“The Problem of Evil” by Drew Payne

The Problem of Evil
Addressed from a Philosophical Perspective
J. Andrew Payne

Foreword: Last week, we posted an article addressing the co-existence of a loving, powerful God with the presence of suffering and evil.  We approached the issue from a more theological perspective.  In today’s article, our resident philosopher, Drew Payne, examines the issue from a philosophical perspective.  Granted, philosophy and theology are intertwined to a great degree especially when relating to God and the world.  Be that as it may, it is our prayer that with both articles that you will be left with a working basis on how to handle the issue of suffering and evil in light of the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God.  -Pastor Brian Chilton

Drew Payne

            As last week focused on the theological justification of why God would allow suffering in the world, this week has been scheduled to address the problem philosophically. Before we begin, however, there is a point which merits a brief digression. That point is the charge of “moral insensitivity” that can often be thrust at the rather callous seeming answers to this problem of evil that philosophy often grants.

As evil has the propensity to evoke an emotional reaction, especially to those whom the problem of evil has recently effected, I must ask that the reader consider what is said and not just merely reject it because it sounds callous. Rather, carefully weigh what is proposed based on the merits of the claims here laid forth. Though I do not agree with his stance as an Open Theist, Peter van Inwagen well answered the charge of moral insensitivity when he wrote, “Philosophy is hard. Thinking clearly for an extended period is hard. It is easier to pour scorn on those who disagree with you than actually to address their argument.”[1] All too often this is the response, and I here ask that the reader put aside any inclinations to do so and consider what is being said of its own virtue.

The Typical Answers of Philosophy

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            Philosophers have wrestled with this problem for as long as philosophy has existed and have come up with a plethora of answers. Some have been incredibly effective though unsatisfying while others have been short sighted and ultimately ineffective. To a degree, the question must always remain a mystery as nineteenth century Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain maintained. Still, though there is no great or common consensus regarding the answers to the issue, by no means does it follow that the problem has not been answered.

The problem, which is admittedly predominately a religious one[2], must reconcile what seems initially irreconcilable. As the great Enlightenment skeptic, David Hume, put it, “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?”[3] Is it even possible for there to be a loving, all powerful, omniscient God in a world that seems inundated with evil? Such is the dilemma that is our topic of discussion here.

To begin with, I will here outline a few approaches to the problem that have been offered throughout the history of philosophy. The first of the views which we will be discussing is that of philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. Though this will by no means be a comprehensive look at his philosophy, it will nevertheless give a summary of what is important for our purposes.

Leibniz is an Enlightenment adumbration of the approach to the problem of evil that will be predominantly adopted by analytic Christian philosophers of our contemporary times. He theorized that God was rightly defined as the Scholastic philosopher Anselm had written of Him; that God is the greatest thing of which nothing greater can be conceived. God is thus a perfect being in every sense of the word. This definition, though, would prevent God from being able to create anything equal to Him, let alone greater. If God is the greatest being, beyond which nothing greater can be conceived, and God is also perfect, then it is a contradiction to presume God to be able to create anything that is perfect. Here, Leibniz takes hold of the Scholastic definition of God, yet misunderstands it, seeing God’s perfection in terms of degree. For the medieval philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, perfection was not rightly understood as the highest of degrees, but rather as completeness, or more accurately lacking nothing.

This misunderstanding ultimately is Leibniz’s undoing. God is understood as differing from His creation not in kind, but by degree. Thus all He has to work with when creating the world is a bunch of imperfect parts. With these He must merely to the best He can. So God, who is the greatest being, must also do that which is the greatest of his potential actions. As being is better than non-being, then God must create. Thus the world that He will create will also be the greatest possible world. Yet this world of necessity must be fallen due to the logical constraints of the order of the world.

Leibniz points out that presuming God to be omnipotent is in no way threatened by His inability to do logically contradictory things. As C.S. Lewis astutely pointed out, “Meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other worlds ‘God can’.”[4] From this Leibniz merely concludes that this must necessarily mean that any world greater than this one in which we live must of necessity be a logical impossibility. Presumably each facet, or state of affairs (technically speaking), that God seeks to create the world with logically necessitate that what is created entails evil.

This argument seeks to answer the problem and preserve God’s goodness by arguing that He’s doing the best He can with the cards that He’s dealt (though few who hold to such a view would put it in such terms). The logical necessities of freewill, of God being the greatest possible being, etc, constrain God so that anything better than this is literally unfathomable and impossible. There are many issues that I have with such a view.

Criticisms of the Best of All Possible Worlds

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The first problem is not so much a problem of logic but rather more properly understood as an observation of the effects of the above outline view. If the world in which we live is the best of all possible worlds, then of what hope is the afterlife? How is heaven rendered if what we exist in now is the best? Logically either heaven is no greater than the world in which we live, and thus nothing more than a possible change in scenery, or it is worse. Such a view, though not a contradiction, is still a rather absurd consequence that should alone deter one from embracing the above view.

The second issue is that the above view seeks to depict God as doing the best He can with the cards that He’s dealt, while forgetting that it is God who created the cards. Metaphysically, if we accept the classical approach to God (as I do), God exists as the uncaused cause. By definition He is the cause and creation is the effect. It must be noted that causation is a one way road. Cases have effects yet effects cannot affect the cause. Simply put, this is the very heart of the Creator/creature distinction. If this is true, then it seems absurd to imply that creation can in any way limit God as it is God who establishes the bounds and limitations of things, and He does so from infinity. Limiting God’s ability through created things literally limits His ability to create and once this is done, you no longer are dealing with a truly infinite God. This leads into my third problem with the above outlined view.

It is of no small importance, this term infinity. Technically speaking it is a negative term that merely exists as a negation of the finite. It literally means not-finite. Saying what a thing is not is far from saying what a thing is, and it is so with our understanding of God. Gaining a clear understanding of what God is not is important if we are to approach Him properly. One must understand that God is infinite. However, the negative term infinite comes with a set of consequences, and to declare that the world we live in is the greatest possible world, is to transgress what is properly understood as infinite.

The infinite cannot be divided. The idea of two infinites is incoherent as one infinite, by the law of identity, would not be the other infinite, and thus neither can be properly said to be infinite. Thus God, if He is infinite as we maintain, must also be simple. One cannot merely come to know a part of Him, as there are no parts if He is infinite. Though the word infinite entails in its meaning a loss of all limitations, the term itself is a great limitation to our language. We come to realize that there is no way our words can adequately speak of the infinite. Though I can speak or write the word, its true meaning cannot be contained in the sign infinite. Perhaps then, what is really meant by the term infinite is little more than “I know not what.” For if to understand the infinite is to grasp all of it, then such a task is impossible for one who is finite. The moment I speak of God, who is infinite, my language denigrate the true meaning of what I say so that what I say no longer applies properly to Him. It is also worth stating here that it is an equivocation to assume that the infinity of which I here write is the same idea of the infinite that mathematicians speak of. These two views will be further addressed later.

If God’s perfection is to be understood in terms of degree, of which He is merely at the highest possible point, then His very nature cannot be infinite. For God’s nature being perfect by degree would mean that there is no higher degree to aspire to. Thus also to say that this is the best possible world is to say that He can do no better. Such views do not understand what is properly meant by infinity. There is no ‘best possible’ with God; there is only His perfection.

C.S. Lewis and the Contemporary Approach

cs-lewis

            Though Leibniz is not explicitly the view that is taken by many contemporary philosophers, he is at least implicitly influencing the approach. Whether it is the brilliant essay by Alvin Plantinga or the piquant argument put forth by Peter van Inwagen, the approach has become somewhat generic. It begins by establishing that God can do all things logically possible as Leibniz had argued. Following this the burden of evil is laid on the guilty shoulders of man’s freewill (though I must stress that it does not merit libertarian freewill to make this claim as Alvin Plantinga is considered to be largely of a Reformed view). All that is left, seemingly, is to establish how God denying man’s freewill would be a contradiction and thus God, to an extent, God is constrained into allowing the evil of the world in order to achieve a greater good. This strategy is often used to great effect and is largely considered to have won the day.

C.S. Lewis also followed in the strategy of Leibniz to a small degree while also adding to the approach two more distinctions. The first is that he pointed out that there is a difference between evil and pain. Pain is often a good thing. To one who has just complete a strenuous workout, a degree of pain in the muscles can actually even be pleasurable, thus pain itself should not properly be considered to be evil. It is often something that is also used to indicate a greater danger and prevent a yet further danger from becoming actualized. This observation thus allows the problem of pain to be essentially crossed off of the list of problems to be reconciled. His second point is far more problematic, though.

Lewis writes early on in his work, The Problem of Pain, of God’s moral judgments. He wrote, “On the other hand, if God’s moral judgment differs from ours so that our ‘black’ may be His ‘white’, we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say ‘God is good’, while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say ‘God is we know not what’. And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him. If He is not (in our sense) ‘good’ we shall obey, if at all, only through fear—and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend.”[5] I do not think that one has to be a Calvinist as I am to be perturbed by that claim. Such a view places God as one who is to be judged by man. It also separates goodness from where it properly belongs as one of the attributes of God. This view was adopted by atheist philosopher William Rowe who noted that “the dominant answer in religious thinking concerning God and morality is that what God commands is morally right independent of his commands. God’s commanding us to perform certain actions does not make those actions morally right; they are morally right independent of his commands and he commands them because he sees that they are morally right.”[6] If this is so then God can be held accountable to such a law as it is apart from even Him.

Again let us examine God as the uncaused cause of all things. If He exists as such then it is literally incoherent to assert that goodness exists apart from Him because outside of Him is nothing. To exist is to have being and if God is the subsistent source of all being then one cannot say that moral law exists apart from God. Rather, moral goodness must be one with His being. So how are we to understand the good? To a degree I must embrace what Lewis ardently rejected. To a degree we cannot perfectly know the good. To more properly answer this I must explain the doctrine of analogy.

Classically, there are two ways one can speak about God: the via negativa, and the doctrine of analogy. The via negativa literally means “the way of negations.” It is a way of explaining what God is not. He is not-evil, He is immutable (not able to be changed), He is infinite. Though this can explain some of the ways we approach God, it can by no means be assumed to be the only way we speak of God. The way in which we speak positively of God is understood through the doctrine of analogy.

An analogy is nothing complicated and should not intimidate the reader simply because the word “doctrine” is placed before it. Currently my neighbor is a survivor of the Jewish holocaust. I have had the honor of hearing him speak of his experiences in the concentration camps and struggle to imagine just exactly what he endured. Though no matter how hard I imagine what he endured, I can never truly know what he endured. What I imagine of his horrific experiences is known mostly through analogy. When explaining to me what he experienced, he must do so by telling me that it was like something else which I do have experience of. (He might say that experiencing winters in the ghettos of Poland were like enduring the coldest winters I’ve ever seen, only greater still without any respite.) Always contained within an analogy is a reference to a common experience. However, the knowledge that is gained through analogies is not properly speaking actually of the thing the analogy is being compared to. Thus when the doctrine of analogy is applied to God I still am not understanding truly what God is by understanding Him through analogy, yet I am gaining proper knowledge on how to approach Him.

Good in creation is to be understood as the proper way of existing. God created a proper order in the universe and it is rightly functioning in that universe that is what is considered good. More broadly, merely existence itself is properly understood as good as it is from God that existence comes and all things from God are good. So that raises the question of what it means for a thing to be bad. Metaphysically evil must be understood as a privation. But what does this mean?

A privation is not like a negation which is just simply a denial of being. Rather, a privation is a denial of some property which a thing ought to possess. A common example of this is blindness existing in an eye. When properly functioning an eye should possess sight yet when an eye is blind such a property is denied. This is the idea of a privation. How evil exists as a privation is well captured when one surveys the language we use when describing evil. For example, when surveying the shocking evil of the holocaust, it is not uncommon for someone to say, “This should not be.” In that declarative sentence one can see what is fully meant by the terms good and evil. To be good is to be properly. To be evil is to be, still, but rather to be not as a thing should be. Evil remains a negative term, as it can be seen that evil is not properly a thing. Yet evil does exist as it is that things exist, and evil exists as a perversion of how it should be.

Thus to answer Lewis’ assertion, it can never be proper to hold God in judgment of evil for evil is impossible for God to do. It is no arbitrary statement to declare that God cannot do evil because of His nature, for to assert that God does evil would be incoherent. It is no limitation, it is rather a contradiction. Thus it becomes a most profound declaration to proclaim that God is good because He is.

God, Evil, and the Great Mystery

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            “I AM.” This is the statement God gave Moses when he told him to go to the Egyptians and free God’s people. Such a statement is endlessly profound and has blown away many scholastic philosophers from Medieval times through now. But as must now be seen with that, above the mere metaphysical statement trumpeted God as the uncaused cause of the universe long before Plato or Aristotle ever walked the earth, implicit within that declaration is the reminder that God is good.

Though all the talk of metaphysics, privations, and analogy can leave little comfort to those who are suffering, the powerful and profound yet gentle reassurance that God is good can work wonders. And it is this one point which must be grasped and held to as tightly as one can when approaching the problem of evil. God is good.

There are only two ways that we can come to know. One is through experience and the other is through revelation. Though we experience evil as an effect, we are hard pressed to be able to grasp or understand evil ontologically. The reason for evils existence lies in the mind of God and to a degree is unknowable to us. Thus experience affords us no answer to our problem. So it is that we must turn to revelation. Such revelation has been granted us in God’s word. Yet that book, our most holy and sacred Bible, to my knowledge does not tell us the reason why sin exists. We can attribute it to the fall, yet we cannot know why God even allowed the fall in the first place.

Some intellectuals, such as C.S. Lewis, have declared that God used the fall, and the effects of evil, to teach us of a different side of Him that we otherwise would not have known. It is used to teach us of God’s greatness and prepare us for our future in heaven. Thus those who experience such terrible effects of evil are to rejoice because they have will see an even greater God. Such a view is incredibly flawed. To begin with, not all are going to heaven and it is far from just the Christians who suffer the effects of sin. Indeed the greatest effect of sin is suffered by those who are damned to hell for all of eternity, never to be filled with the reward of the experience of the divine. Thus viewing evil as a learning tool is somewhat shortsighted.

Secondly, if it is through terrible evil that we come to learn even more about God, then why are things not worse still? It seems somewhat arbitrary that things are only this bad and not worse. If the greater the evil the more of God that we come to know, why are we not to experience yet even more evil than we are already? And in light of an infinite God, there is not a level of potential evil that we could experience that would not be arbitrary. Further still, if it is merely used as a tool to show us an aspect of God that we otherwise might not have seen, does this not mean that there must be aspects of God that we will never know? After all, surely one is not to declare that it is through this that we come to know more of God. As has already been established, dichotomizing God as such is a rather incoherent idea. It is all or nothing. Anything else makes no sense.

Could evil be reconciled by declaring that God will bring about a greater good through allowing such evil? Certainly not. I cannot stress enough that an infinite God needs nothing. It is God that limits creation, not creation that limits God. Thus God cannot need certain evils to bring about a certain good. After all, of what comfort would it be to appeal to a God who needed evil in some cases? Further still, God does not exist for the purpose of maximizing our happiness. He is not some sort of divine utilitarian. Whatever His plan may be, it is far greater than merely arranging the best possible world to cultivate our happiness while we’re here.

So how can evil be reconciled with God? I am afraid I can only answer this by admitting humbly that it is a mystery. Yet as comfortless as this answer might at first seem, consider that we have not been told to endure this alone. I submit that the Christian answer to the problem of evil must be understood in light of the cross. In fact I know of no aspect of the Christian message that can afford to move away from the cross. It is our very life.

Interestingly enough this very problem and this very answer were at the center of the oldest work of philosophy known to man: the book of Job. Throughout the book, Job is declaring his innocence (as even God Himself attested to) and asking for the problem of evil and suffering to be answered. The debate between Job and his companions is centered around this issue with the friends offering a systematized answer seeking to know the limitations and bounds of God and therein trap Him, constraining His power in order to answer the problem of evil. I wonder if we do not often enough do likewise today. Yet when God finally arrives on the scene, He rebukes the friends and it is Job himself, the one who had been accused of great evil by the friends, who intercedes with God on their behalf. God declares plainly that Job’s friends have not spoken truthfully of Him. Consider now the beginning of His answer to Job:

“Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?…Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’? Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place, that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it?…Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recess of the deep? Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death? Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this.” (Job 38:2-18)

In this grand and glorious passage, God puts Job in his place, yet He does not answer Job beyond the reminder that God is in charge of all things. God is, and He is good. Yet we are not bereft of comfort, for God does not subject us to this arbitrarily. For at the cross, Jesus—God in human form—came to earth and subjected Himself to the full force and fury and wickedness of man. He took upon Himself the weight of the burden of sin and evil and bore it for us. And though I do not suggest that this was His primary reason in coming, I submit that it is at least implicit in His coming was the assurance that we are not enduring this suffering alone. God’s love for us was so great that He humbled Himself so far as to endure the effects of evil along with us. It must never be forgotten that God does not only subject us to the suffering, though it is only rightly us who deserve it as it is man, not God, who is guilty of sin, but endured it for us. Of this Spurgeon wrote, “(Christ) looks beyond the Roman spear and nail, beyond the Jewish taunt and jeer, up to the Sacred Fount, whence all things flow, and traces the crucifixion of Christ to the breast of Deity. He believes with Peter—‘Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.’ We dare not impute to God the sin, but at the same time the fact, with all its marvelous effects in the world’s redemption, we must ever trace to the Sacred Fountain of divine love.”[7]

God should not be thought here to be a masochist of some sort, for that would be illogical. Instead it would be more proper to remember the work He did on the cross. Not only is it to be seen as a comfort in that it is the tool of His salvation. But further still we should look to the cross as a reassurance that God is good, and we are not asked to suffer alone. The answer is ultimately a mystery. And yet the answer is also a reminder. Though a mystery may seem unsatisfactory, this does not mean we should seek out whatever lie might bring us peace. Rather, we should turn to face God, and in Him find our peace as He reminds us again and again that He is, and that He is good.

 God is good


[1] Peter van Inwagen, “The Problem of Evil” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 190-191.

[2] Though I must here concede that the problem is a religious problem, an equally curious problem exists for those who do not believe in the existence of an all powerful God. The problem of evil, for the non-believer is reduced to a mere aesthetic distaste for what is perceived as evil. There is no ultimate meaning or reason to reconcile the problem with, thus the experience of evil can be merely reduced to subjectively dissatisfying events. Contrarily to this, though, if such things as meaning and purpose are reduced to nothingness—mere subjective experience—then one has no way to explain the nature and existence of the good either. If there is no wrong way of being, there is also no right way of being. As the atheist existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, put it, all such ideas of good and bad are mere nothingness.

 [3] David Hume, Dialogs Concerning Natural Religion ( New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 108-109.

 [4] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Harper Collins, 1960), 18.

[5] Ibid., 28-29.

[6]William L. Rowe, “Divine Power, Goodness, and Knowledge,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 22.

[7] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Death of Christ” in Spurgeon’s Sermons, Vol. 4 (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers, 2011), 210.

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