Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Understanding Evil: The Best of All Possible Worlds

This is the second part to my post Understanding Evil. In the last post we looked at the problem of evil. The problem of evil is, simply put, our understanding of how evil can be in a world that is created by a good God. If God is good, then is he willing to prevent evil and unable? Or, is he unwilling to prevent evil and able to prevent evil? The problem of evil when raised is an attempt to show that a good God is incompatible with evil and to show that God does not exist, or at least the God portrayed by Christianity. However, as I attempted to explain in the last post, God's goodness is not erased by the evil in this world. This world he created is the best of all possible worlds that could be created. He has given us the ability to have free moral choices and the ability to choose and do evil is a result of that. Remember, plenitude is the highest good and that requires more than general freedom, it requires moral freedom; and moral freedom spawns the possibility of evil.

The Best of All Possible Worlds?

Is our world truly the best of all possible worlds? Consider what Greg Koukl says in his article, Augustine on Evil:

"A world that had never been touched by evil would be a good place, but it wouldn't be the best place possible. The best of all worlds would be a place where evil facilitated the development of virtues that are only able to exist where evil flourishes for a time. This would produce a world populated by souls that were refined by overcoming evil with good. The evil is momentary. The good that results is eternal. 

What good comes out of a drive-by killing, someone might ask, or the death of a teenager through overdose, or a daughter's rape, or child abuse? The answer is that a commensurate good doesn't always come out of those individual situations, though God is certainly capable of redeeming any tragedy. Rather, the greater good results from having a world in which there is moral freedom, and moral freedom makes moral tragedies like these possible." 1

Bill Craig gives a good example of how good can result from evil:

"To borrow an illustration from a developing field of science, Chaos Theory, scientists have discovered that certain macroscopic systems, for example, weather systems or insect populations, are extraordinarily sensitive to the tiniest perturbations.  A butterfly fluttering on a branch in West Africa may set in motion forces which would eventually issue in a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean.  Yet it is impossible in principle for anyone observing that butterfly palpitating on a branch to predict such an outcome.  

The brutal murder of an innocent man or a child's dying of leukemia could send a ripple effect through history so that God's morally sufficient reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later or perhaps in another country.  Our discussion of divine middle knowledge (chapter 26) stressed that only an omniscient mind could grasp the complexities of directing a world of free creatures toward one's pre-visioned goals. One has only to think of the innumerable, incalculable contingencies involved in arriving at a single historical event, say, the Allied victory at D‑day.  This has relevance to the probabilistic problem of evil, for we have no idea of the natural and moral evils that might be involved in order for God to arrange the circumstances and free agents in them requisite to some intended purpose, nor can we discern what reasons such a provident God might have in mind for permitting some evil to enter our lives.  Certainly many evils seem pointless and unnecessary to us ‑ but we are simply not in a position to judge."   2

This is not an appeal to mystery, rather this is an appeal to show that we are limited in our ability to know what actions will bring a greater good. We are not in a position to say it's improbable that God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing some evils in this world. We all recognize our inability to see the future outcomes of our decisions; consider the moral structure of utilitarianism for a moment. Utilitarian thought suggests that a moral action is indeed moral if the action causes  the greatest happiness or pleasure for the most amount of people affected by the action. Utilitarianism's flaw is that it's impossible for us to know what actions will lead to the greatest pleasure/happiness for the world. 

It's simply impossible for us, as finite creatures limited in our power, to create the greatest good and also to even try to plan ahead for the greatest good. Our problems and struggles that we endure could be purposeful for our lives. We have no idea what will happen in the future, so like Bill Craig said in the article, "Certainly many evils seem pointless and unnecessary to us - but we are simply not in a position to judge." That does not mean we shouldn't talk about the problems of evil or not attempt to figure things out; we definitely should try to understand philosophical problems like evil, eternity, etc. Craig is telling us that sometimes we don't know exactly why God allowed a certain evil in our life, but he is not saying when someone asks you why evil exists, you should throw your hands up in the air and say, "We shouldn't question that! It's all up to God, we are in no position to judge what God does with his creation!" That is dishonest to say such a thing and evasive to the person (and yourself) who asked you the question. 

Related post

I highly, highly, highly recommend reading the following sources (web links - free reads, not too long either) from Greg Koukl and William Lane Craig. 


1. Greg Koukl, Augustine on evil

2. William Lane Craig, Problem of evil

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