The Problem of Evil

Philosophical and religious reflection on the nature of evil is foundational to the history of culture. One of the oldest surviving texts we have, The Gilgamesh Epic, takes as foundational the problem of suffering and death. All the world religions advance the thesis that our world of suffering and violence is in some sense wrong or bad and out of harmony with what ought to be. Can death be overcome? Is such suffering is compatible with an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God?

While I am treating the problem of evil in the context of the theistic-naturalist debate in this chapter, it has been a major point of contention between Hinduism and Buddhism as well. Many of the lines of reasoning employed by theists were developed on the Indian sub-continent by Hindus responding to objections from Buddhist philosophers. For example, accounting for evil by appealing to greater goods and the reality of freedom has been just as important to Hindu philosophers replying to Buddhist critics as they have been to theists replying to naturalists.

Some Basic Values and Disvalues

Among the disvalues in the cosmos, we can begin with pain. (Some philosophers distinguish pain and suffering, with “pain” referring to physiologically-based sensations and “suffering” referring to hardships that go beyond sensations.) Pain can serve some essential biological need and may be required to achieve something good, as in training for athletics, and perhaps some pains may be justified to achieve some impending great good, like the pain of a necessary operation. But what about the vast pain that does not seem to serve any possible good? Vast numbers, perhaps the overwhelming majority, of humans (and nonhuman animals too) consistently suffer pain that serves no evident good. Why all this pain and suffering?

The three monotheistic traditions each affirm that the cosmos is not how it should be. The created order is not in concord with the will and nature of its Creator. But now consider the question of whether the concept of God’s power and limitless goodness is compatible with God’s sustaining of such a cosmos? If God is all-good, all-knowing, and perfectly-powerful, why did God create and sustain a cosmos in which so many suffer so greatly? This seems to many to be by itself adequate evidence that God does not exist, and even for those convinced of God’s existence, it is not a question to be answered glibly.

Those theists who advance what they believe is a plausible, positive account of the co-existence of evil and the goodness of God are advancing a theodicy. A less ambitious task is offering what is technically called a defense: a logically possible account of evil in support of the view that evil does not disprove the existence of God. A defense stops short of claiming the plausibility of a theodicy, and seeks only to show that the existence and scope of evil does not render theism illogical.

There are many replies to the question raised by the problem of evil. One classic answer is the greater good philosophy, according to which the cosmic evils are necessary conditions for greater goods. Without the natural possibility (and virtual certainty) of evil there could not be such great goods as responsible, free, created agents whose lives are interdependent and a realm of action that is in some sense independent of God. Subsequent reflection and argument is then needed to clarify and test the value of these goods (how significant a good is freedom?) and explore whether it is reasonable or not to believe that an all-good God would allow cosmic evil for the sake of such greater goods.

There are still other positions: some argue that evil is not evidence against God’s existence at all because we are not in a position to know whether or not the evils of the cosmos serve or make possible greater goods, while others concede evil does constitute evidence against God’s existence but the value of the evidence is undermined or even overcome by an independent awareness of the existence of a good God. The second position may be illustrated with a simple analogy. Imagine that a body of evidence (taken alone) makes it highly likely that you robbed a bank (eyewitnesses claim to have seen you, the getaway car matched yours, you suddenly came into a lot of money you couldn’t account for, and so on). We should accept the conclusion that you robbed the bank, given that evidence, but as it happens we have evidence that you were out of town at the time (witnesses claim to have seen you) and testimony to your character indicating that you would never rob a bank. We might well believe that you are innocent based on the second set of evidence, while admitting that we had no good way to explain the first. A theist may claim to have independent and sufficient reasons for believing in an all-good God (based on religious experience or the ontological argument, for example) and yet concede that if the only evidence she had was the scope of cosmic evil she would conclude that God does not exist.

In this chapter, let us consider a number of arguments for and against the existence of God responding to the problem of evil, including what may be called: the primacy of the good; the nature of freedom; nonhuman animal suffering; comparing possible worlds; the “hiddenness of God” objection; the concept of absolute wrong; and the radical difference between considering the goodness of an agent within the cosmos and considering the goodness of one who creates the cosmos.

The Primacy of the Good

One important theistic line of reasoning, used in providing both a theodicy and a defense, has been to argue that the goodness of the cosmos is more fundamental than evil. This is sometimes called the privati boni (the privation of good) thesis. It may at first glance seem profoundly implausible, but it argues that the evils of evil acts depends upon the fact that people and animals are good. Harming or killing a person involves the breaking down or terminating of a good life. Goodness is antecedent to evil; without goodness there would be no evil.

Is this thesis plausible? It has some credibility. If “good” or “goodness” is defined in a sufficiently broad fashion, it is hard to see how there might be evil without good. Imagine a gunman resolved to kill the innocent. Unless he possesses some “goods” (the good of thought, memory, motion, skill, passion, and physical coordination) he would not be able to do any substantially evil acts. And unless those he is shooting also possess some “goods” or are themselves good no evil would occur.

          In the 5th century, Augustine defended the privati boni thesis with the following thought experiment. He asks his readers to imagine the worst possible creature, Cacus, “so unsociable and savage that they perhaps preferred to call him a semi-human rather than a human being,” a being “unequalled in wickedness.” Augustine contends that even such a horrific monster must still be conceived of in terms of basic goods (the desire for bodily integrity, an inner peace of sorts) underlying all the savagery (Augustine, 1972 Book XIX, ch. 12).

          Without the good of bodily integrity (motor control, the capacity to think, feel, sense), Cacus would not survive to be wicked. One might argue that thinking or feeling are actions without any inherent value, but a healthy human person is a cluster of goods. If someone reported that a fellow human being lost the power of thought, sensation, the ability to move, and so on, we would not need to ask whether this was bad for the person.

But what about a contrary, “privation of evil” principle? Might it be the case that goodness is just the breaking down of evil or the absence of evil? We might well understand health (in part) as the absence of disease, but that would be a very weak concept of health and only as helpful as describing someone with hair as having an absence of baldness. Also, some goods seem to require evil. Arguably, a person courageously rescuing an innocent person from a wicked assailant is good and yet it is only good, ceterus paribus, if there actually is a threatening, wicked assailant.

Even if we accept the privati boni thesis, however, by itself it will not relieve the problem of evil. Perhaps there could not be evil without good, but why so much evil? And couldn’t there be a great deal of good without evil? Replying to these questions frequently focuses on the nature and value of freedom. Some argue that for persons to meaningfully be morally and religiously responsible for others and for the world (a great good), there must be at least the possibility, if not the extreme likelihood, of evil.

The Nature of Freedom

According to what is called the Free Will Defense, one cannot rule out the goodness of God because it is possible that the origin of evil, or much evil, stems from free agents. While the appeal to freedom often takes place in a defense, it is also frequently used in theodicies. Some philosophers claim that free agency is itself a basic, fundamental good. In other words freedom should be valued for itself, not because it generates some other good. There is some reason to think that many of us assume such a view. If you were freely walking under ordinary conditions and someone shouted out to you “STOP!” you would probably be quite put out if the person had no reason whatever for issuing such a command (perhaps they were playing a game). Other things being equal, I suggest we do take the capacity to move and make deliberate choices as a basic good. The intuitive plausibility of this judgment may be enhanced if we imagine that a stranger did not simply yell “STOP!” but that the stranger forcibly and without your permission restrained you from walking your intended walk. She then frog marched you by way of another route as she had—correctly—judged that the latter route was a quicker one for you to take to arrive at the destination that she knew you wanted to get to. Even though you would then have got to where you wanted to get to more quickly than had you been allowed freely to go your own way, you would still have something to complain about. And a good reason behind this complain is the inherent goodness of freedom.

Consider, however, the following objection: Imagine you are freely engaged in some wrong such as breaking a promise. Would the fact that you were freely breaking the promise affect our evaluation of the act? If freedom is a basic good, should we conclude that while the act was wrong, the fact that you did so freely was at least some sign of value? In other words, does the inherent goodness that some philosophers attribute to freedom help make your freely-chosen wrongful act a little less wrong, simply because it was committed freely? If anything, it seems one would judge the act more severely, rather than less, if it was done freely. If you had been compelled to break the promise, for example, we might readily excuse the promise-breaking or even question whether you actually broke a promise. (If you were compelled to miss an appointment by a gunman, I doubt anyone would say you were in a position to make or break the earlier promise.)

The above examples do not obviously undermine the intrinsic goodness of freedom. Arguably, in order to do some act that truly deserves blame and moral censure, you have to possess a certain power: the power to freely and reflectively exercise judgment. Infants and the severely handicapped are not considered moral agents (deserving of blame or praise for their moral virtues) largely because they lack the value of reflective freedom. If however, the above objection still gives one pause about whether freedom is a basic good, it is still plausible to think that some goods involve the freedom either to act or not. If you are to freely care for the welfare of another person, don’t you have to be free not to? There appear to be many states (for example, persons freely loving each other) that are intrinsically good that require freedom, and this freedom seems to be good, regardless of whether it is valuable for its own sake. Now we come to two accounts of the nature of freedom: libertarian free will, and compatabilism.

In accord with libertarian free will, you freely engaged in the care of another person when you did so and had the power not to do so. Such libertarian freedom is intuitively appealing and in line with much common sense. It may not be the only form of freedom, however. According to one form of what is called compatabilism, you freely do χ if you do χ, you wanted to do χ (and possibly you even wanted to want to do χ), you were not controlled by external intelligent forces (no hypnosis), and you would not have done χ if you had different desires. Such an account is impressive, but it may not go far enough when thinking about human agents in moral states of affairs. Consider two cases where a subject does χ under libertarian conditions and then under compatabilist conditions. In the first, the action is truly up to her; it was within her power not to do χ. But in the second case, the act stemmed from what she wanted, but she had no power to do otherwise. Her act was determined by factors beyond herself as an agent, even if there was no hypnotism and the like. If all of your deliberations are now fixed and determined by forces outside of yourself as well as by your own body running in accord with exceptionless laws of nature, it is hard to see that you are morally accountable for what you do. Certainly, there are philosophers who believe we should act as we currently do and praise each other for good acts and blame each other for wrong-doing, even though we have no power to do otherwise. Yet, the justification for continuing this practice would seem to be about social control and safety, rather than authentic praise or blame for something a person did when it was fully up to her.

Arguably, then, libertarian freedom is good; it may or may not be a basic good, but so long as it is a constitutive part of good states of affairs, it seems good. Now let us consider whether it is plausible to think we actually have such freedom.

Determinism is the view that all events that occur do so necessarily, given all antecedent and contemporary conditions and the prevailing laws of nature. So far, it seems that science, for instance, has not shown libertarian freedom to be illusory. We currently recognize in quantum mechanics a fundamental indeterminacy in the universe and while the (alleged) fact of indeterminacy does not by itself establish freedom, it at least prevents one from claiming that all science is deterministic. Our best science today seems to function well with probabilistic laws, according to which there may be a 60% chance (but not a certainty) that a photon goes through a slot or a 40% chance of atomic decay, and so on. The theory of determinisim is extraordinarily ambitious and only requires one counter-example. That is, if determinism is true then no event anywhere in the whole cosmos or any time in the past or future is not necessary (or: each event is necessary), given the other events and the laws of nature. On this view, all events are fixed and not merely probable or random. Unless determinism is self-evident, it seems we should at least be open to the possibility of libertarian freedom.

The arena in which libertarian freedom makes the most sense is in a humanistic form of psychology that recognizes teleological or purposive explanations. In this framework, explanations of our actions are in terms of reasons that incline (i.e., are more probable), but without necessitating certain acts. A person does x for reason r, but she might not have done so for reason s. Some have claimed that our experience does not give us evidence of agency. Consider the claim that the experience of freedom is simply a sense that our choices are not compelled.  When you freely purchased a computer you flet free because apart from (apparently) not being hypnotized or threatened, you simply did not feel forced.  This is of no value as evidence against determinism, however, as you are largely acting in ignorance of the causal mechanisms in play.  Look back on the purchase, however end things often change, and you often conclude that getting the computer or doing some act was virtually inevitable, given all the surrounding circumstances (Blanshard 1958, 5-6).  But this seems to be an implausible account of the experience of agency (Bertocci 1970, 101). The experience of free agency feels like something we do as opposed to something that happens to us. Thinking about what act to do appears to be something we undertake like running rather than a passive occurrence like being pushed or suddenly feeling a headache or indigestion. In brief, our experience of agency seems to be based, not on ignorance, but on a felt power to do or refrain from doing some act.

Consider just one more argument against libertarian freedom: If you freely elect to do χ rather than not-χ, why did you do so? This question need not be mysterious. Imagine you decided to give to charity rather than buy coffee because of a recent conversation with a friend engaged in famine relief. But why did that conversation sway you? Don’t we have to appeal to your character, your dispositions, and so on? Unless you can claim to have created your character and dispositions, shouldn’t we reject libertarian freedom and conclude instead that the act was determined by your character and dispositions? This argument seeks to overturn the notion that responsibility requires liberation agency. Perhaps, rather, if we are truly responsible for our actions we need to adopt a form of determinism: responsible action is determined by our characters.

This line of reasoning has weight, but what it largely draws attention to is that if we truly are free in morally relevant conditions, then we must be responsible for our character and dispositions. We do not develop a character in one big act of freedom (or, in any case, this would seem to be rare), but one may plausibly hold that one’s character is built up slowly through indefinitely many decisions when it was up to you how you acted. Does this involve a mysterious type of self-transcendence or self-causing? Hardly—it may only involve you entertaining two states of affairs: one in which you are generous and charitable, and one in which you are not. By giving to charity you make it the case that the one state of affairs (of the charitable character) is yours. In the absence of a powerful reason for thinking otherwise, libertarian freedom seems plausible. Libertarian agency may appears to be a mystery if one only assumes there can only be either deterministic explanations or brute random happenings. But to anyone who has reflected carefully on the process of deliberation, this seems to leave out a third option: persons can, themselves, weigh reasons and decide to act on some reasons rather than others.

If we grant for the sake of argument that there is valuable libertarian free agency, is theism secure? Not quite. A great deal of evil may be through freely willed malice, and it may be that a great deal of natural disasters would be less so if persons used their freedom more compassionately. But consider whether free agency is worth all the evil that exists. And what of the evils that stem from non-free agents like the evils that occur in nonhuman animal suffering? Let’s look at animal suffering and then return to the appeal to freedom and other goods.

Nonhuman Animal Suffering

How are we to understand the apparent suffering in the nonhuman animal world? This is a world of suffering that extends well beyond matters of free agency. There is one radical possibility I note simply to set aside. There are philosophers who deny that there is such suffering. Some argue that while there is pain behavior, shrieks, controlled action to avoid pain, and so on, most nonhuman animals lack the neural organic base to suffer. Nonhuman animals, on this view, only have ways to sense or record injury. This sensory capacity—nociception—leads organisms to avoid or minimize injury. A leech or slug, for example has nociception. But in many organisms (especially non-vertebrates) there seems to be insufficient brain capacity to collate and ground an experience of pain. With vertebrates we have evidence of brain processes that are integral to causing injury-avoiding behavior, but we see great differences in the size and role of the cortex in the brain in such behavior. Some scientists and philosophers have argued that it is only when you have primates and humans with a developed neocortex that you have grounds for recognizing suffering and morally relevant pain.

The case against animal suffering is developed both in terms of neurology, as well as through the use of Ockham’s razor. Some have argued that if there are no compelling reasons to posit nonhuman animal suffering, we should not do so.

I think the above reasoning should give us pause in claiming we know the extent of nonhuman suffering (we should resist a simple anthropomorphizing of animals), but it goes too far in terms of an overall understanding of animal suffering. While it is possible for there to be intelligent behavior without full consciousness—people sleepwalk—it is implausible to think of the animal world in a state of virtual sleepwalkers! Rather than adopt such a severe view or worse (e.g. assume nonhuman animals are akin to automata as in Disney’s ‘Hall of Presidents’), let us acknowledge nonhuman animal pain and suffering.

The best-known case for atheism based on apparent evil was developed by William Rowe, involving animal suffering. Rowe argued that there exists intense suffering that an omnipotent being could have prevented without losing a great good or causing a greater harm.  If that being is wholly good, the harm would have been prevented.  Hence there is no wholly good, omnipotent being.  Rowe offered the following case of preventable harm:

Suppose in some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering. So far as we can see, the fawn’s intense suffering is pointless. For there does not appear to be any greater good such that the prevention of the fawn’s suffering would require either the loss of that good or the occurrence of an evil equally bad or worse. Nor does there seem to be any equally bad or worse evil so connected to the fawn’s suffering that it would have had to occur had the fawn’s suffering been prevented. Could an omnipotent, omniscient being have prevented the fawn’s apparently pointless suffering? The answer is obvious, as even the theist will insist. An omnipotent, omniscient being could have easily prevented the fawn from being horribly burned, or, given the burning, could have spared the fawn the intense suffering by quickly ending its life, rather than allowing the fawn to lie in terrible agony for several days. (Rowe 2003, 370).

          Rowe holds that in the absence of evidence that there was some good achieved by the fawn’s suffering or that the suffering was the consequence of some good (or the avoidance of some evident evil), it is rational to conclude there is no wholly good, omnipotent god.

How might a theist reply? Probably the most promising approach would be ecological. Most contemporary ecologists (and most environmentalists) place the greatest emphasis on the well being of species rather than individuals such as Rowe’s fawn. Consider this extensive reflection on natural evil by the ecological philosopher Holmes Rolston III:

Nature is random, contingent, blind, disastrous, wasteful, indifferent, selfish, cruel, clumsy, ugly, struggling, full of suffering, and, ultimately, death? Yes, but this sees only the shadows, and there has to be light to cast shadows. Nature is orderly, prolific, efficient, selecting for adapted fit, exuberant, complex, diverse, regenerating life generation after generation. There are disvalues in nature as surely as there are values, and the disvalues systemically drive the value achievements (Rolston 1992). Translated into theological terms, the evils are redeemed in the ongoing story.

Look, for instance, at predation. Certainly from the perspective of any particular animal as prey, being eaten is a bad thing. But then again the disvalue to the prey is a value to the predator, and, further, with a systemic turn, perspectives change. There is not value loss so much as value capture; there is appropriation of nutrient materials and energy from one life stream to another, with selective pressures to be efficient about the transfer. The pains of the prey are redeemed, we might say, by the pleasures of the predator. There are many biological achievements in muscle, power, sentience, and intelligence that could only have evolved, at least in life as we know it on Earth, with predation.

          Could, should God have created a world with only flora, no fauna? Possible. Possibly not, since in a world in which things are assembled something has to disassemble them for recycling. In any case, we do not think that a mere floral world would be of more value than a world with fauna also. In a mere floral world, there would be no one to think. Heterotrophs must be built on autotrophs, and no autotrophs are sentient or cerebral. Could we have had only plant-eating fauna, only grazers, no predators? Possibly, though probably we never did, since predation preceded photosynthesis. Even grazers are predators of a kind, though what they eat does not suffer. Again, an Earth with only herbivores and no omnivores or carnivores would be impoverished—the animal skills demanded would be only a fraction of those that have resulted in actual zoology—no horns, no fleet-footed predators or prey, no fine-tuned eyesight and hearing, no quick neural capacity, no advanced brains. We humans stand in this tradition, as our ancestors were hunters. We really cannot envision a world, on any Earth more or less like our own, which can give birth to the myriad forms of life that have been generated here, without some things eating other things (Rolston 2003, 534).

Rowe’s philosophy of animal suffering paints a very different picture. Assuming the fawn is suffering, and if an agent could prevent such suffering she should do so (assuming there is no other, more stringent obligation), then it seems you and I have an obligation to engage in a radical interference in natural processes. Rowe’s view of nonhuman animals seems to require that those who are able to rescue fawns from suffering, whether this is from lightening and fire or predation. But for Rolston, predation and other natural causes of suffering are part of an overall good eco-system.

If one were to successfully argue that God can only create a world such as ours if all undeserved suffering is prevented (suffering may be said to underserved when it was not merited, as in punishment, nor was the suffering for the good of the one who suffers), one would be led to conclude that God should continuously engage in miraculous interventions. Peter van Inwagen suggests that an alternative world of little or no suffering would amount to a virtual absurdity.

God, by means of a continuous series of ubiquitous miracles, causes a planet inhabited by the same animal life as the actual earth to be a hedonic utopia. On this planet, fawns are (like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) saved by angels when they are in danger of being burnt alive. Harmful parasites and microorganisms suffer immediate supernatural dissolution if they enter a higher animal’s body. Lambs are miraculously hidden from lions, and the lions are compensated for the resulting restriction on their diets by physically impossible falls of high-protein manna. (van Inwagen 2003, 395)

Van Inwagen argues that an evolving biologic world such as our own, not subject to continuous divine interference, is compatible with the goodness of God. This investigation into degrees of suffering leads naturally into considering the whole question of quantifying values.

Comparing Possible Worlds

The atheist who defends her position by appealing to the magnitude of evil may be initiating a curious form of argument. How much evil is too much? Some philosophers have insisted that an all good God would not permit any undeserved pain or suffering at all. This (in my view) seems too severe a condition. Arguably it is good for there to be a cosmos where there are free creatures dependent upon each other for their welfare and they are able to act in some independence of the awareness of God. This thesis will be one to question later, but off hand, a philosopher like Peter van Inwagen seems right that preventing all undeserved suffering would not only rule out evolution, it would involve God having to continuously, miraculously interfere with the natural world. Such continuous divine action would seem to undermine the extent to which one could recognize the cosmos as a stable order of reality. But if the atheist that insists an all-good God should prevent evil, how much should God do so? At this point we seem to have difficulty in assessing the overall goodness or value of worlds.

But however this is resolved, I think the theist has a plausible line of argument to the effect that the concept of a best possible world is problematic. Imagine any world you like: for instance, indefinitely many happy people with abundant goods. There may be a problem with the very concept of such a world if the people have libertarian agency, for if there is bona fide freedom even God cannot guarantee such a happy outcome (assuming that omniscience does not include future free contingents). But more fundamentally, given any world we imagine, it seems as though we can conceive of a better world simply by adding one additional happy person. In short, the concept of a best possible world seems like the concept of a greatest possible number. There simply cannot be such a number for every integer has a greater integer.

Consider one objection to the there-can-be-no-best-possible-world argument. A world in which there are 100 happy people does not seem worse than a world in which everything is the same but there is one more person as happy as each of the 100 in the first. Goodness of worlds is not additive in the way that people are. A world with any number of people each of whom was perfectly happy, content, free, and so on (fill in as many good-making features as you like) would be equally good with any world in which there were any other number of people in this state. In this framework there may not be one best possible world for there could be lots of equally good worlds. The question for the theist may be reformulated from “Why didn’t God create the best possible world?” to “Why didn’t God create on of these equally good worlds?”

This is a forceful reply, but I suggest goodness is addictive, just as evil is additive. Obviously we do not routinely make judgments about what kind of worlds to make (!), but when we do make decisions about the distribution of goods or harms we do give weight to numbers. If we are choosing between two economic policies that provide benefits either to 10% or 100% of the population, ceterus paribus, the larger the distribution of benefits seems to be a positive value. Similarly with hardship, a world in which a hundred people endure undeserved suffering seems worse than one in which 6.8 billion people endure such suffering. From a moral point of view we may think someone who murders one person is equally evil (blame worthy) as a serial-murderer and deserves equal punishment. But this should not eclipse the idea that the serial-murderer produced a greater horror, affecting more people. Arguably, one can treat worlds as better or worse depending upon numbers, and so the case against the very idea of a best possible world remains plausible.

In addition to the categories of theistic replies to the problem of evil, atheist arguments usually falls into two broad categories. According to advocates of the logical problem of evil, it can be established that the existence of any evil at all is incompatible with the goodness of God. Although this line of reasoning has contemporary defenders, the more popular charge is called the evidential problem of evil, according to which some evil is compatible with God’s goodness, but not the magnitude of evil that is evident. Stanley Kane allows that some evil may be essential for some goods (e.g., developing a moral character), but he argues that desirable good end may be achieved with less suffering.

Courage and fortitude, for instance, could manifest themselves as the persistence, steadfastness, and perseverance it takes to accomplish well any difficult or demanding long-range task—the writing of a doctoral dissertation, for example, or training for and competing in the Olympic Games.… It is hard to see why a man or a woman cannot develop just as much patience, fortitude and strength of character in helping his or her spouse complete a doctoral dissertation as in caring for a sick child through a long and serious illness. (Kane 1975, 2f)

Kane may be right, and that great goods might be made possible or actual with less evil. On the other hand, William Hasker has argued that a cosmos with internal integrity and real independence of God cannot rule out gratuitous evils. Compare Kane with this account by Hasker:

It is good that there be such a creation, endowed as it is with enormous potentialities for the enrichment of life and existence. The relative autonomy allowed both to human beings and to nature means, however, that the good endowments of the creation are open also to the possibility of the events and actions we identify as evil…A world in which this was not so—a world in which creatures either lack powers of their own or in which God constantly intervenes to prevent those powers from acting in ways that are less than optimal—would be a world without internal integrity; the existence of such a world would add little of worth over and above the value of God’s simply imagining it. God, however, has instead chosen a creation that is really there—that has a genuine integrity and autonomy of its own. And it is good that this is so. (Hasker 2008, 201-202)

How are we to assess the ostensibly possible world that Kane describes versus the actual world that Hasker proposes is good, notwithstanding the magnitude of evil?

I do not think it is an easy task to contrast possible worlds and correspondingly assign some precise boundary of suffering compatible or incompatible with God’s goodness. Partly this is because if it is a good thing for creatures to have profound responsibility for each other, it is difficult to set a limit on how creatures might behave. A world in which my responsibility for myself and others is limited to training for the Olympics, or assisting a graduate student in her dissertation, seems a world in which there is very little deep responsibility. And once one allows for free, interdependent responsibility and a stable world without regular miracles, it seems hard to determine when God should step in, so to speak, and rupture human history. At this juncture it is important to consider a new move in the problem of evil literature. Shouldn’t an all-good God actually make it easier for us to tell whether the creation is good and upheld by a good Creator?

The Hiddenness of God Objection

Some of the arguments we have been considering—Rowe’s, for example—seem to hold that if some evil occurs and there is an all-good God, then we would know why God permitted the evil. Rowe allows that it may be reasonable to still believe in an all-good God without knowing why evil occurs if our evidence for God rests on good, independent grounds. This is illustrated by the case of identifying the bank robber, cited earlier. Still, Rowe thinks, and John Schellenberg has recently argued, an all-good God would not leave us in the dark about why there is evil. Schellenberg develops the following thought experiment:

Imagine you are playing hide and seek with your mother, you have been hiding from her but then desire to se her.  She is nowhere to be found.  You call out for her. You think you hear her but it is only the sound of the wind. “Would you mother—loving and responsible parent that she is—fail to answer if she were around?” (Schellenberg 2007, 228)  Schellenberg thinks God’s not answering an honest call for divine revelation is evidence that God does not exist.  Schellenberg offers another thought experiment.  Suppose your daughter has a distorted view of you that prevents her having a good, fulfilling relationship with you.  Wouldn’t you do almost anything to expose this distortion and facilitate a healthy parent-child relationship?

Now suppose that some way of instantaneously transforming her perspective is made available to you: if you press this button she will see you for who you really are and all the snagged and tangled and distorted beliefs will rearrange themselves into a clear perception of the truth. Surely you will use this means of cutting through that mess, for it represents only an abbreviated version of what you have already been seeking. (Schellenberg 2007, 224–225)

Because we live in a world where people persist in disbelieving God or having crewl views of God, and God does not appear to correct these states, it is evident that God does not exist.

A theist may introduce various replies. One is that the parables are incomplete. Most religious, theistic traditions hold that there is an afterlife (a topic in the next chapter) and so there will be a time when the “daughter” and “child” will be re-united with the parent-God. To address this broader theistic perspective, Schellenberg would need a premise like: An all-good God would never allow a creature ever, at any time, to seek God without finding God in an evident fashion. The problem with justifying this premise is that one would need to rule out great goods that may be available from being a non-theist in a theistic world. Schellenberg’s parables may be effective insofar as we imagine human parents, but when thinking about a Creator from a theistic point of view one is considering whether a Creator would value human (and perhaps other creatures) living independent of divine guidance. Wouldn’t a cosmos in which every time you doubted God you heard a voice though the leaves and wind assuring you of God’s presence be one in which you are essentially being treated like an infant?

The second parable also raises questions about manipulation and control. Imagine your daughter truly is estranged from you. Yes, you might try to convince her of your goodness, but the idea of pushing a button to transform her seems open to charges of manipulation. It also eclipses another consideration: Your daughter’s false view of you might lead her to do great things. Let’s change the parable slightly. Imagine your daughter wrongly believes you are a narcissistic miser who has had a major role in arms sales to rogue nations. Imagine also that, at some distant point in the future, she will know the truth about your good character and love for her. In the meantime imagine she has (in open revolt against what she thinks of you) developed a selfless love for others that leads her to effectively pursue world peace and a nonviolent planet. Would you press the button then?

Schellenberg might concede that under those conditions one should not push the button, but in reality few people who are unaware of God’s reality are in that position. Schellenberg seems to hold that all (or virtually all) seekers of the divine would find fulfillment in relation to God, and that if God is all good, God would bring about such a relationship.

Schellenberg may be right, but there is reason to believe he needs a stronger, and more difficult-to-establish thesis. Granted (for the sake of argument) all of what Schellenberg claims about the goodness of a relationship with God, and granted an all good God will enable such a relationship, does it convincingly follow that God would enable that relationship at every time in a person’s life? Given the possibility of an afterlife, it may be that the divine-human relationship will take place for many of us beyond this life. (We will address the possibility of an afterlife in the next chapter.)

The debate over God’s so-called hiddenness connects up with a recent movement in philosophy of religion called skeptical theism. These theists are skeptical about any good that may justify God’s creating or conserving the cosmos, but they contend that we should not expect to know such justificatory goods. If we should not expect to be able to make such a finding, then a failure to grasp why such ills occur is not sufficient to infer that these are no such god reasons God may have for permitting evil. Marilyn Adams’ recent work on evil proposes that there may be great goods that are incomparable with human evils that we are unable to comprehend. God’s reasons behind a creation that involves horrendous evil may be such that ‘we are cognitively, emotionally, and/or spiritually to immature to fathom “the way a two-year-old child is incapable of understanding its mother’s reasons for permitting surgery” (Adams 1999, 216-217).

Absolute Wrongs

Let’s consider a different line of reasoning. Might it be the case that there are some cosmic evils that no reason of any kind might permit an all-good God to allow? The Holocaust, the rape and murder of children, might count as absolute wrongs. Given absolute wrongs, we may conclude there is no all-good, powerful, knowing God. This line of reasoning might even raise a sinister side to theism: If such horrors as genocide and rape are actually justified, should we regret their occurrence? After all, if God is justified in allowing great evil for the sake of great goods, shouldn’t we do so as well? There are at least four observations to consider in reply.

First, theistic religious tradition treats cosmic evil as a profound violation of God’s purpose and nature. So, from a theistic perspective world evils, far from bring willed by God, are against the core purpose of the cosmos. A question of why God should allow cosmic wrong therefore needs to be articulated as follows, if the question is to genuinely bear on theism: Why would God not prevent that which profoundly violates God’s own nature and will?

Second, many theists today adopt a form of passabalism outlined earlier in chapter two, according to which God sorrows over evils in creation and perhaps, too, God is enraged at injustice (as suggested in different Biblical verses) and not a passionless, detached spectator. The problem of evil, therefore, needs yet more expansion: Why would God not prevent that which profoundly violates God’s own nature and will and is the source of divine sorrow and rage?

Third, there is an important distinction to be made between justification and redemption. Many theists (if not virtually all) hold that world evils are not justified. The Holocaust ought not to have happened, regardless of whether it contributed to some good (e.g., the founding of the state of Israel) or not. Theistic tradition focuses mainly on redemption: Is it possible for God to bring some healing, reform, or regeneration out of an evil state of affairs? The importance of this question will be vital to the next chapter. Here I simply register the point—to be developed later—that in theistic responses to evil there is a major difference between an all-good God allowing evil (or not destroying evil persons) in order to bring about redemption, and God allowing evil because this is justified or somehow good. In this sense, it needs to be appreciated that while traditional theism holds that God is not evil by sustaining a cosmos that is evil, the evil is understood to be utterly unjustified.

Fourth, any assessment of the problem of evil needs to take stock of an overall theistic position that takes into account theistic claims about God’s confrontation with evil, and the possibilities for redemption through omnipotent love. Our view of absolute wrongs may be governed by a framework of human action and contexts. Is there a broader setting in which to assess “absolute wrongs”?

The Ethics of Creature and Creator

The logic behind many versions of the atheistic argument from evil (whether in the logical or evidential format) often equates the ethics of God, or a creator, and the ethics of a creature. Consider the following format: If you had the knowledge and power to prevent χ (rape and murder, say) and did not do so, would you be unethical? Absent some amazing additional premises (e.g., preventing χ will create even more awful evil), most would answer “yes.” But in the case of assessing the Creator, the question needs to be put more broadly. I offer the following lager question with the inclusion of topics we will take up in the next chapter (miracles, incarnation, an afterlife, redemption). Assessing the theistic problem of evil should include raising a question like this:

Is it compatible with the goodness of God to create and sustain a cosmos of great goods—a cosmos with the goods of life, stable laws of nature, the emergence of consciousness, and creatures with powers of sensation, movement, emotions and thoughts who have moral and religious experiences? The emergence of animal and human life in this cosmos takes place involving evolution with massive births and deaths, and suffering due to disease and predation. Great evils besiege human life, some of which are the result of liberation free will, while other evils emerge from causes with no free agency. The evils of the cosmos are a source of divine sorrow and rage, as God works to bring about great good through periods of profound evil (including the Holocaust). In this cosmos, God acts to confront evil through prophets, an incarnation with miracles, and God seeks the redemption of all creatures including victims and victimizers in this life and an afterlife. Some persons believe they encounter the goodness of God in religious experience, but some do not despite their earnest search for a relationship with God. The cosmic evil that occurs is profoundly contrary to God’s nature and in violation of God’s purpose for the creation.

Some of these elements (incarnation, miracles, and an afterlife) will be addressed in the next chapter. Filling out such a broader framework is essential for a comprehensive assessment of theism in the context of evil. This broader framework allows one to also take up a further theistic approach which is to argue that theism is in a better (or no worse) position than naturalism in accounting for evil. C. Stephen Langman takes the stance that theism is in no worse a position than its chief rival naturalism. A theism that advances libertarian freedom is at least able to understand horrendous evils as violating the purpose and nature of the creation, whereas a naturalism that embraces determinism sees all evil as necessary and fixed, given all other events and the laws of nature.

Before turning to broader perspective on good and evil, consider briefly two different theistic approaches to evil. In twentieth century philosophy of religion a  significant range of theists—often called panentheists or process theologians—have proposed that God is not omnipotent. Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and others have developed rich alternatives to traditional theism that preserves God’s goodness or greatness while contending that God is not able to overcome all cosmic evils. On this model, God and creatures are seen as themselves called to confront evil. A second proposal has been to argue that the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is best not seen as a moral agent. The above question posed about God’s goodness seems to be so structured that God as Creator can be moral or immoral. Is that structure problematic?

In all the literature referenced up until now in this chapter, it is assumed that if there is a God, God is a moral agent. This, however, is worth questioning. Anthony Kenny writes:

Morality presupposes a moral community: and a moral community must be of beings with a common language, roughly equal powers, and roughly similar needs, desires, and interests. God can no more be part of a moral community with them than he can be part of a political community with them. As Aristotle said, we cannot attribute moral virtues to divinity: the praise would be vulgar. Equally, moral blame would be laughable. (Kenny 1992, 87)

Brian Davies is the most prominent defender of the same thesis. Davies holds that God is good but he denies this is the good of moral agency.

[S]hould we allow ourselves to get caught up in debates about God’s moral integrity? A reason for doing so is that many people assume that ‘God is good’ means ‘God is morally good.’ Many others, however, do not assume this. Such people, I should stress, are not denying that God is good. Nor are they suggesting that God is immoral. Their position, rather, is that it is wrong to think of God as something either moral (well behaved) or immoral (badly behaved). Their idea is that, whether we are theists or non-theists, there are grounds for resisting claims like ‘God is a good moral agent’ or ‘God is morally praiseworthy’. And there is a lot to be said for that line of thinking. (Davies 2006, 227)

Has Davies effectively pointed out how theism can side-step the problem of evil?

Davies’s proposal rightly highlights that an assessment of the goodness of God is not on the same level as humans assessing each other, or even weighing the ostensible moral behavior of some nonhuman animals (can there be an incident where one ape murders another?). Davies will probably need some kind of privati boni thesis according to which God has authored a good creation, thereby casting evil as that which is not so much created but as that which corrodes and breaks down creation. Even with that additional move, however, Davies’s theism still faces questions about why there are such profound anti-creation forces in the cosmos. There still seems to be a need to consider some of the possibilities of how evil might be defeated or redemption occur, whether or not God is considered a moral agent. Davies’s theism also appears to be in some tension with religious traditions in which God appears to act as a moral agent (the Biblical God makes promises, welcomes a covenant with people of faith, God is said to love justice, and so on).