Facing the Problem of Evil (Part 1)

The problem of evil and suffering gives many believers pause. They are stumped when a popular atheist objects, “Anyone who walks into a children’s hospital knows there is no god.”

Of course, that’s a false claim. But let’s fill in the missing premises of the argument. Anyone who walks into a children’s hospital may see terminally sick children suffering. A good God would not want children to suffer, and an all-powerful God could cure them. Moreover, a good, all-powerful God would indeed cure them. Yet, many die uncured. Therefore, a good, all-powerful God does not exist.

Essentially, that formulation offers nothing new. It goes back to Epicurus,  who famously said:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

 Catholic Christians can answer Epicurus, and others who raise this objection. But, how we go about answering is critical.

Beginning to Answer

When facing the problem of evil and suffering, one should situate the problem appropriately. First, recognize that Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others have spilled a lot of ink on this question over the years. You don’t need to know everything that’s ever been said. Yet, you will need to know some big points.

You need to find out what precisely the objector thinks. Never make the mistake of launching into verbose explanations without situating the problem first.

They might scream at you, “Where was God when my sister died of cancer at the age of 15!” Spewing eloquent explanations in return can only make that scene worse. Pause and take a breath. No matter how strong they come on, follow this two-prong approach:

  • Immediately pray for the person. Something like this is good, “Jesus, have mercy on this person and bring them into a loving relationship with you.”
  • Ask follow up questions to frame the problem.

Framing the Problem

Evil and suffering present problems to people in different ways. Find out first: Is it an intellectual problem or an emotional problem? This key distinction should drive the discussion.

Skepticism or bewilderment about how someone can believe in God’s goodness in the face of grim evils in the world often reveals an intellectual problem. The unbeliever finds the Catholic Christian’s belief in a Good God rationally deficient. However, this person does not display obvious discomfort or tell of any personal pains that led to this conclusion.

Grief over particular cases of evil mark the emotional problem of evil. The person may reveal horrible encounters with suffering that left him feeling deeply sad or betrayed. Philosophical reasons for believing in a Good God cannot ease the pain of thinking that God, if He exists, has turned His back on this person. They may not rule out God, though they may indeed do so, but they rule out trusting in a God who has allowed such evil and suffering.

If it is an emotional problem, apologetics and philosophical arguments are probably not the answer. Instead, express your sorrow for the individual’s woes, prayer for him, and ask God to demonstrate His Goodness in that person’s life. One day in the future, you may speak again about issues related to God, Evil, and Suffering. If you feel it’s appropriate, share some of your own struggles.

To recap, always distinguish the intellectual problem from the emotional problem.

The Intellectual Problem

After detecting the intellectual problem, make another distinction. Find out if your friend deems evil and suffering to be a logical problem or an evidential problem for God’s existence. They may not know these terms. Explain them clearly, and ask the person what they believe.

The Logical Problem of Evil: God and evil are logically incompatible. Since evil and suffering exist, it is not possible that God exists. Is that what you believe?

 The Evidential Problem of Evil: Evil provides evidence that God does not exist, but it does not show that it is impossible that God exists. It is unlikely that God exists given the evil and suffering we see. Is that what you believe?

Notice, by situating the problem and asking questions, you take yourself off the hot seat. Moreover, you require the objector to clearly explain what they think. Only after this is done should offer counter-considerations. If possible, continue to use the #1 thing and ask questions rather than make statements.

A Few More Points

In the next post, I will say more on how to answer the logical problem and the evidential problem. Here, I offer a few brief remarks with a promissory note to expound in the near future.

  • Many atheist and agnostic philosophers have widely abandoned the project of the logical problem of evil. They do not think they can defend it.
  • If the logical problem of evil fails, then it’s possible that God exists along with evil and suffering in the world.
  • The proponent of the evidential problem will struggle to demonstrate the unlikelihood of God’s existence due to evil and suffering. They will mount a probabilistic case.
  • In the background of the probabilistic case lurks the logical possibility of God’s existence and the evidence for God’s existence. This places a heavy burden on the proponent of the evidential problem of evil.

How to Situate the Problem (Flow Chart)

This chart summarizes my main point. Commit it to memory!

 

Books!

1) For organized, helpful information on the Problem of Evil, check out On Guard by William Lang Craig.

2) For an advanced, Thomistic treatment of the subject, check out The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil by Brian Davies.

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10 Responses

  1. “Many atheist and agnostic philosophers have widely abandoned the project of the logical problem of evil. They do not think they can defend it.”

    Notice the word “many.” J.L. Mackie defended the logical argument. David Lewis did before he died. And I defend it. For someone to choose evil must mean there is a defect in their psychology or intellect. Whence cometh the defect? It leads back to God, the author of our nature. The argument from evil is sound.

    “In my view, even the most ambitious version succeeds conclusively. There is no evasion, unless the standards of success are set unreasonably high. Those who try to escape the conclusion have to insist that no use can be made of disputable premises, however antecedently credible those premises may be. But philosophers can and do dispute anything. Some, for example, are prepared to argue about the law of non-contradition. The faithful who claim that the strong argument from evil leaves open a bare possibility–the sort of possibility only a philosopher could cherish–gain a victory in name only.” -David Lewis, “Divine Evil”[1]

    My fellow atheists gave up way too easily after Plantinga. But the problem of evil is not going away…because it is sound. Truth will win in the end, and Mackie will be vindicated.

    I encourage everyone to look at my re-presentation of the argument from evil here —

    http://acidtriponpluto.webs.com/resurrectionofevil.pdf

    • John DeRosa says:

      Can you summarize your version of the argument?

      Thanks,
      John

      • Premise 1: God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving.
        P2: An all-powerful being could prevent all evil, an all-knowing being would know how to, and an all-loving being would want to prevent all evil.
        P3: There is evil. (Evil as in: what God would deem evil, so the argument that atheists can’t have evil is mute here, for even a nihilist can run this argument.)
        Conclusion: There is no God.

        The response to Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defense is the Determinism Attack (as found in my book):

        I don’t see why God needed to give humans free will. Imagine, for a moment, a world with no free will, in which people are happy and joyful, and never have the desire to do wrong. Doing good always feels good. The feeling of joy is constant, because an omnipotent god would have the ability to manipulate our brain chemistry so we constantly feel pleasure (or joy or love, whatever you want to call it). What is the problem with this? Everyone is happy. Who cares if we don’t have free will? And since God controls the thoughts, no one would ever think, “Gee it would sure be great to have free will.”

        Alvin Plantinga’s counter to John Leslie Mackie was called the “Free Will Defense.” This could be called the “Determinism Attack.”

        1. God is defined as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
        2. An omnibenevolent being would prevent all unnecessary suffering.
        2b. If there is a possible world with no unnecessary suffering, God would actualize that world.
        3. One possible world is the world I described in the above quoted paragraph: one with no free will and complete joy.
        3b. There is no suffering in such a world.
        4. An omnipotent and omniscient being would be able to and would know how to create the possible world described in the preceding premise.
        5.. Therefore, if God exists, he would actualize that world. (Note: the argument that God couldn’t actualize a possible world because of free will is mute here, because the world described in premise 3 does not have free will.)
        6. The world described in premise 3 has NOT been actualized.
        6b. There is unnecessary suffering. (see subargument)
        7. Therefore, God does not exist.

        Subargument:

        A. World B has x suffering.
        B. World A has x-y suffering.
        C. Possible World (World A) has less suffering than another possible world (World B),
        D. Suffering is only necessary if there is no possible world where it would not occur.
        E. Therefore, the y suffering is unnecessary in that it does not occur in some possible world, namely World A.
        F. If there is possible world with no suffering, then any possible world with suffering would contain unnecessary suffering.
        G. There is a possible world with no suffering, as described in premise 3 of the argument.
        H. Therefore, any possible world with suffering contains unnecessary suffering.
        I. This world contains suffering.
        6b. There is unnecessary suffering.

        So if the possible world in P3 has p amount of suffering (p=0), then any world with suffering (p+q) would contain unnecessary suffering, since there is another world in which q is definitely avoided (since God controls all the beings).

        Therefore, without any doubt, God does not exist. Our only hope is that the Jewish G-d will exist in the future…in the Messianic Age.

        • John DeRosa says:

          Raphael,

          Thanks for summarizing your argument in logical form. You mention “as found in my book.” Do you have a link to your book on the topic? If so, I will take a look.

          Now to assess your argument. I see two major points of disagreement so far.

          1) Re: I don’t see why God needed to give humans free will. Imagine, for a moment, a world with no free will, in which people are happy and joyful, and never have the desire to do wrong. Doing good always feels good. The feeling of joy is constant, because an omnipotent god would have the ability to manipulate our brain chemistry so we constantly feel pleasure (or joy or love, whatever you want to call it). What is the problem with this? Everyone is happy. Who cares if we don’t have free will? And since God controls the thoughts, no one would ever think, “Gee it would sure be great to have free will.”

          I think this reasoning is too quick. It ignores a lot of the goods we have and experience as human beings with free will. Also, it presumes that there could be a species of human beings or one sufficiently like human beings yet without free will. What would this look like? The closest biological species to us might be some form of ape or chimpanzee, and we greatly surpass them in what we know and experience. If those things are real goods that God wanted to have in His creation, then He very well may have created them. That He did create human beings with a measure freedom is part of the Christian thesis.

          It seems you would have to argue that the things that come with freed are (a) not real goods or (b) goods we can have without having free will. Your initial argument does not include this. Perhaps it is in the longer section of your book?

          2) Re: 2. An omnibenevolent being would prevent all unnecessary suffering.
          2b. If there is a possible world with no unnecessary suffering, God would actualize that world.
          3. One possible world is the world I described in the above quoted paragraph: one with no free will and complete joy.

          The mistake I see here is assuming that a world with no suffering *also includes* all of the goods that could have been had in a world with suffering. But, as I point out above, that is not the case (or at least you haven’t provided an argument for thinking that). Since certain types of goods can only come about in a world with suffering (e.g. courage to protect against evildoers, compassion toward the sick and dying, heroically enduring suffering so one’s children can experience a better life, etc.), I think you will have trouble justifying this step of the argument.

          It seems you would have to show that none of the goods that come about in a world with suffering (a) really are goods or (b) could’ve come about in a world without suffering. I don’t think you’ll be able to show that.

          Anyway, I welcome more interaction about this argument or if you have a lengthier treatment in a book I would take a look.

          • None of the “goods” experienced in a world with libertarian freedom could not have been in a world with only compatibilist freedom. No one would know the difference. (See Chapter 14 of my book here, which goes in depth on this: http://acidtriponpluto.webs.com/Feserfatality.pdf )

            This is another example of how religious people spit in the face of suffering. Apparently mass starvation and children being raped is all worth because of stupid, needless virtues like bravery. So it’s okay for God to allow to people to be sick, just so people can heal them, even though most of them won’t be healed. Such a stupid, naive glib attitude. There would be no need for the “good” of healing the sick if there were no sick. Will there be healing of the sick in Heaven? No. But it’s still paradise. Are you middle-class, John? There would be no need of bravery in Heaven, for there will be no danger.

            In my chapter on the logical argument from evil, I show that those “goods”/virtues are not true goods, but just means to the only significant good, which is happiness: (18 – http://acidtriponpluto.webs.com/resurrectionofevil.pdf )

            Even if those are true goods (which I don’t grant for a second), so what? Babies who die right after baptism go straight to Heaven. Would you really suggest that they were deprived because they didn’t have to live a crappy life working a job/career for decades, just to develop virtues they didn’t need?

            The humans with no free will would be humans, just without free will. An omnipotent god would know how to create such a being, just as he created the animals that can still reason and show compassion with free will (ever see dolphins look in a mirror?).

          • John DeRosa says:

            Raphael,

            Re: None of the “goods” experienced in a world with libertarian freedom could not have been in a world with only compatibilist freedom. No one would know the difference.

            I don’t see how this is relevant to your argument.

            Re: This is another example of how religious people spit in the face of suffering.

            This is not an argument. Just grandstanding and question begging. It begs this question by assuming “religious people spit in the face of suffering.” While all religions have plenty of bad people, the Catholic saints refute the idea that such a notion holds in general.

            Re: In my chapter on the logical argument from evil, I show that those “goods”/virtues are not true goods, but just means to the only significant good, which is happiness: (18 – http://acidtriponpluto.webs.com/resurrectionofevil.pdf )

            Your argument depends on those arguments, since otherwise steps (2) to (3) do not work (as I argue above).

            Re: Even if those are true goods (which I don’t grant for a second), so what?

            If they are true goods, then steps (2) to (3) of your argument do not work (as I argue above). In that case, your logical version of the problem of evil fails.

            Re: Babies who die right after baptism go straight to Heaven. Would you really suggest that they were deprived because they didn’t have to live a crappy life working a job/career for decades, just to develop virtues they didn’t need?

            In a literal sense, they were deprived of specific earthly experiences, including the chance to develop virtues in this life. But your logical problem of evil is not rescued by such a case or such a question.

            Re: The humans with no free will would be humans, just without free will. An omnipotent god would know how to create such a being, just as he created the animals that can still reason and show compassion with free will (ever see dolphins look in a mirror?).

            Omnipotence does not include the ability to bring about anything someone might say. If it is part of the nature of human beings to have free will, then this would not be possible. You might say he could create just other animals. There I would agree, but the evidence we have is that their existence and experiences are not on par with ours. Even if they have “reason” and “compassion” in some senses, it is nothing close to our capacities.

            In my next reply, I’ll respond to some of your arguments for why the “goods” I spoke of are not true goods.

            Peace,
            John

  2. *animals…without free will

  3. The spitting in the face of suffering was not meant as an argument, just an observation. You think it’s okay for God to allow children to starve and for people to be raped. It doesn’t matter why, for God could have put them in Heaven right away. This IS a callous, disgusting, and insulting stance. My G-d (the true Jewish G-d) would never allow rape or a Holocaust. Yours apparently does.

    “In a literal sense, they were deprived of specific earthly experiences, including the chance to develop virtues in this life. But your logical problem of evil is not rescued by such a case or such a question.”

    But they were not deprived of the beatific vision (perfect happiness), which is the point. None of the stupid virtues like bravery and compassion are needed in Heaven, so it is no “justification” to allow humans to suffer just so they can develop virtues, virtues which aren’t even necessary in a perfect world.

    “Omnipotence does not include the ability to bring about anything someone might say.”

    Anything that isn’t logically impossible God can easily do. We are animals with no free will (given the incoherence of free will), which proves it is possible. Of course, if you define humans as necessarily having free will, then it’s just question-begging. In that case, I would point out that WE are not humans, for we do not have free will.

    • I eagerly await your attempt to show that courage, etc. are true goods. Let’s say you accomplish that task. Then,

      “It seems you would have to show that none of the goods that come about in a world with suffering (a) really are goods or (b) could’ve come about in a world without suffering. I don’t think you’ll be able to show that.”

      I could also argue that if a world with courage is valued by God more than one where everyone is happy, that still doesn’t have to mean people go to Hell. There is a possible world in which people have courage against evildoers, but all the evildoers repent before death, and then no one goes to Hell. But Christianity says people (at the very least, Judas) go to Hell, and that most go to Hell. If God is loving, then He would create the world with both courage and universal salvation.

      There are also other lines one could take, and a bigger problem with the Free Will Defense, but I’ll wait for your response before posting them (if I decide to).

      • John DeRosa says:

        Raphael,

        Sorry for the delayed response, but I had a chance to return to your formulation of the logical problem of evil. Again, I thank you for writing the argument in clear, logical form. I argued above that the argument contains a misstep from (2) to (3). I believe that is correct for the reasons I mentioned. You responded with material from your book, where you argue that all of the supposed goods I mention are not really goods, but only some means to the true good of preventing or reducing pain and suffering.

        Here, I find that you are begging the question by presupposing a conception of human nature and goods where the only true good is reduction of pain and suffering. That’s not what theists believe, especially Catholic theists, and so your logical version does not work against that worldview. Two more points in that vein:

        (1) If humans are body-soul composites, which they are on the Catholic Christian worldview, then soul development is really and truly good as it helps human beings flourish in being the kind of thing that they are. Moreover, soul development through the acquisition of virtues is a true good, and since some of those virtues require the existence of evil, they could not occur unless our world contained evil.

        (2) You might argue that humans are not body-soul composites, and that there is nothing more to the universe than molecules in motion. So, there are no true goods of the kind of which I speak, and therefore your logical version of the problem of evil is successful. However, then it would be your arguments for materialism (and against substance-dualism or hylemorphism dualism) that are doing the heavy lifting, not your logical version of the problem of evil. So, it seems to me, for your logical version of the problem of evil to constitute an independent critique of theism (i.e. not one that holds only if materialism is true), you will need to revise it in light of what I say above. You have already suggested a possible direction for the revision (where you mention Hell).

        I’d like you to make the revision in the context your argument so we can see how those premises remedy the problem I see in moving from (2) to (3). Or, you can explain why such a revision is not necessary even in light of what I say above. Either way, respond at your leisure since it’s been a while since I returned to this.

        Peace,
        John D.

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