The Problem of Evil

Posted on Posted in Academics, Theology

This is one in a series of papers that I wrote for either religion or philosophy classes.  These give a glimpse into some common debates and my perspectives on them at that time.

The Problem of Evil is so incredibly simple to realize and at the same time mind-numbingly impossible to solve.  By its logic, it has the capacity to totally undermine our beliefs in a higher power, while at the same time being capable of strengthening those beliefs.  It is that strengthening aspect that appeals to me, as through deep probing the Problem of Evil can actually bring about a justification for the horrible experiences that we all face during our journey along life’s path.

David Hume gives a good explanation of the problem that exists with Evil.  Theism operates under the assertions that God is the omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent creator of the Earth.  With all of that power in his corner, theists assume that should God exist there wouldn’t be evil.  Naturally, a major problem arises in this assumption when, as Hume shows quite clearly, one acknowledges that evil does indeed exist in the world.  That being the case, the theist is forced to draw the logical conclusion that God simply can’t exist.

This conclusion is not something that sits well with me.  I want to believe in a greater force in the universe, a comic power existing that I can’t yet contemplate.  And luckily of me, many philosophers and theologians in our readings have stepped forward with solutions that sidestep (albeit not always in a flawless manner) that problem so that God can exist with good intentions.

One can’t realistically deny that evil itself exists.  And Herbert McCabe defends God (strangely, he even goes so far as to refer to God as his client) by acknowledging that while evil does indeed exist, it can be explained through the use of two categories:  Evil Suffered and Evil Done.  It’s interesting how much of a difference one’s point of view can make in light of a situation.  Evil Suffered reminds us of just that fact, as evil from one perspective can be good from another.  What is good for the hunter is not so good for the hunted.  Evil Done too can have a different meaning with considerations of perspective, but in a much more complex way.  While there are holes in the argument, Evil Done is usually also just seen as evil from the point of view of the victim.  Again, good is coming out of what is normally perceived to be a bad situation.

A possible solution to the problem of there being a victim in evil and how that victim could ultimately benefit from their circumstances can be addressed first by John Hick.  Hick takes the problem of evil to an epic level with his beliefs in a process termed “Soul Making.”  This process involves God’s divine love bringing humans, through our own self-realization, from our current undeveloped state to a spiritual one.  To many, it may seem at first flawed to contemplate humanity as clay in God’s hands that he is molding over the span of thousands of years into a higher form.  I’m not sure if I can grasp and embrace this view totally, but to view evil as a catalyst that pushes us to grow into better people seems very natural.  In life, we use our experiences to learn what is good and through that definition normally grow to encompass that goodness.  Thus, by being exposed to evil we are able to differentiate what is good.  Then we use that differentiation to avoid evil (burning our hand on the stove, etc.)  and proceed to a higher level of satisfaction in our personal lives.

Gottfried Leibniz next pushes a solution to the problem of evil that goes in an even more pre-defined direction.  Leibniz gives us the argument that evil exists in the world because it brings about a greater good.  He views instances of evil as being, in the long run, for the best.  In this way, the future is known to God, but only in the sense that he knows where humanity’s free will is going to lead us.  The example of Adam’s tragic fall resulting in the eventual good that came through the coming of Jesus is a perfect example of how evil can be the spark that sets in motion the rise of a better humanity.  So many times in history we merely look at the brutality of a specific event (or in this case the brutality of a theologically historical event).  Instead of only dwelling on the fact that something bad happened, we could better appreciate the goodness in the world that has come about because of these events.

Leading down to the individual level, is an argument that really allows me to keep grasping to my notions of a well-intentioned God.  Robert Merrihew Adams basically implores humanity to stop whining about the problem of evil, as he contends that we are all the outcome of prior evils and wouldn’t exist in our current states without those evils.  In this way, Adams differs drastically from the points that Hick made in that he argues mainly from the perspective of the individual, rather that the cosmic whole.

When I first read Adams’ article, it left me feeling guilty because of its portrayal of humans as having to be selfish for our individual existence to have occurred.  As an extreme point, I felt Adams pushing for me to never refute an evil such as the Holocaust, since in doing so I couldn’t exist.  In retrospect, however, I shouldn’t feel selfish for those evils as I had no power to affect them.  I am merely a byproduct of them and have to arrogantly move forward with the belief that I can somehow justify the evils suffered to bring about my existence by being part of a greater good.

The agony that comes from looking for hope in evil is something that can eventually be incredibly inspiring.  Who cannot like the stories of good prevailing over evil in the end?  I find myself becoming drawn further into the acceptance and realization of a higher cosmic purpose whenever I hear such stories.  Whether they be from real-life or through a fictional means that rings true so perfectly for everyone (the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” comes to mind in this context) such stories push me through times when I experience evil.

I’ll admit that it is interesting to step to the side and to think that the problem of evil could largely be avoided by ignoring the simple assumption that a God-creator has to necessarily be good.  Just about every avid church go-er that I know doesn’t even think twice about God having any other motives except pure good.  In the end, I too would rather not think about God having any other motives for my existence than that of goodness in the end.  It would be very depressing for me to go through life believing that evil isn’t done to me for a farther-reaching good.  In order for me to best carry that belief, I have to turn to the current thinking of others for justification.  There may be holes in the thinking of those that I have cited throughout this paper, but then again the critic’s arguments aren’t perfect either.  I therefore choose to be the optimist.