from God to sacrifice Isaac, the son of promise. Killing the son through whom God would bless all nations was absurd. Nevertheless, Abraham makes the three day trek with wood, knife, and boy to the place which God commanded fully prepared to execute the command. The only thing that can save Abraham is the absurd, and by faith he clings to it.

In similar fashion, the Christian faith embraces a number of paradoxes, not the least of which is the dogma that the infinite God was incarnated in history as the man Jesus of Nazareth. How absurd! But go further: As awful as the death of even one human life is and as awful as it is to multiply human death into the millions, God is infinitely greater than mankind. The Creator is greater than the creature(s). Therefore, His death would be infinitely greater than the deaths of millions of humans. The worst evil imaginable is the murder of God. According to Orthodox Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be God. If it is possible that this claim of Jesus of Nazareth is true, then in the crucifixion of Jesus we have the death, even the murder of God. The worst imaginable evil is realized in the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet through this, God shows us that even the worst evil is meant for good. The world meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, namely, to bring about redemption, resurrection, and final reward.

Philosophy still grapples with the problem of evil. Christianity does not provide a detailed excursus on “Why evil?” Still, through the absurdity of the incarnation God simultaneously identifies with humans in how absurd evil is. God gave humans freedom to choose that which is good, yet they choose and, as daily tragedies remind us, continue to choose evil. How absurd! Then God puts himself on the hook with suffering and evil, enduring the worst imaginable evil to save humans from evil. How absurd! Nevertheless, the absurdity of God is what can save people from the absurdity of evil, and this one grasps by faith.

[1] Coxe 271.

[2] Hume 83.

[3] Coxe 271.

[4] Leibniz 95.

[5] Perry, Bratman, Fischer 97-120.

[6] Kierkegaard 52-53.

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