Essay on Problem of evil

This essay has a total of 5810 words and 26 pages.

problem of evil

The Problem of Evil
University of Oxford Department for Continuing Education, Undergraduate Philosophy Certificate, Assignment 7
Peter B. Lloyd
Is there any satisfactory way of reconciling the existence of an omnipotent and all-loving
God with the existence of natural evil (i.e. evil not due to the misuse of human free
will)? One of the central claims of the Judaeo-Christian tradition is the existence of an
omnipotent and all-loving God. Against this is the observation that people and animals
suffer evil. By common sense, we would infer from this observation that God, as conceived
in this tradition, does not exist - for, if He did, He would prevent the evil. This
inference is called the Problem of Evil by those who profess one of the religions in the
Judaeo-Christian tradition, and their attempts to 'solve' the problem have given rise to a
labyrinth of sophistry.

Put briefly, the solution most commonly espoused to the Problem of Evil is

* Some suffering is caused by others' misuse of their own free-will (as in murder).
* God does not intervene to stop people freely choosing evil because:
o people can be virtuous only if they freely choose between good and evil;
o having virtuous people in the world is a greater good than eradicating evil;
o therefore God must allow people to be free;
o therefore evil inflicted by other people is the price that God demands that we pay to
enable some people to be virtuous.

* Some suffering is caused by natural phenomena (as in earthquakes). Such occurrences
enable people to be virtuous through:

o heroics, such as rescuing those in danger;
o strong faith in God, as it is harder to believe in God in the midst of grief;
o humility, as people realise they are powerless against the whim of God.
* Again, God does not intervene because he is using the natural disasters to engender virtue.

I shall examine a number of such arguments, but first it is useful to clarify the nature of such debate.

The nature of theological debate

One difficulty that arises in writing about this subject is that the traditional view of
God is ridiculous - as Hume's Philo says, it is fixed only "by the utmost licence of fancy
and hypothesis", and the arguments put forward for it are transparently fallacious. In
order to proceed with the debate at all, one must feign a deficit in the application of
one's powers of reason, for if one relied exclusively on reason for deciding what to
believe, then one would dismiss religion out of hand. It is well known that people hold
their religious beliefs because they are emotionally bound to them, primarily through
their upbringing, and not because they have arrived at them by reasoning. As Hume's Demea
admits, "each man feels, in a manner, the truth of religion within his own breast".
Arguments in defence of religion arise retrospectively to support convictions that have
already been secured by emotional persuasion. In this respect, Palinor's undermining of
Beneditx's religious beliefs, in Paton Walsh's "Knowledge of Angels", is unrealistic.
Since religious beliefs are held on emotional rather than rational grounds, Beneditx's
beliefs would have been invulnerable to Palinor's reasoning.

Arguments for religion usually develop by the elaboration of hypotheses about what might
be the case, in reaction to atheistic attacks. As Hume's Philo says, there is an
inventiveness in religious arguments "entirely owing to the nature of the subject"; he
contrasts it with other subjects, in which "there is commonly but one determination that
carries probability or conviction with it", whereas in religion "a hundred contradictory
views" flourish to defend one point; and he claims that "without any great effort of
thought, I believe that I could, in an instant, propose other systems of cosmogony, which
would have some faint appearance of truth". Likewise, at every step in this essay, one
could in an instant formulate a hundred hypotheses to defend religion against my
criticism, and for each hypothesis the refutation of it can be rebuffed by another hundred
hypotheses, all equally baseless.

Part I. A non-omniscient God.
Grounds for supposing God is not omniscient

The assignment for this essay mentions only that God is omnipotent and all-loving, and
omits the other traditional attribute, of omniscience. Therefore let us first consider how
the debate goes if we allow God's ignorance of the suffering as His excuse for not
stopping it. This approach gains some legitimacy thus:

There are passages in the Bible where God is ignorant, such as Genesis 3.ix, where Adam is
hiding in the bushes, "And the Lord God called Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?".
Of course, for every such passage in the Bible there is a theological theory that
reconciles it with God's omniscience. In this instance, we could suppose that God is
asking a rhetorical question, for the purpose of inviting Adam to give an account of
himself. Nonetheless, for the purpose of this essay, the fact that there is biblical
evidence of God's ignorance lends support to our taking the time to see how divine
ignorance might solve the problem of evil.

St Thomas Aquinas, in his "Summa contra Gentiles", argues at length that God knows
particular facts, not just universal truths. We may infer that God's omniscience was not
universally acknowledged by medieval theologians.

Many theological theories arise in reaction to criticism of existing doctrines. Therefore
it would be in keeping with the traditions of theology if one were to hold the belief that
God is not omniscient just because it offers a solution to the problem of evil.

Having thus gained some legitimacy for considering a non-omniscient God, we could
formulate a hundred hypotheses to explain God's ignorance. Here are just five:

God stands aloof from the world, and so cannot observe what happens in it. This might be
put forward in conjunction with Boethius' theory that God is 'outside time'.

Suffering is a private mental phenomena, which no other being can share. It might be
argued that it is logically impossible for one mind's experiences to be known by another,
and so even God's omnipotence could not give Him access to human suffering.

God's only source of knowledge of the world is human prayer. This would be supported by
numerous anecdotal claims that God intervenes in the world only in answer to properly made
prayers. We could speculate that God created this arrangement in order to encourage people
to pray and thereby become virtuous.

God knows about the world only through the angels' reports. Since they are not required to
be perfect, they might be inaccurate or too slow in reporting on human suffering. As the
world's population swells, we could reasonably expect the angelic bureaucracy to be
swamped. Without the benefit of electronic computers, so they must still be relying on
manual, or even oral, methods of data processing to handle information on the suffering of
four billion human souls.

Satan is temporarily deceiving God about what is happening in the world. Given the
traditional acceptance that Satan exists and does evil deeds, we may speculate that he has
made God oblivious of human suffering. God's omnipotence is not a difficulty for this
theory, for we may suppose that Satan has done his work so thoroughly that God is
oblivious of Satan's trickery and therefore cannot use His omnipotence to stop Satan doing

Countless conjectures are possible along such lines. Against these conjectures is the fact
that mere mortals are aware of human and animal suffering. Since we know about suffering,
it is somewhat surprising that God, who is infinitely more powerful than we are, is unable
to acquire this intelligence. In each of the above conjectures, though, a good reason is
given to explain how this paradoxical position could arise.

Divine ignorance and the Problem of Evil

Superficially, God's ignorance of human suffering would be the perfect alibi. It would
therefore solve at once the Problem of Evil. There are, however, certain drawbacks. God is
the author of the universe, and He is therefore responsible for creating a situation in
which human suffering could take place without His knowing about it. And He is omnipotent,
so He could remove barriers to this flow of information.

Therefore, if God's ignorance is due merely to a failure in the transmission of
information from our world to Him, then God must take the blame for it. If He created such
a world knowing, or reckless as to whether, there might be suffering unbeknown to Him,
then He is evil. This contradicts the traditional premise that God is all-loving. So then
divine ignorance would not be a solution to the Problem of Evil after all.

On the other hand, suppose that God's ignorance were due, not to some obstruction in the
flow of information, but to a logically impossibility of God's knowing our suffering. One
theory that is in keeping with tradition is as follows. If God is 'outside time' in some
sense, or if His mind operates outside Kant's categories of time and space, then it is
plausible to suppose that the concept of suffering simply cannot occur in His mind. Pain
might be unthinkable for God, because a necessary element of the concept is the desire for
the pain to end, which can be comprehended only by a being in time.

This seems to offer a neat solution to the problem of evil: God is not remiss in allowing
us to suffer, because He does not know what it is like to suffer. Nor does Jesus'
excursion to our world necessarily remove this ignorance. Granted the traditional view
that Jesus suffered on the cross, and that he was in some mysterious sense as one with
God. But, if God's mind cannot support Kant's categories, then Jesus must have
relinquished his knowledge of suffering upon his re-establishing his full union with his
heavenly father. That is to say, as soon as Jesus got back home to Heaven, he completely
forgot all His suffering.

Even this neat solution will not quite work. There is ample evidence in the scriptures for
regarding God as a volitional being: He forms intentions to act, and acts in accordance
with those intentions. (Indeed, it is difficult to see how divine 'omnipotence' could mean
anything if God were not engaged in intentional acts.) But it is well known that God's
omnipotence is not a licence to do all things that can be articulated. Famously, He cannot
make a stone so heavy that He could not lift it. Therefore, the concept of frustrated
intention must be accessible to His introspection; that is, He should be able to form the
concept of a being who wants to do something but cannot do it. Now, He can apply this
concept to His human creations. For, although we are assuming that God is not omniscient,
nevertheless it seems likely that the architect of the universe would have an extensive
knowledge of the workings of His created world, and should be able to infer that humans
may have intentions, which may in turn be satisfied or frustrated. Hence, He ought to know
that the misadventures to which mankind is prone may frustrate our intentions, even though
He has no concept of our pain and suffering. We can thus sustain a weaker, but still
potent, form of the Problem of Evil: namely that an omnipotent and all-loving God allows
human intentions to be frustrated willy-nilly by the vagaries of natural and man-made

Moreover, even though God is not omniscient, it would be plausible to suppose that He
knows enough about us to be aware that we often put a great deal of effort to bring our
intentions to fruition. For instance, consider a mother who intends to rear her child to
adulthood, but the child is killed in a road accident at the age of fourteen. Even though
God may be unable to imagine the grief, He could still realise that that is a major blow
to the mother's intention. And that, I submit, is a sufficient contradiction of God's love
for the force of the Problem of Evil to hold.

One possible defence against this criticism would be to suppose that God is so aloof from
the world that He does not even know that human intentions are being thwarted. So remote a
God, however, would not be capable of loving mankind in the normal sense of the word, for
He would not be able to conceive of anything's mattering to humans.

Conclusion: Assuming that God is not omniscient does not solve the Problem of Evil. For
such a God must still possess at least the mental wherewithal to apprehend that human
aspirations may be crushed by misfortune, and He is therefore culpable for failing to
inform Himself of human misfortunes.

Part II. An omniscient God

Suppose God is omniscient. This has a range of possible interpretations, of which we may
identify three representative points:

God knows all objects of knowledge. This encompasses not only all the past, present, and
future facts of our universe (including all quantum-mechanical events and acts of human
free will, if such acts exist), but also the facts of all other possible universes, as
well as all logico-mathematical facts (such as all the digits of pi). Even in the
Boethius' time, this was problematic, as it seems to conflict with our having free will.
In modern times, however, physics makes it more problematic. For instance, in Young's
two-slit experiment, does God know which slit the photon goes through? Or, does God know
whether a certain event on Earth occurs before or after some other event on a planet
millions of light years away, given that the answer depends on the position and motion of
the observer? Even with this broad definition, however, we can safely exclude nonsense
questions, such as: Does God know the area of a four-sided triangle?

God knows all knowable facts that are, or will be, true. On this reading, God does not
know through which slit Young's photons pass (as this is not knowable), but He does know
the winners of every lottery to come.

God knows all knowable facts that are true at the time of knowing. Here, God knows only
those future events that are necessary consequences of present facts. He cannot tell the
results of our exercise of free will.

The arguments discussed in the rest of the essay do not hang on which interpretaion of omniscience we adopt.

Moral versus natural evil

The problem of evil is often thought to be easier to solve in respect of moral evil than
in respect of natural evil. (Following the terminology used by Hume, 'moral evil' is that
committed through the exercise of human will, while 'natural evil' is suffering caused by
natural phenomena such as earthquakes.) In fact, the problem cannot be 'solved' for either
kind of evil. Let us briefly consider moral evil, in order to put into context the
subsequent discussion of natural evil, which is the topic of this essay.

First of all, introducing human agency into the causal chain does not absolve God. For,
any human action uses natural means to achieve its end. When a gunman presses his trigger,
his bullet must then fly through space to hit the victim. God could miraculously change
the trajectory of the bullet slightly so that it hit nobody. Furthermore, even if human
will is free, it is nonetheless influenced by antecedent neural events. God could tweak
the assassin's brain cells so that he is suddenly overcome with abhorrence at the thought
of murder. Therefore, God is responsible for allowing moral evil to take effect.

The next line of defence is to suppose that God has some higher purpose that is served by
allowing people to commit evil deeds. Usually, this higher purpose is to engender a world
in which people are virtuous in the sense of choosing to do good rather than evil. As
Lewis's Screwtape says, "He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome
little replicas of Himself - creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be
qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills
freely conform to His".

If God always intervened to stop attempted acts of moral evil, then people would realise
that they were not really free to make moral choices, and therefore they could not truly
be virtuous. Against this, the answer may be made that God's means are incommensurate with
his ends. The objective of getting some people to achieve the required degree of virtue is
so trifling, that only an evil God would use it to justify allowing the unspeakable
atrocities that are committed in our world, especially in war-time. God could give people
the freedom to choose minor wickednesses, such as stealing chocolate from supermarkets,
without allowing them the freedom to perpetrate horrors such as killing and maiming. Are
we seriously to suppose it was worth sending thousands of teenagers to "die as cattle" in
order that someone else could virtuously refrain from wrong-doing? If we regard Hitler as
evil for sending six million Jews to their deaths in order to make his master-race happy,
then how much more evil must we regard an omnipotent God who allowed Hitler to do so in
order to make well-behaved people virtuous?
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