Unorganized thoughts on the problem of evil

Generally speaking, the philosophical argument known as the “problem of evil” is considered to be the strongest atheist argument against theism. Partly for this reason, I’ve been thinking about it for a long while, and have come to a few conclusions.

Before I start, though, I should point you to the excellent discussion of the issue by Jeremy Pierce at Parableman. Basically everything I’m about to say here is elaborated more in his series, specifically in posts 26-32.

The argument comes in two forms, one a logical argument and the other an evidential argument. The first is the stronger, claiming that God’s existence is impossible in light of evil, the second only claiming that it is improbable.

The answers I have come to find satisfaction in can essentially be boiled down to the following:

1. The logical argument fails because it goes against Scripture in its understanding of omnipotence; the Bible explicitly says there are some things God cannot do (lie being the most prominent). This means, however, that it is at least possible that God cannot stop some evil, in some sense, since it is certain that there are some things God cannot do.

2. The evidential argument fails because it assumes that the evaluator, or human beings in general, would be capable of knowing what reasons, or at least what kind of reasons, God would have for allowing some of the most horrendous evils we can think of. Again, Scripture, a specific example being the book of Job in general, claims the opposite.

Both of these arguments have been extrapolated from some of the most basic attributes of God in the Western monotheistic tradition, and I think successfully; but the happy fact (for Christians, and Jews for that matter) is that such arguments are not strictly necessary, since these qualifications/counter-arguments are built directly into the claims of Christianity. Because of this, the argument from evil fails to be a relevant argument against the Christian version of theism, whatever merits it might have against other theisms.

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It occurred to me today that denying God’s foreknowledge, as process theology and open theism do, does not really solve the problem of evil at all, though, apart from allegedly exegetical arguments, this is claimed to be the main virtue of these views. The fact is, the Bible claims that God is constantly upholding everything in existence, moment by moment. But this entails that he is aware of everything in the present. Yet this means that he at least knows (even if only probabilistically) that certain evils based on free will will happen before they do: consider the example of a person about to be unjustly executed by a firing squad. Any human being observing the situation would be clearly aware of what was about to happen, and so how much more would that be the case with God? But if this is the case, then denying that God knew this would happen beforehand, at some point beforehand, is irrelevant; right before it happens, and even as it is happening (say, while the bullets are travelling through the air), God still has an opportunity to prevent the evil from occuring, if he so wished.

Thus denying that God foreknows the evil actions of free agents does nothing to alleviate the problem of evil.

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I mentioned in an earlier post that Doug Wilson is reviewing David Bentley Hart’s book about theodicy and the Tsunami. Hart implicitly accuses Calvinists of not knowing the God revealed in Christ for their relentless following of the logic about God’s providence to its conclusions about God intending everything that comes to pass, in some sense.

Hart’s own solution is to deny that in every case God has a good intention for evil that comes to pass in history; sometimes he has no purpose at all. But it struck me today that, out of the two options, I find Hart’s position making God seem less worthy of worship than the Calvinist position.

Consider: both sides say that God is aware of and sustains in existence all evil as it comes to pass. Further, all agree that God is intrinsically and immutably good, and that, even further, this goodness motivates God to destroy evil eventually. Finally, both agree God is omnipotent, at least in the minimal sense that God is naturally capable of making creatures cease to exist, whatever might be the case about a given creature at a given point in history (i.e., even if something about God’s plan meant he couldn’t annihilate a particular creature, those historical/teleological constraints on God’s plan aside, his power is capable of annihilating anything he creates).

But this means that at any given situation, God is both able to stop evil and motivated to stop it out of goodness; yet it is also admitted by both sides that he does not do so in every situation. At this point the two sides diverge: the Calvinist (and most orthodox Christians) would say that God has some good purpose for not stopping that particular evil at that point, while Hart would say that in some situations God has no reason for not stopping the evil. One appeals to mystery and assumes the goodness and wisdom of God, the other, apparently, to apathy or arbitrariness. Which one seems more worthy of the God of Scripture?