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Is evil a problem?

The colosseum, Rome

There is an arena in the centre of Rome. People used to gather there to cheer for their favourite gladiator. They exalted when limbs were hacked off and bellies spilt open. They held out their thumbs to vote for who lived and who died. They would cavort in the stands and call out in their lust for more, goading the lions to pounce and tear out the throats of enemies that did them no wrong. Their excitement would grow to fever pitch, and the would burn Christians alive to light the circle as lanterns, extending the slaughter into the night. And when all was over, they would replace the blood-soaked sand with imported sand from around the empire so they could do it all again. There is a problem of evil.

There is another arena. This is where people struggle to reconcile the evil they feel in the world, with a merciful, loving, and good God. This arena is called Theodicy. Every religion, every worldview, every creed sends their best here to undertake this tricky task of understanding the nature; the origin, meaning and destiny of evil. To make Christianity credible in the current mental environment Christians must step into the middle and contend with these ideas. The difficulty of thinking this through this has only grown in the past century and half with our awareness of evolutionary theory. Nature is writ in red with tooth and claw. Not only must we deal with human suffering of long-ages past, but animal suffering as well.

But is evil a problem?

Fortunately, we are not left to contend alone. We have defenders. The Bible is in many way an extended theodicy; affirming the reality of evil, explaining the origin of evil, diagnosing accurately the cause of continuing evil, and even offering the solution to evil, predicting its final demise. We have a tradition-history attending that marvellous work, embattled in this arena for millennia and still standing strong. We have the considerable and invaluable tools of analysis and logic as used in the wider city of Philosophy of Religion.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga from Notre Dame University has distinguished a difference between what he calls a “defence” and a “theodicy.” A defence is like a mirror to a gorgon. It will show that the one saying evil is a problem does not to hold the weight of his spear. The thrust of his objection thus fails. He fires a blank. A theodicy is like a sword or shield. It attempts to stops the attack with an explanation as to why there is evil and suffering in the world. In this series on the Problem of Evil, I’m going to first find a defence, and only then find a theodicy.

The Logical Problem of Evil

Until recent years, the logical Problem of Evil (POE) was the biggest bully to deal with. He had been around for centuries. Its goal was to show that God does not exist. It is best put forward by David Hume (1711-1776), “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”[2]

From this the following premises can be articulated.

  1. An all-powerful and all-loving God exists.
  2. Evil exists.

It is claimed by the proponent of the logical POE that both these premises are incompatible and therefore the conclusion is God, so construed, does not exist. Alvin Plantinga’s work has significantly developed the discussion on this problem such that today in the philosophical literature it is largely considered by philosophers to be solved.[3]

Plantinga first points out that there must be some assumptions hiding in the argument if it really is contradictory. These assumptions need to be drawn out and make explicit in order to show the contradiction. Here they are

3. If God is all-powerful, then he can create any world he desires.

4. If God is all-loving, then he prefers a world with less evil than the actual world.

A world here is not a planet, but a set of propositions describing the way the universe might be. Both 3 and 4 need to be necessarily true if the conclusion between 1 and 2 is to be maintained. That means the arguments have to be water tight containers, with no possible way of escape. They can’t just be possible true. Unfortunately for the proponent of the logical POE, proving 3 and 4 as necessarily true is a load far too heavy to bear.

Secondly, Plantinga provides reasons why we should consider both 3 and 4 as possible. There is an escape hatch. These reasons need not be plausible. They only need to be possible and the alleged incompatibility between 1 and 2 is broken. These will be discussed in further posts.

Thirdly, Plantinga provides a fifth premise that shows that 1 and 2 are actually consistent with eachother. This premise is as follows.

5. God could not have created a world that had so much good as the actual world but had less evil, both in terms of quantity and quality; and, moreover, God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evil that exists.[6]

The “could not” here should not be considered a limitation in divine omnipotence. Rather, it should be construed as there being no feasible world of free-creatures that God could have created.

As I said above, Plantinga’s work battling with this idea has been decisive. The logical POE has been dead in academia for about half a century. It is a relic of the past. You might see a troll on the internet trumpeting his mighty champion. “Look,” he might say, “a good God and evil are not possible,” or “If God were good he’d prevent evil, but he doesn’t. Therefore, your god is make believe.” Such a person hasn’t yet caught up with the fact he’s waving around a fossil to help justify his disbelief.

Footnotes:

  1. [2] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Norman Kemp Smith (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1980), part 10, p. 198.
  2. [3] Evidence of this is its absence in professional philosophical literature. See William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (Downers Grove, IL.; InterVarsity Press, 2003), 541.
  3. Ibid.

This was originally posted on 13 December 2010 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz, and originally called “The Problem of Evil: Part One” This part is one the coherence of the logical problem of evil.

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