Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Understanding Evil

There is evil in the world. I can't think of any normal person that would disagree with the statement, "There is evil in the world," and I don't think anyone will ever not wonder why there is evil in the world. How could you not think about it? I'm sure all of us think about it at least once during our day because evil actions happen every single day from weather to human actions; you will encounter something evil first-hand or by seeing/reading it via media of some kind. What do we make of this knowledge? How can the world be so evil and also have a good God watching over it? Christopher Hitchens has, in the past, characterized God as a being that watches the world with folded arms while we humans endure suffering and pain of all kinds. So, can God truly be good if he allows such misery, anguish, and pain to go on?

To understand the problem, we must identify the problem. Yes, there is evil in the world, we all agree on that, but what is evil? My definition might be substantially different from yours. Some might think it evil that humans can become fat by eating too much ice cream and other sweet, tasty treats. Others might think the death penalty is evil. However, we can certainly agree on some things that would be easily labeled evil, e.g., murder, disease, rape, child abuse, slander, famine; the list could go on. While that short list brings to mind things that are evil, we still don't know what evil is by reading that list alone. The list is representative, it doesn't give us the origin of evil. So, like any researcher, let's explore what some of the great thinkers have concluded on the problem of evil in the world.

David Hume, an 18th century philosopher, formulates the problem of evil this way:

"Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?" 

"[God's] power we allow [is] infinite: Whatever he wills is executed: But neither man nor any other animal are happy: Therefore he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite: He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: But the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity: Therefore it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?" 1

Hume was most likely agnostic, since in his writings there is ambiguity of which side of the theist/atheist debate he was on. There is however, no doubt that he was against some of the religious activity of his day, so some simply label him irreligious. Whatever his position, there is no doubt that he questioned the attributes of God as described by Christianity, i.e., God's omnibenevolence, omnipotence, and omniscience. Hume's questions seem to be clear defeaters for God's mercy and ability to prevent evil. I'm sure bad things have happened to you and you think, "Where is God?" or "Why did this happen to me?" I have and I'm quite sure all have thought something along those lines. Why do bad things happen to us?

Looking at Hume's argument, "Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able?" I'll begin the first section.

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?

Hume's argument seems to be devastating to Christianity doesn't it? If God is all good, all loving, etc., then he should stop evil from ever happening. Before we answer the question Is God willing to prevent evil, we should know what evil is. First, evil is not a thing; it doesn't attach itself to the bumper of your car, nor can you introduce yourself to evil and talk to it. Evil is a lack of good, it's the lesser good. Another way to think of evil is to think of free-will. Augustine, a 4th and 5th century philosopher, said, ""And I strained to perceive what I now heard, that free-will was the cause of our doing ill." 2 Augustine viewed evil as a perversion of the will turned away from God to lesser things.

When we ask the question, is God willing to prevent evil, we have to define our terms first and know what we are asking. Are we asking if God is willing to make every decision for us? To ask the question appropriately would be to ask, "Is God willing to make us robots to prevent evil?" When asked that way, we can see that in order for evil to be eliminated, you have to eliminate our free-will choices. When our free-will is gone, it necessarily follows that evil will no longer be an option.

Atheist philosopher Antony Flew 3 thought the man could be immutable in his goodness and still make free choices in other areas of life. Will man not have the ability to freely choose in the afterlife and be completely good at the same time? Why can't man be like that now on earth? It would seem that God could simply remove evil as an option for man to choose.

Greg Koukl answers this objection quite nicely:

"God could have created such a world. Freedom in the larger sense (the ability to make choices) does not require freedom in the narrow sense (the ability to make moral choices). 

They miss the big picture, though: God would not have accomplished a second purpose. He not only wanted free creatures; He also wanted plenitude, that is, the greatest good possible. Plenitude--the highest good, the best of all possible worlds--requires more than just general freedom; it requires moral freedom, and that necessarily entails the possibility of evil. 

Since all that God made is good, even those things which appear evil only appear that way because of a limited context or perspective. When viewed as a whole, that which appears to be evil ultimately contributes to the greater good. 

For example, certain virtues couldn't exist without evil: courage, mercy, forgiveness, patience, the giving of comfort, heroism, perseverance, faithfulness, self-control, long-suffering, submission and obedience, to name a few. These are not virtues in the abstract, but elements of character that can only be had by moral souls. Just as evil is a result of acts of will, so is virtue. Acts of moral choice accomplish both." 4

So we can see that certain virtues (which are essential to our character and desired by humans) couldn't exist without moral choices made by moral souls. Since moral freedom must exist for the "best of all possible worlds" to exist, moral tragedies will result from our moral freedom. Hume's argument is not a defeater for God's omnibenovelence, omniscience, and omnipotence; rather his argument is simply a good conversation starter for the problem of evil. While Hume's argument is answered, we're not out of the woods yet. I will follow this post with the "Best of All Possible Worlds" argument.

Related content:


1. Hume, David. "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 2008-08-15.

2. Augustine, Confessions VII: [III] 5. 

3.  Antony Flew, "Divine Omnipotence and Human Freedom," New Essays in Philosophical Theology, 1955 (referenced in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 3, 138) 

4. Greg Koukl, Augustine on Evil,

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